Staging The Merchant of Venice

John Nathan’s interesting article raises the old question whether The Merchant of Venice is too offensive to stage.

Henry Irving playing Shylock

I’m pleased that he comes down on the side of continuing to perform it, in spite of the discomfort it might cause to some members of the audience.

Is this just because the play is by Shakespeare, and therefore inviolate? I  don’t think so. Shakespeare never gives audiences or performers any easy answers, and the play contains more than its fair share of scenes questionning how people should behave. Shylock’s extremism is balanced by the humour of another Jew, Tubal. Just about all the Christians behave badly, Gratiano in particular displaying an appalling yobbishness. Even Portia has a racist moment.

 In another play which raises uncomfortable issues, All’s Well That Ends Well, an unnamed Lord puts it like this:

 The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together: our virtues would be proud, if our faults whipt them not, and our crimes would despair, if they were not cherish’d by our virtues.

 Audiences leaving any good production of The Merchant of Venice should go home with questions about who’s right and who’s wrong. In our post-holocaust world it’s become difficult to raise the subject of anti-semitism, but Shakespeare allows, even encourages, us to talk about it. And that has to be a good thing.

This entry was posted in Plays and Poems, Shakespeare on Stage and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Staging The Merchant of Venice

  1. Melissa says:

    Have you seen the most recent RSC production of Merchant of Venice?

    • Sylvia Morris says:

      Not yet. I hear it’s set in Las Vegas, is that right? I was lucky enough to see Patrick Stewart play Shylock in 1978 so it’ll be fascinating to see this version!

  2. Ann Donnelly says:

    I went last night. I think that the production will provoke extreme reactions – you’ll either love or loathe it. I think that it was a very brave production. It certainly didn’t pull any punches with its portrayal of atrocious racism and intolerance. There was collective gasp of shock and a hiss from audience when Portia spat at Shylock’s feet.

    • Sylvia Morris says:

      In Sam Mendes’ production of The Tempest Ariel (Simon Russell Beale) spat in Prospero’s face – a really shocking moment which came out of the blue – but made sense of their relationship. I’m looking forward to seeing this production!

  3. Mairi Macdonald says:

    Sadly, in almost every age and society there has been a group who are despised and oppressed for reasons which seem to the oppressors just and valid. In an England which had recently had access to the Bible in the vernacular, the age-old prejudice against Jews as ‘murderers’ of Christ became a revived topic and suitable for depiction on stage. However Shakespeare makes in clear that in fact there are very few ‘good/nice’ characters in either Venice or Belmont and of them all, Shylock is the one who expresses his reasons for his actions most clearly and compellingly.

    Today it is ethnic minorities, immigrant communities, those of a different sexual orientation and still, sadly those of differing religious beliefs (witness parcel bombs to rival football managers) who attract venom and violence and are sterotyped and villainised by the media for their own ends, which are usually financial.

    Shakespeare proves, once again, that he speaks for all time

    • Sylvia Morris says:

      Thanks for this comment. It hadn’t really occurred to me before that although Shylock has few obvious virtues he at least doesn’t try to conceal his intentions and is honest about how he feels about the Antonio and the rest. Does this openness make him a victim of the cunning of Portia, the Duke and all in the trial scene?

  4. Andrew Cowie says:

    Great blog Sylvia and thanks for the link to the John Nathan article. I must admit, having read another, earlier, John Nathan piece on the play and Patrick Stewart’s argument with David Suchet in 1984 ( ) I went into Rupert Goold’s production with some scepticism but I loved the production and Patrick Stewart’s performance. I’m still inclined to agree with John Nathan that the play is anti-semitic, not just some of the characters in it but it worked for me.

    • Sylvia Morris says:

      Hi Andrew, thanks for the comment and the link. I hadn’t seen that discussion between Patrick Stewart and David Suchet since it was first screened, don’t they make some great points! I saw both the productions and it was fascinating to see how differently these talented, intelligent actors played the part. I thought Patrick Stewart’s 1978 performance was a revelation for the reasons he outlines at the beginning of the discussion. I can see that particularly when a Jewish actor plays the part he will need to keep the Jewishness though. I haven’t seen the new production yet but I’ve talked to lots of people who have – and they all have very strong opinions about it which is excellent!

  5. Richard Morris says:

    Yes I think Mairi has said it all. Much as I love sport it is really difficult to understand why anyone should send bombs to the Celtic manager, football is only a game!
    Perhaps the perpetrators when caught should be made to study some Shakespeare?

    • Sylvia Morris says:

      They seem to be sorely in need of a sense of proportion which Shakespeare might provide!

  6. Jo Wilding says:

    I saw the production on Wednesday and agree with Ann that it will divide people. It was interesting that Portia’s racist remark following the failure of her suitor the Prince of Morocco (portrayed as a champion black boxer in gold lame shorts) – “let all of his complexion choose me so” – was foreshadowed by the fact that, when Morocco arrived to make his choice of the caskets, bananas were thrown onto the stage. Perhaps even more could have been made of her reaction, as this Portia was played as an American Southern belle. I thought Patrick Stewart’s portrayal was very interesting as, having started as not so obviously “Jewish” (we first see him in a snappy suit practising golf putts!), he becomes much more obviously so as his world disintegrates.

    John Nathan makes the comment in his article that “the play’s heart is revealed in its shift in tone from the seriousness of Shylock’s forced conversion to the sense of celebration that follows it.” However this production avoids the potential discomfort that may be brought by the happy endings for the two sets of lovers, as Portia is seen to realize at the end that her marriage is not going to be what she hopes for, since Bassanio is more obviously drawn to Antonio than to her.

    • Sylvia Morris says:

      Can’t wait to see this production. The banana moment sounds extraordinary. Not frightened of offending anybody then….

  7. Harry Berger Jr says:

    Thanks to all of you for this outstanding discussion. I learned a lot from it, especially from Mairi Macdonald’s comments.

Comments are closed.