Conference presentation: Jewishness Between Performance and Appropriation: Music for the Merchant of Venice on Film

This Saturday at 10 am at the University of Houston’s Student Center South, I’ll be giving a paper on “Jewishness Between Performance and Appropriation: Music for the Merchant of Venice on Film” at the AMS-SW meeting.

Abstract: While The Merchant of Venice has a long and storied history on the stage, it has not been as widely adapted for film or television as other plays by Shakespeare. Shylock appears on film for the first time in 1908, in a now-lost work directed by J. Stuart Blackton. He returns five more times in silent film before appearing in a variety of  television movies including a 1973 television movie version starring Laurence Olivier; several BBC treatments; and the films of Trevor Nunn’s National Theatre production and a production by the Globe. Additional English-language cinema adaptations and those in other languages begin to appear in the early 2000s. While Shylock has been interpreted as against music, based on his command that Jessica close the house to muffle the music of the masques (2.3), music has played a large role in identifying Shylock as Jewish and providing both Shylock and Jessica with the means to perform Jewishness.

Michael Shapiro has traced the visual and aural signifiers of creating Jewish space and identity in stage performances of Merchant, but touches only briefly on the use of music for film adaptations of the play. Using music recommendations and cue sheets for silent films, reviews, analysis of recordings and scores, and Richard Burt’s framework of the “cinematographosphere,” I examine the music for selected silent and sound film versions of Merchant, asking what roles traditional Jewish music, music intended to “sound Jewish,” and non-Jewish music plays in the performance of Shylock’s and Jessica’s Jewishness. I then ask how, in the case of music appropriated from Jewish religious and/or cultural practices, such music reifies conceptions of Jewishness in various settings, is used to demonstrate the universal humanity expressed in Shylock’s 3.1 speech, and influences the reception of the play. Ultimately, I discuss how the intersection of performance and appropriation works in cinematic Merchants, and what we can learn from that dialogue.

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