War, Shakespeare and Shylock in Auschwitz

I’ve been thinking more about the relations between theatre and war I started to sketch in the previous post.  Stuart Elden‘s work on Shakespeare and territory (or, rather, ‘Shakespearean territories‘) is of considerable interest here – remember Homi Bhabha’s claim that ‘territory’ derives from both terra (earth) and terrere (to frighten), thus territorium as ‘a place from which people are frightened off.’   Stuart provides a more nuanced genealogy than that, needless to say, but there are also contributions that address Shakespeare’s thematics (and theatrics) of war more directly.

Ros King and Paul Franssen‘s Shakespeare and war (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2009) includes King’s own essay on Shakespeare’s use of a contemporary manual of war written by an English mercenary.  Of more interest to me, though, is Theodor Meron‘s Bloody Constraint: war and chivalry in Shakespeare (Oxford University Press, 1998), which builds on his earlier Henry’s Wars and Shakespeare’s Laws: perspectives on the law of war in the later Middle Ages (Oxford University Press, 1994).  As the subtitle indicates, Meron comes at this from an interesting direction: he is a professor of international law, the Charles L. Denison Professor Emeritus at NYU’s School of Law, and serves as President of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and Presiding Judge of the Appeals Chambers of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda.  He is also the man who, as Legal Adviser to Israel’s Foreign Ministry, wrote a secret memorandum just after the 1967 War arguing that establishing Israeli “settlements” in the occupied territories would be a violation of international law.  As all this suggests, Meron’s interest in Shakespeare is not a narrowly historical or textual one – though he shows considerable mastery of both domains –  and he artfully considers Shakespeare’s address to the present and the legacy of chivalry to modern humanitarian law.  What happens, he asks, when technology – and especially artillery – puts an end to the individualism of combat, or at any rate, marginalises face-to-face combat?  (Here Paola Pugliatti‘s more recent Shakespeare the just war tradition [Ashgate, 2010] also has much to offer and, again, considers contemporary notions of discrimination and proportionality; Part Two includes a fascinating discussion of “Theatres of War”, which is what led me down this path in the first place.)

More directly related to my previous post is a new collection of essays out next month from the University of Toronto Press: Shakespeare and the Second World War: theatre, culture, identity, edited by Irena Makaryk and Marissa McHugh.  Here’s the blurb:

Shakespeare’s works occupy a prismatic and complex position in world culture: they straddle both the high and the low, the national and the foreign, literature and theatre. The Second World War presents a fascinating case study of this phenomenon: most, if not all, of its combatants have laid claim to Shakespeare and have called upon his work to convey their society’s self-image.

In wartime, such claims frequently brought to the fore a crisis of cultural identity and of competing ownership of this ‘universal’ author. Despite this, the role of Shakespeare during the Second World War has not yet been examined or documented in any depth. Shakespeare and the Second World War provides the first sustained international, collaborative incursion into this terrain. The essays demonstrate how the wide variety of ways in which Shakespeare has been recycled, reviewed, and reinterpreted from 1939–1945 are both illuminated by and continue to illuminate the War today.

Full details are here, but two essays that I’m looking forward to reading are Mark Bayer‘s “Shylock, Palestine and the Second World War” and Tibor Egervari‘s “Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice in Auschwitz”.  Egervari is another interesting man: Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice in Auschwitz is a play first performed in 1977 and reworked many times since.  Informed by the writings of Primo Levi, it’s an ‘imaginative reconstruction of  what it might have meant to stage the Merchant of Venice in Auschwitz’ (Egervari wryly notes that the Nazis staged the play more than 50 times between 1933  and 1939).  You can download the script here.  The play is many things, but among them is a tart reminder that Giorgio Agamben‘s space of exception – especially as captured in Homo sacer – is almost always a profoundly theatrical space: space as performance rather product.

If this captures your imagination too, you might be interested in Arthur Horowitz‘s “Shylock after Auschwitz: The Merchant of Venice on the post-Holocaust stage – subversion, confrontation and provocation’, Journal for cultural and religious theory 8 (3) (2007) here.

2 thoughts on “War, Shakespeare and Shylock in Auschwitz

  1. Pingback: Staging the landscapes of war – with noises off | geographical imaginations

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