Till April 9th the Globe Theatre of London is staging ‘The Merchant of Venice’ that is promised as “a re-imagining of Shylock’s play”. Shakespeare buffs around the world were somewhat relieved when the live-streamed performance was canceled. They were old-fashioned and still preferred Shakespeare’s play to Shylock’s. Nor did they want to see Cordelia’s play instead of ‘King Lear or that of Brutus in place of ‘Julius Caesar’. These Shakespeare-straight fans looked into the Globe’s publicity with the guilty thrill they would approach a horror film said to offer one more vivisection than usual. They were invited to “experience Shakespeare’s complex exploration of prejudice, patriarchy and capitalism […] in a society that exploits minorities to keep the majority in power”. The Globe website warned them that they would see “antisemitism, colourism, and racism, bullying, strong language, and scenes of a sexual nature”. It sounded like the Bible on a Saturday night.
The morbid curiosity of the old guard Shakespeareans was aroused. They hurried to read the London critics reckless enough to have risked their innocence in this infernal. They found general approval and surprise. The play was competently done and the wholesale re-interpretation of the familiar characters intriguing, even moving. On reflection, it seemed we were simply at the latest stop in the problematic adventure of Shakespeare on stage. It’s often said that the 16th Century playwright is timeless, which is as incorrect for him as it would be for any of us. He’s tied to the years he lived, 1564-1616, and reflects his milieu’s values of those years. But because he was such a good poet dramatist we have tended to see him as at home in all centuries. However, when a play like ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is produced four hundred years after its creation, how could there not be a flagrant contrast with the values we hold?
The poet-dramatist’s excellence here gets in the way. His Venice-cum-Belmont shares Christendom’s distaste for Jews as Christ-killers, Easterners, money-grubbers, and for being just different, other. Slavery is acceptable, especially of outsiders and black people who are seen as hardly human. Fathers are the legitimate absolute rulers of daughters. Wives embrace their role as subjects to husband-sovereigns but can acquire a smidgen of power by the backdoor, threatening to make cuckolds of them. Shakespeare might have simply put these values dramatically to work and left his public applauding. Instead, almost in an aside, he suggested that villains suffer too. Go ahead, he tells us, kick Shylock down the front steps of his property but look at him carefully. He’s not quite a mad dog.
Director Abigail Graham for the Globe Theatre at London’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse has taken this hint that Shylock was a human being like the rest of us and built her production of ‘The Merchant of Venice’ around it. This sent pros and cons echoing over the South Bank of the Thames. The question to answer is whether or not we want a Shakespeare play presented as it was conceived, embodying the world view of the author and his contemporaries. If yes, whiffs of today may sneak in, but it has to keep to the Elizabethan main lines. If your answer, like Abigail Graham’s, is no, you can make what changes you wish. However, if you make too many, you won’t be doing Shakespeare at all but “Shylock’s play” or Bernstein’s ‘West Side Story’.
Meddling with Shakespeare’s words is taboo in Anglolands, but not cutting some of them or changing who says them. Graham’s staging does both. She eliminates the lighter parts. Shakespeare had no hesitation to mix comedy with tragedy. Modern theatre prefers one or the other at a single sitting. In its reordering of parts, the Globe cuts the whole last scene. In the original, it’s the scene that makes for a happy ending, tying up loose ends with a double wedding. But the Globe’s play has become an account of Shylock’s victimisation. The scene of his despair after being crushed in court by the ganged-up Christians closes the performance with a pathos-cushioned bang. His daughter Jessica who has betrayed him, stolen his treasure, and embraced Christianity is shown to have second thoughts and signals her regret with a touching Hebrew lament.
Elsewhere Graham has affirmed today’s progressive values by changing the way the characters have been presented in the past. Bassanio is now an out-of-the-closet gay who is after Portia’s money and whose heart belongs to a thoroughly repellent Antonio, white knight no more. Portia herself is no Lady Bountiful but an entitled princess who browbeats her servants and knuckles under to the patriarchy. She has stopped declining suitors politely and screams with disgust at them if they are black. Her marriage is decided by a game show in which she is the prize package. Is this ’wokeness' overreaching? No, but it’s making very solid what never crossed Shakespeare’s mind or else what he left unspoken, while it also comes down strongly on one side of what he has left ambiguous, Shylock’s responsibility. Sly reference to the movie, ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ isn’t out of place. The Venetian Republic was the model of capitalism for a millennium and it would have been unthinkable for either Graham or Shakespeare to present its upper-class other than having money on the brain.
The Globe’s radical revised take on the play makes us ask how other landmark productions have answered Shakespeare’s insinuation that Shylock wasn’t such a bad guy after all. When Laurence Olivier announced he intended to play Shylock at the National Theatre in 1970, there was concern. He had done ‘Othello’ there in a towering 1965 performance. But some felt an actor of colour should have had the role. Perhaps to silence them, he had put his imitative talent to work and created an Afro-Caribbean character with large red lips. It was a remarkable transformation of Baron Olivier, the son of an Anglican clergyman. But many felt he had tried too hard. One critic said he looked like a hungover west Indian bus conductor. Would his Shylock be a Groucho Marx out shopping?
In fact, Olivier’s Shylock is something of a dandy, radiates authority and has aristocratic airs. His foreign accent has posh underpinnings. Only in his breakdown does he let loose his histrionics that will weigh so heavily on the performance. His eerie off-stage shriek of pain—a typical Olivier touch—furthers the imbalance. He does it because the contemporary mind felt it had to create more sympathy for Shylock than Shakespeare showed. The National Theatre could not tamper with the text so it upped the non-verbal empathy for Shylock, including a Hebrew lament as the final curtain falls. Fifty years later, Abigail Graham at the Globe will reshape the play to make it say what we feel today. That’s why her Shylock, Adrian Schiller, can underplay the role and be all composure and dignity. There’s no need for Olivier’s tumultuous theatrics. (Olivier’s ‘Merchant’ was set in 1900 and can be seen in Stuart Burge’s film presently on youtube.)
Jack Gold directed a performance of ‘Merchant’ in the BBC-Time-Life series in 1980. Warren Mitchell played Shylock in a way that was stereotypical but brilliantly so. He had been an excellent Willie Loman in ‘The Death of a Salesman’. Mitchell’s family were anglicised Russian Jews whose name had been 'Misel'. The audience felt sympathy for him but in a patronising way, as “a poor devil”. He wasn’t intimidating like Olivier. Without changing the text, his raw greed was still there. In his pain for the loss of his daughter, he couldn’t see her apart from his property. What’s more, her own regrets, which Abigail Graham projects into the Globe’s final scene, are not in the text. So a director like Gold for whom the words of Shakespeare were inviolate could only indicate her remorse at having betrayed her father and her religion—today’s touch—non-verbally, by her aggrieved face and posture
For myself, I can’t forget the version of my friend the playwright Charles Marowitiz. It was launched at his Open Theatre in London on May 17th 1977, as ‘Variations on The Merchant of Venice’. Charles had written in 1990 what Abigail Graham may have been thinking in 2022:
“What had always angered me about ‘Merchant’ was that contemptible trial scene in which Shylock is progressively humiliated, stripped of all property and dignity and sent packing from the courtroom a forced convert, a disreputable father, an unmasked villain. It was to try to redress this balance that I decided to reorder ‘Merchant’ and ‘vary’ its moral implications.”
The Berkeley Circle, formed by ex-pats, should have fellow-feeling for Marowitz, a New Yorker who enlivened the British theatrical scene for a quarter-century, including crucial collaboration with Peter Brook at the Royal Shakespeare Company. It was, moreover, another ex-pat, the Chicago-born actor Sam Wanamaker who hatched and nurtured the project to create the replica 16th Century Globe in London whose Playhouse now bears his name.