Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Merchant of Venice - A Little Bit More of This and That


Re: Portia’s quality of mercy speech, there was a trial in Tacoma this week, Cecil Emile Davis accused of a brutally appalling rape and ruthless murder of a 65-year-old woman. He threw her in a bathtub and smothered her with towels soaked in a toxic solvent. In the summing up, his defense attorney asked the jury to show mercy in that “Earthly power doth then show likest God’s when mercy seasons justice.” I wonder what they teach in law school? Davis got the death penalty.

Cindy cited sources about the Jewish ghetto in Venice in the sixteenth century. May I call your attention to a novel for young people, Miriam Pressler’s Shylock’s Daughter: Sixteen-year-old Jessica, who longs to be free of the restrictions of her father and life in the Jewish ghetto of 16th C. Venice, falls in love with a Christian aristocrat. Translated from German. Pressler is co-editor of the definitive edition of Anne Frank’s Diary of Young Girl. Well researched and pretty well written, though gushy about teen romance.

I’ve only seen the much discussed Radford film once, but I was impressed with Pacino as Shylock. Like Cindy, I ached for Shylock. I also thought Jeremy Irons gave a convincing reading of Antonio in love with Bassanio. Certainly not necessary, but sufficient. A couple of years before, I saw a good Merchant of Venice at Ashland, Oregon, and their Antonio was also gay, enough like Irons that I now conflate the two productions in my memory. I do remember Ashland set the Rialto as the Bourse or the Big Board on Wall Street, with stock prices (and maybe “argosy futures”) running across the screen. The Christians were all “suits.” After I praised the Radford, my friend Roger Sale dismissed it as too narrowly focused on Shylock. I’m anxious to see it again. I guess maybe I should buy a DVD player.

I’ve just read Stanley Wells, Looking for Sex in Shakespeare. Pretty slight. He says “the meanings of works of art are stimulated and guided by the mind of the artist but exist finally only in the minds of those who experience them.” Amen. But then he devotes much of his lecture to refuting homosexual presentations, including Merchant of Venice.

Mike’s early question of how one might cast Shylock immediately tempted me to Mel Gibson. Delicious. One could consider it part of his “community service” punishment to say in front of millions “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh?” When it was announce Gibson would play Hamlet in Zefirelli’s film there was much scoffing about how Mad Max would mumble “To be or not to be,” but actually I though Gibson was entirely credible. My other suggestion might be one of the great British actresses, Judi Dench, Glenda Jackson, Janet Suzman, maybe Helen Mirren. I don’t know what I would expect.

Cindy wonders about whether anti-gay prejudice would equal anti-Jew bigotry. I think not because the Christians are such a closed circle. They know, support, forgive. When Bassanio is sent to find a loan of three thousand ducats, backed by Antonio, notice he goes to Shylock. Why? The Christians all owe Antonio for paying off their debts, etc. But they also know that Bassanio is not a good risk so they would not loan him the money to keep Antonio from making a foolish deal.

Sorry if I damaged Randall’s and Cindy’s affection for Portia. All you need as antidote is see a couple of quality actresses, as Portia, not as Shylock.

Basta, as we say in Venice,

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