This week, I'm at Mini University, an annual "lifelong learning" conference at Indiana University in Bloomington. We come to campus for a week, attending three different lectures each day from IU professors and other industry experts. That equals 15 fantastic nuggets of knowledge, on topics ranging from space exploration to Mexican immigration.
This year, two of my 15 sessions were related to Shakespeare -- perhaps because I wrote, on my evaluation last year, that I wanted "as much Shakespeare as possible."
My first session, taught by actress Fontaine Syer, was titled "Shakespeare in Performance," and she emphasized right away that she was an actress rather than a scholar. She discussed some of the things actors consider as they prepare for a Shakespeare role, including the need to discover new layers in the text -- especially because Shakespeare's work is "the most elastic text in the world," she said.
Another consideration: How to perform the soliloquies. Is the actor talking to himself, to a higher power, or directly to the audience? Should a soliloquy in Richard III, for example, be performed the same way as a soliloquy in Hamlet? Interesting question.
Here is my favorite quote from the session: "If you're in love with Shakespeare, you'll be in love with him for your whole life," Syer said. "The more you learn, the more there is to learn." (You and I already knew that, didn't we?)
Today I attended "Merchant of Venice and Early English Antisemitism" with professor Ellen MacKay. She started by describing the pervasive antisemitism in early modern England, including the "blood libel" claim that Jews killed young children and used their blood and bones in Passover matzoh. MacKay explained this rumor as a displacement of Catholics' own cannibalistic queasiness about transubstantiation (the communion wafer turning into the body of Christ).
Also at play: Many Christians condemned Jews for betraying Jesus based on the Passion narratives of that time. Jews were also condemned as usurers, even though they had been backed into that profession because Christians were forbidden to loan money with interest.
Shakespeare may also have been influenced by the Lopez plot, in which Queen Elizabeth's Jewish physician was (probably falsely) accused of trying to poison her and subsequently executed. And, Shakespeare was certainly familiar with Christopher Marlowe's Jew of Malta, which he both echoes and transcends in his own play.
(As Syer said yesterday in relation to the authorship controversies, "Marlowe? Come on. Who ever heard of a Marlowe theater festival?")
In the midst of pervasive antisemitism, Shakespeare created a character who reflected some Jewish stereotypes but refuted others. As we've already noticed, Shylock makes some pointed critiques of his Venetian (and, by extension, Elizabethan English) society. He does play the villain, but he is not wholly unsympathetic.
MacKay pointed out that Shakespeare could have made Shylock a more definitive villain by making his daughter, Jessica, more sympathetic. And yet we have a character who steals money and spends it wastefully, carelessly gives away mementos from her dead mother and elopes with a guy she barely knows. She claims that living with Shylock is terrible, but how much can we trust her?
Other things to think about: The nature of bonds and contracts in Merchant of Venice (friend to friend, spouse to spouse, parent to child, borrower to lender and servant to master) and the culpability of Venetian authorities, who easily could have found a way to release Antonio from his bond without Portia's intervention.
I'll be considering those questions -- and many more from my other classes this week -- until it's time for next year's Mini University. For more information on my non-Shakespeare classes this week, stop by my lifelong learning blog, That'll Teach Me.