28 June 2011

The Merchant of Venice

Last week, we decided to go and see a performance of The Merchant of Venice in the annual production of Shakespeare in Delaware Park. So we decided to bring lawn chairs to be comfortable.

Overall, perhaps I was amazed at the cast. Shakespeare's plays haven't been a favorite of mine, so I have some things I want to say about the play, but the performance was impeccable. Saul Elkin portrayed Shylock, and it was great to see a big theatre name here in western New York do such a role. The cast performed in a dignified manner, and even though I had a hard time understanding the archaic English, the cast made it easy for the spectator to follow.

Another positive thing that I wanted to mention was the non-voiced acting. They were wearing microphones for the performance, as the performance is done on an open-air stadium. And of course, there are times when there are multiple people on stage, and yet only one or two are talking. The others aren't just standing there, but gesturing, as if there's a whole separate scene going on simultaneously. I guess I liked that, it made the scene more believable, I suppose.

However, it is perhaps the play's content itself that I didn't like. Perhaps, when this was first published, the content was very relevant. Perhaps the play reflected the social views that were prevalent at that time, but today, during the modern age, there are aspects of the play that I find uncomfortable with. Primarily, this has something to do with the antisemitic message of the play. There are just several factors in the play that point to the idea that Jews are evil.

First, there's the scene where Antonio spits at Shylock, simply because Shylock is a Jew. I also did not appreciate the constant referral to Shylock not as Shylock, but as Jew. The other characters address him not as Shylock (How are you, Shylock?) but as Jew (How are you, Jew?). I do not understand why one's religion matters in this case. At the end, Shylock was forced to convert to Christianity, as a penalty of the court. Why? Does being Christian automatically makes one a better person, as opposed to being a Jew?

Perhaps the antisemitic message was the most prominent message that I had a problem with, but there are other more subtle aspects that raised my eyebrows. The racist aspect, for example. There was the Prince of Morocco, who was one of Portia's suitors. He was dark-skinned, and Portia makes a racist remark about his skin color and complexion when he exits after choosing the golden casket.

Finally, I do not understand why Shakespeare had the affair of the rings in the story. This is a small storyline about the men giving other people a couple of rings that were given to them by their wives, after being sworn not to give it away to someone else. This storyline happened after the grand climax of the play, which was the scene in the court. Suddenly, I recalled my reaction to The Return of the King, which had a small storyline after the conclusion of the climactic scene. So yes, I felt that it was anti-climactic for Shakespeare to insert this storyline, and in my opinion, it just made the play bipolar. First, it's a drama, a story about justice and payback, and then you get this little comic segment. It just was not a good fit overall.

So yes, Shakespeare might be a great writer in English literature, but this one didn't sit well with me. The performance was superb, but the story felt like it lacked coherence and needed improvement.

(Looking Up, from my Ollantaytambo Series)


  1. I liked that people were always doing something in the background as well. As for the first of the play...meh. Also, I always forget all Anti-Semitic The Merchant of Venice is! It always surprises me.

  2. Kate,

    I haven't been a big fan of Shakespeare ever, and this was definitely a surprise for me.