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In unvarnished look at ‘Merchant of Venice,’ there is little room for the quality of mercy

Submitted by on Aug 11, 2016 – 12:32 pm
Shylock (Jonathan Pryce) cautions his daughter Jessica (Phoebe Pryce) to stay within their house. (Marc Brenner)Review: “The Merchant of Venice,” presented by Shakespeare’s Globe at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, through Aug. 14. ★★★★★
By Lawrence B. Johnson

In a tradition dating back to Shakespeare’s own time, “The Merchant of Venice,” which frames bitter hatred between Christians and Jews in a metropolis of a distant era, has been labeled as comedy. I doubt that anyone who sees the brutally frank Shakespeare’s Globe production now running at Chicago Shakespeare Theater will come away laughing.

Like “The Taming of the Shrew,” which goes rather hard with Kate before she is brought, shall we say, to heel, “The Merchant of Venice” is a play of great brilliance and potency that endures with modern audiences despite displays of prejudice, subjugation and outright abuse that fly in the face of Western ethos.

Bassanio (Dan Fredenburgh) must have money in his purse to woo Portia. (Marc Brenner)In staging “The Merchant of Venice,” the tendency – the solution – for many directors in recent decades has been to somewhat mute the anti-Semitism directed at Shylock, the despised money-lender, while at the same time showing how deeply he suffers in near silence until his opening comes for ultimate vengeance.

No such restraint tempers the furious cross-cultural salvos of this British production directed by Jonathan Munby, brought to Chicago as part of the Shakespeare 400 observance of the Bard’s death in 1616. Mutual hatred rules, and proclaims itself early, loudly and finally. We don’t just hear from Shylock – a performance of searing clarity and pain by Jonathan Pryce — how he has been misused: how the Christian merchant Antonio, now urgently seeking a loan from him, has spat upon him in the business plaza, reviled him and cursed him. In a mimed vignette before the play’s first lines are spoken, we see how freely the Venetian Christians dehumanize Jews – as if they were stray curs in the street rather than men of substance and wealth.

But the open contempt cuts both ways here, and the essence of it is in Shakespeare’s text. Munby just turns up the volume. With few exceptions, Skylock is addressed not by his name but as Jew, the word bitten off with contempt and thrown in Shylock’s face. He is rebuked for charging borrowers for the use of his money. The pejorative term usury is invoked not in the modern context of excessive interest, but as a moral affront that brings any profit at all from lending needed assistance.

'If you prick us,' asks Shylock Jonathan Pryce), 'do we not bleed?' (Marc Brenner)Shylock throws the Christians’ moral superiority right back at them, scoffing at their folly in not putting capital to profitable use. Pryce’s fiercely spirited Shylock, as dauntless as he is embittered, spews the venom of his animosity. Here, Shylock’s most famous speech, his argument for the humanity of Jews, “If you prick us, do we not bleed?,” begins with a familiar ring of solicitation only to end in towering rage: “If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.”

With a sculptor’s sure hand, Pryce shapes the key set-up scene in which the merchant Antonio (Dominic Mafham) appeals to Shylock for a substantial loan to assist his friend Bassanio (Dan Fredenburgh) in the latter’s suit to win the beautiful and wealthy Portia.

Antonio’s resources are entirely tied up in several ships at sea. Upon their return, he will be flush again. So in the meantime, on Bassanio’s behalf, he turns to Shylock for this loan. Pryce mulls the request with dry reminders of past slanders he has suffered from Antonio. But then he grants the loan – and in the spirit of friendship waives his normal usury. Antonio’s only bond will be, in the event he can’t repay the loan by its due date, a pound of his own flesh, nearest the heart.

Portia (Rachel Pickup) disguises herself to save the merchant Antonio. (Marc Brenner)When Antonio’s ships are all reported lost and he cannot repay the loan, Shylock takes him to court to enforce his bond. No amount of pleading, and there is much from every side, can induce Shylock to spare Antonio. A grim outcome seems certain until Portia, whom Bassanio has by now won, appears disguised as a legal expert, a man, to prosecute the case.

Rachel Pickup is a charming, witty Portia and cuts a sly figure in her posturing as a learned doctor of law. Gently, quietly, almost off-handedly, she reminds Shylock that “the quality of mercy is not strained,” that it is twice-blessed as it blesses both the receiver and the giver, and that it is an attribute of God himself.

Pryce’s obdurate Shylock, triumphant by this learned doctor’s own admission, comes within the knife’s edge of claiming his hideous bond when Portia brings him up short: He can have the flesh, but he must not spill even one drop of Christian blood or his own life becomes forfeit. And thus begins the dizzying undoing of Shylock.

Antonio (Dominic Mafham) prepares to meet Shylock's bond. (Marc Brenner)The sometimes boggling intensity of this “Merchant” notwithstanding, Munby does indulge the play’s genuine comedy. In the servant-as-fool role of Lancelot Gobbo, Stefan Adegbola is a roguish delight, and the two silly princes who vie for Portia’s hand twice provide welcome time-outs in the foppish, narcissistic forms of Christopher Logan and Giles Terera. (Gorgeous period costumes throughout are set off by spare stage settings.)

But make no mistake, the culturally ingrained antipathy between Jew and Christian is never far from view. It swallows up Shylock’s daughter Jessica (an empathic performance by Pryce’s own daughter Phoebe Pryce). Not even Portia can address Jessica without betraying her disdain. In the end, consistent with many other productions, Jessica’s union with the Christian Lorenzo (Andy Apollo), for whom she has abandoned her father, looks far from promising.

And in a ceremonial invention beyond the Bard’s text, we find Shylock, shorn of all dignity, undergoing the humiliation of enforced conversion, his life in the balance. Indeed, these Christians have prevailed. Behold the quality of mercy.

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