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Merchant of Venice

Houston Shakespeare Logo, centered
Jack Young, Artistic Director
And
Miller Outdoor Theatre
Present

Merchant of Venice
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Tiger Reel
August 1, 5, 7, & 9

Designers/Production

Executive Director, Voice and Text Coach

Jim Johnson*

Scenic Designer

Jonathan Middents

Costume Designer

Jodie Daniels

Lighting Designer

Matt Schlief

Production Stage Manager

Rachel R. Bush*

Stage Manager

Rachel Dooley-Harris*

Rachel Dooley-Harris*

Robert Shimko

Fight Director

Adam Noble*

Props Master

Abigail Kehr

Associate Dramaturg

Rachel Aker

Associate Dramaturg

Tyrell Woolbert

Associate Dramaturg

Troy Loftin

Cast List (Alphabetical Order)

Arragon

Camron Alexander

Gratiano

Leraldo Anzaldua

Gobbo

Greg Cote

Portia

Amelia Fischer

Tubal

Adham Haddara

Morocco/Judge

Kenn Hopkins

Saleria

Elissa Levitt

Salanio

David Matranga*

Lorenzo

Mateo Mpinduzi-Mott

Constable

Adam Noble*

Jessica

Suzelle Palacios

Bassanio

Kyle Powell

Nerissa

Tracie Thomason

Antonio

Mirron Willis*

Shylock

Jack Young*

“*A proud member of Actors’ Equity Association.

Plot Synopsis for Merchant of Venice

Along the Rialto in the city of Venice, a bustling hub for commerce and trade, Salerio and Salanio are trying to cheer up Antonio, a respected Venetian merchant, when fellow merchants Lorenzo, Gratiano, and Bassanio arrive. Bassanio is dearly loved by Antonio, and he tells the merchant of his plan to travel to Belmont to participate in a contest for the right to marry Portia, a rich and beautiful heiress. Antonio agrees to offer his own credit to obtain a loan for the young Bassanio’s travel, but his money is currently tied up in trade ships still at sea. Bassanio is tasked with securing a loan, with Antonio as the guarantor.

In the glamorous city of Belmont, Portia laments to her friend Nerissa that her late father’s will stipulated that her future husband will be decided in “The Lottery,” in which suitors must choose from three chests to win her hand in marriage. So far, she has not been pleased with any of the men who have attempted the game.

Back in Venice, Bassanio attempts to enlist the help of Shylock, a Jewish moneylender. Shylock is apprehensive because of Antonio’s disdain and prejudice towards Shylock and the other Jews of Venice. Furthermore, Shylock tells Bassanio that Antonio might not be able to repay his debt if his ships face any problems at sea. Antonio arrives and convinces Shylock to loan Bassanio three thousand ducats. Shylock agrees to the loan on the condition that if he cannot repay it then Shylock will be entitled to a pound of Antonio’s flesh.

In Belmont, “The Lottery” continues with the powerful Prince of Morocco trying his hand at the game. However, he selects the wrong chest, thus losing Portia’s hand in marriage. At Shylock’s home in Venice, his daughter, Jessica, gets their servant Gobbo to deliver a message to her secret lover, Lorenzo. Gobbo gives the letter to Lorenzo who concocts a plan to steal away with Jessica that night during a city-wide masquerade. Gobbo brings Jessica word of Lorenzo’s plan. She agrees and decides to leave her father and faith behind for the young Christian. Lorenzo arrives at Shylock’s home, and Jessica departs with him, carrying away much of Shylock’s wealth. Meanwhile, the Prince of Arragon competes in “The Lottery.” He, too, chooses the wrong chest and leaves without having won the right to marry Portia. Back on the Rialto, Salanio and Salerio mock Shylock for his daughter’s flight. The confrontation becomes tense until Shylock’s friend Tubal comes with news for him. Tubal tells Shylock that Jessica has been selling off much of the property she took from her father while on her elopement with Lorenzo. He also delivers the news that one of Antonio’s ships has sunk, and he will thus not be able to repay the three thousand ducats.

Bassanio arrives in Belmont and participates in “The Lottery.” He chooses the correct chest, allowing him to marry Portia. Gratiano announces his decision to marry Nerissa, and the two women give rings to their new fiancés. Lorenzo and Jessica arrive with a letter explaining that Antonio cannot repay Shylock and is to be arrested in Venice. Portia encourages Bassanio by telling him that she will provide all the owed money and more to pay Antonio’s debt. Bassanio and Gratiano are to return to Venice with the money to pay Shylock following couples’ immediate weddings.

*Intermission*

 

Antonio is arrested for his debt to Shylock. As he is being taken to prison, Antonio pleads to Shylock for a reprieve. Shylock is unmoved and intends to take his pound of flesh. In Belmont, Portia and Nerissa formulate a plan to help Bassanio by dressing up as men and traveling to Venice in hopes that they can get Shylock to change his mind. At the trial, Shylock remains steadfast, and not even the Duke of Venice can convince Shylock to relent. Portia and Nerissa arrive under the guise of a legal expert named Balthasar and his young clerk. She speaks of the dignity and sanctity of mercy to Shylock but this does nothing to cool his rage. At the last moment, Portia discovers a loophole in the contract that allows for Shylock to claim a pound of flesh…but no blood. Furthermore, Venetian law states he must turn half of his wealth over to the Venetian state and the other half to Antonio for having conspired to murder him. Antonio refuses Shylock’s money, with the stipulation that it will be given to Lorenzo and Jessica after Shylock’s death and that he must convert to Christianity. Shylock accepts the bargain and leaves, beaten and humiliated. Bassanio gives “Balthasar” his ring in thanks for his service, not knowing it is actually Portia. She and Nerissa scheme to collect Gratiano’s ring, too.

Back in Belmont, Portia and Nerissa reveal their plan to Lorenzo and Jessica. The husbands arrive from Venice and are immediately assailed by their wives for having given away the rings. After they have been sufficiently humiliated, Portia and Nerissa reveal that they were the lawyer and clerk and reconcile with their husbands. Portia informs Antonio that his remaining ships have returned, making him wealthy again, while Nerissa tells Jessica and Lorenzo of the inheritance they will receive from Shylock. As the group leaves to celebrate their good fortune, Jessica is left behind to contemplate the fate that has befallen her father.

—Troy Loftin

What's in a Name: Shylock

Many of Shakespeare’s characters, like Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet, are recognized by name outside of performances of the Bard’s plays. However, few, if any, carry the kind of problematic weight and controversy around their names as does Shylock. Characters from earlier medieval allegorical plays—whether called “the Jew” or “the Usurer”—served to illustrate the fears and anti-Semitism of Europe, as such characters were typically played and costumed akin to devils and villains. Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe’s Barabas from The Jew of Malta continued this depiction of the Jew as grotesque villain, and, in looking at Shylock, one can see how some elements of the anti-Semitism depicted in Shakespeare’s play descend from this troubling tradition. However, Shylock as a character differs from his precursors primarily in his multi-dimensionality, including his palpable love for his daughter and his passionate defense of his own humanity:

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?

Shylock suffers vicious, unthinking prejudice throughout the play. He is attacked with slurs like “dog” and “devil,” and when he declares his hatred for Antonio he frames it as an understandable human reaction to such persecution. If he is cruel, he follows in the mode of his persecutors:

And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.

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Shylock after the Trial by John Gilbert, late 19th c (Public Domain Image)

His call for a pound of flesh as payment for Antonio’s forfeiture of the original terms of the bond antagonizes the other characters against his claim of justice. Despite his humanity, he is treated as a villain in the play. The character of Shylock, as well as the Christian characters who interact with him, have varied widely in their portrayals throughout the past few centuries, changing with how audiences perceive the underlying nature of the relationships between the Jewish and Christian characters in the play. But still, the term “shylock”—used as a byword for loan sharks—has come to be used as a slur against Jewish people, often with no reference to the play itself and despite the possibility of sympathetic views of Shakespeare’s Shylock for the prejudiced offenses exacted upon him. “Shylock” has taken on a life of its own, existing outside the confines of Shakespeare’s play, developing new and changing meanings as time goes on. It is a term that begs a greater understanding of the extra-textual meanings that have become associated with it.

Shylock is not a Jewish name, nor was it widely known before the play. Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom points to an Old Saxon word meaning “white-haired,” and it has also been suggested that the name may derive from the biblical name Shalah, or Shelach in Hebrew, who was the grandson of Shem and the father Eber, the progenitor of the Hebrew people. The names of the other Jewish characters in the play are derived from minor figures listed in the genealogies of Genesis in the Old Testament. Following the introduction of the character Shylock in Merchant, the character entered popular culture in England, especially in the propaganda surrounding the “Jew Bill” of 1753, an act of Parliament that offered naturalization for the Jews who lived in England without legal sanction at the time. The act was repealed in 1754, but not before Shylock was invoked in polemical literature speaking against the act. Pamphlets quoting Shylock’s hatred of Antonio were published by opponents of the bill, and for the next century Shylock appeared in anti-Jewish political campaign literature. Caricatures of a Jew, always named Shylock, appeared in political cartoons that usually positioned Shylock next to the devil. Newspaper columns were printed that imagined Shylock as the ringleader in fantasies of Jewish attempts to take over England. The narratives of Merchant were conflated into new imaginings of the character of Shylock, as the character became a daily part of the cultural prejudices of England during the century-long debate over Jewish naturalization, which finally resulted in equal rights of citizenship for English Jews in the nineteenth century.

As recently as September of 2014, Vice President Joe Biden was called out by the Anti-Defamation League, and subsequently apologized, for his use of the word “shylock” when speaking of loan companies who make bad loans to military servicemen and -women. A recent Time magazine article explains that Jewish Americans have worked publicly for more than fifty years to challenge the use of the word, as it is seen as an insult to Jews and is considered to be an anti-Semitic slur. The article explores its own magazine’s use of the term, having to go back to 1977 to find the word used to describe loan sharks outside of references to Merchant or Philip Roth’s book Operation Shylock. Earlier than that, though, the usage of the term appears more frequently, and in the 1950s it was not uncommon for the U.S. government to be called “Uncle Shylock,” when being judged as stingy in economic affairs. The term was listed in a 1950s collection of “schoolyard wit and wisdom” as a taunt for Jews. The mid twentieth century also saw the decontextualized use of Shylock and images of a caricaturized usurer Jew by the Nazi party and its anti-Semitic propaganda.

Just this summer, Bloomberg published information about the attempt to take down computer hackers who created the so-called “Shylock Trojan,” which was used to reroute millions of dollars by altering bank routing numbers in online account transfers in the UK, the US, and Italy beginning in 2011. Quotations from Merchant could be found woven into the coding of the virus. Although the threat of the Shylock Trojan is believed to have been neutralized, it has created yet another villainous association for the already controversial name. The debate around the name is one that has its roots in the attitudes of people centuries before us, but its concern for man’s inhumanity to man is still very relevant today. Experiencing The Merchant of Venice in 2015 allows contemporary audiences to explore the complexity of Shakespeare’s character, witness the persecution he suffers, and to further interrogate the issues of prejudice and anti-Semitism.

—Rachel Aker

 

Scholars on The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice is arguably Shakespeare’s most controversial comedy because, for modern audiences, it broaches a topic that has become a touchstone of the political difference between tolerance and prejudice.” (Introduction to the Arden Shakespeare edition of The Merchant of Venice)

 “[M]uch of the play’s vitality can be attributed to the ways in which it scrapes against a bedrock of beliefs about the racial, national, sexual, and religious difference of others. I can think of no other literary work that does so as unrelentingly and as honestly. To avert our gaze from what the play reveals about the relationship between cultural myths and peoples’ identities will not make irrational and exclusionary attitudes disappear. Indeed, these darker impulses remain so elusive, so hard to identify in the normal course of things, that only in instances like productions of this play do we get to glimpse these cultural faultlines. This is why censoring the play is always more dangerous than staging it. The Merchant’s capacity to illuminate a culture is invariably compromised when those staging it flinch from presenting the play in its complex entirety…. One thing remains certain: as long as anxieties about racial, national, sexual, and religious difference continue to haunt the way we imagine ourselves and respond to others, Shakespeare’s words will remain ‘not of an age, but for all time.’” (James Shapiro, Shakespeare and the Jews)

“‘Extreame cruletie’: one might well feel that there was not much more to be said. But Shylock, a villain who makes his appearance in a mere five scenes of a romantic comedy, has captured the imagination of the world. As a stereotype, he has undergone countless mutations, and for nearly two hundred years there have been claims that he is much more than a stereotype, that he is meant to engage our sympathies in ways that would have once seemed inconceivable…. He belongs to literature, and his greatness can only be properly appreciated in literary terms; but he belongs equally to the history of folklore and mass-psychology, of politics, and popular culture…. Shylock is a special case. Not only does he stand out from his surroundings in a peculiarly stark isolation; his myth has often flourished with very little reference to The Merchant of Venice as a whole, quite often with none at all.” (John Gross, Four Hundred Years in the Life of a Legend)

 “Shylock would not have held the stage for four hundred years if he were a mere stereotype. His greatness is to be himself, to transcend the roles of representative Jew and conventional usurer. He is Shylock, with his own private history, his own vivid individuality.” (John Gross, Four Hundred Years in the Life of a Legend)

“A name is a precious possession. Like other possessions, it can be taken away. Shylock is ‘Shylock’ to his face, but behind his back he is almost always referred to as ‘the Jew’; and as the final confrontation approaches, even such minimal signs of respect as he has been shown are dropped…. In the trial scene, the other characters, beginning with the Duke himself, repeatedly address him as ‘Jew,’ or speak of him as ‘the Jew’ in his presence. They are not only closing ranks against him; they are also letting him know that his personal identity is of no account.” (John Gross, Four Hundred Years in the Life of a Legend)

—Troy Loftin

Brave New World:

Adapting The Merchant of Venice to a Modern Setting

William Shakespeare’s career as an actor and playwright straddled the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and as far as we know, he may never have travelled outside of England. Yet his plays are set in a variety of places – Italy, Denmark, Scotland, Troy, a magical island, etc. – and times, like antiquity and the Middle Ages. As its title suggests, The Merchant of Venice unfolds in the Italian city famous for its be-gondola-ed canals. As you watch tonight’s performance, however, you will quickly notice that the setting is a modern world, and a modern American world at that!

What accounts for the transposition from Venice to the United States? Well, for over a hundred years now, it has been increasingly commonplace for theatre artists to produce Shakespeare’s works in reimagined settings. You may be familiar with film adaptations such as Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, which employs Shakespeare’s text but transforms Verona, Italy, into Verona Beach, California. In 2007, Rupert Goold staged a production of Macbeth, with Patrick Stewart as the eponymous Scotsman that deliberately employed the imagery of Stalin-era Russia; he adapted it for the screen three years later. More recently, Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly) directed a film version of Much Ado About Nothing (2012) at his own home in Santa Monica. It seems there are more ways of performing Shakespeare than there are Shakespearean plays.

Merchant includes scenes that take place both in Venice and in Belmont, at the estate of the lady Portia. For our production, Venice is represented by New York City, and Hollywood stands in for Belmont. These choices are far from arbitrary. New York and Hollywood are modern analogues for Shakespeare’s settings—that means that there are certain qualities inherent to both, that the modern cities signify roughly similar things to twenty-first century audiences as the original cities did for the Renaissance spectators at the Globe Theatre.

So what do the different settings have in common? As you shall notice, the dominant social force for Antonio and the other Venetian Christians is commerce. Money rules in Venice; historically, it was one of the most important sites of trade in the Early Modern world. We hear from various characters throughout the play that the Rialto (a bridge across Venice’s Grand Canal and the site of much financial business) is continually abuzz with news about business dealings. Commerce even provides the only point of trans-ethnic interaction; Jews like Shylock and Tubal are able to do business on the Rialto, but they are otherwise segregated from the rest of Venetian society, living in restricted sections of town called ghettoes. Shylock himself says that while he is happy to buy and sell with Bassanio, private activities like dining together are out of the question.

With all that in mind, think now about your associations with New York City. It, too, is a fast-paced world driven by commerce. It is the location of Wall Street, the New York Stock Exchange, the Nasdaq, and the newly rebuilt site of the World Trade Center. In our opening prologue, you can observe the Venetians’ energetic, even aggressive use of a type of stock-trading sign language, designed to communicate rising and falling monetary values and whether to buy or sell. Be sure to look out for Salario’s and Salanio’s use of their smartphones to check up on business news, especially the status of Antonio’s ships at sea.

It is also important to notice that the medium of exchange in many business deals of Merchant is not just money but borrowed money – loans and credit. When Bassanio asks his dear friend Antonio for help, Antonio reminds the younger man that he does not currently have 3,000 ducats on hand to lend him. Furthermore, Shylock does not have the money at once, either, relying on his friend Tubal to furnish him the sum. The struggles that emerge from making plans for money that one does not currently possess are struggles with which most modern American adults can probably empathize. It is not hard to see this correlation and others between Shakespeare’s representation of Renaissance Venice and the twenty-first century status quo in the United States.

When not in Venice, the action of Merchant takes place in Belmont, the home of Portia and her friend Nerissa. For our production, Hollywood, California, provides an atmosphere of spectacular beauty, of decadence and luxury. For our Portia and Nerissa aren’t just living in Hollywood; they are the stars of a reality television show! Audience members already familiar with Shakespeare’s text will remember that, by order of her late father, the lady Portia’s marital fate depends on the results of a game. If she wants her inheritance, she must rely on a lottery in which suitors choose from among three caskets, one of which contains a picture of Portia and the right to marry her.

To a modern spectator, the rules governing Portia’s marriage might sound unappealingly contrived, artificial, and even performative. One might reasonably ask, how could such an arrangement guarantee a happy and loving relationship? This is precisely why the Belmont scenes lend themselves so generously to the paradigm of our adaptation, a reality television show. Television networks’ broadcast schedules are positively replete with reality-based programming. Reality shows are such an enormous part of modern culture that there is even a show called Reality Remix that covers the goings-on of all the other current reality shows.

There is great variety among reality shows; there are shows that focus on practical jokes (Candid Camera, Punk’d), on specific workplace environments (Dirty Jobs, Airline), on the home lives of regular people and the interesting challenges they face (The Real World, Little People, Big World), on competitions (American Idol, Survivor, America’s Next Top Model, The Biggest Loser), major life events for individuals (A Baby Story, Intervention), celebrities (The Osbournes, Keeping Up With the Kardashians), and hobbies (Extreme Couponing). But the type of reality show most important to our production of The Merchant of Venice is the competitive dating show. Real-life examples of this variety include: MTV’s Next, Ex on the Beach, A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila, and Are You the One?; TLC’s 90 Day Fiance, and Alaskan Women Looking for Love; and of course, ABC’s The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, as well as the spinoff Bachelor in Paradise.

The important quality that all these programs share is that, despite the name of their genre, they all seem at least slightly divorced from what we know as reality. This is partly because humans almost always behave a little differently if they know they are under observation. Another part of the difference is that reality shows are not real-time; they cover multiple days of activity in an hour or so, and the editing process heightens the drama. As you watch tonight’s performance, you shall be able to see how the constructed nature of the game by which Portia must find a husband bears startling similarity to the televised dating and marriage competitions that millions of us enjoy today as regular entertainment.

Tiger Reel’s vision for this production of The Merchant of Venice participates in a long-established tradition of adapting Shakespeare’s settings to different places and times. Of course, Shakespeare himself was no stranger to anachronism, and his plays – even those set in ancient times or distant locales – include many references to the world of Renaissance England. Adapting his settings is just one way to help a modern audience understand the story.

—Tyrrell Woolbert

The Merchant of Venice Director’s Note

The Merchant of Venice contains two of the most lucid and well-written pleas for our shared humanity in the English language. And they are both categorically ignored by every character in the play. No one has a change of heart, and mercy is a concept left unwrapped and unopened. Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes…” plea goes unheard by Salanio and Salerio, while Portia’s “The quality of mercy…” speech in the Venice courtroom is shrugged off by Shylock and forgotten by Antonio.

Bassanio wins Portia’s hand in marriage by invoking the Elizabethan equivalent of “Don’t judge a book by its cover”—yet his compatriots (including Portia) engage in exactly the kind of prejudice, superstition, and racism that his “So may the outward shows be least themselves” warns against.

Having fallen out of favor in recent decades, The Merchant of Venice seems to have gained new cultural currency as of late. Perhaps movies like “The Wolf of Wall Street” or television shows like “Breaking Bad” have helped moved the needle on our capacity to enjoy, laugh at, and learn from the stories of truly unsavory characters. Maybe the ubiquity of TMZ, “The Bachelorette,” and the televised travails of the Kardashian clan are not so far removed from Portia’s bizarre marriage scheme. Maybe the realization that “the world is still deceived with ornament” is one that never really went away.

Much has been said and written regarding Shakespeare’s true feelings about the Jewish people. It may very well be that the Bard was wearing his prejudices on his sleeve when he wrote Merchant. To my ear, though, I hear the words of a man struggling with the society around him that is ready to invoke such Christian concepts as “mercy” and “tolerance” but never puts them into practice, a society obsessed with ornament rather than what lies beneath. A society perfectly willing to debase, dehumanize, and degrade a man merely for who he is and then completely unable to take responsibility for what their hate has created. (“The villainy you teach me I shall execute…”) The cycle of violence and cruelty remains unbroken.

As I write this, the specter of the slaughter at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church is still visible…but the image of the victim’s families publically forgiving the racist Dylann Roof is even more so. It’s a monumental act of mercy that I don’t know I’d be capable of, and it certainly isn’t one anyone in Shakespeare’s play is able to muster. In some small way I hope this production can be seen in solidarity with their example. At least until the next reality game show comes along to distract us with its glittery gold.

- Tiger Reel