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The Villain of Venice

Gunning for laughs, Strawdog Theatre demonizes the old moneylender all over again.

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On its surface The Merchant of Venice invites us to cheer the calculated, merciless destruction of greedy, vengeful Jewish moneylender Shylock, who's not only stripped of his possessions but forced to abandon his faith by the pack of seemingly virtuous Christians who rule Venice. Even the great Shakespeare apologist Harold Bloom condemned the work as unplayable. "It would have been better for the last four centuries of the Jewish people," he wrote, "had Shakespeare never written this play."

But examining The Merchant of Venice in its historical context suggests that Shakespeare intended something more sophisticated than an anti-Semitic screed. When the work premiered in 1597, the Jew was a stock villain in Elizabethan drama, exemplified by Barabas, the title character in Marlowe's 1589 The Jew of Malta. Like Shylock, Barabas is a materialistic usurer with a rebellious daughter. But while Barabas devolves into a bogeyman, Shylock is as well-rounded as any of the Christian Italians in Shakespeare's play. Offering a humanized portrait of a Jew that was nearly unprecedented on the Elizabethan stage, Shakespeare clearly invited the audience to empathize with Shylock, most persuasively in the "Hath not a Jew eyes?" speech.

More important, Jews were banned from Renaissance England, ousted in 1290 and not readmitted until 1655. In Shakespeare's xenophobic London, the hated moneylenders were Italian. In fact a 1559 royal edict that tightened the regulations on "merchant strangers" noted that "the Italians above all others are to be taken heed of, for they...lick the fat even from our beards." Italians were also stereotyped as homosexuals.

So while to contemporary eyes The Merchant of Venice seems to pit a vicious Jew against a virtuous Christian, Renaissance audiences arguably saw a battle between two hated foreigners. They wouldn't have assumed Antonio was more virtuous than Shylock, especially when it begins to seem that Antonio is in love with his friend Bassanio, for whom he borrows money. They probably would have seen the Venetians as cold and calculating, valuing wealth and appearance above all else. Bassanio needs money so that he can woo the rich heiress Portia, intending "to get clear of all the debts I owe." To Antonio this seems a reasonable venture, and he offers Bassanio his credit. Perhaps he's being generous to his friend, or perhaps he wants to keep a hand in the married man's pants. He and Bassanio ask Shylock, whom Antonio has made a habit of spitting upon, for 3,000 ducats. Shylock lends the money on condition that if it isn't repaid in three months, he'll receive instead a pound of Antonio's flesh. Bassanio then dashes off to win the hand of cash cow Portia, a feat he can accomplish only by feigning complete indifference to the glitter of gold and silver.

When Antonio loses all his ships and can't make good on his loan, Shylock brings him to court. There Portia, disguised as a doctor, tries to get Shylock to show mercy. Earlier, however, she'd revealed a healthy strain of racism, and here she's calculating, waiting until the last possible moment--Shylock's knife has nearly pierced Antonio's chest--to rescue him. By the end of the trial scene, it's clear just how un-Christian the Christians are: they consistently vilify Shylock for the greed, coldheartedness, and materialism they themselves possess. Though the Jew is no saint, he fits naturally into this heartless mercantile world.

Strawdog director G.J. Cederquist, using a highly edited version of the script, seems bent on creating the most entertaining Merchant of Venice he can. Like a long line of critics and directors over the past four centuries, he seems to see the play not as a dark and cynical work but as one of Shakespeare's romantic comedies, requiring the defeat of a comic villain. Press materials suggest that Antonio and his brood are nouveau riche upstarts who cashed in on a volatile stock market, a take on the story reinforced by the modern-dress costuming. In stark contrast to the text, they're like frat boys with a taste for barhopping and Dolce & Gabbana but essentially unconcerned about financial matters. The loss of his entire fortune at sea, for example, appears to have no effect on Antonio. Bassanio even pursues Portia for love, not money, and if there's any romantic interest between Bassanio and Antonio, it's minimal: they briefly clasp hands in the first scene.

Cederquist's fast-paced, exuberant staging is in fact entertaining (though the platonic spin on Bassanio and Antonio's relationship weakens the credibility of Antonio's life-or-death risk). No opportunity for humor is neglected, and the collision between frat-boy sensibility and Elizabethan decorum consistently elicits laughs. The usually tiresome clown Lancelot is played with mincing, Chaplinesque panache by Anderson Lawfer. Even a series of perfunctory nonspeaking roles become little comic gems thanks to Esteban Andres Cruz's charm.

But this comedic approach minimizes the Venetians' venality. Shylock, on the other hand, is unmistakably dark, if often very human in Sean Sinitski's nuanced and seductive portrayal. Here the Jew is a bitter middle-aged businessman who's reached the breaking point with Antonio and his gang of upstarts. If ever he had a drop of forgiveness in his veins, it's long since dried up, and he's more than happy to beat the Venetians at their own game by enforcing the contract to "inadvertently" end Antonio's life. It's a smart and moving characterization, and in a different production it might have provided a meaningful foil to the self-righteous Christians. But in this production Shylock is the only character with an ugly side, the killjoy at the all-night Venetian party.

Cederquist's reading of the play leads to a wholly distasteful final scene, in which the Christians have escaped to the seeming idyll of Portia's estate. Tellingly, however, Cederquist has cut two key lines. One of Antonio's cronies describes the beauty of the moonlit evening but adds, "Such harmony is in immortal souls / But whilst this muddy vesture of decay / Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it." Later Portia describes the moonlight this way: "The night methinks is but the daylight sick." If Shakespeare had wanted his audience to be content with the Venetians' final couplings, he wouldn't have likened their bodies to muddy vestures of decay. Cederquist also invents a wordless coda in which Shylock appears dressed as hiply as Antonio's crew. His reappearance may have been intended to complicate the "happy" ending but merely reinforces it: the Christian world will run a lot more smoothly now that the Jew is playing by its rules.

The Merchant of Venice plays Saturday at Strawdog Theatre Company, 3829 N. Broadway in Chicago, through May 15. Call 773-528-9696 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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