Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Shylock, Part 1

Yours truly, playing Shylock

This has been a tough assignment.

Back in January, a backyard meeting took place in Las Cruces among theatre artists in Las Cruces. Most of us had masters degrees, and had worked professionally in theatre; one was a recent graduate of New Mexico State who has been producing shows in Cruces and El Paso. This initial meeting led to a proposal for a professional repertory theatre, which would be launched with a bare-bones production of a Shakespeare play. After weighing several plays, the group selected one of the "problem plays," The Merchant of Venice.

The reason I count it among the problem plays is not just that this "comedy" is very dark, but that it actually presents a theatrical problem. Merchant is a play with a big fat problem sitting squarely on top of it, and the problem can be presented in the single word injustice.

Why this play?

It has an appealing courtship story with a female character, Portia, who is held fast to a preposterous game set up by her deceased father. She can only marry a suitor who solves a riddle and correctly chooses among three caskets made respectively of gold, silver, and lead. We later find out that Portia has an agile mind, an adventurous spirit who is not above laying prankish traps of her own. She is one of Shakespeare's better roles for women (noting that in Shakespeare's time, the role would have been played by a man). The vanities of the well-born suitors who fail the riddle and the exuberant audacity of Bassanio in winning her, the tale of Portia's ring, the nature of Bassanio's friendship with Antonio and how it will change as Bassanio weds (Antonio is apparently a bachelor), all make for a good play. There is, however, the Very Big Problem.

Merchant is best known for its other storyline, the one involving Shylock the Jewish moneylender. When Bassanio decides to attempt the riddle and win Portia, he needs to borrow money. His wealthy merchant friend, Antonio, is short on cash so they borrow the money from Shylock in a very awkward scene exposing bitter history between them. "You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog, and you spit on my Jewish gabardine...it now appears you need my help!"  It is very clear that Shylock, and Jews generally, are treated very badly here. Historically, Jews in Venice lived in a ghetto and were prohibited from most economic activity; lending money at interest was one avenue allowed to them, trafficking in the hypocrisy of a Christian society that openly denounced usury while secretly depending on credit. Jews were simultaneously reviled and essential to the economy.

The play is regarded by many as a libel against Jews. Shylock proposes that instead of interest, the penalty for defaulting on the loan be "a pound of your fair flesh," Antonio goes for it, and when Antonio is unable to pay on time, Shylock takes him to court, dagger in hand, demanding his pound of flesh. The law appears to back Shylock's claim and he comes very close to killing Antonio until a loophole is found, the case is dismissed, and Shylock is forced to convert to Christianity.

The injustice sits there like a repulsive, evil toad. The "good guys" in this "comedy" are openly anti-semitic throughout the play and their cruelty is unanswered. On the other hand, when Shylock attempts to use the law and the court to his own advantage (admittedly, for revenge more than justice), the system defends itself and the walls topple on top of Shylock. At no point are the "good guys" called to account for their hatred of Jews, but Shylock is stripped of his property and even his religious identity, slinking from the courtroom in defeat as the Christians cheer.

If you play it strictly as comedy, the story of Shylock is the story of an uppity minority who tries to pull a caper on the white Christian hero and gets his comeuppance. The ugliness of this plot overshadows the play as a whole. 

Our premise was: can we perform the play in such a way that that unconscious injustice is visible to the audience? Can we tell this story and make it plain that the "good guys" cannot see the injustice on which their society is based? This, in my view, would show a contemporary audience something about what we are now - at a time that #BlackLivesMatter is pointing out injustices that have remained invisible to the dominant culture, even while we celebrate the vindication of marriage rights for homosexuals.

Playing it as a drama, then, Shylock can be seen as an angry man reacting to systemic injustice. Perhaps. Shakespeare offers some material to support this interpretation, but not much. 

Another question: in attempting the latter interpretation, are we honoring the playwright's intention, or distorting it? Is this, in fact, an honest project in the first place?

In Part 2, I'll talk about my own struggle with this problem as the actor playing Shylock.

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