{Thu 14 February 2008}   The Merchant of Venice in Cape Town
Two weeks ago I had the privilege of hosting a reading of The Merchant of Venice with a new group in Cape Town. As is usual with a new group of readers who last engaged with a Shakespeare text anywhere from twenty to forty years ago (at school), there was a mix of attitudes as the evening began— uncertainty, excitement, cynicism, anticipation, etc. but as everyone gamely plunged in and gradually relaxed into the reading, some of the wonderful shades and possibilities of Shakespeare’s drama and poetry began to grip us all. The feedback I received afterwards suggested that the participants had really enjoyed the evening. Many were surprised at how accessible they had found it, despite their initial nervousness.

Armed with our recent exploration of the text, four of us then went to see the current production at The Maynardville Open Air Theatre. Setting (beautiful green open air stage), set and costumes (Italy, 1943), and acting were all great, or at least, interesting, and it all seemed to be adding up to a very enjoyable evening, until a peculiar epilogue was tacked on to the end of the play and spoiled it for me.

It was bad enough that after Gratiano’s final words (which should have ended the play), “Well, while I live, I’ll fear no other thing/So sore as keeping safe Nerissa’s ring”, Portia and Bassanio suddenly used an interchange that should have been spoken earlier in the play, weakening the dry comic effect of Gratiano’s words without enhancing the final spoken scene at all. But worse was to come. Before the audience could respond with the applause that had already, at least in my case, been interrupted once, a little mimed morality play was suddenly inflicted upon us. It depicted Shylock being forced at gunpoint by the Nazis to wear a yellow star under some rapidly unfurled Nazi banners.

In a discussion this morning, I realised that I hadn’t even noticed that there was a Catholic priest in that final mime, because I was so offended by the reek of “political correctness” that I couldn’t concentrate on details at that point! It wouldn’t have made any difference if I had though. I was simply appalled by the grossness of the Holocaust imagery—the unfurling of Nazi flags and the guns pointed at Shylock and the yellow star, etc. These strange tacked-on bits so ruined what had until that point been a very good performance that I found myself unable to applaud at all.

I am of course aware that much of the action in any Shakespeare production is only “in the text” by implication or interpretation, but this odd added epilogue emphasized one strand of meaning in the text to such an extent that the ambivalence and complexity of the human interactions showcased in the play were annihilated in favour of the one anti-anti-semitism message. The hypocrisy and selfishness of all the characters and their inability to exemplify the highest ideals of either religion, or, said another way, the inadequacy of either religion for the task of overcoming the worst aspects of human nature, were completely lost.

Shylock is, of course, a victim of the Christians’ disgusting prejudices, but he is also a pretty nasty character in his own right—neither his own daughter nor his servant like or respect him. The law that he claims to exonerate him of wrongdoing in his unreasonable demand for a pound of flesh is not the Law of G-d but the law of the state. The Bard leaves one in no doubt that none of the other characters are perfectly lovely either. The apparently righteous Antonio shows very selective love and generosity (towards Christians only, rather than to his “neighbour” or his “enemy” as Christ exhorted); Bassanio is as interested in Portia’s fortune as he is in her face and her virtue, and less in her than in his “friendship” with Antonio; Portia is a blatant racist and spoiled little rich girl, is most interested in making the best of the bad deal her father has left her, and shows very little mercy to Shylock immediately after her “quality of mercy” speech; the Christian society endorses slavery, etc.

On reading the play, and seeing it in other productions, I’ve never been in any doubt that Shakespeare was extremely subversive and did not unquestioningly accept the prevailing attitudes of his day. The prominence given to the Jew and the woman Portia in terms of number of lines and quality of poetry makes this clear, and the careful development of situation to the point where Shylock is psychologically pushed over the edge makes one sympathise with him despite his meanness. Although in the final few lines Shakespeare apparently restores the Elizabethan “natural” order by making the three male lovers heads of their new households again, their real authority is very much in doubt because it is so clear that their fortunes are dependent on the wealth and the wit of their women. Shylock’s forced and therefore insincere conversion has left a bad taste in the mouth and the moral authority of the “Christian” state has therefore also been brought into question. The only real act of love has been that of Antonio towards Bassanio in risking himself for his friend, but that relationship has strong homoerotic overtones, so this particular self-sacrifice (commitment to suicide?) would not officially be sanctioned by Christianity…. It’s all deliciously complex and I really was extremely disappointed by the crassness of the ending of this particular production. For me, it negated both the outstanding job done by some of the actors, particularly Jeremy Crutchley as Shylock, and the apparently accurate and sensitive interpretation of the text by the director until that point.

Er, sorry, Mr Sargeant, but that’s really how I felt—intellectually insulted (and assaulted!). But good stuff, until that final scene… I had to wonder whether a producer or a funder made you do it…

et cetera