The Merchant of Venice

12 Aug

Playwrights make plays in the way that barrel wrights make barrels. They just bang ‘em out.

That’s what Shakespeare did with The Merchant of Venice, and all of them.

And that’s what makes Steven Hopley’s current productionwith its brilliant cast, so fascinating and watchable.

(If this seems counter-intuitive or illogical, please stick with me anyway.)

Merchant of Venice

Shakespeare lived before the great age of Romanticism, which promoted artists to the role of high priest. He was just making entertainment, and a living.

He tried not to tread on too many toes.

For example, there is little of the spiritual life in Shakespeare. His plays are remarkably secular.

Was he just being true to his experience? Or was he simply avoiding the great religious controversies of his time? Remember, ‘heretics’ were still being persecuted.

The Merchant of Venice, despite having more talk of religion than most his plays, is intriguing because it’s still not spiritual.

(There are claims the play is anti-Semitic. To a modern sensibility, these claims are often mitigated by the fact that the Christians portrayed fare little better in our estimate than the Jews.)

Shakespeare talks of religion in The Merchant of Venice simply because he is making dramatic use of an imagined difference between Christianity and Judaism.

He exploits an old trope – that of the spirit versus the letter.

Shylock the Jew (played magnificently in this production by Mark Lee) will have his pound of flesh because the contract stipulates he can. And his downfall is ultimately because of this very insistence on the letter of the law.

And Portia (played by Lizzie Schebesta with a beautiful precision) gives her famous speech in praise of mercy. This one moment is an inspiring expression of the spirit. Give up on the law, it says, and just show love.

The spirit versus the letter? ‘We got this right, and the Jews did not.’ This is a story Christians have told themselves through the millennia. Ironically, in its harsh and simplistic judgement, it’s an attitude that negates the very insight it supposedly celebrates, and makes clear that the division between the letter and the spirit is not a division between religious traditions at all.

Rather, it’s a battle that must be fought in every life.

Which brings me back to Shakespeare.

I find him, in many ways, a dissatisfying voice, because he shows so little interest in the spiritual. (A lack of interest which goes a long way to explaining the currently fashionable claim that he’s universal, when really he just speaks to our own materialist society. Is it the greatest of cultural tragedies – that our most acclaimed writer is so deficient in one beautifully rich sphere of life?)

And what of the decision to continually produce his plays? The letter or the spirit? Going perpetually back to the ‘canon’ smacks very strongly of the former. Are we making theatre that breathes life, or is it an exercise in borrowing authority and aiming to get things right?

But this production, with its superb performances and the simple beauty of its staging, is a marvelous piece of theatre.

It’s an eminently watchable performance and an extraordinary stimulant to post show discussion.

See it, and consider both theatrical choices, and life choices.

Veronica Kaye

The Merchant of Venice

at TAP Gallery until 24 August

http://www.sydneyshakespearecompany.com/#!current-production/cb3i

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: