By James E. Trainor III
Eric Damon Smith (L) as Bassanio and John William Watkins (R) as Gratiano in The Merchant of Venice. Photo by Bob Goodfellow.
Iowa City – Comedy is cruel. Even in its tamest forms it gently chides us, poking fun at our faults and mocking at our solemnity. From the classic Commedia del’arte to the modern Saturday Night Live skit, it seems the comedian’s mode is similar to that of a schoolyard bully. Every joke needs a butt, every comic bit needs a victim.
Shylock of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is a broadly-drawn comic character who is very alien to our modern sensibilities. An angry, stingy, moneylender (most likely influenced by Pantalone of the Commedia del’arte) who hates Christians for their faith alone, he quite simply makes us uncomfortable. He is a historical reminder of the antisemitism that has plagued Europe for centuries, and at the same time the perfect symbol for the ostracized “other.”
It is likely that a lot of the more exaggerated aspects of the character were originally played for laughs; in Shakespeare’s time, when things were less naturalistic, Shylock was an acceptable scapegoat, an angry curmudgeon who stands outside society, his religion something of an exotic oddity that needs to be corrected.
Such are the mechanics of comedy, and usually it’s okay. We’re not concerned when Benedick disavows his misogyny, though the task requires a bit of playful trickery. When Shylock is “cured” of his Jewishness, however, it strikes right at the heart of our pluralistic society, which highly values religious freedom.
The problem of Shylock, then, in the American theatre with its strong naturalist tradition, is something that must be dealt with. Our methods of getting at character require creating whole people with real emotional needs, not hook-nosed devils to be derided throughout the evening. A Shylock with real emotional needs, however, is a very risky proposition, as the character is destined to be ground up and deprived of his humanity by the action of the play — which is, after all, a comedy. Riverside’s production, directed by Kristin Horton, faces this challenge head-on, and on the way does a wonderful job highlighting some of the interesting — and distressing — themes contained therein.
Horton has a history of sinking her teeth into much of Shakespeare’s meatier work — in recent years she has directed such “problem” plays as Measure for Measure and The Taming of the Shrew for Riverside Theatre. She approaches these plays with a very honest, exploratory tone, keen on asking the hard questions inherent in these fine but problematic pieces of work. Merchant has long been considered the third rail of Shakespearean theatre, for the harsh antisemitism expressed by the characters and for the shocking scene in which Shylock, quite justly stripped of his revenge, is systematically humiliated, forced to consent to his daughter’s sudden wedding and give up his religious identity in one fell swoop.
This scene is performed masterfully by Riverside’s ensemble. Shylock (Theodore Swetz) is very sympathetic here, arguing quite convincingly for his right to his revenge. He points out the hypocrisy of a society that keeps men as slaves but pleads mercy of a man who has bought flesh, and of a court that risks creating social and economic chaos by refusing to respect its own laws. Antonio (Tim Budd), ostensibly willing to sacrifice his life with Christian humility but stubborn as a mule when pressed, only seems to feed Shylock’s anger. Gratiano (John William Watkins) is excessively cruel, which goes a long way towards making Shylock more sympathetic. Even Portia (Kelly Gibson), who is quite likeable in this production, has a difficult time talking him down. Her “the quality of mercy is not strained” speech, very logical and practical here, is undersold and not at all preachy. She acknowledges that Shylock has all the power, but calmly and simply repeats the refrain common to the comic structure, cautioning Shylock to be reasonable, reminding him that he has gone too far.
On this point hinges the difference between Merchant the comic love story and Merchant the tragic tale of social injustice. Because when Shylock is played with such wonderful humanity and honest passion, his rants about daughters and ducats cease to be merely comic fodder for the groundlings, and his boundless rage becomes a true tragic flaw in the Aristotelian sense. In Shakespeare’s Venice, Pantalone has grown too big for his britches and he cannot simply be brought back into the fold of society through a few silly tricks; he must be destroyed, as surely as Oedipus or Hamlet must be destroyed.
Horton, Swetz, Gibson, and the entire company understand this point quite well, and Shylock’s humiliation is very effective and quite sobering. When Portia cannot convince Shylock with reason, she turns the power of the law against him, proclaiming him doomed for seeking the life of a Christian (though she, not actually being a lawyer, has no authority to do so), and giving the Duke (Ron Clark) an opportunity to overturn the sentence and showcase his Christian charity (though a Christian society with such blatantly discriminatory laws is not very charitable). To top off this self-righteous show of justice, Anthony agrees to return half his property to him (the other half must go to his disobedient daughter)… if Shylock agrees to convert to Christianity. On this suggestion Portia removes Shylock’s yarmulke, exposing his bare skull to the heavens and leaving him standing humiliated, horrified, and deeply hurt. Swetz leaves the stage defeated; there is nothing more to be said.
In the light of this powerfully staged climax, the rest of the play reads more like an uncomfortable tragedy or a biting satire than a light-hearted love comedy. Bits that should be hilarious, like Jim Van Valen’s engaging clowning as Lancelet, are tainted by the constant almost casual abuse that is heaped upon Shylock. Jessica (Eva Louise Balistrieri), who by the structure of the play should be a poor maiden imprisoned by a cruel father, comes off as ungrateful and petulant, robbing her father and running away not for love, but for the mere pleasure of doing so. Even Portia, who is witty and delightful despite the questionable morality of some of her actions, seems compelled to toss racist remarks after her suitors. This is a Venice filled with vain and vicious people, each trying to grab a piece of the pie in this quickly changing society, where there is no trust in love without a barrage of tests, no partnership in business without deadly deals.
Which is quite a great deal more intriguing than some fluff about a lovesick goofball, some metal casks, and a miserly Jew.
It must be pointed out that while I found virtually all of these characters quite distasteful (with the exception of Portia and Shylock), this is by no means a failing of the acting or direction. On the contrary, I think the company made very bold choices in enmeshing themselves in the very problematic world of these people, and they have a very honest approach to the stakes the players hold in the story and the reasons they behave in the way they do. “No one is right in this play,” Horton says during a post-show talkback. “Everybody’s implicated.” It’s a very striking vision and it hits right at the reason we still do the play despite the obvious ways in which it’s difficult to perform in 21st-Century America: it asks hard questions that are still relevant to society: questions about trust, mercy, economic justice, racism, sexism, and class warfare. The acting is carefully considered and very natural, and everyone in the company does a fabulous job of inhabiting this world.
Budd and Swetz work quite well together; they create a very intimate hostile environment every time they share the stage. They each seem, at times, to want to find a way out of this bitter vendetta, but neither will budge and we get the sense that their history is long and complicated and has to do with a lot more than religion. Budd displays Antonio’s distaste for Shylock — and his zeal for combating his economic practices — with a quiet, watchful presence, and his silence speaks volumes beyond the text he is given. Swetz uses Shylock’s more convincing speeches to great effect, and gracefully glosses some of the jokes and gags that seem to be lifted straight from the mouth of Pantalone.
Kelly Gibson is extremely solid as Portia. She has some very fun and clever constructions in the earlier scenes, where she mocks her suitors, and these are delivered precisely and with a wealth of humor. Kalen Harriman does a great job prodding her on as Nerissa. During the trial of the caskets, her performance is quite nuanced: we see a Portia who is straining under her suffering, but suffering constantly nonetheless, always determined to stand by her father’s wishes. In short, she is the exact opposite of Jessica, who despises her father and is jumping out the window almost as soon as we see her. In the later scenes, Gibson’s objective work is quite deft; she swallows her clear distaste for Shylock and her fear at being discovered in her disguise and pushes forward to find a solution to the madness she had been drawn into. There aren’t a lot of characters to root for in this play, and Portia, though far from perfect, is probably the closest to being anything like a moral center.
Eric Damon Smith’s Bassanio is quite refreshing. He spends a lot more energy fawning over Portia that scowling at Shylock, and his lovesick sighs, though a bit excessive, are sweet. Smith’s vocal talent is apparent, and Shakespeare’s words flow quite naturally and conversationally out of his mouth.
Shawn Ketchum Johnson’s scenic design, with props by Steve Rosse, is quite effective in the trial of the casks scene. This is a lovely device, and when staged well, it takes on mythic proportions. The trick of the riddle — Portia’s suitor being asked to “hazard all” on the lead casket — feeds well into the other themes of the play. A particularly revealing moment comes when Bassanio’s gifts are brought on stage, bolts of fabric that come out of a large chest that seems downright gaudy when upstaged by the simple gold, silver and lead caskets of the famous riddle. The gesture highlights Bassanio’s recklessness quite well: Portia is the one woman in the world who clearly cannot be bought by flashy gifts. In order to win her, he needs not borrow a single ducat, but only be the man humble and faithful enough to solve her father’s riddle. But in his eagerness to please, he has asked Antonio for money to court her, which creates the debt to Shylock that sets the entire plot in motion. A very precarious house of cards is built upon Portia and Bassanio’s rocky romance, especially as both Bassanio and Gratiano are so quick to belittle their wives when they think they are alone among men. The contrast between the fairy-tale courtship that takes place at Belmont and the harsh economic realities of Venice brings up a lot of intriguing questions about love, marriage, and social contracts in general, and the connections between the subplots of the play are very clear in this production.
Anton Chekhov said that the job of the artist is not to solve problems for his or her audience, but simply to state them correctly. There are a great deal of questions large and small in Merchant, and if they haven’t been answered in the past four hundred years they’re not likely to be answered in the next. What is clear, however, is that Riverside Theatre has made a fine effort at stating these problems correctly.
The Merchant of Venice, with support from a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, is offering a talkback following every performance. I highly recommend you go see this intriguing play, and stay afterward to discuss the material with the talented and passionate artists involved. The Merchant of Venice runs through July 7, in repertory with As You Like It, at Lower City Park in Iowa City. Tickets begin at $27, with discounts for students and seniors.