Looking for Mercy in The Merchant of Venice

img_1993In the fall semester of 2018, my students at Harvey Mudd College participated in “The Quality of Mercy Project,” whose remit was to offer a collaborative but locally inflected vision of what The Merchant of Venice communicates to us and how we can, in turn, perform and transform this play given our particular, regional interests and mandates. As articulated by the creator and organizer of the project, Professor Jonathan Burton, the project seeks to virtually bring together a diverse array of college and university students around Shakespeare, performance, and the difficult questions posed by this play:

Fourteen Shakespeare classes in eleven states will collaborate on a project involving Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice during the 2018-19 academic year.  Two will work on the play in the fall and the remaining twelve will join the project in the spring, with each class contributing to a shared YouTube channel a short video of a performance or appropriation of a scene in the play.  Individual classes will determine what they want to do with their scene. Ideally, this will involve some form of local appropriation, so that each scene reflects the unique interests, needs or cultural circumstances of the students producing it.  There is no requirement that the scene include every one of Shakespeare’s words (or any, for that matter). One shared goal, however, is to place our students into a national community and at the same time get them thinking about regional interpretations/appropriations. The goal is not to produce a seamless and coherent interpretation of the play in fourteen settings but rather to consider what happens to Merchant as it moves through various spaces and cultures.  So, one question with which we might prompt our classes is what are the qualities of mercy that are important to us here and now, on this campus, in this state, or in this region of the country?

(From left to right: Dylan Sotir, Giselle Serate, Cassie Rossi, and Avalon Feiler)

At Harvey Mudd College, I routinely co-teach a Shakespeare course that has a performance component. In the usual run of things, students read five plays and choose one from among that number to edit and adapt for performance. All of this takes place over the course of one 14-week semester. Additionally, all of this is done by STEM students who do not major or minor in English, Theater, or the Humanities. For this course, however, I adapted my usual format so that students only read The Merchant of Venice and spent the entire semester in textual interpretation and performance production. In addition to close-reading the play in the early weeks of the semester, students were assigned secondary sources (Kim F. Hall’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and the introduction to Janet Adelman’s Blood Relations) that helped us understand some of the underpinnings of the religious and racial prejudices that animated so much of the action of the play. We also invited actor, Griffin Matthews, to speak with our students about inhabiting characters that were racially and religiously different from the identities our students occupied. This conversation was especially useful because it brought into the open many issues with identity that we had either been unwilling to discuss or assuming were unimportant. The big one for me, as someone who has taught this course for six years to an increasingly diverse student body, was how to help students embody these characters not as “whitewashed” or colorblind versions of themselves, but as themselves, in the bodies and identities that they signify. The question for me is how do we lean into our identities while performing play scripts that were not written for our identities. In a play like Merchant this question seems particularly germane and loaded given its explicitly exclusionary Christian and white ideological investments. The composition of our cast (based solely on who signs up for the class), which was extremely diverse along multiple axes of race, gender, class, and sexuality mandated that we deliberately and responsibly considered how inhabiting roles that denied either our humanity or that of our friends and classmates affected us and just as critically, to think about how (in many ways) most of us are implicated in racist, sexist, and religiously-bigoted regimes and systems of oppression. I don’t know that we managed to fully do this, but I think we did get to the point where everyone understood how problematic this material was, and that we appreciated that some people in the room were affected by the words we were saying and the actions we were embodying in more severe and harmful ways than were others. I tried to communicate this through something that I communicate to my students in every single one of my courses: that all scholarship (and performances in this context) is subjected, meaning that the person of the scholar is not an hermetically sealed off from her context. He/She/They are implicated in a complex relation of identity and ideology which frames how they approach the object of their study (for more on this see Edward Said’s introduction in Orientalism). This play more than other texts that we might read brings subjectivity out into the open. It does not allow for seemingly neutral and thus benign reading and interpretive practices. Consequently, when we read both with and against the grain, we should carefully think about the effects of a straight production of this show, what interests that serves, and who it harms on a local and global level. And if we don’t do a straight production, what interventions do we want to make, to what end do we want to make them, and what then are we trying to say about this play. To say that this was not an easy task would be a monumental understatement.

(Giselle Serate, Teddy Dubno, Serenity Wade, Lily Friedberg, Izzy Jones, Avalon Geiler, and Cassie Rossi)

So, how did we do this then? One way was to build trust in the class. It helped us tremendously that many of our students were either from the same dorm or that they were already friends. This created a built-in community where students were already comfortable with one another. Another way was to establish at the very beginning of the course, during the first class session, that this was a difficult, anti-Semitic and racist play and that when we talked about it we might unwittingly fall into the ideology of the play and say something that was harmful to other students in the class. In that event the speaker should be made aware and that the rest of us would be generous in how we interpreted what each other was saying. When teaching this kind of material (or even any material) this step should not be overlooked. It is vital in establishing how students engage with the text and each other. We were also helped by the fact that our students are incredibly humane and generous people. When folks messed up (and I include myself here) they responded with kindness and correction. They are the reason that we were able to do this play and I think, do it well. Their openness and willingness to engage with the racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic elements of the play allowed us to have periodic conversations throughout the semester about how they felt in performing their scenes and inhabiting these characters. This strategy was recommended by Griffin Matthews and I found it particularly helpful because it created the space where we could discuss how the play was making our students feel and think about performance strategies that would translate those feelings into action that would communicate that difficulty and discomfort to our audience. Again, these talks took time away from rehearsal or other performance elements, but I think they were incredibly important in both creating and solidifying our community, in furthering our interpretation of the play, and in allowing students to voice their feelings and frustrations. In the future, regardless of which play we are performing, I plan on employing these table talks regularly because of how it helped build cohesion in our group.

You always learn something new when you put on a show. The experience of editing Shakespeare’s script to a one and a half hour time frame, casting, and rehearsal offer essential scaffolding that lets you build an interpretation of the play. My co-instructor Ben Wiedermann always emphasizes that the show has to have a thesis, and that every scene should in some way work towards highlighting that thesis in large or small ways. Not only does this yoke the literary analysis that we do early in the semester to the performance work later in the semester, but also it underscores the contingent nature of performance. In other words: the show we perform is the one we have decided we want to put on. It will inherently be different from all other performances because of our interpretation and our choices. Thus, debunking the notion of a correct, sacred, or authoritative version. Remembering this was absolutely necessary as we neared the full and dress rehearsal stage of the course. During our first full (semi-dress) rehearsal the final act showed me something that I had never seen before. As someone who has read the play many times, I have always read the final act with cynicism and disgust: the comic plot of the lost rings and supposed cuckolding so frivolous in the face of the destruction of family and faith Shylock is forced to undergo in the trial scene that comprises almost the entirety of the fourth act. In reading it always struck me as a hollow gesture towards the seeming happy endings required by the comic plot. Watching my students get to Act 5 and have it be funny and engaging made me pause. Something was off here. The tone we had been going for and the interpretation we were seeking was lost. I realized that Shakespeare is working very very hard in this act to make the audience forget about what they just saw in Act 4. The ring subplot and its comically infelicitous misapprehensions offer affective recuperation and reprieve from the trauma of the trial. The text was doing exactly what it was supposed to, but working in opposition to the interpretation we were trying to promote. We managed that, successfully, I think by adding a bit of text and by having Jessica pull the focus in her reaction to Shylock’s conversion. Borrowing from other productions, we also had Jessica stay on-stage after everyone else had exited, to emphasize her mourning over her lost father and culture. These were relatively small emendations, but they offered a powerful visual counter-narrative to the happy resolution Shakespeare writes. The ideological work of this scene only became apparent to me through our own work of crafting the show. This, I think, is another reason why Shakespeare teachers and scholars need to do more with performance.


(Full cast with Professor Jeff Groves)

Unlike other shows, after this performance we had a talk-back between the students and the audience. Moderated by Professor Jeff Groves (from whom I inherited the Shakespeare and performance course), who offered important historical context on early modern English attitudes toward Jews and other marginalized identities, the talk-back was an opportunity for the audience to present their thoughts and give feedback and for our students to articulate and share to process of crafting the show. I have had so many moments in this course where I was amazed and impressed by my students, but my proudest was my students’ response to an audience member who said that she almost didn’t come to the show because she knew it was anti-Semitic and the experience of watching this show was hard and uncomfortable. One student replied that they had then succeeded in what they wanted to do because antisemitism and racism were real and not relics of the past but all around us. This is why I see the value in the work we do. Our cultural institutions and literary giants are sometimes complicit in ideologies that are violent, damaging, and dehumanizing. We can’t ignore them, and we should not turn away from them. Let’s tackle them and redeploy them, if we can, as a reminder that we need to constantly be vigilant if we want to create a world that offers mercy and justice.

(Program for 12/15/18 performance of The Merchant of Venice at HMC)

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