“The Merchant of Venice” poses a troubling question: Does Shakespeare approve of the anti-Semitism of his Christian characters?
The Yale Undergraduate Shakespeare Company and the Saybrook College Sudler Fund present a literal interpretation of “Merchant of Venice,” under the direction of Timothy Smith ’05. The play remains mostly true to Shakespeare’s script, but adds rather unattractive face masks with exaggerated ethnic features.
In addition to his role as producer, Peter Cook ’05 plays one of the leading characters, the Christian merchant Antonio. Antonio’s friend Bassanio (David Laufgraben ’04) longs to court the fair maiden Portia (Sally Bernstein ’03) in princely style. The merchant would like to assist Bassanio, but his money is tied up in investments on ships at sea. For this reason, the two men approach Shylock (Ian Lowe ’04), the Jewish moneylender, for a loan.
Aside from their different faiths, there is tension between Shylock and Antonio because they are competing businessmen. Antonio, who gives out loans without any interest, criticizes Shylock and other Jews for being usurers. Shylock agrees to lend Antonio the desired amount of money, with the stipulation that if the debt should go unpaid, it would cost Antonio one pound of his flesh.
The play is an intricate network of subplots. Shylock’s servant Launcelot (Bernstein) leaves to work for Bassanio. On top of that, Shylock’s daughter Jessica (Caroline Van Zile ’06) falls in love with Lorenzo, a Christian, and schemes to elope with him. Portia continues to receive suitor after suitor, none of whom can correctly identify the casket that would lead to Portia’s hand in marriage.
Like a fairy tale, the humble and beloved Bassanio is victorious. He chooses the right casket, thus fulfilling the will of Portia’s late father and obtaining the right to marry her. Their love story is paralleled by Antonio’s other friend Gratiano (Daniel Hammond ’05), who proposes marriage to Nerissa (Anjanine Bonet ’05), Portia’s lady-in-waiting. Toward the end of the show’s first half, the audience learns that Antonio has been unable to repay Shylock’s loan and is subject to the contracted consequences. Where the first half of the show lacks in excitement, the second half makes up for it. After intermission, the opening scene is the court that will settle the monetary dispute.
Though much of the comic relief in “Merchant of Venice” is provided at the expense of Jewish stereotypes, Shylock evokes pity at the end. His disdain for Christians seems to stem from his upbringing in a Christian-dominated society.
Lowe, in a nuanced performance, brings life and color to Shylock. And Bernstein, who also starred in “Freedomland” in February, does a remarkable job melting back and forth between her roles as Portia and Launcelot.
For the most part the play is well-staged. But the permanently bowed posture of the servant characters — the manner in which these characters hop from one foot to another, swaying the arms but never standing up straight — is somewhat distracting.
The set is simple with a background of plain white sheets that draw attention to the actors’ colorful costumes, and the wardrobe seems too spare. It is understandable, though, that elaborate costumes would not be conducive to the role changes that some of the actors had to employ. The lighting and music are both highly competent, leading the audience from scene to scene.
The combination of Elizabethan language and multiple subplots makes the first half of the show seem a lot longer than it actually is. The ending, however, is thought-provoking and funny.