On the cusp of the 17th century, themes of betrayal, bigotry and ethnic prejudice set the stage for what some would consider one of William Shakespeare’s signature works.
Shifting several centuries into the future, the story of “The Merchant of Venice” takes on new relevancy with the Holocaust of World War II, a historical parallel explored by theatre professor David Skeele.
This performance of Shakespeare’s classic is set in an alternate time period from the original play, and is directed by Skeele.
“We’ve set this in 1930s Italy,” Skeele said. “There was a real reason for it, I think, because of the anti-Semitism that’s expressed by some of the characters in the play. That needed to be dealt with in a fairly realistic manner. It’s a real problem that exists in the real world.”
Tension between Christians and Jews in Europe factors strongly into the drama of the play. Skeele said that the 1930s brings a familiar setting to the production, making the issues relevant to the modern audience.
“It’s known that Mussolini was not anywhere near as hard on the Jews as Hitler was, but it wasn’t always for lack of trying,” Skeele said. “There still were enough awful things that happened to Jews under Mussolini that it makes a good backdrop for imagining the show.”
The play’s antagonist is a Jewish man named Shylock, a bitter and vengeful loan shark.
“It’s a very problematic play in a lot of ways, because we’ve got this Jewish character Shylock who really is a pretty villainous character,” Skeele said. “It’s pretty hard to soft-peddle that, though some directors try.”
Skeele described the play as having old fashioned fantasy elements side-by-side with very realistic and relevant concepts.
“In some way it’s very old fashioned romantic comedy with some real fairy tale elements, yet in a lot of Shakespeare’s plays that old fashioned fairy tale stuff exists right next to very real gritty stuff,” Skeele said. “This is one of those plays where that’s true. I think all the stuff between the Christians and the Jews, all that kind of tension is at least as relevant as it was in Shakespeare’s day.”
In the role of the villainous Shylock is junior theatre major Nick Benninger. Sitting in the make-up chair getting the finishing touches to his false beard, Benninger spoke about his character.
“The play has been thought of as anti-Semitic before, but we just think about it as Shylock is a bad Jew,” Benninger said. “It’s not because he’s Jewish. He kind of lives his life by anger. He’s out to get revenge and not trying to think about reconciliation or anything like that.”
Benninger, 21, said that he has greatly enjoyed this production, though he found the role incredibly challenging.
“I was really scared of this part because it’s so … Shylock,” he said. “The accent was tough to get. I was afraid to sound generic. Plus, I’ve never had a character who talked so much before.”
Benninger said that he finds many parallels between Shakespeare’s play and our own modern lives and that he also found a connection with his character.
“It’s certainly relevant,” Benninger said. “There’s lots of parallels with bigotry. I connect with Shylock a lot because sometimes I feel like I’m too hateful to people who might not be the best people, but it’s not a good thing to have things coming from hate. You should try your best to be a good person.”
Theatre major Ethan Rochow, 21, will be starring as the lead role of Antonio.
“My character is, of course, the Merchant of Venice,” Rochow said. “He is the nicest character in the whole play essentially because he’s always helping people out. If they need money or something, they come to him and he helps them out.”
Rochow mentioned that the play deals with the issue of bigotry in more ways than one.
“People really tend to see, for example, my character really is a homosexual,” Rochow said. “In a way, in Shakespeare, it’s really not written that way, but if you really read the context of everything, it really does scream that he is homosexual. It really describes how much segregation there was and how much against homosexuality and Judaism they were, because it’s [the] 1930s and you have Hitler coming to power. But if you look at his character in here right now in real life, in a lot of ways, nothing would have changed.”
The “Merchant of Venice” being his third Shakespeare play, Rochow said with a laugh that Shakespeare never gets easier.
“It’s so interesting, because I’ve learned through acting and being in this major for four years that if you can do Shakespeare, you can do anything,” Rochow said. “Shakespeare has some of the most famous plays in history and to be able to be a part of one is an experience in and of itself.”
“The Merchant of Venice” debuted last night at 7:30 p.m. Future show times for the play are tonight at 7:30 p.m., March 4 at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and March 5 – 7 at 7:30 p.m.