This Shakespeare Reconstruction Sets 'Merchant' In Post-Civil War D.C. In District Merchants, Shylock is still Jewish, but half of the other characters are freed slaves. The playwright says he was inspired but a reference to slavery in Shakespeare's original text.
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This Shakespeare Reconstruction Sets 'Merchant' In Post-Civil War D.C.

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This Shakespeare Reconstruction Sets 'Merchant' In Post-Civil War D.C.

This Shakespeare Reconstruction Sets 'Merchant' In Post-Civil War D.C.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

What if you take one of Shakespeare's most problematic plays and change it? Move "Merchant Of Venice" to post-Civil War Washington, D.C. Make half of the characters African-American. Well, suddenly it's a completely new play but one that still deals with many of the same themes, including how your actions reflect your beliefs.

"District Merchants" is onstage at the Folger Theater in Washington, D.C., right now. And to understand the process of adapting Shakespeare, NPR's Elizabeth Blair looks at one monologue and how it changed for this production.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: You might call it a should I stay, or should I go speech, the angel and the devil on my shoulder speech. Here's the original Shakespeare.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Launcelot) My conscience says, Launcelot, budge not. Budge, says the fiend. But not, says my conscience. Conscience, say I, you counsel well. Fiend, say I, you counsel well.

BLAIR: In Shakespeare's "Merchant Of Venice," Launcelot is the main character, Shylock's, servant. He's thinking about quitting his job because Shylock is Jewish.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Launcelot) To be ruled by my conscience, I should stay with the Jew, my master who, God bless the mark, is a kind of devil. And to run away from the Jew, I should be ruled by the fiend who, saving your reverence, is the devil himself. Certainly the Jew is the very devil incarnation.

BLAIR: You get why "Merchant Of Venice" has been called anti-Semitic. Aaron Posner has a lot of experience directing and adapting Shakespeare, but he was never interested in "Merchant Of Venice" - too problematic, he says. But he was interested in the issues it raises like power and greed.

In this new American setting, Shylock is still Jewish, but half of the other characters are African-Americans - freed slaves, including Shylock's servant.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "DISTRICT MERCHANTS")

AKEEM DAVIS: (As Lance) To leave or not to leave - that is the question.

BLAIR: Like the original, Lance in "District Merchants" is having a crisis of conscience, but in Posner's play, it's because Shylock may have been involved in the slave trade.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "DISTRICT MERCHANTS")

DAVIS: (As Lance) I hate to say it, but the dilemma goes deep. So the question on which I am ruminating and cogitating at present is as follows. Does good service done for a bad master still count as good service? Or if I do good work for a bad master, might I actually be doing bad in the world.

And commercially wise, if I do bad work for a bad master, does that somehow make it good and trickier still? How do I really know if he's really bad or good deep down?

BLAIR: For actor Akeem Davis, Posner has taken a mildly amusing Shakespearean monologue and turned it into something deeper and relatable.

DAVIS: There's somebody quitting their corporate job right now because they feel...

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: ...They feel like they're doing too good a job at ruining somebody's mortgage, you know? We can trick ourselves into thinking that our professional self is divorced from our person self, but they are always one in the same.

AARON POSNER: I wrote the character originally to be Shylock the Jew's Jewish young servant.

BLAIR: Aaron Posner...

POSNER: But in a play in which I was asking questions about the relationships between blacks and Jews as these two underclasses in Washington at this time, it suddenly seemed more interesting, more dynamic, more fraught to have that be an African-American character. And then once he was African-American serving this Jewish master, it just sort of unwound itself from there.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "DISTRICT MERCHANTS")

DAVIS: For me, the real question is, why have I chosen to work for him of all people? I wonder. Is it some bizarre form of self-loathing? What? Did my old master not beat me enough, and this is some perverse form of wish fulfilment?

BLAIR: "District Merchant" joins a long list of different kinds of adaptations of Shakespeare. And yet Akeem Davis says there are still people who think his language shouldn't be tinkered with. He's not one of them.

DAVIS: There are examples of what European artists have done with this text that can stand as the end all, be all - sure. But I'm not interested in doing what Laurence Olivier did. I'm a kid from Miami. My Romeo's going to be different. My Launcelot is going to be different. The play has to resonate from your belly. You can't be trying to speak in 2016 like you think they would have spoken in, you know - 400 years ago.

POSNER: Not to be too pretentious about it is exactly what Shakespeare was doing.

BLAIR: Taking history, taking other people's plays, says Posner, and responding to them in his own work. Posner says his "District Merchants" is both a response to the original "Merchant Of Venice," an adaptation of it and an entirely new play. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News, Washington.

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