We saw the theatrical streaming of the Globe Theatre’s The Merchant of Venice recently, as that’s Liz’s favorite Shakespeare play. It’s a play that always raises more questions than it answers. There is no catharsis. The tragedies may be littered with bodies by their bloody ends, but there is the sense of an ending, of finality. Momentous things have happened, the world has changed. But in Merchant — a play where no one dies — the story stops, the world remains frustratingly unchanged, and the emotions that have been churned up have nowhere to settle.
Jonathan Munby’s direction was swift and vigorous, the comic stuff was energetic and well-sold by sharp actors, the romantic moments well-paced. But we watch it for Shylock’s story, don’t we? To see what this production adds to the discussion, to see that tremendous courtroom scene, those glorious speeches.
Shylock is only in five scenes, but for modern viewers the character dominates The Merchant of Venice and its afterlife. There are damn few ways you can jazz up or reconceive the casket scenes, usually the most turgid scenes for me. Lancelot is Lancelot — what can be done? But there are seemingly endless variations on showing Shylock’s humiliation, and the hateful behavior of the Christians to the Jews.
On this viewing, Merchant struck me as a lumpy stew. Individual bits were strong but they didn’t blend well into a balanced whole. I view it as a characteristic of the play rather than the production. The play isn’t as poetic and language drunk as Romeo and Juliet, it doesn’t have the piercing personality of a Richard III. Merchant seems instead a mash-up by Shakespeare of old stories designed to give his repertory actors some good scenes to play — romance, comedy, high melodrama — while giving the audience something to keep their interest.
But Shakespeare being Shakespeare, I think that as he started working the plots to motivate the characters’ decisions, he could not help but introduce nuance, colors, and character details that likely had nothing to do with the original stories.
He also found motifs and themes that provide interesting rhyme and counterpoint throughout and help bond these disparate stories. There is the theme of fathers and daughters. Portia is as trapped by her father’s will as Jessica is physically by hers; Portia adheres to her father’s rules while Jessica doesn’t; both are rescued and rewarded by true love (perhaps); but Munby’s sharp view of wealth and Christian society make the point that Jessica dwells on the island at Portia’s pleasure.
Then, of course, the outsider theme. Shylock, obviously, but Antonio also. The young men buzz and fawn around Antonio, but it’s clear he has people who are indebted to him rather than friends. He begins the play melancholy (so he says) and ends it alive (yay) but melancholy still, one feels. He enabled Bassanio’s happiness at the potential cost of his life, but Bassanio’s happiness is for his life with Portia — Antonio remains on the outside.
Antonio is gracious and forgiving whenever Bassanio or his friends are around, but an arrogant SOB when dealing with Shylock. Antonio’s self-loathing finds release when he must deal with those lower on the social scale — someone to whom he is now indebted.
Shylock, of course, is the play’s ultimate outsider. John Barton, in the “Playing Shakespeare” episode where Patrick Stewart and David Suchet discuss their takes on Shylock, reminds us that — had Portia not intervened — Shylock would in fact have murdered Antonio. Even given what he’s suffered, can we excuse or sympathize with a murderer? Barton’s opinion is that Shylock is a bad human being and a bad Jew. I will add to this my unsupported theory, which is that Shakespeare by chance created a more human character whose actions and attitudes could not transcend a melodramatic and highly theatrical plot constructed to contain the two-dimensional characters that populate the rest of the play.
Shakespeare’s dialogue does not refer to any other Jews in the courtroom, so Shylock appears to be on his own. That interested me. The practical-theatre side of me says this is because all the members of the company are on stage for the Big Scene and so no one else was left to don the costume and makeup. So why not make a virtue of that absence? The in-play answer to this situation could then be that Shylock’s fellow Jews wanted no part of his bloody bargain and so left him to fend for himself. Their absence from the courtroom could emphasize just how far outside the pale Shylock has placed himself, even by the standards of his own community. (Tubal, depending on how he’s played, does not encourage or join in with Shylock on his tirades against the Christians.)
[Aside: when I saw the courtroom scene where the Christians turn the tables on Shylock, my mind flashed to the scene in “Oklahoma” where Judd bids on Laurie’s picnic basket. All the other cowboys come to Curly’s aid to help him outbid Judd. Even though Judd is playing by their rules, the community excludes him and refuses to let him win. Shylock had too much faith in the law to look after his interests when he sought revenge on Antonio, and didn’t calculate just how far the community would go to protect itself from him.]
Shakespeare and this production don’t make it easy to sympathize with any character. Shylock may see himself as protecting his daughter, yet he treats her shabbily. One is sympathetic to Jessica’s plight, but she also steals her father’s money and the ring given to him by Jessica’s mother — a keepsake and memory he appears to hold dear. What makes Portia think she’s a better lawyer than a lawyer? Portia puts Bassanio through the ethical wringer — why? Does she think he loves Antonio more than her? He reasoned his way to the correct casket — why does he need to be tested again? Bassanio wins Portia’s hand fair and square with his humble perspective, yet he is always in debt, changeable, and tries the patience of those who love him. Will Portia be covering his debts in future?
Patrick Stewart said that Barton’s first words to him about Shylock were, “Think of how you’ll get off stage.” Shylock’s exit can be slow, fast, defeated, dignified — it’s a way actors can stamp the part as theirs. Olivier’s offstage scream was said to be chilling. Stewart’s demonstration of his exit showed a scarily manic figure who has lost his mind. Pryce leaves the courtroom humiliated, yet Munby adds a final scene of Shylock’s baptism, with Jessica off to the side singing a Jewish lament. It’s thrillingly theatrical while its formal restraint makes the emotions underneath threaten to burst and overflow the stage. The pomp and spectacle, the Latin ritual, Pryce’s devastation — can the play really support this? I respect the scene’s power, but it is so unlike any other scene or moment in this play it seems to belong elsewhere. I think this play, hobbled by its melodramatic roots, cannot help an audience process the emotion that the director and cast fan into a righteous flame.
But…Liz and I left the screening staggered and could not stop talking about it for hours. Show me the last movie where we were able to do that.
Miscellaneous links, because it’s what I do
- NPR: Man Booker Prize Awardee Recasts Complex ‘Merchant of Venice’ Character
- The Curious Disposition | Open Letters Monthly – an Arts and Literature Review
- The American Scholar: Shylock, My Students, and Me – Paula Marantz Cohen
- Of the Globe’s production, a positive and negative review, though the latter is more “Why is this offensive play still being produced?”
- Playing Shakespeare is available for rent or purchase via Amazon Streaming Video or on DVD from Netflix