I think it would be fair to sat that, in a contemporary context, The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare’s most controversial. It is flat-out anti-semitic, which is of course 100% unacceptable in today’s world, but was pervasive and indeed acceptable in the Elizabethan era… I heard an estimate that in the late 1500s, there were no more than 300 Jews in all of England (no source, just hearsay). While not formally banned in any of the schools in which I have taught, it was frowned upon to teach it. One colleague of mine at one of my previous schools was appalled that I would even consider teaching it.
The post-modern trend in producing Merchant has tended towards a reframing of Shylock as a character – make Shylock more likeable, more sympathetic, and make the rest of the characters less sympathetic, and Voila! Anti-semitism-be-gone!
In a reading of the script, Shylock is written as a harsh, unsympathetic character, but not without good reason: he is wronged by society at every turn. Because of the Christian belief of the time that lending money at a premium was sinful, he is doing what no one else will: making money off of others. This underlying hatred, compounded by the Christian conversion and marriage of his daughter, Jessica, to Lorenzo, makes him exact the terms of his bond with Antonio – a pound of flesh.
It is, indeed, hard to ignore the contempt with which Shylock is treated. While his claim is legitimate, and it might behove Shylock to be merciful, it is hard in a contemporary setting to not understand his position – he has never been shown any mercy (nor is he likely he will be in the future), so why should he be merciful?
It is a play that does not ask easy questions, nor does it really provide any easy answers. Is Shylock’s forced conversion appropriate to the crime? Was Shylock right in his insistence? Would another member of Venetian society be subject to the same treatment? There are all questions Shakespeare sets before us as auditors.
Antoni Cimolino’s production of Merchant at Stratford this year was brilliant. Performed at the Festival Theatre, it was set in pre-WWII Venice, on the eve of the war, and while it was not something that was pervasive in the sense that it took over the story, it added a heaviness, a reality to the story. The design was lovely, the costumes fantastic, and the set was beautiful.
Scott Wentworth’s Shylock was brilliant. I appreciated his character choices – he didn’t try to make Shylock sympathetic, nor did he make him overly belligerent. Shylock is a man wronged, and Wentworth did a great job of portraying that.
Cimolino managed to present a very even, balanced Merchant. It was compelling to see all of the shades of grey that Shakespeare has created. In the end, we don’t know who the good guy, who that bad guy is, and that’s great storytelling, both on the part of the playwright and the director.