Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was joined by Shakespeare scholars for a roundtable discussion about “The Merchant of Venice” before watching her grandson, Paul Spera, perform in the play on Saturday, Oct. 23 in Alexander Kasser Theater.
The 84-year-old Justice visited Montclair State University to discuss the moral center of the production with professor David Scott Kastan from Yale University as well as professor James Shapiro from Columbia University. Over 100 people, including students, faculty and the press, attended the event.
Ginsburg recalled having a connection to the play early on from her childhood in Brooklyn. She said the play was banned from public schools in New York City at the time, but she read it anyway. During the discussion, the Justice demonstrated her undeniable expertise of the law as well as Shakespeare.
The play, which is being performed on campus at Alexander Kasser Theater through Oct. 1, has often raised the concern over its anti-Semitic theme. The character Shylock lends money to a fellow merchant but demands it back despite the merchant’s loss of his ship. His behavior supposedly stems from the desire to inflict unfair treatment on Jewish people.
When Ginsburg was asked if the show is anti-Semitic, she replied, “Compared to what?”
Professor Shapiro asked Ginsburg how Shakespeare was educated about the law, citing the legal facets of the show.
“Perhaps he was a lawyer,” she joked.
The professors asked Ginsburg about the concept of original intent and how it applies to this particular show.
“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.”
She noted that free speech and freedom of religion are values she believes should always stay in power.
“We the people,” she said, citing the preamble of the U.S. Constitution.
She questioned who “the people” were at that time and how certain groups of people, including women and people of color, were often excluded. Ginsburg said the meaning of “We the People” has changed over time.
Towards the end of the discussion, Shapiro thanked Ginsburg and Kastan joked that he is grateful she is still on the court.
Ginsburg met with guests in the School of Communication and Media’s lobby following the roundtable. Afterward, she attended the play.