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October 01, 2007

A deeply flawed, but also quite wonderful production: The Merchant of Venice at the Globe

Posted by David Wootton

William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice
directed by Rebecca Gatward
Shakespeare's Globe, London
in repertory 28th June - 6th October 2007

What a strange and remarkable production this is! At the interval I was profoundly dismayed by it; but after the interval it was absolutely wonderful.

So let me divide this review into two halves. Before the interval this black comedy is played entirely for laughs. Most of the laughs aren't in Shakespeare's text, but are obtained by introducing sexual innuendos through gestures and costumes (a great deal of pelvic thrusting, enormous codpieces, etc.). The cast is so busy with this that it seems distracted from speaking the lines, many of which are thrown away. Everything seems coarse and casual, in the worst tradition of British comedy (Dick Emery, Benny Hill).

Two explanations spring to mind: first, the director is so frightened of the play's anti-semitism that she wants to distract the audience from the play itself; second, the audience at the Globe (which on a typical night includes a fair sprinkling of Shakespeare scholars and plenty of people who can barely understand English) is a difficult one, but the director has decided to play entirely to the groundlings. Far the best at doing this is Jim Bywater as Gobbo, who puts on a bravura performance, particularly when he ventriloquates on behalf of a muffin, representing his demonic tempter, and a bone, representing his conscience.

In the second half, which culminates in the trial scene, almost everything changes. The text is treated with respect, the actors stop mucking about, and some real emotional depth begins belatedly to be discovered in play and performance. This half was quite wonderful. The problem of course is that you can't really get a coherent reading of the play this way. Bassanio, in the first half, is Antonio's lover, interested in Portia only for her money; in the second half he has to genuinely love both Antonio and Portia, although there has been no preparation for this at all. The only characters who are allowed to play relatively serious performances through both halves are Antonio and Portia, and they are the only ones who emerge with a relatively coherent identity - Kirsty Besterman in particular is excellent as Portia.

This production exposes two interpretative cruces in the play. Antonio and Bassanio are, as I have said, presented as homosexual lovers: this is an interpretation to be found in A. D. Nuttall's Shakespeare the Thinker, and seems to me quite unsupported by the text - the fact that they love each other doesn't imply that they are going to bed with each other or want to do so. But what this interpretation does make possible is a very interesting shift at the end. When Bassanio and Gratiano discover that Portia and Nerissa have successfully passed themselves off as men during the trial scene they find the idea sexually provocative and are attracted to their wives all the more. This does seem a rather clever interpretation, although the price paid for it, by making bisexuality a central theme of the play, is very high, perhaps too high.

Second, Portia in the trial scene is presented as initially defeated by Shylock. Only at the very last moment does she see how to make it impossible for him to claim his bond. This seems to me at odds with the text - after all, she has the right page in her lawbooks already to hand. But it does create a dramatic crisis - again the price is high, perhaps too high, because Portia's authority is undermined.

The real issue for any modern production, of course, is what to make of the plays representation of the hostility between Christians and Jews, a topic which is perhaps particularly timely in this age of holy warfare. Here the hostility was brought out rather well, but the character of Shylock (John McEnery) was never quite sufficiently defined. He was neither evil nor admirable. No modern production, perhaps, can allow its audience to feel the delight that most Elizabethan playgoers must have felt at his defeat and forced conversion - which is why the play is so difficult to stage.

This is not a coherent or convincing interpretation of this difficult and remarkable play. It seems to embody two conflicting aspirations: on the one hand, to turn the play into a coarse comedy; on the other to make Portia a genuine and noble hero(ine). It is deeply flawed, but also quite wonderful.

David Wootton is Anniversary Professor of History, University of York. He is the author of Bad Medicine: Doctors Doing Harm Since Hippocrates.

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