Thursday, June 17, 2010

Shrew, Merchant, Measure

My questions would be with the endings of any of three of Shakespeare's comedies: SHREW, MERCHANT, MEASURE, all viewed as problematic. Why does Isabella say nothing at the end of MEASURE--is the Duke her true match or is she being misused? Is Kate's final speech in this day and age chauvinistic or incredibly well-balanced, mature, and thoughtful? And what's with Portia's demand that Shylock turn Christian? I don't see the quality of mercy there--and then having to go back to Belmont in the fifth act and care about their silly lives...

I would love to hear any of these addressed if they strike your fancy. But truly the blog puts me in touch with something it is very easy to lose sight of--why theatre is something to devote yourself to that has nothing to do with the culture of entertainment.

Thanks for the generous comment about the blog.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the phrase “culture of entertainment” (“a fertile ground where one keeps hold among”) applied to how Sophocles keeps hold on his audiences as well as it does to the latest appeal to the shallowest of human needs for engagement?

Your questions articulate the essential problematic issue of each of these plays. And they are questions that probably will never find fully satisfying answers. I won’t try to be definitive in my responses since I don’t think that’s possible. Rather, I’ll jot down some ideas and perhaps they’ll provoke some thoughtful comments.
Shrew and Merchant in this post. Measure in the next one.

The Taming of the Shrew and The Merchant of Venice

More obviously so than with other works of art, I think, plays exist in two time/places at once: they are real fragments of their past time of creation and they are also living reflections of their present time of production. The older the play, the more I think its “pastness” is part of its meaning and should be embraced in contemporary production.

With The Taming of the Shrew and The Merchant of Venice, the young playwright Shakespeare was showing off his wares with his takes on popular story forms. The shrewish woman went back to the mystery plays (Noah’s wife) and was still popular in Shakespeare’s time (the lost Taming of a Shrew) and the Jewish villain had found the spotlight with Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta. In our time, "The Woman Question" goes back to the Nineteenth Century and continues to morph with the times and "The Jewish Question" must forever root itself in the horrors of the Twentieth Century Holocaust.
Where we are with each of these two “Questions” is what we bring to the pastness of these two plays in production.

The Taming of the Shrew

I think it’s unhelpful to view The Taming of the Shrew as a comedy in the form of As You Like It or Twelfth Night or even Much Ado about Nothing, all of which imply more complex characters and relationships than the plays Shrew is more like: A Comedy of Errors and Two Gentlemen of Verona.
Also, the induction scene moves it one story telling step further from “reality”, presenting the story of Kate and Petruchio as a play within a play.
It’s a farce rooted in commedia traditions.
That means focus is on the situation and not the characters and that no character is ever in danger of being really hurt—slapstick. That means it requires two excitingly acrobatic actors animating their Kate and Petruchio masks.
More Punch and Judy than Benedick and Beatrice. Or perhaps Benedick and Beatrice a la Punch and Judy--energized, even elevated, by Shakespeare’s wit and language.

So, yes, Kate and P are equal matches for each other in wit, in vitality, intellect, sense of humor and comedy. Each is indeed what the other seeks in a mate.
Keep the focus on their mutual joy in the contest. If Petruchio’s fight is aimed at getting a wild and determined Kate to see and to value him without the need for macho posturing and if Kate’s fight is to keep him off-balance while she discovers if he’s worth her time, the play can work. It might help to remember that Kate was written for a male to play. I think the implication for the actress today is to focus her sexual and gender energies on the physical, carnival, farcical aspects of the part. If you create a rambunctious, circus-y, even gymnastic, play-within-a-play atmosphere, the play works.

But then there’s Kate’s last speech.
Doing the speech straightforwardly—even in a farce—I think won’t cut it today. We bring more than a century of concern over the relationship of the female to male-centric society, of women to men.
And for the same reason, if you’ve tried to create a character comedy with this speech as a thoughtful final note--disaster.
Not to mention that in the past decades we have become a culture that has even criminalized the kinds of physical interactions that Kate and Petruchio engage in.
The answer for Lynne Fontanne in her 1935 performance with husband Alfred Lunt still makes some sense: Play it with a subtext suggesting that this is just a pause in their tussle meant to placate Petruchio, who may perhaps then let his guard down so that, off stage, Kate can come back full force for another round. In effect, the conflict hasn’t been resolved. It will continue to be a joyful, farcical, on-going match.

It’s likely that however engaging and, yes, entertaining this play continues to be, any production will include aspects that rankle some contemporary sensibilities.

The Merchant of Venice

Merchant has two story forms in one play: the fairy tale romance and the folk tale turned into social, courtroom drama. The two stories come together with Portia as the bridge.

To take sides and to make absolute villains and heroes in this play is, I think, to miss something vital to its dramatic life. A production that makes “the Christians” as wicked as other productions make “the Jews” hasn’t done anything more to explore the lifestuff of the play. It’s subtler than that and more complex.

*First scene:
We get involved with the vitality and the gusto and the camaraderie of the boys of Venice and the older merchant who delights in their company. Love and Money. Friendship intertwined with Commerce.
*Second scene:
Vitality, laughter, excess and bigotry in the wealthy gated community of Belmont. And a romantic future controlled by secular contract.
*Third scene:
The Outsider confronts The Entitled.  Drama confronts Comedy. The Judaic Them and the Christian Us engage each other in the arena of secular law.

I think we are meant to find the Christians attractive, generous, life-loving people who are both consciously and unconsciously chauvinistic and racist and jingoist and xenophobic.
But no more so than everybody in the audience is.
It’s just another mirror held up to nature.
Merchant assumes the inevitability of such bigotry in the sustaining of any social group. Societies exist as much in relationship to what they are not as to what they are. There must always be those who are “in” (Us) and those who are “out” (Them) and there will always be tension when the “ins” and the “outs” must deal with one another. In the world of The Merchant of Venice that conflict reaches conclusive arbitration in the secular court of law, where the play says the dominant cultural group will always prevail. Antonio, the merchant of Venice, is of that group and will therefore prevail; Shylock, the Jew of Venice, is not and therefore will not.

What is being dramatized in the first Belmont scene with Portia and Nerissa?
Too often we get actresses way too old for the characters, which turns Portia into a proper, slightly stuffy, early middle-aged woman with just a hint of humor and Nerissa into her proper middle-aged gentlewoman in waiting. If, however, we imagine two young sorority sisters (one weathy and privileged, the other a scholarship student from a working class family) cracking each other up and laughing and poking fun at the fraternity jerks and townies that one of them has to deal with while the other eggs her on--we get a better idea of the comedic tone of the scene. It really is great comedy; it’s funny. The audience should be laughing, not just smiling in that tolerant bemused way typical of contemporary productions of Shakespeare.
Portia says, In truth, I know it is a sin to be a mocker, but he!…. and we laugh and become confederates in making fun of The Other: the English, the French, the German, the Neopolitan. The Other.
(If the play were written today, who might Portia include in the list? Who would you want to put on it?)

The subsequent casket scenes heighten the comedy of ridiculing The Other and also intensify our confederacy in the racism. When the Moroccan fails in his suit and leaves Belmont, Portia tosses off, Let all of his complexion choose me so. And, yes, we laugh.

The gold, silver, lead casket arrangement asks the suitors to conduct courtship in terms of wealth and contracts and riches and laws, which is common social currency in this world. So in their turns, both Bassanio and Portia woo in legal, contractual language. The ring device is Portia taking Bassanio’s legalistic language of courtship to its extreme just as in the law court she counters Shylock by taking his legal literalism to its extreme.

Love and Commerce and Bigotry and The Law.

We delight in the exuberant joy of living embraced by the boys of Venice and the girls of Belmont. We become involved in a world structured by the legal language of commerce in which a fairy tale romance is cast in the terms of a wacky legal construct set up by Portia’s father. At Belmont, the beautiful mount occupying the place in a Shakespeare comedy that is usually a refuge from the harsh realities of the court, everyone engages in bigotry and legalese in matters of life and love. And in Venice, Launcelot the clown even gets us to laugh with him as he ridicules his old blind father.
It’s funny and it’s harmless, right?

Then Portia goes to Venice and confronts the legal world of Us versus Them.
The trial scene should build in horror and suspense, but too often it flatlines because it focuses so much on Shylock the character (actors can’t resist it) that it steals focus from the terror of what Shylock is actually doing. The few minutes during which Shylock presses to extract his pound of flesh right there in court should have the excruciating tension of the best of melodramas; say, the last minutes of North by Northwest as Cary Grant hangs on to Eva Marie Saint with one hand and the edge of Mount Rushmore with the other as Martin Landau presses his foot onto Grant’s knuckles. Although we know how Grant gets out of it, the suspense of the scene still manages to grip even today. What could a production of Merchant learn from Hitchcock about the generating of suspense for the trial scene, especially the last minutes leading to Portia’s Tarry a little, which is akin to the gunshot on Mt. Rushmore?
There’s probably a courtroom scene in some film that illustrates this more felicitously than North by Northwest or lots of thrillers where the villain gets perilously close to cutting the heart out of the hero in a particularly intimate, graphic way, but I just couldn’t resist Hitchcock’s genius techniques for creating suspense.

You ask: What’s with Portia’s demand that Shylock turn Christian? I don’t see the quality of mercy there.

Let’s review the exact sequence of how that judgment comes about:
By the way, Portia says to Shylock, now that you’ve lost the case, the law stipulates that anyone seeking the death of one of Us can be executed. And then half your wealth goes to him and the other half to the state.
Mercifully, effortlessly, the Duke rescinds the death penalty. It's almost shocking how easily he can do it. He then gives Antonio half of Shylock’s wealth and decides that the state will collect only a fine rather than its entire other half. It reminds me of the court in Saint Joan that tells her in its mercy it won’t execute her; she’ll just spend the rest of her life in prison.
Shylock, like Joan, says You might just as well kill me.
In response, Portia asks Antonio what mercy he can show Shylock.
Antonio offers to turn down his half of Shylock’s wealth and asks the Duke to rescind the fine as well so long as Shylock agrees to put the other half of his wealth in trust for Lorenzo.
What Antonio wants in return for this mercy is for Shylock immediately to convert to Christianity and that upon his death, his whole estate should devolve to Lorenzo and Jessica.
The Duke tells Shylock to accept the offer or die.
Portia asks Shylock to respond.
I am content, he says. Do you mind if I leave now? I am not well.

I wish I knew how Shakespeare’s audience would have reacted were Antonio’s only stipulation the one naming Lorenzo Shylock’s heir. Why did Shakespeare need to make Antonio force conversion on Shylock? And without the slightest question from Portia or the Duke?
I think it has to do with Shylock’s brazen stepping out of his place as The Other in Our Society. And doing it in order to use the laws of the secular court for his own Old Testament purposes. He says if he doesn’t get his bond exactly as stipulated, he’ll bring the whole system down. After all, We, Antonio’s people, devise those laws and Shylock has stepped presumptuously way over what We think of as that Other’s line.

It’s true that most of the non-Jewish merchants of our Venices and the inhabitants of our Belmonts today—the perceived audience for the play--no longer live with a line drawn so absolutely between them and The Jew. It doesn’t mean that such inexorable lines no longer exist; it just means that they separate Us from different Thems now.
Still, there are today audiences of good people who have no trouble seeing the Duke’s and Antonio’s and Portia’s actions as merciful and soul-saving for Shylock. They approve the Christian magnanimity.
And there are those who see those actions as actually unconscious, though undeniable, bigotry.
And there are those who view it as the crowning proof that the play is out and out anti-Semitic.

I find similarity, though admittedly not quite analogy, in the attitude of some of American society today toward the push for same-sex marriage. Something is perceived as dangerously fractious and over-stepping and violating about The Homosexual Other presuming to push out the boundaries of secular and religious laws that We have created to define Our Healthy Society.
I don’t think Shylock is being punished for being a Jew; he’s being purged of the trappings that motivated him to threaten the majority society. And I think it’s being done more to neutralize him than mercifully to save him.

The external “social drama” story line ends with the trial, after which Portia (and we) flee the social realities of Venice for the fairy tale romance of Belmont and where, as you say in your question, things are “silly” by contrast. But we don’t forget Shylock when we’re at Belmont even if the Belmontians do. We don’t forget that it was Portia who spoke so eloquently as she articulated things about mercy that she had never before had to think about; and that it is she who subsequently makes no mention of Shylock to his daughter and who now re-engages in the fun of the ring deception (another wacky legal contract dictating personal relationships) as fully as previously she presided over the horrific trial.

Jessica has fled Shylock’s house (The man that hath no music in himself...Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils) for the freedom and frivolities of Belmont. But she is still The Other. Or at least The Outsider.
I live in a working class Latin neighborhood in Los Angeles where, I have jokingly remarked, Bullets is our second language. People have been gunned down only a few blocks from my house. 
I get in my car and twentyish minutes later I’m at a house party given by friends around the pool where the concerns are by comparison “silly” and where I am reminded of the first scene between Portia and Nerissa:
By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is a-weary of this great world says the beautiful young woman with the gorgeous clothes and hair and jewels; to which her companion responds, That would be understandable if you were as miserable as in reality you are truly fortunate.
A look from her beautiful friend and she adds: But I guess if you’re glutted with too much you can be just as unhappy as those who are starving and have nothing. Moderation in all things, eh?
And the lovely lively young rich girl replies, I know, I know, but it’s hard to live moderately when you have so much.

The Belmontians should be delightful and gregarious and fun and we should find ourselves giving over to their sillinesses. Each episode of this final movement of the play, however, should, I think, end with a close-up on Jessica.
My friend’s Mexican housekeeper was invited to one of those poolside parties and she came with her husband and teenage son. They sat like Jessicas and said little, even when they were actively included in conversations. But when one of the partygoers chided her boyfriend for losing that money clip she bought him and when she, yes, pushed him fully clothed into the pool and everyone laughed, who at the party thought to look to the housekeeper and her family to see how they were responding to the antics?
Productions that keep Jessica on the outside looking in throughout the act—even ending the play with her alone on stage holding the deed from "the rich Jew"—make sense, I think.

Play Shylock’s closed, musicless, calculating nature fully. And when he gets a chance to exact revenge, play him fearlessly as the Ultimate Other. But create a world that gladly treats him that way and in fact will keep him that way through its social mores as well as its laws. He devises his diabolical bond only after Antonio smacks him with his and after this is over, I’ll go right back to spitting on you.
And when The Other hammers at the system that keeps it all humming along, the system neutralizes him.

Play Portia’s vitality and her grace, her intellect and wit, her sense of humor and her great generosity, but play her bigotry and her spoiled-rich-girlness too. One does not preclude the other.

Play Antonio’s anti-Semitic hatred of Shylock as fully as you play his bountiful generosity to Bassanio. One does not preclude the other.

While there is no necessity to play Antonio’s love for Bassanio as a wholly out older gay man’s obsession with a young man who freely takes advantage of that obsession (productions, for example, that set the Venice scenes in a gay bath house), there is also no reason to underplay the otherwise irrational intensity of Antonio’s love.
The ambiguity is the point.
The play starts with ambiguity: In sooth, I know not why I am so sad. A few minutes later, when Bassanio lays it all out for Antonio and Antonio pledges to borrow money to help him, we have a good inkling why, even if Antonio knows not why.
And after all the couplings at the finale of the play, Antonio the Merchant of Venice is left the lone outsider.
Perhaps Jessica isn’t the last to leave the stage.

That Shakespeare was a transcendent genius who saw things in his world that his contemporaries didn’t doesn’t mean he therefore saw the world as we see it, though it’s easy for us to wish it were so.
Perhaps he saw deeper than either his world or ours sees things.
In order to write a play dramatizing the inevitable if unfortunate necessity of bigotry and racism, the necessity of creating The Other to contrast The English, he was a man of his time and so he created The Jew, the heathen, the joyless money-lender, who gets hoist with the legal system. If today he were writing for an audience of The West he might create The Muslim, the jihadist, the soulless terrorist (How dare we afford them legal rights?), however narrow and bigoted--and uninformed by firsthand experience--both of these depictions may necessarily be.
If he were writing today with the American Evangelical Christian Right as his audience, he might easily dramatize The Homosexual as The Other and The Homosexual Other would surely get his comeuppance. Rather than stoning him to death, the merciful Christian judge might send him to a Gay Cure camp, after which he might profitably be Christianized.
You might try this one with The Abortion Doctor as The Other.
Or try these:  
If the Orthodox Jewish Communities of Urban America were the audience (Us) for such a play, then who might be The Other?
If extreme Tea Partiers are the Us?

I think the play knows that the basic questions it asks have no absolute answers and that that, in fact, is part of what’s being dramatized. I think a major concern of the play is that to sustain any culture or social polity we must of necessity exclude some people and define ourselves against them; that there must always be people we think of as somehow less worthy because they are not like us. So long as we all keep our place, everything’s okay. Behind it all is a concern about a world in which, because other traditional systems have failed, issues of love and family and religion must be framed in, and can only be satisfactorily worked out in, the language and the logic of secular law courts.

Or perhaps all this is only what I think the present production moment can bring to the past creation as a way of keeping this play alive today.


  1. Friend and Northwestern University colleague Dr. Linda Walsh Jenkins emailed me some thoughts about recent posts. I asked if I might include them as a Comment here and she consented. Also check the May 3 post on The Nunnery Scene for her terrific ideas about Hamlet and Ophelia.

    From Linda:

    Merchant - historically the Jews (and openly-acknowledged Catholics and Unitarians) were literally being driven out of England by law as Shakespeare produced this play. Like the Nazis, the English were confiscating Jewish homes and goods (resenting their success at that moneylending thing that the Christians hadn't been clever enough to grab for themselves). Being a not-so-secret Catholic, Shakespeare created some fascinating layering about bigotry and religious intolerance.

    Shrew - yes, commedia indeed. In my youth I played Kate in a commedia-designed production. At the end I delivered the speech sweetly, with a bit of seduction, put out my hand for the foot, and then upended Petrucchio when he fell for it. Not an original bit of direction, I know. But Petrucchio (Harlequin) laughs in this interpretation, and yes, we know they'll go on "playing" each other. Ideally, through the play each teaches the other how to find a good fit for the relationship imposed by father, society and wealth. Put some emphasis on what Petruchio has to learn about respecting and enjoying her and you have a robust commedia. Her doltish Isabella sister won't have nearly as much fun as Kate with her dull pretty boy husband. Inamorata - ugh!

  2. Sure appreciate the historical perspectives on how Shakespeare's contemporaries might have perceived the story and characters at the time.

    Also enjoy the analogies that you use to make it all more current.

    Given the religious and general intolerance of "others" during the time when he was writing, do you suppose that Shakespeare was attempting to crack open the door a bit without totally alienating his fan base?

    Also makes me curious on your thoughts as to the practical side of Shakespeare. Any sense on how much he wrote for his audience vs. writing for himself?

  3. Shakespeare wrote for his audiences. He was, as Alvina Krause said, a showman. And there was lots of competition for the audience attendance dollar (or pound). So he had to write whatever it took to pack them in. After all, there was not only another theatre just down the way but there was a bear-baiting pit next door. Not to mention other forms of adult entertainment.
    And the audiences covered a wide range of what we think of as socio-economic class and breadth of education.
    So he had to be the playwright of Something for Everyone.

    He was passionate about humanity and his showmanship didn't mean he had to compromise his passions and beliefs. Like Shaw he unapologetically uses whatever theatrical tools are available to keep his audiences engaged and entertained; he gets them to hear his ideas and experience his concerns as a fringe benefit of their being entertained.

    I think it also involves what a playwright wants his audience to do in response to seeing his plays. Shaw and Ibsen want people to take action to change the world. Shakespeare, I think, is more like Chekhov in this respect. Chekhov is the poet of the unspoken and Shakespeare's poetry gives voice to subtext. They both ask their audiences if not to take action, at least to see, truly to see and to experience with understanding, what human beings do to one another. Maybe they hope that whatever change their plays provoke will happen within the hearts of individual members of their fan base.
    As you put it, to crack open the door a bit.

  4. Friend and DavidGoingOn Subscriber Ron Nicholas sent me this email from a friend of his, who consented to my posting it here.


    I passed along the link to your blog with the recent Shakespeare references to a good friend who is an English Prof and a huge fan on Shakespeare (oh and he teaches about him too). He's a good guy and had some comments that I thought you might enjoy (see below).

    ----- Original Message -----
    From: Gary Eberle
    To: Ron Nicholas
    Sent: Monday, June 21, 2010 3:52 PM
    Subject: Re: DavidGoingOn

    Dear Ron:

    I hope your neck of the woods was not hit too hard by the tornadoes last week. Are you all okay?

    I finally got around to reading David's blog and found a lot interesting in it from the theater point of view. Stephen Greenblatt in his recent bio of Shakespeare, Will in the World, has a whole chapter that contextualizes Merchant and what Shakespeare would have known/felt about Jews. Both Shrew and Merchant are tough to teach and I use a wonderful (controversial) article when I teach Merchant about whether one can ethically perform that play after the Holocaust.

    As for Shrew, I have been contemplating an article for some time based on a key line of the play in which Petruchio compares taming Kate to taming a falcon, "manning the haggard," that is, making a hawk a fit hunting companion for a human being. If you read the play carefully, Petruchio does not abuse Kate so much as he abuses Kate's servants, making her jump to their rescue. When she marries, she is going to be in charge of a household of servants and if she is as shrewish with them as she is with everyone, then the household totters. It's a long argument, based on the text, but the point is that Kae has to be brought within bounds of Elizabethan hierarchies. She is not powerless in the final scene, even though she is in second in command in Petruchio's household.

    I make my case with Elizabethan hawking manuals and other texts on the proper relations between husbands, wives and servants.

    Anyway, we have been talking about this Shakespeare guy for four hundred years now and the conversation shows no signs of slowing down. I'm off to Stratford next week leading a group of elder students to see The Winters Tale and Evita.

  5. Stephen Greenblatt has written a terrific essay about Shylock--and Al Pacino's interpretation of the role in this summer's Shakespeare in the Park production--published in the September 30 issue of The New York Review of Books. The essay extends some of Greenblatt's ideas in the Merchant of Venice chapter of his 2004 book Will in the World: How Shakespeare became Shakespeare (Norton), mentioned by Gary Eberle in the above comment.

  6. And may I suggest the "Dueling Shylocks" section of Ron Rosenbaum's book The Shakespeare Wars, Random House, 2006.