Friday, November 19, 2010

The Merchant of Venice

Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice is a choleric, cynical play.

First, of course, there is the ugly anti-Semitism. Shylock, more frequently known as "The Jew," has spent his life being called "Jew cur" and other such lovely epithets. His anger has been simmering for years, and why shouldn't he require of Antonio a pound of flesh? Antonio has no problem taking a metaphysical, emotional pound or two from Shylock; even in the role of financial supplicant, Antonio harangues and criticizes Shylock. (If Antonio possessed even the most basic of good manners, the plot would not be set in motion.)

Then Shakespeare depicts Shylock as more upset at the loss of his ducats than of his daughter (though Shylock is arguably hiding the loss he cannot face by focusing on the loss he can). By the end of the play, Shakespeare has stripped Shylock of everything he loves and believes in. The bigoted, self-satisfied Antonio, on the other hand, gets a happy ending.

Continuing his choleric mood, Shakespeare has little use for love in this play. Portia, the brilliant, emotional Portia (who somehow manages to become a knowledgeable lawyer on the trip from Belmont to Venice), responds to her true love Bassanio by tricking him into betraying her. Even though she has seen him totally devastated, even though he has just almost lost his best friend Antonio to a gruesome death (for which he is at least somewhat responsible!), she uses her disguise to pressure and deceive him. Is she jealous of his love for his best friend? Possibly. Is she just upset and angry? Possibly. Is she merely manipulative by nature? Possibly. None of the options is anything but ugly.

And why would Nerissa then trick her great love as well? To show that true love is impossible? Or that men can't be trusted? Perhaps. And what of Jessica and Lorenzo? Did they ever love each other, really, for even a moment? The only true love in this play is that between the ne'er-do-well Bassanio and the arrogant Antonio.

The Merchant of Venice was initially termed a comedy, I guess because the romantic leads end up together and the non-Jews get to live happily ever after. At the performance I saw, the European gentleman standing next to me (three hours is a long time to stand, by the way), chortled uproariously as Shylock was forced to his knees to be baptized as a Christian. It was only self-control and theatre etiquette that stopped me from turning to him and demanding, "Just what exactly is funny?"

The current production, smoothly directed by Daniel Sullivan and extremely well-acted by Al Pacino, Lily Rabe, and the rest of the company, gives The Merchant of Venice as good a showing as I could imagine it receiving.

One last thing: as I looked at the orchestra section in front of me, I was astonished to realize that everyone there, every single person, had spend a minimum of $131.50 per ticket. Some probably spent over $200. Isn't that kind of . . . insane? And isn't it kind of disgusting that dinner and a Broadway show for a couple costs as much as the average yearly income in India? And who are the usurers when credit cards charge as much as 30% interest, legally? Who are the villains when banks push ridiculous mortgages and then take people's homes when the poor fools fall for the banks' dishonest sales pitches? What would Shakespeare think of today's attitudes toward money? What would Shylock?

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