Monday, August 10, 2015


The de-conversion at the end of the play
And I don't just mean Antonio, the titular Merchant, although he is an incredibly anti-Semitic douchebag. I mean the whole damn play.

I know I've seen it before - the BBC's "Shakespeare Plays" series covered the entire canon and I must have seen MERCHANT because I remember thinking that it was odd the way they portrayed Jessica, the daughter of Shylock. She was portrayed as a bitch, if memory serves. Which actually was pretty fair since she totally ripped her father off when she eloped with a Christian.

I remember I didn't care for the play much, but when I saw the Hip to Hip Theater Company's version in the Socrates Sculpture Garden last weekend I was completely appalled by it.

I discovered Hip to Hip last year when I went to see their production of TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA also in Socrates Sculpture Garden. I went because my actor friend Amanda Thickpenny was performing in GENTLEMEN. I didn't realize at that time that the married couple that runs Hip to Hip, Joy and Jason Marr, are friends of my actor friend Matt DeCapua, and both performed in his sci-fi web series Space Dogs. Jason Marr has the more prominent role in the series, playing "Boney" the ship's doctor in an homage to "Bones" as Dr. McCoy the ship's doctor on Star Trek was known. Joy played an HR rep in the second episode of the series.

Wikipedia has an interesting observation about the modern attitude towards the play:
Many modern readers and theatregoers have read the play as a plea for tolerance, noting that Shylock is a sympathetic character. They cite as evidence that Shylock's 'trial' at the end of the play is a mockery of justice, with Portia acting as a judge when she has no right to do so. The characters who berated Shylock for dishonesty resort to trickery in order to win. In addition, Shakespeare gives Shylock one of his most eloquent speeches...
This misses the most shocking aspect of the trial, in which the tables are turned on Shylock and he is punished and one of his punishments is that he is forced to convert to Christianity

Hip to Hip made an especially big deal of it - when the Christians force him to convert they underline it by having the character forced to put a huge cross on a chain around his neck and have him remove his yarmulke. It was truly shocking and offensive, this injustice by the play's protagonists.

As the Wikipedia article noted, this is considered a "happy ending" - and thus suitable for what is supposed to be a comedy - because to the audiences of the time, converting to Christianity meant Shylock would not burn in hell forever in the afterlife.

Modern audiences feel differently though. And I for one, who normally does not like anybody taking big liberties with Shakespeare's text, was pleased when H2H inserted a final silent scene where we see Shylock taking off the cross and putting his yarmulke back on.

The hideousness of the treatment of Shylock was made even worse by the fact that his storyline was paired with the woman-in-drag/ring trick schticks that Shakespeare uses in other plays. And of course the absurdity of Portia, who gives no indication of legal training or even exceptional intelligence during the play, suddenly popping up at the end to argue the law in disguise.

It's an all-around wretched play in spite of the excellent "hath not a Jew" speech. I have no desire to see it again.