2015 Edmonton Fringe Review: Shylock

William Shakespeare was an English poet, playwright, and actor, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world's pre-eminent dramatist. He lived from approximately April 26, 1564 to April 23, 1616, during England's Elizabethan times. Shakespeare produced most of his known work between 1589 and 1613. His early plays were primarily comedies and histories, and these are regarded as some of the best work ever produced in these genres. He then wrote mainly tragedies until about 1608, including Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth, considered some of the finest works in the English language. This entire paragraph was shamelessly cribbed from his Wikipedia page.

The key thing to remember is that Shakespeare is:
a) hugely successful
b) an old dead white male

His works are eternally popular due to (a), but because of (b) he's attracted more than his share of controversy, particularly in the 20th and 21st centuries, and especially brutal in the modern age of social-justice-warrior demagoguery. Implicit in the fact of (b), his plays were written a long long time ago which means that the issues of societal changes I discussed back in 2008 (regarding the Reform Party and Eddie Murphy) cause some of his works to be far more controversial than they were in the past.

Shylock is a one-man show starring John D. Huston discussing Shylock the character, The Merchant of Venice the play, and SJW outrage the societal scourage. Huston (who I previously described as looking like Dean Stockwell, who was also in Screwtape last year where I compared him to Sir Humphrey; he incorporates both again here) plays an actor named Jonathon Davies who has recently "completed" a turn as Shylock at the local festival theatre company.

He starts off in full dress, with the full Jewish nose prosthetic and rattling off various lines from Merchant of Venice:
I am a Jew.
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, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled 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?
And if you wrong us, shall we not
If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that.
If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge.
If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example?
Why, revenge.
The villany you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I
will better the instruction.
He then addresses the audience. This is the "talk back" section of the play, where (now that it's over) typically actors and other people involved in the production get out of character, sit back, and answer audience questions and talk about the work. Davies isn't a huge fan of this part of the modern play-going experience, and in fact got it written into his contract that he doesn't have to participate.

This time is different, though, tonight he absolutely has to talk to us about The Merchant of Venice because as is hinted early on, tonight was the last show (and it wasn't intended to be). Curiously, the other people involved in putting on the play didn't want to come out and address the crowd, so it's up to Davies to explain to us why they put on that "antisemitic" play. To say that Shylock is a tough character for the modern audience to relate to is an understatement. He represents most of the worst of the Jewish stereotypes: he's unable to experience any charity and loves only money. Davies explains that Shakespeare probably wasn't the world's biggest fan of Jews (though, in fairness, 1600s England's second biggest fan of Jews just might cast one as the villain in a play taking place in Venice). Still, Shylock is a character, and seeing how most of his lines are the ones people remember from the play (indeed, Klingon General Chang recites them in The Undiscovered Country) he's not just a peripheral part of the performance. Despite what some of the more sensitive arts students think later on in the story, you can't do Merchant without Shylock. It would be like...I don't know...changing Muslim terrorists to Christian terrorists in the shadow of 9/11... The question then becomes what to do with Shylock.

Davies recounts the history of Shylock. In most of the early-to-mid 20th century portrayals, the ones that were preserved on celluloid, he was a clown, an oaf. He's more a pantomime villain rather than a scary and legitimate threat. He demands a pound of flesh, yeah sure, but he'd really settle for a good fish smacking or something instead. He's also nowhere near in a position to actually get his pound, and his hilarious protests to the contrary basically get him laughed out of court. The problem, of course, is that if you play the central villain as a joke, the quality of the story suffers. Defeating paper-thin villains is child's play, it's not worth your time. Go ask Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Merchant of Venice may not be Shakespeare's best work, but we can probably agree four hundred years later that it holds up better than this. (Also, Shakespeare didn't write his play in order to make a cheap play for federal government anti-drug funding dollars). So Shylock the clown is out.

Shylock the victim of persecution, however, has been (obviously) popular since the Second World War. Davies explains the appeal: Shylock can still have his cruel moments, he's certainly not going to be the hero, but he's living in a world where the motivations for his actions are clear. Jews have been expelled from most of Europe (including Britain). In Venice they are forced to wear distinguishing colours in public so they can't trick people using their Jew-ways. The culture at large has been at war with him. Antonio has been at war with him (Lori my crazy Injun #ursurysucks Twitter follower patron aside Shylock's income does come via the interest he receives loaning out his money, and by lending money for free Antonio is basically cutting into his business model and depriving him of the only livelihood a Jew in Venice is permitted). Is it any surprise that poor beleaguered Shylock might just decide to fight back, and enjoy the opportunity offered by Fate Herself to turn the tables on his oppressor(s)? Antonio came to him, and signed an agreement (as unfair as it was) in good faith, so when the Christian God Antonio worships sees fit to destroy his fleet and leave him at Shylock's mercy can he not, pace Chang, fire a photon torpedo or two of his own? Then, thrown into the court of a Catholic country and made to swear fealty on the Christian Bible, Shylock is denied his due process by a couple of bitches involved in identity theft. His own daughter has abandoned his age-old culture. Is a pound of flesh, all things considered, really that much to ask? Davies talks about all the good things about this portrayal: it gives the character strong motivation ("every man is the hero of his own story"), puts the negative Jewish sterotypes into a stronger historical context, and forces the audience to "check their privileges" as the saying goes and consider how badly this Jew -- cruel though he was -- fared in Shakespeare's time. It's got everything going for it except for that minor hiccup of its complete inaccuracy.

so Davies, slowly stripping down his clothes, goes into the story. A left-wing moral crusading university professor (of course) goes all #YesAllJews on Davies at a bar after the inaugural performance. Writing a very harsh letter to the paper (what's that like?), and organizing boo-ins and cancellations of season tickets, she pushes to get the production shut down. Davies recants the shame in seeing how fast his fellow actors leap to get on board with censorship by chastizing his portrayal of Shylock the villain as...you know...a villain. The very portrayal they had seized upon as being honest to the source material was now in jeopardy.

Davies occasionally (briefly) plays some of the supporting cast of this story from the soap opera star turned Nerissa or the guff Theatre Director who of course did this in the community interest and believes so strongly in the arts or the university professor herself. But most of it is his voice, telling his side of the story to an audience that mostly is (in the conceit of the play) in on the controversy. As a character we do learn a fair bit about Davies: he is Jewish, which at least to the social-justice-warrior class usually provides a fair bit of defense. He also is a little bit tone deaf: later on in the play he figures he can also play Othello, presumably not in blackface. I don't know, maybe in the modern age of Rachel Dolezal and her "transracial" movement a "transracial" white guy could play Othello and then make the social-justice-warriors heads spin (much like Rachel did herself). Davies could possibly pull of dark middle-eastern-ish, so maybe they just had to portray Othello as Turkish rather than black. But despite the real Othello being not really black, modern-day Othello is the "black" Shakespeare character. When you think about it, of course, even if Othello was black the arguments for Davies playing him are the same arguments hold that he uses to defend Shylock. They're the same arguments used to defend Idris Elba as James Bond in fact: not that "good for the gander is good for the goose" is a principle that the social-justice-warriors hold particularly dear.

The strongest parts of the work are the total dismay and shock as Davies is betrayed by his own: theatre-goers, artistic types, leftwing university professors. He naively believed that they were on his side, and cannot believe that they want their kneejerk reactions dictating how theatre speaks to people. The leftwing university professor spit on him -- a reaction that Mom wouldn't find unfamiliar -- and the theatre director succumbed to the pressure in five seconds flat. Familiar arguments about whether or not the play could incite violence in others is one that readers of this blog may find familiar. Putting Shakespeare's work in context seems equally abhorrent to him: his belief is that audiences, even modern ones, should be able to discern the beauty in the art on their own accord; without margin notes or helpful asides or (ironically) post-play question and answer sessions. Like Mark Steyn wrote about poor "homophobic" stand-up comedian Guy Earle, he discovered that when the chips were down the 'brave transgressionary arts community' would rather kick him until his ribs were broken than reach down and help him up. Anti-Semitic individuals or events would be immediately blamed upon the play. Hitler was brought up, implying that Shakespeare is responsible for the holocaust. When in a university class, Davies asks the students if the play turned them into Jew-haters. Of course they always are immune, it's the other you have to worry about.

At the end, Davies goes into the University class and tries to argue his case but for naught. As is typical on left-wing college campuses, logical arguments don't work (though he should be glad I suppose that he was even allowed to be heard). It turned out, he discovered, that the next generation of left-wing censors didn't even oppose book burnings.

Shylock brings up major and important issues, and it's probably too much to ask that the work fails to resolve them. After all, if it did, we could get every free-speech hating (and, Rachel Arab supporting, a condition that probably is close to 1-to-1) leftist a ticket to this play and solve all of our problems forever. It is a fairly good exploration of some of the themes, though Davies occasionally is a little too superficial in his analysis of the problems. You get the feeling that if this was about, say, another viewpoint the play wouldn't pull its punches quite so hard. The play also goes on a little longer than it has to: about 10 minutes before the conclusion you get the sense that it has run out of things to say, and the parts at the end which emphasize how the new censorship destroys critical thought in young minds deserves a more attentive audience, which means the little hints from midway through the work could easily have gone. It's also interesting how the playwright via Davies internalizes some of the social-justice-warrior arguments. It's a reminder of how they can neuter art (even art such as video games, or even the media that covers video games). It's why ultimately these are still "their people".

If I wrote a Fringe play about sodomites and won the annual lottery, how long do you think the famous "uncensored and unjuried" policy would last? The fictional world of Shylock may just give you the answer.

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