Posted March 13, 2008

Temple's Theater Department takes on the issues of race and religion through classic play

The Merchant of Venice has the makings of the kind of classic theater William Shakespeare is known for. There’s the budding romance between the title character, Bassanio, and Portia, elements of lighthearted comedy and, of course, tense drama.

But it is the controversial depiction of Shylock — the Jewish money lender whose miserly character reflects anti-Semitic stereotypes — that makes this play one of Shakespeare’s most controversial works.

Noted among scholars for its strong elements of racism, The Merchant of Venice has been a subject of conversation in classrooms and theater houses across the country for generations. It now comes to Tomlinson Theater in a Temple Theaters production running through March 29.

After discussing issues of race, identity and religion with scholars from across Temple’s community, director Dan Kern decided to take a straightforward approach to some of the uncomfortable subjects embedded in the classic play.

Temple Theaters | The Merchant of Venice
Photo by Ryan S. Brandenberg/

Temple University
Director Dan Kern’s interpretation of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice — Set in fascist Italy — explores issues of race religion and identity.

“The best way to deal with these thorny issues is to place them in clear opposition to each other,” Kern said. “Rather than emphasizing one over the other or trying to cover over the anti-Semitic elements, this production will place the romance and the racism in stark contrast to one another.”

Although Shylock is not the title character of the play, he often takes a prominent position in the minds of audiences. Depending on the interpretation by the play’s director and lead actors, Shylock can be viewed as a victim or as a villain.

“My goal was to place the question squarely in the mind of the audience: How is it that people we like and identify with can be capable of such hatred? These are the conundrums that make this play so powerful,” Kern said.

Following the 7:30 p.m. performance on March 26, a cross-discipline panel of scholars will take the stage in Tomlinson Theater to discuss elements of the play that deal with race and religion. Professors from the English, religion and history departments, as well as the women’s studies program, are expected to attend.

“We hope the panel will engage the audience in a frank and positive discussion,” Kern said. “I believe it will be a lively evening.”

Finding a balance between romance and tragedy was one of the biggest challenges Kern faced as director of Merchant.

“On the one hand, you have Portia and Bassanio, who are at the center of the romantic part of the play. On the other hand, there is Shylock and his infamous bond for a pound of the merchant Antonio's flesh, which seems to belong to something more akin to a tragedy.”

In an attempt to bring The Merchant of Venice closer to the present day, Kern changed the setting from the Renaissance period to fascist Italy.

“I wanted to choose a world that is more familiar to our contemporary audiences. Even though it is set in 1930, everyone is very aware of the treatment of Jews in Italy and Germany during this period,” he said. “Films like The Conformist, The Garden of the Finzi Continis, The Piano Lesson and Schindler’s List are all recent examples of the anti-Semitism that was prevalent at this time. I feel that placing the play in this period makes the issues more immediate for the audience.”

Ticket and registration details:

Through March 29. Tickets are $20. Seniors, Temple employees and non-Temple students pay $15; free for students with OWLcard who have paid the General Activities Fee. Tickets are available at the Liacouras Center box office, 1776 N. Broad St. (in person, cash-only sales), online at, or by telephone at 800-298-4200.