What ‘The Merchant of Venice’ loses when no one laughs
Clothes do a lot of work in Arin Arbus’s new staging of “The Merchant of Venice.”
Antonio (Alfredo Narciso), the play’s titular merchant, dresses like a tech founder just back from some problematic retreat: black blazer, ostentatious cross, too-white velcro sneakers. The heiress Portia (a sprightly Isabel Arraiza) issues commands to her underlings while prancing around in influencer-style athleisure, an outfit that prompts us to look past her much-proclaimed virtues and focus on her vanity (forgivable! She’s a hottie with a trust fund) and her casual racism. (Not so much.)
Then there’s Shylock, played by a masterful John Douglas Thompson, who wears an endearingly frumpy three-piece suit, a yarmulke clapped to his head and tzitzit swinging at his sides. Spurning the trends to which other characters are beholden, he looks like a math teacher on his way to make mincha in Riverdale. In other words, he looks like our hero. Which is interesting, because in this play Shylock is the villain — a charismatic, complex, human one, as Shakespearean bad guys often are, but a villain nonetheless.
Shakespeare’s work generally speaks across eras, addressing modern audiences without requiring much intervention. “The Merchant of Venice,” rooted in Elizabethan antisemitism, is a notable exception. To finance his friend Bassanio’s wooing of Portia, the aforementioned Antonio borrows 3,000 ducats from Shylock. The Jewish moneylender poses harsh terms: If Antonio forfeits the loan, Shylock can carve out a pound of flesh from his body.
Shylock has spent a lifetime dealing with jerks like Antonio, who despise him even as they require his services. But he keeps his rage in check until his daughter, Jessica, elopes with one of Antonio and Bassanio’s pals. In attempting to enforce the loan and obtain his pound of flesh, Shylock lashes out with the kind of hatred that’s been directed at him — until, of course, he’s brought low by the Christian cast that unites against him.
Even if, as Arbus does, you read “Merchant” as a critique, rather than an endorsement, of antisemitism, it’s difficult to stage this play without some modern commentary. The play needs to justify itself, to show why audiences should spend an afternoon listening to the word “Jew” deployed as an insult over and over again. In this production, currently running at New York City’s Theater for a New Audience and set to debut at Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Theater Company, Arbus does so by turning the show into an instructive tragedy.
With Shylock played by Thompson, a Black actor and one of the most acclaimed working Shakespeareans, the play draws a parallel between the persecution of European Jews with the racism prevalent in our own society. But in refusing to acknowledge the play’s uncomfortable humor, this production misses out on the profound queasiness that, at its best, this troublesome comedy can produce.
Though most of the jokes won’t land that well with modern audiences, “The Merchant of Venice” is supposed to be funny. Shylock’s loan scheme, serious as it is, unfolds along Bassanio’s bumbling attempts to win Portia’s hand while pretending he isn’t in it for her money. In the play’s climatic courtroom scene, Portia adjudicates the dispute between Shylock and Antonio — in drag as a male lawyer. In one comedic subplot Portia and her assistant, disguised as men, convince their husbands to give away love tokens they promised never to lose; then, as women, they give them hell for it. As always in Shakespeare, phallic humor is everywhere.
This production doesn’t want us to laugh at the jokes. Clothes garner attention because all the scenes take place against the same dour, concrete facade. Greenish fluorescent lights cast a sickly pall over all the players, who take everything extremely seriously. The whole love token thing? Here, it’s not a prank but a parable about the unfaithfulness of men. With its staging, this production is constantly reminding us not to laugh — not at the Jewish jokes, or the anti-Black jokes, or the cheating-on-your-wife jokes — because in the 21st century, that’s not OK.
This strenuously right-minded attitude reframes the meeting of several key scenes. For example, Arbus renders a romantic tete-a-tete between Jessica and her Christian husband, Lorenzo, as simmering with violence and rage — confusingly, Lorenzo tries to strangle Jessica while elaborating on his love for her. The scene suggests Jessica should and does suffer for bailing on her father and her faith; it’s a consequence you might desire, if you’re all in for Shylock.
But Jessica’s blithe abandonment of her Jewishness is one of the play’s most haunting features. It’s also a relevant one at a time when many Jews are assimilated enough that we can choose how much and how publicly to embrace our identities. What would it mean for Jessica to give up her Jewishness and still live a happy life? By suffusing her with regret, the production forecloses that question.
The production’s tragic bent is most evident in the courtroom scene, during which Portia foils Shylock’s plan to carve out Antonio’s heart, then forces the moneylender to convert to Christianity. Though the production can’t quite navitage “Merchant’s” comic and tragic elements, Thompson certainly can; he toggles between slapstick and pathos with an agility that’s worth the price of admission. As Shylock, he reads out the terms of his loan in a nebbishy, pedantic tone, eliciting the rare non-nervous laugh from the audience. That lighthearted moment makes it all the more breathtaking when, just a few minutes later, Shylock begs for mercy while a fratty henchman snatches his yarmulke away.
But once they’ve stripped Shylock of his fortune and faith, the assembled Christians snap out of their predatory glee. As the ruined moneylender stumbles away, they watch in quiet reverence, as if they want us to know how appropriately guilty they feel. Reverting to tragedy at the last minute, the scene stumbles, extending pardon to a group of people who don’t really deserve it.
Arbus’s most explicit intervention in the original text comes at the end, when Shylock and Jessica stand on stage, each muttering the opening lines of the Kol Nidre prayer. A program note announced this was coming, but it felt surprisingly moving all the same: After five acts of evincing vague guilt over antisemitism, the play was finally addressing an explicitly Jewish audience. (The man next to me started quietly davening.) Absolving us of the vows we aren’t able to fulfill, Kol Nidre offers a vision of mercy whose quality really is, as Portia puts it, “not strained.” The kinds of pardon offered by the play’s self-righteous Christians are punitive indeed, compared to this ancient prayer.
But the most powerful appeal to the audience comes straight from the original text. Chastised by the court for refusing to lay aside his loan and show mercy to Antonio, Shylock turns the argument back on them. Many Venetians own slaves, he points out, to whom they could direct their own mercy. But they don’t, because the law of the land doesn’t require it.
“Let them be free!” Shylock shouts. “Marry them to your heirs!” Though he’s addressing the court, he looks out on the audience as he speaks. The speech targets our complicity, our participation in a culture that not only produced “The Merchant of Venice,” but makes it relevant in every generation. It’s a barb that stings as much in the 21st century as the 16th, and we don’t need sneakers or scenery to grasp its importance. It’s all there in the text.