A rich merchant, Antonio is depressed for no good reason, until his good friend Bassanio comes to tell him how he's in love with Portia. Portia's father has died and left a very strange ... See full summary »
Exiled Prospero lives on a desolate island with his daughter, Miranda. When Prospero's usurping brother sails by the island, Prospero conjures a storm that wrecks the ship and changes all of their lives.
A rich merchant, Antonio is depressed for no good reason, until his good friend Bassanio comes to tell him how he's in love with Portia. Portia's father has died and left a very strange will: only the man that picks the correct casket out of three (silver, gold, and lead) can marry her. Bassanio, unfortunately, is strapped for cash with which to go wooing, and Antonio wants to help, so Antonio borrows the money from Shylock, the money-lender. But Shylock has been nursing a grudge against Antonio's insults, and makes unusual terms to the loan. And when Antonio's business fails, those terms threaten his life, and it's up to Bassanio and Portia to save him. Written by
Jonathan Miller and Jack Gold have chosen to accentuate the anti-Semitism of the play in this production. In so doing, they have highlighted the sheer vileness of most of the Christian characters without sweetening the character of Shylock. Shylock, excellently portrayed by Warren Mitchell, is intelligent and sharply witty and sometimes poignantly appealing; yet at other times he is ruthlessly vindictive. However, what this production makes powerfully clear is that his ruthless vindictiveness is a product of the shameful ways in which he has been treated by his Christian contemporaries. Their coarse bigotry and outright abuse -- along with their sanctimonious blindness to their own grievous faults -- have brought out the worst in Shylock (whose miserliness as a moneylender, likewise, is due to his being barred from every other profession in medieval Venice).
Gemma Jones is not beautiful, but her acting in the role of Portia is outstanding. Portia is perhaps the most repellent character of all, as she addresses Shylock with her marvelous disquisition on the quality of mercy and then proves to be unremittingly merciless and devious in her treatment of him. In addition to being a foul bigot, she plays a tiresome and cruel trick on her husband which may have seemed funny to audiences in Shakespeare's time but which seems today to be a further confirmation of her grandiose egocentricity.
Even more tiresome than Portia's silly trick is the character of Launcelot Gobbo -- one of the most grimly unfunny clowns (and the most odiously anti-Semitic clown) in Shakespeare's whole oeuvre. Enn Reitel does a good job of portraying this rebarbative character.
Also repulsive are Salerio and Solanio, two characters who -- like most of the rest of the Christians in the play -- appear to be unacquainted with the activity of productive work. Their vicious hatred of Jews and their general decadence are brought out well in this production by John Rhys-Davies and Alan David.
The characters of Nerissa and Bassanio are less overtly bigoted and distasteful than the other Christians, and they are deftly performed here by Susan Jameson (who is beautiful) and John Nettles.
Most of the other parts in the play are likewise adeptly performed. Every production of "The Merchant of Venice" has to come to grips with the savage prejudices that are so salient in the play. By underscoring the intensity and ugliness of those prejudices, this production helps to reveal the extent to which they deform the society in which they are prevalent.
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