The Merchant of Venice: What’s the Deal?

F. Murray Abraham as Shylock

The Merchant of Venice

is a play that is about jerks. Much like The Great Gatsby (or better yet, Seinfeld) it peopled with pretty unpleasant characters. Personally, it’s hard to watch a play or to read a novel without finding at least one sympathetic character to experience the story with, so with this play in particular, the audience feels the need to ally themselves with *the least* awful of the people presented.

Most productions try to achieve this measure of empathy and audience engagement by making Shylock this sympathetic vessel; however, this does not work well for several reasons. Shylock, in the play text, is not a pleasant character. To play him as entirely sympathetic or vulnerable would be to create a character that doesn’t exist in the world of the script. The problem I’ve had with most productions of  The Merchant of Venice (esp. the very nice recent production done by the Public Theatre last summer with Al Pacino in the role) is that Shylock has been softened or rendered pathetic to the extent that I have no sympathy for him—he becomes a wuss without spirit. He also become untrue as a character: I have trouble believing the totally victimized Shylock as a strong man or as a capable businessman , both of which are clearly implied by  the language given to him in the play. He’s unpleasant, but at least he’s open about his unpleasantness.

In the very smart production currently playing at the Cutler Theatre starring F. Murray Abraham, director Darko Tresnjak chose to make Portia and her Venetian posse more loathsome rather than make Shylock more sympathetic. Dressed as if Armani Exchange exploded all over them, it’s not hard to see Bassanio and Antonio as heirs to Gordon Gekko or any slimy downtown i-banker. It’s a complicated choice textually—there are several scenes remaining after Portia’s vicious takedown of Shylock at Antonio’s trial, and I couldn’t bring myself to care about her or even like her after this point in the play. She was not only nasty, but she was clearly reveling in her nasty wittiness. This brings me back to Jim’s entry on Sarah Vowell and the alienation of snark. While we laugh with Portia and her pals at points, I left the theatre feeling relieved I wasn’t on the receiving end of her verbal salvos; it made me question: when and where would should use words to sting and to what ends?

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