Last night my wife and I had the distinct privilege of attending the preview night of this year’s Shakespeare in the Park presentation of The Merchant of Venice. This is the second time we’ve had the opportunity to attend the event and in both instances we have been blown away by the cast performances, lighting and stage design, and artful rendering of Shakespeare’s masterpieces.
Last year’s Twelfth Night was mirthful and quirky, the directors and cast obviously having fun with the gender-bending roles. One of my favorite features of The Public Theater’s (the company that puts on Shakespeare in the Park) staging of the plays is the way they manage to make Shakespeare’s antiquated language sound, to the casual listener, as if the cast were speaking in contemporary parlance. In this way, what may be difficult to understand and follow for the uninitiated becomes more accessible.
The Merchant of Venice is no exception. The Public set the play in the 19th century, and still many of the lines are so casually recited that the listener might wonder, did Shakespeare write that line, or was it added? But Merchant provides another opportunity – or challenge, depending on how you look at it – for the director and cast. That is, when viewed through the eyes of contemporary culture it can easily be seen as a very racist play. Much has been written about the portrayal of Shylock, “The Jew,” but his character, though the most prominent, is not the only stereotype that lives and breathes and walks across Shakespeare’s stage. Each of the princes that tries for Portia’s hand in marriage, the ones you see on stage like the Moroccan and the aging prince from Aragon, in addition to those that are merely described, are walking caricatures.
This fact is something that all companies that seek to perform the play must deal with in one way or another. To their credit, I think, The Public used these stereotypes as one might imagine Shakespeare intended. That is, if characters in a play are meant to be oversized versions of real people, their actions and locution magnified so that we can see ourselves in them while remaining comfortable with a bit of separation, why not then do the same for entire people groups. Now, lest I be maligned for wholesale endorsement of stereotyping, I will disclaim that the intentions of the person doing the stereotyping are of paramount importance, and it is difficult for us to know what Shakespeare’s intentions were. Was he racist, perceptive, critical? All of the above?
But we can know The Public Theater’s intentions and in light of these the audience was able to laugh at the Moroccan prince’s funny accent (and speech impediment), as they were at the Aragon geriatric’s old age. Though, it is harder to laugh at Shylock’s Jewishness. Could this be because Al Pacino played him so sympathetically? Could it be because Shakespeare himself bestows upon that character a more serious temperament (it’s hard to laugh at “If you prick us, do we not bleed”)? Or could it be the audience’s awareness of the history of mistreatment that the Jews have endured?
Likely, it is all of these and more. Yet, Pacino is truly a master of his craft, and he is able to, in one scene, portray Shylock as a comical, stereotypical caricature of a Jew, and then in the next solemnly engage the audience with his plea for justice.
The tension between justice and mercy is at the heart of The Merchant of Venice. And in this tension is wrapped more than just the question of race, an already explosive issue, but also that of religion. As many readers will recall, the punishment that Shylock ultimately receives at the end of the play is not only the forfeiture of half of his material possessions, but of his soul. The Public portrayed this sacrifice in an invented baptism scene, which is, though completely wordless, the most difficult part of the play to watch.
There is a sense in which Shakespeare meant for Shylock’s fate to be an act of Christian mercy, given in response to his cold-hearted cry for justice. But in the portrayal of a forced baptism, a public shaming, there seems to be nothing merciful about it.
My wife and I left with the question that we can’t help but ask: what was The Public Theater trying to communicate to the audience about religion? About race, we enjoyed the stereotypes, laughed in a “meta” kind of way at the way we expect certain people to act in certain ways and the joke, then, was mostly on us and our stereotypes. But the treatment of religion could not be so easily analyzed; still, the next day, cannot.
If this were the not-so-distant past, one might be tempted to see this as a full repudiation of religion. A kind of New Atheist-style, “look what religion made these people do.” Yet, that doesn’t see the whole picture. After Shylock is violently baptized and left alone in the shallow water, he gets up, finds his yarmulke, which had been thrown off, and replaces it on his head. At the end, religion is still a salve for Shylock.
If any conclusion can be drawn, I think it is this: the open-ended treatment of religion is what we can expect in the years to come, until the pendulum swings back against it. More than a dismissal by labeling it a “private matter,” and less than the fear that religion is responsible for all the world’s ills, religion, today, is perceived as occupying the space somewhere in between. We live in a time that is comfortable with this ambiguity. And, in my book, I’ll take this gray space over the white of mindless acceptance and the black of condemnation any day.
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