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The Quality of Mercy: Bell Shakespeare Present ‘The Merchant of Venice’

What better way to test your memory (and perhaps knowledge) from year 12, than by attending a Shakespeare play produced and performed by the acclaimed Bell Shakespeare company? Although I had traversed the dramatic sanctums of Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and Hamlet, I had yet to see The Merchant of Venice.

I read a while ago of how modern theatre companies tend to avoid The Merchant due to the audience’s tendency to interpret its central plot and themes as anti-Semitic, and its depictions of Jewish people to be abhorrent. With an open mind, I sat back in my chair at the sold out Theatre Royal and realised how this assumption could be made quite easily. The Merchant of Venice tells the story of Bassiano, who dreams of wooing the beautiful Portia with money… too bad he spent most of it. So begins his plea with a wealthy Venetian merchant (and general downer) named Antonio, who cannot provide him dough upfront, and suggests he find a lender for the ducats.  Bassiano chooses a Jewish loan shark named Shylock and puts Antonio down as the guarantee. This where things start to smell a tad on the anti-semitic side: Shylock has been the local source of anti-Semitism for a long time, and although he lends Antonio the cash, he warns that if the loan isn’t seen through, he’ll cut off a few pounds of Antonio’s skin. This is the basic premise, but (as is with Shakespeare) many subplots align over the course of the play to teach the characters a lesson about right and wrong. Along this journey to gain moral fibre, the audience are treated to a spectacle that is at times hard to stomach, in a modern political context.  

The Christians, who lie, cheat, antagonise others, spit on a Jewish man, and bend the law to their will are presented as the ‘good guys’ who the audience are supposed to be rooting for. The ultimate awkward victory is the gasp-addled scene in which they force a man to join the Christian faith, praise Jesus, berate his religious iconography and laugh in his face. When the Christians hold Shylock down, take off his ceremonial kippot and laugh at him, a woman in front of me gasped “I don’t think I can watch this”. But, like all good dramatists, Mr. Shakespeare gives you one last preverbal kicking before the curtain falls, this time in the form of moral obligation, self-reflection and a realisation of a self-directed absence of justice. There are lessons to be learnt.

As always, Bell Shakespeare presented the play in an engaging and perhaps positively skeletal way: the stage was very minimal, the costume changes were done backstage, and leaves rained the stage for some of the play. The acting was of immense quality, assuring me this was perhaps the best show I have ever seen at the Royal.

It is easy to write Shakespeare off as overly poetic drivel, or as a lesser-talented Marlowe protégé who was forced upon us as students, but seeing the Merchant of Venice reminded me of the writer’s literary and cultural influence and importance to the modern age of literature and drama. In a modern (or postmodern) artistic world where theatre is dominated by a kind of Samuel Beckett-esque aesthetic minimalism, a Shakespeare play, with it’s layered and interwoven plots and long monologues, seem almost crazy in this context. Such craziness is what makes the Merchant of Venice so interesting, engaging and thought-provoking. From the quality of the poetic dialogue to the dramatic elements and cultural and emotional commentary on history and love, the writing highlighted the structural brilliance and lasting historical impression of the play… sometimes self reflection is a neat lesson in doing the right thing.

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