Friday, January 4, 2008

Justice and Mercy

Some thoughts from Colette Rice, ASC's Artstic Director and Play Master of The Merchant of Venice:

I’m well into individual actor coaching for Merchant. What a joy to work on this play! I honestly had no idea how much I would come to love it. It has always perplexed me. So many productions seem to miss the mark. Yet, I haven’t ever felt certain about what that mark is, exactly.

Working with the actors on individual roles has helped to raise many questions. What does The Jew represent in the play and what does The Christian stand for? Why is it that so many of the characters make less than honorable choices? Is there a “good guy?” How does the plot of the three caskets fit with the Antonio/Shylock plot? Oh, there are so many questions… Today I’ll share a few initial impressions based on our coaching to date.

Shylock may represent the letter of the law in Venice: that within us which is inflexible, rigid, intractable, myopic, greedy, and that which feels it must be “right” at all costs. If we are to realize our potential and unlock our higher natures from the lead caskets in which they are all hidden, these parts of ourselves must be either transformed or rooted out. Shylock has a lot of very good reasons for being how he is and Shakespeare spells those reasons out. Yet, in the end he must be changed, or all is lost.

Shakespeare does an interesting thing in this play. He gives us an antagonist in Shylock about whom an Elizabethan audience would have had very strong and specific judgments. Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta had been exceedingly popular for several years, and depicted a Jew who was merciless, cruel, vicious and miserly – and who gets his comeuppance at the end of the play. The Elizabethans were generally very xenophobic people, regarding strangers of all sorts as suspicious and dangerous. Shakespeare’s audience would “know” Shylock before he even began to speak, and he is somewhat true to form. He tells us that he hates Antonio because he is a Christian and because he lends money as a charity and not a business. He would have been a very easy character for the audience to peg: The Villain – The Other who is not like me.

But, as he often does, Shakespeare adds a twist. He gives us this villain and antagonist, and then has him turn around and accuse us, along with all of the Christian characters, of being exactly like him. I don’t think that Shylock’s most famous speech is so much a plea for understanding as it is an accusation and bitter pill of truth: we are all Shylock.

Certainly the Christian characters in the play, with whose ambitions we seem to be meant to sympathize, are hardly without human frailties. Shakespeare’s Venice is a land famous for its laws and the laws are followed to the letter. Mercy doesn’t seem to be in great abundance, though there is a great deal of hubris and blame. The Venetians of the play seem to live beyond their means and to judge anyone who is not exactly like them. They are hardly living from any ideals of Christianity, despite their protestations of their faith. And then Shylock holds Hamlet’s famous mirror up to their natures – and ours. He tells us to take a look at what made him the way he is. Take a look inside ourselves.

And what is needed in this world of judgment, cruelty, avarice and spite? Divine intervention. Portia serves as a sort of Deus ex machina, descending from Belmont (“beautiful mountain”) to Venice and entering the court disguised as a man to transform the events and characters of the play. She introduces Mercy into this world of fierce justice, first challenging Shylock and then Antonio to find that divinity within that allows us to bestow mercy. Her disguise is necessary in order to enter the court at all – as a woman, she has no place there. Yet it is, in part, her womanly nature and understanding that is needed in the moment. Her heart and her mind are both essential in solving the problem of the bond.

There is so much more to discuss. The play is a bottomless well of wisdom and opportunity to learn about ourselves. We’ll be posting more observations as we delve deeper into coaching and rehearsal. We look forward to seeing you at our opening in February.

-Colette Rice
Producing Artistic Director
Play Master, The Merchant of Venice

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