‘I wish my whole Year 11 class could be here with us’, I said to my husband as we sat sipping wine in a Venetian café overlooking the Campo del Ghetto Nuovo a couple of weeks ago. ‘Have you taken leave of your senses?’ he enquired (only slightly less politely than that). We were about to watch a historic performance of The Merchant of Venice staged in the heart of the Venetian Ghetto: the first time the play has ever been performed there. The production, the work of an international cooperative, was thoughtful and complex. It grappled, as every production of the play must, with the issues of how we can, or even if we should, interpret the play in the 21st century. Putting on a play like this in a place with such resonance doesn’t lend itself to simplistic interpretation.
I first studied The Merchant in Venice as a 15-year-old schoolgirl in an Irish village in the 1970s. Back then I had only the haziest notion what Italy might be like, much less 16th century Venice. I had, in fact, only one point of connection with the play: through reading it I became conscious of my own suppressed Jewish heritage. The story resonated with me: my Jewish grandfather had been forced to agree bring his children up Catholic in order to be allowed to marry my grandmother. I was immediately on Shylock’s side; how could a person with feelings not be?
Thirty years later, sitting in the hot sun in the Venetian Ghetto I can still recite the play practically word for word along with the actors. Over the years, my feelings about the characters have shifted. Many of my students, like myself at the same age, feel passionate sympathy for Shylock. He is the underdog. Spat on, hated, insulted, robbed of his possessions and the love of his daughter. How can you not empathise with his desire to seek revenge on the smug self-righteous Antonio?
This would have been an easy interpretation of the play to present, but this production was far more nuanced and complex. No single actor portrayed Shylock: instead five different actors were chosen to play the character at different points in the play. The idea, according to the director was to ‘make him slip out of his single, unique skin to underscore how each one of us is indeed Shylock’. It was curiously effective. At the end of the play, all the Shylocks faced the audience and one by one asked the question: “Are you answered?”
Are we ever answered? I hope not. To keep on having new, questions, different questions, to probe deeper, to look harder, to see a new angle on an old debate – that’s what I want for my pupils. I want them, in 30 or 40 year’s time, to be watching a production of The Merchant of Venice and to say: “I still have questions but they are different questions”. If I can teach one lesson this year, I hope it is that questions are more interesting than answers. And that the more complex the text is, the more difficult it is to interpret, the better the questions we can ask of it. Cultural capital matters. If I hadn’t had to learn the play in school all those years ago, maybe I never would have found myself in the Campo del Ghetto Nuovo two weeks ago. I need to open those doors for my pupils too.
As another of my favourite tragically flawed characters tells his pupils: “Learn it now, know it now and you’ll understand it… whenever.”