I’ve been thinking a lot about The Merchant of Venice, since I’m directing it for the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter School in a production that plays this coming weekend at The Academy of Music in Northampton. If you know anything about Shakespeare’s classic “problem play,” it’s probably the idea that it’s anti-Semitic. Anti-Semitism does indeed run through it, and Shylock, the Jewish moneylender who tries to extract a literal “pound of flesh” in payment of a defaulted debt, is hardly a model citizen.
Attitudes toward the play have shifted over the years. In the past, Shylock was often depicted as a shifty, merciless villain, often acted as a cartoonish stereotype. To make the play palatable to modern sensibilities, many contemporary productions practice “reverse prejudice,” painting Shylock as a sympathetic victim of persecution.
The play takes place in a time and culture where Christians were forbidden to lend money at interest and Jews were despised for doing so. In Shakespeare’s day, Jews were generally depicted on stage as greedy, scheming usurers bent on evil – caricatures of malevolence. But Shakespeare’s genius was to see beyond stereotypes. Shylock is one of the playwright’s most complex and intriguing characters – a man who certainly behaves monstrously, but is no monster; a man who, pushed to the limit by ill-treatment and oppression, exacts a disproportionate revenge.
For their part, the play’s Christians, including the wealthy heiress Portia, her lover Bassanio, and his bosom friend Antonio, the merchant of the title, are not exactly heroic either. Antonio spits on Shylock in the street and calls him “dog,” Portia rejoices when her black suitor is rejected, the trial that ends in Shylock’s downfall turns on a legal trick, and they all gloat over his humiliation.
So, I wondered when preparing this production, what is The Merchant of Venice actually about? How can we relate this play to our own world while staying true to Shakespeare and finding a balance between its opposing forces? The idea I finally came to links those three perspectives and answers the question of what, for me, the play is about:
It’s about bullying.
Shylock is an outcast, an outsider who’s reviled and mistrusted because he’s different. He practices a different faith, wears different clothes, eats different food, speaks a different language and plies a trade the Gentiles find repugnant. He’s a Jew, but the spite and mockery he receives from the Venetian in-crowd is not that different from what is suffered today by high school students who are taunted, or worse, because they’re “different” from the crowd. Pushed to the limit, Shylock takes a disproportionate revenge – not unlike the bullied kid who one day opens fire in the schoolyard.
And the play’s Christians are just as vindictive. After rescuing Antonio from Shylock’s grasp, they hardly show “the quality of mercy” that Portia so eloquently expounds. Shylock is sentenced to a punishment that’s worse, to him, than death: forced conversion to Christianity – giving up who he is to satisfy the majority. Both sides in this conflict of cultures are perhaps, as another of Shakespeare’s characters puts it, “more sinned against than sinning.” But the vengeance they each enact simply perpetuates a cycle of hurt and reprisal. This weekend’s production adds a prologue that dramatizes that vicious circle.
Our concept also addresses another contemporary issue, that of gender inequality. Even in the 21st century, men still hold most of the power – economically, politically and socially. We’re turning that disparity on its head. The play’s “outsider,” Shylock, is played by the only boy in the cast, and all the other roles – the Venetian Christians who hold all the power – are played by girls.
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