“No sighs but of my breathing; no tears but of my shedding”: The Merchant of Venice at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 2015

Since the issue is going to come up sooner or later, let us cut straight to the chase: I do not think The Merchant of Venice is an anti-Semitic play, although, admittedly, the basic outline of the story is: a story about righteous Christians outwitting an evil murderous Jew could hardly be otherwise. But, just as Mozart and da Ponte took for Cosi Fan Tutte a story that was in its outlines misogynistic and transformed it into something that transcends the crudeness of its source material, so Shakespeare, I think, did something similar here. In the first place, the Christians in his play are far from righteous: they are, Antonio excepted, mercenary – every bit as covetous as they accuse the Jew Shylock of being; they are thieves, or, knowing about and condoning as they do Lorenzo’s and Jessica’s theft, accessories to theft; they are filled with hatred for a fellow human being for no better reason that that he is Jewish, and there is no doubting that Shakespeare knew the human cost of this. Indeed, it is this human cost, most obviously for the tormented, but also, I think, for the tormentors, that seems to me to be at the centre of this drama that presents us with a picture of humans all very badly in need of the Quality of Mercy.

As for Shylock, he is much more in this play than merely an “evil Jew”: we would hardly get major Shakespearean actors queuing up to play this role had he been no more than a conventional villain. What he attempts to do in the latter part of the play certainly is evil – there can be no doubt about that – but Shakespeare goes much, much further here than is warranted by Shylock’s nominal role as the comic villain: Shakespeare depicts here a man who is, step by step, layer by layer, stripped of everything he possesses – his wealth, his profession, even his faith; he loses his own daughter, who prefers to side with her father’s tormentors rather than with her tormented father; and, by the end, he loses completely his own humanity. As Howard Jacobson says in a typically trenchant piece of writing in the programme notes, no character in Shakespeare is so stripped of everything as Shylock is: even Malvolio departs with a threat of revenge on the whole pack of his tormentors; even Lear is granted a possibly redeeming vision; even Macbeth is allowed a final show of defiance; but Shylock is left with absolutely nothing. His tormentors push him close to the edge of the abyss, but – and here is the terrible irony, too terrible almost to be contemplated – that last step into the abyss, Shylock takes himself. In reacting to the stripping of his humanity, he strips away himself the last vestige of it. By the end of Act Four, Shylock has become an irrelevance: even his exit seems inconsequential:

PORTIA: Art thou contented, Jew? what dost thou say?
SHYLOCK: I am content.
PORTIA: Clerk, draw a deed of gift.
SHYLOCK: I pray you, give me leave to go from hence;
I am not well: send the deed after me,
And I will sign it. (IV, i)

Shakespeare could quite easily have given Shylock a few lines that lay bare the anguish of his soul: this is Shakespeare, after all: he could write anything he wanted. But he didn’t. What he gave us instead is utterly prosaic. Olivier famously howled off-stage like a stricken animal after his departure, but, magnificent though that was, and chilling even when I see it at home on DVD, there is no indication of it in the text: it’s almost as if Shakespeare had gone out of his way to make Shylock’s departure from the action of the play as low-key as possible. Shylock leaves the action, and the play can carry on without him: he no longer matters.

Makram Khoury as Shylock

Makram Khoury as Shylock

The problem I have found both when reading it, and also in the various productions I have seen, is that the strand of the story involving Shylock is so overwhelming in its power that is overshadows the other strand involving the three caskets, and Bassanio’s wooing and marrying of Portia. This latest Royal Shakespeare Company production, directed by Polly Findlay, neatly sidesteps this problem. The cost, some may say, is too heavy, as Shylock inevitably loses some of his immense tragic grandeur (one really has to go to the Olivier performance to get the full measure of that); but the gains are, I think, considerable: for the first time in my experience, the other strand of the story commands full interest, rather than appearing, as it so often does, as a tiresome adjunct to a magnificent and terrible tragedy. Care is taken also to bring Antonio – superbly played here by Jamie Ballard – to the forefront: he is, after all, the Merchant of Venice (although both Bassanio and Shylock can also be seen as the merchant of the title), and it is he who holds together the two strands of the play, borrowing of Shylock to provide Bassanio with the means of wooing Portia. But all too often in productions, Antonio fades into the background, overshadowed by Shylock in terms of dramatic stature. Not here. The production opens and closes with Antonio alone on stage, and his famous opening line – “In sooth, I know not why I am so sad” – is delivered as if in anguish. And soon, the cause of the anguish becomes apparent: Antonio is losing his young lover, Bassanio, and, while acknowledging that this is only to be expected, he finds this loss hard to bear. Some, I know, will object to this interpretation, but I think the text can support it, insofar as no modification is required to accommodate it; and it does, I think, give Antonio a dramatic presence that, in other interpretations, he all too often lacks.

Indeed, Antonio’s love for Bassanio seems to be one of only two in the whole play that is untouched by considerations of money (the other being Shylock’s love for his dead wife). Bassanio tells Antonio quite openly that he seeks to woo Portia because he has squandered his own estate, and is in need of funds: has ever a romantic adventure started with so unromantic a cause? It is not merely Bassanio’s motive that shocks, but his insouciance: it does not even occur to him that this is an ignoble motive, so accustomed is he to living in a society in which everything has a price and nothing any real value. When Shylock refers to Antonio being a “good man”, he means it only in the sense that he is financially sound. Even the seeming nobility of the Venetian courts in refusing under any circumstances to by-pass its laws has, at bottom, a sound financial reason:

The duke cannot deny the course of law:
For the commodity that strangers have
With us in Venice, if it be denied,
Will much impeach the justice of his state;
Since that the trade and profit of the city
Consisteth of all nations. (III, iii)

Money taints everything here. Lorenzo, for instance, speaks his line “Beshrew me but I love her heartily” only when transported by delight on seeing what Jessica has stolen for him from her father. In the famous trial scene, Bassanio throws across the floor of the court the money he has brought with him to pay Shylock off, so the entire climactic scene takes place with the characters literally wading through filthy lucre. The set itself – abstract, with a vast polished metallic floor and wall –suggests a world in which money rules absolutely, and covetousness is universal: in this world, Shylock becomes a convenient hate-figure on whose head the others can transfer their own guilt.

The one exception to this general covetousness is Antonio, and this makes him a far more sympathetic figure than is usual. He is still hateful in his racism, though: that is not underplayed. In this production, he spits on Shylock’s face – a moment that draws shocked gasps from the audience –and once again, this is consistent with the text: Shylock, in his first confrontation with Antonio, reminds him that he had spat on him, and had kicked him, and Antonio, far from denying any of this, replies that he is likely to do so again. And Shylock bears it all, as he puts it, with a patient shrug, “for sufferance is the badge of all our tribe”. Makram Khoury, the Israeli-Palestinian actor playing Shylock in this production, has an immensely dignified stage presence, and this, somehow, makes the spitting and the abuse that he bears with “a patient shrug” seem all the more horrible.

Marvellous though Makram Khoury is, his performance, in keeping with the tenor of the production, is underplayed. Very expertly underplayed, it must be said, but underplayed. His final exit from the court scene is as low-key as Shakespeare had written it: having lost utterly everything, there is nothing further left in him – no grandeur of a tragic downfall, no defiance, not even an expression of hurt. Normally, at the final bow, the actor playing Shylock, despite having appeared in only five scenes, comes on after all the rest of the cast to take his applause, but here Makram Khoury appears with everyone else – a member of an ensemble rather than a star performer – and this seems appropriate for a production that presents this play very much as an ensemble piece rather than as a star vehicle.

The court scene is, of course, a huge climactic set-piece, and one could not underplay this even if one wanted to. The strewing of the cash across the floor is a marvellous moment, and particularly striking is Antonio’s sheer terror on facing what he thought was certain and immediate death: his repeated whimpering, which did not stop even after his reprieve, is not something I’m likely to forget in a hurry. And Portia’s “quality of mercy” speech, which can all too easily become a set-piece almost divorced from the rest of the action, is delivered with a particular immediacy and passion by Patsy Ferran: when she reminds us that mercy is an attribute of God himself, it is hard not to wonder whether even these unregenerate characters crowding the stage, Jew or Christian, could perhaps someday be redeemed by divine mercy. But this possibility, visible for but a moment like some distant vision, soon dissipates: the Jew refuses to show mercy, thus taking himself the final step in the stripping of his humanity; and the Christians, having won the day, exult in their most unrighteous triumph.

Despite the high drama of this fourth act, there is little danger here of anti-climax that all too often hampers the fifth. The fifth act here is also full of drama, the seeds of this drama having been cunningly laid in the great court scene, where Portia could see for herself the true nature of the relationship between Antonio and her newly-married husband. And when, in the course of that court scene, Bassanio says to Antonio:

But life itself, my wife, and all the world,
Are not with me esteem’d above thy life.

it is well noted. After this, Portia asking Bassanio for the ring is no joke: it is a test – a test that Bassanio (significantly at Antonio’s urging) very conspicuously fails. Shylock would not have exchanged “for a wilderness of monkeys” the ring he had received from his wife when he had been a bachelor: Bassanio, however, at the urging of his former lover, does, and this lays the foundation for the drama in the final act: the business with the rings is no joke here – it is deadly serious. Portia eventually relents, and forgives Bassanio: perhaps she has not forgotten her earlier speech on “mercy”. But the ending is more open-ended here than usual: the marriage promises to be rocky.

***

In the last Shakespeare production I saw, I lamented the cuts that seemed to me the take the very heart out of the play. There were some cuts here too, but only two that I’d take issue with. Shylock’s “I hate him for he is a Christian” is cut simply to “I hate him”. Presumably this was done to prevent the audience siding against Shylock from the start, but it really was unnecessary: we see soon enough why Shylock has good reason to hate the Christians in this play. Hatred but breeds hatred, after all. O tell me where is hatred bred, in the heart or in the head?

Also cut is Portia’s line expressing relief that the prince of Morocco had chosen the wrong casket – “Let all of his complexion choose me so”. Presumably, this is cut to prevent the audience from disliking Portia, but this line too, I think, is important: Portia is no Desdemona, after all, and maybe she too is in need of the divine mercy that she later invokes. As for the other cuts, I can but approve: the various clownings of Lancelot Gobbo are among the weakest scenes Shakespeare ever wrote – it’s almost as if he had lost interest in the comedy – and I doubt that even the finest of comic actors could make too much out of them. The distasteful scene where Gobbo “jokes” with Jessica that her conversion from Judaism will raise the price of pork has, however, been rightly retained.

***

Every time I come out of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre after a performance, I feel I have been brought a little closer to an understanding of what we, as humans, are. This production presents characters living their lives of anger, of hatred, of betrayal, of greed and cupidity, but also, just occasionally, of real love: Antonio continues to love Bassanio, and Shylock continues to love his wife, who is dead. And through all this meanness and pettiness, of unmotivated hatred and murderous rage, what emerges is a group of people all desperately in need of divine mercy, of redemption. This production achieves a unity that I don’t think I have seen before in this play, and it does so by underplaying Shylock’s tragic stature: possibly that is a price worth paying. But underplayed though Shylock is, as we drove back home afterwards down the motorway, it was that infinitely sad line of Shylock’s that kept going around my head:

No sighs but of my breathing; no tears but of my shedding.

What an extraordinary play this is!

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10 responses to this post.

  1. A wonderful review of what sounds like a wonderful performance!

    Bassanio tells Antonio quite openly that he seeks to woo Portia because he has squandered his own estate, and is in need of funds: has ever a romantic adventure started with so unromantic a cause?

    This reminded me irresistibly of young Frank Gresham in Trollope’s Doctor Thorne, whose father has squandered his estate so that Frank “must marry money” (the catchphrase repeated by his snobbish mother to the point of superfetation).

    Reply

    • I really need to read more Trollope: of all the major Victorian novelists, he is the one whose works I am least familiar with.

      I thought this production was very good too, but the reviewers in the UK press all seemed upset that Shylock was underplayed. I think they all went there expecting a barnstorming performance, and were disappointed because their expectations weren’t met. In general, I don’t find the theatre reviews in the national press here in UK particularly insightful or trustworthy. I have seen a fair number of productions of this play, and this is the only one I’ve seen where the other strand of the plot made an impact, and did not appear merely a tiresome accompaniment to the principal drama.

      Reply

  2. Thank you for this. I am going to see this production in a couple of weeks, and have never seen it performed before, so this is very valuable.

    Reply

    • Hope you enjoy it: I thought it was a marvellous production! (Although I wouldn’t be without the very different interpretations of Laurence Olivier or of Warren Mitchell on DVD, or of Anthony Sher on an excellent audio recording.)

      Reply

  3. This is interesting, because as you say, the Portia marriage plot generally gets buried and is played as a sort of diversion from the Shylock/Antonio plot. I’d never really thought about the parallels between the stories. Thanks for pointing out that Portia has to take her own advice about forgiveness of wrongs when she faces Bassanio at the end of the play. I had never really noticed that, being so caught up in the drama of Shylock.

    This is another one of those plays where I doubt we can see Shakespeare’s personal opinions except perhaps by their absence. There are no real heroes here and everyone’s motivations are suspect. Even Portia’s “forgiveness” speech at the trial is less about forgiveness than vengeance, Shylock’s property taken from him and he forced to convert to Christianity under pain of death. Is Portia supposed to be an admirable person? I’ve never been sure. Was not the “just” ruling of the court to award Shylock the original debt owed by Antonio if Antonio is allowed to live? She goes far far beyond that, into punishment and humiliation yet we are told she is a prize, a wise judge. We laugh as Shylock runs away, defeated. Did Shakespeare also laugh? I’ve never been sure.

    There’s a good BBC version of “Merchant” with Maggie Smith as Portia and Frank Finlay as Shylock, from 1972. Highly recommended.

    Reply

    • I actually remember the Maggie Smith – Frank Finlay version being on (I was around 12 at teh time), but I don’t remember it. The BBC production from around 1980 with Gemma Jones and Warren Mitchell is also very fine: the sense of utter devastation Warren Mitchell projects towards the end is unforgettable. But in each production I have seen till now, the Portia-Bassanio plot had seemed merely a distraction: here, for the first time, it seemed fully integrated into teh play as a whole.

      On the humiliations heaped on Shylock at the end, it may be argued that the Duke actually spares Shylock’s life when he could, by law, have been executed; and also that the Christians would have thought that converting him from Judaism is to save his soul. In other words, although it may seem cruel to us, by the standards of the time, they were actually being merciful to Shylock. But I agree with you – the treatment of Shylock lacks the Quality of Mercy: even his very sense of personal identity collapses – and as Shylock himself says, even death would have been preferable to this. Whatever the standards of the time, Shakespeare knew full well what this meant for Shylock – and no, given how deeply he could see into Shylock’s heart, I don’t think Shakespare was laughing.

      Reply

  4. Posted by alan on July 1, 2015 at 9:52 pm

    I’ve seen the moview with Al Pacino as Shylock and Jeremy Irons as Antonio.
    The movie opens with Antonio spitting on Shylock, and the play does suggest that:

    =======================================
    You, that did void your rheum upon my beard
    And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur
    Over your threshold: moneys is your suit
    What should I say to you? Should I not say
    ‘Hath a dog money? is it possible
    A cur can lend three thousand ducats?’ Or
    Shall I bend low and in a bondman’s key,
    With bated breath and whispering humbleness, Say this;
    ‘Fair sir, you spit on me on Wednesday last;
    You spurn’d me such a day; another time
    You call’d me dog; and for these courtesies
    I’ll lend you thus much moneys’?

    ANTONIO

    I am as like to call thee so again,
    To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too.
    If thou wilt lend this money, lend it not
    As to thy friends; for when did friendship take
    A breed for barren metal of his friend?
    But lend it rather to thine enemy,
    Who, if he break, thou mayst with better face
    Exact the penalty.
    =================================================

    You say you see Antonio as “less than mecenary”. Why is that good? I think I would prefer a mercenary man to one who would spit upon someone in the street.

    Reply

    • I suppose it could be argued that since the spitting (and the kicking too, for that matter) is already mentioned in the dialogue, there is no reason to make it explicit in the stage action; however, Shakespeare’s texts give only a bare minimum number of stage directions, so directors need to decide stage actions for themselves. And this particular piece of stage action is certainly not inconsistent with the text.

      Greed and its corrosive effects on human relationships are among the central themes of the play: it is a world in which everythng is valued purely in terms of its price. So in this context, it is worth mentioning, I think, that Antonio is remarkably free of this particular vice. That does not excuse or in any way mitigate his racism, of course: Antonio’s anti-Semitism is vile, and, speaking personally, I have never been able, either when reading or seeing the play in production, to see him as anything other than a hateful figure.

      As for which is worse – cupidity or racism – the two are not, I think, in competition. But, tainted as all these characters are with one or the other, or, most often, with both, they are all perhaps badly in need of that elusive Quality of Mercy.

      Reply

  5. Well, I must say that the idea of Bassanio as Antonio’s lover is not one that had previously occurred to me, but I find it very interesting.
    On the question as to whether it is Antonio, or Shylock, who is the Merchant to whom the title refers, frankly, I always thought it more likely that it was Shylock, especially since the play was originally registered with the Stationer’s Company under the title “The Merchant of Venice, otherwise called The Jew of Venice”.
    I do not think the play is antisemitic – and believe me, as a Jew, I am always on the lookout for antisemitism. I think Shakespeare was, very subtly, criticising the antisemitism of the society in which he lived – by giving his audience the stereotypical Jewish villain which they expected, but, at the same time, making Shylock a basically sympathetic character.
    It’s a shame I won’t be in London this summer. It would be interesting to see what an Israeli Christian Arab actor makes of the Jewish moneylender.

    Reply

    • Hello Shimona, I suppose Shylock, Bassanio and Antonio all have claims to be the “merchant” of the title – Shylock for the reasons you give; Bassanio because he, too, is in search of a “merchandise” of sorts (that human relations should be seen as mercantile transactions is very much a major strand in this play); and Antonio because he is the only one of the three who actually is a merchant by profession. Antonio is also the character who, I think, holds together the two strands of the play: Shylock has no part to play in the Bassanio-Portia strand, or in the episode of the rings afterwards. But I suppose it was Shakespeare’s intention to maintain an ambiguity regarding this Portia’s first line in the court scene – “Which is the merchant and which is the Jew?” – encourages us to examine the identities of the characters.

      As for the antisemitism, I think we are in agreement. However, this play has most certainly been seen as antisemitic: playwright Arnold Wesker certainly thinks so, as does Harold Bloom (although, admittedly, in a book on Shakespeare that I personally don’t rate very highly). Shylock has also been played as an antisemitic caricature – certainly in some grotesque productions in Nazi Germany, but, I believe, in some other productions also. I haven’t seen any such production, and I don’t get any sense of it from the text.

      What Shylock tries to do – i.e. engineer the killing of a man in cold blood – is certainly horrible. But the drama gets its edge because Shakespeare makes us painfully aware of what has led him to this. It is not really a question of taking sides (although I must admit I personally sympathise with Shylock to a far greater extent than I do with Antonio): these people are all examples of flawed humanity, and all are in need of the Quality of Mercy. But Shylock is the only oone amongst them who has tragic stature.

      Makram Khoury, as I said, underplays the role. He projects a character who has a great innate dignity: there is no evidence, for instance, of his being a domestic tyrant, and all the indignities and abuse aimed at him he suffers patiently. But when the opportunity comes for him to avenge all the wrongs he has suffered, he cannot resist. He, despite his covetousness, refuses all monetary recompense: this pound of flesh, he says, has been “dearly bought” – and he doesn’t mean bought by money: he means it has been bought what he has been made to suffer. Shakespeare, with his insatiable curiosity into the various types of human nature, had to ask himself what happens to a human soul when it is subjected so relentlessly to unmotivated hatred, and the answer he finds is bleak.

      I think it was the poet Heine who first identified Shylock as a tragic figure. Olivier’s performance – it’s available on DVD – is an astonishing tour de force, and fully projects the tragic power of the role. It’s magnificent, certainly, but it does make the rest of the play seem somewhat irrelevant!

      Reply

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