I'm writing to answer some of those questions.
William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice is not performed as often as many of his other plays – largely because in a post-Holocaust world it's really difficult for us to witness the reality of race and status in an Elizabethan world. Shakespeare still gets his other plays mounted again and again because many of the facets of the human condition, which are still prevalent in today’s society, are explored so thoroughly and movingly. Arguably this play explores many of those facets in the most well rounded way.
Shakespeare didn't mean to write Shylock as a sympathetic character but today he's viewed that way - or played to be some sort of gangster or deformed monster. Gratiano was meant to be a humorous character but by today's standards he's often viewed as a racist menace. Portia is often thought of as cruel because of how we're first introduced to her. Then she delivers the 'quality of mercy' speech and the audience suddenly loves her. My point being people think of this play in a specific way. They remember it for a character who isn't even meant to be the focus of the play. Or they remember two speeches and think there's nothing in between. I have to admit - I didn't think much of the play either. I'd read it. I remember thinking it was interesting but then every version I've seen staged made me angry. I always tend to think it's been handled poorly.
These characters are some of the most understandable, flawed and wonderfully human characters that Shakespeare has written (in my opinion). Every character has moments of cruelty, every character has moments of frustration. They all have moments when we cheer for them and moments when we beg them not to do it. Honestly, the more I read the text, the more I love the play and think it's highly underrated and misunderstood. It was meant to be entertainment and it truly is a wonderful vehicle for it. It feels a bit like a tennis match - just watching morality, insults, jokes and, of course, love, fly around the stage.
If you don't believe me just ask the other 5 theatre companies (that I've counted) in North America putting the play up this season. Talk about the collective consciousness.
What's different about what we're doing? We're ignoring every preconceived notion that we or you have ever had about this play and focusing on the humanity of each character. We've cast the characters to be much closer in age to each other which makes for an interesting and different dynamic. We've cross cast some of the roles. AND we've made some of the male characters female. Why? The status of women in Shakespeare’s time was, as we know, unequal to that of their male counterparts and, reflecting the inequity of his era, Shakespeare’s plays often have 30 male characters and 3 or 4 females, more often than not, the men are in a position of power. What we’ve done with our play is increased the presence and power of the female characters and unashamedly changed the sexes of quite a few roles For instance, in our production, we have the Duchess of Venice instead of the Duke - she is in a seat of power during the court scene. Furthermore, Salerio & Solanio are woman too!
The human condition is well on display in The Merchant of Venice. This play explores love, race, politics, economy, business, money, status. Merchant also has the key ingredients to Shakespearean comedy: the wise clown, witty double entendres, wonderful insults and (of course) the heroine dresses as a boy... and yes, the play really was written as a comedy. I know, I know!
We open May 31st and run 2 weekends with a possible extension. More details coming soon!!
Happy Birthday Will! Thank you for giving us this play!!