|The Merchant of Venice|
|Written by Administrator|
|Friday, 22 April 2005 06:14|
The Merchant of Venice: Maude Adams as Portia, a portrait by Blendon Campbell. Copyright The Cleveland Memory Project.
STAGING THE MERCHANT OF VENICE
This play is one of the most over-interpreted of all Shakespeare's, because of our modern anxiety over racist stereotypes. The "merchant" of the title is actually the emotionally disturbed, indeed downright suicidal Antonio, whose mental sickness is the opening theme of the play (1.1.1-55) and is reflected in his numerous excessive reactions to his associates: in his morbid commitment to the volatile Bassanio (5.1.249-253), and his obsessive hatred of the Jewish Shylock (1.3.106-137). This latter Jewish character is not the play's principal figure, for he only appears in four out of the play's twenty scenes, though with powerful claims on our sympathy. Antonio's obsessive harshness understandably drives Shylock to a murderous fury, which Antonio then attempts to use as a means of pathetic suicide (4.1.114-118). Both figures remain socially disconnected at the end of the play: Shylock seeks "leave to go from hence: I am not well" (4.1.395) and Antonio's last words are equally ominous: "I am dumb" (5.1.279).
Modern performances often misrepresent Renaissance Venice as brutally and uniformly antisemitic, when it was then the most ethnically tolerant society in Europe and accepted Jewish refugees from persecution in Spain and elsewhere, giving them many rights and public functions (which is not to say these equal the requirements of modern multiculturalism, as its Ghetto illustrates). This characteristic of Venice Shakespeare may have learned from his Dark Lady, if she were indeed an Italian musician, the Jewish Emilia Bassano, as claimed by James Shapiro in Shakespeare and the Jews. As William Thomas makes clear in his History of Italy (1549) the intolerant Gratiano and Antonio should not be presented as typical Venetians. Shakespeare makes his awareness of this point evident in the ethnically respectful behavior of the Venetian senate to the Moor in Othello (1.3).
The play's most dramatic tensions effectively depend on the unpredictable confrontations between the pernicious sentimentality of the Christian Antonio and the resulting bitterness of a righteous Jew. The shocking, forced conversion finally imposed on Shylock is Antonio's malevolent idea, and it was hardly likely to be viewed sympathetically by a Shakespeare who, as a member of a recusant group of covert Catholics, would scarcely sympathize with the kind of murderously enforced conversion such as doomed members of his own family in Protestant, Elizabethan England. The Christian Portia herself is deliberately tainted by the author with acceptance of ethnic stereotyping, as plainly reflected in her contemptuous view of her non-Italian suitors (1.2.36-121), and she finishes up, like Nerissa, ruefully aware of how erratic even her new husband can be under the pernicious influence of Antonio, who has put Bassanio into the humiliating situation of favoring his emotionally disturbed friend over his wife. As Antonio admits: "I am the unhappy subject of these quarrels" (5.1.238).
This kind of ethnically dispassionate interpretation works very well in the theatre, as illustrated by the sympathetic Olivier performance of Shylock (and of Jessica) in the television version of a production originally directed by Trevor Nunn (1974; 5.2.38, 5.2.39) which updated the play to the 1930s. Nevertheless, as a result of modern ethnic preoccupations, audience reactions to the play remain highly unpredictable: a local rabbi recently wanted the Santa Cruz Shakespeare Festival to cancel its production unless audiences were subjected to corrective instruction; yet, earlier in New York, Sam Wanamaker chose the play to entertain Jewish supporters of his restoration of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, with Dustin Hoffman as a sympathetic Shylock (1989; 5.2.40). As these two productions demonstrate, to succeed with a modern audience, the play has to be treated as a kind of objective, almost Ibsenite study in the unresolvable problems of multiculturalism as first attempted in Venice, a state then greatly admired for its judiciousness. HMR
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