Bringing the racial politics of Shakespeare’s Venice to the modern stage

Jacob Cohen in Habima’s The Merchant of Venice. Photograph: Tristram Kenton, The Guardian.

Since the 1800s, Israel and Palestine have been embroiled in a bitter war over land, water, religion, and the fight for their own national and personal identity to be recognised. In 2012, these two countries had an additional conflict on their minds: the performance of a Shakespeare play, The Merchant of Venice, and the problematic representation of Shylock, the displaced Jew.

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On Shakespeare’s own translations

Shakespeare offers us all manners of translation in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, from translating Bottom’s head into an ass, to Helena wishing to be translated into her best friend Hermia. But even more interestingly, Shakespeare himself is actively involved in the act of translation, and perhaps the modes of translation and the difficulties in doing so are reflective of Shakespeare’s hand and his own difficulties at work.

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Language, Nature and the Self

Inherited at such a young age, language appears an embedded, inherent function of human experience. It provides a lexical framework through which meaning can be communicated, shared, and recorded. Shakespeare’s deployment of variable meanings through puns endow language a dominant role in the creation of cultural tradition; language is a tool for persuasion and interaction. The figure of Caliban, however, punctures the hegemony of conventional linguistic traditions that seek to distinguish and categorize through naming. By creating space for alternative sounds, Caliban concomitantly reimagines the position of man in nature that initiates am early eco-consciousness. Continue reading

Broken Narrative

Shakespeare’s The Tempest is riddled with interruption. All facets of the play from Prospero’s language to the play’s plot as a whole are consistently disrupted. This style of narrative contrasts the play’s establishment of time and place, which are standard of any traditionally well-made plot, and Shakespeare’s typically more coherent plays. An audience may ask then: why is interruption so central to The Tempest? How does such a disjoint narrative actually enhance instead of confuse the play’s story? And, what, if anything, might interruption reveal to the audience? Continue reading

Prospero from an Actor’s Eyes

philip voss

Philip Voss. Perhaps you recognize him from “Four Weddings and a Funeral” or “About Time”?

When readers’ eyes confront the homogenous sheets of a Shakespeare manuscript, any actor would insist that the sheer words flatten the fullest potential of the plays. At best in a perceptive reading, shadows of tones emerge as rhetorical implications.. The critical eye, as a holistic overarching consciousness often prefers to gravitate to rhetoric, images, and themes. The characters aren’t as much individuals as tropes, or fragments subsumed into a whole. But an actor/actress, whose entire vocation depends on a single character, can afford no such flexibility. Any indecision will shout mediocrity to the keenly peering audience. Absorbing this more demanding interpretation can be rewarding to literary readers who never plans to must the gall to step on stage. To this end, actor Phillip Voss’ award-winning essay on his role as Prospero in The Tempest is a particularly fine example for this exercise. Continue reading

Magic in The Tempest

Magic is not a frequently discussed topic, outside of eccentric video gamers and the handful of trading card enthusiasts. It is certainly not a topic one would expect any sort of scholarly article to take on seriously. However, that is exactly what Barbara Mowat, the director of research at the Folger Shakespeare library does. Continue reading

Caliban and Sambo

At the height of the American Civil War, the debate on slavery raged in the American North and South. The North supported the abolition of slavery whereas the South wanted to keep the institution of slavery to sustain their plantation-centric economy. Where Shakespeare’s The Tempest enters the fray is with a political cartoon published at the midpoint of the war: January 24, 1863.

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The Lonely Female and Her Nonexistent Agency

There is a glaring lack of women with agency (or women at all for that matter) in The Tempest. The romance as a whole is oddly reminiscent of something out of Disney – there’s certainly no doubt Disney has adopted this story line in some aspect of a Princess film – but even more so than the romantic happy ending plotline, the protective, paternalistic figure controlling the destiny of his daughter narrative is one that has been told and retold in all aspects of entertainment. Although considered a “heroine,” Miranda evidently lacks the confidence or power to be considered a strong woman or a symbol of feminism by any means. Certainly, she is young and her innocence informs her emotional reactions, the first of which is to the shipwreck. In her very first lines, Miranda sympathizes to an almost depressive level, claiming “I have suffered/ With those that I suffer: a brave vessel,/ Who had, no doubt, some noble creature in her/ Dashed all to pieces!” (1.2.5-8). A melancholy, emotional girl of little direction, Miranda looks to her one and only companion and superior, her father, for any and all answers. Continue reading