Sunday, April 10, 2011

Notes on Darko Tresnjak's "Merchant of Venice"

Last week I attended the a matinée performance of the touring production of The Merchant of Venice. The production, starring F. Murray Abraham as Shylock, was a revival of director Darko Tresnjak's 2007 mountings with Theatre for a New Audience and the Royal Shakespeare Company. I make no secret of my obsession with this play (in fact, I'm so obsessed that I'm writing "response play") and so there was little chance that I would have missed the performance, but in this case I attended as part of a group outing sponsored by Prism, an initiative of the New Center for Arts And Culture which was offering a post show talk led by Worcester Polytechnic Institute professor, Michelle Ephraim (whose Reading the Jewish Woman on the Elizabethan Stage sounds fascinating.)

What follows is not a review of this particular production. Thomas Garvey at The Hub Review has already written one with which I largely agree, and Rick On Theatre recently reposted a review of the 2007 production. Rather, these thoughts are a response to both the performance and the post-show discussion.

Many argue that of Shakespeare's plays, Hamlet is the greatest work of literature in the Western canon; I contend that while The Merchant of Venice may not be as fine a dramatic poem, it may very well be the most important; for the text is a disturbing portrait of European civilization; In many ways bridging the difference between medieval antisemitism based in theology and superstitions about Jews and the modern antisemitism that presents Jews as people, yet a dangerous people: it underlines that antisemitism is "the oldest hate" and intrinsic to Western civilization. By way of contrast: the literature of the Holocaust, while more horrific, allows Europeans a way of shifting the blame, pretending that horrors of antisemitism was solely the work of the Germans and a few collaborators, or just handful of extremists who had taken over a handful of governments. However, a text like The Merchant of Venice and its continued popularity over the centuries attests to the deep rootedness of antisemitism in European civilization.

This is not to say that Shakespeare is an anti-Semite, or that the play is anti-Semitic propaganda (though it has often been used that way); Shakespeare is too subtle, too prone to irony, and too curious about the sheer diversity of humanity to be so easily dismissed in that manner. However the play is the product of a culture that was anti-Semitic, and and is structured in such a way that it affirms the views of the anti-Semite: the irony only becomes visible to the anti-anti-Semite. This is precisely what makes the play disturbing to modern audiences: we want Shakespeare, the English language's greatest dramatist and poet, to be enlightened and liberal as we are, so we try to find the modern, post-Enlightenment liberal in the irony, but as much as we want the play to be an unambiguous condemnation of bigotry and affirmation of pluralism, the ironies simply will not allow it.

How does Tresnjak address these problems? Tresnjak, a naturalized American, is an ethnic Serb, born in the former Yugoslavia,
He is explicit that he reads The Merchant of Venice in light of his homeland's decent into savage tribalism:

Four years ago, when the first incarnation of this production took place, I thought a great deal about my childhood in Yugoslavia. For a long time, the relative economic prosperity had kept the social injustices and ethnic tensions under wraps. All that changed when the economy disintergrated. I remember my mother saying: "People are starting to turn on each other."
While some, such as Garvey, argue that the co-dependence of love and money is the central theme (see our friendly debate of a year ago for instance) while the more visceral theme of antisemitism is secondary; Tresnjak, like so many of us, responds more to the themes of antisemitism, and the co-mingling of tribe and money.

To this end, Tresnjak, sets his Merchant of Venice on Wall Street of "the near future": the Rialto is the trading floor; Portia is the sole heiress of an old money family. This setting does justice to the theme of love and money. So while Tresnjak makes clear that "the oldest hatred" still lurks in the religiously tolerant cosmopolitan America of lower Manhattan he glosses over the particularly Christian character of the antisemitism. Tresnjak's merchants and traders are nominal Christians who hate Shylock because he is a business rival; that he happens to be an Orthodox Jew just gives them an additional excuse to hate him more. In Shakespeare's Venice (which is a mirror to London of his era) these same characters hate Shylock not just because he is a Jew, but because it is their Christian duty to hate Jews.

This has long been my argument (sharpened, I admit by debate): The play affirms the victory of Christian theology over humanism. Shylock might love more sincerely than any character in the play: unlike either Bassanio or Gratiano he would never willingly give up his wife's engagement ring; in his first appearance, despite past experiences, he is willing to forgive all Antonio's past insults for a future in which both might be friends; he implicitly trusts his daughter, even if she sees him as humorless and oppressive. It is Shylock's heart that is most vulnerable to being broken. It is only when his daughter betrays him, his wife's ring is stolen and traded for a frivolity, his rivals arrange to rob his home under the pretense of a business dinner, does he truly lust for murder.

Though Shylock's "hath a Jew not eyes..." speech is so often seen as a statement of Shakespeare's humanism, it is also a preamble to Shylock's call for revenge, which affirms the Christian prejudice that Judaism is a religion of law without mercy while Christianity is the religion of mercy. So while Shylock loves more, and loves more sincerely, and is even willing to set aside old quarrels and love the gentile as a friend, he is unforgiven by the Christian God so long as he remains a Jew. Conversely, the Venetian and Belmontean characters may be insincere in their oaths, superficial in their love, and give their prejudices free rein, they are forgiven by nature of being Christian-- as such, Shylock's conversion, an unjust humiliation to a modern audience, was a happy ending for the Elizabethan audience ensuring the play kept true to the genre of comedy, much as with Duke Frederick's renunciation of his throne at the end of As You Like It.

In keeping with the theme of antisemitism, Tresnjak's casting of Jacob Ming-Trent as Launcelot Gobbo (he was played by Kenajuan Bentley in the 2007 production) is intriguing, as a black actor in the role (a courier in this 21st century setting) invokes the specter of anti-Semitic rhetoric in the African American community, however, it also necessitates the cutting of this exchange, a response to Launcelot's complaint that converting Jessica to Christianity raises the price of pork:
LORENZO: I shall answer that better to the commonwealth than you can the getting up of the Negro's belly. The moor is with child by you, Launcelot.

LAUNCELOT: It is much that the Moor should be more than reason; but if she be less than an honest woman, she is indeeed more than I took her for.
(Act III, Scene 5, 27-32)

Professor Ephraim noted in the post-show talk that essentially Lorenzo is saying "while I can make a Jew a Christian like myself, you can't make your baby white like yourself." Consequently, Launcelot's speech about in which he says:
Here's a small trifle of wives! Alas, fifteen wives is nothing. Eleven widows and nine maids is a simple coming-in for one man. (Act II, Scene 2, 125-127)
Which is partly a parody of the Biblical patriarch Jacob that begins with Launcelot's deception of his blind father Old Gobbo earlier in the scene is also cut. (As a clown, I also make no secret of my affection for the Gobbi, father and son.) Though, to be fair, I've yet to see a production staged where Old Gobbo isn't cut.

The 21st century setting of Tresnjak's Merchant, also obscures another aspect of historical antisemitism: the invocation of the Devil. Repeatedly, Antonio, Launcelot, Solanio, routinely compare Shylock (and Jews in general) to the Devil, if not stating that Shylock and Jews are themselves the Devil or at least intimately involved with the Devil. In 21st century New York: this is merely an insult; but in England of the 1590s, the Devil would have been a real thing to much of Shakespeare's audience. While this belief was not official Church doctrine, Joshua Trachtenberg's The Devil and the Jews well documents the widespread folklore by which the medieval and early modern Christian imagination linked Judaism with Satanism (a theme that I've given much consideration.)

In short, Tresnjak Merchant does succeed to showing that antisemitism continues to exist, while at the same time glossing over those elements of the text that show how deeply rooted antisemitism is in Western civilization, leaving the genealogy of "the oldest hatred" obscure. Thus a dramaturgical puzzle: how can theatre be simultaneously a mirror up to today while also being an archeological dig into the history that made today possible?

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