Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project
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Shylock Cover

Cover of Mark Leiren-Young's Play Shylock

Mark Leiren-Young

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Less about the character of Shylock than it is about censorship, Mark Leiren-Young’s play Shylock engages with the controversy surrounding modern stagings of The Merchant of Venice. Jon Davies, a character in Shylock, is an actor who has just finished the final show in a run of The Merchant where he played Shylock. Davies discusses and dramatizes both his portrayal of Shylock and the audience’s reaction to it. He does not perform Shylock sympathetically, as many modern stagings have done; instead, Davies argues that Shakespeare wrote Shylock as a villain when anti-Semitism was rampant in England. In the play, Davies responds to one critic’s accusation that he is a “self-hating Jew” with surprise, and he argues that theatre is supposed to be provocative.

While Shylock has generated considerable discussion, Leiren-Young has not been subjected to the harsh attacks that his character (Davies) suffers. Critical and popular reception to the piece has been overwhelmingly positive, and the script has been staged eight times across Canada and the United States. Reviews repeatedly praise the play’s direct engagement with the controversy around anti-Semitism in The Merchant. Leiren-Young is applauded for making “it clear what he thinks about the issues surrounding The Merchant of Venice,” while presenting “the controversy about its performance and censorship fully and fairly” (Keating).

The Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) has been actively engaged with the debate surrounding if and how to stage The Merchant. CASP is pleased to make available a study guide developed by the CJC for use with high school students studying The Merchant for the first time. Indeed, they have organized post-show discussions similar to the one dramatized in Shylock (see Daniel Roussell’s production Le marchand de venise). For another in-depth look at the character of Shylock, see Pierre Lasry’s N.F.B. documentary film Shylock in which he explores the history of Shakespeare's character Shylock within the larger context of anti-Semitism.

By presenting both creative and critical engagements with the issue of anti-Semitism in The Merchant, CASP seeks to encourage the discussion and debate that is clearly beneficial to resolving these complex issues. CASP’s archives record sixteen Canadian adaptations of The Merchant of Venice dating back to 1916. While some like Leiren-Young’s seek to stimulate the debate and controversy (see Tibor Egervari’s production Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice in Auschwitz), others attempt to resolve it (see Munroe Scott’s production Shylock's Treasure (A Reconciliation): A Comedy in Three Acts ). This range of ideological approaches and the fascination with Shylock’s ‘true nature’ provide fascinating windows on the politics of diversity in Canadian theatre.

Mat Buntin

John Huston playing the character of Jon Davies in costume as Shylock (2000).
Ron as Jon Davies

Ron Campbell playing the character of Jon Davies, a Jewish
actor criticized for his portrayal of Shakespeare’s Shylock (2002).

Link to “Finding the Right Stage for The Merchant of Venice,” a study guide prepared by the Canadian Jewish Congress to contextualize Shakespeare’s play for high school students.
Link to scenes from Pierre Lasry’s 1999 N.F.B. documentary film Shylock in which he explores the history of Shakespeare's character Shylock within the larger context of anti-Semitism.
Link to database

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