As I mentioned once before here, I studied English Lit at university. And I’m sure it will come as no surprise that I read a fair bit of Shakespeare during that time, and by “fair”, I mean a lot. And throughout my studies, I analyzed, discussed, and wrote a lot of papers about the famed playwright and his innumerable works. The Merchant of Venice was one of those works — a challenging one. It was required reading in a few of my later classes, so I’m quite familiar with it. It’s sort of notorious for being an emotionally complicated and intellectually treacherous play to study, and it’s much less read for enjoyment due to its subject matter. And for this reason, it’s anathema for many students. Of all of Shakespeare’s plays, I cannot think of another fostering a more strained and contentious relationship between readers, academics, historians and the material itself.
The Merchant of Venice, in simplest terms, thematically explores the conflicting ideas of vengeance, mercy and justice and portrays the events and consequences surrounding the agreed upon terms and later default of a monetary loan between Shylock, a Jewish Venetian moneylender, and Antonio, a Christian Venetian merchant. All other subplots aside, that’s the center of the story.
Though considered a Shakespearean comedy, which, by Elizabethan standards, meant that it was a play with a lighter, more humorous tone and typically had a happy ending, The Merchant of Venice is widely criticized as a mean-spirited, bigoted, anti-Semitic play. After all, the antagonist is Jewish, caricatures and stereotypes abound and were likely played for laughs, and the climactic “happy ending” is Shylock’s absolute defeat and abject humiliation. He is stripped of his dignity, his daughter, his property and his religion.
So it begs the question: Why read this play or see it performed? Well, because it is a play that is not without opportunity. Take, for example, the revival production Lynn and I recently took in at The Rose Theater during the Lincoln Center Festival. In the able hands of the renowned Shakespeare’s Globe (who last brought Broadway their incredible productions of Twelfth Night and Richard III in 2014) and with a masterfully nuanced performance by Jonathan Pryce, the audience is afforded a fresh, compelling, and, above all else, timely interpretation of the play. Shylock’s monologue — as famous as any others Shakespeare ever put to paper — become not the words of an equivocating, villainous perpetrator but the words of a victim in abject despair. They become the words of a man who knows there is no justice because the game is rigged and that the righteous majority can become a specious euphemism for an angry, lawless mob.
After the final curtain fell and the audience solemnly dispersed, Lynn and I were pensive. We found ourselves in the unfortunate position of having to admit that the narrative of The Merchant of Venice perfectly captures the tragic marginalization of minorities in this country — right now, in the 21st century. And we’re confident that’s exactly the impression that was intended.
Visit the Lincoln Center Festival website to see what other thought-provoking programming awaits when next season rolls around.
Pair it with:
A drink at Box Kite Coffee
There are few things I enjoy more than coffee. An incredible discussion with someone I respect and admire is one of those things. Give me both, simultaneously, and I’m in heaven. That was my experience at the once upon a time sibling, now orphaned (their original and much larger East Village location closed) Upper West Side location of Box Kite Coffee. It’s an intimate, modern space, and by intimate, I mean the size of a modest walk-in closet or a diminutive hallway. But don’t let the interior distract you, the coffee here is top notch. Cora Lambert, the proprietor, had a simple vision for Box Kite: to meticulously source and eclectically curate a seasonal selection of the very best beans from the very best producers, utilize only state-of-the-art machines for optimal extraction, and hire top-of-the-line professionals to orchestrate the whole process. And I’m happy to tell you, she succeeded. From tasty seasonal concoctions to espresso tonics to the staple One+One (espresso and macchiato combo, with a glass of tonic and a homemade graham cracker), you can’t really go wrong. Add an order from their à la carte menu of toast and spreads and you’re ready for that long post-theater discussion.
128 W 72nd St
Mon – Fri: 7am – 6pm
Sat & Sun: 8am – 7pm