The dead are not dead in history. One function of theatre is the invocation of the dead; the dialogue with the dead must not stop until they deliver the future which has been buried with them.
Shylock as Muslim, as the victim of young neo-Nazis, as global player on the international financial market – these are just some impressions from recent productions of The Merchant of Venice on the German stage. At first glance, these examples may not be very surprising. Modernized interpretations of Shakespeare's plays, including references to topical cultural or political debates, are the rule rather than the exception in German theatres. However, The Merchant of Venice is not just any Shakespearian play but occupies a special place in the German cultural imagination. The conflict between Venetian society and the Jew, Shylock's cruel revenge and his final punishment evoke uncanny associations with German history. So there appears to be a general consensus that German directors should avoid any suspicion of anti-Semitism. More importantly, as one reviewer of a 2008 production remarked, they should by no means show an ‘evil’ Shylock. And time and again, directors and critics have discussed the question as to whether a German audience is prepared to put up with a play that might incite or reinforce anti-Semitic prejudices.
My article will probe into this conflictual stage history of The Merchant of Venice in postwar Germany but, rather than giving a more or less comprehensive overview of recent answers to the challenges posed by the play, I will focus on the relationship between theatre and memory in a number of major German Merchants since 1945, which will include some contemporary productions. Following the suggestion of (East) German director and dramatist Heiner Müller, quoted in the epigraph above, I will argue that German postwar productions and adaptations of The Merchant of Venice can be understood as mnemonic practices in which – consciously or unconsciously – German culture faces its problematic history and redefines itself.