Friday, August 24, 2007

Richard Rose dialogue on Merchant

Dear Oberon,

Having no shame, I recently invited Richard Rose, the director of
Stratford's Merchant of Venice, which some of us will be seeing Saturday, to share the event with us at dinner. I did this despite warnings from one of our esteemed members (you know who you are, Richard) that there were some problems with the production. In politely declining, Mr. Rose has some good answers although we won't have a chance to pose the questions. I thought the exchange might be interesting to Oberon. Mr. Rose has indicated that he is very comfortable discussing his production with us. With his permission, his reply and my reply to his reply follow.

Tom Hunter, Oberon Chair

In a message dated 8/22/2007 8:54:54 P.M. EDT, Richard Rose writes:

Dear Mr. Hunter,

Happy to see your presentation but not sure when I can actually read it as I am onto other projects. I think you will find that this Merchant adheres quite closely to a line by line interpretation (with a few obscurities removed). I think that may actually be the provocation of it because the text does not get interpreted softly and the hatred of the characters does not become forced into the benign. To my mind it is a play about prejudice and about how prejudice comes to be. It is a play about how we know an "other". How we know them via our sense or via our thought? The act of knowing and being known and the desire to be known and to know is pivotal in a racist society as it is in falling in love. Act five is critical.

To my mind, Shakespeare wrote a coherent and complex play. It is only the critics who can't see that not the audience. Act 5 definitely relates to and is a consequence of the Court scene. I very much trust in the coherence of Shakespeare but in our current political climate it would seem very difficult to present how we come to have prejudice without offence hence the rather watered-down versions of this play, the inoffensive versions of this play. It is my feeling that offensiveness is inherent to the play however unpopular it is with the audience.

I will leave you to judge and would love to talk about it more. Very best,

Richard Rose Artistic Director Tarragon Theatre, Toronto

Tom replied:

Dear Richard,

Thank you for your gracious reply and for giving me some things to look for on Saturday. I am heartened by your comments and will be paying close attention to them and to the following.

One of the age old questions is whether the play is a comedy or a tragedy. In Shakespeare you have to be prepared to consider that it is both. The key to answering this question in Merchant is the well recognized theme in the play (and throughout Shakespeare) of outer appearance v. inner reality. That theme applies to the very structure of The Merchant of Venice: the human tragedy within the world’s comedy.

The play’s comedy relies not only on comic business—wordplay, mistaken identity, and other such devices—but on the much broader consideration of the human comedy, the satire attending Shakespeare’s humanistic view of the society which day to day fuels itself on human imperfection. Within the comic shell, the play’s tragedy resides in Shylock whose conflict grows into true tragic conflict as a man at odds with his society, his culture, his history and himself, who, making choices forced upon him by a vicious anti-Semitic society and succumbing to the human imperfection which has created this world of Babel in the first place, chooses ultimately against his religion, his culture, his own values, and ultimately against himself. It is why I titled my paper “Shylock: Jew and No Jew.”

All that said, I totally agree with you that Shakespeare wrote a play against prejudice. He portrayed its vicious social aspects and its tragic consequences. The irony, of course, is that as you suggest, the lesson has been missed—certainly by the vast majority of critics—usually due to the very human imperfections which Shakespeare is portraying.

Central among these is religion itself as a force which divides men from each other. Critics have defined one of the central conflicts as Christianity v. Judaism, of Christian mercy v. Jewish justice. The first mistake is to take Shylock as a representative of all Jews. As the play progresses, he becomes an individual and actually chooses against Judaism’s most central values. He chooses revenge, telling us that he learned it from the Christians and that he would out-do them on it. The critics have got it all wrong. Shakespeare does not oppose Shylock with Christian values, he opposes Shylock with Jewish values.

My paper shows this directly from Shakespeare’s text. But how could that be? The critics have told us that Shakespeare was a creature of his times. He pandered to public opinion to sell plays. All this biographical crap, created by the critics without paying close attention to Shakespeare’s texts, has clouded the issue for centuries. The point is that when you pay attention to what the play actually says, all the cockeyed, strained (Remember, the quality of mercy is not strained) attempts to explain it fall away, and the simple truths of the play remain.

Merchant is not a psychological thriller a la Dostoevsky as Goddard and others who struggle with it and manufacture answers would have us believe. It is a morality play pure and simple. The admittedly difficult—and not so simple—challenge is to portray Shylock’s tragedy, for Shylock is irrevocably human in ways Harold Bloom can never even imagine. Ultimately his humanness overcomes whatever redeeming—that’s right, redeeming—Jewish attributes he has lost.

The play is profoundly supportive of Jewish moral teachings. At its heart is a man who does not follow them. Of course, neither do the Christians in the play practice Christianity. But Shakespeare chose Shylock as his tragic character because his dramatic sense told him that Shylock’s is the greater drama. It truly is, and that is the challenge which I believe directors must answer. It is one thing I'll be looking for on Saturday.

With all due respect, Richard, although your focus on prejudice is right on, the knowing of the “other” is a concern which might work fine in the 21st century, especially as it might relate to Shakespeare’s central theme of identity/mistaken identity but which has nothing to do with Shakespeare’s intentions in Act 5.

However, I am heartened that in your Merchant, “the hatred of the characters does not become forced into the benign.” That is a wonderful way to put it, and I will be looking for that on Saturday, too. It is a key to what this play is all about. Antonio may be a Christian, but he is no hero. He is one of the chief exemplars of the human imperfections targeted in this play.

But I have gone on too long. How amazing that work created 400 years ago so powers these discussions.


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