"The Merchant" - A Historical Drama? Arnold Wesker`s Adaptation of William Shakespeare`s "The Merchant of Venice"

Term Paper, 2001
20 Pages
Sabine Kroh (Author)

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What is a historical drama? The Brockhaus Encyclopaedia gives the following definition:

Historisches Drama, Geschichtsdrama, Unterform der Gattung Drama. Das h. D. im weiteren Sinne gestaltet historische Themen und Stoffe quellentreu oder in künstlerisch freier Abwandlung, jedoch immer unter dem Aspekt des Eigenwertcharakters der Geschichte. Es wird zum h. D. im engeren Sinne, wenn die Handlung weniger durch historische Faktizität als durch eine bestimmte Geschichtsauffassung geprägt ist, d.h. der Veranschaulichung bestimmter Geschichte oder gewisser Tendenzen auf politischem, religiösem oder kulturellem Gebiet dient. (BROCKHAUS 1989, p. 112)

The aim of this essay is to discuss, whether Arnold Wesker’s THE MERCHANT might (according to this definition) be classified as a historical drama.

I chose THE MERCHANT, because I found it very fascinating and interesting for its story and density.

I will discuss why and how Wesker rewrote William Shakespeare's THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, how he brought history into his play and how he changed the Shylock character and the crucial bond scene. In my conclusion I will discuss whether Arnold Wesker succeeded in writing a historical drama or rather a play with recent application.

The quotations in Italics are taken from Arnold Wesker’s THE MERCHANT.


Wesker was rather upset about the character of Shylock in Shakespeare's THE MERCHANT OF VENICE. Being a Jew himself, he criticised the un-reflected and racist display of Jewishness."In 1973 I watched Sir Laurence Olivier perform the role of Shylock, the Jewish money lender, in Jonathan Miller's Victorian production at the National Theatre. Disappointingly the great actor offered an 'oi-yoi-yoi' Jew, a racial caricature, and I was powerfully reminded of the play's irredeemably anti-Semitic impact. [...] Here was a play which, despite the poetic genius of its author- or, who knows, perhaps because of it- could emerge as nothing other than anti-Semitic. [...] An audience, it seemed to me on that night, could come away with its prejudices about the Jew confirmed but held with an easy conscience because a noble plea for extenuating circumstances had been made. Forgive the poor Jew! See how human he really is, doth he not bleed? And if you spit on him of course he will murder. Not quite an eye for an eye, but flesh for phlegm. Perfectly understandable." (WESKER 1997, p. xv/xiv) Furthermore Wesker said: "At first I wanted to direct THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, so that it would emerge the way I understood it. But then I realised how much rewriting would have to be done. So I wrote a play using the same stories that Shakespeare used, but with reconceived characters as stepping-stones to a completely different peace of land." (Arnold Wesker in: WEINRAUB 1977, p.I.8)

The key scene for Wesker was the court scene when Shylock is told that he could not have his pound of flesh. He thought that a Jew would have reacted different from the Shakespearean one, so he took this scene at the end of the play as a starting point for his own and worked backwards to establish how Shylock got himself into that situation.

Wesker kept the outline with the three key scenes - the casket scene, Jessica's flight and the bond- and changed the rest rather radically. In contrast to Shakespeare's play, all three scenes happen in the second part of THE MERCHANT, whereas the first part of Wesker’s play is a stage to introduce the characters and the situation. The characters are much more colourful, some of them changed dramatically. A major change is the friendship between Shylock and

Antonio, something that would put the bond and the court scene in a completely different light. Jessica and Portia advocates for the "New women". They are well-educated, open-minded, and they don’t hide behind the men. They have to fight - in the end they lose, but they remain strong individual characters; Portia is even called “Shylock’s spiritual daughter and heir” (Alter 1988, p.545), meaning that she represents his Renaissance humanistic ideology and carries on his ideas. Critics moaned that the adaptation was not close enough to the original, that the language was to modern, that there was too much history included, and that the Shylock character was not dramatical enough. (cf. HEDBÄCK 1979)

Too much history?

While going through the text it is not hard to see that it is packed with historical facts, sometimes hidden, moreoften obvious.

The Characters

Beginning with the characters, it is to say that almost all of them were modelled after "real people": the Querini, Visconti, Pisani, Sanudo, Contarini and Priuli all were Venetian families of Gentiles. ZORZI lists twenty times the name of Querini, seventeen times Contarini, six times Pisani and Priuli and five times Sanudo. The most important were the Contarinis, as eight doges came from their family. (ZORZI1985: Index)

Solomon Usque and Rebecca de Mendes were modelled after real-life characters as well: Samuel Usque was a Jewish chronist and poet, born in Lisbon and well-known in Italy. He wrote a chronic about the Spanish Judaism up to the expulsions in 1492 and the establishment of the inquisition in Portugal. Parts of his work he dedicated to Gracia Mendes, mother of Joseph Nazi, duke of Naxos (cf. ENCICLOPEDIA UNIVERSAL ILUSTRADA. EUROPEO-AMERICANA 1929, p.55), model for

Christopher Marlowe's THE JEW OF MALTA., who helped persecuted Jews to escape from Portugal. When Shylock wants to show them some manuscripts, Usque says:"Signora Mendes is the collector, I only write them."(THE MERCHANT: I,4; p.206), which refers to their real- life connection.

Jews in Venice

A lot is said about the situation of the Jews in these times, be it Shylocks"Very exotic we are. We fascinate them all, whether fromEngland where they've expelled us, or Spain where they burn us."(I,3; p.200), when he talks about people coming from outside the Ghetto to watch Ghetto life or concerts, be it

JESSICA: Honours for you, work for me, and overcrowding for the Ghetto. Suddenly Venice is alive with Portuguese Anusim. RIVKA:Fleeing the Inquisition, child, what are you saying? (I,4; p.203),

which tells us that even within the Ghetto differences were made between Jewish groups of a different background. But what Venetian history of Jews is there?

Jewish settlements in the Veneto were found even in ancient times. Archaeological remains and sources testify the presence of Jews in Aquileia, Grado, and Concordia since the 4th and 5th centuries. Jews from the East and transalpine countries were the first to settle there, but, after 1492, many Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal also arrived. Small communities were created in the mainland near Padua, Treviso, Bassano, and Conegliano. From there, Jews began to move to Venice, where their residence was always precarious owing to the wavering policy of the Serenissima, which kept giving and withdrawing its permission to stay. Gradually, however, the number of Jews and the importance of the role they played in the life of the city kept growing. The Governor of the Republic, then, decided that the Jews had to live in only one area of the city and on 29 March 1516 a law decreed that that area was to be in the S. Girolamo parish and would be called "Ghetto Nuovo". Thus the first ghetto of Europe came into existence. (cf. Internet source No.1)

In the 16th and 17th century, the Ghetto experienced a rich cultural growth. Many Hebrew books were printed by Bomberg( Shylock: "And I have them, the greatest of them, each of them, starting 1519 to the last on June the 3rd,1523."(I,1; p.192) - Bomberg printed a 12- volume complete Talmud edition [cf.Meyers Grosses Universallexikon 1981, p.550]), Bragadin, Giustinian, and Vendramin; famous Rabbis, such as Leon da Modena ('Abtalion da Modena' in the play) and Simone Luzzatto, and distinguished poets (notably Sara Coppio Sullam) lived there. The five major Synagogues, as well as smaller study and prayer houses (midrashim), were built. The Jews from different ethnic groups ("nations") were in fact allowed to organise their communities ("Universities") but only for a small number of Jews, and each with an autonomous administration, an individual Rabbi and an individual synagogue. The oldest one, the Schola Grande Tedesca (German School) was built in 1528-29. The Schola Canton was founded by German Jews for their Ashkenazi ritual in 1531-32. Merchants from the East built the Schola Levantina (Levantine School) in the Ghetto Vecchio in 1538, and the Schola Spagnola (Spanish School) followed later in the century.

This history of synagogues in Venice is reflected in THE MERCHANT, when Roderigues Da Cunha shows Shylock his plans for the new Spanish Synagogue.

According to tradition, the word "Ghetto" comes from the Venetian word "geto" (pron. je-tto), indicating the site of a metal foundry. German Jews were the first to settle down here. The first area assigned to the Jews was called "Ghetto Nuovo" (New Ghetto) probably because there was a new foundry there, while there was an older foundry in the "Ghetto Vecchio" (Old Ghetto), assigned after 1541. Finally the "Ghetto Novissimo" (Newest Ghetto) was added to the area of settlement for the Jews in 1633. (cf. Internet Source No.1) The Jews had to remain in the Ghetto during the night, while two large gates closed the area off. Christian guards (paid by the Jews themselves) patrolled by boat the canals surrounding the Ghetto, blocking possible escapes. On March 29, 1516, the Venetian Council enacted the following decree:

Die Juden müssen alle gemeinsam in dem Komplex von Häusern wohnen, die sich im Ghetto bei San Girolamo befinden; und damit sie nicht die ganze Nacht umhergehen, sollen an jener Seite des Ghetto Vecchio, wo es eine kleine Brücke gibt, und gleichermassen an der anderen Seite der Brücke zwei Tore errichtet werden, dass heisst je eines für die genannten Orte. Jedes Tor muss morgens beim Klang der Marangona-Glocke geöffnet und abends um 24 Uhr durch vier christliche Wachen zugesperrt werden, die dafür von ihren Juden angestellt und bezahlt werden zu dem Preis, der unserem Kollegium angemessen erscheint. (SCHWANITZ 1997, P.70)

In Act I, Scene 7, Shylock has to leave Antonio's dinner table as the bells ring, the sign to return to the Ghetto.

The Jews of Venice were dependent on laws, their stay in the city was regulated by contracts, as Tubal points out in the play:

"Personally I depend upon no gentile but, misery is difficult to wear allweathers. We survive from contract to contract, not knowing if after five years it will be renewed, and if renewed whether it will be for another five, or ten or three but-"(I,4; p.207)

The Ahasver motif1 can be found in THE MERCHANT as well, the tale of the wandering Jew and the people without roots and home:

RODERIGUES :There speaks the eternal guest. (I,4; p.208)


LORENZO: I ask because so many of you come from here and there and everywhere.[...] It must be very difficult for your tribe to produce much of art or thought, as civilised nations do who have roots in territory. (I,7; p.227)

The Time

Why is the play placed in the year 1563? In this year, Hebrew publishing was allowed to resume after 10-year-period of hiding Jewish books in secret. In 1553, many Jewish books were being burnt on the Piazza San Marco (cf. SCHWANITZ 1997, P.73) and it was forbidden to possess any of them, as is also verbalised in Wesker’s play:

ANTONIO:So many books.

SHYLOCK: And all hidden for ten years. Do you know what that meantfor a collector? Ten years? Ha! The scheme of things! 'The Talmud andkindred Hebrew literature? Blasphemy!' they said, 'burn them!' Andthere they burned, on the Campo die Fiori in Rome, decreed by Juliusthe Third of blessed origin, August the 12th, 1553, a nd followed swiftly by our own and honoured Council of Ten in Venice. The day of the burning of the books.(I,1; p.192)

We also hear about the Inquisition:"In the last year the Coimbra Tribunal, which has jurisdiction over the Northern provinces of Portugal, has held thirty -five autos-da-fe drawn from different towns and villages of Traz-os-Montes and Beira alone"(I,4; p.204). The Torquemada in Spain started around 1480. When Rivka asks: "Are there still Jews in England?", Rebecca answers: "Hardly any. A clandestine existence."(I,4, p.206), which refers to the expulsion in 1492.

All these historical parallels make it easy to place the play in the right time and milieu.

A lot is said about Italian and Venetian history as well, be it Antonio's critical remark about the traders' nation of Venice:

"The most vital organs of our Empire are warehouses, ships' holds, barges and pack-horses. St Mark may be our architectural pride but it's a spiritual offering to hide our real gods Mercury and Neptune, the Gods of commerce and the sea! We're not even honest industrialists, we're simply importers and exporters, rich because the commerce of other people flows through us, not because we produce it ourselves. And as for Venice's sense of justice, it's to retain for her patricians the best opportunities for long-distance trade. Our motivesare opportunist and our power rests on a geographical accident, so let's have no nonsense about Venice being a second Rome."(I,7; p.229).

The same applies to Shylock's short introduction to recent Italian history:

"The land in three pieces, then [...] Watch in the north how the German Holy Roman Empire cracks, disintegrates. Watch the centre shake as the powerful families of Rome brawl among themselves and drive a weary papacy to Avignon for seventy years. Listen in the south, the noise of war! The French house of Anjou is fighting the Spanish house of Aragon [...] The northern half of the peninsular fragmented! And into what? Into what, gentlemen? City states! The magnificent city states of Milan, Genoa, Florence, Venice! The Empires have broken up, the papacy slunked off, and suddenly- every city is left to its own government [...] The Italians invent partnership agreements, holding companies, marine insurance, credit transfers, double-entry book-keeping. Progress!"(I,1; p.232)

We are witnessing the time of the Renaissance: after dark, belligerent times people rediscover old virtues from the Greek and Roman antique, its art, philosophy and literature:

SHYLOCK: [...]Suddenly- everybody can possess a book! And what books! The works of- Plato, Homer, Pindar, and Aristophanes,Xenophon, Seneca, Plutarch and Sophokles, Aristotle, Lysias,Euripides, Demosthenes, Thucydides, Herodotus [...] (I,7; p.232)

The printing press has been invented about a hundred years before by Johan Gutenberg, who is mentioned by Shylock, as well as Aldus Manutius, a Venetian printer who mainly edited Greek and Roman Classics mainly.

The massive historical connections in THE MERCHANT are sometimes overwhelming. Glenda Leeming claims that Wesker has been "positively overloaded with fascinating detail" (LEEMING 1983, p.130). This "overload" was one of the reasons for the National Theatre to reject the play. Michael Birkett said that"in a way we all found it too much, too big. [...] It's that it was big in the sense that it would really be more of a thirteen-part serial for TV, or a six-part, you know what I mean. A study of Shylock, then of Renaissance Venice, then the state of the Jews. It would be too much for an audience to take. And it was all so contemporary. You felt as though nothing had changed" (WESKER 1997, p.16/17) , upon which Wesker annotated: "When I encounter such a comment I immediately imagine a scene in a pub between Shakespeare and, say, Kitt Marlowe who's telling him that 'the problem with your Julius Caesar or Anthony and Cleopatra, Will, is that it's too contemporary, too Elizabethan, it doesn't feel Roman enough!'" (WESKER 1997, p.17)

Wesker put his heart into his"nearest approach to formal tragedy" (WILCHER 1991, p.122), he studied Cecil Roth's JEWS IN THE RENAISSANCE and HISTORY OF THE JEWS OF VENICE, as well as D.S. Chamber's THE IMPERIAL AGE OF VENICE 1380-1580; he even thought carefully about the smallest details: "Perhaps a little more research - on coffee. Was coffee drunk in Italy in 1560? Can it be a speciality which Shylock has brought back from the East - if coffee came from the East. I'd like to have a coffee-making scene to interweave with Shylock's story that I plan to have him tell about the Aldine Press..." (WESKER 1997, p.4/5)

Of course it is very easy to lose track of the actual idea, and Wesker was well aware of that: "Can see myself drifting more towards learning and study, away from creativity [...]" (WESKER 1997, p.4) But he finally resolves: "It is a dense play, full of ideas, but it flows, it has narrative, and it's funny."(WESKER 1997, p.81)

But on the other hand, "it is crucial for the audience (and for Wesker as well, I suspect) to be able to validate the truth of the authorial vision through verificable fact and documentary evidence, even when the amassing of such information in the text occasionally impedes dramatic development." (ALTER 1988, p.538).

Shylock, Antonio and the Bond

"All the productions I've seen of THE MERCHANT OF VENICE have failed to hide the message which insists on coming through clearly and simply. No matter with what heavy tragedy the actor plays the role, no matter how thuggishly or foolishly the Venetians are portrayed, no matter in what setting...the image comes through inescapably: the Jew is mercenary and revengeful, sadistic, without pity."(Wesker in: ALTER 1988, p.536)

For Wesker, it was clear that the figure of Shylock had to be re- modelled. He made him an open-minded man with a humanistic attitude, representing the spirit of the Renaissance. Wesker's Shylock is well-educated, high-spirited, with a deep knowledge of Italian/Venetian history and a special interest in books. He even has a family background, which makes him more real and credible: "I descended from German Jews, you know. My grandparents. Grubby little things from Cologne. Came to Venice as small-time money lenders for the poor. But my parents- they tried a new profession. Very brave. Second-hand clothing!"(I,7; p. 227) Furthermore the Weskerian figure, unlike Shakespeare's Shylock, is a public figure, known in the Ghetto and highly regarded:"They talk, you see, Antonio! I'm a name in my community. From nobody to somebody, a name!"(I,4; p.205) Knowledge is everything to him, whereas money is of no importance. Jessica says:"My father is an intellectual snob. Every passing scholar or Rabbi or eminent physician has to dine at his table. Some men fawn before crowns, he before degrees."(I,4; p.201) But she has profited as well:

she is educated, her father could afford to let her have all the teachers and scholars she could have, because"he wanted to provethat daughters could achieve the intellectual stature of sons"(I,4; p.203), as Rivka puts it.

Shylock always appears to be jolly and good-humoured, but often this is just a way of self-deception: no matter how intelligent and striving and modern Shylock is, he is walled-in in the Ghetto, restricted by the Venetian law, oppressed for his belief. He tries to deny his circumstances by gaining knowledge and gather friends in his house. Knowledge for him means power, intellectual power:

Knowledge, like underground springs, fresh and constantly there, till one day- up! Bubbling! For dying men to drink, for survivors from dark ages and terrible times. I love it! When generals imagine their vain glory is all, and demagogues smile with sweet benevolence as they tighten the screws of power- up! Up bubbles the little spring. Bubble, bubble, bubble! A little, little lost spring, full of blinding questions and succulent doubts. The word! Unsuspected! Written! Printed! Indestructible! Boom! I love it!

(I,7; p.233)

Here Wesker seems to have brought in some personal concern, for in his autobiography he says: "Like most Jews, I'm manic about the need for education and the value of knowledge. We fear ignorance as a cesspit breeding inferiority complexes out of which creeps hatred of what is unknown, mob violence against what is different."(WESKER 1994, p.130)

But Shylock is (almost) alone with his humanism, his Jewishness is the one thing at which people look mostly, the outside world is still trapped in prejudices and malice. The small world he created for himself within the walls of the Ghetto doesn't go any further. He doesn't want to see that, as his friendship with Antonio proves something different, but Rivka, his sister, is much more realistic:

"Oh Shylock, my young brother. I've watched you, wandering away from Jewish circles, putting your nose out in alien places. I've watched you be restless and pretend you can walk in anybody's streets. Don't think I've not understand you; suffocating in this little yard, waiting for your very own scholar to arrive. It made me ache to watch you, looking for moral problems to sharpen your mind, for disputations - as if there weren't enough troubles inside these peeling walls. But you can't pretend you're educated, you're not an alien or that this Ghetto has no walls. But you can't pretend, pretend, pretend! All your life! Wanting to be what you're not. Imagining the world as you want."(II,3; p.242)

ZIMMERMANN puts it as follows: "Shylock's utopian thinking makes him misconstrue social reality by his wishful anticipation of change. His vision makes a hostile reality bearable for him." (ZIMMERMANN 1882, p.64)

Wesker made Shylock and Antonio friends. Antonio appears as the world-weary, bitter merchant. In a way he envies Shylock for what he has, compared to himself:

"Those books. Look at them. How they reminded me what I am, what I've done. Nothing! A merchant! A purchaser of this to sell there. A buyer up and seller of. And do you know, I hardly ever see my trade. I have an office, a room of ledgers, and a table, and behind it I sit and wait till someone comes in to ask have I wool from Spain, cloth from England, cotton from Syria, wine from Crete. And I say yes, I've a ship due in a week, or a month, and I make a note, and someone goes to the dock, collects the corn, delivers it to an address, and I see nothing. I travel neither to England to check cloth, nor Syria to check cotton. I haven't even the appetite to visit the lovely island of Sante to inspect the raisins, or Corfu to see that the olive oil is cleanly corked, and I could steel time for myself in such places. It never worried me,this absence of curiosity for travel. Until I met you, old Jew-"

(I,1; p.194)

But Antonio "lives" through Shylock, they care for each other, very much unlike in Shakespeare’s original, where they were enemies. Antonio even knows Jewish traditions, as he orders not to serve pork when Shylock is invited to dinner, and carefully hands him his yellow cap when Shylock has to return to the Ghetto after dinner. When he asks Shylock for the money, he is more than welcome to be given it. Shylock is willing to give the money to Antonio as a token of their friendship, even wanting to give him more than is required, which shows his attachment toward Antonio - money has lost ist value; but it is Antonio who insists on the bond for "security reasons", as he knows the Venetian law and the willingness of the Venetian mob to take on the Jews for any reason:"Therefore you, of all peoples, have need of that respect of the law. The law, Shylock, the law! For you and your people, the bond-in-law must be honoured!"(I,4; p.215) Shylock in his usual manner mocks the bond:"Barbaric laws? Barbaric bonds! Three thousand ducats for a pound of your flesh. [...]'A nonsense bond? My flesh?' Yes. If I am not repaid by you, upon the day, the hour, I'll have a pound of your old flesh, Antonio, from near the part of your body which pleases me most- your heart. Your heart, dearheart, and I'd take that, too, if I could, I'm so fond of it"(I,4; p.216) None of them takes the bond seriously, it is just something written on paper to conform with the law.

"Antonio: They mock our friendshipShylock: -we mock their laws."

(I,4; p.216)

But the Venetian law takes its tolls: When the bond is due to be forfeited, Shylock suddenly finds himself in a position between a rock and a hard place and carries a very heavy weight on his shoulders: On the one side there are his people, who will be in great danger should he fulfil the bond's demands and murder his Christian friend - the mob would be delighted to have their revenge ; on the other hand there is the law which has to be upheld.

Wesker kept Shylocks speech - 'Hath not a Jew eyes?'- in the play, but this time it is spoken by Lorenzo. That way it is an attack on Shylock's humanity and has a degrading effect. In THE MERCHANT OF VENICE the words are used to underline Shylock's equality, in THE MERCHANT they are being ridiculed. What was meant to be a defense speech, sounds like mockery. Therefore Shylock gets upset and shuts Lorenzo up:

"I do not want apologies for my humanity. Plead for me no specialpleas. I will not have my humanity mocked and apologised for. If I amunexceptionally like any man then I need no exceptional portraiture.[...] My humanity is my right, not your bestowed and graciousprivilege."(II,5; p.259)

This is an attack and critic on the Venetian society's view, which was pointed out by Antonio before:

You are a Jew, Shylock. Not only is your race a minority, it is despised. Your existence here in Venice, your pleasures, your very freedom to be sardonic or bitter is a privilege, not a right.

(I,4; p.215)

Antonio makes his point, criticising about the hypocrisy of the people and their so beloved law:

"The usurer's a Jew, and the Jew the people's favourite villain.Convenient! Easy! But the Jew pursues what he hates to pursue inorder to relieveusof the sin. Usury must exist in our city, for we have many poor and our economy can't turn without it. Do we condemn theJew for doing what our syste m has required him to do?"

(II,5, p.258)

The Jew is just the scapegoat to relieve peoples' conscience from being burdened. The ideals of the new era, the turning to tolerance is defeated by the here presented Venetian people’s stubborn belief in their old laws. Merchants are not much unlike usurers in what they do, and in former times merchants and usurers were being accused of committing the same sin, but the Venetian court ignores that generously.

Portia steps in (like in the original), but this time undisguised. She argues like in THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, with the same result. Instead of loosing his possession, Shylock is to lose his books, which for a bibliophile is even worse. Shylock gives in to this condition and heads of for Jerusalem. Here Wesker inserted a Sephardic Song, which stresses Shylock's tragic situation and loss: "Adio Querida", which was taken from Verdi's "Addio del passato", an aria from Aida: it says "Farewell, my love, I don't want life, you made it bitter for me. Go and find yourself some other love, knock at other doors, hope for some other ardour, for to me you are dead."2

This corresponds in a way with Shylock's last words:

"Join those other old men on the quaiside, waiting to make a pilgrimage, to be buried there [...]My heart will not follow me, wherever it is. My appetites are dying, dear friend, for anything in this world." (II,5; p.264)

Like in THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, he is the tragic figure of the play, but this time he is even more tragic, as his loss means a loss of tolerance and humanism/humanity as well: "Shylock transforms a legal contract into a bad containing a clause which no humane individual could enforce, nor honourable society execute. In this way, the law of Venice will have to concede the legitimacy of the obligations and affections incurred by recognising the common humanity of Christian and Jew. But the law of Venice can only acknowledge the validity of the contract, whatever the conditions." (ALTER 1988, p.543/44)


Alan Sinfield wrote: "Despite Wesker being an established playwright, it took him two years to get a British production of his challenging THE MERCHANT; and then it was at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre- a historic and worthy venue, but not very prestigious. Of course, Wesker like Shylock and Antonio with their bond, meant THE MERCHANT to be an embarrassing text for British culture to handle; but like Shylock, he found that there is a penalty for such exploits." (SINFIELD 1988, p.142)

Is Arnold Wesker's much discussed and love -hated THE MERCHANT a historical drama?

It surely follows the rules: it is placed in a certain era, which Wesker realises by bringing up people living and events taken place at that time. It is based on a historical figure: Shylock is not a real-life character, but I think that is no criteria for exclusion and does not need to be discussed as his figure is part of our general knowledge. He is the tragic figure needed for a drama, along with Jessica and Portia. In terms of historical facts, he kept clearly to the sources. As to Shylock, he changed this character almost completely. The display of the revengeful figure in Shakespeare’s is transformed into a figure that seems to far more authentical, a tragic figure to feel compassionate for for the right reasons: not because he was a “poor Jew”, but a man oppressed by his time and the law he depended on. So, according to the definition mentioned in my introduction, THE MERCHANT is a perfectly legitimate historical drama.

But I think that the play and the play's characters and story can be easily applied to our time or events not to long ago, especially the Holocaust: be it the expulsion of a people, be it the ignorance or malice of another, be it the accusation of a "Jewish plot"- very well applicable. And when Shylock is told that an example needs to be set and Shylock has to hand in all his books, because the people of Venice would not understand otherwise, his words sound like from recent times:"What strange things happen behind the poor people's name."(II,5; p.262)

In my opinion Wesker succeeded in writing both a historical drama and a modern stage play.


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WESKER, ARNOLD. As much as I dare: an autobiography (1932-1959). London: Century 1994.

WESKER, ARNOLD. The Birth of Shylock and the Death of Zero Mostel. Diary of a Play 1973 to 1980. London: Quartet Books 1997.

WESKER, ARNOLD. The Merchant. In: Plays, Volume 4. The Journalists/The Wedding Feast/ The Merchant. Harmondsworth: Penguin 1980.

WILCHER, ROBERT. Coming to Terms: The Old ones, The Wedding Feast and the Merchant/Shylock. In: Understanding Arnold Wesker. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press 1991. pp. 117-31.

ZIMMERMANN, HEINER O. Arnold Wesker and the Desire for Utopia: Utopia's Enemies and Wesker. In: Arnold Wesker. A casebook. Ed. By READE W. DORNAN. New York and London: Garland Publishing Inc. 1982.

ZORZI, ALVISE. Venedig. Die Geschichte der Löwenrepublik. Düsseldorf: Claasen Verlag GmbH 1985. Personenindex.

Internet Sources:

1. Historical notions. www.doge.it/ghetto/indexi.html
2. Adio Querida. http://hometown.aol/com/kleynelider/myhomepage/index.html

Picture on Front:

The Merchant, New York, 1977. In: Glenda Leeming, 1983


1Ahasver was condemned to wander the world forever , after he refused Jesus food and shelter on his way to Crucifixion. Ahasver has been a representative of exile ever since.

2Tu madre cuando te pario/y te quito al mundo/corazon ella no te dio/para amar segundo./ Adio, adio querida/ no quero la vida,/me l'tomastes tu./ Adio, adio querida/no quero la vida,/ me l'amargastes tu./ Va buxcate otro amor/aharva otras puertas, aspera otro ardor, que para mi sos muerta. (cf. Internet Source No.2)

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"The Merchant" - A Historical Drama? Arnold Wesker`s Adaptation of William Shakespeare`s "The Merchant of Venice"
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Merchant, Historical, Drama, Arnold, Wesker`s, Adaptation, William, Shakespeare`s, Venice
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Sabine Kroh (Author), 2001, "The Merchant" - A Historical Drama? Arnold Wesker`s Adaptation of William Shakespeare`s "The Merchant of Venice", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/102886


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