When I read recently of the new production of The Merchant of Venice starring a black actor, John Douglas Thompson, as Shylock, I wondered what an actor of color would bring to that role, a Jewish character who schemes of revenge. A memory of my efforts to teach Shakespeare in the Sixties came back.
I see myself in front of a group of teen students holding copies of Shakespeare’s Merchant — a stack of small, tattered paperbacks. Tall windows, bright with sunlight, make this a pleasant setting, and the atmosphere is friendly.
When I taught, our literature curriculum favored only privileged European voices, as Christine Torres points out in Education Weekly. I was trained in the tradition of English literature as the foundation of all things cultural — never mind the Latino and Asian heritages of some of the California teenagers in the room — and I felt the students needed Shakespeare’s Merchant as part of their education.
Me: This is The Merchant of Venice, a play by Shakespeare. (I distribute copies of the play to the students.)
Brian: I’ve heard of it.
Olivia: Is that clock right?
Me: Turn to the first scene. I’d like you to read parts. I know the language is unfamiliar, but let’s try. I’ll explain words that are difficult to understand. This is a comedy, but nothing like the comedy you’re used to.
John: (raises hand) I’ll read.
Me: Do you want to be Shylock? It’s the pivotal role.
John: Yes! Is he the Merchant?
Me: Not exactly. You’ll see.
Olivia: Will there be a test on this?
Me: No. You don’t need to worry. Just try to follow along. Ask questions if you get lost.
Brian: I’m always lost.
John: Are there knives in this? Oh, I forgot, it’s a comedy. Probably no knives.
Olivia: You’re going to make us write an essay; I can feel it in my bones.
Me: Can you wait and see?
Brian: I need to close the blinds. I can’t see the page. (He goes to windows and tilts the blinds, then stands and plays with the cords and stares outside.) Someone’s going home early.
Me: Brian, please sit down. I want to get to scene two. (Brian meanders to his seat.)
Brian: Why do we always have to study Shakespeare? Why can’t we read Gilligan’s Island?
John: I can’t find my part. The Shylock guy isn’t even in this.
Me: Just wait, John. Wait till you meet Shylock; he’s intrigued people since the 16century.
John: If you say so. (sighs) That name ‘Shylock’ sounds bad. Are you sure it’s the best part?
Me: Let’s try the next scene, with Portia and her suitors.
Olivia: What’s a suitor?
John: At least I know that much. It’s a guy who wants to marry her.
Brian: Venice must’ve had rich people. A servant for Lady Portia, and all those suitors.
Me: Yes. Shakespeare wrote this in 16th-century England, when wealth was in the hands of the few, and the rich had servants. Now comes the Shylock scene.
Brian: It says he’s a Jew! What’s that about? I thought they were Italians.
Olivia: I know about the Jews. Venice is a Christian country, and they didn’t like Jews back then.
Me: I have to mention that Venice is a city in Italy, not a country — but you’ve got it right, Olivia, about prejudice against Jews. In Venice, and throughout much of Europe at the time, Jews were not of the dominant Christian religion and were outcasts. Shakespeare is not kind to Shylock, you’ll notice.
John: We have a neighbor who’s a Jew. I think he’s a banker.
Olivia: Yes! In those days, they wouldn’t let Jews be anything but bankers, and people hated them. I read it in Ivanhoe.
Me: This play is about a Jew who takes on the Christians with anger and wit.
Olivia: I see an essay coming.
Brian: Where’s the comedy? I can be the clown.
Me: This comedy doesn’t have clowns. It ends happily, so it’s considered a comedy. Brian, you’re the Merchant, Antonio, the handsome suitor! Give this a chance. See what you think.
John: I think this is pretty good, even without knives — but Gilligan’s Island would be more fun.
I realize now that my teaching life was biased and sheltered; it even has the atmosphere of innocence. I wonder whether Shylock is even studied in Prescott schools. The struggles teachers face today, like school shootings, smartphones with Tik Tok feeds, and abysmal salaries, leave teachers so burdened that it must be hard to teach what is beautiful and important — like Shakespeare, and Shylock.
Elaine Jordan, author of Mrs. Ogg Played the Harp, is a local editor who’s lived in Prescott for thirty years.