Performance-based paper examined racial stereotypes in The Merchant of Venice
Joseph Keller, Staff Writer
A performance-based paper that was originally conceived as a guest lecture in a Kwantlen Polytechnic University English class was presented at the U.K.-based British Shakespeare Association Conference on May 23.
KPU English Prof. Fred Ribkoff and former student John Rowell first presented the paper on racial stereotypes in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice to Ribkoff’s “Studies in Shakespeare” course. After the lecture was well-received by students, Ribkoff and Rowell submitted the piece for presentation at the conference.
The paper, which mixes oral discussion and live performance, examines controversial aspects of The Merchant of Venice, mainly focusing the play’s antagonist, a Jewish moneylender named Shylock. The play, which was originally written as a comedy, portrays the character with a number of highly negative and offensive stereotypes that have historically been associated with Jewish people.
“It’s a difficult play to perform in a post-holocaust era,” says Ribkoff. “The fact is it is an anti-semitic play and rather than avoid that problem we wanted to try and illustrate it.”
Modern performances of The Merchant of Venice tend to downplay the comedic elements of the play and portray Shylock as a sympathetic, pitiful character. Ribkoff and Rowell disagree with this approach, arguing that it changes the overall meaning of the play as a study of stereotypes.
“If you play Shylock as particularly sympathetic, somebody to be pitied, or if you play the character as particularly villainous, what happens is it makes the play all about him,” says Rowell. “It’s The Merchant of Venice. It isn’t Shylock’s play, necessarily.”
Ribkoff and Rowell believe that presenting The Merchant of Venice as it was originally intended to be allows the audience to understand the absurdity of the stereotypes.
“The underlying view [of the paper] is that the audience will see the presentation of the Jewish stereotype as racist. They’ll recognize it. The whole play is made up of stereotypes,” says Ribkoff. “If you play all the stereotypes as comic stereotypes then the audience’s critical progressive sensibility will be active because they’ll see that they’re ridiculous stereotypes.”
Ribkoff and Rowell acknowledge that their take on the play is somewhat controversial in itself and expected their presentation to generate debate. While there were differing opinions, they say the paper was appreciated by Ribkoff’s students and later by conference attendees.
“We know that this is a tough sell,” says Rowell. “We totally understand that suggesting to people that The Merchant of Venice is a comedy and should be played as such doesn’t go over very well a lot of the time to a lot of different audiences, but hopefully, through the paper, we’re able to take some of the sharper edges off of the racism.”
Their work was also presented at KPU’s Symposium of Teaching and Learning shortly after the conference. Ribkoff and Rowell are working on a publishable version of the paper.