The Merchant of Venice

2016315d224_27496339984_oThe Merchant of Venice is a challenging play for many reasons. As Tina Packer said on opening night at Shakespeare and Company, “It is a roller coaster.” The play which she directed     runs in repertory until August 21. Even before the Holocaust cast a harsher light on  the treatment of Shylock, the structure of the play raises questions as it shifts from comedy to drama to comedy What is not in question in this production  is the quality of Jonathan Epstein’s portrayal of Shylock. This is one of the most nuanced, humane and moving performances of the character that one is ever likely to see.

I have always had a problem with Portia, who although she extols the quality of mercy, shows none to Shylock. Bassanio and Lorenzo seemed to me fortune hunters who woo Portia and Jessica for gain as much as anything else. But then we interviewed the actors and my understanding of the characters changed dramatically. As a result I have become convinced that if you want to know about people in a play, ask the actors. For them to give the quality of performances they do, they have to live the people from the inside out. Although I always liked Nerissa, I understood her differently after this interview.

To listen to the interview, click on the link below.

Interview with Portia, Bassanio and Nerissa


One thought on “The Merchant of Venice

  1. Acting a role is absolutely a wonderful way to learn a character. I wouldn’t say it’s the best way, and some actors pass on the opportunity to learn their characters from the inside, but it IS a great way, as I discovered doing Shylock with this little NYC group you may have heard of, Paul Sugarman’s Instant Shakespeare.

    Through the years, reading Shylock, watching him, reading about him, I always had sympathy for his plight, of course. It’s such an obvious plight, as laid out by Shakespeare, that productions emphasizing the plight seem to me heavy-handed, as if the audience wasn’t smart enough to figure it out. The Jonathan Pryce version last summer in NYC fit that category for me, though it had much to recommend it and was highly praised for interpolating Jewish elements. I also knew that, even as Shakespeare employed old anti-Semitic stereotypes for comedy, he was unusual in rising above the stereotypes to make Shylock sympathetic.

    However, doing the role, even in a reading, was a revelation. As I said those lines, addressing the other characters and responding to their words, I was amazed to feel that I / Shylock was right. Not just sympathetically written but RIGHT. In the moment of the performance, nothing anyone said made as much sense to me as my / Shylock’s words, or the points he made. They’re Christians — like Portia — acting without any of the Christian virtues they profess, the same “virtues” they use to hound and attack me. The one acting most like a good Christian was, ironically, Shylock. I’d never seen that before, not with the depth I felt it playing the role.


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