Shrews and Jews and Playing Oppression

Jonathan Munby’s production of The Merchant of Venice, which I saw at The Globe last summer, is coming to New York City as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. It’s a production that, mostly thanks to its leading man Jonathan Pryce and his daughter Phoebe Pryce’s immensely moving turns as Shylock and Jessica, manages to make a compelling story out of what can be one of Shakespeare’s more unpalatable subplots. But its return has reminded me of debates my classmates and I had when Jonathan Pryce’s casting was announced: specifically, whether Shylock ought to only be played by Jewish actors.

The question of whether Jewish characters should, in general, only be played by Jewish actors is one that is way too complex to get into here, but I think whatever one’s opinion, Shylock represents a special case, if only because of the role’s fame. Indeed, however one ranks Merchant of Venice’s inherent anti-Semitism (is the play itself anti-Semitic, or just the characters?), one cannot deny its checkered past, including an extensive performance history in Nazi Germany. Can only a Jewish actor ensure that Shylock is being treated with the proper respect? For a long time, without deeply examining the assumption, I thought so.

Another, even more unpalatable Shakespeare play raised the same question this summer when Phyllida Lloyd directed The Taming of the Shrew for Shakespeare in the Park, which recently closed. In keeping with her Shakespeare soon-to-be trilogy presented at the Donmar and St. Ann’s Warehouse, Lloyd handed the play over to an entirely female cast, led by Janet McTeer and Cush Jumbo as Petruchio and Kate. I’ll freely admit I was disappointed when this show was announced as Shakespeare in the Park’s first all-woman production, and no less disappointed when I saw the final product. The production never made a compelling case for its own casting, never used the female bodies onstage to illuminate anything about the play’s disgusting misogyny or to explain why a play that is about nothing more than the physical and emotional abuse of a woman ‘for her own good’ deserves continued performance at all.

When the play was announced I wondered, and I wonder still, why all-female Shrews are so common. Why do so many directors and companies seem to think that letting women act out a sexist fable makes the play more palatable? Does enacting one’s own oppression suddenly make it okay, or interesting? And then I began to wonder if, by wanting Shylock to be played by Jewish actors, I was expecting just that. The mere presence of a Jewish actor was meant to give the play a seal of approval: this Jewish person has approved of this through his participation, so it must be okay.

But does it? I’m inclined to think not. Much like that one loudmouth you know’s mysterious and unnamed friend of color who they insist is totally fine with that racist joke/that whitewashed movie/that off-color comment, such casting (especially in Shrew) seems to me less and less like actual commentary and more and more like a shield behind which to hide from questions about why we want to do these plays at all.

Now, I think the sensitivity that The Merchant of Venice requires can be achieved with or without a Jewish actor as Shylock, though I’d certainly look askance at a production with no Jewish voices in the room at all. The play, particularly in Munby’s production, has a lot to offer to a contemporary audience, and a lot to say about power, violence, and oppression. I think The Taming of the Shrew does not. And having it be women who abuse and torture one another rather than a man to a woman doesn’t make it any more interesting.

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