A difficult play done well is a joy to see. They don't come much tougher than Shakespeare's tale of revenge, race hatred, and love doubted, The Merchant of Venice. This post will be neither a review - which would be premature, since the play opens tonight - nor an explication of the texts, which I have no intention of working hard enough to write. Instead, I want to share some observations on the difficulties of bringing this complex and in many ways deeply unsatisfying script to the stage.
First, and most obvious is the problem of Shylock, the Jew. To our 21st century minds, the money lender's treatment is beyond horrific. While Shakespeare almost certainly intended the role to carry much of the villain's burden, the epithets and antisemitism of Venice make it very difficult to root against him. We don't want to see him win his bond, but at the same time, we hate to see him lose when the odds are so stacked against him from the start. It is hard to say how I would approach this matter as a Director. The Actor's job is a little easier. Still, making this powerful character believable in a world that renders him so very powerless is a daunting task.
Then there is the matter of Portia, another character of great energy and force whose circumstances compel her to play the weak woman. Portia's story comes in three chapters. First the contest of the caskets and her subsequent marriage. Then comes her courtroom scene, one of Shakespeare's most masterful "trousers roles." Finally, there is a reconciliation of sorts when the couples are reunited in Venice and the mystery of the rings is revealed. Like Shylock, Portia is trapped by the role in which life has cast her. Her father's chattel. Her gender's prisoner. But finally, her husband's master. The manipulation she uses to persuade Basanio to break his vow to keep her ring is hard, but not irresistible. That he is persuaded by his friends to do so reflects poorly on him, but doesn't really make Portia particularly lovable, either. Again, the Director has a mountain of a choice to make. Do we look for the comedy in the role reversals at the heart of Portia's story, or do we play her as a powerful woman struggling to keep some element of control of her world? The choice that is made may not be as important as the fact that a choice be made, and the audience not left to wonder.
Lastly there is the Merchant himself. Antonio is a melancholic fellow driven near distraction by his financial ruin and the weight of the bond he so recklessly makes with Shylock. Again, the antisemitism of the play becomes a major obstacle. We want to root for Antonio, but his treatment of the Jew is so repugnant, cursing him to his face, pulling his beard, spitting on his clothes. It is impossible to want to see this arrogant man be victorious. But Antonio is ultimately redeemed by his love for Bassanio. In his willingness to sacrifice his life for his friend, he wins just enough of our hearts to make us want to see him keep that pound of flesh that he has promised to give away.
In the end, no one really gets what they want out of The Merchant of Venice. Shylock loses his fortune and his daughter. Portia gains a husband, but loses her faith in him. And Antonio, who should come out smelling like a rose, is left with a strangely unsatisfying victory. He has saved his life and regained his treasure, but lost something that is harder to pin down. His honor? His manhood? His faith? Again, choices that are left to the Actor and Director. Shakespeare chooses to leave the audience hanging, just as his characters seem to be. Not even we are allowed the easy resolution we might hope for in a less challenging play.
I watched the final dress rehearsal of Merchant last night with Mrs P and our friend Tami. It was lovely to be in the park and just wonderful to be among "my people." There really are no people like show people. It was a joyful reunion for me. One I hope to repeat again and again as I get back up on my feet. In the meantime, if you're on your feet in Lexington this week, I encourage you to move them to the Arboretum to have a crack at a fine production of a play you are not likely to see played this well anytime soon.
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