I heard belatedly about director Jonathan Munby's Merchant of Venice, with Jonathan Pryce starring as Shylock, playing a one week stint at the Lincoln Center Festival. It was originally created for the Globe Theater and is apparently now on tour. I did some looking at reviews and saw only good things, and particular notes about some additions to the text I was curious about, so I decided I wanted to see it. By the time I looked, there weren't many seats left. I was left with the choice of spending nearly a hundred dollars for seats all the way in the back, or one fifty for fourth row orchestra seats, and I decided to splurge since it seemed like a fairly small marginal increase- if I was already in for a hundred dollars, might as well make sure I got choice seats. I'm not sure I've ever spent so much money on a theatrical performance, and I instantly to a certain degree regretted it. It is not the kind of money I normally spend and to do so on a play I have such deep, complicated feelings about was a significant risk for that kind of money. Still, it was a staging I didn't really want to miss.
Munby's major question on Merchant is: How can a play so terribly racist be read as a comedy in today's age? His answer is: It shouldn't be. And yet unlike Darko Tresnjak's magnificent transformation of the play into a tragedy, into Shylock's tragedy, Munby commits fully to the text of Merchant as a comedy. Instead of working against that clear intention, he works it against the audience. The persistent question Munby poses to his audience is: "Why are you laughing? This isn't funny!"
He opens the play with an introductory masque, singing, dancing, music and drums, the revelry of a Venetian street carnival. (There is brilliant music throughout the production, with a wide range of meanings.) The actors don't just dance onstage, they dance into the aisles, egging on the audience, and then they start to clap. They clap in rhythm with the drums, the clapping spreads from actor to actor and then, with encouragement from the actors, it spreads to the audience. It built and built, filling the theater, until two Jews, Shylock and a companion, clad in red caps marking them as Jews, blundered through the carnival by mistake. The music stops. The revelers, led by Antonio, spit on and then savagely beat Shylock and his coreligionist. The very same revelers the audience was just clapping along with!!!! (I was not clapping along. The audience participation bits throughout the show did not work on me. I do not identify with the Venetians. I stand with Shylock.) Watching the Venetians beat Shylock was the first time this play made me tear up, but it was not the last. It was just so visceral, watching a Jew beaten on stage for the amusement of the Christian heroes of the play. This is not ancient history, you know. At intermission the couple behind me was reading from the program a small historical note about Elizabethan anti-semitism and snickering. One of them said to the other "It says the Elizabethans were anti-semitic. No shit!" it was such classic New York liberal superiority. I wanted to turn to them and say "21st Century Americans are anti-semitic, too! No shit!" I restrained myself.
Later, Shylock's servant Gobbo grapples with whether to steal from his master the Jew. A devil sits on one shoulder, an angel on the other. Gobbo pulls two people from the audience and brings them on stage to pantomime as the devil and the angel. He enlists the audience to take their behalfs, playing up the comic bawdiness of Gobbo and his ridiculous call and response games until half the audience is cheering for Gobbo to steal from the Jew without realizing it. (I realized it. The audience participation bits did not work on me. I stand with Shylock.)
Again and again, this was Munby's solution to the problem of the play's comic racism- to trick the audience into laughing at it and then pull the curtain back and reveal what they'd just laughed at. But I was never laughing, so I just had the uncomfortable feeling throughout of watching an audience all around me laugh at anti-semitic jokes. Jokes at my expense. It was... revealing.
Merchant is not only the anti-semitic Shakespeare play, though. It's also otherwise racist! People forget that in Morocco's scene there is Portia's infamous line about his complexion, that Aragon's scene is just a long series of ethnic jokes... Munby didn't seek to undermine these scenes at all. He played them as ethnic comedy, as they are written, and I suppose he trusted that the lesson he was teaching in the scenes about the Jews would echo into these scenes, or perhaps he thought a few jokes about savage Africans and fussy Spaniards were funny, or perhaps he just needed to beef up the comedy for his finale to land as hard as he wanted, but I wanted more from these scenes.
What of Shylock? Pryce's Shylock was good, but not great. He was a nervous creature, much abused and much suffering from the abuse, but I actually believed in the negotiation scene that when he spoke of the pound of flesh as his 'merry bond', he meant it. There was little sinister, manipulative intent, little of the chessmaster. This was a reactive Shylock. Pryce and Munby's interpretation of this scene seemed to be that after repeated insulting of Shylock by Antonio, Antonio has the temerity to actually ask a favor of Shylock, and yet even as he asks the favor, Antonio cannot disguise his hatred of Shylock. Shylock sees this, sees how in the midst of begging a favor Antonio cannot resist throwing Shylock's Chumash to the ground and calling him the devil, and sees an opportunity to turn the tables. Not to kill Antonio, but for once in his life to get to laugh at Antonio, rather than the reverse. Refusing interest, demanding a pound of flesh as bond, it is not bloodthirst but a calculated insult of Antonio's worth as a man and a merchant. Only after Jessica's betrayal is Shylock reduced to nothing but vengeance. His kinsman Tubal feeds him this vengeance as an antidote to his grief over losing his daughter: With every yet more sorrowful detail about her departure, Tubal soothes Shylock's fraying nerves by reminding him of Antonio's poor business fortunes, reminding him that at least he will gain his petty insult on the evil merchant as consolation. Except that as Shylock's worldview warps, he no longer sees it as just being an insult. He wants blood. He wants this horrible Christian society that he is trapped in to inflict punishment on Antonio by its own rules, in lieu of restoring Jessica to him.
Jessica's relationship with her father is strained but heartfelt. It is clear that growing up without her mother in the house of Shylock was not easy for her, that she is not leaving for Lorenzo entirely because she loves Lorenzo, but because she knows it will hurt her father. In their opening scene, they bicker at each other in 20th century Yiddish theater Yiddish. (I'm unclear on the historical accuracy of this. Well, okay, I'm half-unclear. I am sure that two Venetian Jews from the 15th century would not talk in 20th century Yiddish theater Yiddish, but I'm not sure if they would have spoken a German-inflected Jewish dialect, as the staging suggests, or if they would have spoken some form of Judeo-Italian, or if they as Northern Italians would have spoken some combination of the two. I just don't know enough about the historical linguistics.) Shylock is trying to impose rules on her for her own safety, but because of who he is, because of the distance between the two of them, he cannot explain himself to her, only order her around. She resents the unexplained restrictions, resents her Jewishness, her Otherness.
But kinship is not all that binds Jessica to Shylock, and it is not all that she is surrendering in joining Lorenzo. Much is made in the later Belmont scenes of Jessica's struggle to adjust to being a Christian. She doesn't know how to act, she doesn't know how to move, she doesn't know how to talk like a Christian. The second act opens with a dance sequence, in which Lorenzo gives her a crucifix necklace to wear and then tries to teach her Christian dances and she struggles and fumbles and ultimately is supplanted by her mistress Portia, who dances effortlessly with Lorenzo as Jessica looks on in frustration. Every time Portia addresses Lorenzo and Jessica, the actress emphasized a distinct pause between addressing Lorenzo and Jessica, a pause clearly intended to Other Jessica. The difference is not just about faith. In becoming a Christian she is asked to give up her culture, too, and learn a new one. I'm not sure if this was intentional, because it seems too subtle a gesture, but the first time Lorenzo gives her a glass of non-kosher wine, she holds it for a minute and then returns it to a table untouched, as if she is uncomfortable with the idea of for the first time drinking unkosher wine. She can shed her faith, but this cultural tradition of being careful about food dies hard. In her next scene we see her drinking, adjusting.
And at last we reach the finale. the much-talked about Coda which reviewers coyly mentioned as the standout feature of this production. Shylock is humbled and humiliated, his daughter's seducer Lorenzo and the hated Antonio to split his fortune, and he to be forcibly converted. When Jessica hears the news, she is brought to her knees in agony and repentance, singing in Hebrew the words of the daily Vidui confession of the Shemoneh Esrei. Pardon us, our Father, for we have sinned; forgive us, our King, for we have transgressed; for You are a good and forgiving God. Blessed are You, Hashem, gracious One who pardons abundantly. At last she feels the call of her heritage, which she has surrendered with little recompense. And then her Hebrew prayer of penitence is drowned out by Christian chanting, as Munby shows us Shylock's baptism. At last, there is no more laughter, no more comedy. The weddings and the happy endings for the Venetians are drowned out by Shylock's misery. And once more, for perhaps the fourth or fifth time, the production reduced me to tears.
Was it worth the money? I don't know. It was powerfully, effectively staged and moving. I love the context that the ending gave to the story, and am glad I got to see Munby's thoughts on the ending and on the idea of racist comedy generally. But it was painful getting that reminder of how differently I see the world than non-Jews, painful seeing all the places they laughed and I wasn't laughing. In the courtroom scene... How can you possibly laugh during the courtroom scene? They offered Shylock double his original 3,000 ducats and he hesitated for a comic moment, caught between his avarice and his wrath, and the audience laughed. The audience laughed at the idea of a Jew comically trapped between his moneylust and his bloodlust! (I didn't laugh. I stand with Shylock.) 21st Century Americans are anti-semitic, too! No shit!
I stand with Shylock, and that is sometimes a difficult thing to do, because he is a caricatured monster from a long bygone era's deepest fears. I do not stand with him because I long to hold in my hand a pound of Christian flesh, or else three thousand ducats plus interest. I stand with him because Shakespeare sometimes manages to make him look like a member of my family, and I stand with him because my family have all vowed together never to forget what it means to be a Jew.