The theatre where the Merchant of Venice 1936, which deals with British fascism, is being shown.
Image Credit: RSC

The Merchant of Venice 1936 and British fascism

This year’s theme for Holocaust Memorial Day was the fragility of peace, something heavy on the British Jewish consciousness in a climate where it often feels as if people have chosen to forget Britain’s proximity to the Holocaust with its own Fascist history. Tracy-Ann Oberman spoke on this tension with her adaptation of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, set in 1930’s East London, where her own grandma resisted Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists movement. This adaptation confronts the temptation to think of British fascist history as an ancient history, and furthermore a history disconnected from fascism on the continent.

Adolf Hitler’s forces never invaded Britain, so British Jews never got to see if their own police would arrest them, and their own neighbors would passively watch them murdered in their millions as they were from France all the way to Russia. Had Britain not resisted fascism and Nazi invasion so effectively, would there have been concentration camps on British soil and mass graves in the forest? Does it bear thinking about? The question may seem tasteless, but perhaps is the core way in which we should interpret this history and understand the Holocaust. The Holocaust was not a sudden eruption of hysteria in Europe, but a trajectory which played out on the foundation of hundreds of years of anti-Jewish scapegoating and hatred. What British Jews did see was the vitriol and violence of the rise of fascism in the 1930s, which was connected directly to the trend of German Nazi and Italian fascism on the European continent. Oberman powerfully brings these memories to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre stage, embedded within a 400-year-old play, itself the relic of anti-Jewish hatred.

Deeply embedded in the text of the Merchant of Venice is the antisemitism of middle Europe. Oberman takes on the role of Shylock, a religious Jewish money lender who strikes a dangerous deal with the play’s main character and hero. During the Middle Ages in Britain, Jews were restricted to the ‘un-Christian’ job of handling money, deriving a stereotype which has not yet ceased to be weaponized against modern Jews. Despite Oberman’s valiant attempts to redress this depiction of Jews, the venom of the original text is irreconcilable. The character of “the villain Jew” which continues to permeate literature (if not in less subtle ways), serves as the titular antagonist force to the heroes of the play. Oberman achingly draws this out of the script, forcing the audience to confront the meaning and implication of a story which rests on the unironic depiction of Jews as greedy, hateful, and bloodthirsty. A twisting and serotyping so profound that even the word ‘Jew’ seems to carry the wrath of an insult, as if it is incarnate of all bad and undesirable traits.

The rhetoric behind the hate and prejudice of Elizabethan England is not far removed from the rhetoric of the British Fascist movement. The audience see the evidence of this projected onto the stage: headlines from Mosley’s campaign of terror, the popular media’s support for the Fascist movement with the Daily Mail’s ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts’ headline. More flashes of newspaper archives show us the British Fascist party reaching half a million members, and Mosley’s calls to overthrow ‘Jewish bankers’ and reject Jews from British identity. Most haunting perhaps are the videos of the Blackshirt rallies, hundreds of men performing Hitler’s salute whilst dressed in fascist attire on the familiar streets of London.

In the shadow of this, Oberman recaptures Shylock not as a calculated villain, but a woman desperate to protect her family and identity as it is strangled by the rising tide of fascism. Seeing the play on Shabbat (Friday), Oberman and cast opened the play in her own voice, welcoming the audience and praying over the sacristy of Shabbat, as Jews across the UK would have been too in the ancient enduring Hebrew language. Oberman’s portrayal of Shylock transforms his lines from the twisted musings of a villain to the desperation of a woman whose life has been repeatedly marked by different waves of anti-Jewish hate which continues to hang over the British Jewish community.

“Thou call’dst me dog before thou hadst a cause;
But, since I am a dog, beware my fangs.” She declares stoically in the face of Antino, a British Fascist party member.

Shakespeare’s intention with writing Shylock’s character has been a long subject of debate. Many lines within the play suggest an empathetic recognition of Jews humanity.

“I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions?”, is poignantly written.

At the end of Shakespeare’s play, Shylock is ultimately forced to convert to Christianity as the other characters celebrate their happy endings: perhaps suggesting what Shakespeare may have considered justice to Jewish alterity. During Shakespeare’s lifetime, Jews were being forced to convert or flee Spain and Portugal en masse – the beginning of the Sephardic diaspora. Oberman denies this ending, instead depicting Shylock traveling to join the Cable Street protests, gripping with raised fist a banner reading “they shall not pass”. Leaving character for the final time, she credits the English and Irish working class, the then tiny Afro-Caribbean community, Trade Unionists, and other groups who stood with her grandma to confront and resist Mosley’s Blackshirts.

The Battle for Cable Street is often cited in Britain as the day that fascism was rejected, but does that mean it’s forgotten? British Holocaust survivor, Manfred Goldberg, who survived 3 concentration camps, lamented: “I never thought I’d see this antisemitism again”, in a recent interview. Many Holocaust survivors now residing in Britain echo the resounding sentiment that antisemitism they personally witnessed in their childhood is back in their neighborhoods once more. In contemporary discourse on fascism there is a tendency to forget that Jews are the primary scapegoat on which the fascist ideology is deeply predicated. Oberman’s production should remind us that we cannot abstract Jews out of this history, lest we fall back on the very hatred which is at the heart of this original text. So long as antisemitism is enduring, peace will be fragile.