The Merchant of Venice is the play that truly drew me into Shakespeare. I wanted to study it in high school, but orchestra and college applications got in the way. Then I saw a production at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, MA. In this performance, the director – Andrei Serban, with a light hand, pointed out Antonio’s intense love for Bassanio. In this day and age, my mind immediately labeled him homosexual. This made him, like Shylock, an “other” in the world of Venice (or even Belmont, for that matter). The final image of this performance was Shylock and Antonio facing one another – not so different after all.
This was the performance that changed everything for me; it’s what proved to me that theatre is a living discourse, rather than simply an entertaining luxury. This play fascinated me and made me think hard, turning over the words and nuances over and over again. I knew then that I wanted to become a director, and eventually stage this play.
My deconstruction of the play began. I started with the thought that The Merchant of Venice is not simply a play of its time, but also a fable that examines balance, temptation, and identity. Just as gruesome fairy tales have lessons to be learned, so too the Merchant has an insightful look into our perceptions of justice. In Merchant, everyone is, at some point, on trial: “Therefore Jew, / Though justice be thy plea, consider this:/ That in the course of justice, none of us/ Should see Salvation” (V. iv). There are many aspects, which together create true justice. Justice (the law as established by human society) and Mercy (compassion) must meet in order to find a balance, and only then can peace be established. What if the same were true for the characters – what if they need one another to find true happiness and balance?
My concept developed further as I explored the idea of heroism within the play and found that…Merchant lacks a hero. In Shakespeare’s day, Portia would have been the hero; indeed, many would argue that it is her play. But there isn’t one person who truly acts in a heroic manner. Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” begins with empathy but ends in vengeance. Portia’s call for mercy is nullified with how merciless she is to Shylock in the courtroom, and how little trust she shows for her new husband. Antonio most of all has kicked, spat, and bullied Shylock to the breaking point – yet he is considered the upstanding citizen of Venice. As Gideon Lester writes, the lead characters are multi-layered, playing many parts within their roles:
“In this matrix of interdependent narrative motifs, the principal characters of Merchant play many parts. Shylock is not only the intractable, bloodthirsty usurer of the flesh-bond fable but also the abandoned father in the revenge plot and a Jewish businessman forced to compromise his beliefs and his fortune. Portia may be the passive trophy of the casket plot, but she serves more active character functions as the male impersonator in the disguise plot, the artful wife in the fable of the ring trick, and the bearer of extraordinary news who reveals to Antonio that his ships have been saved.”
To top it all off, Harold Bloom makes the extraordinary point that Shylock is not a Jew, but rather he is THE Jew. This changes the situation considerably. I cannot ignore that The Merchant of Venice was originally a timely demonstration of “Jewish” as perceived by the English society: Jew as devil. Additionally, it was important to rid the world of those whose bible features a God of vengeance rather than a God of mercy.
Since beginning rehearsals in February, I have been struggling with this complex “comedy.” I struggle to find out what the play is really about, and can list perhaps 3-4 ideas at a time. My directing mentor, Louis Contey, told me that “it’s Shakespeare. It’s all of them. Shakespeare is complex.” A recent breakthrough came when playwright Kelli Nicole Paskey asked me this same question in a different way: if The Merchant of Venice is indeed a fable, what is the moral of the story? I posed this question to the actors portraying Antonio and Shylock. After a few moments, Shylock stated: “it’s good to be Christian and rich.” Antonio said: “it’s good to have mercy.” Both actors are correct, these elements are presented in the play. For me, the moral presented by the entire piece is: “if you are consumed by vengeance, you will lose yourself.” Case in point: Shylock’s journey for vengeance leads to his loss of property, money, livelihood, and religion.
This is deeply flawed. As we know, Shylock’s vengeance does not spring from thin air. Then again, the play is about deeply flawed people. It is about applying inflexible and narrow-minded values to complex situations. It is about living in the murky grey within a world that often seems black and white – whether it is the opulent commercial society of Venice, or the idealist haven of Belmont.
After all these years, I can now fully understand why this story is called The Merchant of Venice. While we often lean towards Shylock and Portia, it is Antonio who stands for the values of the times. He might not be heroic, but he is our protagonist nonetheless. He and Portia are the ones Shakespeare’s audience would have admired, despite the fact that we have all been obsessed with Shylock ever since.
I look forward to sharing my thoughts as they evolve in this last month of rehearsals, before opening April 18th.