Directed by PAUL STEBBINGS
Dramaturgy: PHIL SMITH
Musical composer & director: JOHN KENNY
Producer: GRANTLY MARSHALL
More info below
Director’s notes/ Description
The bronze above is part of a series of works set into the walls of the Getto in Venice, from where thousands of Jews were deported to concentration camps, from where few returned alive. I visited this original “Getto” recently, this being the origin of the very word Ghetto, and the first place in Europe where Jews were confined for their own protection and collective punishment. No production of Shakespeare’s MERCHANT OF VENICE can ignore the fate of Shylock’s Venetian descendants. The play fascinates and disturbs us, it presents the first rounded and satisfying portrayal of a Jew in Western literature, but it is not free from the anti-semitism of it’s Christian characters. A modern production must deal with this. Too many productions do so by sanitizing Shylock and blaming the capitalism of the Merchants. Others make facile comparisons with the 1930’s by setting the play in Mussolini’s Italy. (Nonsense because the Venice of the play is ruled by law and is no dictatorship). So how to deal with this complex and thrilling play? It is widely known as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”. But he wrote it for a reason and avoided easy answers and comes uncomfortably close to Gregor Rezzori’s idea that European culture was defined and given borders by its anti-semitism. (See Rezzori’s MEMOIRS OF AN ANTI SEMITE).
Firstly we have to deal with the fact that this play is a comedy. The comedy works through two interwoven plots: that of the love story of Portia and Bassanio and that of the legal drama of Antonio, Shylock and the same Bassanio.
As in all Shakespeare plays each plot comments on the other and develops themes and ideas dear to the author. Each is resolved – Portia marries Bassanio after she teaches him a sharp lesson (as does Nerissa teach a parallel lesson to Gratiano). A double marriage seals the comedy. For the Christian audience of the original, there is also a type of happy ending at the trial. Portia disguised as a man humiliates Shylock but also saves him; for the conversion of both Shylock and Jessica will lead to their heavenly salvation. Where a modern audience sees cultural annihilation and racist revenge a 16th century audience saw a merciless man given not just mercy but salvation. Quiet rightly we reject that today, the bronze reliefs of the Getto will not permit us to laugh triumphantly with Portia and Gratiano at the Jew’s ruin and forced conversion.
In our production we have tried to maintain the balance that Shakespeare intended between comedy and high drama. We have stripped away minor characters and taken the liberty of suggesting an ending which reflects the troubled history of the Jews in Venice and Europe as a whole.
Shylock. Nay, take my life and all; pardon not that:
You take my house when you do take the prop
That doth sustain my house; you take my life
When you do take the means whereby I live.
It seems to me that Shylock cannot live after his , house, money, livelihood, daughter and very identity are taken away.
Besides from the Spanish Inquisition to the Nazis even (or especially?) a Jew who converted was often murdered for being once a Jew. So we have chosen an ending suggested by Shylock’s last full speech. But we also try not to fall into the trap of making Shylock a victim or a man whose own merciless obsession with violent revenge is somehow justified. Shylock is wrong, his bloody pursuit of Antonio is not justified by his humiliations. Had he been merciful the court would have awarded him great wealth and left him to enjoy it. We cannot dodge that fact. The court drama is clear. In a way we see Shylock as mirror of Antonio, both are inflexible, obsessive men. They mix money with affection and passion with disastrous results. Antonio is a wonderfully complex and melancholy figure. His obsession with Bassanio seems to modern eyes to be homoerotic but probably in Shakespeare’s day it was platonic and a type of male longing that we see in Shakespeare’s sonnets. Our only modern equivalent might be the love that soldiers in combat talk about, one often claimed to be more intense than merely erotic love. But however we define it (and it is surely best left undefined lest it distort the play ) we can criticise Antonio. His mission appears to be martyrdom. He relishes his potential sacrifice. A visit to the Renaissance churches of Venice will soon reveal the tortured glory of the holy martyrs (Tintoretto being their greatest portrayer). Antonio and Shylock are two sides of the same ducat, austere and obsessive man who cannot hold onto their respective loves: Jessica and Bassanio. Poisoned by that tragedy they vanish in a downward spiral, a savage whirlpool of their own making. By the end of the play neither is even given space to find resolution – a most unusual ending for one of Shakespeare’s comedies.
And then there is Portia, who along with Nerissa and even Jessica provide a breath of fresh air, feminine logic and sense and a complete disregard for the male values that plague Venice. These are dynamic women – all three of whom disguise themselves as men to teach a lesson to the men who oppress them, (even if Jessica also betrays her father). If the play is a disturbing mirror to anti-Semitism it is also a stunning precursor of feminism. There are other plays such as MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING where the women are so much more sensible than the men but here in the MERCHANT OF VENICE the women actively take the play by the throat and forge a solution without the aid of, and despite the follies of the men. So our production celebrates this and allows us to laugh as well as cry. THE MERCHANT OF VENICE is not a play that offers solutions, (such as MACBETH perhaps). It’s popularity rest on its wonderful plot, its strong characters and defining courtroom scene but above all because it holds up a mirror to ourselves. We may not like what we see, but Shakespeare trades in truth. It is up to us to recognize ourselves in the mirror which is the play.
Paul Stebbings Munich and Venice, December 2014