|Merchant of Venice (The)|
Director: Tom Markus
Dramaturg: Jennifer Popple
A Knife at the Heart of Romantic Comedy
The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare's most popular romantic comedies and it's produced as regularly as A Midsummer Night's Dream, As You Like It and Twelfth Night. But it is a romantic comedy with a knife at its heart, and that gives it a dark side that people talk about long after the lovers have left the stage.
Shakespeare's romantic comedies contain recognizable plot devices, character types, and story development that make them both familiar and enduring. The main plot involves young lovers who overcome the barriers that stand in their way ("The course of true love never did run smooth."); the heroine is always smarter than the men around her ("O wise young judge, how do I honor thee!"); and the heroine often disguises herself as a man for part of the play, providing opportunities for humorous misunderstandings and intriguing plot developments ("Were you the doctor and I knew you not?").
The Merchant of Venice interweaves three love stories "Portia and Bassanio, Nerissa and Gratiano, Jessica and Lorenzo" and all three relate to the knife with which Shylock, the villain of the comic subplot, threatens the heart of the merchant Antonio.
In the main romantic plot, Portia meets three challenges. She first must overcome the terms of her father's will in order to marry the man she loves (the "casket plot"). Next, she must restore her husband's honor by defeating Shylock in the courtroom (the "trial plot"), and in doing so she ensures a wealthy future for Jessica and Lorenzo. Lastly, she must teach her husband that he loves her more than he does Antonio, which she accomplishes through the mischievous "ring plot", the final demonstration of her intelligence, integrity, passion, wit, and virtue, thereby ensuring a happy marriage for Nerissa and Gratiano, as well as for herself and Bassanio. The romantic comedy ends with all three couples married.
Whether happily ever after, is as uncertain for them as it is for all of us. We do our best in the comedies of our own lives.
The Venetian setting adds to the romantic elements of the play and also to the danger of the knife that's at the center of the subplot, the knife that is the play's best-remembered image, the knife that gives this great play its most dramatic moment and its deep profundity. To Shakespeare and his contemporaries, Venice had a special appeal. An ancient republic, it had earned a reputation for political astuteness, great wealth, and legal justice. In addition, it was a pleasure-loving city, to which swarms of tourists flocked constantly, including many from England". For centuries, the beauties of Venice have beckoned to tourists with a siren's song and have created a romantic setting for paintings, songs, novels, plays, and films. The history of Venice as a community based on laws gave Shakespeare the ideal setting for this plot which tests our faith in the balance between justice and mercy.
Over the centuries, The Merchant of Venice has remained one of Shakespeare's most frequently performed plays. The reasons for its popularity are easily recognized. It is a play with rich romantic elements that raises complex issues of justice, mercy, and the bonds that join people together.
i Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Ed. Jay L. Halio, New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
In Belmont, Portia laments the terms of her father's will, which give her no power over who she will marry. Suitors must choose between three chests-one gold, one silver, and one lead-and she must marry the man that picks the chest containing her picture. Portia and Nerissa, her maid, laugh about the current crop of suitors, who are all unattractive, and gossip about Bassanio, whom both women admire.
Back in Venice, Antonio receives a loan from Shylock, a Jewish moneylender. The two men, who bitterly dislike one another, agree to unusual terms: if Antonio can't repay the loan on time, he must forfeit a pound of his flesh. Despite Bassanio's objection, Antonio accepts the terms because he is confident his business will bring him more than enough money before the loan must be repaid.
Lancelot, a professional entertainer, prepares to leave Shylock's employment in order to start working for Bassanio. Jessica, Shylock's daughter, asks Lancelot to deliver a letter to her lover, Lorenzo, who is one of Bassanio's friends. She intends to run away with Lorenzo, marry him, and become a Christian. Shylock, feeling uneasy because of a dream he had, leaves for dinner, and instructs Jessica to lock the door. After he leaves, Jessica steals his money and jewels and elopes with Lorenzo.
Meanwhile, in Belmont, two suitors have guessed incorrectly about which chest contains Portia's portrait. Portia continues to hope Bassanio will come and choose the correct chest.
The Merchant of Venice is a story about justice and the bonds that connect people to one another. One of the challenges this play presents is how to balance the romantic main plot with the melodramatic sub-plot. How does one present Shylock's story without allowing it to completely overshadow the Bassanio-Portia tale?
Director Tom Markus' production addresses these themes and challenges by setting the production in the Italy of 1938, a time when Benito Mussolini's Fascist party was at the height of its popularity. While most middle class Jews were active members of the Fascist Party at this time, Hitler pressured Mussolini into passing racial decrees similar to the Nuremburg Laws. Although the Italians ignored the laws for several years, the inevitability of the 1943 German invasion hovers over the action of this play.
Setting the action in 1938 balances Portia and Bassanio's romantic main plot with Shylock's melodramatic subplot. Big band music and a large colorful mural of "The Allegory of Justice" are set against costumes and activities of the Blackshirted Fascists, indicating that this brief period of relative calm will ultimately lead to the society's violent collapse. This setting also supports the presentation of Shylock as a slightly comic and charming businessman who is bullied by the treatment of the rising Fascists until he loses rational control. He then becomes so obsessive in his quest for revenge that even his good friend Tubal turns against him in the trial scene.
The 1938 setting is distant enough to allow the fairy tale elements to resonate with us in 2006, yet not so distant that we fail to grasp the somber political and racial implications of the play.