At the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s revival of The Merchant of Venice, great efforts are made to render the performance “accessible.” Before the action starts, actors lounge around the hall, interacting with the audience. As the action starts, there is no dimming of house lights, and in fact there is very little house/stage distinction at all, given that the “stage” is simply a relatively small part of the room in which the audience sits on either side (augmented occasionally by a loft at one end of the room), and the actors are continually making exits and entrances not merely through the audience area but in between rows of patrons – again and again and again. I was forced to wonder whether all this accessibility was really a service to the audience or the play.
I say this because The Merchant of Venice is not, despite its popularity, one of Shakespeare’s more approachable plays. It is not a story of people somehow like us behaving in ways that can be totally explained using modern frames of reference. In order to respond as Shakespeare evidently intended, we would have to accept that there was some kind of rightness in the marginalization and persecution of Jews and the privileging of Christianity in a civilized society. In this play, Shakespeare has crafted what critic Harold Bloom rightly terms an “anti-Semitic masterpiece.” A modern audience should marvel at the mastery in this master-piece, but there is no acceptable way to get comfortable or cozy with it. A performance is not, and should not be presented as, a bunch of just-folks actors enacting a tale of just-folks having just-folks problems.
Instead, we are being plunged into a cauldron of contradictions that have their roots in a Renaissance world with violently different moral sensibilities from our own. Antonio, the merchant of the title (Scott Alan Small), is admirable; we know this because of his bold mercantile enterprises, and even more because of his overwhelming generosity to Bassanio, his protégé, literally placing his life on the line to further Bassanio’s marital agenda. Antonio is also despicable, however, spitting on Shylock’s clothes, insulting his profession of money-lending, calling him a “misbeliever” and a “cutthroat dog,” muttering animadversions on Shylock’s “Jewish heart.” Bassanio (Matthew Sparacino) is admirable in his willingness to risk much to win the hand of Portia, in his love for Portia when he wins her, and in his loyalty to Antonio. Bassanio is also part of the gang that (without any excuse or sense that any excuse is needed) steals Shylock’s money along with his daughter. Portia (Heather Howard) is admirable in her conformity to her father’s mortmain control of her marital destiny, in her love for Bassanio, and for her miraculous judicial skills. But she is able to use those skills to turn Antonio’s defeat into victory only by gleefully relying on Venice’s xenophobic laws under which, so incidentally as not even to require comment, a Jew cannot attain the status of citizen. Shylock (Greg Burgess) is not admirable: he plots against Antonio’s life, and tries to subvert Venice’s rule of law by persuading a court to sanction killing as a mere incident of surety enforcement. Yet it is Shylock, and only he, who feelingly questions and suffers under a social and legal regime that promotes and fully accepts the dehumanization and degradation of a religious minority.
In stormy fictive seas like these, a modern audience ought not merely to feel as if it cannot find a firm bottom to stand upon; it should feel itself miles from land. It is therefore just wrong to surround a performance of the play with trappings of folksy accessibility. Instead, the audience should feel as if it is being inducted into something both wonderful and horrible – but in any case, into what Monty Python dubbed “something completely different.”
Get past directorial choices, however, and this is a pretty good staging. This production one should go to for the acting. There are two towering roles in the play: Portia and Shylock (I have never been convinced that the Merchant of the title, Antonio, deserves to have the play named for him). Howard’s portrayal of Portia is magnificent. She is passionate as both ingenue and jurist, conveying well her character’s love for Bassanio, while at the same time making credible the one moment she is really hard on him, even if only in sport (twitting him for losing a ring she gave him, knowing all the while the ring is not lost). My only quarrel with Howard’s performance (and again this goes back to directorial choices), is that no credible effort was expended in making her look masculine or different enough from her character’s ordinary self so that anyone in the court could have been deceived for a moment as to her gender, or that Bassanio and his colleague Graziano could have been successfully misled as to her identity. And yes, yes, I know that total verisimilitude could hardly have been required either way in Shakespeare’s time either. In fact then, because all the female parts were played by men, the gender problem would have gone the other way, i.e. rendering dramatically plausible the performance of femaleness, not maleness. But my point is that it’s hard to conceive of Bassanio, smitten as he is by Portia, being fooled for a moment by the imposture. And if you think that Shakespeare did not aim for any level of plausibility in this fantasy tale, think again: just think how believably close Shylock seems to come to realizing his aspiration to obtain judicial sanction for murder, at least an equally not-gonna-happen thing as a lay woman convincing a courtroom she is male and a judge. Just as Shylock’s plausible closeness to success matters dramatically, so too a semi-plausible drag would have helped here. And Howard, I believe, could have pulled it off.