Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project
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Graham Greene

Graham Greene as Shylock
Greene dons a yarmulke and prayer shawl for his role as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. (David Hou/Stratford Festival of Canada)

 

Links:

Audio interview with Graham Greene by Jian Ghomeshi on CBC Radio One's Q program, May 29th, 2007

CBC article: Native Empathy,Graham Greene tackles Shakespeare’s Shylock

The Toronto Star article: Much ado about Shakespeare's Shylock

Canada.com article: Graham Greene feeds fat his ancient grudge


Graham Greene
Graham Greene

At the Stratford Festival’s 2007 production of the Merchant of Venice, the casting of prominent and well-known First Nations actor Graham Greene as Shylock puts the marginalized and confined Jews of Renaissance Italy into a new Canadian context. Despite the differences in time and location, there are many parallels and connections that can be made between the two groups. “Shylock’s forced conversion to Christianity is not unlike the First Nations people being forced into Christianity,” notes Greene (Native Empathy). Greene also cites ongoing land disputes as evidence of “fundamental misunderstanding” not unlike those between the Christians and the Jews in the sixteenth century (Native Empathy). Shylock’s character has incited debate over whether Shakespeare’s play was intentionally racist, capitalizing on current stereotypes about Jews in both England and continental Europe, or whether the play exposes anti-Semitism for what is as a toxic social discourse.

The debate is further exacerbated by the fact that Shylock is frequently not portrayed sympathetically and that in many productions the audience empathizes with Gratiano, the most anti-Semitic character. These interpretive choices have played a major role in how Shylock is perhaps the most controversial role in Shakespeare’s oeuvre that has become the touchstone of literary racialized and racist discourse.

Greene, who has never acted Shakespeare professionally before, sees his character as a victim rather than a villain: “Shylock, he’s the one who gets boned, big time, he loses everything — his daughter, his money, his house. He’s completely reduced to nothing” (Native Empathy). In casting Graham Greene as Shylock, the 2007 Stratford production of The Merchant of Venice, establishes a deeper understanding of racial conflicts generally (especially in relation to long-simmering land claims disputes like those of Ipperwash and Caledonia) and demonstrates how systematic racism and the structures that give rise to it can be reinvented in and transposed to a familiar setting.

The casting of Greene as a First Nations character playing a Jew (much of the publicity for the production centered on this fact) may be seen as problematic in terms of how it reinforces racist stereotypes that feed on othering marginalized and persecuted peoples. At the same time the casting choice suggests an analogy between the racism experienced by Jews and First Nations peoples, which may lead to reductive, generalized notions of the very different circumstances surrounding how these groups have suffered the consequences of racism. Whatever, the interpretation, the casting of Greene led to further debate about racist discourse in a uniquely Canadian context.

Daniel Fischlin and Danielle Van Wagner

 

Links:

Audio interview with Graham Greene by Jian Ghomeshi on CBC Radio One's Q program, May 29th, 2007

CBC article: Native Empathy, Graham Greene tackles Shakespeare’s Shylock

The Toronto Star article: Much ado about Shakespeare's Shylock

Canada.com article: Graham Greene feeds fat his ancient grudge

 


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Fischlin, Daniel. Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project . University of Guelph. 2004.
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