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Home :: Archive :: 2011 :: July ::
Merchant of Venice in a Las Vegas Setting


The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 22.0156  Thursday, 14 July 2011

[1] From:      David Richman < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >
      Date:      July 13, 2011 10:34:51 AM EDT
      Subj:      Re: SHAKSPER: Another meditation on The Merchant of Venice

[2] From:      Donald Bloom < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >
     Date:      July 13, 2011 11:57:48 AM EDT
     Subj:      Re: Merchant of Venice in a Las Vegas Setting

[3] From:      Joseph Egert < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >
     Date:      July 13, 2011 4:23:25 PM EDT
     Subj:      Re: Merchant of Venice in a Las Vegas Setting

[4] From:      Carol Barton < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >
     Date:      July 13, 2011 5:54:51 PM EDT
     Subj:      Re: SHAKSPER: Rom. Scholarship; MV


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:         David Richman < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >
Date:         July 13, 2011 10:34:51 AM EDT
Subject:      Re: SHAKSPER: Another meditation on The Merchant of Venice

Nuanced and civil discussion of this unpleasant comedy is always welcome on this list. One hesitates to sum up "Merchant of Venice" in a phrase--"Shylock's tragedy" and "parable of mercy" will not quite do--but "unpleasant comedy" like most of Auden's phrases, is as good as any and better than most.

Shylock is indeed a villain, roiling with hatreds; and I think it can also be said that the Christians don't act according to the words they mouth.  Even Portia's speech of mercy is undercut by her repeated use of the word Jew when she addresses Shylock.

   Therefore JEW,
   Though justice be thy plea, consider this."  (emphasis added).

I haven't attended the Las Vegas production, but I do commend F. Murray Abraham's production, first mounted a few years ago and revived earlier this year. I am sometimes skeptical of transplanting Shakespeare's plays to the present--Las Vegas or otherwise--but occasionally such transplants are both theatrically effective and brilliantly illuminating. Witness McKellen's '30's Fascist Richard III.

The production to which I refer is set in the heady summer of 2008, just before the winter of our financial discontent that came, that year, in September. All the fortune hunting Christians, smart phones in hand, are trying to get money without earning it. Jessica, overdressed and zaftig in a world of svelte "Venetians" never quite fits in and is never quite accepted as a Christian. Her scene of trading tragic allusions with her new husband is especially poignant in this production.
One's reaction to Shylock is complex, as I think it should be.  The father's anguish segues seamlessly (such is the power of Abraham's acting) into the unappeasable thirst for revenge.

One last point: about ten years ago, when I spent a year in London, I listened at the British Library to every recording of the Merchant of Venice. The BL records every play that has been played in London since the 50's--what a resource. Unhappily, I couldn't record the recordings. If I ever do a conference paper on this (I don't easily travel--so this is unlikely) I'll have to do all the voices myself. My point is that in every production, Shylock has a Yid accent. One hears the serpent's hiss in "three thousand ducats, well", as well as the Eastern European R, the U in "ducats" rhyming with "push" not with "bus" and "well" turning to "vell." Shakespeare could be a dialect writer when he chose to be--witness Henry V or Merry Wives, but I find no indication that Shylock's is meant to be a dialect part. These accented productions have the effect, to my ear, of diminishing Shylock and of making him something other and less than human. Abraham, in accent, sounded like everyone else--except, that in most cases, his verse was better. What was Shylock's accent (dialect) in the Las Vegas production?

Meditatively yours,
David Richman
 
[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:         Donald Bloom < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >
Date:         July 13, 2011 11:57:48 AM EDT
Subject:      Re: Merchant of Venice in a Las Vegas Setting

While I would like to reply to Mr. Weinberg in detail, that will have to wait for a further opportunity. First, I find I must apologize to Miz Barton for what she took to be a personal attack.

["I recognize that I am baiting the hounds of hell, but for Hardy's sake, I hope the gentles and scholars among us are capable of recognizing that the sniping at and ad hominem flogging of those who dare to disagree with the "regular" authorities on this list in the past have driven many of us lesser beings away. I hope to gain insight from scholarly disputes . . . not to come away from them sickened and dismayed by what passes for debate."]

I did not mean it to be personal, and I'm genuinely sorry she took it that way. On the contrary, it was strictly an intramural critique. I assumed, perhaps wrongly, that most of the people on this list would qualify as belonging to the group "liberal-intellectual." I certainly do, and have done so these five decades. I was (or so I thought) critiquing all of us. It is the great virtue of the liberal (at least as I see it) to have pity, love, concern, compassion, whatever you wish to call it, for the unfortunate, the poor, the victimized. But it is a flaw of that sort to allow this compassion to affect his or her judgment. Victims are not saints, but rather (to whatever degree) martyrs. All the difference in the world.

There is no more reason to assume that Shylock is a good man because he's being insulted, than to assume that Antonio is a good one because he is, ostensibly, a Christian. That's as may be. But I have found that that first assumption colors many people's ideas about the play. And I believe it damages our appreciation of it.

In a romantic comedy, the young, usually a couple with their friends, seek happiness and fulfillment in marriage (this is, of course, severely summarized from Northrop Frye: to his Anatomy of Criticism I hereby refer you). Working against them is a blocking character, usually older, self-willed, and unloving. He is not concerned with the happiness of the couple, but uses all the power of the law and deceit to prevent or destroy it. Aegeus occupies this role in MSND, Don John in MAAD, Shylock in MOV -- they are all villains in this structural sense.

However, like at least Don John, Shylock is also a villain. He is not merely a selfish, old fool, like Aegeus, but he positively gloats over the infliction of pain. The pathos not only of Antonio's situation but of his helpless friends affects him not a whit. He will have his revenge, and neither money not pity will stop him.

[Someone once pointed out that a decent man would have taken the money, made a few biting remarks about Christian love, thrown the gold at Antonio's feet, and stalked off. That he doesn't do something of the sort tells us, I think, something about Shakespeare's attitude toward him. Claudius and Brutus have their moments of doubt and regret, but Iago and Richard III do not.]

In any case, I have said enough over the years on this subject -- much more than enough, some would doubtless say. I ask only this: as I understand your natural pity for Shylock as the victim of bigotry, try to understand my distaste for him as cruel, pitiless, vengeful man.

Cheers,
d

p.s. I claim the label "liberal" unashamedly. Whether I qualify as an intellectual is, of course, open to question. I have at least tried.

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:         Joseph Egert < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >
Date:         July 13, 2011 4:23:25 PM EDT
Subject:      Re: Merchant of Venice in a Las Vegas Setting

John W Kennedy writes:

>From: Joseph Egert < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >
>
>>Stuart Manger asks:
>>
>>[ . . . ] why is that when MoV is discussed,
>>the role of Shylock is almost always the only topic of
>>debate while the play itself is
>>manifestly not about him primarily?
>>
>>Indeed, how could this play be "otherwise called the Iewe
>>of Venyce"? in 1598, no less? It strains credulity. Surely
>>the Roberts entry was forged. No?
>
>"Julius Caesar"? "Cymbeline"? Not to mention that the very notion of the
>title as a fixed part of the authorial text was still not yet thoroughly
>established. And, of course, there is the fundamental fact here that
>Shylock is irrelevant to the last act.<
 
JE: But given this 'fundamental' 'fact', shouldn't the play be "otherwise called the Iewess of Venyce"? No?
 
No!

Joe Egert
 
"Which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?" (IV.1)

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:         Carol Barton < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >
Date:         July 13, 2011 5:54:51 PM EDT
Subject:      Re: SHAKSPER: Rom. Scholarship; MV

Joe-Stuart--it depends upon how one reads "merchant"--and what that merchant is purveying.
 
Even Dame Alisoun knew that "alle is for to selle." Shylock sells what's left of his dignity for a vague promise of friendship (or at least detente?). Antonio sells his integrity (and I would argue any vestige of "Christianity") for a chance to add injury to insult when it comes to the "Iewe"--who deserves no more than the metonymous epithet in his new-found "allies'" lexicon because it's easier to hate a stereotype than it is to confront a living, feeling, bleeding human being--and on and on. Certainly, ""Which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?" (IV.1) is an appropriate question.
 
I agree wholeheartedly that we're meant to ask.
 
Best to all,
Carol Barton

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