When we were in Ashland, Oregon a couple of weeks ago, we took in a performance of the Merchant of Venice by the venerable and reputable Oregon shakespeare festival. Let it be noted that my cold, hard heart has only rarely been warmed by staged drama. Performances on the stage leave me cold – as a rule. Musical theatre doubly so. Thus I was shocked when I found myself moved nearly to tears by this odd, dark, hilarious, and chilling performance. I had never read the play before – and so it was completely fresh to me.
Doubly odd is that the usually acerbic and shrill Maureen Dowd posted a thoughtful review of a New York revival of the same play. I’m almost willing to make the pilgrimage to see Al, f-ing, Pacino play Shylock.
One gorgeous scene evolves with only slight modification, Shylock (the Jew, the evil, the conniving Jew … who comes by his viciousness honestly, after a lifetime of being spat upon) meets a friend who is played as deaf – signing his lines with offhand translation by a muttering Shylock:
SALARINO: Why, I am sure, if he forfeit, thou wilt not take his flesh: what’s that good for?
SHYLOCK: To bait fish withal: if it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my
bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies; and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. 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? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?
As redmeds dad said at one point during the show: “For all our progress in the last 400 years, the language of bigotry and intolerance is still completely fresh.” He had spent considerable time on it in school and quoted at length. Again, surprise was mine.
To my eye, the play evolves in the form now embodied by Steven Colbert. All our brutish viciousness and stupidity are on raw display – smilingly portrayed by a vicious, heartless guy who supposedly embodies all our virtues.