Playing the unplayable

  • Share on Tumblr

Guest blog from Andrew Cowie

How do you stage The Merchant Of Venice after the Holocaust? How do you stage The Taming Of The Shrew after feminism? And how do you stage Othello after black civil rights? Directors usually welcome contemporary resonance to help bring a four hundred year old text to life but some plays relate all too easily to the modern world and what they have to say can be, on paper at least, deeply offensive.

Michael Attenborough, artistic director of The Almeida Theatre in London believes ‘One of the extraordinary things about Shakespeare’s writing is that he managed to grasp hold of several stereotypes – which we still wrestle with four hundred years later – and render them human. The Jew in Shylock, colour in Othello, and indeed women: he expands and humanises the whole notion of being a Shrew.’

But not everyone agrees with him. In his Telegraph newspaper review of the RSC’s 2009 Shrew Charles Spencer reports a conversation with a female colleague who refused to come to the press night on the grounds that ‘It’s a vile play that shouldn’t be staged any more, and I’ve made a vow never to see it again.’  Having gone on his own Spencer agreed it’s ‘hateful’ and Conall Morrisson’s production made ‘no attempt to soften the play’s constant sadistic cruelty.’ Not much evidence of Shakespeare’s ability to expand and humanise stereotypes there then.

A Jewish audience can find it as difficult to watch The Merchant Of Venice as women do The Taming Of The Shrew. As John Nathan notes in The Jewish Chronicle, ‘Modern revivals of Shakespeare’s unfunny comedy usually feature two particular ingredients — Jewish members of the audience who shift uncomfortably at the play’s anti-Semitism, and theatre directors who strain every sinew to minimise it.’

Patrick Stewart, who will play Shylock in Rupert Goold’s production for the RSC later this year, defends The Merchant Of Venice by saying ‘it is not an anti-Semitic play, it’s a play that has anti-Semitic elements’. In John Barton’s Playing Shakespeare Stewart, who is not Jewish, has an excruciatingly polite argument with David Suchet, who is. Both men had already played Shylock at the time of the interview in 1984 and while Stewart argues that ‘Shylock is an outsider who happens to be a Jew’ Suchet insists that his Shylock is ‘an outsider, not who happens to be a Jew but because I’m a Jew.’

Accusations of racism in Othello tend to revolve around casting rather than the play itself. But while most people are glad to see the end of white actors blacking up for the role the black actor, Hugh Quarshie, remains unconvinced that casting alone solves the problem. In his article Second Thoughts About Othello he argues that Othello is a racial stereotype, no matter who plays him: ‘When a black actor plays a role written for a white actor in black make-up and for a predominantly white audience, does he not encourage the white way, or rather the wrong way, of looking at black men?’ This leads him to the conclusion that ‘Of all the parts in the canon, perhaps Othello is the one which should most definitely not be played by a black actor’.

This is, I think, the crux of the problem. It’s not that Shakespeare necessarily says anything bad about Kate, Shylock or Othello, it’s that he ascribes ‘otherness’ to them relative to his own condition. But as a four hundred year old white, male English playwright how could he not?

So do you think some of Shakespeare’s plays are now unplayable or is the only real distinction between good productions and bad ones? If one part of the audience is offended does that mean the play shouldn’t be seen or is that political correctness gone mad?





Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT
  • Andrew

    I like your comment, Noelle, ‘Every time I read or see the play, I view it differently’. I think that’s probably my issue, and that of the people who object to the plays, that we don’t see enough different views on our national stages. The Arts Council policy document, Achieving Great Art For Everyone ( ) acknowledges that ‘the arts we currently support are not as diverse as they could or should be’ so let’s hope we start to see a wider range of subjective responses to the classical repertoire.

  • Noelle

    Jonathan, I appreciate your comments. However, I disagree with your statement, “there is still such a kind of tensile strength in the writing that finally it resists this, springs back to where it was originally placed” – the 2009 RSC version of Taming of the Shrew displayed that “tensile strength” but in an extraordinarily powerful way as a result of degredation and sexism. A version of The Merchant of Venice I saw let the story speak for itself, without downplaying either Shylock’s unpleasantness nor the virulent Antisemitism. Shylock was played without an emphasis on humor, villainy, or pathos – he came across as a believable, obnoxious, and bitter victim of his circumstances, as did many characters. Did some in the audience laugh at the disturbing jibes about Shylock missing his money as much as his daughter? Unfortunately, yes, which is a risk when presenting any art.

    I made the mistake – though I don’t regret it, so perhaps it wasn’t a mistake – to tackle The Merchant of Venice in my final paper in college. I was astounded at the seemingly limitless complications issues surrounding the issue of Antisemitism in the play. James Shapiro’s Shakespeare and the Jews was a remarkable help. Every time I read or see the play, I view it differently, which is the way I fell about all of Shakespeare’s plays. Sometimes I find Merchant to be deeply offensive and insidious, other times Shylock’s words against Antisemitism outshine the rest of the play. The fact that we can even debate its meaning and controversy makes its continued examination worthwhile. Great article.

  • Ty Unglebower

    I don’t know if “airtime” is necessarily an issue. I think of the Three Penny Opera. Macheath is obviously of central importance, despite being an odious individual. I don’t think we are supposed to particularly root for him, nor cheer when that little (and intentional) deus ex machina saves him at the end. The entire thing plays on the crude irony of good vs bad in the world of the play. But I don’t think it is viewed as an affront to decency by most people.

    It is of course, not on the level of quality with Shakespeare. But if we can look at some of the plays with an ironic turn toward an “in-universe” perspective, we might find things less problematic. Perhaps our feelings of “happily ever after” for the Christians at the end of “Merchant” can come with a mix of disgust if we view it as more satirical.

  • Andrew

    Thanks Jonathan; ‘I hope there is a way of staging these more problematic pieces which acknowledges but does not reinforce their presumptions’ – I couldn’t agree more! I think you can relate Kate in the Shrew to the Elizabethan idea of the Great Chain Of Being so it is not her gender which is being tamed but her disorder but as a man that’s easy for me to say, just as Patrick Stewart can claim the Merchant isn’t about Shylock’s Jewishness when, for a Jew, it clearly is.

    I think the shift in playing Shylock from comedy to tragedy makes the point that the plays are re-made in their casting and performance choices. There are schools in the UK which won’t teach Othello or The Merchant Of Venice so perhaps the more problematic plays help encourage actors and directors to keep finding new interpretations which speak to a contemporary audience.

    By the way, the ‘photo negative’ Othello was directed by Jude Kelly with Patrick Stewart in the title role, which an interesting context in which to read his casting as Shylock.

  • Jonathan Cullen

    I found this article and discussion fascinating: it is an issue I struggle with also.
    I have both taught and acted in Merchant, and have to say that no matter how much one cuts and trims, the centre of gravity of the play seems to me anti-semitic. It is not happenstance that Shylock is a Jew – he can be a usurer, ie lend money out at interest, because he is a Jew – they not being subject to the same restrictions. The financial expediency, practically speaking, of this system is not examined; his ‘villainy’ in this respect taken for granted.
    He certainly has his moments of nobility, but for me these are impugned by his behaviour in the court scene – or at least, I think audiences leave the theatre remembering that, rather than the “if you prick us, do we not bleed?” speech earlier. It is very easy to conflate ‘he behaves badly, and he’s a Jew’ with ‘he behaves badly because he’s a Jew’ – I don’t se what discourages an audience from this, particularly. And the force and volume of the triumphalist Christian comments made when he receives his wild justice seems to imply that Shakespeare assumes the audience will concur.
    It’s not coincidental that the stage history was to play it as a comedic role, until Kean abandoned the traditional red-ringletted wig and hooked nose, and reappropriated it as a tragedy.
    I suppose I hope that there is a way of staging these more problematic pieces which acknowledges but does not reinforce their presumptions – although let’s not forget they are still problematic precisely because we still share these issues around race & gender & more generally Otherness – and which doesn’t try simply to avoid the issues by cutting a few words here and there….what cutting could make Shrew less offensive, for example?
    And how much can acting choices bend the play? I have known Kate’s big final speech of Shrew performed (so as to speak) entirely in inverted commas, but there is still such a kind of tensile strength in the writing that finally it resists this, springs back to where it was originally placed. The presumption is that we will rejoice at her being tamed at last, that the uppity bitch got what was coming to her &c, and it is very hard to contest that with the material available.
    It’s kind of about airtime – who gets more oxygen. Shylock for example disappears, while we are left with his daughter transported and apparently happily converted; Kate is humbled and silenced and tamed. Othello at least dies a noble (by his code) death, his nemesis is clearly evil in his hatred and that hatred is explicitly (in part) racially motivated; therefore we are, surely, encouraged to condemn Iago and Iago’s values. I found what Hugh Quarshie says fascinating; I recall being told of a production of Othello in Boston was it? where the casting was a mirror-reversal of the standard casting..does anyone know of this, or did anyone see it?
    Why still do these plays at all? it’s a question I usually ask any students when I am teaching. It just is no answer to say in effect that these are canonical. How to encourage an audience to use its judgement?
    Lastly, let’s not get hung up on a couple of plays – there are bits in every one of them which I find offensive! So it is an issue that extends itself pretty widely.

  • Lyn Fairchild Hawks

    Perhaps the play’s not the only thing here–perhaps we must also teach around and after the show. As Ty says, we can educate through the program and also in sessions after the shows with dramaturgs, directors, actors. Younger students will especially benefit from these opportunities, and we can assume that their teachers will be framing the play in its context pre and post-show. The same issues arise with teaching works such as Huck Finn or Heart of Darkness in the classroom, and the recent editing of Huck Finn by New South books to remove the n-word is an interesting chance for us to discuss whether to apologize for Shakespeare’s world view or play it in full and then have honest conversations. As a former classroom teacher in American high schools and middle schools, I feel strongly that we must honestly present history, literature, and the arts at age-appropriate moments and sensitively prepare our students for the upsetting, unjust, and cruel realities of human interaction. There are many pedagogical ways to do this.

    (See the link here to the National Council of Teachers of English; some dramaturgs, directors, and producers might be interested in how this document advises educators to use the historical context and some exercises to prepare students for the America of 1840 when white men insisted that black men not vote.)

    Susanna, you raise interesting points. I would say that anti-Semitism can be in the eye of the beholder. Even if Shakespeare had Jewish friends, he woke up Christian every morning, and in the majority (at least from all obvious appearances–whether he was secretly dedicated to the somewhat disgraced aspects of Catholicism is I know is still debated). The same is true for those of us who “wake up white.” If we don’t realize that we do, can we completely understand why it might be upsetting to read certain lines of a play or hear them performed? Pastor Marcia Mount Shoop addresses the issues surrounding race very well in her blog about “waking up white” (scroll down halfway through to see connections to our discussion).

    I say all this and then include the link to American actor James Earl Jones playing Othello at the White House for our African-American president, Barack Obama. Amazing. Life is complex, the Bard’s work is complex, and if we face it with honesty and seek to find the love, redemption, and connection the works offer, I think we can read and see every line together.

    Lyn Hawks

  • Andrew

    I don’t have an answer either Ty but it’s an interesting question! I agree you don’t want to bowdlerise the text but any current production is inevitably a 21st century piece of theatre, not an Elizabethan one, so the director has to think: what am I saying? and: who am I saying it to?

    Casting isn’t a complete solution but I think it can at least frame the Elizabethan attitudes within a 21st century context. The all-female Shrew played differently, a Jewish Shylock plays differently and I recently saw a production of Verdi’s Othello in which Othello, Iago and Cassio were all played by black singers. The insulting language doesn’t go away but it plays very differently when spoken between a group of three black men all sharing the experience of competing in a fiercely competitive military world than between white and black.

  • Ty Unglebower

    I don’t know if I have a developed answer to this very common and very legitimate Shakespearean conundrum. I have a few side thoughts.

    To begin with, I wonder if one must first determine if they are a script purist before answering the question. Because to me, if one can accept adaptations of the works, than certain adaptations could be employed to down play or eliminate the inherent apparent prejudices towards the respective demographics, and still retain the theme and mood of the pieces.(I myself have no production specific ideas in that regard at this time, though many have been tried.)

    If one is a script purist, however, it becomes more difficult to get around moments such as “the thick-lips” and such. In that contingency, one must weigh what is more important…full presentation of a Shakespearean work, with an understanding that it is a product of it’s time, or reject certain stereotypical aspects for a greater good, even when the source of such imagery comes from the Bard himself? I guess each company must make that choice. (Though an extra bit of educational material in the program or at the start of a production may not be out of hand, for a general audience who may not be familiar with Elizabethan England.)

    Then of course, rather detailed arguments can be made for each of these plays that would indicate that the play is not intrinsically biased against an entire demographic. (As Stewart tried to do in “Playing Shakespeare”.) Which in turn can be counter-argued just as expertly.

    As for me, without the scholarly footnotes to back up anything particular I say, I would not personally want to see Othello and the rest vanish from the stages. I think there is too much history, and too much opportunity for education involved in their continued production. But I can’t really blame anyone who doesn’t want to see them.

  • Andrew

    Fair point Suzanna, and similar to Patrick Stewart’s argument that Shylock’s Jewishness is incidental to, not central to, his role in the play. What I found interesting was the idea that Shylock’s Jewishness may be marginal to gentiles like Patrick Stewart, and indeed myself, but it is central to Jews’ experience of the world and their response to seeing Shylock played on stage. The more fundamental problem is not therefore whether Shakespeare is nice to or mean about Shylock it is that he writes from a perspective which makes male/white/gentile the subject and female/black/Jew the object.

    Objectification is less about explicit insults than the ‘otherness’ I refer to; it’s about denying the object’s own subjective experience and reducing their individuality to the sum of whichever attributes the subject assigns to their group; nagging women, greedy Jews or emotionally intemperate black men. The best production I ever saw of The Taming Of The Shrew was an all-female production at The Globe Theatre in London which reversed the male/female subject/object perspective and I must admit, the more I read up on this, the more I felt I wanted to see a Jew play Shylock to restore his subjectivity.

  • Susanna

    My honours thesis was partly on Shylock, and I think it’s vitally important to note that The Merchant is not an anti-Semitic play. It may have anti-Semitic aspects to it, but Shakespeare himself would have known some Jews, and was probably friends with them – so he could not have been an anti-Semite. It’s also important to know that the anti-Jewishness it more of a religious bigotry than anything else; it’s not anti-Semitism as we know it today. Shylock’s not even particularly Jewish in name! It’s okay (to an extent) to dislike Shylock because he is not a nice person – he wants a pound of flesh from someone! He says (at the end of the speech everyone quotes in his defence) “The villainy you teach me, I will execute,” – in effect, we have eyes, we laugh, but we also take revenge; he is also the first to mention hate (and he hates Antonio, partly because he’s Christian, but MOSTLY because he lends money without interest – which is why we (the reader and audience) should dislike him – he is a usurer!

Download a free book written by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells about Shakespeare, Conspiracy & Authorship. Download the Book.


24 brilliant poems, inspired by Shakespeare's life and art, bound in an artisan stitched chapbook

get your copy now