Back from London, where on Sunday I went straight from an intense political discussion with my son in the BFI canteen to a production of “Merchant of Venice” at the Globe. I have blogged about the Merchant before, after seeing the striking but ideologically muddled RSC production of 2011. And indeed, one problem with directing Merchant is that it’s more than simply a Jewish play. There are so many facets to the dysfunctional Venice Shakespeare depicts that it’s a challenging decision for any director to decide which ones to go with. The RSC production ended up highlighting the sexism, its Portia a dumbed-down Barbie doll, and the veniality, transforming Venice into Vegas with an Elvis soundtrack and slot machines.
The Globe has taken a different tack, very much foregrounding the anti-Semitism. Shylock is given dignity by a deeper portrayal of his culture than is generally afforded. Played by the real-life father and daughter team of Jonathan and Phoebe Pryce, this Shylock and Jessica communicate in Hebrew and we see Jessica’s initially modest dress evolve as she slots uneasily into louche Venetian society. In the scene where Antonio sets up the fateful bond, he snatches Shylock’s prayer book from him and throws it to the ground, a gesture rendered even more powerful when Shylock kisses the scriptures upon retrieving them. This is not a Shylock who blends in, and his apparently unreasonable demand for justice becomes a cry for the recognition and validation of his identity.
There are a number of such brutal incidents in this production. When Jessica is transported to Belmont, Portia’s body language and casual flirtation with Lorenzo makes it clear that she will never be fully accepted. We see instances of casual and vicious anti-Semitism, and they are all the more effective for being downplayed, showing a prejudice so integrated into Venetian culture that it deemed entirely unremarkable. Portia herself is marginalised and denied agency, and barely recognises the myriad subtle ways that she inflicts the pain this causes her on more vulnerable outsiders; even the casket scene with the Prince of Morocco, generally played entirely for laughs, acquires an edge here when we contrast her eye-rolling contempt for this Muslim wannabe with her barely-veiled hints to the more favoured Bassanio.
But these undercurrants are, rightly I feel, kept bubbling under the surface. The final scene, described by Shakespeare but realised here, is the forced conversion and baptism of Shylock. It’s almost unbearable to witness. While Jessica keens in the background, knowing that she has sold herself to a world that will never completely accept her, we see a proud and dignified man completely broken by a corrupt society that willingly exploits him even as it despises and condemns his faith.
What I took away from this intelligent rendering of a painful play was that prejudice of any kind corrupts and distorts an entire society, cheapening the relations between men and women, servants and masters, rich and poor alike. Here was a corruption barely noticed, so pervasively toxic it had become. Both Shakespeare’s Venetian plays (the other one being, of course, Othello) focus on outsiders whose qualities are exploited by a social order that despises and abuses them, and it shows that living with such prejudice coarsens the victims as they unconsciously transfer the insults they themselves suffer onto their domestic and social victims.
The best programme notes add subtlety and contemporary resonance to our reading of the play. The Globe programme points out that Venice in the early modern period was already a society in deep decline, defeated by the Ottoman empire, scarred by plague and all but finished as a significant trading power. Yet the Council of Ten continued to strut and swagger, to defy Papal edict, persecute their minorities and reserve a particularly sharp disdain for those outsiders whose talents helped them to negotiate the new world order.
The parallels with contemporary England have real resonance at this point in our national history. One wonders how many of the tourists thronging outside the Globe, drawn to London by our long-standing reputation for decency and democracy, will eventually discover the emptiness of that particular casket as we seek to jettison our commitment to the Declaration of Human Rights and cling to an outdated concept of past glories.