"The Merchant of Venice" at the Royal National Theatre
has moved to the Olivier Theatre from the small Cottesloe, where
it sold out early in its run after enthusiastic reviews.
There are three main reasons to see this production. First
is the performance by Henry Goodman as Shylock. Second is
the direction by Trevor Nunn. Third is the excellent ensemble
achieved by all the actors. Henry Goodman is one of those subtle
actors who creates a character by building up detail after detail
to achieve depth. His performances are many-layered and
varied, as can be seen currently not only in his Shylock but in
his Shamilov in Gorky's "Summerfolk," also at
the National. This
Shylock gives the lie once and for all that Shakespeare's play
is anti-Semitic; interpretations have been such, but not the text.
When you see "The Jew of Malta" by Shakespeare's rival
playwright Christopher Marlowe, recently in a stunning production
at the Almeida Theatre in Islington, London, the difference between
the two writers is immediately apparent. Marlowe's Barabas
was spectacularly played by Ian McDiarmid, bringing humanity to
this caricature. Barabas is a Machiavellian villain, a stage
type much enjoyed by Elizabethans (Machiavellian Richard III was
Shakespeare's most popular character, judging by the many editions
of its Quarto publication) and his box office success must have
sent Shakespeare to his source book of stories for a similar character,
which he found in Ser Giovanni's "Il Pecorone."
In "Il Pecorone," the same bond is given by a merchant
of Venice to a Jewish money lender to finance a loan so that his
godson may woo a "Lady of Belmonte." The pound
of flesh as surety, the courtroom defeat of the money lender by
the Lady disguised as a lawyer, and the ring mixup are all in
Il Pecorone, where the Lady tests her wooers by sleeping with
them. Shakespeare evidently decided this was too vulgar
for his romantic subplot, which he transformed to the choosing
of caskets, found in another collection of stories, the Gesta
Romanorum. What Shakespeare does with the crude
plots by Giovanni and Marlowe is to create a believable plot with
motivation and characterization unequalled in stage history, and
we haven't even considered the dialogue yet.
When Goodman's Shylock makes his first entry in scene three,
a quiet figure all in black; he is thoughtful and intelligent,
not Marlowe's exuberant villain who enjoys a jest, especially
at the expense of others, and who delights in the store of wealth
and jewelry in his vault: "Infinite riches in a little room."
Shylock's defense of his occupation of usurer, using an Old Testament
example, concludes logically, "And thrift is a blessing,
if men steal it not." Emotion that is deep, not superficial,
underlies his reply to Antonio's query: "Shall we be beholding
to you?" as he reminds the merchant of his former treatment
at Antonio's hand: "You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog/
And spet upon my Jewish gaberdine,/ And all for use of that which
is mine own." Antonio's reply does not endear him to
us: "I am as like to call thee so again/ To spet on thee
again, to spurn [kick] thee too." If Shylock is someone
aloof, to whom the audience cannot warm, neither can they have
much sympathy for Antonio and his crowd of hangers-on, who include
Bassanio, wooer of Portia.
As does Marlowe's Barabas, Shylock has a daughter who is in love
with a Christian. Like Abigail, Jessica throws
down her father's money from an upstairs room, but in Shakespeare's
play it is directed at her fiancÚ, with whom she will elope and
soon marry. In Marlowe, Barabas directs his daughter to
take the veil as a nun to give her access to his treasure, which
she throws down to him, having found it hidden in his former house,
taken over by the state and turned into a nunnery. But he
later kills her and her Christian lover.
In Trevor Nunn's direction of Shakespeare's play, the bond between
Shylock and his daughter is very strong; together they say prayers
and sing ritual songs. But once Jessica betrays her father
and runs off with Lorenzo, everything changes for Shylock as Goodman
plays him. It is clear that his revenge in insisting on
his pound of flesh from Antonio stems from the loss of his daughter.
His lament to the jeering Salanio and Salerio, whom he accuses
of stealing her -- "You knew, none so well, none so well
as you, of my daughter's flight" builds in emotion from "Hath
not a Jew eyes?" to its vengeful conclusion as if Shylock
at this moment is deciding to take revenge, to exact Antonio's
flesh for stealing his "own flesh and blood."
From that point on, Goodman's Shylock is a man possessed by a
single thought -- revenge for his daughter's loss. This
is carried through in the courtroom scene as he confidently sharpens
his knife. His swift defeat is indicated by his posture,
which seems to crumble. Shylock, who confidently claimed
justice and withheld mercy just moments before, now departs from
the court and the play: "I pray you give me leave to go from
hence/ I am not well."
The direction carries the father-daughter bond into the final
act in Belmont by depicting Jessica as a troubled young woman,
never quite able to shake off her desertion of her father, and
injecting pathos into the scene of moonlight and mirth.
The ensemble effect of the company as they interact so well and
so effortlessly with each other, gives unity to the play, with
its two disparate settings, the realism of Venice and the romanticism
of Belmont. Setting the play in the thirties,
Nunn comments on the extreme behavior to be found in Venice: the
shiftlessness of Bassanio's crowd of friends, who are mostly seen
lounging about in a bar, in contrast to Shylock's business-like
thrift and disapproval of gaiety.
Another plus for this production and for Nunn's direction, is
the clarity and music of the spoken verse. Too often in
modern productions of Shakespeare's plays there is an attempt
to make the dialogue sound colloquial, to ignore the original
rhythm and musicality. When the lines are given their full
value, paced and accented as they should be (in the iambic pentameter
in which they were written), the result is that the meaning is
clear to the audience.