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Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Supreme Court Justice, Shakespearean Actress

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on April 08, 2016 12:10 PM

This summer, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will finally get her Broadway debut -- well, sort of. In July, Justice Ginsburg will take part in a performance of Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice." The play is being performed in Venice to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the city's Jewish ghetto.

And no, she's not playing Shylock. Justice Ginsburg will, fittingly, preside over a mock trial of the play's main characters.

All the World's a Stage

Today, "The Merchant of Venice" is one of Shakespeare's most controversial work. The play details the persecution of Shylock, a Jewish moneylender who seeks payment after his Christian patron defaults on a loan. And it is rife with legal themes -- wills, contracts, and Renaissance lawyers abound -- but also antisemitism and racism. In critics' eyes, according to the Independent:

The Merchant of Venice is just too divisive, comes with too much historical baggage, and for many is just too distressing not to have your defense ready to hand. A common line is that it's not just the spat-upon Jewish moneylender Shylock who gets it in the neck: Shakespeare is equally scathing about its Christian characters; it's a play about bigotry in all its forms.

But those themes make "The Merchant" not only controversial, but incredibly interesting -- a particularly relevant play for the Venetian ghetto's quincentennial anniversary.

That ghetto itself has a complicated history. At once a product of intolerance and segregation (Venice's designated Jewish neighborhood was the first ever to be called a "ghetto"), Venice's ghetto was also an international melting pot. And as it turns 500, the city is taking pains to celebrate "not the ghetto's walls, but the rich and diverse cultural traditions that flourished inside them," the anniversary coordinator told the Washington Post.

Not Her First Shakespeare Performance

Justice Ginsburg won't be playing an actual role in "The Merchant of Venice." And there's no word on what she'll cover in her mock trial. (Will it be a case of The People v. Shakespeare, perhaps? Or a discussion of contractual obligations circa 1596? All we know is that the main characters will be on trial.)

But this isn't the justice's first time on stage. She and Justice Scalia appeared as supernumeraries (that's opera-talk for extras) in "Ariadne auf Naxos" at the Washington National Opera in 1994.

And "The Merchant" won't even be Justice Ginsburg's first tangle with Shakespeare. She's appeared in D.C.'s Shakespeare Theatre numerous times, she told Politico in 2014. The theater had "a tradition of inviting Supreme Court justices to come for just one night," she explained. Her favorite performance was playing Dick the Butcher in "Henry VI," who gives the famous line, "First thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers."

"And next the reporters," she ad libbed.

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