“The Merchant of Venice” sparks controversy in Drama Society

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The choice of “The Merchant of Venice” for the next Shakespeare Play caused controversy due to anti-semitic themes and expected burden on Jewish students.

Directors, cast and crew spend months researching and working on the Drama Society’s annual Shakespeare play until it is ready to be performed in the fall. There is often potential for the show to be taken above and beyond its original purpose and address modern-day issues or topics in a carefully thought-out manner.

When Head of the Drama Department Mary Mastandrea announced that this fall’s Shakespeare play would be a production of “The Merchant of Venice,” students from the high school’s Drama Society were taken slightly aback. Many noticed that the 16th-century script was riddled with anti-semitic themes, and although Mastandrea explained her plans to use those themes to educate people on the topic, students still resisted. Mastandrea declined to be interviewed on the matter.

Despite the expectation that “The Merchant of Venice” would be used to educate viewers about anti-semitism, Drama Society students feared that the harm of the burden placed on Jewish students would outweigh the play’s educational value.

According to junior Thomasin Schmults, president of the Drama Society, Mastandrea had plans to use “The Merchant of Venice” to approach social issues such as anti-semitism and sexism and start a conversation about them. To do so, she had plans to do research and reform the script.

“I know there were going to be a lot of changes to the script, to the acting around the character and to the plot itself, and I know Mary was trying to use some outside sources such as Facing History and the Jewish Student Union at BHS,” Schmults said.

Sophomore Ananda Geller was one of the first students to bring attention to the issues she noticed in “The Merchant of Venice” after it was announced. According to Geller, students were given the opportunity to read over the script—which sparked further distress.

“After we read it, we came to the conclusion that we believe very strongly that the show is anti-semitic in a way that really can’t be cut out or reformed; it’s just the way the show’s written,” Geller said.

Sophomore Maya Shavit had a similar reaction to the script. After reading, Shavit said she realized that the deep-rooted anti-semitism in the play made the whole production unsalvageable in her eyes. She said that even if a lot of careful effort was put into trying to understand and reform the biases in the script, the brunt of the work would fall on Jewish students.

“The Shakespeare show is a very high-commitment show, so also simultaneously taking on the burden of educating and doing the strenuous work of constantly being in an anti-semitic show would have been even more difficult,” Shavit said.

Even as more and more students began to disagree with the decision to perform “The Merchant of Venice,” the potential educational value of the show was still understood. Shavit said that while she did not think that now was the time to take on the challenge that this show presented, she saw the possible merits.

“A lot of our main argument was the point that if the show were to go on, it would be used as an educational tool for non-Jewish viewers. That was the target, which was a good effort and a good idea and one that’s not inherently bad, but the way of going about it would be putting the burden on the Jewish students,” Shavit said.

Geller said that she could see the possible educational value to the show, but argued that perhaps there were different ways to get that message across without putting Jewish students in harm’s way.

“I think people definitely have a lot to learn about the root of a lot of the stereotypes that we attribute to Jews, even in the modern day,” Geller said. “But I also don’t think that producing the show is very beneficial because it’s hard to have a conversation about the problematic aspects of a show whilst actively promoting and performing it in such a way.”

In response to the general turmoil, the Drama Society’s executive board sought to organize meetings between students and Mastandrea to help navigate the conflict and the emotions that came with it.

Junior Isaac Morse, one of several executives on the board, said that Mastandrea’s decision to not put on “The Merchant of Venice” was due to the overwhelming objection of both students and parents.

“She was getting all the complaints; she heard people. She understood that people were really uncomfortable, and the show wasn’t probably going to happen if she didn’t change it,” Morse said. “She also said a big factor was that after this, Mr. Meyer and Kenny Kozol also started fielding a whole bunch of complaints. The parents were beginning to get more involved, then she felt like, ‘okay, there’s no more use in trying to push this forward.’”

The conflict culminated in a meeting on Friday, June 11 between Mastandrea and Drama Society students. According to Schmults, Mastandrea seemed to have changed her mind about “The Merchant of Venice” during the meeting.

“Mary really cares about her students, so I think the reason why she wanted to have the meeting was to really hear from people and hear what their concerns were. In the meeting, she listened to their concerns and realized that most of them weren’t the kind of thing that could be addressed just from changing the script and changing the play because they went deeper than that,” Schmults said. “I think that’s what changed her mind. I think she listened to the students and saw how many people felt really strongly about it, so she respected their choices.”

According to Shavit, the prospect of having to work on a show such as “The Merchant of Venice” was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back. Shavit said that the Drama Society’s meeting on Friday became very difficult as emotions began to run high.

“It’s a very sensitive topic and with the political climate recently, for me personally, and for some of the people that I’ve talked to, we’ve been tired. I’ve gotten more anti-semitism coming my way in the last two months than I have in my entire life,” Shavit said. “It’s been difficult and I feel it. A lot of my Jewish and Israeli friends feel it now. It’s exhausting and it’s tiring when you constantly have to be explaining yourself and explaining why something’s anti-semitic. Ultimately, this wasn’t just a reaction to the show, but it was a reaction to all of it and saying, ‘this is too much, this is over the edge of what we can handle as a Jewish community.’”