Posts Tagged ‘The Merchant of Venice’

RSC: The Merchant of Venice (2015)

November 18, 2016

51jd-sfgbl-_ac_us160_The Merchant of Venice really is quite a difficult play; in Shakespeare’s time it might have been an anti-semitic and Jew-baiting piece, but it really isn’t possible to play it that way in the post-Holocaust twenty-first century. This sets directors a challenge, but also seems to open up the play to more complex and interesting interpretations than Shakespeare might have dreamed of…

I saw the RSC performance that I’m writing about here, in 2015: it stunned me then, and was easily the best interpretation I’ve seen. So I bought the DVD (in fact, I must have enjoyed the performance so much that I accidentally bought the DVD twice) and came back to it the other evening. It’s quite a fast-paced production – sometimes Portia is rather too prone to gabble, but that’s a minor complaint, honestly. It’s a modern-dress performance, though the setting feels timeless, really.

A number of things stand out for me. The Venetians all come across as money-grubbing, fortune-seeking, shallow personalities. Bassanio is a gold-digger, who knows how to say the right things to the right people. Portia is young and frustrated by her father’s will, rather than the ageing woman fearing being left on the shelf as she has occasionally (and convincingly) been played. She clearly fancies Bassanio and gives him obvious hints about the right casket, which he convincingly feigns ignoring…

Shylock is played as someone who’s had enough of the racist taunting and seizes a proffered opportunity to get even: this is understandable and convincing. So far, so good, so obvious: what did the performance do for me that was different, and thought-provoking? Antonio, for starters: a young man, passionately in love with Bassanio – they have clearly been lovers – who is distraught that his lover – bisexual Bassanio – is about to quite that phase of his youth and move rather more seriously into heterosexual fortune-hunting, nevertheless helps him in his quest by signing up to the bond. His looks, gestures, facial expressions and tearfulness say it all: we feel for him. And then he is truly vile to Shylock. So when in the trial scene Shylock advances on him with his knife ready to take the forfeit, we are torn, but we feel his torment and anguish at the approaching doom. And there is a priceless moment as the disguised Portia witnesses the passionate farewell kiss between the two men and realises what their relationship was…

Watching the play again this time, I was struck by how much the play seemed to be about loneliness: Shylock after the trial, Antonio suffering in the happy world of Belmont as his lover abandons him, and – often overlooked – the sadness and loneliness of Jessica who has abandoned father, family and faith for Lorenzo and his Christian yahoo mates, who ignore her, because after all she is still really Jewish… even Lorenzo’s attitude is ambivalent at best. Belmont is not really the place of happy ever after that we might have thought it was; this is a superb version of the play, bringing out the best of both comic and tragic elements of Shakespeare’s creation.


My A-Z of reading: B is for Beginnings

October 16, 2016

What’s the most effective and memorable beginning to a novel (or a play or poem, for that matter) for you? Many will perhaps default to the obvious ones, like the opening line of Pride and Prejudice… but what makes a really effective start?

I suppose there are the ones we remember, and the ones that actually work, the ones that have an instant effect, and the ones that creep up on us. I’ve always liked the opening of George Orwell‘s Nineteen Eighty-fourIt was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. That works for me partly because of the immediate shock – what sort of world is this, where clocks actually strike thirteen? And it takes me back to my childhood, at the end of the 1950s in the little village where I was born, where the next-door neighbour but one, a reclusive old woman, actually had a decrepit clock that did strike thirteen. This astonished me, and I used to love listening to that final, wrong strike.

But the one I remember most often is not actually an opening sentence, but the opening incident: the narrator of Lawrence Sterne‘s Tristram Shandy is telling of the Sunday night ritual in his parents’ household: Sunday night is intercourse night and he is about to be conceived, when in medias res his mother enquires of his father if he had remembered to wind the clock… for me, this sets the tone for the rest of this wonderful novel, the longest shaggy-dog story in the world as someone once called it.

When teaching To Kill A Mockingbird, I was often conscious of the long opening section – Part One – which is getting on for a third of the entire novel, and appears to go absolutely nowhere. Occasionally a class would become somewhat restless as we read, and this caused me to reflect on it as the opening to a novel; it was often only at the end of the entire book that we could go back and reflect on what Harper Lee had been doing with that lengthy introduction – “too much description, sir!” – creating such a vivid sense of place that we could actually fit ourselves into Maycomb. The book needed it, before the real story of Tom Robinson could start.

Plays are no different, and looking at what Shakespeare does is instructive. Often he hurls us head-first into the action – the witches in Macbeth, the storm in The Tempest: we are instantly gripped and cannot look back, and in different ways he develops the stories and sweeps us forward. And yet, he can do slow and subtle, too: the discussion of Antonio’s melancholy at the start of The Merchant of Venice, for example, or the gentlemen comparing notes about the king’s erratic behaviour at the start of King Lear.

John Donne has some wonderful opening lines in his Songs and Sonnets: Busy old fool, unruly sun (The Sun Rising), for example, or For God’s sake hold your tongue (The Canonisation), or When by thy scorn, O Murderess, I am dead (The Apparition), or Mark but this flea… as an exercise in seduction technique unequalled by any other poet I know.

So what works, and how? Something must intrigue us, either instantly and suddenly as in the Donne poems, or it must begin to insinuate itself, to sow a trail of loose ends and possibilities that we find sufficiently interesting to continue to pay attention, rather than go off to something else, as Shakespeare intrigues us at the start of King Lear. And whatever bait a writer or poet dangles before an audience or reader, it must go on to offer the promise of (eventual) satisfaction after that initial flash of inspiration.

On teaching Shakespeare

May 13, 2016

51QrP0QTnTL._AC_US160_A follower’s question about the teaching of Shakespeare has had me reflecting on my experiences in the classroom.

I was wary of teaching Shakespeare too early on in secondary school. I know there are people who think ‘the younger the better’, but the other side of that idea is dealing with the kind of questions students are likely to ask; I have never been one to censor anything in the classroom, and so waiting until students were – hopefully – of a suitable mature age to be given honest and truthful answers to their questions, felt more sensible to me. Inevitably questions about sex would arise: Shakespeare is full of allusions, references, and, more than anything, word-play. Explaining Romeo and Juliet even to Y9 students demanded a certain level of care… so my personal preference was to wait until Y9.

There is the idea of beginning earlier with something more innocuous, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, but I tried that once, at the start of my teaching career, and never went back to it. Trying to interest eleven and twelve year-olds, particularly boys, in fairies and magic is just not going to work.

The choice of play is crucial when students are younger. Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and Julius Caesar all offer something to students in terms of plot, action and issues for reflecting on. And I think that to be able to offer some recognisable connection with their own lives helps to make the plays work. With Romeo and Juliet there is lively action, the idea of young love, and the idea of parents trying to control one’s life, and my students were more than willing to engage with these issues! Macbeth raises the ideas of hopes, dreams and ambitions and how far one is prepared to go in achieving those, as well as the idea of someone being influenced by their partner to do things they might otherwise not have done. And Julius Caesar obviously raises the idea of what one should do about bad rulers, tyrants, and how we make such judgements on rulers, as well as the ways in which the common people are manipulated.

Clearly, as students grow older, they are able to engage with more complex plays and issues: they can understand the idea of sexual jealousy as raised in Othello and The Winter’s Tale, for example, although they might not kill as a response to it… and one can explore racism in many ways by studying Othello, or The Merchant of Venice.


Studying Shakespeare in the classroom is a bit of a contradiction, as he was a dramatist and wrote for performance, not reading. Some schools are fortunate in having theatres reasonably accessible and can often take students to live performances which present the plays as they were meant to be experienced. Other schools – ours included – are not so fortunate. I tried, over the years, to develop a way of teaching which addressed this problem.

I’d always do a very quick read through of the whole text, with the emphasis on getting a grasp of the plot and the main characters, and noticing what the main ideas were. I must stress here, that I was never one for just studying extracts. I think that’s a meaningless activity; if there isn’t time, or you can’t make the whole play work, then best not bother. After an initial read, we would watch a TV or film performance of the play. We’d watch it straight through – obviously it might take several lessons, but I wouldn’t constantly be pausing it to comment or explain; again, allowing students to try and grasp the overall effect seemed much more important. If they were studying it for examination, I’d suggest they try to follow the text as they watched, the idea being that if they matched dialogue, gestures and action to the printed words it would improved comprehension. Feedback suggested that this did indeed work.

After that, we had a choice, depending on whether they were studying for an examination, or to write coursework on the play. If a detailed study of the play and serious questioning and note-making were required, now was the time to do it. This was often the lengthiest, and perhaps the most tedious part of the work, but at least the class now understood what they were dealing with.

After this, we would look in more detail at character, themes and issues raised by the play, and I used to do this through group work and presentations to the class; each group would be enabled to show both their understanding of the play and their allocated topic, and their ability to explain it to their peers, as well as manipulating their knowledge and understanding in ways which were a good preparation for what they might be asked to do in an examination. If there was time at this stage, it was also good to be able to watch another (different) complete performance; if we were really lucky, it might be possible to see the play in the theatre…

Looking back over my nearly thirty years in the classroom, I can honestly say that I always loved teaching Shakespeare – correction, trying to pass on my love of Shakespeare. I miss it, but the week after next is my annual Shakespeare week.

On a certain 400th anniversary

April 10, 2016

serveimageAs I shall be away on the actual day – 23 April – of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, I’ll write something a little early. This piece will be more about my encounters with him, rather than anything academic.

I’ve lived longer than Shakespeare did: I still have the set of commemorative stamps issued to mark his 400th birthday in 1964, at a time when I collected stamps but knew nothing about our greatest writer. Before I first read any of his plays – as preparation for O level English Literature – I remember I had the feeling that he would be dull, difficult and boring.

I have an inspirational teacher to thank for my experience being so different. We had to study The Merchant of Venice, and I was astonished at the level of detail, the hidden meanings, and the messages beneath the surface, as well as the vulgarity. But most of all, even at that relatively early age, I think I was seduced by his masterly use of language, the magic of his verse, and his wit. Over time, I came to like the tragedies best; it took me a long while to engage with the histories, and I’m still wrestling with the comedies…

I was introduced to live performance while at school, too. The wonderful new – at that time – Nottingham Playhouse, with its ground-breaking revolving stage, had only just opened. I remember seeing a wonderful performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – a play I’ve little time for – there, and also Ian McKellen‘s first Hamlet.

Obviously I went on to study more Shakespeare at A level – King Lear and Othello – and then at university, where I had the thrill of attending lectures by the great Kenneth Muir, who could stroll around the lecture theatre and reel off any quotation from any play that his train of thought required – just like that… And then I went on to teach Shakespeare to my students for many years.

Now, in retirement, I’m a student again, not a teacher, as each year I head off for a week deep in the Oxfordshire countryside to spend a week looking at three plays – usually two by Shakespeare and one by a contemporary – and then heading off to Stratford to see them at the RSC. There’s good company, and one of the course leaders is the Shakespearean actor Jane Lapotaire, who explores the plays from performance perspectives and is always very illuminating; one thing I did relatively little of as a teacher was drama.

So I have set myself a target in my retirement: finally to get to see all of Shakespeare’s plays in performance. My acquaintance is somewhat limited so far: teaching syllabuses meant that I’ve only taught about a dozen of the plays, and only seen a few more than that, although some I have seen many times, in some very memorable performances. This year I hope to see Cymbeline for the first time…

Though it can be hard sometimes to separate the brilliance from the bardolatry, my love of the richness of our wonderful language and its myriad possibilities does firmly convince me that in Shakespeare’s works is something very special indeed in our literary history and culture.

Shakespeare: Measure For Measure

December 18, 2015

510ADQNZXKL._AA160_I’ve re-read Measure For Measure several times, and I still can’t completely fathom it; it’s a tragicomedy, seemingly, as dark as The Merchant of Venice, but much more unclear in terms of where blame or guilt may be apportioned for the sorry state of affairs which is ultimately, and perhaps rather unsatisfactorily, put to rights – of some kind.

There are so many questions. Why does the Duke disappear (or pretend to), leaving full powers to a man (Angelo) less experienced than another (Escalus)? There seems a weakness, a remissness in the Duke’s behaviour here, and remissness is a serious flaw in a ruler. And this weakness seems to have affected the way he has ruled, but contrasted with Angelo’s rigour, we become less sure about this; again we compare Angelo with Escalus, and we feel the subplots also call his approach into question.

Then there’s the main, Claudio and Juliet story: Claudio’s (apparent) crime isn’t fully a crime as they were promised to each other, and certainly does not seem to merit the death penalty. Justice and mercy are set face-to-face as in The Merchant of Venice; the issue is complicated by Claudio’s weakness (or his human-ness?) – he wants to live, and would therefore persuade his sister to give herself to Angelo. Is her outrage, and rectitude something we are meant to approve of? Or is she too harsh? Is our response a twenty-first century one, and at odds with the way a seventeenth century audience would have viewed things?

Then there’s Angelo himself: very sure in his sense of right and wrong, and meting out justice with great confidence, but then apparently tormented by his lust, revealing a (slightly) more complex aspect to his character in soliloquies, taken over by his evil side. Is it frailty and human weakness, or wickedness, or a sense of guilt at his previous treatment of Mariana?

The Duke’s behaviour meanwhile grows more and more questionable: pretending to be a friar and usurping the religious privileges and duties of one, he is drawn deeper and deeper into a web of deceit which will go nowhere – just a Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet steps outside the bounds of his religious order (except he really is a friar). In a situation where we are surely prepared to suspend our disbelief for the sake of the drama, the performances with the faked executions and letters and so on become less and less believable…

I realise that this post is basically a series of questions, and will come to a close with another: where is Shakespeare taking his audience with all this? And I should attempt an answer, which is about as far as I have got with this play: Shakespeare is constantly showing his audience that nothing, no case of right or wrong, no person, whether apparently good or wicked, is as simple as appears on the surface; he is forever turning a situation on its head to have his audience think further, or to make them uncomfortable with the upsetting of their simple responses… will that do?



English Literature and me

August 28, 2015

A friend has reminded me of the tricky territory which is the distinction between English and British. We don’t (often/usually) talk about ‘British’ literature, but when we speak of ‘English’ literature, what do we mean, exactly? Not literature written in English, but sometimes it seems to include writers from other areas of the British Isles than England. So, for instance, James Joyce was on my ‘English’ Literature syllabus at A level, and at university. It gets more complicated the more I look at it, so I will try and be as careful as I can with terminology…

English is my language, and I love it, and always have, its weirdnesses and idiosyncrasies, its vastness and its splendours, the ways it sings in the writings of Shakespeare and Milton, to name a couple of my favourites. And yet I can only claim to have scratched the surface, as far as our literature is concerned: yes, I met all the usual greats at school and university, and taught a fair few of them during my time as a teacher. But there’s so much that no-one can now claim really to know it all: the broad sweep, perhaps, but no more. Because I did a joint degree, I never had to go further back in time than Mediaeval English, so the joys of Anglo-Saxon are unknown to me, other than through translations of Beowulf.

How brilliant is Shakespeare? How does one get beyond centuries of hagiography, and academia? I found myself wondering this summer, when I saw a Marlowe play (The Jew of Malta) and two Shakespeare plays (Othello and The Merchant of Venice) at the RSC: there’s some wonderful language in Marlowe, but the play was let down by wooden characterisation and unsubtlety of plot in comparison with Shakespeare. Shakespeare is pretty consistently powerful across his entire career, and there’s clear and evident change, development and experimentation over time. And yet, though I enjoy his sonnets, as a lyric poet I find him somewhat limited in comparison with his contemporary John Donne, who is much more experimental and bold, as well as more wide-ranging in style and subject-matter.

My love of Milton is a minority taste nowadays, I find, when I wax lyrical about Paradise Lost to anyone. The language flows beautifully, he experiments and invents words as much as Shakespeare does, he tells a marvellous story, bringing his characters to life in a way that the book of Genesis does not.

I have grown to love Jane Austen‘s novels as time has passed, despite being faced with the most demanding one for close study at university (Mansfield Park, since you ask, and it’s still my favourite); her style and command of the nuances of the English language is masterly, particularly given the narrow focus of the world of her characters. Somehow she is quintessentially English (and what do I mean by that?). I have developed avoidance strategies for a great deal of nineteenth century English fiction over the years – Dickens really does (over)-write by the yard (though I make an exception for Hard Times) and Hardy is just too laden with heavy symbolism which gets in the way. I can cope with Charlotte Bronte, and love Villette even more than Jane Eyre. At the turn of the century I have plenty of time for Joseph Conrad, perhaps partly because he was Polish, and certainly out of admiration for the fact that he was writing in his third language. The characters and atmosphere of Nostromo are wonderful, and seem to lay the foundations for the worlds of Gabriel Garcia Marquez several generations later.

I haven’t found a lot to admire in the twentieth century. Joyce I’ve mentioned earlier: Ulysses is a masterpiece, though some of it has to be endured rather than enjoyed or marvelled at; I find his skills with our language astonishing, on a par with Milton’s, though very different. Lawrence we had to study at university and I now find him absolutely toe-curling in his approach to sexuality – almost unreadable, and I do wonder how much longer he will be widely read, if at all. Graham Greene I admire for the moral dilemmas he explores with such nicety, and keep meaning to go back and re-read his oeuvre but haven’t so far; I like what I’ve read of Anthony Burgess, and I really enjoyed Anthony Powell‘s Dance to the Music of Time, but other than those, I haven’t really read that much…

For me, the golden days of English Literature are past: we developed the drama and more or less invented the novel, but have passed the baton on to other writers and nations, at least at the moment; my perception is that currently we are very uncertain of ourselves and our place in the family of nations, and this shows in many ways, including our literature…

Christopher Marlowe: The Jew of Malta

May 13, 2015

9780713677669The third play I’m looking forward to seeing at Stratford is Christopher Marlowe‘s The Jew of Malta. It’s a precursor of Shakespeare‘s Merchant of Venice, and in comparison makes that latter play seek like a model of political correctness!

The wealthy merchant in Marlowe’s play is a rich Jew Barabbas, who revels in his money, jewels and luxury, and is renowned for his greed and selfishness among his own people. Antagonism between Jews and Christians is there from the outset (and it must be said that the behaviour of the Christians is far from exemplary): the state seizes Barabbas’ assets to repay tribute owed to the Turks. Having got his money, they later renege on the deal with the Turks, too. His daughter Abigail helps him retrieve some hidden wealth by pretending to become a nun; later, when she discovers that her father has engineered a duel in order to kill off her suitor, she really becomes a nun, at which point her father engineers the poisoning of the entire convent…

We see Barabbas’ increasing rage and growing insanity; he is aided by his Turkish slave Ithamore, who eventually double-crosses him… there is clearly no honour in any race or religion in this play. The end comes when Barabbas betrays the island to the Turks, and then tries his own double-cross by betraying them to the Christians: the Christians double-cross him and come out tops, killing Barabbas, after he has caused the slaughter of the Turkish forces, so that they have the Turks’ leaders as hostages…

What to make of all this? Firstly, it’s fast-paced, and great fun, if you completely ignore the racism, and general vileness of all the characters, and I suspect it will make wonderful theatre. When I compared Marlowe with Shakespeare in terms of their respective plays, I was struck by the crudity of Marlowe’s characters, and the rambling, almost make-it-up-as-you-go-along nature of the plot. Marlowe’s plot is linear (apart from the minor subplot involving the snaring of Ithamore), Shakespeare’s is tight, involved, complex (there are several subplots) and the scenes are interwoven to heighten the sense of the drama. Marlowe has some wonderful language, as he does in other of his plays, but Shakespeare’s characters in the Merchant of Venice probably outdo him.

I suspect it will be fast, crazy, almost knock-about stuff (just as Arden of Faversham turned out to be last year) and that my picture of the Elizabethan stage will be further broadened: it’s wasn’t just Shakespeare that the punters went to see…



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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