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The Merchant of Venice


The Seymour Centre and Sport For Jove present, THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, by William Shakespeare, in the York Theatre, at the Seymour Centre, Chippendale. 22 May – 30 May.

Sport For Jove present Shakespeare’s THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, at the Seymour Centre, Directed by Richard Cottrell. This play, once a popular choice, is rarely played, professionally, today in Australia – as with THE TAMING OF THE SHREW – and so I looked forward to this production with much curiosity. To prepare myself, I re-read the play, and pulled out of my book collection, John Gross’ SHYLOCK – Four Hundred Years in The Life of A Legend (1992), and actually read (devoured) it – it is a mighty read, I promise you. I also watched The National Theatre film of Trevor Nunn’s, 2000 production, with Henry Goodman’s award winning performance of Shylock – a production of studied contemporary complexities, set in the 1930’s, as is the setting of Mr Cottrell’s Sport For Jove production. Mr Cottrell’s take on this play for us, is as different as chalk is from cheese, to Mr Nunn’s.

The Sport For Jove gives us a clean, clear reading of the text without any Director’s obfuscations of modern tinkering or overt theoretical concerns. No distractions for the audience from the intentions of Shakespeare’s play. The actors are, relatively, ‘naked’, having the openness of pure text rather than any disguise in intellectual ‘conceit’ of setting, or character reading. They give us a straight forward reading of the play within the expected genre of a romantic comedy as its raison d’etre.

Says Mr Cottrell in his program notes:

The play has an undeniable dark side but it is a comedy – with Shakespeare, tragedy ends in death, comedy ends in marriage. All his comedies conclude in weddings: there is a happy ending in the union of two people who love each other.

In THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, there are no deaths and three couples are united in marriage.

It has always been an interesting conundrum for me to find THE MERCHANT OF VENICE (1596-98), regarded, listed, as one of Shakespeare’s Romantic Comedies. Under this heading it lies alongside THE TAMING OF THE SHREW (1590), LOVE LABOUR’S LOST (1593), A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (1595-96), THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR (1597), MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (1598), TWELFTH NIGHT (1599-1601) and AS YOU LIKE IT (1600). Today, I see this play as a Problem Play – alongside, ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL (1602-4), TROILUS AND CRESSIDA (1602) and MEASURE FOR MEASURE (1603-4).

At school we studied (in the fifties and sixties) Shakespeare’s RICHARD II (1592), HENRY V (1599), HAMLET (1600), and MACBETH (1606). Not, THE MERCHANT OF VENICE. However, part of my ex-curricular reading, one of my other excursions as a school kid, was THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, RICHARD III (1592) and OTHELLO (1604), and of course the boring (then) A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, as well. At least, that is how I remember my Shakespearean schoolboy education. The Merchant was a part of my reading, probably because there were lots and lots of copies of it lying around the school library, and the Portia speech about Mercy, and the Shylock speech about Jews, too, having eyes, hands, organs, dimensions etc like the rest of us, were a regular part of the Speech and Eisteddfod competitions that I had to attend and endure, listen to. I, of course, had never met or even seen a Jew, as far as I knew, in my part of the country (as I, similarly, had never met or seen an Indigenous Aboriginal, ever) and only understood the idea of a Jew as an exotic and past time thing, although the trials of the Nazi criminals were beginning to percolate into my consciousness – especially the trial of someone called Eichman, and so mysteriously infiltrating me with an inkling of the recent tribulations of the Jewish Europeans. (Australia the isolated, the ignorant, huh?) The play, THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, then, seemed to be about a court case and the forfeit of a pound of flesh. About money lent and money forfeited, not a romantic comedy, love or marriage.

To have only this periphery connection to this play was probably, I am surmising, a hangover from the era prior to my decade of birth. As John Gross notes in his book “SHYLOCK. Four Hundred Years In The Life Of A Legend”:

Writing in 1936, John Middleton Murry bracketed THE MERCHANT OF VENICE with HAMLET as the two most enduringly popular works in the Shakespeare canon. Theatre-critics in the twenties and thirties sometimes announced that they were tired of the play, but they were in the minority: it continued to attract producers and audiences alike. Between 1918 and 1939 there were nine separate productions in Stratford-upon-Avon, ten in the West End of London and ten at the old Vic. [1]

A prolific text! John Gross, again:

Some nine million Jews lived in the European countries that fell under Nazi rule during the second world war; around six million of them were murdered. As the full enormity of what had happened sank in, Shylock (a Jew) became a much more problematic character. The problems he raised were still of the same kind as they had been before, but they had grown altogether more disturbing.[1]

Since 1945, this play has had a changed and more delicate history. The substance of the play, its ‘mood’ has essentially, over the past 400 odd years, changed from Comical to Tragical, particularly in the aftermath of the last 86 years.

The earliest printed text of THE MERCHANT OF VENICE is the first Quarto of 1600. On the title page the play is described as

‘The most excellent Historie of THE MERCHANT OF VENICE. With the extreame crueltie of Shylock the Jewe towards sayd Merchant, in cutting a just pound of his flesh: and obtayning of Portia by a choyse of three chests.’

This play for the Elizabethan audience was essentially a romantic comedy seen as the travails of Bassanio in pursuit of Portia, the heiress of Belmont, for his wife, and of Portia, who has sometimes to ensnare her man, from her eyes thrown him ‘fair speechless messages’. That is what will happen and it will occupy them both obsessively to that end, for the audience’s entertainment. A character called Shylock, a Jew, a usurer, is one of the obstacles to that end, and he was introduced to the audience as an exotic, a foolish villain that no matter his vehemence, hate and power, motivated by the pursuit of revenge against Antonio, the Christian Merchant of Venice and will be defeated, humiliated, so that Bassanio and Portia may marry, and then mercifully save Shylock from eternal damnation by forcibly converting him to the one true faith, Christianity. All’s well that ends well for all.

Mr Cottrell tells us:

Shakespeare and his fellow Elizabethans would have never seen a Jew – they had been banished from England in 1298 and not re-admitted until 1648. Some 300 years. Jewish people had become creatures of legend, bugaboos to frighten naughty children, wicked infidels who hated Christians and went about poisoning their water, kidnapping their children and using their blood to make Passover biscuits, ruining them if they could.’

Convenient fictions of terror, of blame, to keep the people submissive. Their superstitious imaginations led into riots of fear and reactive persecutions.

As well, there had been a public trial and execution in 1593-94 of Queen Elizabeth’s physician, the Portuguese born Rodrigo Lopez, who was accused of trying to poison her – a trumped-up charge, urged by his enemy, the Earl of Essex – achieved with a stressing in the prosecution case that Lopez was a Jew – ‘worse than Judas himself’. (Judas, the Apostle who had betrayed Jesus.) The case caused an immense public sensation. Lopez was publicly ‘drawn and quartered’ on Tyburn Hill. The people’s popular monarch threatened with death of poisoning by a Jew!

Too, Christopher Marlowe had written for the theatre in 1589, THE JEW OF MALTA, a great popular success, such that it was revived in 1594 and 1596 – the year of The Merchant’s debut – telling the story of the Jew, Barabas, whose career, in the play “is one of unbroken infamy. He cheats, robs, betrays, murders, poisons an entire nunnery” and finishes by tumbling into a cauldron of boiling oil. It was a sensation for the popular imagination – a very good reason for the savvy and commercial playwright, Shakespeare, to put a Jew, Shylock, into the centre of his romance/comedy, as an interfering menace to the course of true love. The audience would, celebrate, delight in the defeat of such a villain and the triumph of Christian feminine virtue as demonstrated by the disguised, feisty Portia. (Incidentally, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), at Stratford-upon-Avon, are presenting both plays in their present season – oh, if only the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) had such visionary daring, leadership; see my blog CYRANO DE BERGERAC about ‘Classics’ not seen – THE JEW OF MALTA or Marlowe’s TAMBURLAINE (1587-88), DOCTOR FAUSTUS (C.1589 OR, 1593) would be welcome, an event, a challenge.)

The great problem with Shylock is, of course, that Shakespeare being Shakespeare could not just write a caricature of villainy. Shakespeare, according to the great Shakespearean scholar, Harold Bloom, in his book: THE INVENTION OF THE HUMAN (1998), was the first writer to write characters of true human complexity. And what has been writ for Shylock, this Jew, certainly, is the creation of a three dimensional human being – with not only villainous flaws, but other better qualities as well. As time has worn itself on, this option, to present more than the Elizabethan villain, as become a part of the interest, dilemma of the production of this play. What will be offered to us with this characterisation of Shylock? (If the Australian performing culture was more fruitful, this would be a definite curiosity for a regular theatre goer, for most, however, just finding the opportunity to see a staging of the play – discovering the narrative and meeting the characters for the first time is all that they can do). For, once the villain, Shylock, is fleshed out with some empathy, the other characters, written as, relatively, virtuous, become necessarily a more complex and, perhaps, a less likable romantic-comic set of people, motivated by more than just the machinations of a simple formulaic rom-com genre.

Charles Macklin in 1741, began the mode of change. (The play had been rarely, revived, performed, up until this time after the closing of the theatres in the 1600’s.) The great popular change of appreciation, for Shylock, was of course, arguably, Henry Irving’s creation, that began its exploration in 1879, at the Lyceum Theatre in London. From John Gross’ book: “Irving’s most important decision was to portray him (Shylock) as a victim, even in his villainy: ‘The tendency of the play is undoubtedly to show that the worst passions of human nature are nurtured by undeserved persecution and obloquy. I look upon Shylock as the type of a persecuted race; almost the only gentleman in the play, and the most ill-used.” (1- p.128) So right down through the history of this play to today the great struggle and debate over how to play Shylock has dominated the Romantic Comedy origin of the text.

Mr Cotterell, colluding with John Turnbull, as Shylock, presents us with a brusque business man, seeking determinedly the rigour of law, justice. It is motivated by the tragic flaw of revenge against Antonio (and, perhaps, the loss of his daughter, Jessica), and is no less tragic than the pursuance of the revenge that Hamlet has. Maybe, less so, since there is no death-heap of humanity, here, at the end of this play – just a humiliated litigant – in modern terms, a persecuted litigant:

I pray you, give me leave to go from hence:
I am not well; send me the deed after me
And I will sign it.

Why did he pursue his action?

You’ll ask me why I rather choose to have
A weight of carrion flesh than to receive
Three thousand ducats. I’ll not answer that –
But say it is my humour: is it answered?
What if my house be troubled by a rat,
And I be pleased to give ten thousand ducats
To have it baned? What, are you answered yet?
Some men there are love not a gaping pig;
Some that are mad if they behold a cat;
And others when the bagpipe sings i’the nose
Cannot contain their urine: for affection
Masters oft passion, sways it to the mood
Of what it likes or loathes. Now for your answer:
As there is no firm reason to be rendered
Why he cannot abide a gaping pig,
Why he a harmless necessary cat,
Why he a woollen bagpipe, but of force
Must yield to such inevitable shame
As to offend, himself being offended:
So I can give no reason, nor will I not,
More than a lodged hate and a certain loathing
I bear Antonio, that I follow thus
A losing suit against him. Are you answered?

Simply, because:

I hate him for he is a Christian;
But more than that, in low simplicity.
He lends out money gratis, and brings down
The rate of usance here with us in Venice.

Mr Turnbull, brings to the stage of this production a zest, an energy of laser-like focus, an in-depth concentration, to all that Shylock has to say and do. Vocally it is clear and relished, physically complimentary and precise, informed by an actor’s intellectual rigour blasted and basted in the simple joy of having such a role to play. This performance is informed not only by the text, and perhaps the experience and wisdom of his Director, Mr Cotterell, but also with a witty and informed, and so immersed background to the world of the character and its performance history – all of Mr Turnbull’s choices are assurances of considered craft and knowledgable judgements.

For me, Chris Stalley, as Bassanio has an energy and clarity that, though less experienced than Mr Turnbull’s, brings a life to the text and his scenes that promise thrill. When together, the two men Mr Turnbull and Stalley,  ignited the stage. I enjoyed, too, the careful surety of Jonathan Elsom in all his offers (The Duke, Old Gobbo, Prince of Arragon), the confident and warm reading by Jason Kos of Lorenzo, and the pertinent humour of Erica Lovell, as Nerissa. Of Lizzie Schebesta, as our Portia, there is intelligence and clarity, but, I saw only a scene to scene playing, no back story of the heiress, the intellect, the debator, the yearning lover, simply the ‘now’ of each scene. I could not ascertain a past to this Portia that explained her present or her future in the play. It was all just ‘now’ and not accumulative, in cool contrast, to the journey of her, protagonists, Shylock and Bassanio. I read a cool heart, a clever tactician. A woman who understands the lure of money and gets what she thinks she wants – Bassanio – with not much emotional cost.

The Set Design, by Anna Gardiner, is a simple amber art-deco type screen of opaque glass sat on a parquetry floor (Lucilla Smith). The Lighting is serviceable (Sian James-Holland), and the Sound Design, particular, atmospheric in its choices of song (David Stalley).

It is interesting to having Sport For Jove stripped to the needs of the written text without any other production play/conceit going on to distract and/or inform us (although there has been some editing of events  in the play – elements of Jessica’s story, for instance). It certainly reveals the strengths of the actors for good or not.

Later, this year, the company are presenting Christopher Marlowe’s EDWARD II (1592). The curation of the season is aesthetically pleasing, I reckon. Plays, both, worth seeing.


  1. Gross, J. SHYLOCK. Four Hundred Years In The Life Of A Legend, Vintage – 1992.