8/4/2022 THE MERCHANT OF VENICE Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse
US AND THEM
Welcome to Renaissance Venice!
It is the best city in the world for art, for politics, for science.
Unless you are Jewish.
Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, often called “Shakespeare’s most racist play,” gives us the Jewish moneylender Shylock, a man who has been played along a wide spectrum of subtexts, even though literary scholars insist “there is no subtext in Shakespeare.” (Proof positive that there is a massive intellectual gulf between literary scholars and theatre practitioners.)
We’ve had Shylocks who have run the gamut from full-blown (metaphorical moustache-twirling) villain to full-blown (“woe is me”) victim. The BEST Shylocks are those who successfully navigate that razor-blade of humanity between the extremes, fully acknowledging the character’s darker sides (unrelenting anger, dominance over his daughter, merciless sense of vengeance, greed that goes beyond its situational necessity) as well as highlighting his strengths (affection for intellectual debate, honest recognition of his own faults, unwavering sense of justice, a very real and very compelling sense of humor).
And let’s say it right away, Rivka Levin’s Shylock is (by far) one of the best Shylocks I have seen.
For those few who are unfamiliar with this work, here’s a once-over-lightly recap. Bassanio is a Venetian noble of less-than-wealthy means who requires a “nest egg” to woo the wealthy heiress Portia of Belmont. He goes to his dearest friend Antonio, a wealthy merchant, for a loan, something he has apparently done often in the past. Unfortunately, Antonio’s capital is all tied up in a series of commercial voyages, all of which are expected to rain gold into his coffers. Confidently, he goes to the moneylender Shylock for a loan.
As a jest, knowing full well that Antonio’s credit is golden, they create a “bond” that, should Antonio fail to repay, he must give up a pound of flesh as punishment. Of course, faster than you can say “what can possibly go wrong,” every ship of Antonio’s fleet is lost, and he is faced with the prospect of losing that pound of flesh.
And, because they all live in Renaissance Venice, Shylock is bound by a plethora of anti-Semitic (“Alien”) laws and has been continually treated by Antonio as a leper, a dog, the lowest of the low. Until Antonio needs money. Shylock is not disposed to be merciful, nor, truth be told, should he be, considering he is spat upon even as he agrees to the loan.
But, because this is a LadyShakes production, ALL the characters are played by female-identifying actors, so this production focuses on the gender injustices as well as the religious injustices.
We meet Portia, beloved of Bassanio, who is BOUND by her late father’s will to marry the suitor who successfully solves a riddle involving caskets of gold, silver, and lead. It matters not if the successful suitor is a pompous prince, a demented duke, a cruel count, or her one true love.
We meet Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, who is treated as a bonded slave by her father, forbidden to mingle with anyone who is not Jewish.
We meet Nerissa, servant to Portia, who seems to be treated as a friend, but who, in reality, has no agency of her own except what Portia grants her.
And we meet a plethora of “pretty young men,” all in Antonio’s orbit, all portrayed by female-identifying actors, all providing a totally 21st-centurty subtext to the root cause of Antonio’s habitual sadness, his apparent enthrallment to the financial needs of Bassanio, and his solitary state at the end of the play’s decidedly comic coda, a subtext explored in full in Christopher Moore’s novel The Serpent of Venice, which I strongly recommend. Bassanio, Gratiano, Lorenzo, Salerino & Salanio (interchangeable dandies, one of whom was played by an understudy, but who knows which one?) – everything (or, more accurately, everyone) that is unattainable in the world of Renaissance Venice.
And, most ironically of all, Portia and Nerissa, who seem to be the smartest Venetians we meet, must disguise themselves as men, to save Antonio, and to subject Shylock to a punishment far out of proportion to his deeds, though perfectly in tune with the laws and ethos of Renaissance Venice.
Having female-identifying artists playing all the men drives home Shakespeare’s own gender-role anti-paradigms and gives a troupe of artists the opportunity to tell this male-centric story as well as, (no doubt better than) a more “traditionally” cast production. For what is racism itself but tradition without its aura of nostalgia, its conversation-halting “answers” to questions of behavior and attitude and belief?
It is certainly a testament to the passion of these artists that the cast is filled with talent and with interpretations and readings that continually surprise, amuse, and move. Kelly Criss’s Bassanio, Cameryn Richardson’s Gratiano, Anna Holland’s Jessica, Mary Ruth Ralston’s Antonio, Kelly Clare Toland’s Nerissa, Destiny Danielle Freeman’s Portia – all have moments to shine, speeches that soar, characters that convince.
But it is Rivka Levin’s Shylock who truly makes this production extraordinary. Her passionate sadness at the betrayal of his daughter seemingly justifies her unrelenting mercilessness. And, more to the point, her heartful reading of the seminal “Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? “ speech, stripped of anger and delivered directly to us, forcefully reminds us of the philosophical bankruptcy of anti-Semitism in particular, racism in general. That Shylock can articulate this while maintaining his own bigotry against anyone not Jewish is a testament to the insidious nature of racism, to its regretful inevitability, to its persistence even to this day, to this hour, to this minute.
It has been said that this play should not be produced because of its portrayal of Shylock, because of its use by Nazi Germany as propaganda, because Shylock caricatures can be found even today in Palestinian editorials.
But the first step in facing down racism is to FACE racism. By “hiding” this play far from stages is tantamount to hiding from the facts of racism, much as the Republican “war” against Critical Race Theory seeks to hide children from the facts of America’s own embrace of racist ideology.
Forgive me if I sound soapbox-bound here. Like all of us, I wage a daily battle against my own unconscious racist tendencies, born of generations of NOT facing them. It’s easy to condemn my grandfather’s constant use of belittling words and epithets. It’s not so easy condemning my own knee-jerk negative reactions to hip-hop music, to Christian Nationalism, to Muslim Extremism, to Gender-fluid grammar, to a thousand other “moments” that make me so glad I’m one of “us” and NOT one of “them.”
The Merchant of Venice is not just Shakespeare’s most racist play, it is one of the best plays ever written ABOUT racism. And the LadyShakes production at the Shakespeare Tavern is one of the best productions you are likely to see.
Let’s start a conversation ….
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com #LadyShakes #MerchantOfVenice)