I’ve been missing our sojourns to the Folger Theatre, so yea, verrily, I was yearning for the wit, wisdom, and poetry of the Bard…
I got all three on Saturday in the Globe On Tour’s production of The Merchant of Venice at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC.
That’s Jonathan Pryce, above, as Shylock, the play’s most famous and controversial character. This was his first appearance in that role and his first time acting with the Globe. When he was first invited to take the part, he said no. He had never had any desire to act Shylock; in fact, he had a positive aversion to the role. But a seed had been planted. He reread the play, changed his mind, and signed on to do it.
It was brilliant. The entire production was brilliant.
This is not a play with which I’m particularly well acquainted. I came to it relatively cold, deliberately. Of course, I knew about Shylock, the Jewish moneylender. To a degree, I braced myself for the ugliness to come. And ugliness there is, but there is beauty also, mainly in the person of three sets of lovers who, this being a comedy, all ultimately attain their hearts’ desires.
Yet Shylock remains the burning center of the action. And, for me at least, his forced conversion at the play’s end was cringe-inducing in its cruelty. (To me, it seemed not only a mockery of Judaism, but of Christianity as well.)
Shakespeare’s comedy is Portia’s play, though some audiences now find it difficult to reach that conclusion.
Harold Bloom in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human
It begins with boisterous music and dance. There’s also a fair amount of lighthearted horseplay, supplied mainly by Stefan Adegbola as Shylock’s servant Launcelot Gobbo. Adegbola shouts gleefully, and dashes all over the stage and into the audience, where he grabs people and pulls them onto the stage and into the action. Adegbola is a gifted comedian; he had the audience in stitches.
The single intermission did not occur until shortly before the famous courtroom scene. By then, the mood had turned decidedly somber.
One of the joys of seeing a Shakespeare play with which you are not all that familiar is the way in which familiar lines of dialog pop up now and then, providing richly rewarding “aha!” moments. A good example of this is Portia’s devastating putdown of one of her more irritating suitors: “God made him, and therefore let him pass for a man” (Act 1, Scene 2).
Then there’s this:
How far that little candle throws its beams!
So shines a good deed in a naughty world.
(Act 5, Scene 1)
Portia speaks these words almost in a state of wonderment. That second line appears in Judgement in Stone, Ruth Rendell’s masterpiece. In the context in which the late Baroness Rendell places it, the tone is quite different.
In Act Five, the playwright, as if released from some mysterious constraint, bursts forth with some of the most gorgeous poetry anywhere in the canon. Witness the dreamy, lyrical exchange between Jessica and Lorenzo that opens Scene One:
Lor. The moon shines bright: in such a night as this, When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees And they did make no noise, in such a night 5 Troilus methinks mounted the Troyan walls, And sigh’d his soul toward the Grecian tents, Where Cressid lay that night. Jes. In such a night Did Thisbe fearfully o’ertrip the dew, 10 And saw the lion’s shadow ere himself, And ran dismay’d away. Lor. In such a night Stood Dido with a willow in her hand Upon the wild sea-banks, and waft her love 15 To come again to Carthage. Jes. In such a night Medea gather’d the enchanted herbs That did renew old Æson.
I confess the line I was waiting for was “How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank.” It’s spoken just a bit later, in the same scene, by Lorenzo:
How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patenes of bright gold:
There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-ey’d cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.
When finally I heard it, I sighed inwardly: how lovely… And I’m delighted by “Sit, Jessica.” It is a line that’s startling in its contemporary resonance – as when Juliet says to Romeo: “The orchard walls are high and hard to climb.”
As for being Jewish while watching this play – well, I felt strangely ambivalent. My dear cousin, with whom I attended the performance and who is more committed in her Jewish observance than I am, had, I believe, a similar reaction; namely, it is anti-Semitic and it is brilliant. (There’s that word again; no denying it.) You can tell yourself that it is an entertainment of and for the time in which Shakespeare and his fellow players and collaborators lived and worked.
And yet – to quote Shylock:
If you prick us, do we nor bleed?