While written as a comedy, the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of The Merchant of Venice finds an apt tone as a tragedy for modern times.
The Merchant of Venice is composed of a handful of storylines that weave together in convoluted ways. A poor Bassanio must borrow money from the merchant, Antonio, to win the hand of fair Portia. Antonio, not having the funds on hand, borrows money from the Jewish lender, Shylock. When Antonio is unable to repay his debt, Shylock calls in the forfeit on the loan, “a pound of flesh.”
It’s technically a comedy because The Merchant of Venice has a “happy” ending; Bassanio marries Portia and Antonio does not have to give up a pound of his flesh.
Director Arin Arbus deliberately shifts away from a comedy and presents a performance with a much heavier and tragic tone. The set (designed by Riccardo Hernandez) is austere, serving as a blank, but cold environment, which subtly reinforces the more tragic tone of the production.
The tragedy is that of Shylock. Shylock is called names and spit on because of his religion, including by Antonio. When it comes time for Shylock to collect his pound of flesh, Antonio and Bassanio beg for mercy. Why should Shylock show mercy for the man who has ridiculed him? Why should Shylock show mercy for terms Antonio’s hubris caused him to agree to? (For historical context, lending money with interest is against the Old Testament, and therefore all the lenders and bankers in old Venice were Jewish.)
In the final turn of events, Shylock is the one punished and Antonio, in a condescending show of mercy, allows Shylock to keep his wealth, but forces Shylock to convert to Christianity. A caricature of a Jewish man, Shylock is written as greedy and merciless. Where a Shakespearean audience may have laughed at this caricature and celebrated Shylock’s final punishment as a victory for Antonio, I can only see prejudice and intolerance. Played by John Douglas Thompson, Thompson brings such pain and agony to his interpretation of Shylock, that the heartbreak of Shylock’s sentencing was the final emotion that stuck with me as I left the theater.
In the end it appears that no character in the play is wholly good and Arbus’ rendition leaves everyone without happy endings. Portia and Nerissa are manipulative towards their husbands in an irreparable way, Lorenzo is verbally abusive to Jessica, and even our merchant is shown the door. The lights go out on an undercurrent of sorrow and unhappiness.
While I’d probably give Shakespeare’s writing of The Merchant of Venice a failing grade (for anti-semitism, manipulative characters, and all around cruelty), Arbus’ interpretation and Thompson’s emotion flip the switch on Shakespeare’s intentions and create a play relevant for modern times.
The Merchant of Venice has been extended, and plays at the Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) through April 24. Contact the STC Box Office at 202-547-1122 or visit ShakespeareTheatre.org for more information. Tickets are $35-$120. STC is requiring proof that patrons are fully vaccinated and wear a mask before entering all venues.
Running Time: 2 hours and 45 mins with a 15 minute intermission
Final Grade: A-