Dr. Ralph Brief
1. When was the play first performed?
2. Where was the play first performed?
We don’t know for sure, but probably at the Theatre, the home of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in Shoreditch, just north of London’s city wall. The first recorded production is a court performance for King James in 1605, two years after he came to the throne.
3. How does this play fit into Shakespeare’s career?
You could look at it as the play that began Shakespeare’s “mature” comedies in which he blends darker matter into a play with a large amount of comic material.
4. How is this play like Shakespeare’s other plays?
Merchant is a prime example of Shakespeare’s ability to create characters that we can see in different lights. Thus Shylock is both the villain and the victim; Portia is both the heroine and the complacent spoiled girl judging a book by its cover; Bassanio is both the play’s hero and a lucky dunderhead imposing on a man in love with him; and Antonio, the actual merchant of Venice, is both a generous patron and a lovesick man passive aggressively living in the closet.
5. How is this play unlike other Shakespeare plays?
This is the outsiders’ play. It not only shows us the plight of Jews in an anti-Semitic society, but it also suggests the way the deck is stacked against Africans, the disabled, and the old.
6. What do scholars think about this play?
As a scholar, I agree with the nearly unanimous view that Merchant is one of Shakespeare’s most polished works. As a director, I would add that it is as efficient a theatrical machine as any that Shakespeare ever built. It uses comedy, romance, and suspense to keep an audience in its grip. As a Jew, I confess I wish it didn’t.
7. Are there any controversies surrounding the work?
This play as much as any Shakespeare wrote raises the question of how we experience works from other periods that expose the faults of their own time. How do we deal with the great plays and books, including the Bible, where xenophobia and prejudice are the givens of the world they come from? And how do we avoid being smug, since doubtless future generations will ask that of our works? Does
the play endorse anti-Semitism or interrogate it? Do productions of Merchant of Venice perpetuate discrimination? Or do such productions help us see ourselves more clearly? Is Shylock, the Jew, a stock comic character? If so, how do we hear this famous plea: “I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?” Was that funny then? Is it funny now? And what about the play’s black man, the Prince of Morocco, who is often played
for laughs? His first words in the play to the white woman he has come to woo are “Mislike me not for my complexion.” Was that funny then? Is it funny now? (Spoiler alert: she does mislike him for his complexion.)
8. What scene should I especially look for?
The trial scene is justifiably one of the most famous in stage history.
9. What characters should I especially look for?
Every role in this play is fascinating, but both Shylock and Portia have secured countless theatre careers. They are the two brilliant but flawed poles of this face-off between the Old Testament (law) and the New Testament (love).
10. What is the language like?
Exquisite in every key.