The Merchant of Venice | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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The Merchant of Venice


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Oak Park Festival Theatre

The Merchant of Venice is one of William Shakespeare's "but" plays: "But teacher, he wasn't really endorsing anti-Semitism, was he?" Well, class, not endorsing it, no. But Shakespeare was a man of his time, and it was a time of Christian supremacy. Very few Jews were even living in England in Shakespeare's day, having been expelled in the late 13th century. As Oak Park Festival Theatre artistic director David Darlow observes in his notes for his new production of Merchant (set in 1932, the tenth year of Mussolini's regime), the character of Shylock, the miserly Jewish money-lender whose desire for revenge sparks Merchant's plot, was created "out of contemporary myth and literary precedent."

But Shylock quickly took on a life of his own (even in Shakespeare's lifetime the play was often referred to as The Jew of Venice), such a complex character is he. In our own time, of course, he can't help but dominate the play; in a pluralistic society founded on the concept of religious freedom, we can't help but bridle at the discrimination and religious oppression Shylock and his daughter Jessica face. But we would do well not to let this particular tree obscure our view of the forest; a Merchant that's only about Shylock is a devalued Merchant indeed.

Unfortunately, this is the Merchant Darlow delivers. Part of the problem is the acting. Only Darlow, who in addition to staging the show also plays Shylock, is able to create a multidimensional man who lives through Shakespeare's rich and demanding text (this is by far the best work I've seen Darlow do); the other actors are mainly preoccupied with getting the words out in a way a modern audience can understand (especially at open-air Oak Park Festival Theatre, where the sound system must compete with screeching traffic and roaring airplanes). But the main flaw in this production--in which characters toss straight-armed fascist salutes as Mussolini's voice booms over the loudspeaker--is Darlow's directorial overemphasis on the Jewish issue to the point where it fails to connect with Merchant's larger theme: the conflict between love and the law.

That conflict, of course, is the essence of Christianity; the cornerstone of Jesus Christ's message was that the harsh law of the Old Testament was to be supplanted by merciful love--between God and humanity, and between all people as the children of God. Shylock insists on literally claiming the "pound of flesh" pledged to him as a bond by Antonio, the Venetian merchant to whom Shylock has lent money; thus Shylock represents the retributive code of his forefathers, which must be superseded by enlightened forgiveness. Of course, as Shylock points out, vengeance is hardly a value unique to Jews. The Christians, too, are held up to criticism by Shakespeare when they stray from the meaning (as opposed to the letter) of Christian law, as so many of the "best" Christians do. Only through mutual compassion and forgiveness, Merchant says, can humanity exist together. This compassion is represented by the merchant Antonio, who learns the value of mercy through his own close brush with death and who comes awfully close to being a lamb-of-God Christ figure ("I am a tainted wether of the flock," he says as Shylock prepares his knife, "Meetest for death"). It is not on his own behalf Antonio has borrowed money from Shylock, but rather on behalf of his friend Bassanio, who needs funds to woo the noblewoman Portia; yet Antonio is willing to sacrifice his life. When Antonio harshly criticizes Shylock as a usurer, it is like Jesus's rout of the moneylenders from the temple (importantly, it is usury, not his religious beliefs, that is Shylock's main affront in the play's scheme). And in the end, when Antonio persuades the court to pardon Shylock of attempted murder in return for Shylock's agreement to convert to Christianity, it is meant not as punishment of the Jew but as his redemption. This is the hardest thing for a modern audience to accept, but it is crucial to understanding the play: Shylock is not punished, though by some lights he should be, for his overreaction--seeking the life of one good man in revenge for all the indignities heaped on him by a society--but instead is pardoned, granted not only freedom but salvation. (The ugly irony is that the other Christians would rather punish Shylock's body than save his soul: "A halter, gratis," demands one man in calling for Shylock to be hanged. "Nothing else, for God's sake.")

The love/law conflict is also played out in Merchant's two main romantic plot strands: the wooing of Portia by Bassanio, and the elopement of Shylock's daughter Jessica and her Christian lover Lorenzo. Suitors for Portia's hand must first pass a test devised by her late father: they must choose which of three caskets (one gold, one silver, one lead) contains Portia's picture, and, if they fail, they forfeit not only Portia but the right ever to seek a wife (a bond as severe and inhuman as Antonio's pound of flesh). Portia's line, "So is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father," thematically applies not only to her but to Jessica, enamored of Lorenzo but forbidden by her flint-hearted father, Shylock, to marry a Christian.

In Darlow's staging, the usually light Lorenzo-Jessica affair is darkened so it becomes a foreshadowing of the Nazi holocaust; in a wordless scene added to the end of the play, Jessica weeps bitterly as a mournful Hebrew hymn is sung in the distance. It's an effective moment, but the fact that it is completely an invention of Darlow's and runs counter to Shakespeare's text illustrates how imbalanced this Merchant is. If Darlow had really come to grips with the full dimensions of Shakespeare's script, then the tension inherent in a modern audience's reaction to the play's circumstances would be genuinely troubling and enlightening. Instead--despite Darlow's fine individual performance, along with a few nice moments from Mary Ernster as the wise and witty Portia and Larry Russo as the endangered Antonio, as well as some clever touches, such as the 1930s pop tunes that open the play (one ditty has the bouncy refrain, "Love thy neighbor!")--all we get is a sermon on intolerance, along with some half-baked Shakespeare.

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