Presenting Shakespeare on the stage is far different from merely reading it on the page. Although the beauty of the language and Shakespeare’s talent as a writer makes the solitary reading of any of the Bard’s play an enjoyable experience, there will always be something missing that can only be gained from watching it performed. The Merchant of Venice remains one of Shakespeare’s most oft-produced plays and is a mainstay of both high school and college theater in particular. Getting your production to stand out from the tens of thousands of previous theatrical presentations of this well-known tragicomedy is no easy feat. Sometimes you have to be willing to either take a dramatic risk, or else take an ideological point of view to make people wake up and take notice. The Merchant of Venice offers opportunities for both routes.
The casket test scene in The Merchant of Venice presents a wealth of staging possibilities for the director willing to turn the play into a modern day political statement. To begin with, the underlying subtext of casket test scenario is almost unprecedented in Shakespearean comedy. It is nothing less than astonishing that Portia is willing to give in to her father’s absolutely preposterous rules when Shakespeare’s comedic heroines are often defined by the fact that they are so eager to defy both their fathers as well other figures of authority. For this reason, an intuitive and creative director would search for an element that intellectually rationalizes Portia’s decision. One possible explanation is that the underlying code contained within the plot point of the casket test is that the only type of man who could correctly solve the riddle is one who views it from the proper socio-economic perspective.
At first glance, the casket test in The Merchant of Venice seems universally fair and free from any inherent social biases. Just like those standardized tests that politicians trumpet so loudly as being a perfect indicator of academic progress because they are totally free from any bias. And, just like those standardized tests questions, the assumption is that anyone from any strata of society stands an equal chance. It is based on statistical probability and nothing else, after all. Or is it? In fact, there is an implicit inequality based entirely on class consciousness at work in the casket test. In order for any suitor to choose correctly, it is vital that he understands the value of wealth from the perspective of Portia and her class. Poor suitors tend to be predisposed to confuse the ornamental brilliance of the gold or silver caskets with possessing the true value of wealth.
The staging of this famous scene from The Merchant of Venice, then, should highlight the equitable standards of wealth that exist between Portia and Bassanio. One way to do this would be to subtly hint at similarities between the two. Perhaps they could be dressed in the same color scheme, utilizing colors that we psychologically associate with the upper classes. Or the staging could be conducted in such a way that the physical movement of the two actors is directed toward placing them in similar positions as they move around the caskets. When choosing to adopt this approach to directing The Merchant of Venice it is essential to create a subtle realization in the mind of the audience that Bassanio has been successful in choosing the correct casket because he is of the right class and so understands the true value of wealth. Another way to subtly introduce this idea of ideological connectivity would be to have Portia and Bassanio speak in similar ways, such as having the same inflections or pronouncing certain words differently from the lower class characters. Essentially, anything that would serve to highlight their class similarity and distinguish them from the lower classes would be effective.
Shakespeare has provided many directors the opportunity to relate plays written during the Renaissance about times that Shakespeare himself considered ancient to their own times. The Merchant of Venice offers one character in particular that allows for a daring production that gets the attention of even the most jaded theater critic. The use of a patch on which is stitched the Star of David worn by Shylock may at first draw questions of political correctness from some members of your audience, but it could not be more appropriate. Although The Merchant of Venice is categorized as one of Shakespeare’s comedies, and despite the inescapable and horrifying fact that Shylock’s dehumanization has been met with both laughter and cheers by audiences throughout its history, only someone with the character flaws of a Mel Gibson cannot view Shylock as anything other than a tragic character. Despicable he may be, but is he any less deserving of the title tragic figure than Macbeth or Lear?
If The Merchant of Venice is really about anything in particular at this point in history, it is about the long history of anti-Semitism. After all, no other character in the play is as vitally interesting as Shylock. And who will argue that once Shylock gets his comeuppance, the rest of The Merchant of Venice seems sadly superfluous and uninvolving. In fact, it is not unknown for some productions to end the play following Shylock’s conversion and discard all the rather tedious resolution of the romantic subplot that follows. Although subject to criticism by the PC police, can anyone really deny that it would be a dynamic and bold move to underscore the idea of Shylock as a figure of systemic anti-Semitic oppression by not only having him wear a Star of David patch like Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter at all times, but even by portraying him as a concentration camp survivor?. One could even take the final step and update the setting to a time shortly after World War II ended. It seems entirely fitting since Shylock’s character and personality is shaped almost entirely by how the other characters view his race and religion. That Venetians couch the sentence in terms of the salvation of Shylock’s eternally damned soul justifies such a bold choice of staging. The idea of juxtaposing the irony of Shylock’s tragic downfall taking place within the confines of a comedy should be as profound as its inclusion in the first place.