Merchant rehearsals are off and going well so far.
It is wonderful to work with such an open and hard working company out here this year. I am delighted with the dynamic in the cast so far and feel very strongly that we can delve into this wonderfully rich play and create a piece that is both potent and relevant to today’s world.
The Merchant of Venice is a play that features many racist remarks and sexual innuendos. The play can be pretty on the nose at times, as we can see from lines such as Gratiano’s ‘Now by my hood, A gentle and no Jew.‘ There are several different ways of saying this; he could be pleasantly surprised at Jessica’s apparent willingness to convert to Christianity or he may well be remarking literally about a hooded cloak he is wearing. If we take it in the context that Jews are hated outsiders and ‘gentle’ is a word play on ‘Gentile’ then it becomes much more a sarcastic remark. Add to this that ‘hood’ also ferers to foreskin and it then becomes a slur on circumcision (one of the rites of passage for a Jewish boy taking place on the eighth day following birth) and the line becomes even more laden with meaning. It is at once a sexual reference, word play and a racist remark all in one line. Not only that, he says it in front of the man who is intending to marry this woman! Does this make him a bad and nasty person? Not necessarily.
A person is capable of saying and doing things that we may find questionable at best and outright repugnant at worst. People make mistakes, act in ignorance, say and do things that with hindsight or consideration they would never do again. Our flaws are what make us human. Are we judged by our mistakes and deficiencies or by our strengths and merits?
A politician can spend a career doing good for their constituency. They can help to open schools, reduce crime, improve health care etc. Their character and that work can all be undone by a single remark or act that colours their entire character (think about the good Bill Clinton did as President of the United States, or the fact that Neville Chamberlain was considered a hero by the British people for avoiding war with Germany and how they are remembered by history today). While these are huge scale examples, think about the remark Gordon Brown made about Gillian Duffy, describing a voter (after he had just spoken to her about immigration in the UK) from Rochdale as a “bigoted woman”. This was picked up by a microphone and reported endlessly in the press, forcing Brown to apologies to her and torpedoing his campaign. Was she indeed a bigot? Did she have a point to make? Was Brown right?
I am a fan of the animated satire South Park. With it’s irreverent tongue in cheek humour Trey Parker and Matt Stone seem to have made a career, and a fortune, out of offending people with everything from animated cut outs of little children living in a remote mountain town in Colorado, to the outrageous antics of their puppet anti terrorist Team America, to a musical about Mormons. Matt and Trey live by the mantra that everything is fair game or nothing is. They highlight political events, social taboos and outright hypocrisies that exist in the world while making people laugh. In many ways it is thought provoking satire, in other ways, there are a lot of rude and irreverent jokes that appeal to our lowest sensibilities. They go after everyone and everything with nothing being off limits. But there is always purpose to their comedy. There is a message at the heart of most of their work (even though it can be hard to find sometimes!)
Merchant of Venice is a play that contains many racist themes, but it is not a racist play. Antisemitism features, but it is not necessarily an anti-semitic play. It is for the audience to decide who these people are and how they feel about them. Racism of any kind is an irrational blanket response based on ignorance, gross generalisation, caricature and fear. In it’s worst forms, it can inspire evil of immeasurable potency.
This play is not a cozy comedy. It has become a political play of great significance that still resonates today. It is a play about our prejudices and how we struggle to deal with them in social and personal circumstances. The play is full of ambiguity and contradictions. What people say doesn’t always correspond with what he does: they surprise us, they let us down, they lift us up, they excite us and they provoke us.
In rehearsals, we have made some telling discoveries about how we can take the themes of the play and use them to provoke people in modern Singapore to think about the play in a way that is relevant to them. It is oddly relevant. Shakespeare is asking us to examine the way we treat each other through this play. It will take courage to bring this out.