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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
Jews had been banned from England in 1290, and Shakespeare and his contemporaries most likely never saw one. The story is that Christopher Marlowe had a big hit with "A Jew of Malta" and Shakespeare's company across town needed a Jewish play quickly to compete. Marlowe's protagonist was a monstrous jumble of medieval stereotypes, while Shakespeare countered with a much more rounded portrait.
Nonetheless, to give the Bard what he asked for in this script strikes modern audiences as barbaric. Videos with Laurence Olivier and Al Pacino have strategically pruned texts, and Orson Welles completely abandoned a planned production on the grounds that there's enough anti-Semitism in the world already.
It's not a question of political correctness, which as we know, is only having to be polite to people we feel entitled to be rude to. It's a question of recognizing the humanity in Shakespeare's characters, which is a major part of his genius. Surely his original audience laughed at the taunting of Shylock, and cheered his forced conversion at the end. But Shakespeare takes this cartoon villain, and gives him a tender moment to remember his late wife Leah, a chance to reproach Antonio for his loutish behavior, and getting back the reply, "I'd do it again in a minute." And the "Hath not a Jew eyes" speech is something that one could not hope to find in a British play for centuries before or after.
Warren Mitchell, his director Jack Gold and his producer Jonathan Miller, have come up with a Shylock who is by far the most interesting character in the play. Despite the inappropriate Yiddish accent (surely Shylock's household spoke Ladino), Mitchell reacts with wide-eyed resignation while receiving insults, and collapses in heated agony at his final defeat.
By comparison, the others are a milky lot, without pulse or passion or dimension, aside of course from their obsessive anti-Semitism. With all the unpalatable verbal abuse presented intact, we leave the play with the impression that Antonio is tired and a bad judge of character, Bassanio is a blank slate, Portia is a smug, doll-like, self-impressed manipulator and a racist. Gratiano and his friends are loudmouthed bullies with nothing more to offer. Lorenzo is vapid, Jessica is nasty and stupid. Gobbo plays coarse tricks on his blind father and is more idiotic and annoying than most Shakespearean clowns.
Shylock may be repellent in parts, but at least he's alive. That's not easy to say about the rest of the people here.
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