Performing Arts
© Mike Keenan

Stratford's "The Merchant of Venice" resonates now in Syria and Egypt

Tom McCamus, Antonio, Steven Sutcliffe, Solanio, Anand Rajaram, Salerio. Photo by David Hou
Tom McCamus, Antonio, Steven Sutcliffe, Solanio, Anand Rajaram, Salerio. Photo by David Hou

"My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!
Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats!
Justice! the law! my ducats, and my daughter!"

          Shylock, The Merchant of Venice, 2. 8

The Merchant of Venice always remains topical as we might easily attest in the current examples of religious hatred and prejudice that propel war and atrocity in both Syria and Egypt, albeit this time it's Muslim hatred and prejudice instead of the standard Christian variety that we catch Scott Wentworth photo by David Hou more often in the U.S.A. whether it involves naked political power, gun control or health care issues.

And over the years, I have had the opportunity to take in myriad performances of The Merchant of Venice; however, this season, I was eager to watch Stratford veteran Brian Bedford perform as Shylock. Unfortunately, he was forced to bow out due to illness. Scott Wentworth, already playing another classic Jewish character, Tevye the dairyman in the musical Fiddler on the Roof, took his place, and although standing ovations have become watered down by modern audiences, Wentworth deserved his.

Bravo also to artistic director, Antoni Cimolino whose interpretation is the best I have experienced. (His helpful "Director's Notes" from the program will follow.) Cimolino sets his play in Fascist Italy, before the start of the Second World War, along with carabinieri, toting guns in the local square. The play is always controversial because of the anti-Semitic theme espoused by the ruling Venetian Christians, but Cimolino makes evil universal, inherent in all of us and each character, as it should be, with one exception, Tyrell Crews as Bassanio, so smitten with Portia (Michelle Giroux) that he thinks of nothing else.

Wentworth's Shylock ranges from sarcastic mock humour in the beginning to pure hatred when he loses his daughter Jessica (Sara Farb) to the Christian, Lorenzo (Tyrone Savage) along with pilfered money and jewelry. His rabid and unadulterated demand for his "pound of flesh" in the dramatic courtroom scene loses him his ally Tubal (Robert King) who walks out and any leniency that he might otherwise expect from the court.

Scott Wentworth, Shylock with members of the company. Photo by David Hou  Sara Farb, Jessica, Tyrone Savage, Lorenzo. Photo by David Hou  Michelle Giroux, Portia. Photo by David Hou  Ron Pederson, Launcelot Gobbo. Photo by David Hou  Sophia Walker, Nerissa. Photo by David Hou  Tom McCamus, Antonio. Photo by David Hou

In the courtroom, Tom McCamus, a minimalist Antonio, dramatically offers his bare chest, arms outstretched in cross-like fashion to Wentworth's knife. Giroux as Portia is utterly convincing as a young, competent lawyer who demands the full extent of Venetian law be applied to the unrelenting Wentworth, as frightening in this scene as the background newscast speeches from Mussolini and Hitler on the radio in Belmont, that disturb the love scene between Jessica and Lorenzo.

Fortunately, there is some humour to offset the heavy theme, particularly in Belmont as the bizarre aristocratic suitors attempt to select the correct answer to riddles that describe contents of three casks (gold, silver and lead), only one containing Portia's picture which promises her hand in marriage. Antoine Yared with a ridiculous Spanish accent and fancy feet, induced loud laughs as the Prince of Arragon. Falsetto-voiced Ron Pederson as clownish servant Launcelot Gobbo, milks laughs throughout the play. Giroux's Portia and her maid Nerissa (Sophia Walker) mock their intended, two men who cannot keep their betrothed rings on their fingers despite their hearty promises.

Cimolino's important and instructive Directors Notes from the program are worth repeating in full:
" The Merchant of Venice doesn't just warn us against judging books by their covers; it even goes so far as to suggest an inverse relationship between essential worth and surface appeal. From caskets to complexions, appearances "entrap the wisest." Throughout the play, people are judged by the colour of their skin, by their nationality and, of course, by their religion. As one might expect, such discrimination causes great pain; it also breeds a desire for revenge."

"Just as appearances are important in The Merchant of Venice, so too is money. The language of the play is filled with references to commercial transactions and trade. Suitors come armed with rich gifts and servants dressed in new-made liveries. In this play's world, money is to be got in several ways - but the best, it seems, is inheritance. Portia's father has taken care of her from beyond the grave, leaving her a seemingly endless amount of money that renders any size of debt petty. Antonio, on the other hand, must venture for his money with ships on the high seas. Venturing entails hazard. And hazard is a word that comes up again and again in this play."

"Those who have exhausted their inheritances and have no ability or stomach for venture may need to borrow - but in this play's world, providing loans as a business is frowned upon. From the perspective of Christian religious beliefs, taking interest is seen as predatory and unnatural. So Christians in need of a loan must borrow from lenders of other faiths, and the circumstances of such transactions do nothing to dispel distrust. On the contrary, being forced to occupy the necessary role of moneylender only exacerbates the Jewish outsider's plight: religious differences are heightened both by envy of the lender's wealth and by the perception that it is accumulated in distasteful (i.e. un-Christian) ways. And so the Christians in this play need the service of credit yet despise the providers."

"The play is jammed with such opposing forces. There are differences between two faiths; between profiting from a business venture and profiting from money-lending; and between the feudal ideal of good service and our modern desire to achieve personal gain. There is also a tension between the city of Venice and the rarefied country seat of Belmont."

"In the play, the boys of Venice chase Shylock and make fun of him. I am haunted by Salerio's description: "Why, all the boys in Venice follow him, / Crying, his stones, his daughter, and his ducats." What will come of these children? Shakespeare seems to suggest that the visions he presents in this society will be carried forward by these boys - these children who are taking on the prejudices of their parents. This reminds me of the lyric from South Pacific: "You've got to be taught to hate and fear .... You've got to be carefully taught."

"And so I began to think of the Italy of my parents when they were children, in the 1930s. They too were from the Veneto. The Depression had made money scarce and therefore more sought after. Fascism was already proving to be a failed experiment - and the blame for Italy's failure was placed on other nations and international Jewish financiers. This led to tragic results."

"Since the unification of Italy in the 1860s and the creation of a secular democratic nation state, Italian Jews had thrown themselves into civic life. Within its first fifty years, Italy had two prime ministers who were Jewish. The rate of Jewish-Christian inter-marriage was between 50% and 60%, an usually high number for any country in Europe. Then in 1938, Mussolini and the National Fascist Party introduced race laws. This was an enormous betrayal by a party and a country that had previously seemed to welcome Jewish involvement. Italian Jews were now excluded from educational, professional and civic life. The Fascists claimed their policy was enlightened compared to that of their counterparts in Nazi Germany. The Italian race laws aimed to achieve "discrimination" but not the "persecution" of the Nazis. The distinction is a depressing one to contemplate.

"However, the history of the Jews in Europe, certainly in Italy, is one of occasional tolerance followed by regular extortion and persecution. In Venice, from the thirteenth century onward, Jews were allowed to live in their ghetto (the word comes from the Italian getto, or "foundry," because the area of Venice to which Jews were confined had been the site of such a facility) as long as they paid extraordinarily high taxes. And so this betrayal by the Fascist Party was both a repetition and an amplification of this long history of seeming tolerance followed by extortion toward Jews in the Italian peninsula."

"In short, all the key elements contained within Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice are present yet again in 1930s Venice. As in Shakespeare's own pre-revolutionary age, such hatred and division within a community based upon religious differences could not end well."

"As the play ends and the newly married and now wealthy couples leave to go to their bedrooms to consummate their marriages, Shylock's shadow looms large. Shylock's own daughter is among them. And as they go off to create children, I cannot help but think of the boys who taunt Shylock about his ducats and his daughter. The story will certainly continue; it is up to us and our children to determine whether it will ever end."

The Stratford Festival:

Jonathan Goad, Gratiano, Anand Rajaram, Salerio, Tyrone Savage, Lorenzo, Steven Sutcliffe, Solanio. Photo by David Hou

The Merchant of Venice - Behind the Scenes at Stratford-upon-Avon College

Richard Rose - The Merchant of Venice, Part 1 (2007)

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