Thursday, March 14, 2024

37 Days of Shakespeare, Day 14: The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice, first broadcast December 17th, 1980
  • Possibly written: 1596-1598, possibly his 14th play
  • What’s it about? Antonio wants to loan money he doesn’t have to his friend Bossanio so that Bossanio can court Portia. Antionio borrows the money from Shylock, promising a pound of flesh if he can’t pay it back. When Shylock comes to collect, Portia dresses up as a man to defend Antonio, and humiliates Shylock in court.
  • Most famous dialogue is hard to pick:
    • If you prick us, do we not bleed?
    • All that glisters is not gold
    • The quality of mercy is not strained
  • Sources: The primary source was the 14th-century tale Il Pecorone by Giovanni Fiorentino
  • Interesting fact about the play: I had always thought of Shylock as the title character, on second watch, it’s clearly Antonio.
  • Best insults:
    • Such a want-wit sadness makes of me
    • An inhuman wretch uncapable of pity, void and empty from any dram of mercy
    • O, be thou damned, inexecrable dog
  • Best words: eanlings, fruitify, slubber
  • Best production of this play I’ve seen: I’ve just seen the Pacino movie, which is fine.
  • Notable Names in the BBC Adaptation: Just John Rhys-Davies in a small role as Salerio
How’s the cast? 
  •  This production was widely denounced for its anti-Semitism, as well it should have been, but Miller defended it saying that he, the director and Warren Mitchell, who plays Shylock, were all Jewish. Nevertheless, Mitchell’s Shylock still comes off as a broad caricature. Gemma Jones does a good job as Portia.
How’s the direction by Jack Gold?
  • Continues this season’s themes of realistic costumes combined with abstract sets. I’m starting to long for an actual set. Give them objects! Actors act better when they can interact with actual objects on an actual set. The cross-dressing is remarkably well done, even though they don’t add facial hair (as I usually suggest). I sort of believed that Bossanio wouldn’t recognize his new wife.
Storyteller’s Rulebook: Don’t Try to Redeem the Unredeemable

Why on Earth did the BBC do the two most problematic plays back-to-back to launch their third season? Ultimately, unlike The Taming of the Shrew, this play is unredeemable. Yes, Shylock has one great speech demanding we recognize his humanity, but that can’t make up for the rest of the play.

In Taming of the Shrew, there’s really only one character who’s horrible to women, and, if you interpret the text in such a way that he’s slaughtered with a carving knife, which, as I showed last time, you can do by only deleting a few lines of text, then proper morality is restored. In Merchant of Venice excising the evil of anti-Semitism is impossible, because almost every character, all of whom are supposed to be sympathetic, is virulently anti-Semitic. The dispossession, humiliation and forced conversion of Shylock, with its inescapable intimations of the holocaust, is cheered on by almost the entire cast.  They all think it’s hilarious. 

Ultimately, the problem with both plays is that they’re posited as comedies. Nowadays, seeing misogyny and anti-Semitism as evil, we can choose to stage them as tragedies, and the text will partially support us, but then you have all these comedic scenes in the subplots undercutting that. In Taming, the scene with the rival tutors is genuinely funny. In this play, the exchanging of the rings at the end is quite funny as well. You simply cannot hide that these are supposed to be comedies, and that includes the “hilarious” abuse heaped on Katherine and Shylock. Shakespeare was usually a writer of great humanity, but it failed him in these two plays. You can try to redeem Taming but this one should be consigned to the dustbin of history.

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