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 three thousand 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 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 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 a casket, and his friends from Venice arrive in Belmont to tell Bassanio that Shylock is demanding the pound of flesh from Antonio.
- Marriages, disguises, judgements, and things with rings ensue.
Notes from the Director
love, hate, and commerce
Our approach to this production of The Merchant of Venice at the American Shakespeare Center stems from two aspects of Shakespeare’s profound and unparalleled talent: his keen observation of human behavior and his sensitivity to the social and political consciousness of the world around him. We wanted to explore both the artist’s personal journey, reflected in his characters, as well as his social commentary on modern England. Penned among the complex comedies of Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, and As You Like It, Merchant combines the maturation of romantic coupling with a deep-seated darkness that dangerously affects the characters’ ability to judge. But before we began to connect to the characters, we needed to be clear about the social commentary.
I began with the ambiguous title; it refers to a merchant, one who participates in commerce. Commerce is at the heart of almost every interaction in the play; it is often mistaken for or masked under the guise of love. Between all of the relationships in the play there is a gray area between commerce and love that clouds intent. In addition, Shakespeare specifically sets the play in Venice, the center of commerce in the Elizabethan world. The characters are inescapably surrounded by the gains and losses of business transaction. I kept asking myself, “If money is at the heart of this community, how does this affect the lives of the people who live there? What would they do for money? And what does money do to them?”
Just below the surface of Shakespeare’s mercantile society lies an al too familiar undercurrent of hate. Although Elizabethan England was saturated with an openly racist and anti-Semitic point of view, Shakespeare aims its release during business transactions. There is no reason for these characters to hate each other, except for their competition in business. Healthy bartering turns to religious attacks in an instant. As with any bigoted mentality, they stop realizing there is a human being across from them. All they see is what is different from them, and that must be wrong.
Along with the timelessness of romance, friendship, and sacrifice, Shakespeare observes a society that perpetually attacks what it does not understand. Whether we say it out loud or think it in our heads it is there. When we judge from the outside we continually find ourselves taking less and less time to understand the true value of another person. We take one look and place an uninformed value on someone. If it takes too long to understand, we dismiss it. Shakespeare pits our human capacity for love and hate together in his world of commercial transaction. Just as we can have sympathy for Shylock, we can also find Portia distasteful. Once again, he is holding the mirror up to nature, and we don’t always like what we see.
As you may know, the American Shakespeare Center has a wonderfully focused canvas on which to paint. These guidelines have created much of the world of this production. As in Shakespeare’s time, we have an ensemble of performers, who have taken elements of their contemporary world in order to tell a story about a world far from their own. Just as Shakespeare’s company would have taken costumes and props from his world, so has this company from ours. The play is not modernized; the story, the characters, the place is entirely Elizabethan. However, the world that we have mined to tell this story is our own: contemporary America. Along with our talent and love of Shakespeare, the artists involved all have one thing in common: we are fueled with a passion to tell this story. Just as Shakespeare has done with The Merchant of Venice, we are commenting on the world around us with the hope that our two-hours traffic will effect some small change in the world today.