- The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
Committed to proving the accessibility and relevance of Shakespeare’s plays to a nation largely uninterested in the Bard, Shakespeare Demystified’s approach reflects a conviction that Shakespeare is for all, as evident in the actors’ choice to direct themselves instead of privileging the vision of a single director. Having made its stage debut in 2011 with Julius Caesar, the company most recently mounted The Merchant of Venice.
This famously problematic comedy was both an obvious choice and a bold one, as its anti-Semitism resonates uniquely in Malaysia. The predominantly Malay-Muslim nation has no diplomatic ties with Israel and does not admit travelers on an Israeli passport. In July 2011, a controversial decision to admit an Israeli footballer playing for an English club resulted in anti-Semitic expressions from certain quarters of the public: during a friendly match between the English club and the Malaysian team, boos were heard whenever the midfielder approached the ball. However, other Malaysians who condemned their compatriots’ behavior drew comparisons between the anti-Semitic display and national policies that many feel discriminate against minority ethnic and religious groups.
This political context invariably colors responses to The Merchant of Venice. In 2002, I attended a matinee performance of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s touring production in which audiences cheered when Shylock was bullied, but sat in stunned silence when he was told to convert to Christianity. In 2000, a homegrown production received rave reviews for its daring portrayal of Shakespeare’s Christians as up-and-coming members of the Malay hegemony. In that production, the Jewish usurer spoke with an accent marking him as a member of the wealthy Chinese minority in Malaysia.
Shakespeare Demystified steered a safer course by firmly locating the play’s tensions within its historical context. Posters displayed in the foyer of the theatre informed audiences about the marginalization of Jews in sixteenth-century England and Venice. Between scenes, cast members occasionally broke character to provide additional information and guide audience reactions. Prior to Shylock’s entrance, we were told that Jews were considered “slimy creatures” and were frequently abused because of their economic wealth and religious identity. We were then urged to consider how far Shakespeare shared the prejudices of his contemporaries. Through acting choices, liberal treatment of Shakespeare’s text, and thought-provoking doublings, the production highlighted the far-reaching effects of social prejudices.
Soon Heng Lim’s credible performance as Shylock contributed greatly to the production’s condemnation of discriminatory practices. His grave bearing and measured speech set him apart from the upbeat Christian characters, who appeared frivolous and flippant by comparison. His slight stature also had the Christians towering over Shylock from the outset, thereby providing a visual analog to the Jew’s disadvantaged position in the play’s social world. Soon Heng Lim’s interpretation of the courtroom scene was especially effective: his wielding a knife and weighing scales drew laughter from the audience [End Page 123] and injected the right measure of black humor into the scene. Yet his bewildered look and hesitant movements as he approached Antonio’s chest indicated that he had been swept along by the current of events to arrive at a point he had not desired though could no longer escape. In that fleeting moment, Shylock’s plight became the tragedy of an entire society perpetuating increasingly violent expressions of hatred.
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Liberal excising of Shakespeare’s text further transformed the problem play into a tragedy. The play’s fifth act was left out entirely. Thus the performance ended with the defeated usurer walking slowly out of the courtroom, a single spotlight illuminating his hunched shoulders and bent figure on an otherwise darkened stage. Unmitigated by the traditional comic closure, the pathos of Shylock’s rapid descent from avenger to crushed victim left a deep impression. The somber atmosphere that lingered...