Anti-Semitic or not Panel probes Bard regarding Shylock

"I never thought I'd defend Shylock as the victim of 'Merchant of Venice' to a Presbyterian minister and a nun," joked actor Matt Henerson, turning to his co-panelists at a recent symposium.

It was one of the lighter moments during an in-depth discussion held at Reform Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael.

Upon introduction, Henerson — who portrayed Shylock in the Marin Shakespeare Company production last month of "Merchant" — evoked a loud round of applause from the audience. More than 75 people, ranging in age from infant to elderly, filled the room for the evening's discussion.

An enthusiastic and highly participatory crowd, they even broke out into applause for the temple's assistant maintenance engineer, Tihomir Brkic, when he successfully adjusted the five speakers' microphones.

Writer Doreen Stock, the Rev. Doug Huneke, Sister Samuel Conlin and Henerson were introduced by Robert Currier, the moderator and artistic director of Marin Shakespeare. For just over two hours, they tackled "Merchant," primarily focusing on Shylock the Jew and Shakespeare's intention in creating him.

"Was it to intentionally fan the flames of anti-Semitism or to subtly craft a play that mocks those who hate?" asked Huneke, pastor of Westminister Presbyterian Church in Tiburon. He thinks it's the latter.

Conlin, professor emirita in English at Dominican University in San Rafael, agreed. "We laugh at those who are supposed to be funny and are made uncomfortable by those who hold a mirror up to us."

In trying to "express disdain for organized religion," said Huneke, Shakespeare also presented an inaccurate picture of Christianity.

"The court [portrayed in Act 4, scene 1] was not biblical mercy," he said. "The 'justice' shown was inconsistent with anything we would consider Christian."

Huneke was referring to Antonio and Portia's entrapment of Shylock — who is seeking a pound of flesh from Antonio for a broken bond.

"Antonio is to Shylock what the Nazis were to Judaism — murderers of their souls," he said. "Ultimately, Shylock's soul is stolen from him and that is grossly in denial of the Christian Scriptures."

Henerson believes that during the court scene, the audience becomes more sympathetic to Shylock.

As the scene goes on, he said, "the laughter gets less and less."

"Is Shakespeare an anti-Semite?" he asked. "I don't know — there hadn't been a Jew in England since 1290. But at that point in the show, the audience's sympathies shift."

Why? Neither Henerson nor the theater company can take the credit, the actor said. "It ain't my fault. It ain't Bob's [Currier's] fault. It's Shakespeare. And it works time and time again."

Turning to the historical background of "Merchant," Stock discussed the conditions of 16th-century Venice, where Jews were forced to live in a ghetto.

"It's like Alcatraz, only a little bit closer to San Francisco," she said. "They could do their business by day, but were locked up by night."

In 1553, she said, all copies of the Talmud were burned: "It's interesting to try and cast our minds back."

It might have been the consistently unfair treatment of Jews that transformed Shylock into such an unlikable character, the panelists all agreed.

"He was a Jew, driven by the anti-Semitism of the time, to revenge," said Henerson.

But even today, Shakespeare's 1597 play comes with a stigma attached, said Courier. In fact, he said, it's a play that many directors and theater sponsors "won't touch."

They are not alone, said Henerson.

"'I'd be happy if the play was never done again,'" he remembered a Jewish colleague once telling him. The words have haunted the actor since.

"Oh my God, you're missing the point — the necessity," he said.

Huneke concurred and added: "In this kind of venue…we transcend some of the harm of what's been done [in terms of anti-Semitism] over the centuries. I don't believe the play should be censored because of ill will and the way people reacted.

"It's valuable today as a historic document. It shows what was, how we tolerate it today and how to build a future where all human beings are united."