If you’ve always thought Shylock’s punishment in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” was harsh, you’re not alone. At his trial in the play, Shylock is found guilty and told he owes half his property to Antonio and the other half to the state. Antonio declares that he will take no money if Shylock instead wills his estate to his estranged daughter and converts to Christianity.
That decision will be appealed Feb. 16 in “Shakespeare Trial: The Shylock Appeal,” a live-action legal drama presented by UC Berkeley’s School of Law at the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley. The opening gavel will strike at 12 p.m.
Two law school deans in the UC system, Erwin Chemerinsky (Berkeley) and L. Song Richardson (Irvine), will serve as opposing counsel, with the Hon. Andrew Guilford presiding; he’s a U.S. District Court judge in Santa Ana.
Actors from the New Swan Shakespeare Festival of UC Irvine will portray key characters from the play — and the audience will make up the jury.
“This is a way of engaging people to think about difficult legal issues in a social context,” Chemerinsky said. “Anti-Semitism so underlies the way Shylock is depicted — could he even get a fair trial? The mock appeal is a really important way of thinking about anti-Semitism and the legal system, and more general bias in the system, as well.”
Chemerinsky will be the prosecutor, Richardson the defense lawyer. Both took part in a similar event in Irvine last October. (Spoiler: With Guilford presiding, the jury voted to acquit Shylock.) A crowd of around 750 attended that trial, said New Swan’s Eli Simon, who directed that presentation.
“Now the deans — both highly regarded lawyers — will be duking it out in Berkeley,” said Simon, who will serve as master of ceremonies. “This event is an entertainment — provocative, and intellectual. To provide context, four of New Swan’s actors will present some scenes from the play.”
Two basic issues at the mock trial are whether Shylock was justified in seeking a pound of flesh from Antonio for defaulting on his loan and whether the state of Venice was justified in punishing Shylock the way it did. “That makes for some lively moments,” Simon said, adding the audience will be provided with “a lot to chew on.” The event will run for about 90 minutes.
As the jury, audience members will vote by turning in green or red cards to indicate their opinion, and then the decision will be read. “For me, the best part about this exercise is taking the play outside of its theatrical context and seeing how it lives in the real world, in real time in the present day,” Simon said.
“I grew up in Berkeley, and I know how passionate people there are, socially and politically. They are in tune with the issues this play raises, so it should be really interesting. Then there is the whole question of Jewishness. Shylock is an outsider in his world, and the profound and deep issues around that haven’t gone away.”
The event is not scripted. “The mock appeal is not the play, but we do rely on the record of Shakespeare’s play,” Chemerinsky said. “We have to know not only the law, but the text of the play, and then apply today’s law to what occurred in Venice in the play. It’s a challenge, but I enjoy doing it. Besides, doing something like this with Song is always fun. She’s terrific.”
In 2016, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg presided over the same mock trial, held in the 16th-century Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice, and again the next year at the Library of Congress in Washington and the Stratford Festival in Canada.
Dominic Green, a Shakespeare scholar and professor at Boston College who attended the Venice trial, described the event as “an intellectual version of reality television.”