Breaking free from Shakespeare's Ghetto

Hosted by

What if “The Merchant of Venice” were told from Shylock’s daughter’s perspective?

That’s the conceit behind Sarah Mantell’s play “Everything that never happened”.

You remember from Shakespeare Shylock the Jewish money-lender?  Well, while he was busy negotiating a bond for a pound of flesh,, his daughter, Jessica, was busy falling in love with the Christian Lorenzo.  Ms. Mantell uses the rough outlines of the Bard’s tale to fashion a four-person tragic love story.

While a passing knowledge of Shakespeare’s play isn’t strictly necessary, you’ll enjoy the 90 minutes far more if you both know “Merchant” and frankly have some issues with it.

After all, it is a problem play, right?  Because, of course, how could a great humanist like William Shakespeare be an anti-semite? There’s practically a cottage industry of productions trying to fix Shakespeare’s problems.

Ms. Mantell takes up this charge and  imagines the rest of this Jewish subplot that Shakespeare left out.

It’s hard to imagine a finer production of this play.  The set is beautifully simple and flexible. The direction crisp.  The acting and casting near ideal for the script.

Unfortunately  the script ultimately falls prey to it’s own machinery.

Having set out to investigate a problem, the anti-semitism in Shakespeare, we are set up in the audience to expect an answer, a solution.  Something nice and tidy that serves to redress the wrong.

Ms. Mantell doesn’t offer such a tidy little treasure box.  She attempts to connect Jessica and Shylock to a larger history by making them sort of trans-historical.  As Jessica warns Shylock his bond for a pound of flesh may end up being a blood libel - exactly the kind of  excuse they use to persecute Jews - she recites a list of dates and places from the past and future where Jews were singled out.

It’s clever.  We get that Ms. Mantell is connecting the dots, tracing the prejudice but giving them a freedom of language and a knowledge of what’s to come that makes them all the more tragic.

But Jessica’s as mad at her religion’s misogyny as she is with her father’s Jewish burden.  

There’s a power to this feminist exploration … but like Shylock himself, Ms. Mantell seems tied to the Shakespeare - following it’s narrative arc rather than forging her own.  You begin to feel a bit like you wish the play could break free of its source and explore its own complicated journey.

It doesn’t.

So when Ms. Mantell finds her beloved Jessica uttering the profound words,

“We women have failed … We have raised men who do not believe we are fully human”

Those words don’t lead to their own story. They serve, like the play itself, as something of a footnote to an old journey.

“Everything that never happened” plays at Boston Court Theatre in Pasadena through November 4th.

Photo credit: Jenny Graham.