...I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?...If you prick us, do we not bleed,? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge?
III. I. 55-63
The Merchant of Venice, with its vicious epithets and casual bigotry, is not easy to stage in this era, whose recent and not-so-recent history of anti-Semitic atrocities has not much faded. It would be easier if Shylock were a hero, but in any fair reading of the play he is an atrocious villain, although not without a full plate of legitimate grievance.
The play cannot easily be read as a plea for religious tolerance, particularly for the Jews, who were not much present in Shakespeare's London anyhow. They were stock villains of the age's fiction and drama, considered pagans, infidels. The Elizabethans didn't much believe in diversity, having just come through a period of religious persecution set off by Henry VIII's break with the Church of Rome. A Civil War loomed ahead, as much about religion as the divine right of kings. Shakespeare would have been horrified if he could have known that the next generation would commit the regicide of Charles I.
So it is the particular genius of the Merchant of Venice that Shakespeare is able to make Shylock, despite his blind, grasping materialism and blood thirst for revenge, at first a compelling character, and finally one who commands our sympathy. This dark play, with its ostensible themes of mercy vs. the strict letter of the law, and forgiveness vs. revenge, ultimately belongs not to Portia and her gentle rain of mercy, but Shylock and his implacable hatred. In the end, heroes are scarce in Venice; everyone seems tainted, somehow compromised.
Appropriately, this production belongs to Jonathan Gillard Daly as Shylock, another of his masterworks during GRSF's now five years in Winona. The man's vocal instrument is a Stradivarius, a Steinway -- his speaking voice commands three octaves easily, bell clear from pianissimo to fortissimo. It should be put in a safe at night. His face is so expressive that even the deaf (and I'm getting there) could understand his lines from the balcony, and he is a remarkably athletic actor, despite his senior status in the troop. His Shylock moves with the halt gravity of age, but is perfectly controlled and graceful. And once again, the hands are delivering a dialogue all their own, not quite creating a distraction.
Despite Daly's virtuosity, the supporting roles are never overwhelmed. Chris Mixon, new to the troupe last year, I think, plays a Gratiano who, despite all his loyalty to his friend, has a sinister, mean edge. His performance in the court scene does much to create the ultimate sympathy for Shylock. He is paired well with the Nerissa of Carla Noack, who holds up her end (no pun) nicely in a part not quite a plum.
In a play badly in need of some lighter moments, the scenes in which the Princes of Morocco and Aragon choose among the three caskets extracts a drollery not obvious in the text. Donte Fitzgerald's Moor stalks the stage with a mock ferocity to scare the children, while Bob Fairbrook's foppish Aragon provokes guffaws with a hilarious accent and characterization that destroys the Spanish nation once and for all. (Accents are used to great effect throughout this production: the Eastern European of Shylock, vaguely African of Fitzgerald, and what I believe is the very broad Chicago accent of Doug Scholz-Carlson as Lancelot Gobbo, another of his great clowns over the years.)
Even the traditional newlywed final scene resumes the dark tone of the Merchant of Venice. The supposedly comic resolution of the compromised rings seems merely a mean-spirited joke carried too far. And Jessica, Nicole Rodenburg, the Jewess who has escaped from her father's house to a bright new life as a Christian (no ambivalence here for the Elizabethan audience) ends by joining her ghostly father in singing Kaddish, a Jewish prayer of mourning. For all, but particularly that last scene, I should not forget to commend director Paul Barnes.