After the election of Donald Trump, anti-Semitic incidents rose by a staggering 75%: synagogues burned to the ground, Yeshiva school buses lit on fire, #AreJewsPeople trended on Twitter, hundreds of bomb threats called in to Jewish Community Centers. In August, Nazis marched through the streets of Charlottesville, shouting “JEWS WILL NOT REPLACE US.” None of this is new to American Jews. We know that these attitudes have been quietly festering, as overlooked as our national problem with racism. And yet, in the wake of the Charlottesville marches, even amongst my well-meaning, white, liberal, gentile friends, anti-Semitism is an afterthought.
My audiences are largely comprised of these self-same well-meaning people. Many of them also share a love of gutsy feminist heroines and of the romantic comedies in which they feature. In Merchant of Venice, bright, passionate Portia, held prisoner by her gender and her father’s oppressive love, reminds me both of myself and many women I know and love. Audiences eagerly empathize with Portia, because, anti-Semitism aside, she’s a compelling heroine. Many others will feel for Antonio, played to be openly in love with Bassanio. My audiences (including myself) easily identify with a plucky heroine and a pining gay men.
It would be easier for the audience to watch the characters in this play and distance themselves from what they do. It’s much harder if they find themselves relating to them. Compelling the audience to engage, I will ultimately show them the insidious nature of anti-Semitism in their own lives. Genre pieces like romcoms, sci-fi, and horror engage audiences because they are digestible. It is easier to get audiences through the door with genre and provoke them into thinking about hard concepts using recognizable plots. This conceit therefore allows us to talk and think about abstractions in a relatable way that doesn’t risk revealing personal failings. In the 2017 horror film Get Out, this use of genre as a way to demonstrate a clear metaphor for the abstract concept of racism and cultural appropriation. My version of Merchant of Venice will be a romantic comedy to Anti-Semitism as Get Out’s horror is to racism.
Portia and Antonio are emblematic of today’s white moderates. They may both be members of oppressed classes, but they both wittingly and unwittingly contribute to the disease of anti-Semitism. It’s possible that Antonio uses anti-Semitism as a smoke screen for his sexuality, but he is the most cruel to Shylock in private. Portia’s anti-Semitism is so ingrained, the first thing she does after entering the world outside Belmont is eviscerate the life of a Jewish man she’s never met. To the Christians in this play, anti-Semitism is just their opinion and Shylock is awfully mean to them, so doesn’t he deserve it? It is possible to do this play without acknowledging the Christian characters’ remorseless anti-Semitism, but that would be a disservice to a play that lives in moral ambiguity.
Ironically, Venice is an elegant visual metaphor for this play. It is an impossible city: stunning Renaissance architecture, glittering canals, art on every corner. It’s also sinking into the ocean and rotting from the foundation up. Over the course of The Merchant of Venice, this decay becomes unavoidable. The effervescent citizens of a gorgeous city—characters with whom the audience is complicit— put a metaphorical foot through the damp, surface and are confronted by reality; both of the world they live in and the people they are.
Shylock/Bassanio/Nerissa: Katharine Chin
Portia/Jessica/Salarino: Rachael Worthington
Antonio/Lorenzo/Solanio/Prince of Korea/Prince of Morocco: JinHo Woo