Straining the Quality of Mercy: 'The Merchant of Venice' in Israel

A newfangled version of Shakespeare's play reminds us that hatred of strangers wasn’t born in Israel and vividly portrays our jolting present

Actors perform in Avraham Oz's modern version of Shakespeare's 'The Merchant of Venice.'
Tal Itzhaki

This play is an enigma to me. I always thought there was something suspicious about it. It’s inconceivable that Shakespeare, the greatest of them all, would fall into the kind of dark racist trap that’s seen in “The Merchant of Venice,” a modern-dress version of which I saw recently in Tel Aviv. So I read the text – and was appalled.

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If humanity had even the slightest shadow of decency, this play would have been thrown onto the garbage bin of history and allowed to rot in the recesses of oblivion. But there you have it: Culture consumers are, all in all, devoted believers, no less than the faithful of other religions, and when a repulsive text like this shows up they do everything possible to explain by circuitous routes that things aren’t exactly as they seem; that if the text is reexamined it will look very different; that if you look beneath the letters, a different truth will surface.

Shakespeare fans try to explain that he was only being critical of the ills and corruption of Renaissance-era Venetian society. Above all, they cling to one passage, which is indeed a shaft of light: “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal’d by the same means, warm’d and cool’d by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?”

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That’s certainly a jolting statement, but it quickly fades amid waves of demonization of the Other, in which the play delights. I looked for someone who would say in all simplicity: Guys, it’s true that Master Shakespeare is a legend whose oeuvre bestrides continents and the ages, but in “The Merchant of Venice,” he fell – big-time. That’s it. Of course, there are those who will find excuses for that fall. Maybe some sort of racist gene manifested itself in him? Still, with all the poetic and literary genius of the work, nothing can make this abomination kosher.

But now, along comes Jewish playwright Avraham Oz, disguised as the Englishman Shakespeare, and through the Palestinian actor Suheil Haddad offers us a different, more persuasive version of the play, in which new dimensions of the ultra-usurer Shylock’s character are revealed. As a counter-reaction to Shakespeare’s racism, Oz is unsparing in the way he depicts the Jew Shylock. He portrays him, with all his problematic elements, as a victim and as cruelly greedy. Essentially, he presents Shylock as someone who is waging war against a terrible, twisted mechanism that existed in Europe for centuries, and accordingly he depicts the battered Jew from all sides, as being out to destroy the fake society into which his sorry fate has delivered him.

In Oz’s Hebrew version, Tubal, the wandering Jew and Shylock’s colleague, says: “How are we supposed to make a living? Why are we scattered across all of Europe – because that’s what we want? My grandfather was expelled from Spain for refusing to convert. Shylock’s father was slaughtered in Lisbon. We are prohibited from purchasing land. You are just about to finish building the prison compound for us next to the new foundry – a ‘ghetto,’ you call it. What is there left for us other than to initiate connections and to complete financial transactions?”

In my mind’s eye I conjured up a similar speech by a Palestinian child in the Gaza Strip, who is also smothered by Israeli/Venetian “generosity” and says: What remains for me other than to launch a burning kite in order to signal an S.O.S.? Help! I’m weary of you and of the hell of Gaza, which is besieged from land, sea and air. At least Shylock was allowed to complete financial deals. Today’s Palestinian is barred even from fishing for his subsistence.

In his genius, Oz transforms a character that was perceived as the curse of European history for centuries – the detested figure of the usurer, sucking the Christians’ blood, poisoning their wells and casting spells on their innocent children – into a revolutionary individual, who spews fire and brimstone in the face of a sated society, and strips him naked in the face of history: meaning our, the viewer’s, face.

The play creates a link between the present day and both the 500 years that have passed since the first ghetto in Europe was established, in Venice, and the 400 years since Shakespeare’s death. The close connection between the Venetian way of life and the hatred of the stranger – the Jew, in this case – is the whole story. What won’t people do to tarnish the stranger, to make him the peg on which to hang all the ills of society, a kind of punching bag for the Christian masses who can’t find their place in the midst of the fabulous wealth that bedazzles them?

This latter-day version of Shakespeare turns the classic play into a living exhibit, one that vividly portrays our jolting present. Once more it’s apparent, as Ecclesiastes put it, that there is nothing new under the sun. The situation of 400 years ago is an authentic replica of what is happening today; Oz’s “cult of gold” is today personified in the tycoons who, far from the media spotlight, manage society and control talented politicians who will further their interests.

The Jews who are expelled from Iberia seek solace in Venice, which also closes its gates to them and in fact earmarks them for a ghetto, a closed, sealed-off neighborhood. And if instead of Venice you write Tel Aviv, and in place of “Jewish ghetto” you write compounds for refugees and migrant laborers, Oz’s text can apply. Indeed, “How like today is to yesterday,” as the Arabs say.

But the Venetian brain, unfortunately, hadn’t yet invented the magic formula: the “secret evidence” that is presented to the judge in the wake of which the Jew of today, namely the Palestinian, is sentenced to a lengthy imprisonment without being charged, as part of a procedure of genius called “administrative detention.”

The head of Venice’s judicial system back then had to work overtime to turn the claimant into the defendant. After all, the pound of flesh that is to be torn from Antonio’s body is void of even one drop of blood. Today that demand seems totally insignificant compared to the Israeli judicial system granting compensation of millions of shekels to Jewish thieves who have built homes on Palestinian land on the “paths of the forefathers.” Great deal: Steal and get a prize for it.

The Academy of Performing Arts has succeeded in creating an impressive production of “The Merchant of Venice,” with intelligent humor and appropriate sets, accompanied by music that lends itself to creating a special atmosphere of then and of now. And the actors are terrific: Hadar Levin as the Duchess of Venice; Merav Hazan who played the broadcaster “Salarina”; Dan Turgeman, who left an impression of an arrogant and hurt Antonio; Aviel Shilian who played Bassanio; and Suheil Haddad as Shylock, who succeeded in presenting a complex character with astonishing naturalness.

We spent almost two hours in Avraham Oz’s Venice and only one persistent thought assailed me: Why in the world is Culture Minister Miri Regev wasting so much energy ranting against liberal Israeli culture? If she had been present she would have discovered that the culture she’s fighting against has hardly any consumers.

A pity on your nerves, Minister Regev! But mostly a pity on us, who are looking for spirit amid the aridity in which we dwell. And a pity that brilliant works like this remain the preserve of the few. But no worries, sometime someone will search among the excavations and relate, with admiration that at one time, in this place, there was an entrancing work. Just 400 years, 500 at most.