Merchant of Venice: Doubling Down in the 1980’s

We went to the Helen Theatre in Playhouse Square on Wednesday to see Merchant of Venice.

The first thing we saw was the merchant Antonio (Alex Brightwell) and his friends dressed in flashy 1980’s menswear, snorting coke and doing shots with I Ran (So Far Away) (1982) by A Flock of Seagulls on the soundtrack. Antonio is inexplicably sad but, oh well, there’s money to be made. He has several expeditions under sail and, though there is risk, every expectation of profit.

Friend Bassanio (Gregory James) shows up and asks yet another loan from Antonio. He promises to repay Antonio and all his other debts by making money the old-fashioned way, marrying the beautiful heiress, Portia. Antonio’s wealth is all invested in ships at sea but, no problem, he and Bassanio go to the very Jewish moneylender Shylock (Elisabeth A. Yancey, dressed in yarmulke, tzitzit and all) who loans the money with a pound of Antonio’s flesh as forfeit. Ha, ha! What can possibly go wrong?

Immediately after that, we have an entr’acte in which Bassanio goes shopping with Got My Mind Set on You, the 1987 George Harrison recording, on the soundtrack. There’s more flashy menswear, shopping bags galore, and a shop girl (Comfort Dolo) who smiles a dazzling smile as she swipes Antonio’s credit cards.

It’s gonna take plenty of money

To do it right, child.

Why a 1980’s production of Merchant of Venice? Director Sara Holdren explains in her program note that Shakespeare’s Venice is a gilded world of easy hypocrisy “floating precariously on an ocean of money” in which people are turned into commodities. That’s an easy case to make, with Shylock’s oft-quoted alarm over “My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter! Fled with a Christian!” Further evidence for the same case is Bassanio’s speech about hypocrisy in a gilded world as he contemplates the golden casket that may or may not win him Portia’s hand in marriage.

So may the outward shows be least themselves;

The world is still deceived with ornament.

Nothing in the text or this production suggests that Bassanio is at all aware of the irony of the situation that, as Holdren puts it, he “has arrived to court Portia decked in the luxurious trappings purchased by sending his friend into dangerous debt.” How like the 1980’s, the decade when greed was good!

How like the 1980’s! But so many things in Shakespeare’s text remind us of how different England was in 1605.

As you already know, dear reader, in Shakespeare’s time the whole idea of religious tolerance – even among Christians – was virtually non-existent. Shakespeare’s patron, Elizabeth I, was willing to look the other way when it came to Catholic recusants, saying she did not seek “to make windows into men’s hearts and secret thoughts” but she expected outward conformity to the Anglican Church.

Roger Williams, the virtual originator of religious tolerance, freedom of religion, and separation of church and state in North America, was born in London circa 1603 so one could say that those ideas were literally in their infancy when Merchant of Venice was first performed.    

And what of the anti-Semitism that so permeates this play? Surely that was part of the old world that was passing away thanks partly to empathetic writers like Shakespeare who gave Shylock a famous argument for tolerance, “hath not a Jew eyes?” But nay, gentle reader, in Shakespeare’s time the golden age of anti-Semitism was just beginning. While Catholics and Protestants contended in England, where there were few if any openly practicing Jews, persecution and forced conversions of Jews was rampant everywhere in Europe, especially in Spain where the many conversos were regarded with suspicion.    And, understandably, Shakespeare largely appears to have bought into it.

Some would say “it’s not the play but how you play it,” but to us the text of Merchant of Venice seems inescapably anti-Semitic (and xenophobic and racist). Instead of soft pedaling any of those cringe-worthy aspects of the play, Holdren doubles down on every one of them.

To give just one example, consider the Prince of Morocco, whose first words are an apology for his skin color.

Mislike me not for my complexion

The shadowed livery of the burnish’d sun,

To whom I am a neighbor and near bred.

The text makes him a negative stereotype. Cast member Abdul Seidu plays him without irony. But Holdren doubles down on the stereotype by having the Prince’s followers suddenly draw their swords with a loud “Hai!” If they had all fired their AK-47s into the air simultaneously, it could not have been clearer. They are fierce – and primitive — North African tribesmen and they’ve got their Prince’s back!

The doubling down comes to a climax in the courtroom. As in Shakespeare’s text, Portia (played by Kasey Connolly) disguised as a lawyer first seems to uphold Shylock’s side of the case and then undercuts it. Holdren doubles down on the text by mingling members of the cast among the audience; as the court proceedings become contentious, they shout partisan remarks and, derisively, “Jew!” If they had lit tiki torches it could not have been a more anti-Semitic moment.

This was not a pleasant evening with a Rom Com but a difficult play skillfully performed. Kudos to the actors, all members of the Case Western Reserve University / Cleveland Playhouse MFA Acting Program Class of 2020, especially those who were double cast in contrasting roles including Abdul Seidu who played the affable Gratiano, friend to Bassanio, as well as the Prince of Morocco; Kasey Connolly who played the Clown, Launcelot, as well as Portia; Comfort Dolo who played Shylock’s daughter Jessica as well as many roles in the Ensemble; and Gregory James who played both Bassanio and the foolish Prince of Arragon.

The Merchant of Venice played at the Helen Theatre in Playhouse Square from 11/6 – 16/2019. We watched opening night, Wednesday, November 6, 2019.

All photo credits: Kristin Netzband.

Elsa Johnson and Victor Lucas

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