At first glance, a recent production I saw by Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre (PICT) seemed to track in this direction. The dramaturg situated the staging of the play in something like early 1930s America, where fascist and white-supremacist groups like the German American Bund and the Silver League of America (the Silver Shirts) found a ready, if small audience. But the production wasn’t heavy-handed — there were no German accents, no Sieg Heil salutes, no jackbooted Gestapo-like thugs, no billowing swastika banners spanning the stage (a repurposed church sanctuary).
Instead, several of the minor characters were costumed in vaguely historically appropriate paramilitary garb: ties, button-down gray shirts tucked into pleated slacks — or were they jodphurs? Maybe they were wearing small red and black pins on their lapels? Rather forgettable costuming, really.
And that might have been precisely the point. Because the actors in this performance went for every laugh — not just the bawdy ones — and it was genuinely funny. But when I found myself laughing along with Gratiano’s mockery of Shylock — swept along a little too far by the comedic energy, past the point of my rational assent — I was shocked. Hold on, I thought, I’m laughing with the guy who’s dressed like a white supremacist. What am I doing?
Directors often deal with a modern audience’s emotional disconnect by allowing us to align our sympathies with Shylock, particularly through the “Hath not a Jew” speech, the beautiful language of which lends a self-evident moral authority. In every other performance I’ve seen, the actor breaks the fourth wall and this speech is addressed directly to the audience. It’s natural that our response is one of human solidarity—Yes! You are human, you feel what I feel, I feel your pain and I empathize. When Shylock directly appeals to us it’s easy to believe that we, if not the play’s other characters, recognize his humanity. We’re the good guys. We aren’t racists. We aren’t bigots. We aren’t those people.
But this performance offered no such consolation. Shylock didn’t break the fourth wall but instead addressed the two Aryan-type youths who played Gratiano’s sidekicks, Salerio and Salanio. When he finished delivering an equal-parts vulnerable and dignified rendering of what is surely one of the most memorable speeches in the Shakespearean canon, they spat at his feet and cruelly laughed. The audience, including me, audibly gasped.
I’ve never heard an audience gasp at that scene before. All of that beautiful language, all of that pathos, all of the actor’s careful craft being dismissed, casually, with a universal gesture of contempt — it’s rightly shocking.
And I think we were also shocked at the sudden revelation of our complicity in this act. We found ourselves cast in the role of bystanders who observe blatant dehumanization, and yet who do nothing in response. Seemingly helpless, we were caught in a web of small acts of politeness — attending, listening, applauding, appreciating — and moreover, it was our very presence as an audience that even made possible this spectacle of prejudice. What happened to our being the good guys?
There are so many layers of complexity to the theological and moral geography of this play — Portia’s byzantine legalism that masquerades as mercy; social harmony bought at the price of coercive inclusivity; the false dilemma of the justice vs. mercy opposition, when both are being used as weapons; the inexorable logic of a political system designed to perpetuate itself at the cost of the individual’s dignity — all of these layers are worthy of our sustained attention.
I don’t mean to imply that a modern audience is somehow more enlightened than Shakespeare, himself. Alone among his dramatist contemporaries, Shakespeare gives genuine humanity to a Jewish character — a character whose real-life counterparts had been banned from England in 1290, more than three centuries previous to the first performance of this play. Imagine, if you will, a comparable situation for yourself and see if you measure up to Will’s imaginative and ethical audacity.
What I’m ultimately left with from this performance, viscerally, is that feeling of the in-rush of breath — either as a gasp of incredulity or the prelude to laughter — when, in an infinitely paused moment of slight panic, I think what should I do? what should I do? before time resumes, the breath exhales, and I do…nothing.