Shakespeare & Company’s second production of The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice is sometimes called a “problem play.” The phrase usually indicates two interrelated issues. First, there is the problem of genre: is this play a comedy, a tragedy, or a history? Second, there is the problem of the play’s morality. Merchant is like an algebra equation, and any reading or production is an attempt to solve it. The trouble is, there are more variables than there are constants. Let’s take economics as an example, although we could just as well begin with gender or religion. Antonio, the titular merchant, lives in Venice and earns his money through international trade. His friend Bassanio asks him for a loan so he can woo Portia, a wealthy heiress. Antonio is willing, but doesn’t have the capital available, so the two approach Shylock, a money-lender who practices usury—that is, lending at a high interest rate.

a man holding a knife and a man
Jonathan Epstein and John Hadden. The Merchant of Venice Invited Dress Rehearsal, Shakespeare & Company 2016. Photo by John Dolan.

Portia’s situation is by no means straightforward: although she lives in luxury in nearby Belmont, she may not choose a husband following her own desire, but must rather abide the outcome of a peculiar trial set up by her dead father, involving three caskets of gold, silver, and lead. Suitors come from all over Europe and the Mediterranean to try to pass the test to win Portia’s hand, and therefore her money, but Bassanio’s wit ultimately brings him to victory (with ample hints from Portia and her handmaidens).

Antonio’s latest trade ventures at sea are wrecked, and he defaults on paying the loan back to Shylock. Shylock, in a rage because his daughter has eloped with a Christian and taken with her items of great value (sentimental and financial), has Antonio arrested and taken to trial, where he demands his bond: in exchange for the unpaid loan, a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Protagonist and antagonist proceed to court, where it takes a woman’s wit—in disguise—to arrive at an outcome without death, in which Shylock’s estate is split evenly between Antonio and the Christian with whom his daughter eloped (and one additional stipulation). Three women and four men then gather in Belmont for a peculiar after-party. So many different ways of having, making, and losing money—and none of them are morally straightforward.

In my plot synopsis I’ve followed the through-line of economics. Another variable, gender, has necessarily come into view. But I’ve deliberately left out any mention of what is best known about the play: that Shylock is a Jew. He says:

I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?

Barring Hamlet’s “What a piece of work is man,” this is probably Shakespeare’s most famous prose speech.

The story that has been told through this text has changed drastically over the course of the four centuries since it was written and first staged, and those changes correspond directly to history, most significantly for us the Holocaust.

The story that has been told through this text has changed drastically over the course of the four centuries since it was written and first staged, and those changes correspond directly to history, most significantly for us the Holocaust. Scholar Dennis Kennedy writes that “since 1945 we have been in possession of a new text of the play, one which bears relationships to the earlier text but is also significantly different from it.” The last punishment meted out against Shylock in the courtroom, which I elided above, is a forced conversion to Christianity, to which Shylock ultimately submits. Before the twentieth century, this would have been unbearable enough to any Jew in the audience as a repetition of the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. But after the Holocaust, Shylock’s conversion has been felt as a symbol of the genocide, somehow going deeper morally than the death with which Shylock threatens Antonio. When I saw Shakespeare & Company’s production of the play this summer directed by Tina Packer, I was surprised by how surprised many of my fellow audience members were by the forced conversion of Shylock. I had thought that his story’s ending was as famous as his plea for mercy.

Jonathan Epstein, who played Shylock in the Shakespeare & Company production, is a Shakespeare & Company regular, and has played this role under Packer’s direction once before, in 1998.

In the First Folio, Merchant is classified as a comedy, and there is strong evidence that Shylock was intended to be played as a comic villain, in the vein of Barabas in Marlowe’s earlier play The Jew of Malta. In the nineteenth century, the British Romantic actor Edmund Kean was the first to reinterpret the role sympathetically, and to play Shylock’s defeat as a tragedy.

Epstein’s interpretation of the role followed this sympathetic tradition. Although his Shylock was powerful and at times frightening, fundamentally he positioned himself as a man justified in his cruelty, a man more sinned against than sinning. Packer stands with Epstein in her interpretation of the character. In her book Women of Will, she describes Shylock as a man identified as a “brute” by others, an identity applied to many “strangers” in Shakespeare’s plays (think of Caliban). According to Packer, these characters deserve our sympathy. By implication this means that the characters who name them as brutes deserve our condemnation, although she does not say so: an evasion of the “problem” this play presents.

Each person who engages with Merchant can solve the aesthetic and moral problems their own way.

So how to give Epstein license to play a tragic victim while making room for a genuinely comic Portia? Portia is a predecessor to As You Like It’s Rosalind. At the moment of crisis, it takes a woman dressed as a man to find the solution. This in itself to Shakespeare’s audience would have been the source of comedy, as an upending of typical gender roles. Tamara Hickey’s Portia found her full comic potential only in the scene in which Bassanio finally wins her hand through the casket game. The similarity of that scene to the scenes Packer played with Nigel Gore in her Women of Will productions may have been an important guide. With the actors, Packer found a disturbing a gesture which passed between the two lovers: instead of an embrace, they would sometimes meet face to face with arms extended parallel to the floor: an intimate crucifixion. The Christians in this play, aside from Antonio, aren’t overtly Christian. This was one of many attempts on Packer’s part to balance the play and make it clear that there are in fact three faith communities in Venice: Christian, Jewish, and Muslim.

Shylock alone arrives at the conclusion that the reason that Antonio has behaved toward him the way he has is because he is a Jew, and that this will be the reason to justify his revenge.

He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million! Laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies, and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes?

Packer changed this speech. One of the Gentiles, a friend of Antonio’s, responded to Shylock’s “…and what’s his reason?” by shouting “Because you’re a Jew!” Epstein sagely nodded his head and agreed, “Because I’m a Jew.” Even at the crucial moment, they did not trust Shylock to make up his own mind. The text was fundamentally altered in order to justify a point of view on the character. Packer wanted to honor both realities, a sympathetic Shylock in an essentially comic world, and as a consequence she directed Merchant as a problem play.

a man and woman talking
Kate Abbruzzese and Jonathan Epstein. The Merchant of Venice Invited Dress Rehearsal, Shakespeare & Company 2016. Photo by John Dolan.

Hypothetically there might be a way to stage The Merchant of Venice as a comedy, not a “problem play.” The key would be to deemphasize religion entirely. Shylock has more wit than anyone in Venice, and to see him lose his wits is classic comic material. Instead of a play about prejudice and hatred, Shylock’s decision to follow through on the bond would be the result of moral incontinence, triggered not by an excess of anti-Semitism but by what actually happens in the play: his daughter elopes, and takes many valuable items and treasured heirlooms with her. He snaps. We laugh. Things get out of hand, but the threatened violence remains safely within the bounds of comedy. A woman (a woman!) has to step in to save the day. And in an appropriate symmetry, Shylock and Antonio both then finish out the play isolated from the comic world of heterosexual couplings. The moral of the story? Those who cling too tightly to their religious identities will never be happy.

I offer this alternate reading only to point out that there are valid alternatives to the approach Packer and Epstein took, which is the predominant view of the play today. Each person who engages with Merchant can solve the aesthetic and moral problems their own way. The play remains an attractive challenge, even after the Holocaust.

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Very interesting analysis! In fact, I might go as far as to say that the many drops of wisdom seemed (like the quality of mercy) to have gently falleth from the heaven.

Or, to put it in more modern terms: Kudos!

Thank you, Neal. I just saw your comment now, I apologize for not responding earlier. Fascinating that I'm finding it today. The cutting room floor for this column ended up knee-deep, and I'm hoping to come back to the topic in a longer format eventually. This topic is especially prescient right now in the wake of the "Hail Trump" footage. If we really believe that the theater has ethical value and can affect people's minds and hearts in meaningful ways, how can we keep staging The Merchant of Venice? --Josh