At a roundtable discussion of The Merchant of Venice at Montclair State on September 23, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg proved she is well versed in Shakespeare, along with constitutional law.
Ginsburg, whose grandson appears in the Peak Performances production of the controversial Shakespeare play at the Kasser Theater through October 1, joined scholars David Scott Kastan of Yale University and James Shapiro of Columbia University in a conversation prior to the performance at the University’s Kasser Theater.
In addition to having studied Shakespeare in school, Ginsburg has performed various roles with the Shakespeare Theater Company in Washington, D.C., which, she said, invites the Supreme Court of the United States justices to play “bit parts for lawyer’s night.”
“In Henry VI, I was ‘Dick the Butcher’ who has the famous line, ‘First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,’ and I then have to explain that was not meant as a putdown of lawyers. It takes place during The Jack Cade Rebellion. Jack Cade is an anarchist. And you need the law to save the society from chaos.”
When asked about her earliest exposure to Shakespeare, Ginsburg responded that her first experience with Shakespeare was, coincidentally, The Merchant of Venice, but it was not on stage, because it had been banned from public schools in New York. “So, then I decided to read the play,” said Ginsburg, who grew up in Brooklyn. “And, of course, Shylock’s famous speech, ‘Hath not a Jew eyes’ and Portia’s speech ‘the quality of mercy is not strained.’ It also came to me that these are two wonderful speeches but neither character is likable. There isn’t an emergent hero or heroine. They’re all flawed people.”
The Peak Performances production, directed by Karin Coonrod and performed by the Compagnia de Colombari, addresses the notion of “otherness” by having the Jewish moneylender Shylock performed by five actors of different races, ethnicities and even gender. Coonrod first staged this production in 2016 in the Jewish ghetto of Venice, its original setting. According to the program, Coonrod says, “Now we are in the New World after a shattering and divisive election that challenges our aspirations. The play calls us to witness the stranger in our midst and feel the extremities of rage inside our shared humanity.”
Kasten, Shapiro and Ginsburg discussed specific scenes and nuances of Shakespeare and whether Merchant is anti-Semitic because of its negative portrayal of Shylock. Ginsburg pointed out that the female lead, Portia, who disguises herself as a lawyer-judge to pronounce judgment against Shylock, is conniving and hypocritical.
“Shylock is the alien. But in a way, she should have understood that status,” Ginsburg said. “Portia is a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a lawyer-judge at a time when she could not be a lawyer or a judge, so in a sense she is an outsider, too. That’s why it’s remarkable that she could do this to Shylock.”
In introducing Saturday’s roundtable, Montclair State English Professor Naomi Liebler, lauded Peak Performances’ unique and updated production as a thought-provoking piece for the current political climate.
“In all the ways that really matter, this perfect combination, this perfect brainstorm, is not at all surprising with its collection of ‘others’ in a place suspicious of and yet dependent on them for survival,” said Liebler. “Merchant is the right play for us…not only because it vibrates with national and global issues but also because it speaks to this university’s own embrace of diversity. It’s a stroke of good luck we should have all of this right here, right now.”
All week, the University community was abuzz about Ginsburg’s visit to campus, and the roundtable was attended by faculty, staff, students and invited guests, including New Jersey Senator Lorretta Weinberg, State Supreme Court Justice Stuart Rabner and Ginsburg’s grandson, Paul Spera, a Paris-based actor who plays the role of Lorenzo.
“When a person of important and substantial achievement visits the University, it offers an opportunity to provide our students with a model of what one can make of a life,” said Montclair State President Susan A. Cole.
Ginsburg’s visit “makes real…a person who is the second woman to be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, an accomplished American jurist, an advocate for women’s rights and an example of the uses of education, all wrapped up within the context of a grandmother proud of her grandson and defying the prejudices we have about age in our society,” said Cole.
Two 2017 graduates were given the opportunity to ask questions of the panel. Gustavo Vasquez and Allison Gormley asked questions about assimilation and conversion – and resistance to them – that impressed the panel, and they got to pose for a picture with Ginsburg afterward.
“It was humbling to get the opportunity to ask her a question,” said Gustavo Vasquez, who majored in English and teaching. “It was a surreal experience, really. I feel like, ‘Did that just happen?’”
According to Gormley, who just starting teaching 8th grade English, “there are no words to describe the experience. Justice Ginsburg is a powerful female that I look up to. It was a little overwhelming.”
The roundtable was held in the Presentation Hall of the new School of Communication and Media building, which officially opens on Tuesday, September 26.
The play will also provide a backdrop for another conversation on campus, this time between its director Karin Coonrod and Professor Teresa Fiore, Inserra Chair in Italian and Italian American Studies, and Alessandro Cassin of the Primo Levi Center in New York on issues of immigration and religion in the contemporary world at the Kasser Theater on the evening of September 26.