The Shylock and the Shakespeareans Review

Is “The Merchant of Venice” antisemitic? Was Shakespeare?  “The Shylock and the Shakespeareans,” playwright and director Edward Einhorn’s retelling of the Bard’s long-controversial play, shuts down ambiguity or debate. Shakespeare, a character in this rewrite, is not only a bigot; he’s inspired a white supremacist gang who call themselves the Shakespeareans. They have scrawled on the wall of the New Ohio Theater  “The Jews Will Not Replase [sic] Us.” They actively harass Jews on the street and torch their homes.

“Time to kick them all out,” one Shakespearean says to another.  “You don’t see them in England, anymore, they kicked them out years ago.”

Given how outlandish the invention of a racist and antisemitic Venetian mob named after the Bard,  it’s surprising how relatively faithful much of  “The Shylock and the Shakespeareans” is to “The Merchant of Venice.” The new play includes most of Shakespeare’s characters and the outline of the original’s plot and its various subplots. But there are many changes within the outline, and they attempt to do many things – shift the story to a Jewish perspective;  create a broad farce, make pointed references to issues of race, gender and social class; provide contemporary resonance; make mischief. The result is intelligent, thought-provoking, sprawling; with some light moments, some light-bulb moments, and some really dark moments.

Eric Olson as Antonio, Jeremy Karen as Jacob, Chapman Hyatt as Bassiano.

The play is at its strongest in the way it shifts to a Jewish perspective. The character called Shylock in the original is here called Jacob (portrayed by standout Jeremy Kareken.) The Christians call him a shylock as an antisemitic slur. He is an upright Venetian who resents the way his community is libeled, so much so that when Bassiano asks to buy a diamond necklace from him on credit, with a guarantee of payment by his friend the merchant Antonio (Eric Oleson), Jacob finally and reluctantly agrees to do so, without charging him interest, but only if Antonio agrees to “go to the Shakespeareans and tell them that we do not eat Christians.” 

He asks this after the following exchange:

Bassiano: If you are not paid, you can take a bite out of my Christian flesh.  From wherever you like.

Jacob: More insanity.

Bassanio: Sorry…Antonio said…I thought maybe he was wrong…

Antonio: Not his flesh!  Mine.  You can eat mine.  Or cook it into matzo.

Jacob: Matzo is just flour and water. 

Antonio: And Christian children.

Jacob: Who told you that?  Shakespeare?

It’s the two Christians, in other words, who propose the infamous pound of flesh as collateral, not Jacob who demands it. This is a brilliant moment, because it shows us how Shakespeare’s plot device of the Jew asking for a pound of flesh is directly connected to the age-old antisemitic libel that Jews ate Christian flesh. 

Incidentally, the reason why Antonio agrees to guarantee Bassanio’s loan, as everybody understands except apparently Antonio himself, is because of his sexual attraction to Bassanio.

There are even stronger references to social class. As in Shakespeare’s original, Nerissa is still Portia’s loyal servant,  but she makes so many wisecracks about her lowly station in life compared to the privileged Portia that her normally oblivious mistress finally concedes 

“I suppose being a servant can be hard, sometimes.”

“There are worse things,” Nerissa says.

“Like this husband hunt,” Portia replies.

“I was thinking starvation,” Nerissa says.

One of the cleverest moments in “The Shylock and the Shakespeareans,” and the most eye-opening, occurs when Shakespeare’s actual words – the passage so praised as evidence of his humanity –  through a simple gesture  lets us hear them anew as evidence of his antisemitism.

The Shylock and the Shakespeareans
Untitled Theater Company No. 61 at New Ohio Theater through June 17
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes including an intermission
Tickets: $30
Written and directed by Edward Einhorn
Music: Richard Philbin 
Set design by Mike Mroch, costume design by Ramona Ponce, lighting design by Eric Norbury, video/live-streaming: Iben Cenholt
Cast: Craig Anderson as Gobbo, Ethan Fox as Salarino; Janine Hegarty as Salarina/Aragon, JaneAnne Halter, Yael Haskal as Jessica, Chapman Hyatt as Bassiano, Chase Lee as Lorenzo, Stephanie Litchfield as Nerissa, Jeremy Kareken as Jacob, Nina Mann as Portia, Nathaniel Meek, Kingsley Nwaogu as Terach/Prince, Ethan Fox, Eric E. Oleson as Antonio and Shakespeare.

Photos by Richard Termine

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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