Everyone needs a good lawyer. But Shylock, one of Shakespeare’s most historically fraught villains, is a special case. The Jewish moneylender at the center of The Merchant of Venice long ago escaped the Elizabethan text, finding a swampy home amid the dark menagerie of anti-Semitic tropes rattling around the Western id. On Sunday afternoon, Berkeley Law takes over Freight & Salvage to give the old usurer another shot at justice with The Shylock Appeal.
A live-action legal drama, the production features four actors from UC Irvine-based New Swan Shakespeare Festival performing key excerpts from the trial within The Merchant of Venice. UC Berkeley Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky and UC Irvine Law Dean Song Richardson serve as opposing counsel in a mock trial presided over by U.S. District Court Judge Andrew Guilford, while the audience sits as jury, concluding the piece with a vote on whether to convict or acquit Shylock.
Arguing for the prosecution, Chemerinsky holds that Shylock’s actions are indeed a crime, that the contract allowing him to extract “a pound of flesh” in recompense for Antonio’s debts cannot be justified. But he doesn’t downplay the treacherous world that shaped Shylock. “I talk about how he’s portrayed in an anti-Semitic way, but he acted inappropriately,” Chemerinsky says. “He did make a physical threat. The contract shouldn’t be enforced.”
When Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice there hadn’t been a Jewish community in England for 300 years. Expelled in 1290 by King Edward I, and not allowed to return in any numbers until Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth rule in the 1650s, Jews still loomed large and ghastly in the British imagination despite their absence. Directed by Eli Simon, the artistic director of New Swan, The Shylock Appeal pulls back Merchant’s lovers-in-disguise veil of comedy
“With my direction I’m showing the Venetians in a sense to be the deceitful and treacherous people that they are in the play,” Simon says. The first New Swan collaboration with Chemerinsky and Richardson was a spring 2018 trial of Hamlet for the killing of Polonius (“Hamlet was exonerated, which was a big surprise,” Simon says). They teamed up again last October in Irvine for the first Shylock Appeal. The Freight production is Shylock’s third bite of the apple “and it probably took three productions to feel like we got it,” Simon says. “Our Shylock is brilliant. He’s able to inhabit the character and doesn’t paint him as two-dimensional. Shylock has plenty of reasons to seek revenge.”
The production speaks to our present moment as anti-Semitism gains ground in the public sphere. The old hatred hit particularly close to home for Chemerinsky, who attended Irvine’s University Synagogue during his tenure as dean of UC Irvine Law. Not long after Chemerinsky started the position at Cal, 19-year-old University of Pennsylvania sophomore Blaze Bernstein, the son of fellow university congregants, was brutally killed. A former high school classmate, a member of the violent neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen Division, faces trial for the murder (one of at least five killings linked to Atomwaffen).
The larger issues at work in The Merchant of Venice and The Shylock Appeal resonate powerfully today in a number of directions, particularly with increasing efforts to mitigate the legacy and presence of racism in the American justice system. For Chemerinsky there’s “the question of whether could he receive a fair trial. And given what he did, should he be punished? I think it’s about bias and responsibility. What Song wants to do is talk about the bias in the community that led to an unfair trial in the first place.”
The seemingly indefatigable Chemerinsky seems to be everywhere these days, providing cogent commentary on issues large (the state of the Constitution post-impeachment) and small (Pete Rose’s lifetime ban from Major League Baseball). The question of historical memory has also played out on home turf as he’s been at the center of last month’s denaming of Boalt Hall. After extensive research into the writings of John Henry Boalt, a leading activist seeking to ban Chinese people from the United States, UC decided to strip his name from UC Berkeley School of Law’s main building.
In the coming months the law school is planning to install a plaque discussing Boalt’s role in the anti-Chinese movement and the decision to remove his name from the building, Chemerinsky says. Despite common usage, “the law school was officially never called Boalt, and there was no gift tied to the naming,” he says. “We have to remember the history. The question is how.”