“The Merchant of Venice” is the next production of the Shakespeare Theatre, a difficult play at best, and always controversial. Daughter Hannah, in her new job as Audience Enrichment Manager at the Shakespeare Theatre, put together a three hour symposium on Saturday, attended by one hundred or so audience members, to discuss some of the plays more controversial and difficult points. The morning turned out to be an exceptional one.
There was an opening presentation, followed by two panels, and a presentation by the director, Ethan McSweeney.
The opening presentation was a very erudite talk by David Schalkwyk, the Director of Research at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, and the editor of Shakespeare Quarterly. His topic, building on the general thought of Venice as a commercial society, where everything is contractual, was to look at the contractual aspects of the giving and receiving of gifts, and of the giving and receiving of love, as central to the plot of “The Merchant”. Very interesting.
The first panel consisted of Martin Yaffe of North Texas University and Jeffery Horowitz, the artistic director of the Theatre for a New Audience, who talked (mainly in agreement with each other) about the anti-Semitic nature of the play. No one doubts that it is anti-Semitic, but it was written in a society which contains no Jews and where images of Jews were less than positive. But they pointed out that the play was equally anti-Christian in its portrayals of the Venetians. They discussed many subtleties, posing some points to think about as you watch the play.
The second panel, concentrating on Portia dressed as a man, acting as a “judge” or “arbitrator” in the trial where Shylock was foreclosing on his bond (Antonio’s heart), talked about role playing in general by lawyers in court, and the role of women in Shakespeare’s plays and Elizabethan society. Portia, originally played by a man as a cross-dressing woman – does her gender really matter while she’s playing a role? A sophisticated conversation between DC Superior Court Judge Judy Bartnoff, and Columbia University Professor Jean Howard.
And finally, the director, talking about how he decided to stage the play, how he feels that big name stars as Shylock often adversely affect the balance in the play, and why he set the play in what appears to be 1929 New York, on the Lower East Side.
Fascinating stuff. Sorry you missed it.