Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice

May 6, 2015

9781903436813I’m getting ready for my Shakespeare week next month, and the first play is my old favourite, The Merchant of Venice. I came to know and like and appreciate Shakespeare through this play, which I studied for O level several aeons ago. Because of the way we studied and the way it was examined, I still know vast swathes of it off by heart.

When you know a text this well, it’s the interpretations on stage that become interesting and challenging, as they force you to consider something familiar in a new way. I’ve seen several performances over the years, most of them poor; only one, at the Leeds Playhouse about twenty years ago, was interesting, because it explored a tenuous possibility available in the text, that Bassanio was a gold-digger and Portia was almost over the hill. So I’m looking forward to the new RSC take, whatever it is.

There are a range of issues in the play, but in the last half-century or so, that of anti-semitism has come to the fore – is The Merchant of Venice a racist play? How much sympathy are we meant to have with Shylock? How are the relations between Jews and Christians played and explored in performance? I have seen hidden and not so hidden racism from Portia towards Shylock, and again, towards his daughter Jessica when she ends up at Belmont…

What struck me most, re-reading this time, was the tightness of the structure of the play; it flows extremely well, the several subplots are skilfully integrated, as are the various humorous scenes. The play never rests until the climactic end of the fourth act, when Shylock has had his come-uppance and vanishes, and fairy-tale world of love takes over…

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