- David Sokol and Dennis Willmott
Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice may be the Bard’s only play that is both revered and reviled. The tragicomedy, which centers on the questionable dealings of a Jewish moneylender, Shylock, has been a lightning rod for criticism, owing to the play’s cryptic themes of antisemitism. What’s unclear, and has provoked a centuries-long debate among scholars, is whether Shakespeare’s work lands on the side of tolerance or the side of bigotry.
While it likely won’t solve the argument either way, a new album and accompanying illustrated story booklet, Shylock Sings the Blues, by local writer, visual artist and retired psychologist David Sokol and local guitarist Dennis Willmott, lends a new, bluesy voice to the debate. Sokol’s work, which he hopes to turn into a musical play, is an updated adaptation of Merchant, set on the streets of a “Jewish-Mafia” neighborhood in 1950s New Jersey.
Fueled by early rock and roll and Delta and Piedmont blues, and featuring an impressive assortment of local musical talent — as well as illustrations by Sokol — the album is a shadowy and often playfully stylized take on Shakespeare’s controversial play. It suggests old Bill was perhaps even cagier than we realized. Sokol, 65, is Jewish and believes that Merchant indicts prejudice.
“Shakespeare knew what bigotry was about,” he says from his home in Shelburne. “So he spoke loudly to the bigots and whispered to those who knew what it was really about.”
In November 2010, Sokol took in a Broadway performance of The Merchant of Venice starring Al Pacino as Shylock. Calling himself an “amateur Shakespeare fan,” Sokol had seen the play performed before. But this version included a monologue that is cut from many productions — including the 2004 film version starring Pacino and Jeremy Irons. “Most directors don’t see it as driving the story along,” Sokol explains of the scene.
The monologue is by Shylock’s servant, Lancelot Gobbo — Lance G. in Sokol’s version. In it, he presents what Sokol calls a “scathing analysis of the bigot’s mind.” In Shakespeare’s day, servants were bound to their masters by artificial loyalty, a notion Gobbo questions.
“It’s an interior conversation between his conscience and his selfish needs,” Sokol explains. “He thinks, This guy is good to me, I need to be loyal. But on the other hand, I could do better if I abandoned him.” Adding to Gobbo’s internal debate is the fact that Shylock is Jewish. The prevailing “wisdom” of the time held that Jews were damned. Gobbo’s conclusion is, according to Sokol, “It’s OK to abandon the Jew.”
For him, it was a revelatory moment.
“A light bulb went off in my head and I thought, This is what decent people do,” he says. “Germany, America, wherever. You can be prejudiced but otherwise be a decent human being. Shakespeare isolated the process of how decent people can turn into bigots.”
Sokol has written at length about antisemitism for a number of academic journals. He says Gobbo’s monologue settled the Merchant debate for him.
“That speech put me over the edge,” he says.
Sokol became obsessed with the play. He wrote a short novel and then a stage play. But nothing stuck. Frustrated, he began brainstorming a new way to voice his idea: music.
Sokol is quick to point out that he is not a musician. But he’s been lifelong fan of blues music, dating back to his days growing up in a predominantly Italian and Jewish neighborhood in New Jersey and scouring record-store bins in nearby black neighborhoods of Newark. He says he grew increasingly enamored with the idea of penning a musical.
“I felt challenged,” he says.
With an outline for a cabaret-style album in hand, Sokol called his old friend and local blues musician Dennis Willmott, whom he has known since 1965. Now 67, Willmott has been the leader of local blues band Left Eye Jump for 14 years. When Sokol told him about his idea, Willmott responded by reciting a lengthy passage from the play.
“I thought, This blues guy knows Shakespeare?” says Sokol. “That’s a sign.”
“It was a false promise,” Willmott interjects. The guitarist, who was a high school dropout, confesses Sokol simply presented the one play from which he happened to memorize some lines during his abridged school days. “That passage calls ideas of justice and mercy into question,” he says. “It stuck with me.”
Sokol and Willmott began collaborating on the 12 songs that compose the album. Sokol says they were written in about four days. The pair retreated to Gus Ziesing’s Low Tech Studio in Burlington to record. To flesh out the band, they enlisted local musicians, including bassist Tom Buckley, drummer Jeff Salisbury and Ziesing on saxophone. The album’s primary vocalists are Dwight Richter and Nicole Nelson, of the local blues and R&B duo Dwight & Nicole.
In Sokol’s rendering, Gobbo’s monologue is illustrated by the song “The Devil Told Me,” sung by the character Lance G. and given voice by Nelson. The song serves as the centerpiece of the album and is the clearest indication that Sokol believes Shakespeare was opposing, not supporting, bigotry.
Many critics, including noted Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom, feel The Merchant of Venice should never be performed because of the harm the play is perceived to have caused the Jewish community.
“Bloom thinks it is the single most damaging event in history against the Jews,” says Sokol. He has a point. Among its other blemishes, Merchant was used as propaganda in Nazi Germany, where performances included grotesque caricatures of Jews. But Sokol notes that the play’s central message was actually a treatise on materialism. By combining Merchant’s darker themes with the inherent hopefulness of rock and blues, Sokol hopes Shylock Sings the Blues illustrates what he believes Shakespeare was trying to say.
“On a deeper level, the story is really about trading material possessions for spiritual value, being willing to lose worldly attachments for a higher purpose” he says. “And that’s the blues. You take misery and turn it into something joyful.”
Shylock Sings the Blues is available at david-sokol.com.