Sunday, November 29, 2009

News on the Rialto

I've been there, you know. I followed this sign.

Yes, the Rialto, famous bridge in Venice with lots of shops on it. It was very busy when we were there because there was a Regata Storica (or historic regatta!) going on.

It was jolly busy in Shakespeare's time, too, which is why the play The Merchant of Venice is full of people asking each other "What news on the Rialto?"

Leeds was busy turning into Venice as I drove to a rehearsed reading of the play this afternoon. The roads were resembling canals more every moment as gallons of water dropped out of the sky: though I have to admit that the sky was a rather different colour to the one in the photo above.

It's possible to know a play's good and still not like it and that's how I feel about The Merchant of Venice.

The merchant of the title is Antonio who rashly borrows a huge wad of cash from Jewish moneylender Shylock, because he knows that when all his ships come back to port he'll be able to pay him back.

Now, the key to it all is that almost every profession was barred to Jews in those days. Moneylending was all they were allowed to do. And yet everyone hates moneylenders.

So - especially with me being half-Yid an' all - I feel rather sorry for Shylock, initally. Everyone has contempt for him, including Antonio, but that doesn't stop them borrowing money when they need it. And Shylock points out that in many ways he's just like the Christians. Hath not a Jew hands? Doth he not like watching Coronation Street? That kind of thing.

It is, therefore, understandable - though not admirable - that Shylock says now look, Antonio, if you can't pay me back on time, I'll have a pound of your flesh, okay?

And Antonio, rather stupidly and not realising he's a character in a play and so no good will come of it, agrees to it. And then, of course, all his ships sink and he realises Shylock's looking forward to getting his revenge by way of the pound of flesh. Oops.

Now then, just because Shylock's in an impossible position, unable to make a living from any other profession, doesn't mean he's a nice chap. And Antonio, the Christian, makes it clear he's got nothing but contempt for Shylock and he's not a nice chap either.

Then there's Portia, who thinks it's a clever idea to get her three suitors to choose from three boxes with riddles on them, and the one who gets it right will win her hand in marriage. Don't you just hate women who play those kind of games?

And then she uses her clever tricksy legal mind a bit later to point out that okay, Shylock's entitled to his pound of flesh, but if he spills one drop of blood in getting it, it's curtains for him, because he forgot to include the bit about "and if Antonio bleeds that's part of the deal" in the small print of the contract.

So - and I'm sorry if this is a plot spoiler for you but you've had the past four hundred years or so to see this play if you were interested - Antonio doesn't get carved up, and Shylock is humiliated and - even worse, for an orthodox Jew - Shylock's daughter Jessica, who is actually one of the few decent people in the play, converts to Christianity and marries a Christian. Which is a kind of a happy ending. If I were her I'd be moving to rural Tuscany to get away from the lot of them.

So, does the actor playing Shylock play him as a sort of caricature, Fagin-like, long-bearded, strong-accented Jew, already? Which, in these post-Holocaust days, doesn't sit well with me.

Or then again, you could just do it in Standard English and more or less ignore the Jewish bit, which kind of sidesteps the point of it all, and is a bit of a cop-out.

No, beautifully-written though it may be, I still don't like it. It makes me uneasy. It's a play that's almost entirely stuffed with people I wouldn't want to spend any time with in real life.

Though the cast, after very minimal rehearsal, really brought it to life and there were two Jewish people I met there who said it was their favourite Shakespeare and they loved it. So perhaps it's just me.


Blogger Yorkshire Pudding said...

I don't like "The M of V" much either. There's a certain shallowness here which makes it lightweight in comparison with Shakespeare's great tragedies. They resonate in the mind and teach us much about the human condition. In contrast, "The M of V" is principally an entertainment.

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