Thoroughly modern ‘Merchant’

Deanna Michalopoulos

When Roseanne Clark visited Venice this summer she toured an extravagant city. But below its ornate architecture, she says, Venice isn’t stable.

“The city is sinking,” said Clark, a Communication senior and director of Lovers and Madmen’s “The Merchant of Venice.” “The foundation of the city is inherently corrupt.”

It’s a phenomena Clark adapted to “The Merchant of Venice,” Lovers and Madmen’s featured Shakespeare play, which opens today and runs through Saturday at the Shanley Pavilion. Though the comedy and the love story account for the bulk of the scenes, rampant racist attitudes lend the play its unsettling aftertaste.

“‘The Merchant of Venice’ is one of Shakespeare’s more controversial plays because of the perceived anti-Semitism in it,” Clark said. “Just underneath [the anti-Semitism] is the exploration of what it means to be human and all of these references pointing to the hypocrisy of each of the characters who claim to be upright, moral Christian people, and in the same breath are condemning this other person.”

Lovers and Madmen’s version of the play takes place in contemporary times in the Italian city. Lord Bassanio (Josh Penzell) wants to marry the wealthy Portia (Jill Slattery) of Belmont, but he doesn’t have enough money to go to her. Since his bosom buddy Antonio (David Winkler), the merchant himself, has his funds tied up overseas in various ships, he resorts to a usurer, Shylock (Kyle O. Jones), to help his friend.

Immediately Shylock plays the part of a victim. Subjected to ridicule by the very men who want to borrow his money, Shylock is maliciously addressed as a “Jew.”

“It’s a little awkward being ostracized from an entire society,” said Jones, a Communication senior. “Characters will fuel the words a lot, so even when people say something as simple as ‘Jew,’ they will load it with so much that you can’t help but hear loathing and hatred.”

While Shylock deals with contemptuous people, he also must endure the intense physical violence that accompanies the racism. He never fails to defend his faith, yet despite his compelling speech, Shylock lacks the morale to win with words. His averted eyes betray the profound effect of Antonio’s mocking. Since Shylock isn’t on the same (read: Christian) ground as the other men, he fights back in the one arena they share — the law.

Shylock agrees to lend Bassanio the money in Antonio’s name. But if for some reason Antonio does not pay Shylock back by a certain date, Shylock will be entitled to cut off a pound of Antonio’s flesh. The contract binds the possibility of Shylock’s revenge.

In the meantime a series of princes arrive in Belmont for a chance to be Portia’s husband. Her father has sets three caskets, and whoever chooses the casket with her picture on the inside wins her hand. Initially, the prospects do not look good: one of Portia’s main suitors is the Prince of Morocco (Imran Khan), who dons fake sunglasses and under his suit wears an unbuttoned teal sateen shirt that reveals his chest hair.

“[Portia] is smart, she’s articulate and eloquent, and at moments she’s very fun,” said Slattery, a Communication senior. “But she has lines that are sort of racist.”

Portia is more than relieved when the Prince chooses the wrong casket, yet his comic appearance sours when she makes a derogatory statement about his dark complexion.

With his borrowed money in hand, Bassanio travels to Belmont with his pal, drunken buffoon Graziano (Mark DeFrancis), to win Portia. Bassanio chooses the correct casket and gains a wife. But Shylock loses a daughter: Jessica (Laura Scheinbaum) runs away, essentially renouncing her faith in favor of Christianity. Antonio also loses his ships, which means he can’t repay Shylock’s loan.

Although the play was written centuries in the past, its examination of intolerance is valuable for today’s audience.

“It’s more powerful to do a play like this in a modern context with the intention of making people reconsider whether or not these issues are truly gone from our society,” Clark said. “I would argue that they aren’t.”