On August 4, Chicago Shakespeare Theater welcomed Shakespeare’s Globe for a ten-day stand with their touring production of The Merchant of Venice, directed by Jonathan Munby. Munby has directed for Chicago Shakespeare Theater before as well, most recently in the 2016 production of Othello, set in a modern military context. In counterpoint, his Merchant of Venice was staged in early modern costumes, neck ruffs and puffy pantaloons keeping company with red skull caps for Shylock and Tubal.
It is virtually impossible in the post-Holocaust era to stage The Merchant of Venice in the genre category in which it originally appeared on stage: comedy. Its ugly episodes of anti-Semitism and forced conversion of Shylock from Judaism to Christianity are anathema in modern cultures that strive for religious tolerance. In Munby’s production comedy was localized to a specific group of characters, treating the main Shylock plot with somber seriousness. Two of the most significant comic foils were Stefan Adegbola’s Launcelot Gobbo (the cut text dispensed with Old Gobbo) and Jolyon Coy’s Gratiano, who made his first stage entrance following the protracted opening Venetian Carnival prologue drunkenly puking into a metal bucket. Unless I am mistaken, Rachel Pickup (Portia) and Dorothea Myer-Bennett (Nerissa) appeared in the long carnival prologue as masked courtesans, their hair twisted into cornutos, in a foreshadowing of their disguised stint as a legal scholar and a clerk. In addition to this courtesan stint being of a piece with the later jesting with their ring-surrendering spouses about having slept with the lawyer and clerk, Portia also had moments of onstage flirtation with Andy Apollo’s Lorenzo, suggestively cutting in with him as he danced at Belmont with his wife, Jessica. Just as Munby’s production eschewed any notion of a happy ending for Shylock, the final stage grouping of the trio of young married couples with Antonio as a heartbroken seventh wheel offered little promise of happily ever after.
The raucous prologue, with live musicians onstage egging on the excesses of the debauched carnival-goers, took place with the house lights up, patrons still making their way to their seats. The over-the-top nature of the revelry put a thumb on the scale in favor of Shylock’s later castigation of the depravity of Venetian carnival before we ever heard him deliver it. The excesses of this opening, and the broad brush strokes delineating Gratiano’s character—in a brief Italian interlude he was accosted by a woman with a baby, who was clearly taxing him with failure to support his out-of-wedlock child—were of a piece with the full house lights of the prologue, as gestures toward this production’s original staging in the outdoor venue of the Globe Theatre in Southwark. Some of these broad gestures played less well in the more intimate, indoor setting of Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and set me to musing anew about the likely alterations that Shakespeare’s own theater company might have made as productions migrated from the outdoor, open-air theaters to the dark, indoor spaces like the Blackfriars Theatre, patronized by a narrower cross-section of society than the Globe.
Continuing to sound the comic register from the bass to the treble, both of Portia’s princely suitors—Giles Terera’s Prince of Morocco and Christopher Logan’s Prince of Arragon—were played as buffoons, Morocco a scimitar-wielding ass-grabber, and Arragon a mincing narcissist in love with his own shadow … and reflection. Pickup alternated between arrogant disdain for men she clearly considered beneath her, and nervous fear that one of these idiots would choose the proper casket, tying her to them for life. She openly tried to guide Bassanio to the proper casket as a disapproving Balthasar (Colin Haigh) looked on, holding the three keys on a gilt and velvet platter.
A broad brush was also used in the characterization of Antonio (Dominic Mafham), though for darker purposes. Bassanio clearly had a sexual attraction to Dan Fredenburgh’s Bassanio, who gently rebuffed Antonio’s attempt to kiss him after the court scene, for example. Antonio’s naked hostility to Shylock visibly appalled Bassanio when Antonio approached him for a loan on his friend’s behalf; Bassanio looked on in horror as Antonio snatched a religious text from Shylock’s hands and threw it to the ground at his feet.
Adegbola bridged these broad characterizations with his comic style, effectively bridging the comedic and serious plots, as the former servant of Shylock (and confidante of Jessica), who joins the service of Bassanio. As he debated the pros and cons of leaving Shylock’s service, Adegbola brought up two audience members to stand in as his conscience (“budge not”) and the fiend (“budge”). In Adegbola’s expert hands, even this witty, fourth-wall-breaking scene (an aspect of it Adegbola broke with the text to point out) subtly underlined the production’s taking of Shylock’s part—it is “the fiend,” after all, who counsels abandoning the Jew’s service.
Jonathan Pryce brought a wonderful subtlety to Shylock; while the production tilted in favor of sympathy for him, he was no angel, treating Gobbo with vicious contempt, and entering for the first time with Jessica—sensitively played by Pryce’s own daughter, Phoebe—heatedly arguing in Hebrew. Jessica’s elopement—coupled with her theft of money and jewels from her father as a self-determined dowry for her marriage to Lorenzo—turned Shylock’s long suffering sharply in the direction of vindictive revenge. Pryce’s transformation from contempt of Antonio to open hatred of him was beautifully calibrated in the way in which he delivered his lines, sinking gradually from a rational resentment of an abuser to the fear of a cornered animal, which will attack in self-defense. In the court Shylock turned the tables on Antonio initially, eagerly whetting his knife on the sole of his shoe and producing a set of brass scales from his carpet bag.
In court, Antonio appeared as a broken shell of his former arrogant self, in a tattered shift. When Portia in her guise as legal scholar temporarily conceded that the bond was forfeit, the pound of flesh Shylock’s due, a cross-beam with manacles on each end flew in from above, and the bearded and disheveled Antonio was affixed to it, briefly resembling Christ on the cross. However, given what we had seen of Antonio’s conduct prior to this scene, he scarcely seemed an ideal Christ figure. By this point in the play, the image appeared more of a critique of Christian hypocrisy than an elevation of Antonio’s suffering, much of which was the result of his own previous conduct.
Jessica emerged as a significant figure in Munby’s production, with numerous stage moments indicative of the conflicted nature of her character. Her relationship with her father, Shylock, was initially tense and bitter; her interactions with Gobbo were tender and loving; Lorenzo defended his love of Jessica to his fleering friends, Solanio and Gratiano, vehemently, lending legitimacy to a relationship that has, in some productions, been depicted as opportunistic on Lorenzo’s part. After the interval, Jessica had a silent, solo stage moment in which she seemed depressed; Lorenzo approached to offer her a present: a large cross pendant on a necklace. Jessica brightened at the gift, and turned to let Lorenzo put it on her. However, her happiness was soon undercut by the mistress of Belmont; Portia sailed in, handed her wine to Jessica as if she were a common servant, and cut in on her to dance away with her husband. Jessica was jealous of Portia, but Lorenzo, in his turn, was jealous of the friendly intimacy between Jessica and Gobbo. All of these conflicted emotions were conveyed by the actors in brief scenes punctuating the information provided in the actual text.
The most stunning effect, however, was reserved for the epilogue. Just as the play began with carnival stage business that is not overtly in the text, it concluded with stage business that is forecast in the play text, but not staged within it. As Jessica read the court order giving her possession of half of Shylock’s estate, she became increasingly agitated, eventually breaking into a song of mourning in Hebrew. The upstage wall then parted, breaking the darkness of Jessica’s stage moment with a blaze of light, as white-clad priests carrying censors accompanied Shylock in a white shift on stage, chanting “Credo” in Latin, as he underwent his forced baptism. Jessica continued her Hebrew lament, punctuating the Christian ceremony, the two religions colliding in the epilogue in see-saw fashion, the daughter who had willingly converted now returning to the religious tradition—and, by extension, the father—she had spurned, as Shylock reluctantly followed his daughter into Christianity.
No one died in Munby’s Merchant of Venice, making it no tragedy, but the community created via marriage and religious conversion in the final scenes scarcely seemed a happy one. The Globe brought a tragical comedy to Navy Pier, the emphasis on the tragic, the comedy reserved, on the whole, for characters who flitted through the production, tragedy the register for the central ones.
Regina Buccola is a professor and the chair of the Department of Literature and Languages at Roosevelt University in Chicago, where she also serves as core faculty in Women’s and Gender Studies. She has published several books on early modern British drama and culture, most recently as editor of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Critical Guide and co-editor, with Peter Kanelos, of Chicago Shakespeare Theater: Suiting the Action to the Word. Recent journal publications have appeared in Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England and Borrowers and Lenders: The Journal of Shakespeare and Appropriation. She serves as the scholar-in-residence at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and is one of the Midwest American reviewers for the online journal, Reviewing Shakespeare.