Stenciled on a Venetian building are a pair of faces — one black, one white. A sword slices between the heads. “La Difesa de la Razza” (“The Defense of the Race”) reads the terse legend.
Welcome to 1937 Italy, the apex of Mussolini’s power and the setting for the California Shakespeare Festival’s season-opening production of The Merchant of Venice, running through Aug. 20. Although the Holocaust is never directly referred to, the audience is well aware of both the imminent passage of Il Duce’s virulent anti-Jewish laws and the eventual Nazi-inspired campaign of genocide.
“You can’t help but approach this play without considering anti-Semitism in the 20th century,” director Michael Addison declares. “As a directory you hope you create a millieu that is expansive enough to let us reach back into our own cultural history.”
Now in his sixth season as the theatre’s artistic director, Addison interprets The Merchant of Venice as a multi-dimensional clash between tradition and modernity, the past and the future. The lovers, Portia and Bassanio, are juxtaposed with the established order that arbitrates the disposition of Shylock and Antonio’s sloan. The staid rituals of Belmont, meanwhile, contrast with the libidinous parties of Venice. It is a theme repeated throughout Shakespeare’s comedies, Addison asserts, namely “how humankind manages to find a balance between youthful energies that want to spend themselves freely and uninhibitedly and the impulse of older people to husband resources.”
The notion of social upheaval has a visceral effect when transposed to the rupture of Italian society — and the world — in the late 1930s. The theft of Shylock’s daughter and jewels evokes more than age-old anti-Semitism; in this context, the Jew’s merciless yet entirely legal efforts to extract his “pound of flesh” from his debtor (who once spat on him in public) can be readily understood. In a flash, Shylock is transformed from an anti-Semitic caricature of a greedy Jew into a man whose life and family are threatened with destruction.
Last season’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of Merchant was prominently criticized by an Orthodox Jewish educator, but Addison does not anticipate the slightest controversy over his portrayal of Shylock in this staging. “There may be some in the Jewish community who think the play reinforces stereotypes,” he acknowledges, “no matter how human you make Shylock and no matter how much cause you give to his atavistic behavior.” Citing Shylock’s love and concern for his daughter, his erudition, wit and sense of humor, Addison contends that “Shylock is a well-rounded character, radically different from other villains of the period. It isn’t until his daughter is stolen that he becomes monomaniacal. Whether Shakespeare was an anti-Semite or wrote a play to lead people away from anti-Semitism is an open question.”
The director never forgets that Merchant is one of the Bard’s comedies, although he maintains that “the comic action doesn’t mean anything unless it’s severely threatened.” In finding the balance between light and darkness, Addison recognizes that the play’s contrasting moods are one of its assets. “I hope the comedy will be strengthened by having a social reality to operate within,” he declares. “Any play that deals in a significant way with racism and social dissolution is appropriate now.”