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Home :: Archive :: 1995 :: September ::
Re: Antonio
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 6, No. 701 Wednesday, 20 September 1995.
 
(1)     From:   Kay Wade <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 19 Sep 1995 14:24:00 -0700
        Subj:   RE: SHK 6.0697  Qs: Antonio
 
(2)     From:   Robert F. O'Connor <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 20 Sep 1995 12:16:15 +0700
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0697  Qs: Antonio; Tennyson
 
 
(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Kay Wade <
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Date:           Tuesday, 19 Sep 1995 14:24:00 -0700
Subject: 6.0697  Qs: Antonio
Comment:        RE: SHK 6.0697  Qs: Antonio
 
Sam Schimek asks about downplaying Antonio's antisemitism.  I think it would be
fatal to do that; his antisemitism is necessary to the play.  Shylock doesn't
go out of his way to entrap Antonio into anything; in fact, he at first offers
to assist Antonio.  It is  Antonio's refusal to be under any obligation to a
Jew that leads to the pound of flesh situation.  A kind of PC pretense that
nobody is antisemitic does away with any reason for the play, it seems to me.
 
Further, Shylock is given abundant reason for finally insisting on payment.
He's had to put up with prejudice and mistreatment from Antonio and the general
populace, his friends are ragging at him, his daughter runs off with a
Christian and is so uncaring of his feelings that she steals a ring that was a
cherished memento of his wife and sells it (to buy a monkey, as I recall), and
one way and another his feelings are thoroughly trampled on. Finally, he
strikes back.  I don't see how that makes him a monster, but rather a very
troubled human being.
 
Further, I find Shakespeare's treatment of Portia very interesting.  People
seem to be mesmerized by her wonderful speech about mercy instead of justice,
but then what does she do?  She enjoys playing her razzle-dazzle trick and
entrapping Shylock, while keeping Antonio and Bassanio in unnecessarily
prolonged fear that Antonio would die when she could have settled things much
sooner.  Then, after she's had her big moment, she immediately drops any talk
of mercy and instead talks justice, justice, justice.  When Antonio and the
Duke both try to let Shylock off the hook, it is Portia who insists on grinding
him down.
 
Shakespeare doesn't beat you over the head with the moral of a story, but it's
the Christians in this play who come off badly when you really look at the
text.   I can't imagine that it escaped Shakespeare's notice that Portia talks
pretty but doesn't follow through.  Remember he prepared the way in Act I
(ii.21) where she says, "If to do were as easy to know what were good to do,
chapels had been churches and poor men's cottages princes' palaces.  It is a
good divine that follows his own instructions:  I can easier teach twenty what
were good to be done, than be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching."
 
(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Robert F. O'Connor <
 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
 >
Date:           Wednesday, 20 Sep 1995 12:16:15 +0700
Subject: 6.0697  Qs: Antonio; Tennyson
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0697  Qs: Antonio; Tennyson
 
Greetings all.
 
Sam Schimek inquired about recent performances of *Merchant* and the way
Antonio was presented:
 
>1) Antonio & Bassanio's potential homosexuality: Was this mined on stage? Did
>it undermine of help the performance? Did it give Antonio more dramatic power
>as an outsider a la Shylock?
 
A recent (1991/2) production by the Sydney-based Bell Shakespeare company
foregrounded (without overstating) this idea by having the first scene of the
play staged in a bath-house, all present being clad only in towels. This was,
according to the director's notes, a deliberate use of the connotations of a
gay community that the audience might associate with a bath-house - the
implication being underlined - to the disappointment (and annoyance) of some by
a passionate kiss between Antonio and Bassanio.  I couldn't say whether it
helped or hindered the performance, but it did mark both Bassanio and Antonio
as 'outsiders' to the dominant heterosexual paradigms of mercantile Venice:
this might, in fact, make Antonio not only more sympathetic to Shylock as a
fellow outsider, but would perhaps undermine the 'dramatic power' that the
latter had over him.
 
>2) Antonio's Anti-Semitism: How was this presented to the audience? How was it
>received? Was it glossed over in order to compliment the numerous "good
>Antonio" speeches?
 
As far as I can recall (an some other Australian correspondents who saw the
production may disagree with me), Antonio's anti-Semitism was very much
down-played - but not entirely glossed over.  Bassanio came across as far more
anti-Semitic, but this may in fact have been a very personal animosity toward
Shylock himself - his Jewishness being a secondary consideration - on account
of the moneylender's hatred of - and threat to - Bassanio's beloved Antonio.
 
>3) Antonio as Christ-figure: Was this addressed overtly, left as an
>undercurrent or ignored? Was any stage-symbolism milked from this?
 
Not an issue in this production.
 
>4) In general, what was the final opinion of the play? Worthy of production or
>racist script that offends? While my opinion is of the former, one cannot
>overlook the large body of opinion leaning towards the latter. Then again,
>being offensive never alone makes a play unworthy of production.
 
The Bell Company were very conscious of the potential 'offensiveness' of the
play, and this was publicly stated to be one of the reasons for choosing to
perform it - the same rationale being used (and, in my opinion, equally poorly
defended) in their choice of *Shrew* for their national tour last year.  It
was, overall, a good production.  I think the play is worth producing, if only
in recognition of the 'warts and all' nature of Shakespeare's works.  It is not
enough to defend *Merchant* (or *Shrew*) as being part of the dramatist's
unstinting exploration and representation of all facets of human nature; we
should be prepared to admit that the dramatist may have been possessed of
'distaseful' attitudes, as much as we should be prepared to admit that he wrote
some bad plays.
 
I don't think there's any hiding from the play's racism - but I agree with Sam
Schimek that offensiveness alone should not exclude the play from performance.
 

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