A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions
The Merchant of Venice

"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.