Apr 16, 2024

Portraying Otherness in Modern Adaptations of Shakespeare for School Students

"An opportunity to teach tolerance wasted?" asks Amelie Lundskog.

Amelie LundskogContributing Writer

The Mill Theatre in Dundrum put up a shortened, modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice directed by Geoff O’Keefe between February and March with a target audience of third-year secondary school students from all over Ireland. The audience, made up almost exclusively of teenagers around fourteen, were studying the Shakespearean play for their upcoming Junior Certificate in June. The director and cast attempted to alter aspects of the play in order to clarify the ambiguities in the text to accommodate the audience. Many of these strategies come off as humorous and physical comedy is emphasised on stage. However, any play largely focused on depicting the Other carries much responsibility, especially in a time where identity defines our privilege and role in society to a large extent. O’Keefe’s production of The Merchant leaves little room for critical debate for the audience, who are instead guided clearly through the mess between Christians, Jews and foreign people in Venice. 

Having the option in the curriculum to study The Merchant of Venice is an opportunity for students to grapple with the controversies of racial prejudice in Shakespeare and to bring these questions to a contemporary light. O’Keefe has consciously created a modern adaptation which features a mobile phone in addition to game show-like sound and light effects, giving the production an excellent opportunity to comment on contemporary issues of Othering and xenophobia. The portrayal of Shylock, his Jewishness and fate in society after lending his money to Antonio is particularly important in this endeavour. Unfortunately, costuming, lighting and performance simplify the radically important question of whether Shylock is a villain who uses the law to express his greed, or whether he has a genuine right to these claims in society. Instead of portraying the Christians on stage as equals to Shylock, a huge rift in cultural, economic and social standing is established. The portrayal of the foreign princes from Morocco (Aaron Katambay) and Aragon (Ruairi Lenaghen) is written off as a comedic bit to lighten the mood. The production endorses stereotypical ideas about money-grabbing Jewish people and greed, and unfortunately makes very little attempt to redeem any of this. 

The play opens with dark lights and loud, eerie music showing one man on his knees on centre stage, praying with a hat on his head and long garments falling down his sides. The rest of the cast surrounds the man, only visible in silhouette, standing perfectly still, showing the separation between the Jewish prayer ritual and the Christian everyday life in Venice. When Act I opens, we are introduced to Antonio (Ruairi Lenaghen) and Bassanio (Benjamin Reilly) who are discussing the source behind Antonio’s sadness. The lights, designed by Kris Mooney, are colourful and inviting. The audience is dragged into the relationship between the men and there is a sense of intimate fraternity between all the male characters, further established when Gratiano (Adrian Muykanovich) and Lorenzo (Ethan Dillon) enter with dancing. When Shylock (Malcolm Adams) enters, the lights go darker and provide a strong sense of separation between the Christian men and the Jewish person on the stage. From the start, the audience is not invited to understand Shylock and instead we become psychologically alienated from him. He is a lonely presence on stage – the sole representative of the whole Jewish community.  


Lighting stands out once again in the riveting court scene that has the audience on their toes. Shylock is cornered by the seven Christian men on stage and can be heard mumbling almost incoherently and sharpening his knife to cut off one pound of Antonio’s flesh as punishment for his debt. The old man is battered, but is protected by the law until Balthasar (Karen Kelly) finds a loophole in the law, allowing Antonio to go free. Once again, eerie music and dark lights intensify the villainous presence of Shylock on stage. Both Gratiano and Antonio spit at Shylock, and before he is expelled from Venice, Antonio throws off his hat resembling a Kippah, representing the forceful removal from his Jewish faith. In the last scene, when four couples are happily married in Belmont, the lights return to colour. They have been saved from the evil Shylock in Venice and the end is generically comedic but, disappointingly, leaves no redemption for the prejudice shown towards Shylock. Instead, the audience sympathises completely with the Christian men on stage and can breathe out, for the Jewish person has been dealt with. 

The costumes, designed by Lisa Krugel, leave no room for the imagination of who is a foreigner, who is  Christian and who is Jewish. Shylock enters the stage with long white hair and a beard, clad in a long grey wool coat, topped with a hat to symbolise his Jewishness. He is very reminiscent of a 20th century Chagallian depiction of an Eastern European Jew. The costumes of the Christian men instead look like they have been plucked straight from The Wolf of Wall Street, with Antonio wearing a suit and tie, Bassiano wearing a loosely fitted linen shirt and Nerissa and Portia wearing white trousers and vests with jumpers hanging over their shoulders. In this supposed modern adaptation, the costuming establishes an important contrast between the Jews and the Christians, where Shylock becomes a figure from a history book. Modern is countered with archaic, good with evil and Christian with Jewish. Once again, the audience chooses to sympathise with those who represent us in the contemporary world and Shylock becomes demonised. 

The stereotypical depiction of the Jewish characters becomes almost laughable when Tubal (Ethan Dillon) produces his few lines in a foreign accent, clad in a black hat and long coat, bringing to mind a traditional ultra-orthodox dress of the Jewish community, removing him from any sense of modernity. Ethan Dillon also plays the Christian part of Lorenzo, which takes an overall very different role and allows more space. The same goes for the princes of Morocco and Argan, who wear costumes clearly distinguishable from the Christians and use foreign accents, even though they are played by the same actors who portray Antonio and Lancelot. Overall, the costuming provides a clear path for the audience to follow which makes us sympathise much more readily with the Christian men and women as they are established as more than just a product of history.

The only other historical clothing on stage functions as a male disguise for Nerissa (Karen Kelly) and Portia (Eilish McLaughlin) when they wear judges’ robes and wigs in the courtroom scene to save their fiancés from the debt to Shylock. As a result, Shylock becomes portrayed as an expired entity, and in his final scene, the forceful removal of his hat becomes a powerful depiction of the stripping of his faith before he’s doomed into expulsion from Venice. Instead of redeeming the stereotypes of, O’Keefe endorses it, making Shylock inherently villainous and evil and the Christian victory can be fully accepted.

The anti-Jewish prejudice is concrete and part of the scenic construction of the stage which shows the words “JEWS OUT” on the closed shutters after Jessica (Katie Killarney) has run away from her father, Shylock, to get married to Lorenzo. The shutters are painted with red graffiti and the lights are dark in the night. This warning sign together with Shylock’s lamentation that “If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die, and if you wrong us shall we not revenge?” are the only two attempts made in the play to emphasise anti-Jewish prejudice, but the continued downfall of Shylock and the conversion of Jessica who participates in the overall happy ending makes it difficult for the production to redeem or even criticise the anti-semitism it brings to light. The play’s commentary instead tells us that the case of Antonio is to be deemed morally correct and that the dark Jewish character needs to be fought off to restore order to mainstream society. 

Even though O’Keefe frames his production as a modern version of The Merchant of Venice, it still demonises, villianises and others its Jewish characters from mainstream society through simplistic and stereotypical depictions. Especially with the young audience in mind, there is no clear redemption of the anti-Jewish prejudices of money-grabbing, greediness and evil in the show, and so there is little hope for further intellectual debate on these important issues to be held in the school classrooms. The depiction of Shylock, Tubal, the Prince of Aragon and the Prince of Morocco is limiting and harmful. This ambiguous Shakespearean comedy relies heavily on the expulsion of the Other, and O’Keefe’s production seems to say that Christian harmony can only be achieved when the Jewish and foreign characters have been expelled from mainstream society. For many school children, this might be the first Shakespeare production they have watched, and there was a huge opportunity to portray The Merchant of Venice in a contemporary light, opening it up for critical debate. However, with an opportunity to redeem notions of Othering, Geoff O’Keefe has only succeeded in endorsing it.

Sign Up to Our Weekly Newsletters

Get The University Times into your inbox twice a week.