Sunday, May 20, 2007

Merchant of Venice - A Little Bit of This, A Little Bit of That

Fellow Readers,

I promised a snippet of this and that between assignments that I am furiously grading to close out the school year.

I finally watched the Radford film of Merchant of Venice this weekend. I liked it. A lot. Something I recognized in myself was how I've always been sooooooo wrapped up in the characters, their prejudices, and my mixed reactions to them that I completely missed the setting itself. Merchant of Venice, Cindy. Duh. Should be obvious. But Venice never winked her exotic little eye in my mind until I saw the lush setting of the film. *sigh* (love Venice!) Radford's opening lines – not Shakespeare's – set the scene for an anti-Semitic Venice, a Venice of 1596. Sources I have consulted say that Europe's first Jewish ghetto was the foundry in Venice in 1516, so this Venice has been living with segregation for 80 years. The film clearly refers to the ghetto. Does Shakespeare? If so, I missed it. But I also missed the manna line; Randall, that was brilliant.

Other movie tidbits. In the category of the "way too obvious," was the slaughter of the goat in the market where Shylock is clearly purchasing a pound of animal flesh. The "baa" of the goats parallel the "baa" of sheep, yes? Slaughter of the lamb? Also the ageless excuse the Christians had for their scapegoating of those Christ-killing Jews. I would like to watch this with students to see if they catch that one.

Before this discussion and before this film, I had never thought to interpret Antonio as gay. Whoa. Any of that male bonding/friendship textual evidence merely fit with the value of male friendship over all other relationships. But hey, if we can make assumptions about Achilles and Patroclus, then why not Antonio and Bassanio? Radford's Antonio has either frolicked in the daisies with Bassanio or has always wanted to. The whispered name when he sees Bassanio glide by in gondola. The look of unrequited love as he peers out the window to Bassanio's arrival. In Act I, scene I, Bassanio and Antonio leave the table to discuss Bassanio's quest for Portia. Where do they go? The bedroom. C'mon, is that where these guys typically hang out? Question: if Antonio is actually gay, would he not be subject to the same – if not worse – prejudices as Shylock?

I'm with you, Randall, on your interpretation of Radford's last shot of Jessica with her ring. Despite "conversion" to Christianity, she was raised a Jewish girl and IS different from the Portias, Nerissas, and bare-breasted Venetian prostitutes (hi ho! Ooops, different movie. Serious laughter, Gil!). No stage or film production made that more clear than the stage production I saw last summer at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival in Boulder. In the last scene, the ships have come in, the ring debacle resolved, and all are happy as they enter the house behind them. The doors close, leaving a forlorn Jessica ALONE onstage. Poignant indeed. How I ached for her.

Unlike her father in the CSF production. Shylock here was overblown, unlikeable, a caricature. I saw no motivation for his anger, for his revenge. And for me, Shylock is THE KEY to success. I WANT to ache for Shylock. I want to be angry with the "frolicking callow Christians" (nod to Ernst). I want to be left agitated and unresolved, having left a problem play, not a comedy where all the ends are tied up nicely in a bow. CSF's production last summer, despite a strong Portia and that bit of brilliant staging at the end, fell flat for me without a richly complex Shylock. Now, a few years ago, the Denver Center also staged Merchant of Venice, with John Hutton in the role of Shylock. I can still hear his voice, "if you prick us, do we not bleed?" (III.i.61). Gil, you may remember him in a number of roles at Denver Center; he played Claudius in the production of Hamlet – our chance meeting in the city! :-) His Shylock had those richly conceived layers, and the motivation behind his anger and need for revenge. I can still hear his voice… Pacino's Shylock worked for me as well. His weeping tore my heart out. Did you catch when Shylock left the court and somebody ripped his head covering off? And another spit on him? Yikes.

Women in this play? Radford's film? I used to think I liked Portia quite a lot. She's clearly very smart. I've changed my mind. Her little ennui bit at the beginning is too "poor little rich girl" a la Gloria Vanderbilt or Paris Hilton for me. "By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is aweary of this great world" (I.ii.1). Waaaaah. She's catty as she "talks smack" about her suitors: "…when he is worst he is little better than a beast" (I.ii.88). And she lures Shylock into her trap where she can talk up a great song and dance about mercy, but deliver none? Hypocrite. Her bigotry? Totally distasteful. Strong woman? No. She has succumbed to her father's ploy of snagging her a husband. Sure, it inevitably works out in her favor, but the clues are all there to suggest she leads Bassanio to the correct casket (yes, pun intended). One of them, "To the sea monster, I stand for sacrifice" (III.ii.57) and the other clues lie in the song Gil already discussed. It's no coincidence that all the lines rhyme with lead. (Shakespeare doesn't throw away a line, right?!) Portia? Big game player. Don't confront this one at the tables in Vegas. She'll win every hand, rings and all.

"A little bit of this, a little bit of that…"Opening lines from "Anatevka," the song from Fiddler on the Roof at the end of the play where the Jews have been exiled from their little village. Most of them had a place to go. What happened to Shylock? *sniff*

Respectfully yours,

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