Summer/Fall 2004

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Stuff that Happens
Stuff that happens in the play
  • Antonio, the “merchant of Venice,” is sad; his friends try to cheer him up. Bassanio, Antonio’s closest friend, asks Antonio for financial help in wooing Portia, the rich heiress of Belmont. Antonio’s “fortunes are at sea,” so he cannot provide Bassanio with cash, but he agrees to “inquire where money is” and leaves with Bassanio to find someone who will loan him the money.
  • Portia and Nerissa lament the “lottery” provision in the will of Portia’s dead father: a potential suitor must choose among three caskets; the suitor who chooses the correct casket, which contains a portrait of Portia, wins Portia’s hand. Suitors risk much: “if [they] choose wrong, never to speak to lady afterward in way of marriage.” Portia and Nerissa then mock the suitors who have already come courting.
  • Bassanio and Antonio ask Shylock, a rich Jewish moneylender, for a loan of 3,000 ducats.
  • Shylock offers to lend the money under the condition that, if Antonio is unable to pay back the appointed amount on the appointed day, Antonio must forfeit a pound of his “fair flesh.” Antonio agrees.
  • The Prince of Morocco arrives in Belmont to woo Portia.
  • Launcelot Gobbo decides to leave the service of Shylock, plays tricks on his “sand-blind” father, and become Bassanio’s servant.
  • Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, says goodbye to Launcelot and then makes plans to elope with Lorenzo, a Christian friend of Antonio and Bassanio.
  • At Belmont, the Prince of Morocco and the Prince of Arragon choose the wrong caskets.
  • Shylock discovers that his daughter has eloped with a Christian and that Antonio’s ship will not arrive in time to pay the loan; Shylock decides that he will demand the pound of flesh promised to him in Antonio’s bond.
  • Bassanio arrives in Belmont, chooses the right casket, and wins the right to marry Portia; his friends from Venice arrive in Belmont to tell Bassanio that Shylock is demanding a pound of flesh from Antonio.
  • Marriages, disguises, judgements, and things with rings ensue.
Notes from the Director
no clear answers forthcoming

The Merchant of Venice has meddled with history in a way unique in Shakespeare. In a sense, the play has acted on our consciousness by creating an indelible and pernicious stereotype of the Jew, making the play an accessory before the fact of the final solution. After the holocaust we teach ourselves differently now, rightly insisting on tolerance and celebrating diversity. It’s difficult to find a place in this program for a comedy which invites us to share in the complete triumph of a charming Christian girl over an embittered and humiliated Jew. As Harold Bloom says, “an honest production of the play, sensitive to its values, would now be intolerable in a western society.”

The history of The Merchant of Venice in performance is thus a history of necessary adjustments. By the 19th century, the Elizabethan comic villain, reputedly stalking his pound of flesh in a red wig and big nose, had disappeared from view, to be replaced by the tragic and demonic figures of Macklin, Kean, and Irving. More recently, the play’s Christians are shown warts and all, hardly any better than the Jews they despise. Together with further directional interpolations, these corrections have rescued the play from what many consider its anti-Semitic bias.

But complications remain because The Merchant of Venice is problematic in so many ways. Always the riskiest of playwrights, Shakespeare here proposed a radical experiment. He sets an ancient fairy tale in a modern commercial city and produces an odd hybrid which strangely allows the fairy tale’s magical wisdom to reward a rather feckless though amiable fortune hunter. The winning heroine sallies forth to plead famously for mercy and minutes later forces a religious conversion on her defeated adversary. The play’s most potent character is dismissed prematurely, with no part in the final comedy of disguise and revelation. Closely examined, nearly every moment in this play – from Antonio’s mysterious melancholy to Gobbo’s cruel comedy to Jessica’s elopement – is a problem crying our for a solution, an answer.

This production, created for a playhouse that approximates original performance conditions, is deliberately designed not to solve any of these problems, to give any clear answers, or to rescue the play from any of its considerable difficulties. While The Merchant of Venice looks like a recipe for a play that cannot work, the play in performance strangely does – despite and perhaps because of its difficulties. At this moment the play looks more modern than ever. As I write, our country (like Portia, rich, alarmed, and determined) has committed its resources into changing another country into a democracy, and questions arise as to whether this forced conversion is a punishment, a liberation, or a wise or unwise pre-emptive strategy. A young woman appears in photographs cheerfully abusing Iraqi prisoners, and this same woman, we learn, has a deserved reputation for courage, kindness, and exceptional generosity among her own kind. Abroad, we are engaged with an implacable and antithetical “other;” at home, stocks rebound and domestic comedies journey to their happy ends – they matter too. With no clear answers forthcoming, the nature mirrored in Shakespeare’s charming and troubling play increasingly looks like our own.