AT PNT we just saw Venezia through Carlo Goldoni’s 18th Century eyes in his relentless comedy “The Servant of Two Masters”. Now we’ll look at it through Shakespeare’s eyes more than 150 years before. We can say “Merchant” is also, by definition, a “comedy” because the hero turns out well in the end. But such a comedy! Shakespeare once again takes an old story and spins straw into gold, larding stereotypical characters with a thoroughly modern psychology.
I chose the play for us for two reasons. First, we had a marvelous Shylock in our company member Barry Gordon, an outstanding actor with a career full of highlights. I also wanted to do a play that addressed the tension of our times with an almost “storybook” clarity.
Last year at this time Mary and I and my two sisters were holidaying in Firenze, and then trained to Venezia. I took a lot of pictures in Florence – the Medici chapels, the Arno, the Duomo, etc. – but when we got to Venice it was so beautiful it already looked like the postcards so I shot a lot fewer.
It’s great exercise, Venezia. You walk everywhere unless you’re taking a boat out to Murano and Burano. It has a fascinating history, part of which is the infamous Jewish ghetto. “Ghetto” means “copper” in Italian, and when the first asylum-seeking Jews came they were quarantined near a copper mine on the edge of town. We easily walked there from the Rialto bridge – the city’s heartbeat – briefly ducking into yet another church on the way to escape the heat.
There are two primary entrances to the ghetto. One through a narrow wooden door, almost hidden in the cobbled street; the other over a bridge that leads into the “new” piazza, about the size of two football fields, with a ghetto museum and Holocaust memorial artwork and a school. A picture book jumble of five story buildings surround the square, and two policemen in riot gear peek out from a guard station at one end. It’s still a ghetto. In Shylock’s time Jews were welcomed for their financial expertise, but closely constrained, allowed out into the city during the day as long as they recrossed the bridge or reentered the gate by nightfall. Christian charity in full flower.
The city they served was a Christian city, the wealthiest in Europe, the crossroad capital of capitalism, where trade from all over the world flourished. Money was the food that kept the beast of trade alive. Christians needed the Jews for their moneylending facility; the Jews needed a place to survive and sustain their long cherished beliefs. Both tribes kept their distance, never questioning the superiority of one over “the other.” But Shakespeare, the superb dramatist, throws them together, giving each side compelling arguments for mercy and justice. Is it the New Testament vs. the Old, or the Oppressor vs. the Oppressed? Is it Roman Catholicism vs. English Protestantism? Is it loss of money that drives Shylock to madness or the loss of his precious daughter and thereby his future lineage? Every dog will have his day, and this is Shylock’s.
There’s much to consider here. I’ve adapted our version to less than 90 minutes, trying to clarify the issues, characters and ambiguities to illuminate their relevance to our own world; a world where we’ve somehow created a clandestine alternate reality and an entire industry that thrives by sowing dissension. The magical promise of global communication has become the nightmare of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice retold. We’re all “The Other” now. We’re all Jews. We’re all Palestinians. All Christians. All Republicans. All Democrats. All Capitalists. All Socialists. Where will it lead? Must we go back to go forward? As the song says, “teach your children well”.
– Lance Davis