“The Merchant of Venice” is a tough one, all right. Portia’s very wealthy father ties her inheritance to her acceptance of a competitive suitor who chooses the right casket. Bassanio decides to enter the contest, but needs 3000 ducats to fund his entry. He turns to his best, and wealthy, friend Antonio, whose funds are tied up in certain maritime commercial enterprises, and who must turn to the Venetian Jewish moneylender Shylock to borrow the funds. Shylock, whose is having his own problems with his daughter Jessica, is hesitant to lend to his bitter rival Antonio, but agrees to do so, taking as collateral (as Antonio’s assets are illiquid) a “pound of flesh”. Bassanio wins the girl, but Antonio suffers losses and must forfeit his bond to Shylock, who refuses to grant Antonio mercy (even when Portia agrees, anonymously to Shylock, to repay Shylock many times the 3000 ducats he is owed. The law seems clear that Shylock has earned the bond, but Portia – this time disguised as a legal mediator – informs that that while he can take his bond (the flesh), he is not entitled to take any blood and, moreoever, must carve exactly one pound of flesh, not any amount more……or less. The judicial proceedings end to Shylock’s great detriment – his own assets must be forfeited, and he must give up his Judaism and convert to Christianity. In the meantime, Portia has given Bassanio a ring, obtaining his oath that he will never give it to anyone else, but Portia, as disguised jurist, convinces him to part with the ring (a parallel to her servant’s antics), allowing for a final scene with her able to tease her sorrowful fiance.
In Elizabethan times, this was purely a comedy. For the last century or so, it has hovered between comedy and tragedy, as the position of Shylock has gained the sympathy of the audiences (the audiences are helped by Shylock’s “do I not bleed?” speech and Portia’s “quality of mercy” speech)and taken upon itself centrality in the play. But Antonio, not Shylock, is the merchant of Venice – Shylock is just the Jew. In Elizabethan England, there were no professing Jews and there had not been for almost three centuries – Jews were truly “other”, mysterious Christ killers who lived, and haunted, foreign lands, and were certainly good subjects for comic representation.
The Shakespeare Theatre’s “Merchant” is certainly worth seeing and it is put together as a comedy – more or less. But it is set in the late 1920s in New York City (although the references to Venice and the Rialto remain unchanged), which is a bit odd and does not add anything to the play, and Shylock (well played) is a Lower East Side Jew (albeit wealthier looking than most)with Lower East Side Jewish mannerisms, which may make him even a more sympathetic character than usual. I would like to see The Merchant of Venice set in 16th century Venice, in period costume, as a real comedy, setting aside contemporary sensibilities. Not sure why this does not happen, and why such pains must be taken to soften the treatment of Shylock. No matter what you do, the play has anti-Jewish elements (in fact the Christians are treated no better), and wouldn’t lessons be learned if it were performed as it most likely was in the Globe Theatre than in the shadows of the Holocaust?