In remembrance: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg discusses law, Shakespeare at MSU in 2017
Editor's note: This is reprint of an article published by Montclair Local three years ago, almost to day, when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg visited Montclair to take part in a Montclair State University roundtable with distinguished Shakespeare scholars. Ginsburg passed away last night, Sept. 18.
By GWEN OREL
Shylock didn’t receive due process. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed that out in a roundtable discussion about the moral center of ‘The Merchant of Venice’ this afternoon.
Ginsburg’s statement raised a laugh from the audience of about 175 faculty, students and press. The 84-year-old Supreme Court Justice had come to MSU to be part of a roundtable with distinguished Shakespeare scholars.
The roundtable discussion was presented as companion programming to Karin Coonrod/Compagnia de’Colombari’s “The Merchant of Venice” by William Shakespeare, running at the Alexander Kasser Theater through Oct. 1.
As Ginsburg explained her remark, she demonstrated not only knowledge of the law but also a deep understanding of the play.
When, in the fourth act of the play, Portia turns a civil suit that Shylock has brought into a criminal suit against him, Shylock is denied his rights, she said.
In our terms, he should have been had an opportunity for notice as to what the charges are, and the right to defend himself, the justice explained.
Ginsburg, who has been on the Supreme Court since 1993, spoke with professors David Scott Kastan (George M. Bodman Professor of English, Yale University) and James Shapiro (Larry Miller Professor of English, Columbia University). Shapiro is author of “Shakespeare and the Jews,” among others. Among other books, Kastan has authored “A Will to Believe: Shakespeare and Religion.”
Peak Performances’ Executive Director Jedediah Wheeler welcomed the audience, pointing out that this was the inaugural event in the School of Communication and Media’s Presentation Hall.
This year’s season at Peak Performances focuses on women innovators in performing arts. “It’s about time,” Wheeler said, to appreciative applause.
Naomi Liebler, a professor of English at Montclair State University, introduced the roundtable by talking about the play and its history on campus. When Liebler began teaching at MSU in the ’70s, there was only one course about Shakespeare, “Shakespeare’s Major Plays.” Now there are several undergraduate as well as graduate-level courses, including a course on teaching Shakespeare.
Shakespeare, Liebler said, is for everyone. She introduced the roundtable panelists. Both distinguished professors seemed self-deprecating and awed by Ginsburg.
SHAKESPEARE THE LEGAL SCHOLAR
Ginsburg’s history with “The Merchant of Venice” goes back to childhood: the play was banned from New York City public
schools, so she read it. Ginsburg is originally from Brooklyn, and earned her law degree from Columbia, after attending Cornell as an undergraduate. She recalled being impressed with Shylock’s famous monologue in Act III that includes the lines “Hath not a Jew eyes,” and with Portia’s Act IV speech that begins “The quality of mercy is not strained.”
And she realized that neither character was likable. “They are all flawed people,” she said. Portia in particular is not likable, she said, answering Kastan’s question about whether the play really is antisemitic.
“She says ‘the quality of mercy.’ Two pages later, she shows Shylock no mercy at all,” Ginsburg said. Earlier, when Portia is being wooed by a Moroccan, she is relieved when he guesses the wrong casket and fails to win her, saying, “Let all of his complexion choose me so.”
She is bigoted, Ginsburg said.
The justice also observed that there are signs that Shylock has a turning point when he learns that his daughter used a ring that had sentimental value — one given to him by his wife before they were married — to buy a monkey.
By the time he insists on getting his pound of flesh, Shylock is non compos mentis.
His last words in the play are “I am not well,” Ginsburg said.
“Not that I don’t teach this every year, it’s just that I’m not Supreme Court justice material,” Shapiro said, before reading Portia’s speech:
The law hath yet another hold on you.
It is enacted in the laws of Venice,
If it be proved against an alien
That by direct or indirect attempts
He seek the life of any citizen,
The party ‘gainst the which he doth contrive
Shall seize one half his goods.
He asked Ginsburg what the play says about the status of the alien.
For Ginsburg, it’s odd that Portia doesn’t understand it better: “She’s a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a judge, when she couldn’t be. She’s an outsider too. It’s remarkable that she does that to Shylock.”
Kastan wondered why Shakespeare seemed to know the law so well. Ginsburg answered that perhaps Shakespeare had been a lawyer, and Kastan acknowledged that there are missing years in Shakespeare’s biography.
“What doesn’t Shakespeare understand at a deep level about the law?” Shapiro asked. Kastan qualified, “If Shakespeare were your law clerk…”
Ginsburg answered, “This idea of turning a civil case into a criminal one…”
Earlier, Ginsburg said that Shakespeare was clearly aware of the need for the rule of law.
The line “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” in Henry VI, is an implicit acknowledgment that anarchy cannot be established while the rule of law exists.
Ginsburg had delivered that line herself, playing Dick the Butcher, for the Shakespeare Theatre in D.C., which invites the justices to play bit parts. She has also given the epilogue in “Henry V,” and played a troll in “Peer Gynt.”
“We need law to save society from chaos,” she said.
IS ‘MERCHANT’ ANTISEMITIC?
Ginsburg and the professors also discussed the notion of original intent as it applies to the Constitution and to works of art.
“It’s guesswork. Who knows what James Madison thought?” she said. We do know his values: freedom of religion, no unreasonable seizure, and we need to apply them today.
Original intent also applies to the question whether “The Merchant of Venice” is antisemitic.
Shapiro said students ask all the time whether Shakespeare was antisemitic, philosemitic.
“Is there something about the play that should make us worry?” Kastan asked.
“Compared to what?” Ginsburg answered.
Compared to Marlowe’s “The Jew of Malta,” Shylock has humanity, Kastan acknowledged.
For Shapiro, the question of antisemitism has been a particularly deep one. Before Israel was a state, he said,
settlers in the 1930s considered banning the play entirely. They did not, but even in 1980, when Barry Kyle from the Royal Shakespeare Company brought a production to Israel, they asked him to leave out Shylock’s forced conversion at the end of the play.
The forced conversion, which may strike contemporary audiences as sad, has no parallel in any of Shakespeare’s source material, Shapiro pointed out. His conversion may have been seen as a kindness toward the character.
Kastan added that Queen Elizabeth I, when England was torn between Catholicism and Protestantism, said, “We do not make windows into men’s hearts.” The performance of a religious ritual was enough to satisfy the state, he said.
As the discussion ended, Shapiro said he was grateful to the justice, and Kastan joked, “I’m very grateful you’re still on the court.”
Adam Rzepka, assistant professor of English at MSU, gave closing remarks, and two MSU students, Allison Gormley and Gustavo Vasquez, selected in advance, posed questions to the panel.
Vasquez wondered about the racial overtones in the play, especially Portia’s attitude toward Morocco, and the play’s attitude toward assimilation.
Ginsburg replied that since Morocco picks the wrong casket he’s never offered the opportunity to assimilate. The scene is more of a clue about Portia’s nature. “It’s one of many puzzling things, why she’s enamored of Bassanio,” Ginsburg said. That character seems to have no particular weight.
Shapiro said that the conversation around the play, once only about its antisemitism, is much larger now. Kastan said that there is another play where a Moroccan does marry the white woman — and it ends really badly. “Othello,” too, has “Venice” in its title, and these plays may be saying something about Venice’s self-image as a cosmopolitan city.
“Venice had restrictions on Jews, but they let Jews live there,” Ginsburg said. “In 1290, the Jews were expelled from England.”
Gormley wondered why Antonio and the others would want to convert Shylock at all.
The professors shrugged, receiving a laugh.
“I’m tempted to use the teacher sleight-of-hand, ‘I’m sorry, we’ll address that in the next class,'” Shapiro said, looking at his watch, as the audience laughed again. “These are questions that keep me up at night, and wrestling with Shakespeare in my career.
“Shakespeare forces us to ask questions in his plays that don’t yield easy answers.”
Kastan said, “I’m not even going to try. Take it away, Justice.”
Ginsburg said, “Jessica is very happy she is going to be saved, because she’s married to a Christian.
“Maybe she isn’t.”
Hitler considered converted Jews to be Jews.