Novelist Jonathan Franzen told Time Magazine why he does not write about race: ““If you have not had direct firsthand experience of loving a category of person – a person of a different race, a profoundly religious person, things that are real stark differences between people – I think it is very hard to dare, or necessarily even want, to write fully from the inside of a person.” Indeed to exercise one’s imagination beyond one’s personal experience requires daring. Such a daring feat I witnessed earlier this summer in Aaron Posner’s re-imagining of “The Merchant of Venice” in Reconstruction Era 1870 Washington DC, which daringly pits races, classes, and ages against one another in an emotional contest from which even the audience departs reeling.
The Capitol’s classical pillars are under construction in this Folger Library production powerfully directed by Michael John Garcés. It is subtitled an “Uneasy Comedy” because it ends in marriage, or at least marriage proposals, both accepted and left ambiguous. It wholeheartedly preaches more than tolerance, but understanding, curiosity, kindness, mercy, and love. This is not mere sentimentality. They are posed against the backdrop of Shylock, demanding his “pound of flesh,” to literally cut out the heart of his African American rival Antonio. Shylock screams out at the audience: “Do not judge me!” Yet we want to understand him — thanks to Posner’s daring as an artist. In some ways, Shylock as a character embodies a kind of mystery of evil, comparable to Iago, or Lady Macbeth. But while Iago is repellent, Shylock demands our respect, for his intelligence, his familial love, his religious allegience, but for perhaps most of all his defiance. Frankly, for me, Posner’s Shylock works better than Shakespeare’s. Shakespeare brings Shylock low, forcing him to convert. Posner’s Shylock is figure out of Dante’s “Inferno,” screaming his anger not only at society and humanity but at God.
This Folger Library production is filled with scene-stealing actors, charismatic performers perfectly cast and yet directed to serve Posner’s story. But really Matthew Boston ought to have his likeness carved in stone over-looking the Capitol. His performance elicits an entire spectrum of reactions from the audience. He is funny, smart, hateful, tender, tyrannical, disgusting, magnificent. This Shylock puts us in touch, gives us a glimpse, helps us understand a certain kind of human wrath that seems to haunt America now. It is an absurd, irrational, insane kind of hate. Antonio as an African-American Reconstruction-era political player is another figure who Posner fleshes out (forgive the pun) from Shakespeare’s mere outline. Craig Wallace’s Antonio is complex, sentimental, cynical, corrupt, dignified, and finally capable of confronting Shylock’s “madness.”
In this play, we are brought to the limits of the law, as well as the limits of reason. I am reminded of an essay written by Nobel Prize-winning novelist Orham Pamuk after September 11th when he observed Muslims celebrating the attacks in the streets of his home city of Istanbul. Pamuk recalled Dostoevsky’s “Underground Man,” who felt so humiliated, so hateful, that he would rather deny that 1 + 1 = 2 than accept, acquiesce to his own humilated condition. I am also reminded of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. The glory of Posner’s Shylock is that he, like a tragic protagonist designed by Aristotle, suffers his downfall and recognizes its source. He says he knew life was unfair. The Bible and all the great books had told him so. Yet he had allowed himself to hope that life might yet be fair to him. His tragic flaw was hope. This is a dark truth about the costs of American optimism. This is not an easy play. If Shakespeare had written it, it would be counted among his so-called “problem plays.” Posner calls it an uneasy comedy. It is funny, at points, very funny. It offers the prospect of happiness for some, a lucky and happy few. But it also shows the dark chasm of unmerciful, unfair, unfortunate life wherein most toil, and admonishes us who have eluded Shylocks’ fate, teaching us “There but for the Grace of God go I,” and telling us to savor, appreciate what good we have while we have it. All thanks to Posner’s daring.