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Shylock’s Shadow: Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and the Nazi takeover of theatres

In 1933, the Nazi Party sought to control every aspect of German culture, including theatre. Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice was appropriated by the Ministry of Propaganda to spread antisemitic propaganda.

Introduction

Shylock has long captivated both audiences and academics. He is a remarkably complex character and has been rewritten and reimagined in countless ways. The antisemitic abuse and discrimination that Shylock experiences throughout The Merchant of Venice brings no surprise that the play was favoured by the Nazis.

Shylock and Jessica from The Merchant of Venice by Gilbert Stewart Newton, 1830. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Merchant of Venice was incredibly popular when the Nazi Party seized control of Germany. In 1933, the year Hitler became the chancellor of Germany, the play was ‘performed at least eighty-six times’ [i]. In November 1938, a ‘radio version of the play was broadcast during Kristallnacht’ [ii].

The Reich Theatre Chamber attempted to use The Merchant of Venice to promote antisemitic portrayals of Jewish people. However, as the blog post will highlight, the Nazis found rendering Shylock a cruel and merciless villain somewhat challenging.

For a plot summary of The Merchant of Venice click here.

The Reich Theatre Chamber

In March 1933, ‘the Reich’s Ministry for Enlightenment of the People and for Propaganda (REPP) was founded’ [iii]. Led by Joseph Goebbels, the REPP sought to control all aspects of German culture including literature, music, film and theatre. In August 1933, the Reich Theatre Chamber was created. According to Professor Rodney Symington, the Reich Theatre Chamber ‘attempted to dictate the selection, production style, acting style, critical reception and scholarly interpretation of all plays’ [iv]. The Nazi takeover of theatres was swift and calculated. By May 1934, ‘the Reich’s Theatre Act was passed,’ which granted the Nazi Party ‘the legal authority to intervene in their repertoire and to order or ban performances’ [v]. Consequently, the Nazi Party gained complete control over German theatres within ‘the space of a year’ [vi].

The Nazi Party banned almost all non-German playwrights apart from Shakespeare. In fact, many Nazis admired Shakespeare because they believed his plays captured a ‘feel for racial purity’ [vii]. The Reich Theatre Chamber interfered with the production of several Shakespeare plays with the intention to promote Nazi ideology in theatres. The Merchant of Venice, most notably, was utilized to ‘enlighten people about the nature and dangers of Jewry’ [viii].

Joseph Goebbels, Reich Minister for Propaganda.

Shylock and the Nazis

A play about a nefarious Jewish usurer, adamant on exacting revenge on Christians, brought to justice and punished, would have been an ideal play for the Nazis to utilize. However, portraying Shylock as the villain in The Merchant of Venice proved to be substantially difficult. In 1938, the Reich Theatre Chamber raised several issues about the play, including scenes that portrayed Shylock as a victim and the interracial marriage of Lorenzo and Shylock’s daughter Jessica. Shakespeare’s depiction of Shylock’s suffering, caused by the Christians who stole his daughter, home and wealth, makes Shylock an undoubtedly sympathetic character. For the Nazis, this ignited ‘major problems with the play’ and rendered it ‘completely unpalatable to an antisemitic regime’ [ix].

“Signor Antonio, many a time and oft

In the Rialto you have rated me

About my moneys and my usances:

Still I have borne it with a patient shrug,

(For suff’rance is the badge of all our tribe)

You call be misbeliever, cut-throat dog,

And spat upon my Jewish gaberdine,

And all for use of that which is mine own […]

You that did void your rheum upon my beard,

And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur” [x].

To counteract Shylock’s portrayal as a tragic hero, the Reich Theatre Chamber made drastic changes to the play’s characters and plot.

Censoring the Bard

The Reich Theatre Chamber made ‘several proposals…in the attempt to render the play more acceptable for performance’ [xi] under the Nazi regime. The Chamber began by eliminating any lines that praised Shylock or portrayed him as a sympathetic character. It is believed that ‘over 100 lines were…affected’ [xii] by these alterations. According to Zeno Ackermann, the Ministry of Propaganda’s ‘most drastic change…was to delete…Shylock’s famous monologue in act 3, scene 1’ [xiii] in which Shylock addresses the hypocrisy of the Christian characters and demands to be treated with respect and humility:

“He hath disgrac’d me, and hind’red me half a million, laugh’d at my losses, mock’d at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies, – and what’s his reason? 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? – if you prick us do we not bleed? if you tickle us do we not laugh? if you poison us do we not die? and if you wrong us shall we not revenge?” [xiv]

In addition to removing large portions of dialogue, and even entire scenes, from the play, the Reich Theatre Chamber also made significant changes to Shylock’s daughter Jessica. In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Jessica runs away with Lorenzo and converts to Christianity before marrying him. This marriage would have been shocking to a Nazi audience, as the mixing of ‘Lorenzo’s Aryan blood…with Jessica’s Jewish blood’ [xv] was strictly ‘against the basic tenants of the Third Reich’ [xvi].

Shylock’s House, Jessica and Lancelot, print by Robert Smirke, engraved by Peter Simon, 1795. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

One solution the Reich Theatre Chamber proposed was to ‘have Jessica abandon Lorenzo’ by ‘[returning] to the ghetto to assist her father’ [xvii]. This way, their interracial marriage would be prevented. Another suggestion was to alter the dialogue or write additional lines that would ‘make it clear Jessica was adopted’ [xviii], thereby disproving ‘her credentials as racially full-blooded “Jewess”’ [xix].

Shylock as antisemitic propaganda

Nazi Productions of The Merchant of Venice attempted to depict Shylock as a comic villain and antisemitic caricature. The most famous example is the 1943 production of The Merchant of Venice at Burgtheatre in Vienna. Starring Werner Krauss as Shylock, the Jewish moneylender was depicted as a grotesque figure described as ‘demonic’ [xx]. Wearing a ‘bright ‘red wig and exaggerated beaked nose,’ [xxi] Krauss frantically ‘[scurried] back and forth’ the stage uttering incoherent ‘gurgles, grunts and squarks’ [xxii]. One theatre reviewer recounted Krauss’ depiction of Shylock as ‘something revoltingly alien…[creeping] across the stage’ [xxiii].

1943 production of The Merchant of Venice. Credit: The British Library

Conclusion

Today, Shylock is a character that audiences view as a tragic hero. As a victim of antisemitic abuse and discrimination, we understand Shylock’s rage and lament in his suffering. The Nazis made drastic changes to The Merchant of Venice, eliminating any lines that portrayed Shylock as a human being deserving of decency and respect. However, the Reich Theatre Chamber’s struggle to remove Shylock’s humanity shows that Shylock is truly a rich and complex character but always, invariably, human.

Aimie Allen – 06/09/2023

Aimie Allen is a postgraduate student at The University of Huddersfield, currently studying an MA English Literature. This blog post was written as part of an assignment for the module ‘Literature and Engagement’ which explores how Shakespeare’s plays have been adapted in a range of historical and geographical contexts.

Further Reading

Bonnell, A. G. (2020). Shylock in Germany. Bloomsbury.

London, J. (2000). Theatre Under the Nazis. Manchester University Press.

Symington, R. (2005). The Nazi Appropriation of Shakespeare: Cultural Politics in the Third Reich. Edwin Mellen Press.

References

[i] Horowitz, A. (2007). Shylock After Auschwitz: The Merchant of Venice on the Post-Holocaust Stage – Subversion, Confrontation, and Provocation. Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory, 8(3), 7-19. p. 13.

[ii] (Ibid)

[iii] Bergus, G. (1996). Fascism and Theatre: Comparative Studies on the Aesthetics and Politics of Performance in Europe, 1925-1945. Berghahn Books. p. 140.

[iv] Symington, R. (2005). The Nazi Appropriation of Shakespeare: Cultural Politics in the Third Reich. Edwin Mellen Press. p. 45.

[v] Bergus, G. (1996). Fascism and Theatre: Comparative Studies on the Aesthetics and Politics of Performance in Europe, 1925-1945. Berghahn Books. p. 140.

[vi] (Ibid)

[vii] Horowitz, A. (2007). Shylock After Auschwitz: The Merchant of Venice on the Post-Holocaust Stage – Subversion, Confrontation, and Provocation. Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory, 8(3), 7-19. p. 13.

[viii] Bonnell, A. G. (2020). Shylock in Germany. Bloomsbury. p. 154.

[ix] Symington, R. (2005). The Nazi Appropriation of Shakespeare: Cultural Politics in the Third Reich. Edwin Mellen Press. p. 145.

[x] Shakespeare, W. (2003). The Merchant of Venice. Ed. J. R. Brown. The Arden Shakespeare. p. 27-28, 1.3.101-113).

[xi] Symington, R. (2005). The Nazi Appropriation of Shakespeare: Cultural Politics in the Third Reich. Edwin Mellen Press. p. 248.

[xii] (Ibid)

[xiii] Makaryk, I. R., & Mchugh, M. (2012). Shakespeare and the Second World War: Memory, Culture, Identity. University of Toronto Press. p. 41.

[xiv] Shakespeare, W. (2003). The Merchant of Venice. Ed. J. R. Brown. The Arden Shakespeare. p. 73, 3.1.52-60.

[xv] Horowitz, A. (2007). Shylock After Auschwitz: The Merchant of Venice on the Post-Holocaust Stage – Subversion, Confrontation, and Provocation. Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory, 8(3), 7-19. p. 14.

[xvi] London, J. (2000). Theatre Under the Nazis. Manchester University Press. p. 246.

[xvii] Horowitz, A. (2007). Shylock After Auschwitz: The Merchant of Venice on the Post-Holocaust Stage – Subversion, Confrontation, and Provocation. Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory, 8(3), 7-19. p. 14.

[xviii] London, J. (2000). Theatre Under the Nazis. Manchester University Press. p. 246.

[xix] Horowitz, A. (2007). Shylock After Auschwitz: The Merchant of Venice on the Post-Holocaust Stage – Subversion, Confrontation, and Provocation. Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory, 8(3), 7-19. p. 14.

[xx] Bonnell, A. G. (2020). Shylock in Germany. Bloomsbury. p. 162.

[xxi] Horowitz, A. (2007). Shylock After Auschwitz: The Merchant of Venice on the Post-Holocaust Stage – Subversion, Confrontation, and Provocation. Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory, 8(3), 7-19. p. 14.

[xxii] Bonnell, A. G. (2020). Shylock in Germany. Bloomsbury. p. 162.

[xxiii] (Ibid)

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