Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice – Interpretation possibilities
Thinking about approaching Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, the more I researched, the more varied interpretation possibilities I acknowledged. I was quite surprised, so I thought that playing around with the possibilities, as loud thoughts, would not hurt. The play existed by July 1598 but was probably acted by 1596 – 97.
First, I would like to mention that once a director said (do not recall which one – it was long before this module started) that to work in theatre a person had two choices: She should better be on the top of her game, really know everything, travel, research, direct plays, watch plays, read plays, write plays, perhaps critic plays as well… Or, she should know nothing at all. Someone who has NEVER set foot in a theatre before, not even in school. Never heard of Ibsen, or Brecht and thinks that ‘Stanislavski’ is a foreign curse word: ‘I’ll get you back, you Stanislavski you!!!’ The second candidate could be of interest because she would look at a play-text with virgin eyes and virgin visions, which could be great and refreshing, or just a total catastrophe. But hey! Every director, even experienced ones, are subject to experimentation and possibly failure.
So, my point with my main idea here is that it could be funny to stage the Merchant without any research at all! Read the text just like Shakespeare’s actors read back then, and understand it in relation to today’s world, without intellectualizing it. Word by word. Action by action. It is true that a virgin director would not understand the Bard’s hidden stage directions in the verse, but this aspect could also bring a new perspective to the story. The researched director for my main paper, Paul Stebbings of TNT Theatre Britain, claims that he just stages what is in the text and that any further information is of no use. But if this is true, why did he care to research at all? The way I found his production just a good effort, without any spectacular feature, might have been linked to this. Either he should have included the research he did in the meaning of each line being said by his actors, or he should have just let the text translate into spoken words like a virgin director would do.
Moving on to some ideas after an extensive research, I could not ignore what had crossed my mind (note that no proper reference will be given here – as these are just thoughts). In fact, they were so different from one another that I imagined a whole week of the same play in the theatre but with different approaches, my ones and from other directors as well…
First interpretation (my favourite and a bit more detailed than the rest), would go like the following notes:
Racism (Venetians and Jews against each other), isolation (Jews) and assimilation (Jessica, a Jew, fleeing with Lorenzo, a Christian). Play is about one discriminated alien, representing a race, who happens to be Jew. Jews learn to cope with humiliations, to demand revenge, to focus on making money and to protect their own cultural identity. These aspects disturb Venetians because they can’t feel superior, when they truly believe that’s what they are.
OTHER TOPICS THAT REQUIRE ATTENTION TO DETAIL:
Money and consumption: Venetian obsession. ‘You are what you have’. Usurer exorbitant rates. Shylock’s high rates are for profit, but also as a psychological payback to Christians after all the years and years of discrimination;
Friendship: Bassanio’s loan on Antonio’s name;
Justice and judgement: Usurer’s dependence on Venice’s law for business, plus the Three Caskets Riddle;
Feminism: Portia wanting to be her own master but incapable to do so in a patriarchal society (Portia: “I may neither choose who I would, nor refuse who I dislike.”);
NON-REALISTIC PERIOD DESIGN:
Hint of Shakespeare’s sixteenth century in stage properties and few furniture pieces. Audiences will still be able to translate the text in today’s global issues of immigration and integration;
Stage as bare as possible to give actors more freedom to move, but to also allow audiences to use their own imagination. This is the kind of attitude that engages and unifies spectators and actors;
Signifier for characters and social placement: Thorough researched costumes working also as ‘moving-sets’. Shylock, wearing the red Jewish cap, is more expensively dressed than most Christians. When being spat on in the streets, Shylock could just wipe it off with a golden ducat – as an affront. Portia and Nerissa (plus Jessica, as she leaves her house for good) need to cross-dress as men to move freely in a city;
Signifier for space: Sounds that indicate where the scene is taking place (crowd sounds mean ‘streets’, or church bells mean ‘Antonio’s surroundings’, water in the lagoon means ‘Belmont’, or simply total silence means ‘Shylock’s house’);
Creative Lighting: Small importance because the play doesn’t really depend on it. Shakespeare used the text to indicate the time of the day (Lorenzo: “The moon shines bright: in such a night as this…”). Still, work a bit on light intensity for emphasizing mood.
UNCONVENTIONAL CHARACTERS’ LOOKS (Apart from costumes):
Shylock is handsome and considerably young, despite having a grown daughter. He exercises a strong sex appeal among well-bred ladies and courtesans. Shylock is seen as an insatiable sex object in liberal Venice, but not as a potential family-father in cross-religion relationship. His circumcised privy part is considered here ‘clean’ and erotic. These assumptions have a relation to what people believed back then, so it does not mean that Shylock cannot keep ‘it’ in his pants. Women are crazy about him, but he won’t have them. Shylock’s physical attractiveness helps to infuriate Venetians even more, as a Jew should look like a demon.
Portia will be ugly, so that I can emphasize that her suitors are only interested in her fortune. Bassanio describes her to Antonio as ‘fairer than the world’ ironically, gesturing otherwise. Bassanio will keep the ‘act’ every time that he says something about her looks. Unlike the foreign suitors, money-obsessed Bassanio has already seen Portia.
SPECIFIC CHARACTERIZATION ASPECTS:
Shylock: A villain for being money and revenge oriented, but a product of his environment. Wears a ‘strong’ mask in the public, but shows his true emotionally exhausted self at home with Jessica. Shylock also wears a mask to make business: Talks nicely to Antonio, but curses him behind his back.
Antonio: At odds with his environment (“In sooth I know not why I am so sad…”) and potentially in love with Bassanio (only platonic). He is an Alpha Jew-hater;
Jessica: Feels ignored by her father and calls this lack of attention ‘hell’.
Three Caskets Scenes (despite Portia’s dark perspective as she knows that suitors are only after her money). Funny characterization around the hot-blooded, passion-seeking Prince of Aragon, who will have expected a beauty in Portia. His disappointment will show in his moves (trying to go, having to stay). The Prince of Morocco will deal with Portia’s look in a more relaxed way because she, too, will be talking un-approvingly about his dark ‘complexion’. He will play an exaggerated macho-figure, a man who can endure anything – even someone looking like Portia;
Comedy will also come though irony, especially in the lines of Shylock and Portia and through other situations. Examples: Portia offers lovingly the ‘full sum of her’ to Bassanio because the ‘sums’ is what he is after. Bassanio can’t even hide how ugly he finds the picture of the ‘demigod’ in the casket. … The pound of flesh sounds firstly like a joke. Then, the ‘Hath not a Jew eyes’ ironic speech…
LIBERTY WITH TEXT:
At the end of the trial, Shakespeare never says how Shylock should exit, so I cut the line (plus the subsequent lines referring to this) when Shylock asks to leave because he is not feeling well. My Shylock stays put until the end and accepts the punishment with pain yet cleverness. Shylock only accepted the Christian ‘public mask’. He will continue practicing his faith in private. This last stance of strength though, after the showcase of blind rage during the trial demanding his pound of flesh, will be what the audience will remember him by.
Once the audience grasps Shakespeare’s language, acted as natural as they can be, they will have grasped the characters in depth, because the intentions behind the words in verse (heighten emotions and hierarchical address) and prose (plain crude matters) will be clearer.
Next approach, a lot less detailed now, could be focused on Antonio, since the play is named after him/his profession and everyone can only think of and talk about Shylock… Well, Antonio could be a converted Jew. That would explain why he feels like a fish-out-of-water and why he tries so hard to convert Shylock – so that he would not feel so alone and sad, having a new friend to talk about old but also new times. Another possibility of the converted Antonio would be that he is a fake, a ‘Marrano’ (turned Christian by some sort of ‘force’, but still carrying on his Jewish rituals secretly at home or with other Marranos like him). He hates having to hide it and envies the Jews who don’t have to. Last possibility in inverted Antonio is the boring one: He did it willingly and truly believes that being Christian made him a better man – and the same he would wish Shylock because he is such a saint (do ignore all the vicious spitting, for saints would not do this).
Third interpretation could turn around the meaning of the word ‘flesh’. For Elizabethans, flesh meant penis, and hereby let’s suppose that Antonio’s one could miraculously weight a pound (even more miracoulsy that Shylock would have guessed it right, as Antonio would hardly have worn a male sticky-ballet costume). No, no. no… Stay right there!! Don’t go away saying: ‘What a rubbish!’ This interpretation is not pornographic, but one with a deeper meaning. Let me explain. Jews undergo circumcision, what is the removal of the prepuce skin in the penis when they are still very young, or older when they invert later in life. This gesture is a kind of formally binding with the faith, a symbol. So, by wanting Antonio’s flesh, Shylock would devilish want to convert him, however he would want more than just the prepuce of Antonio’s flesh to bind him to his faith – he would want a whole pound! Portia/Balthazar, at the trial, telling Antonio to prepare and lay bare his bosom, would tell him instead to prepare and lay bare his bottom. Funny thing is that Antonio would demand Shylock to get converted at the end by baptizing him. One wants to convert the other.
Next interpretation would be almost a farce, a joke, something what ignorant racists would have imagined a Jew to be: A literal monster. Red eyes, long spiky nails, teeth and ears, hooked nose, hunch-back and not forgetting, a long tail hidden beneath the gabardine, just like the one from the devil’s caricature. At his home, when receiving Bassanio and Antonio for the contract, malicious Shylock would offer them a suspicious brewed drink coming out of a mysterious clay round pot. Obviously both friends would deny the drink feeling their hands sweat with fear for every minute spent at that place… In another scene, Shylock leaves the Christian supper earlier as expected, for he could not touch the pork, and arrives home with his beard dropping blood. He feels satisfied after having eaten a little child on the way back. He has still some blond child’s hair hanging from his bloody beard and part of the gabardine. The villainy and absurdities would know no end. This interpretation would serve mainly to feed ignorant racists’ imagination, but also to offer a chance to weight two different cultures when only one is seen in detail.
The play could be approached in modern days, but then the title would have to be the Merchant of New York City, or Hamburg or Dubai – for what Venice represented back then: A trading hub, not just a beautiful and unique tourist destination that has become. Jewish usurers would be loan sharks or official banquiers today and the merchants would be Wall Street dealers. Portia would be a lesbian – even with palpable plans for change of sex – but still forced to marry a man to in order to inherit her fortune and avoid disgracing her family’s name.
I could easily think of other interpretation possibilities, but then I probably would forget to mention that another possibility would be The Merchant of Venice follow-ups stories. What happened to Shylock and Jessica after they inverted? Did Christians fully accept them or were they treated as half-breeds? Perhaps Jessica regrets her actions so much that she steals from Lorenzo for her father trying thus to apologize to him when she realizes that one cannot just become Christian with all the rituals involved, when the heart is still Jewish. Shylock could have a new revenge plan or Portia could switch her sympathies for Jews, after she sees that Bassanio never really loved her, but was just interested in her money.
Well, one thing is to change a written text, but another is to create a subsequent one – adapted from the first. It might not be very original, but it is at least fun. Everyone is always curious to know what happens next… Why should it be different with the classics, with Shakespeare?
Just by putting some ideas on the paper I feel like I already staged them, for I have pictured literally every word that I have written down – even if technical aspects are missing in the description… Silly, I know, but why not?