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Home :: Archive :: 1996 :: July ::
Re: Back to Shylock; Acting Shakespeare
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 7, No. 0498.  Wednesday, 3 July 1996.

(1)     From:   David Evett <
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        Date:   Monday, 1 Jul 96 15:06:02 EST
        Subj:   Back to Shylock

(2)     From:   Milla Riggio <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 03 Jul 1996 09:28:58 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 7.0493  Re: Back to Shylock; Michael Kahn's Comment


(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Evett <
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Date:           Monday, 1 Jul 96 15:06:02 EST
Subject:        Back to Shylock

The question of what Shylock means when he speaks of catching Antonio on the
hip and feeding fat the ancient grudge gets an stimulating response in the
production of _Merchant of Venice_ running this summer at Stratford, Ontario.
As directed by Marti Maraden, Douglas Rain plays a Shylock whose reaction to
the pervasive anti-Semitism of Venice in general and Antonio in particular has
been withdrawal and protective coloration.  In contrast to Roland Hewgill's
florid, passionate Antonio, and the casually expansive crew of Gratiano,
Lorenzo, Solario, and Solanio, whose world is clearly their oyster, Rain's
Shylook is reserved, austere, even prim: he looks and talks like a Quaker
banker.  He does have some humor, however; as if he and Maraden had tacitly
augmented 1.3.35 or so to read, "I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with
you, walk with you, jest with you. . . ," he and Antonio do indeed play the
bonding scene as a kind of protracted joke, taking off from the punning on
"rat" in 22-25, treating the Jacob material as a piece of elegant persiflage,
and climaxing in boisterous laughter, especially from Antonio, at "Content, in
faith, I'll seal to such a bond, / And say there is much kindness in the Jew."
(Bassanio is far less comfortable.)

All this vanishes with the flight of Jessica.  Maraden has set the play in
Italy just after the coming of Fascism; the coffeehouse where the Venetians
meet to make plans and share news is also frequented by blackshirts, and though
the young male speaking characters do not wear those clothes all but Bassanio
share some of their attitudes.  When Shylock comes there to look for Tubal in
3.1 the waiters tilt the empty chairs against the tables to prevent the Jews
from taking a seat.  His rage at the act of betrayal but also theft, which
initially provokes him to echo Antonio's arm-waving passion (though never at
the cost of his dignity), turns cold and methodical, especially during the
courtroom scene.  Yet Maraden has Susan Coyne, as Portia, play deep shock at
the severity of the Duke's sentence, and she is even more horrified to receive
a thumbs up sign from a passing blackshirt as she is leaving the courtroom--
this "mercy" is pretty severely strained, and the audience is clearly invited
to reflect on the ways by which habitual ethnic discrimination turns really
nasty.

(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Milla Riggio <
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Date:           Wednesday, 03 Jul 1996 09:28:58 -0500 (EST)
Subject: 7.0493  Re: Back to Shylock; Michael Kahn's Comment
Comment:        Re: SHK 7.0493  Re: Back to Shylock; Michael Kahn's Comment

Trying to answer Thomas Ruddick's challenge to quote Michael Kahn accurately, I
have just lost a letter containing several pages of Kahn's Preface. Perhaps the
electronic gods intervened fortuitously.  In any case, the system I use does
insert itself in this way, cancelling letters without recall.  So I'll give you
a much shorter version and hope to be able to get through it.  Most of all, I
would like to take Kahn's name out of this discussion altogether.  I feel I
have done a major disservice to a director who has produced some of the best
Shakespeare plays I have ever seen, plays I could not in my dreams direct. And
I have been outraged at the pomposity of those who would leap in headfirst
without reflection on their own arrogance at the chance to denounce by proxy
and without respect their own interpretation of my bad paraphrase.  As
inaccurate as my comments may have been, they did not include the silly ideas
they were interpreted as having meant.  The process of textual interpretation
in this exchange has been as interesting to me as an observer of what I set in
motion as anything else.  But before I lose the letter again, let me set a
little of the record straight.

Basically, Michael was in a candid, humane, and entirely non-pompous way
tracking his own development from the early decades of his career when, trained
by the American school of acting that says that you only see "the tip of the
iceberg" in the text, with 90% submerged, to a period when he now sees and
appreciates the contradictions of Shakespeare's characters and the complexities
of his situation.  He began by noting his discovery that "gentle Portia," whom
he had grown up thinking of as Ellen Terry, said, "Let all of his complexion
choose me so" with reference to the Prince of Morocco.

"And I read that, and I thought, did she really say that - that sort of racial
slur? Our gentle Portia, did she actually say "Let all of his complexion choose
me so..."?

"There was an asterisk next to the word complexion.  I looked down at the
bottom of the page in my edition, and the note read "complexion: character." I
thought, well, I don't believe that. Then I went back to the first scene of
Morocco's and he said,"Mislike me not formy complexion, the shadowed livery of
the burnished sun." So I thought, well now, here is the truth in the text, in
which our wonderful Portia still says, "Let everybody who is this color not get
me." Complexion is what she says. Here is an editor unwilling to accept that
because it is unpalatable and doesn't fit into the complexity of a woman who is
eventually going to say, two hours later, though she doesn't know it, "The
quality of mercy is not strained...."

[THEN Michael talks about directing an excellent actor in the role of
Shylock....]

"The actor, a very talented and accomplished actor, who played Shylock played
him with gremendous nuance and dynamic range. But at this phrase I could not
understand what he was saying: "OH MY DAUGHTER (oh my ducats)."

        I said, "What was that? `OH MY DAUGHTER (ohmyducats)."
        What's this bit after "daughter"?
        "Ducats."

It was silly. Shakespeare wrote "Oh my daughter, oh my ducats." Two items.
Shylock is worried about his daughter and his ducats....

[THEN Michael reflects on the implications of this dual concern with respect to
the potential anti-Semitism of the play, ending with a comment on a society in
which Portia is equated with gold and in which Shlock equates his daughter with
ducats - a man openly interested in money - and in which spendthrift Bassanio
chooses the lead casket.  He lets himself reflect on the kind of society, the
accumulative society, that is at the heart of this play, made clearer by the
CONTRADICTIONS in Shylock's character.  And he comes at last to the part of the
Preface which I attempted to paraphrase - of course, Thomas Ruddick, because I
agree with it!!....]

"I say this often to actors: `It's one thing to say the text is the most
important thing, but it's another thing to understand the text so well that you
understand not just what the characters are saying but why the characters are
saying these particular words.' I'm not talking about finding the subtext. I do
not believe there is any subtext in Shakespearean plays. You know, I'm an
American director. I was brought up to belive that the text is only on tenth of
the iceberg and there are nine tenths submerged beneanth, so you play not waht
you say but something else. But, no. I think you play what you say in
Shakespeare....

"This kind of precision is what I have in mind when I say that I do not believe
there are subtexts in Shakespeare. If the plays had subtexts, they would be at
least an hour shorter. But Shakespeare wrote exactly what he meant...If a
character actually means something other than what the lines say, very often
everyone else leaves the stage and the character geta soliloquy to think it
through or, as in the case of Richard III, Iago, or Prince Hal, to tell the
audience what is really going on instead."

NOW:  what kind of misinterpretive storm have I set off this time, in response
to Thomas Ruddick.  I can scarcely guess.  But, please, folks, don't hold
Michael Kahn responsible for my choice of selections.  Wait for the Preface
itself and vent your spleen on the object, not on hearsay or on excerpted
quotations.  I set this off.  The responsibility is mine.  But I would like now
to steer the discussion away from someone who is not participating in it!

Best,
Milla Riggio
 

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