Robert Cuccioli moves “The Merchant of Venice,” written by Shakespeare more than 400 years ago, to 1910 in the production he is currently directing at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison. The costumes and the sets reflect the styles of that era.
Yes the anti-semitism of the play’s character roots it firmly in Shakespeare’s time. I’m not saying that the play itself is anti-semitic. But certainly, widespread anti-semitism is a fact of life for Shylock (played by Andrew Weems), the moneylender who supplies funds to the merchant Antonio (Brent Harris), asking for a pound of flesh if Antonio can’t pay. Many of the play’s characters make casually anti-semitic remarks.
I assume there was some anti-semitism in upper class Venetian society in 1910, just as there is today. But the bluntness with which these characters express their anti-semitism — and the fact that Shylock, as is made clear in an important plot twist, is not considered to be a full citizen of Venice just because he is Jewish — prevent us from forgetting that “The Merchant of Venice,” despite its universality, is a product of Shakespeare’s time.
Yes, Shylock makes a powerful speech railing against prejudice (“Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions … If you prick us, do we not bleed?”). But he also insists on his pound of flesh, beyond the point where he should really drop it and take the money that Antonio offers (past the deadline, but with extra money added as a penalty). And he inevitably gets his comeuppance.
That all said, this is an excellent, handsome-looking production, with the actors all delivering Shakespeare’s lines with impressive feeling and precision. Weems turns in an explosively angry performance as Shylock, and Melissa Miller makes for a charming, playful Portia, who always seems to be two steps ahead of everyone else. Jeffrey M. Bender adds some intentionally silly clowning in two roles, the Prince of Arragon (the most ridiculous of Portia’s suitors) and Launcelot Gobbo.
“The Merchant of Venice” is, of course, a comedy (albeit a dark comedy). The Shylock storyline is really a side show to the main story, which has to do with the courtship of Portia and Bassanio (John Keabler). They end up blissfully in love, with Portia’s waiting maid Nerissa (Rachel Towne) also happily matched with Bassanio’s friend Gratiano (Ian Gould).
Yet it is the Shylock storyline that has the biggest impact. As Cuccioli writes in the program notes, while “The Merchant of Venice” is classified as a comedy, “To me it feels more like a tragedy fighting to come out.”
“The Merchant of Venice” will be at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at Drew University in Madison through June 4. Visit shakespearenj.org.