The most excellent Historie of the Merchant of Venice With the extreame crueltie of Shylock the Jew towards the said merchant, in cutting a just pound of his flesh and the obtaining of Portia By the choice of three chests
This is the original blurb for The Merchant of Venice, the title page of the 1600 quarto edition, advertising a play about a monster, a pound of flesh, and the winning of a lovely woman by solving a riddle. It sounds like a fairy tale—- not one of those modern powdered sugar fairy tales, but something older and darker out of folk legend. And so it is. The Merchant of Venice is a terrific fairy tale—and a whole lot more. It’s a very funny and engaging play; it has great cameo roles, charming young men, a fetching heroine, a good clown, and also a Jew. A monster Jew.
Right from the start it was the Jew that was the source of the play’s success, and also of its problems. Shylock appears in only a fourth of the scenes, but he dominates the play as well as its first title page. Even as he first appeared, as a recognizable comic villain in a red wig and big nose, his “extreme cruelty” has usurped top billing from the play’s leading character, the princess of Shakespeare’s fairy tale, who is quite a gal in her own right. Like Falstaff, Shylock bursts the bounds of his play— he is so vigorous, so isolated, so singular, and ultimately so enigmatic. Recent centuries have only imbalanced matters more. After the holocaust it’s become much more difficult (some would say impossible) to stage a play which perpetuates the most pernicious and destructive of racial stereotypes, and Shylock embodies them all: he’s the archetype of the malevolent, greedy, rich, and cunning Jew. We first produced The Merchant of Venice here in 1984, and we made every effort to dignify and humanize Shylock. Our production was favorably reviewed in Shakespeare Quarterly, the journal which covers Shakespearean drama all over the world. But after praising our show from start to finish, and noting our conscientious efforts, the reviewer concluded:
“The Merchant of Venice seems like an odd choice for Colorado Springs, a conservative community with an undercurrent of old-fashioned racism. One wonders about the effect this play will have had on the all those kids who were seeing Shakespeare for the first time. Let’s hope they came away with nothing but love in their hearts, for Shakespeare, and for the theatre.”
This is a reasonable concern for any producer of The Merchant of Venice, whether in conservative Colorado Springs or anywhere else. And yet, The Merchant of Venice is regularly produced everywhere. You might even say it is the Shakespeare play of the moment, with several productions the past year in London and New York, starring Patrick Stewart, F. Murray Abraham, and Tony nominated Al Pacino. Why should this be? The obvious answer is that this endlessly troubling play is also one of Shakespeare’s greatest, and one of his most modern.
The theater has been working hard to solve the problems of The Merchant of Venice, rescuing it from the anti-Semitism that understandably offends modern audiences. In the process we have learned much about the play and its characters. All the play’s nice and good people, including the much admired Portia, seem a little less appealing, especially when it comes to their dealing with people not like themselves, the aliens who don’t share their culture, religion, or skin color. Lately, much of the play’s comedy — much of it directed at the Jew—has been damped down, out of respect to the seriousness of the issues involved. Shylock the monster has been thoroughly humanized, almost to the point where is seems that Shakespeare was on his side. We now appreciate this play is also about money, how it’s won, shared, and lost. We see what money does to people. (The most recent London production was set in Las Vegas.) So you will understand why, in most productions these days, the play seems less a comedy than a twisted and ironic fairy tale.
The play has a dark side, no question. Many dark sides, in fact. But it has brightness everywhere too. The language throughout is fluid and lovely, silk on a stream. The nice people might be spitters on and kickers of Jews but they are wonderful to their friends, generous, loving, and self-sacrificing. They are not hoarders, they are risk takers. They are good Christians, except when they are not. They are witty, playful, loving life and music, and sharing in love’s wealth. They want the best for everyone. Well, almost everyone.
Shakespeare’s extraordinary ability to combine contradictions and opposites in characters and action was never more richly exploited than in The Merchant of Venice. A fortune hunting slacker is also the bravest and truest of lovers, the person who can plea most eloquently for the quality mercy is also the one who most denies its application; the man who has everything feels like nothing, until he’s about to lose everything, and then he feels wonderful; the play’s greatest villain, a real monster, is also the play’s greatest victim, deeply and strangely human. Every conclusion we reach about a character is reversed, and often in an instant, and then reversed again.
You’d think this is the kind of play that gives audiences huge headaches—-and it is. But they come only after the play has ended. During its two hours traffic of the stage, The Merchant of Venice is about as entertaining as a play can be. It’s lively as all get out. Three excellent and thrilling plots involving a dangerous bargain, an elopement, and the riddle of the caskets, are all expertly and thrillingly handled. The play is funny and scary and beautiful and charming, with all sorts of shadings that lend it depth and tonality. By all means do take the kids; it’s a great story, a marvelous ride—they will love it. Afterwards, however, you may have some explaining to do, and not just to the kids. These discussions could go on for days. They could send you back to the Bible, to the history of the Jews, to the practice of usury and venture capital in the Renaissance, to the psychoanalytic and mythic roots of the riddle of three caskets, to Venice, to pondering the symbolic significance of bonds and rings, to questions of gender identity, to arguments about villains and heroes, justice and mercy, and of course to the play itself, again and again. I can almost promise you this is what will happen, and that these discussions will be fruitful and expansive. They are unlikely, however, to arrive at any full and comprehensive solution.
At the heart of The Merchant of Venice is a riddle: which of three caskets, gold, silver or base lead, contains the portrait of the prized Portia. The reward comes to the one willing to “give and hazard all he hath.” You just have to surrender everything and go for it. That would be my advice to you watching this play. You won’t be a loser. The particular casket which houses this priceless play is not some gold and silver palace of the arts, but a modest tent pitched in a mountain field. You will risk mud, hail, and heavy rain in your journey to get there. And when you find you have chosen correctly, when the casket opens and Shakespeare’s infinite riches are opened to you, you will be left with laughter and with joy, and with something more: another, even greater riddle, unsolvable. A melancholy shadow, a pleasurable and disturbing dream, sweet harmonies, bright lives, a dark emptiness, glitter amidst “the muddy vesture of decay.”
— Murray Ross
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE
August 4-27 at Rock Ledge Ranch.
Tuesdays – Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.
Come as early as 6:00 p.m. to enjoy the ranch and bring your own picnic
Reserved Tickets: $30, Children 16 and under $15, Friends and Family Pak 4 tickets for $50.
General Admission: Same Day Rush Tickets $10,
Present your Rock Ledge Day Ticket for $5 Admission
A limited number of Free Tickets are available at the circulation desks of the Pikes Peak Library District.
Shakespeare Opening Weekend
August 4, 5, 6
We will kick off Shakespeare at Rock Ledge Ranch this year in grand style with an opening weekend celebration that includes complimentary drinks and a pasta supper served before the show beginning at 6:00 p.m. All FREE for patrons and subscribers attending that evening’s performance. Reservations are NOT required for the dinner, but a ticket to that evening’s performance is a must.
Call 719.255.3232 for more details.
Sunday, August 14, 2011 at 6:00 pm
Forest Edge Gardens
$65 per person
Space limited to 50 people
What’s better than Shakespearian sonnets in the surroundings of the most beautiful garden in Colorado Springs? Not much. Toss in a delicious dinner, some wine, and a special visit from Shakespeare’s most famous young lovers, and you have the makings for a perfect evening under “yonder blessed moon...that tips with silver all these fruit tree tops.”
Our friends Laura and Tim Spear are once again opening their Forest Edge Gardens to us for our annual Shakespeare garden party. Join us on August 14th at 6:00 pm and spend a couple blissful hours among primroses and peonies with THEATREWORKS friends. We will be joined by a handful of great Colorado actors, bringing love into the night air. Benjamin Bonenfant and Jamie Anne Romero, currently playing Romeo and Juliet at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, will be seen--and heard--on the balcony of the most magical garden in all Verona.
Availability is limited so reserve your space early.
Wednesday, August 24
at 6:00 pm
Don’t miss our roundtable discussion this month about the representation of Jewish characters on the Renaissance stage. Discussion of The Merchant of Venice is always impassioned, but we will have experts helping us dissect all of the intricacies of Shylock and the greater themes in this fantastic and complex play. Murray and I will be joined by Rabbi Anat Moskowitz and professor Raphael Sassower from UCCS in our Shakespeare tent at Rock Ledge Ranch.
This discussion will be a culmination of a lot of thinking by a lot of people involved with this show. If you haven’t already, follow the blog that I am writing with Chris Lowell on the THEATREWORKS Facebook page. Chris is giving excellent insight into his preparation of the creation of Shylock. I am getting Oskar Eustis and the famous director Dan Sullivan in on this too. They presented Merchant last year on Broadway. In mid-July, I visited them in New York to pick their brains about how to portray such difficult Jewish stereotypes on the American stage in 2011. There was lots of interesting discussion and I will share it with you on August 24th.
As always, Prologue is our effort to help bring everyone into the world of the plays that we produce. Our Merchant discussion—our first Prologue of the season—promises to be fascinating. We are all looking forward to seeing you there.
London Theater Tours in January and May
January 5-12, 2012 starting at $3,611
May 4 – 20, 2012 starting at $5,830 (includes Queen Mary II crossing)
We’re gearing up for two 2012 London Theater tours, now scheduled January 5-15 and May 4-20. The May tour includes an Atlantic crossing on the Queen Mary.
Our January tour is our longest running tour and has been produced annually since 1996. Over 400 patrons have travelled with us on this spectacular tour to one of the world’s great cities. A must for theater lovers everywhere.
While it’s too early to tell exactly what we’ll see, we have just secured tickets to Richard II with Eddie Redmayne at the Donmar Warehouse, and that’s just for starters.
The May trip promises to be one of the most extraordinary tours we have ever planned. This tour celebrates a love for travel, theater, and springtime in England.
We will begin your journey in New York and embark on the Queen Mary II, arriving in Southampton one week later. From there, it is a short coach ride to your hotel where the adventure continues.
Please contact Drew Martorella at 719.255.3275 for more information or visit www.theatreworksCS.org.
As always Murray Ross, our Artistic Director, will preview each evening’s show and lead a group discussion of what we’ve seen. For many, these gatherings are what make these unbeatable tours so very special.
THEATREWORKS and I lost a very good friend last week. Matt Weed suddenly passed away succumbing to a brief, powerful illness. But Matt’s legacy lives on here at THEATREWORKS, because it was Matt who designed our logo. He created it a decade ago; a long time, but really just a fraction of our history. The image has become so indelible that most of us can’t recall any of our earlier models. I for one had no idea that this simple gesture would establish itself as the defining image of our theater. It’s a great logo that elegantly expresses what we are: a theater dedicated to classic work that is not at all stodgy. It is unique, ingenious, and imminently clever....just like Matt. I will miss him very much.