Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Interlochen Surprise: The Merchant of Venice

A most pleasant surprise awaited Rosey and me under the Interlochen pine trees this Sunday afternoon (July 10) at the Harvey Theater: the academy’s production of The Merchant of Venice. The concept of the presentation, the superb acting, and the informed—or instinctive—directing made this production more satisfying in recent memory than those we had seen at Stratford, Ontario, and at Ashland, Oregon, which have both come to be recognized among the top rank of Shakespeare houses.

The day didn’t start off so sweetly, as the promotional material got it all wrong, wrong enough for me to consider not to bother driving the 40 miles to see it.

First of all, the blurb for the play in the "2011 Summer Arts Festival" brochure states that the loan contract was “steeped in prejudice and demanding an infamous ‘pound of flesh.’" This is totally wrong in every detail, since the loan was offered by Shylock to Antonio without interest as between friends and countrymen. Shylock was ridiculed by Antonio for this perhaps naive attempt at peacemaking. Since every bond required a penalty, the two settled on the pound of flesh as a joke, neither expecting that it would ever come into play.

But even more offensive: recent consensus on The Merchant of Venice has been to portray a more human, sympathetic Shylock in an attempt to steer away from the hundreds of years of anti-Semitism which have plagued this play. Years of research by this writer have confirmed that this is the appropriate decision to make, since the play itself is clearly a humanistic attempt to overcome the prejudices and hatreds abundant in England and all of Europe at the time. There is no question that the play however came to be used to feed the voracious appetite for anti-Semitism which would have put butts in the seats of Elizabethan theaters. Marlowe’s Jew of Malta, for example, beginning with its very concept is clearly an attempt to exploit the anti-Semitism which would have sold tickets. Shakespeare’s play, on the other hand, as demonstrated in a full length study of the play, is clearly an allegorical attempt to dramatize the evils of public hatred, including racial and religious prejudices.



Therefore, my concerns arose as Interlochen’s promotional piece referred to Shylock as tragically comic, “part stereotyped Jewish clown,” “part bloodthirsty villain.” Throw on top of this horrible stew of errors the description of the play as a “socially engaging comedy,” and you have a recipe for anti-Semitism at its most offensive, damaging, and cruel. Interlochen's own promotional language appeared to invite the audience to bring its anti-Semitic appetite to be gorged.

At the bottom of this is the total misuse of the word “comedy.” Shakespeare lovers for centuries have struggled with calling this play a comedy. If it is a comedy, it must be because of the “Jewish clown,” the “bloodthirsty villain,” at its center. And so the history of presenting a Shylock to satisfy the anti-Semitic needs of readers and audiences took over.

There is no documentation that Shakespeare ever used the word “comedy” to refer to this play. It is in the title of printed quartos and the First Folio, but these appeared to have been published years after the play was written and I believe were inserted to appeal to the anti-Semitism of the time. This conclusion derives from dozens of hard and close readings of the play and from several years of research into the play and its literary context.

On the other hand, the term “comedy” is entirely appropriate if used in the sense of the human comedy, that is the satire that characterizes the human deficiencies of every person in this play—no exceptions, as Interlochen's program rightly points out. This satire provides the outer shell of the structure of the play. It was also correct to refer to tragedy in the play, although not as Interlochen's promotional material did it. Shylock provides the inner truth of the play covered over by the comic structure of the world. He is the prime example of the tragedy in which every man and woman find themselves, the source in fact for Antonio’s and Portia’s melancholy. He is in no way a comic figure (except as he is also a subject of the play’s satire), and thank you, Lord, it turned out that David Montee did not play him that way.

I must say that once inside the theater, I was most grateful to find out that the production we were to see had nothing to do with the description of it in the promotional material. Mr. Montee’s performance ranked among the highest reasons for my gratitude along with the direction of William Church.

The first clue that the actual production did not follow the horrible example of the publicity notes was Scott Harman’s program notes, which went as far as they could in the other direction to steer clear of the anti-Semitism which so many other productions have inserted over the last 400 years. I might argue a bit with the statement, “Certainly we can never know for sure what Shakespeare intended in writing it,” since that is the very goal I have been pursuing over my last six years of research and review, and I believe that work has yielded results. The second clue was the correct identification (and the only thing the PR piece got right) of the condition expressed by Antonio’s opening speech as melancholy, which ties the play directly to European Renaissance humanism.

A word more about Mr. Montee. His performance not only avoided the clown Jew stereotype, but was done with an ideal mix of understatement and intensity which accurately showed Shylock’s descent into tragedy. I have no idea if this was a conscious choice by Mr. Montee, but conscious or not, the result was the Shylock which I believe most closely achieved Shakespeare’s intentions of all of those I have witnessed in many other recent productions. Included in this was Mr. Montee’s near perfect reading of the “human” speech, followed by his choosing revenge upon hearing of Jessica. Mr. Montee’s most effective portrayal of that moment and Mr. Church's direction of it connected effectively with the Jewish history upon which that moment was built.

Another pleasant surprise, after reading to my horror that the play would be updated to the 1930s, was the setting, two piers crossing each other which would obviously provide the stage for all scenes, Belmont and the courtroom included, since it was too massive to move around for scene changes. On the plus side, the setting provided the minimalist background which I prefer for Shakespeare plays. The update to the 1930s never became an issue and could have been ignored in the program notes for all the difference it made to the play. Costumes and setting were as generic as possible, giving the focus to Shakespeare’s language where it should be. Thank God we never had Gestapo like military characters parading around the courtroom scene with sub-machine guns as in other recent productions of Shakespeare.

The minimalist setting did have its problems, however, such as when Shylock stepped off the pier and into the water which had become a street but still looked like water. It didn’t work for Portia’s casket scenes which turned out to be horribly contrived and awkward. And the piers simply did not become a courtroom, although the actor playing the Duke did an admirable job with it.

Other quibbles: It was unsettling that one of the most important metaphors, the church metaphor in the initial Antonio scene, which is a key to understanding Shakespeare’s position on usury and Shylock’s bond, was omitted along with Antonio’s echo of Shylock’s “I am content” at the end of the trial scene. I admit that I might have missed them if they occurred during one of the conversational moments of dialogue during which the actors did fine talking to each other but neglected to project to the audience.

And the added business: the beach ball was irrelevant and distracting and brought absolutely nothing to the play. The water pouring on Shylock’s head, in addition to being awkward and intrusive, misinterpreted the conversion process to which Shylock in fact condemns himself throughout the play. This production, like every one I have seen before it, gets the conversion to Christianity all wrong. Part of Shylock's tragedy is that by the time the Christians get around to demanding that Shylock converts to Christianity, he in effect already has. His realization of that is why he is able to truthfully state, “I am content.”

Added business which dangerously comes close to presenting an anti-Semitic Shylock takes place twice in the production. The first is the very last tableau before the break when everything focuses on Shylock’s knife. I would have advised strongly against this since it takes us so close the stereotype of the bloodthirsty Jew, especially—and unforgivably for this production—as it appears to be an offering to God. I can’t repeat this enough. Shakespeare’s Shylock progresses from Jew to human throughout the play. Never for Shakespeare is Shylock “the Jew.” Always he is the human being whose own human imperfections succumb to the history of human imperfection, including violence and hatred, against him. This is not Jewish justice against Christian mercy as the vast preponderance of commentary about this play has held. And that is the key to understanding The Merchant of Venice.

Similarly, Shylock holds the knife up during the trial scene at which moment Tubal stalks out. Here again is the danger of an anti-Semitic presentation of Shylock. Tubal’s action is perhaps meant to mitigate that possibility, but it is unclear.

Other items: Thank you for retaining the Fifth Act and especially the harmony speeches. Belmont, the aristocrats, universal harmony, the rings, all of these tie into the humanistic vision of the play. Thank you for retaining Gobbo’s presence throughout even after Shakespeare pretty much forgets about him. Thank you for providing a fine cast, especially Gratiano, Portia, Lorenzo, Antonio, Lancelet Gobbo, and most especially Shylock.

The final business at the very end of the play: Antonio returns to the position in which he started the play, looking at the letter about his ships, and reflecting. I thought this was most effective in terms of the character which I believe Shakespeare meant to create in Antonio. One of the keys to late Renaissance melancholy was that the melancholic learns about himself, as Antonio states in just those words at the opening of the play. As the play progresses, he changes but in many ways remains the same. I have taken his words “I am content” to indicate his awareness of what has just happened in the trial scene and his involvement in it. Focusing on Antonio with the tableau at the very end brings the play full circle but further suggests that Antonio at least has learned from his experiences. He is contemplative and thoughtful at the end, no longer melancholic. He is ready to go on. And every indication from Shakespeare’s work would indicate that the most powerful author in the English language hopes that, after having learned something about ourselves, we are, too.


Thomas Hunter, Ph.D.