By Hamid Dabashi
March 14, 2015
There are scarce any Shakespearean passage more potent, more visceral, more laden with painful force than the lines delivered with dreaded precision by Shylock in ‘Merchant of Venice’. “I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes?”
“Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is?”
A Venetian Jewish moneylender, Shylock is the principal antagonist of the play. His conversion to Christianity points to one of the most vexing literary landmarks of European anti-Semitism.
In his exquisite study ‘Shakespeare and the Jews‘, my distinguished Columbia colleague James Shapiro examines the ‘Merchant of Venice” closely to provide an extraordinary vision of the embedded European anti-Semitism in Elizabethan England. He demonstrates how the notion of Jewishness was coterminous with the very idea of being English, both predicated on widespread European “racial fantasies”.
As fate would have it, centuries after its original composition and performance, a veteran Palestinian actor Makram Khoury, 69, is now about to perform Shylock in a major production of ‘Merchant of Venice‘ by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon. According to reports, “He will make his RSC debut in Polly Findlay’s production, which opens in Stratford-upon-Avon on May 14”.
What a twist of fateful irony, and yet how apt, how historic!
This is not the first time that Khoury is being cast in a highly sensitive and provocative role. According to the same report, “Last year Khoury was cast as a Holocaust survivor in Magic Men, an Israeli film. The casting was highly controversial and the director, Erez Tadmor, said many people refused to work on the project.”
Why would that be the case, you may wonder? Well: “A lot of producers didn’t want Makram. It was a serious problem. People said he doesn’t know about the Holocaust and about Judaism. They said no one will come to the movie. They shut the door in our faces.”
How dare a Palestinian portray a Holocaust survivor, or even more ironically and potently, Shylock?
It is impossible to exaggerate the symbolic significance of this role reversal, when a victim of Israeli racism is to portray perhaps the most classic examples of European racism against Jews.
The problem of anti-Arab, anti-Palestinian, anti-African racism is not something left for speculation by non-Israelis.
“Let’s face it,” writes Ilene Prusher in Haaretz, “Israel has a racism problem. Not just in the middle of a war or Intifada, when expressions of hatred can be explained away against the backdrop of terrorism and rocket attacks, but also during times of ‘quiet’, as Israelis like to call it -- because no one dares call it peace.”
In another report in Haaretz, reporting on the findings of a new book on social life in Israel, we read:
“For me, personally, Arabs are something I can’t look at and can’t stand,” a 10th-grade girl from a high school in the central part of the country says in abominable Hebrew. “I am tremendously racist. I come from a racist home. If I get the chance in the army to shoot one of them, I won’t think twice. I’m ready to kill someone with my hands, and it’s an Arab.”
It is in this context that a Palestinian actor is going to perform Shylock, a performance that brings to full circle a crocked human malady that had once laser-beamed on Jews, and now by a people with a claim on that memory, on Palestinians.
In an utterly brilliant reading of a new rendition of this passage towards the end of his ‘Shakespeare and the Jews‘, Shapiro rectifies the vindictive force of Shylock’s monologue (“If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example?”) by referring to a crucial scene in Israeli filmmaker Rafi Bokai’s ‘Avanti Populo‘when a thirsty Egyptian soldier is denied water by an Israeli officer.
In this dramatic encounter the Egyptian surmounts his own Arabic and his enemy’s Hebrew and ventures into a recitation in English Shylock’s line, “I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes?” Another Israeli soldier witnessing this literary allusion in the middle of a war says: “He has changed the parts.”
Shapiro, however, now a full length of a book after having documented the literary dimensions of European anti-Semitism, concludes: “It is an agonising confrontation, but also a liberating one for both Israelis and Egyptians, for the performance of Shylock’s speech enables the soldiers to transcend the vast differences that has until that moment separated them.”
The same is true with Makram Khoury performing Shylock, bringing the noble Palestinian cause to a full dramatic circle, by linking it to the lasting memory of Jewish suffering throughout the ages.