"We all expect a gentle answer"?
The German Reception of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice from 1945 to the Present
Conference hosted by the research project "Shylock in Germany: The Reception of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice after 1945"
Freie Universität Berlin, 26 to 28 June 2009
In his "Hamlet essay" of 1796, August Wilhelm Schlegel famously appropriated Shakespeare for German culture: "It can boldly be claimed that, apart from the English, he does not belong as peculiarly to any other people as he does to the Germans. [... ] Nothing about him is strange to us. We do not have to step out of our character a bit to call him 'all ours.'" Schlegel's claim is representative of the traditional German reception of Shakespeare in which the Bard was turned into the "third German classic" – next to Goethe and Schiller – who had given expression to the "German spirit," as Friedrich Gundolf put it in 1911. Diverging from this tradition, which has regarded Hamlet as a seminal play lending itself to negotiations of German history and identity, the conference will propose to concentrate on another Shakespearean character for the assessment of the relationship between Shakespeare and the "German spirit": Shylock, the Jewish moneylender. Shylock reminds us that two hundred years "after the heyday of German idealism and separated from it by the absolute caesura of Auschwitz" (Micha Brumlik), the question about Shakespeare and Germany has to be asked anew and has to be related to the issue of German anti-Semitism, before and after 1945.
In 2001, Markus Moninger argued that ever since the end of the Second World War, Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice has been offering "a stage for the drama of post-war Germany's dealing with Auschwitz." It is the object of the conference to examine the different phases, tendencies, and results of this "drama." The focus will be on German productions of the play from the immediate post-war period to the present moment. The theatrical reception of the play will be discussed in relation to scholarly, literary, cultural, and political contexts. One of the questions to be asked is if and how the practice and the implications of staging The Merchant of Venice have changed since the German reunification. The functions of the play within a medially conveyed "memory culture" and in connection to controversial debates about globalization, immigration and "multiculturalism" will be of special interest. It seems that momentous shifts and displacements are being performed on the stage of the German reception of Shakespeare. It is thus not only the remembrance of the Holocaust which is at issue. Today, performances of The Merchant of Venice also tend to pose more general questions, such as who is to be addressed as the "Others" in contemporary Germany? And which answers are being expected from these "Others"?