This may come as a surprise to non Shakespearean scholars: Shylock is not “The Merchant of Venice.” The title belongs to Antonio, the businessman who borrows cash from Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, to help out a friend, Bassanio (who may be something more than a friend). It was from Antonio that Shylock demanded the infamous “pound of flesh” when his ducats could not be repaid.
“Merchant,” a story of power and revenge, justice and mercy, true and duplicitous love, is sometimes classified as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” because it’s not clearly a comedy or a tragedy.
You can see for yourself, when Intrepid Shakespeare Company continues its Free Will series with a reading of the play, starring Old Globe Associate Artist and theater luminary Jonathan McMurtry, with Intrepid co-founder Christy Yael as Portia, the rich, beautiful heroine. Actor/director Christopher Williams directs.
“Everybody loses in this play,” explains McMurtry, who has appeared in more than 200 productions at the Globe, and has served as mentor, teacher, coach and dramaturge for Intrepid since its inception.
“Shylock, of course, loses the most,” he continues. “His money, his daughter, even his religion is taken away from him. But the others lose, too. Antonio loses Bassanio . Portia realizes that Bassanio is a hustler, a gold-digger, who won’t be such a great husband. Shylock’s runaway daughter, Jessica, has terrible remorse at the end. It’s not a very happy ending for anyone. What kind of life are those people going to live now?”
In the ‘villain vs. victim’ debate about Shylock, McMurtry says, “I see both in him. I see him as a sympathetic character. I feel sorry for him. And I think he’s justified in saying how people don’t understand. He makes you think: We could be wrong here.
Which leads to the issue of anti-Semitism.
“Shakespeare makes people think more about the Jewish race,” says McMurtry. “Shylock is an ambiguous character. He has human weaknesses and frailties, but nothing other people don’t have. I want the audience to see those weaknesses in themselves, and form their own opinion. As Craig Noel (the late ‘Father of San Diego theater ’) said of the play, ‘It’s tricky.’
“I don’t think Shylock is greedy. I think Antonio is. He wants the money from Shylock to give to Bassanio . He’s squandering the money for love. Shylock wasn’t a moneylender out of greed. Jews were very constrained at the time; they weren’t even allowed to live in London , and they were limited in how they could earn a livelihood.
“Shakespeare is so generous in what he gives his characters. He’s generous even with his villains, and he lets the public decide. He doesn’t impose himself or his opinions. His characters have political views, but we know very little about the man who created them. I think that’s his glory.”
The reading of “The Merchant of Venice” will take place at 7:30pm on Sunday, December 12, in the Encinitas Library. Admission is free.