The Merchant of Venice

Shakespeare in the Park, presented by the Public Theater, on Sunday, June 13.

A little more than a decade ago, I saw the Royal National Theatre production of The Merchant of Venice starring Henry Goodman, directed by Trevor Nunn, and it stunned me. The first time I saw it (and I saw it multiple times, queuing outside in the cold damp London weather for the privilege of buying a ticket that guaranteed me only a spot to stand in the back of the theatre), even after the cast members took their final bows and the house lights came on, I sat riveted in my seat, too overwhelmed to move. I wrote pages upon pages about the experience in my journal (which was, in many ways, the forerunner to this blog), and I babbled to anyone who would listen about how Goodman delivered some of Shylock’s trickier lines and how Nunn handled several crucial scenes.

That powerful production changed how I think about The Merchant of Venice specifically and theatrical interpretation in general: how you can find the open spots in a text and stretch the work to find new truths. Ironically, because it looms so large in my memory and holds such a special place in my heart, that production also makes me skeptical of Merchant productions that don’t handle the play’s thornier problems in the same generous manner—which is, of course, a long-winded way of saying that I’m not sure how fair I can be to the new Shakespeare in the Park Merchant, a production that intrigues, puzzles, and frustrates me. The fact that it is still very early in its run—still in previews—doesn’t help, no doubt. It’s hard to know whether the rough spots will be ironed out eventually or whether they’ll remain there, uneven and distracting. That being said, though, I don’t think all the parts fit together here, and I have significant misgivings about Al Pacino’s portrayal of Shylock. Fair or not, of this I’m sure: This production would not have motivated nineteen-year-old me to see it three times.

The enduring problem with The Merchant of Venice is, of course, the story’s anti-Semitism. Shakespeare couldn’t bring himself to write a cartoonishly evil character—the “Hath not a Jew eyes?” monologue is an eloquent, passionate argument for the common humanity of Christians and Jews—but greedy, bloodthirsty Shylock still falls comfortably into the ugliest stereotypes of Jews. Moreover, one cannot (and should not) ignore the other characters’ unrepentant, unpunished bigotry against not only Shylock but the Jewish people in general, culminating in Shylock’s ultimate punishment: conversion under duress.

Because the play is structured as a comedy (Shylock’s conversion might well have been meant as an all’s-well-that-ends-well happy ending), and because the epithets against Jews are so vicious, performing the play without furthering its anti-Semitism is a tricky (and, some might argue, impossible) proposition. People still attempt it, though, because, despite its considerable faults, the play features some of Shakespeare’s best writing and one of his strongest heroines and, too, because Shylock is inarguably an enormously compelling character. The Merchant of Venice is a minefield, yet one we’re still drawn to because there are objects of such beauty amid the mines and, perhaps, because navigating the mines is its own reward.

Despite its good intentions (which I do not question for a moment), the Shakespeare in the Park Merchant, directed by Daniel Sullivan, stumbles over a few mines, starting with the formulation of Shylock. I know Pacino has played this part before, to reasonable acclaim, in Michael Radford’s 2004 film adaptation (which I haven’t seen), but I wasn’t persuaded by his performance here. First, there was the odd decision to have him—but none of the other actors playing Jews—speak in a broad Yiddish accent. The accent seems to feed Pacino’s tendency to chew the scenery, and too often, when subtlety is needed, he is busy mugging and compulsively shrugging his shoulders.

The scene that particularly broke my heart was the scene in which Shylock tells his friend Tubal about how his daughter, Jessica, has stolen his jewels and run away to marry a Christian. When Goodman performed this scene, his inflection and bearing always suggested that harping on the loss of his valuable jewels is the only way Shylock can articulate his pain and anger over Jessica’s rejection of him and their faith. The jewels are not the point, really, but they have a clear tangible worth, so it’s easiest to focus on them—an interpretation that fits well into the themes of the play, in which every plotline seems to hang on vital abstract needs being inappropriately tied to worldly goods that can’t sustain them. Goodman’s performance in that scene choked me up every time, but when Pacino performs that same scene, it’s only about the jewels, which robs the moment of its poignancy and makes Shylock more monstrous than he needs to be. Pacino almost seems to be playing the scene for dark laughs, hamming up Shylock’s rapacious, vicious greed, and while that’s certainly valid (the text can be read that way), I don’t think it’s the best interpretation.

The end of the trial also mystified me, particularly given what follows. After Portia turns Shylock’s right to a “pound of flesh” on its head, things go badly for Shylock, and ultimately, the court accepts Antonio’s suggestion that, among other punishments, Shylock be forced to convert to Christianity. Antonio’s proposal is played as a merciful one—which is strange, considering that this production doesn’t stint on showing his contempt for Shylock in the opening act. At the very least, Antonio should be smug at the conclusion of the trial, making a self-righteous show of his mercy. Complicating matters further, the production goes on to depict Shylock’s baptism (something I’ve never seen done) in the cruelest manner possible: The officiants knock Shylock’s yarmulke from his head, force him to his knees in the pool, and violently slam his face into the water multiple times. It is a mockery of faith, clearly meant only to degrade and humiliate (it’s also deeply unsettling), so if the production is going to reveal how grotesque the “mercy” shown Shylock really is, why let Antonio off the hook? Why allow him to contrast his compassionate Christianity with Shylock’s pitiless Judaism without acknowledging how unjust and inaccurate that formulation is? Antonio isn’t even present at the baptism (at least not that I saw—if he was, the staging should be clearer), absolving him (and Bassanio and Portia, et al) of the worst of the anti-Semitism, which isn’t right. If you’re going to depict that kind of thing—and you should, to contextualize Shylock’s own hatred—you need to implicate the other characters in it, or at the very least dramatize their misgivings toward it; to do otherwise is toothless.

So, OK, setting aside the problematic handling of Shylock, Sullivan’s Merchant has many strong elements. The comedy in Merchant always makes me uncomfortable, but I have to admit this production wields it effectively. Nyambi Nyambi and Max Wright give winning performances as Portia’s failed suitors; the racial caricatures are impossible to escape, but the actors find both the humor and the dignity in their characters and easily steal their scenes with flawless comic timing. Similarly, Jesse Tyler Ferguson (best known for playing Mitchell on Modern Family) is the best Launcelot Gobbo I’ve ever seen; the genuine affection he shows for Jessica sucks some of the poison from the worst of the character’s anti-Semitic gibes.

The talented, charismatic Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Jesse L. Martin are far too good for such small roles as Nerissa and Gratiano (they have bigger parts in The Winter’s Tale, the other play in repertory at Shakespeare in the Park this year), but it’s still a joy to see them flesh out their minor characters, especially since Sullivan has found a way to get Martin to sing—always a treat.

Best of all, Lily Rabe makes a wonderful Portia, sharper and pricklier than I’ve seen before, to intriguing effect. Her formidable performance gives a provocatively dark edge to the farce with the rings, in which Portia tests her husband’s trustworthiness and finds him wanting. The rigid moral code Rabe gives the play’s heroine suggests that the happy ending between Portia and Bassanio might not be so happy in the long run—a sad spin on the text but not an outrageous one: I always have felt more comfortable playing Merchant as tragedy rather than comedy.

And on Sunday night, happenstance gave Rabe the most memorable moment of that performance. It started to rain during Act IV: a soft but steady mist that cooled the skin and could be seen in dramatic silhouette against the bold stage lights of the trial. Everyone who knows the play anticipated what was coming, no doubt, but when Rabe delivered the immortal lines “The quality of mercy is not strain’d. / It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven / Upon the place beneath,” she paused and held out her arms, savoring the gentle rain of which she spoke. It was funny—people laughed and clapped—but more than that, it was beautiful, almost as if the grace she described was being revealed to us in the rain. That rain gave her poetic monologue extra resonance, and it reminded me why we keep muddling through The Merchant of Venice, landmines and all. The mercy Portia describes is a beacon. We reach for it, wanting to extend it all the characters, to ourselves as well, and though it may be unattainable, perhaps in reaching, thoughtfully and earnestly, we become better people. We become a little more worthy.