In the past few months, I and my fellow cast members have been exercising not only our acting but our moral chops, as we work on a 60-minute version of The Merchant of Venice, adapted and directed by Dikran Tulaine. Dikran streamlined the play by leaving out the portions that deal with Portia and Jessica’s marital adventures. They are secondary to the issue we want to explore, which is hatred of the “other”.
We call the piece “Antonio and Shylock: Monsters.”
Wikipedia says, “The word “monster” derives from Latin monstrum, an aberrant occurrence, usually biological, that was taken as a sign that something was wrong within the natural order.
“The word usually connotes something wrong or evil; a monster is generally morally objectionable, physically or psychologically hideous, and/or a freak of nature. It can also be applied figuratively to a person with similar characteristics like a greedy person or a person who does horrible things.
“The root of ‘monstrum’ is ‘monere’—which does not only mean to warn, but also to instruct, and forms the basis of the modern English demonstrate. Thus, the monster is also a sign or instruction. This benign interpretation was proposed by Saint Augustine, who did not see the monster as inherently evil, but as part of the natural design of the world, a kind-of deliberate category error.”
We have all experienced mixed feelings in performance as we castigate the “Jew” of the story, Shylock, ably portrayed by Dikran. Addressing Shylock as “Jew” in this line “Therefore, Jew, though justice be thy plea….” feels bigoted, and my best self rebels at it. It is a distancing, an identifying of Shylock as “other.” And we all feel deep sympathy for Shylock at the end of the play, when the court, at Antonio’s “merciful” behest, deprives him of half his goods and demands that he deed the other half, at his death, to his daughter and the Christian man she ran off with. In an even further violation, Antonio demands that Shylock “become a Christian”. It’s a monstrous act, done with the cooperation of the state of Venice. And we all feel monstrous as we contemplate it.
This is not to excuse Shylock’s lust for the pound of flesh that he wishes to extract from Antonio. It’s a sad and shameful thing to witness the desire for revenge. Shylock’s desire for revenge is understandable, and perhaps even justified. But it’s clear that there is no good to come of the seeking of revenge, which surely must be behind Antonio’s “merciful” suggestion.
It could be argued that Antonio wants Shylock to become a Christian because he thinks it would be good for his soul, but I personally doubt it. For Antonio to demand that Shylock give up the faith of his fathers is the cruelest act of all. Nothing good can come from such a monstrous act.
I play the role of Portia, and as I rehearse her “quality of mercy” speech, I ponder the deeper meaning of the words I say, in particular, “In the course of justice, none of us should see salvation. We do pray for mercy, and that same prayer doth teach us all to render the deeds of mercy.”
There is a desire for justice in all of us, a sense that the world should be fair. Portia, in her call for Shylock to show mercy, is saying that if fairness means paying for our mistakes, then none of us would escape the payment. But there’s a difference between procedural justice (the law) and social justice. Do we, as flawed human beings, really want nothing but procedural justice? Portia believes, as I do, that what we really want is mercy.
I long to see mercy in this world of ours, a world seemingly bent on revenge. All over the globe people who want “justice” are acting without mercy. Though it pains me to hear Shylock insist on the death of Antonio, and to see Antonio exact revenge on Shylock, I’m glad for the opportunity to examine the roots of revenge, and the urge to compassion that causes us all to feel pity for both of these “monsters.”
Antonio and Shylock: Monsters is playing at Stage Left Studio October 19 at 2 pm, and Oct 22, 23 and 26 at 7:30 pm. Please join me and my fellow cast members Liam Bobersky, TC Corwin, Annette Guarrasi, Dikran Tulaine and KC Weakley for a performance and wine reception afterwards. Tickets, video clips and reviews can be found at http://www.stageleftstudio.net/cms-view-page.php?page=Antonio-and-Shylock. Thanks to Karin Kearns for her images and video skills.