We all want our voices to be heard. That's part of why I created this site. I wanted to get people talking, reflecting, remembering. It's a shame, to say the least, when our opinions or what we stand for are bent or slanted. It's also quite common. Sometimes this bending is an accident. It can also be done on purpose. Everyday people, different organizations, and powerful members of society have been known to ignore the words of others. They've also changed them to help themselves or to somehow hurt the speaker. From this point on, I will call this bending, slanting, and unfair changing “misrepresentation.” It is something that we are definitely dealing with here in the 21st century. Believe it or not, though, our friend William Shakespeare has suffered from it as well. What leaps to mind when we think of misrepresentation? Perhaps the Boston Tea Party or the saying that goes with it: “No taxation without representation.” More recent may be the movement led by a group known as “the 99 percent.” This, as far as I can tell, means the 99 percent of our society. In other words, it is most of the people, those in the underpaid working class. They speak out against too much taxation and believe the 1 percent, the rich people who get too many tax breaks, should have to pay at least as much as them They want help and they want to be heard. Based on what I've read, they think that, despite these desires, the government would rather ignore their protests. It also, according to the 99, comes up with explanations or laws that favor the better-off. I think this is a fair example of modern misrepresentation.
What does this have to do with Shakespeare? Well, the government might not be taking advantage of The Bard, but religious and political groups are. I read a New York Times article in the Opinion Pages a little while ago. It said that, as of February 10, 2012, Shakespeare's characters are still sparking controversy and giving insight into human nature. The most revealing character as of late is Shylock from “The Merchant of Venice.”
In honor of the Cultural Olympiad in London, 37 of Shakespeare's works are scheduled to be performed in the Globe Theater. All of them will be in different languages. The Cultural Olympiad is a large cultural celebration meant to inspire creativity and bring people together. It focuses on younger generations. (The following link will take you to a homepage: http://festival.london2012.com/index.php.) The only cultural performance to stir up trouble? “The Merchant of Venice.” It's supposed to be performed in Hebrew by the Habima Theater of Israel. Some insist that Shylock, described by many as a Jewish moneylender, cannot possibly practice Judaism as his faith. This is because revenge, a staple of the character's personality, does not agree with that religion. Quite understandably, they do not want audience members to see Shylock's major flaws and think that's how all Jewish people act.
Nor does this argument stand alone. Throughout Israeli history, many different versions of “The Merchant of Venice” have been performed. They are usually affected by changing Israeli identity and their place in the world. Other cultures, similarly, choose to show Shylock in a kinder light or as a villain. Some still see his existence and characteristics as an example of racism.
Either way, I think one of the greatest shames of all this is that Shakespeare is no longer around to defend his choices or characters. That, and his words have been used unfairly, to fuel racial discrimination. We cannot be sure why he made Shylock Jewish – if he is, in fact, Jewish. As a result of this silence, people judge Will's decisions. They change the way Shylock is seen and acted to satisfy others. Perhaps most unfortunate of all, they turn the entire play into an empty symbol at the mercy of our every whim.
What does misrepresentation mean to you?
What are other current examples of political, religious, social, or economic misrepresentation you've seen or heard about?
For those who have read “The Merchant of Venice,” what did you first think of Shylock? Did you feel sympathy for him? Did the way Shakespeare wrote him strike you as offensive?
How might Shakespeare defend his choices/depiction if he were alive today?
Based on your understanding of “The Merchant of Venice,” the character of Shylock, and what you've read here, do you think Shakespeare was reflecting society or influencing it?