Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Play a Day: A Maiden of Venice

Aleks Merilo
For Wednesday I read A Maiden of Venice by Aleks Merilo and available at New Play Exchange.

Perhaps more appropriate for the date of Shakespeare's death, which was yesterday. Alas.

There are those who will tell you that The Taming of the Shrew is a play about sexism, that Othello is a play about racism, and that The Merchant of Venice is a play about Antisemitism.

They are wrong. The Taming of the Shrew is a sexist play, Othello is a racist play, and The Merchant of Venice is an Antisemitic play.

There are those who would then tell you you need to look at these plays from an historical perspective, that words like sexism, racism and Antisemitism did not exist at that time. Neither did the words radioactivity, or bacterium, but they still existed even without names, and could harm you.

We still perform these plays, when we perform them, because they are Shakespeare. The words are so good, but so too are the characters. Katharina, Othello, Shylock, they are more interesting and nuanced and even sympathetic than the more stereotypical versions of type created by lesser playwrights of the era. But they are each of them brought low as a result of being who they are, and make no mistake, Shakespeare's audience thought their downfalls were hilarious.

Merilo has written an elegant take on The Merchant of Venice, told from the Jewish characters' point of view, with special emphasis on Jessica, the daughter to the money-lender Shylock. In this version his true name is Shalah, which means tranquil, secure, even prosperous. It is the Christians who use the other name, and insist upon calling him that.

We see and understand in Shakespeare's play the poor treatment Shylock receives, but as he represents and exhibits the worst traits stereotypically ascribed to his "race" the audience is left to understand that the Jewish people are in the situation they currently suffer (confined to their ghetto, limited to practice usury, verbally and physically abused on the street) because of these unpleasant, suspicious behaviors.

Merilo's story begins with Leah's death bearing Jessica, and patiently describes Shalah's trials in raising a child on his own, and enduring the privilege exhibited by the young Antonio, who, though he himself begins as a penniless ne'er-do-well, still believes himself higher than anyone who is Jewish.

This is also a very timely play. The sense of danger, fear, dread, that those who are defined as others must live with, every day. Just last week This American Life reported on one American town that was devastated when ICE agents rounded up hundreds of undocumented workers. So many today who wonder, "When will it happen? When will they come for me?"

Who should I read tomorrow?

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