Monday, April 4, 2011

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 as long as Tresnjak can coast on this clever mise-en-scène, his Merchant grips us.  But it becomes clear as the play progresses that the director hasn't thought nearly as carefully about the central theme of Shakespeare's plot, which is not so much about the problem of prejudice but rather about the vexingly slippery relationship between love and money. And alas, at the same time we begin to realize that the actual performances moving through this brilliantly realized world are not as persuasive as their setting. Tresnjak's Bassanio and Antonio have little chemistry, for instance (and a last-minute smooch does little to alleviate that problem) - but then his Bassanio and Portia don't have much more, come to think of it.

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.
I wish I could think of a single high point in  Kate MacCluggage's power-girl Portia, however - Ms. McCluggage is clearly an actress of presence and ability, but in her confident coldness she's completely miscast, and is generally upstaged by Christen Simon Marabate as her maid, Nerissa. (And without a convincing Portia - whose very name cues you in to the fact that she is concerned with the meaning of justice - the deeper questions of the play simply go missing.) As Bassanio, Lucas Hall is a bit more sympathetic, but is likewise often a cypher (and actually more melancholy than Antonio); it's as if the director dreamed up the perfect fleet of updated accoutrements to bridge the centuries, but couldn't figure out a similar fleet of characters to deploy them. As a result, this Merchant began to lurch, rather than flow, from point to point as Tresnjak tried to cover Shakespeare's many contradictory bases.  No wonder Melissa Miller's Jessica so often looked confused!

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.


  1. I saw this production a few years ago in NY with a different cast (Mr. Abraham is the only returning member, I think), and I thought it was really well-acted. Kate Forbes was a terrific Portia.

  2. I just saw it yesterday (and will likely will write something about it on my own blog.) I'm largely in agreement with you though there are a few details that do stand out for me: largely that the modern setting, while making clear that "the oldest hatred" still exists sort of glosses over the particularly Christian character of the antisemitism. The text, as I understand it, the Christian characters oppress Shylock because they are Christians and the dramatic structure conspires with Christian theology so that Shylock cannot win, unless one counts his conversion as "winning" (and I suspect that the 1590s audience may have counted it as such.) In this setting, the Christian characters are only nominally Christians who just happen to hate Jews, or use the fact that a business rival is Jewish as an excuse to hate him more.

    With regards to Bassanio and Antonio: being bohemian and straight, my main experience with gay people is with ones who are, well, gay. Is the portrayal we see in this production more indicative of the "straight acting" semi-closeted gay (as opposed to what we saw with Balthazar) we would more likely see in the hyper-macho world of Wall Street even a trophy wife is a possibility, or am I missing something?

  3. Hi Annie and Ian -

    Can't speak to Ms. Forbes's acting, but if the conception was the same - a Portia who doesn't seem to have much sympathy for anybody but herself - then I'd have trouble seeing how Tresnjak made much of the end of the play work (here only Lorenzo's speech about the mystery of music had real resonance). Of course it's certainly justifiable to see Portia and her friends as merely callow, callous capitalists in a WASPs-only country club; it's just not a very complex or interesting choice.

    Re: Antonio and Bassanio - very early in the play we see them together and alone, the key moment (set up explicitly by Shakespeare) for us to understand the meaning of their "bond." Here it was a blank - for the record, btw, my feeling is that Antonio is definitely gay, but that Bassanio isn't; he simply has genuine feelings for Antonio in a situation complicated, but not defined, by Antonio's sexuality. (This is not as rare a form of friendship as many people imagine.)

  4. Oh, one more thing - Ian, I agree with you that Tresnjak's updating treads lightly on the essentially Christian nature of the play's anti-Semitism - perhaps because Christians are kind of testy these days, aren't they, and we don't want to stir them up! But the way in which the play "conspires" with Christian theology to exclude Shylock is a very complicated question - largely because most people, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, whatever, actually understand the central question of the text: how is the transcendent value of love to be reconciled with the objective value of money? The Christians in the play, and yes, in a way the structure of the play itself, imply that the Jewish and Christian traditions are opposed on this score. But I don't think Shakespeare himself feels that Shylock doesn't understand the nature of love - in fact just the opposite; Shylock is rather clearly the most romantic person in the play! I think for me the challenge of staging "The Merchant of Venice" is the problem of decoupling these questions from the claims of Christianity and seeing them on their own terms - in other words, to somehow communicate that even if Christians are hypocritical in their conception of "mercy," that, well, the quality of mercy is NOT strained, in despite of them.

  5. (This is not as rare a form of friendship as many people imagine.)

    Not rare at all. I also agree with an earlier essay of yours that Antonio's actions aren't explicable unless he is in love with Bassanio. I'm not certain, on the other hand, if Bassanio simply doesn't reciprocate, or doesn't reciprocate fully.

  6. Well, Tom, this does get back to our on-going (and to me, still fun) debate about the play: Yes, Shylock does love, certainly in the romantic and familial sense more sincerely; you are correct that he breaks only when he loses those two thinks he loves the most: his daughter and a memento of his late wife-- but the way that Christian theology conspires to exclude the Jew in this play isn't to argue that Shylock doesn't love, but that he is unforgiven, and unredeemed fro his sins, because he is a Jew, while the Christian characters, for all their cruelties, avarice, and inability honor love, they are forgiven and redeemed simply by their proclamations of faith (not that I think Shakespeare buys into this notion, but the ambivalent construction seems weighted more heavily in that direction.) The theological argument is not that Jews don't love their families as much as Christians love their families, but that God doesn't love Jews enough to forgive them as He does Christians.

    I think the problem there is simply that for the 21st century theatre going audience, theology is simply not part of their cultural experience in the way it was for audiences in other centuries.

  7. It's fascinating to me that such a richly realized vision of the play (and a production that I think is worth seeing) could also feel so wrong. Is Portia really supposed to be LESS sympathetic than Bassanio?? How do you reconcile a character who can speak so movingly of "the quality of mercy" but, when Shylock is not swayed, ends up being pissed off (I can understand Portia being frustrated and forceful, but this characterization felt more like pique...but then she feels kind of bad about it...) On the other hand, how DO you reconcile her off-hand racial & ethnic slurs with her structural role in what is (stubbornly) a comedy? In the end, I guess I prefer my Portia to be a more traditional Sheakespearean comedic heroines -- fundamentally better and wiser than the men around them.

    Some additional random thoughts:

    1) I agree that Wall Street / Manhattan == Venice is a great idea, but I'm not sure Greenwich == Belmont is quite right. Venice and Belmont ought to be different worlds, whereas here they come off as unfettered capitalism vs. unfettered consumerism -- really two sides of the same coin. Perhaps new money vs. old money (Manhatten vs. Bar Harbour?), with a less glamourous Portia, would have worked better for me. (BTW, the Trevor Nunn "Merchant" from a few years ago had a great conceit, pairing a Venice inspired by Weimar Germany with a Belmont inspired by pre-WW1 German art movements.)

    2) The theme of the value of love vs. the value of money is very interesting, as it is central to what is (for me) one of the most intriguing questions about the play -- why does Shylock propose that particular bond? My pet theory has always been that Shylock's proposal is a thinly veiled mockery of the Eurcharist (a central mystery of Christianity, and representative of God's love). In essence, the bond is saying "You think turning bread & wine into flesh & blood is a big deal? Heck, I can make a pound of flesh equal to 3000 gold ducats!" (i.e., money trumps love).

    3) I agree that the revelation about Shylock's ring was very well done. In general, I liked Abraham's Shylock -- although I thought some of his and/or the director's choices were a little heavy-handed. On the other hand, this is the first production of the play in which I really felt the fury of Shylock's and Antonio's mutual hatred.

    4) Re Act V: at the end of the Lorenzo/Jessica interchange, why does the director have Jessica wander off, leaving Lorenzo to talk about the mystery of music to himself? My memory of the scene is that his speech is a direct response to Jessica, and a veiled critique of her feeling melancholy when she hears music ("you're not one of those unmusical Jews, like Shylock, who can't be trusted, are you?"). Perhaps Mr. Tresnjak felt that Jessica had taken enough abuse already!

  8. Well, Ian, you're right, of course about the theological argument of old school Christianity: Jews are not saved, and God isn't going to forgive them; they're damned. It's a grotesque formulation, but there it is. Catholicism only began to back off this position in the past few decades - and of course T.S. Eliot was making the same argument quite sincerely just a few decades before that! I'm not going to pretend that Shakespeare doesn't sell out on the surface to that vision - he does; what drives us crazy about Shakespeare is that he almost ALWAYS sells out. But does the actual embedded content of "The Merchant of Venice" accurately map to that idea? No, it doesn't; instead, it subverts it, and that's why we're still debating it four hundred years later.

    And in the end, does Shakespeare represent "Christianity," anyway, either in this play or in any other? Not really - indeed, for centuries one of the raps against Shakespeare was that he had so little use for the Christian god or Christian doctrine! Shakespeare isn't "Christian" so much as some kind of free-form, semi-Pauline, neo-Platonic pagan; indeed, he's one of the great avatars of the Renaissance project of transliterating Christian ideas into new, classical hybrids. Surely a modernity that can appreciate T.S. Eliot can comprehend THAT.

  9. Dave - I'm with you totally about Portia, and I agree that Darien makes a poor substitute for Belmont (I should have mentioned that in the main body of the review).

    I keep hearing Trevor Nunn's Weimar "Merchant" mentioned in awe, but I still haven't found it. I'm not sure it made the jump from VCR to DVD (or to streaming)!

    I also found Jessica wandering off during Lorenzo's "music" speech strange - although I took it as HER rejection of any poetry from such a source. As for Abraham - I think in the end I like my Shylocks more robust, and not so intellectualized.

    Interesting theory about the Eucharist, btw; Shylock's gambit could also be interpreted as a parody of devotions to the Sacred Heart. But I've always seen it as mainly a gauntlet thrown down to Antonio personally; if he's taking the loan out of love for Bassanio (rather than out of any hope for monetary gain), why not wager his literal heart as collateral?

    That's my interpretation largely because the idea is repeated in the fourth act, when Antonio attempts to make amends between Portia and Bassanio, saying "I dare be bound again [as I was before to Shylock], my soul upon the forfeit, that your lord will never more break faith advisedly." To which Portia replies, "Then you shall be his surety." The transaction with Shylock is thus recapitulated, and gently parodied - only this time love is wagered for love, not money. Shakespeare's point here is apparently that the two worlds should not mix; they're fundamentally incompatible. This, of course, is a subtle criticism of everything the Christians have said so far in the play.

  10. Actually, Dave's point that the pound of flesh is a parody of the Euchrist does make sense (even if we remind ourselves, that the pound of flesh as collateral to a Jewish money lender had been a well establish literary trope for centuries before) since among the other medieval libels was that the Jews stole the Euchrist for the purpose of blasphemous rites. Both this and and the Sacred Heart devotion to which Tom refers, are in line with those who try to see Antonio as being analogous to Jesus, though I can't help but wonder how much of this is also a statement of Antonio being broken hearted about Bassanio's decision to court Portia; a masochistic gesture signifying just how much he loves his protégé who doesn't love him quite the same.