F. Murray Abram as Shylock.
Director Darko Tresnjak does Shakespeare one huge favor in his brilliantly-updated production of The Merchant Venice (at ArtsEmerson through this weekend in a production from Theatre for a New Audience):
He doesn't let us pretend that times have changed.
That may not sound like much, but it has become a mantra in the academy (and in the politically-correct press) that the prejudices portrayed in Merchant of Venice are somehow a thing of the past. We know better now, our professors tell us - we're teaching you better.
Ah, if only.
Because whatever the virtual Freedom Riders of the millennium may tell you, it is one thing to parrot what you learned in school, and create enlightenment zones where sensitivities can never be imperiled. But it's another thing entirely to forge actual art from human society, which always and everywhere has fed on (and built its entertainment on) stereotypes both good and evil.
Now there's no doubt The Merchant of Venice traffics in evil stereotypes; its putative heroes and heroines call Jews "dogs," don't blanche at roughing them up or even spitting on them, and of course force Shylock, the play's totemic Jewish moneylender, to convert to Christianity; what's more, after this act of spiritual destruction, the happy heroes congratulate themselves on a day's work well done, and retire to a country house for a witty scene of love-badinage. That is when they're not tossing the occasional slur in the general direction of black or gay people.
Horrible, right? Right. That Shakespeare must have been a very bad man.
Well - maybe, but maybe not. For an entirely different cultural script has slowly unfurled over the centuries regarding The Merchant of Venice, one that casts the murderous Shylock not as villain but as hero. For as later interpreters have scanned the text, they've found enough sympathetic detail crammed into Shylock's scenes (and enough ironic subtext to the rest) to convince many that Shylock, as one academic would have it, is Shakespeare's first sketch of King Lear.
This should come as no surprise to readers of the Hub Review, where I have often explained that part of what makes Shakespeare so great is that his major plays almost always incorporate their own antithesis; they deconstruct themselves before our eyes (and hundreds of years before any professor did, or could). Why is this so? Well, part of the explanation probably lies in Shakespeare's strangely elusive identity; was he gay? Was he Catholic? Married yet living as a bachelor, accumulating wealth like a bourgeois yet carrying on like a bohemian, Shakespeare sustained an identity divided in almost every way it's possible to be divided; perhaps as a result, he operates as both insider and outsider in every dramatic situation he created for the stage.
Then there's the fact, rarely mentioned by the professors, that Shakespeare was his own best critic. Or rather the most insightful critic imaginable of his own cultural material. This is a point that's often missed in the common joke that Shakespeare "stole" his plots - he did (or at least most of them), although he transformed them into new forms which in every case completely replaced the original. More importantly, part of that transformation (of necessity) took the form of critique. Indeed, it's not too much to say that the vast majority of Shakespearean exegesis is merely a restatement of the Bard's own criticism, which he buried in his texts.
That burial was particularly deep in The Merchant of Venice, it's true, for we have little evidence that in its day it was received as anything but a popular comedy, with an evil villain who is unexpectedly defeated at the last minute. It was only slowly, over a period of centuries, that society caught on to the devastating double image of itself that Shakespeare had coded into his comedy. Indeed, by the time the superficially "Christian" content of Merchant had reached its murderous apotheosis in the "Final Solution," the play had already become a touchstone of a new tradition of anti-anti-Semitism. Shakespeare's doubled identity had played out in history in much the same way it had, or would, in the cases of racism and sexism - where the Bard likewise seems to dabble in bigoted tropes on the surface of his work, while planting the cultural seeds to undo those injustices over the long term.
Still, the ant-Semitic surface of Merchant does shock modern sensibilities (and rightly so), and Tresnjak even ups the ante on a few of the play's cruel gambits (in one scene, Shylock is literally kicked to the ground). But what's truly brilliant about his production is the way he insinuates ancient bigotries into an up-to-the-minute evocation of New York's financial elite; his Shylock all but lives his life beneath Wall Street's Big Board, while Antonio chums around with crass brokerage cowboys, and Portia's treasure chests are now Apple Powerbooks (and her suitors are Saudi princes). In a way some of the Wall Street detail contradicts, frankly, the lines of Shakespeare's text (his Christians would never hedge or buy on margin), but it does no violence, actually, to one of the play's great themes: the co-existence of smug piety with the crudest hypocrisy. Thus in this Merchant, Antonio's old Harvard looks disguise a deeply racist WASP hauteur, and Portia is no demure sibyl but rather a privileged Connecticut heiress with a judgmental attitude. There's even a Chris-Rock-like comic (Jacob Ming-Trent) on hand, seemingly fresh from a Fox sitcom, to remind us of the racial cast of our own popular comedy (shades of The Shipment!). In short, in transferring the mores of cosmopolitan Venice to cosmopolitan New York, this Merchant doesn't hold the mirror up to nature so much as hold the mirror up to us.
|Portia as party girl.|
And F. Murray Abraham's celebrated Shylock may be clearly (if softly) spoken, but it's also encased in a controlled urbanity that Abraham only rarely dares to break. This may be interesting as concept (who else has tried it?), but it flattens out Shylock's profile, and seriously undermines the rising power of the celebrated courtroom scene. Abraham's one moment of brilliance is his pin-pointing of the precise moment that Shylock cracks - when he learns that his daughter, who has abandoned him for a Christian, has sold his engagement ring for a monkey. This moment beautifully parallels the Christian Bassanio's indifference to his own wedding ring - and the irony is shattering.
|Launcelot as Fox comic.|
To be fair, there's better (sometimes far better) work around the edges of the production. Mr. Ming-Trent was, indeed, hilarious as Lancelot Gobbo (above right), and Grant Goodman and Mattheew Schneck did small, cocky miracles with the throw-away roles of Solanio and Salerio. Raphael Nash Thompson and Christopher Randolph likewise got their laughs as the Princes of Morocco and Aragon, respectively (which is not so easy to do), and Andrew Dahl made a surprisingly effective cameo out of the servant Balthasar. You left this Merchant feeling that the "problem" of the play had in a way been solved - but that many of its themes had somehow been lost in the process.