Shakespeare’s Globe – The Merchant of Venice

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The Merchant of Venice is an Elizabethan romantic comedy that time and changing mores, especially attitudes towards Jews and a post-Holocaust abhorrence of anti-Semitism, have transformed into a modern dark tragicom­edy. Shylock, the comic blocking figure who, like Hermia’s father in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, stands in the way of young lovers, has become in most productions of The Merchant of Venice the play’s tragic protagonist.

In the Elizabethan romantic comedy, Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, and her Christian lover, Lorenzo, must circumvent the old usurer in order to marry; and before Portia and Bassanio and Nerissa and Gratiano may consummate their marriages, Portia in a thrilling cross-dressed performance as a brilliant young lawyer must save Bassanio’s friend, Antonio, from Shylock’s murderous attempt on his life. She succeeds in a last-minute courtroom tour de force that uses Shylock’s legalism against him: if in taking his contractual pound of flesh from Antonio’s breast, Shylock spills a drop of blood or takes even slightly more or less than a pound, his own life is forfeit. Defeated and then “generously” ordered by Antonio and the Duke of Venice to convert to Christianity, thereby saving his life and his soul, Shylock leaves the stage to the lovers for the play’s idyllic and humorous final act.

This modern darkly tragicomic Merchant of Venice gives us instead a sympathetic Shylock abused by Christians, especially Antonio, abandoned and robbed by his only child, and fighting back in the only way he can in an environment of intense and pervasive anti-Semitism: that is, by insisting on a strict interpretation of the law of contracts that Venice must uphold or risk losing its position as the most important commercial power in the Mediterranean. In this version, Portia’s cunning interpretation of the relevant legal statute deflates Shylock’s businessman’s belief in the law of commerce, while the order for his forced conversion destroys his sense of identity as a Jew and as a human being.

Shakespeare’s Globe’s production of The Merchant of Venice, directed by Jonathan Munby and one of several international shows visiting Chicago Shakespeare Theater during this quatercentenary year, does the best job of balancing the Elizabethan romantic comedy and the modern tragicomedy of any production I have seen. After almost half a century I still vividly remember Laurence Olivier’s acutely intelligent and heartbreaking Shylock in a production directed by Jonathan Miller that was marked by the anti-Semitism of all of its Christian characters. But by focusing on the tragedy of Shylock and allowing the Christians no redeeming features, this production, brilliant and groundbreaking as it was, lost some of what is or can still be delightful in the play’s romantic comedy.

Jonathan Munby’s Merchant, by contrast, gave to every character his or her due. There was no attempt to gain extra sympathy for Shylock by sentimentalizing his relationship with his daughter—at their first appearance together they were quarreling in Yiddish. And the Christian characters were a more morally mixed and nuanced bunch than in some productions I have seen. While excoriating anti-Semitism, Munby also presented the more complex and perhaps uncomfortable truth that idealism and intolerance, decency and bigotry, can exist in the same person and that being an outsider oneself (Antonio as homosexual) need not grant one compassion for another kind of outsider.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s stage was dressed to evoke rather than precisely imitate Shakespeare’s Globe in London, where Munby’s production originated. Dark curtains covered the back wall; simple tables, chairs, and plinths were brought on as needed; actors entered through a large central opening, from the sides, and through the audience. The permanent architectural features, as in Shakespeare’s Globe, were two tall pillars, whose capitals were lit up to resemble gold in the Belmont scenes. The period costumes also emphasized the contrast between Venice and Belmont. The Venetians wore dull colors highlighted by red; in Belmont blonde heiress Portia wore gold, and Bassanio and Jessica, too, exchanged their drab Venetian clothes for golden ones in Belmont. Sixteenth-century Italy was evoked, too, by bursts of Italian music and pleasing Italian songs that punctuated the production and provided a basis for Lorenzo’s beautiful invocation of the power of music in act five.

The production opened with a noisy carnival scene that was already underway as the audience took their seats. This prologue set the tone for the action to come as the good-natured jollity of maskers, musicians, and courtesans gave way to a violent, unprovoked attack on two Jews as they crossed the stage.

In keeping with the spirit of performance at Shakespeare’s Globe, the actors in the prologue and in the play proper interacted with the audience. In particular, Launcelot (an engaging Stefan Adegbola) brought up onto the stage members of the audience to play the “fiend” and his “conscience” as he debated leaving Shylock’s service. At the performance I attended (August 14), the first “fiend” (a local Shakespear­ean perhaps?) to the great amusement of the audience left the stage at the line “use your legs,” and a second had to be recruited. At other times actors drew the audience into their world by referring to particular spectators. Most interestingly, Shylock (Jonathan Pryce) spoke his early asides to the audience, at those moments incorporating all of us as fellow Jews in an anti-Semitic society.

The Christians in Munby’s production were not uniformly anti-Semitic. I have seen worse: for example, the vicious Venetians of Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s 2005 production, which featured Mike Nussbaum as Shylock. Most virulent of Munby’s Christians were Antonio (Dominic Mafham) and Gratiano (Jolyon Coy). Antonio was initially a sympathetic and dignified figure in his impossible but generous love for Bassanio. When Solanio (Raj Bajaj) asked him if he was sad because he was in love, Mafham’s vehement “Fie” spoke volumes about the pain of keeping his feelings private. But in his interactions with Shylock, this Antonio was exceptionally brutal, verbally and physically, and when finally he shook Shylock’s hand to seal their bargain, he immediately wiped his own on his garment. Gratiano, immoderate in all things (he first entered the stage in the process of throwing up and later was accused of fathering a baby), equally displayed mean-spiritedness, not only baiting Shylock during the trial but also attempting—through gestural interjections—to dissuade Lorenzo from marrying Jessica.

To his credit, Lorenzo (Andy Apollo), while clearly one of the boys, stood up for his love for Jessica with some spirit. Allowing Lorenzo this grace paid off in the last act when Shakespeare gives this young lover the most beautiful lines in the play about the loveliness of the starry night and the harmony of the music of the spheres: “Such harmony is in immortal souls.” In the Olivier production, the moment had to be subverted in keeping with the general degradation of the Christians—the foppish Lorenzo carefully put his handkerchief on the ground for himself to sit on. Apollo’s Lorenzo put his jacket on the ground for Jessica. All the difference in the world. And an exquisite moment was preserved.

The most decent of the Christians was Dan Fredenburgh’s Bassanio, the most likeable Bassanio I can remember. Unlike Antonio, whose excess he attempted to restrain, Bassanio did not wipe his hand after shaking Shylock’s (admittedly a low bar). Despite his impecuniousness, he did not play Antonio, instead gently deflecting an attempted kiss on the lips, and he appeared truly to love Portia, not only her money.

Though more acerbic than her Bassanio, Rachel Pickup offered a somewhat nuanced portrait of Portia. The audience could sympathize enough with her wit and charm and her beautifully spoken love for Bassanio to enjoy the romance of the caskets plot while cringing at her racial prejudice towards the Prince of Morocco and later Jessica. The choice to make Morocco (a character whose eloquence has encouraged critics to see him as a trial-run for Othello) as ridiculous as the Prince of Aragon somewhat mitigated the bad taste left by Portia’s racist abhorrence of this suitor. Both Giles Terera as Morocco and Christopher Logan as Aragon gave highly entertaining over-the-top performances of cultural stereotypes that brought the house down, leaving one to wonder perhaps whether it is, after all, any more acceptable to mock Spaniards (or Dutchmen or Englishmen, like Portia’s other undesirable but unseen suitors) than Africans.

Portia was least sympathetic in her offhand attitude to Jessica. Both she and Nerissa (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) repeatedly had difficulty remember­ing Jessica’s name (in the manner established by Joan Plowright’s Portia in Olivier’s production). And at one point Portia handed Jessica her wine glass as if she were a servant. In the court scene Portia really did not figure out how to save Antonio until the last possible moment, making this well-known episode something of a nail-biter. But though perhaps less calculating than some Portias in this respect, Pickup was nasty enough in her put-down of Shylock.

The show belonged to Shylock—and to a greater extent than is usual to Jessica. Advance publicity prepared audiences for this focus by foregrounding the real-life father-daughter relationship between Jonathan Pryce’s Shylock and Phoebe Pryce’s Jessica. Maintaining his precarious masculine dignity through a harsh self-sufficiency, Pryce’s Shylock was as passionately prejudiced against Christians as they were against Jews, obviously with more cause. But though he intended retribution from the beginning in proposing the “merry sport” of his contract with Antonio, the savagery of his revenge was primed by his daughter’s elopement with a Christian. Expecting to triumph in the court of law, Shylock was instead humiliated by Portia, who reduced this strong, passionate individual to a frail old man—“I am not well”—and eviscerated him, body and soul.

The keynote figure in Munby’s production was actually Jessica rather than Shylock. The audience apprehended Jewish experience in an anti-Semitic society through Jessica’s attempts to engage with Venetian culture. At first more reprehensible than sympathetic in running off with her lover and her father’s money, Jessica gained the audience’s sympathy when, as an outsider at Belmont, she was ignored by Portia and Nerissa. Later, tutored by Lorenzo in private moments, Jessica learned to dance and to speak in appropriately fulsome language about Portia, whom, understandably, she did not like. Her delight in her new art of dancing and her new golden dress was irresistible. And so the audience was drawn with Jessica into acquiescence in the tempting pleasures of Belmont—that is, until she learned what had been done to her father.

Shylock’s exit from the court is his textual exit from Shakespeare’s play, but not from most contemporary productions, which find ways to bring him back to disturb the comic harmony of Belmont. The Olivier production, for example, concluded with the offstage recitation of the Kaddish. The 2004 film of The Merchant of Venice, starring Al Pacino, showed the newly baptized Shylock being barred from the Jewish ghetto. In Munby’s production, while Portia and Bassanio and Nerissa and Gratiano were amusingly resolving their quarrels about their rings, Jessica read with horror the letter that Portia brought to Belmont detailing events in Venice. Implicitly, she realized what she had done in abandoning her father for Lorenzo, Judaism for Christianity.

The play ended with a devastating coda as a procession entered to perform the ceremony of Shylock’s baptism. In agony Pryce’s Shylock could barely respond with the required “Credo” to each article of the Christian Creed. In counterpoint to the triumphal Latin chanting of the Catholic ceremony, Jessica kneeled at the side of the stage singing with passionate sorrow a Hebrew prayer of repentance, begging for forgiveness. The Christian procession exited, and Lorenzo returned to take Jessica into Portia’s house. But just as the doors were closing, she turned to face the audience. She was trapped—like Shylock.

The exceptional darkness of this ending to what was in many respects an audience-pleasing production of The Merchant of Venice was both deeply moving and theatrically thrilling. And the discordance was by no means out of keeping with what Shakespeare himself does elsewhere in his drama, even in an early romantic comedy such as Love’s Labor’s Lost, which I look forward to seeing at Chicago Shakespeare Theater next February.

Verna Foster is a professor of English at Loyola University Chicago, where she specializes in modern drama, dramatic theory and Shakespeare. She holds her PhD, MPhil and BA in English from University of London. Her publications include a book on tragicomedy, as well as numerous articles.

Shakespeare’s Globe – The Merchant of Venice

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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.