HENRY IV · HENRY V · THE MERCHANT OF VENICE

SHAKESPEARE ROUNDUP

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A cloudy day in Stratford-upon-Avon, 2012.

I have not been reading any Shakespeare lately, but I have been listening, watching, and just absorbing him in all the ways I am able to, and my heart feels so big. I sometimes worry that I’ll forget, or that my feelings will lose their depth, but every time I am pulled back into Shakespeare’s orbit I enjoy the peculiar feeling of my heart inflating like a balloon.

And since I have been engaging in all this fun media, I thought I would do a roundup and talk about some of the things that have been on my mind! It might be the only way to get my heart to shrink down to its original size (a reverse-Grinch, if you will).

Shakespeare Unlimited
Shakespeare Unlimited is the Folger Shakespeare Library’s podcast, and I highly, highly recommend it if you’ve never listened! It isn’t perfect, but every so often you’ll find yourself listening to a total gem. Other times, well…

I had the misfortune of listening to an episode called Steven Berkoff: Shakespeare’s Heroes and Villains. I love character-centric episodes because I love to harp on about Shakespeare’s characters! This episode made me so incredibly uncomfortable though, and it has a lot to do with Berkoff’s interpretation of Shylock. They played a clip of his Shylock and I was totally floored by the accent he was putting on. It was, well, terrible.

BOGAEV: How did you decide on that voice for him? Where did that come from?

BERKOFF: Well, I thought part of the reason was that Shylock today has been, and I mention in the piece, homogenized, deodorized, cleaned up, because we don’t like to, you know, infer that we are supporting him, so even some directors cut one or two lines. He says, “I hate him for he is a Christian,” they’ll cut that, they’re so dumb. So I wanted to go the reverse way.

First, I’d like to say that I’ve never seen the line “I hate him for he is a Christian,” cut out of The Merchant of Venice, and the one production I’ve been to was incredibly abridged. Second, is Shylock homogenized, deodorized, and cleaned up? This seems a stretch. All that has changed about The Merchant of Venice is the audience. We now have more empathy toward Shylock because it is a different time and we are different people. Frankly, I found this comment to be a little disrespectful to all the different interpretations of Shylock that have been brought forth by other Jewish actors.

BERKOFF: I didn’t want to, although I could have done, played him as a heroic Jew, they’re the current fashion. The philosophical Jew, the noble Jew, the Fiddler on the Roof Jew, I thought, “I want to play him as the Bard, as Shakespeare, wrote him, as disgusting, rancid, angry, filthy, dangerous.”

Look, Steven Berkoff is Jewish, so I can’t really knock the way he chooses to play Shylock. But I would like to ask how he knows what Shakespeare intended. I promise I am not being facetious. Is the heroic Jewish character really the current fashion?

The Merchant of Venice is a tough nut to crack. Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta was a big box office hit, and Shakespeare was trying to emulate that. But here’s the thing: he could have written a character who was outright disgusting, rancid, filthy, and what have you. He could have written it very clearly. Shakespeare needs no help with words. He’d have known how to do it. He has, after all, given us characters like Iago and Richard III. He knows what evil is.

Instead, he had Shylock challenge the audience, ask the Christians in this play to explain the logic behind their racism. I do not know what Shakespeare’s view on Jewish people was. I have no idea if he ever met any Jewish people, as they’d been banned from England in the late 1200s. But in Shylock, he gave us a complicated, three dimensional man. And when I read Merchant, I do not see him as a villain. Because he does not have to be. He is a man wronged, and despite the acidity of his demeanor, you can’t help but think that Antonio, Bassanio, and even Portia sort-of-kind-of deserve it.

I was so upset by this depiction of Shylock that I went online to find out what other controversial opinions were held by Berkoff. And, lo and behold, I found out that he thinks Othello should be an option for white actors, and that we shouldn’t cast black men in the role for the sake of ‘political correctness.’

So I think it’s safe to say that his opinion on The Merchant of Venice is now null and void. The Folger, meanwhile, needs to be more careful about who they let onto their podcast.

Shakespeare Uncovered
So, after being deeply disappointed by Shakespeare Unlimited, you find yourself wondering where you might go to find more nuanced, sensible discussions of Shakespeare. Lucky for you, Shakespeare Uncovered exists.

Shakespeare Uncovered is a documentary series that airs on PBS here in the USA. I have absolutely loved every episode I’ve watched. Discussions of the plays are incredibly detailed, and the hosts are so obviously passionate. Since we’re on the topic of The Merchant of Venice, F. Murray Abraham’s episode on the play was top notch. I watched it early one morning while getting ready for work, and the closing lines wrecked me.

ABRAHAM: The Merchant of Venice is hardly what we see as a comedy today. It’s a play with dark shadows, and the character that casts the longest one is Shylock. Shylock will not go away because we haven’t answered his questions. We can’t explain why we persecute difference, why we reject the outsider, why we still refuse to see each other’s humanity.

What a thought-provoking and intelligent interpretation of The Merchant of Venice. The episode on Measure for Measure (which, by the way, still haunts me on the daily) was also carefully written and hosted. The subject matter is delicate, the time we are in even more so, but host Romola Garai and the guests she spoke to made it clear that Measure for Measure is a difficult play with no right answers.

Because, as we know, there is no clear hero or heroine. All we have to deal with is Isabella and Angelo, the Duke and Mariana. The episode was gorgeous and interesting, much like the rest of Shakespeare Uncovered. I highly, highly recommend it! I’ve used it in the past to prep my family for plays, and it’s always been a huge help. And for someone who is well-versed in Shakespeare, it is a relaxing, thoughtful dive into our favorite plays.

The King (2019)

What is a post from me if it does not contain even one mention of Henry V? The King is an upcoming Netflix movie based on Henry IV Parts One and Two and Henry V. Oh, the endless possibilities! And oh, the potential for absolute disaster.

From the get-go, I was very skeptical of the casting. I think you need incredible range to play Hal, especially if you’re going to carry him through the Henriad. The shift from rebellious scoundrel to pressured king cannot be jarring. The transition needs to be smooth and natural, which is quite difficult. I thought Tom Hiddleston did a good job of it in The Hollow Crown. I saw Jamie Parker as Hal in Henry V at the Globe in 2012, and I could see glimmers of the prince I love and know so well even in what was being put on as a stand-alone play. What I’m saying is a ruffled bowl cut does not a Prince Hal of England make.

The AV Club’s synopsis more or less confirms that I am going to be hate watching this more than anything else. It goes, “Hal is a reluctant heir to the English throne who’s been living as a commoner these many years. He’s forced to take the crown, however, after his tyrannical father bites it. Now the young king must navigate the palace politics, chaos and war his father left behind, and the emotional strings of his past life – including his relationship with his closest friend and mentor, the aging alcoholic knight, John Falstaff.”

Reluctant heir is right. But living as a commoner? I’m not sure I’d call messing around at the Boar’s Head ‘living as a commoner.’

I take the most issue with him being forced to take the crown after his tyrannical father ‘bites it.’ 4.3 in Henry IV, Part Two is an incredibly important scene, and this part of the synopsis tells me that Henry IV isn’t the only thing that’ll be biting it. Hal and Henry IV’s tension reaches its limit in 4.3, and their reconciliation is incredibly important for Hal’s character development. While Hal does have to navigate palace politics as he tries to reconcile who he is with who England expects him to be, I would not say that he is dealing with chaos and war left behind by Henry IV. 4.3 very clearly shows Henry IV telling Hal to distract the court with French wars so that they don’t have the time or energy for another uprising a la Hotspur and Northumberland.

Speaking of Hotspur, where is he?

As for Falstaff, I guess he isn’t dying anymore! If we cut out 4.3, and if we reduce Henry IV down to a tyrant, then we are getting rid of what pulls Hal toward Falstaff – the deep-rooted desire for a father figure who does not mind his rakish ways. Mentor, no. A source of validation and support, yes.

It also looks like Katherine might have more of a role in this movie, which I can’t really complain about. I did laugh out loud at her asking Hal, “Do you feel a sense of achievement?” A little on the nose there, don’t you think? Also, definitely not a line from 5.2 of Henry V!

I think the Henriad is wonderfully accessible, but we need to listen to what the source material is trying to tell us. Shakespeare has it all laid out in black and white: Hal, the struggling prince, later the struggling king. How do you make peace with your past? How do you bridge two parts of yourself while ensuring the loyalty and love of your people? How do you cope knowing that all of England has put their souls on your shoulders? Who do you grow up to be when you’ve been desperate for your father’s approval all your life?

And Falstaff: the clown, but also the crude, makeshift father figure for the unruly prince. A source of oddly put wisdom, a warm, funny place to go when the palace is too cold and the walls begin to close in.

It’s all there, and I don’t think The King went into this knowing that. But we shall see! November 1st is fast approaching, and I doubt this movie will leave my radar any time soon.

And, before I leave, all hail the King? Really? That’s the tagline they came up with for the Henriad? Talk about dark times.

SHAKESPEARE · THE MERCHANT OF VENICE

I HAVE SWORN AN OATH THAT I WILL HAVE MY BOND

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The contract that binds Antonio to Shylock. Posted by Shakespeare’s Globe on Instagram.

The last two acts of The Merchant of Venice are very short, but also very powerful. Although I feel that I don’t have anything of substance to say about this play myself, I would like to muse on some of the things we discussed in class.

Portia – Portia’s courtroom scene – where she disguises herself as a lawyer, and destroys Shylock – is really the scene where she shines the most. She tries to reason with Shylock, and gives him a lecture on the nature of mercy. Her words have no effect on him, however – he will have Antonio’s pound of flesh no matter what. Portia, being as clever as she is, finds a loophole in the bond: nowhere did the contract state that Shylock would be entitled to collect any blood.

“Take then thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh: But, in the cutting it, if thou dost shed one drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods are, by the laws of Venice, confiscate unto the state of Venice,” she says.

Shylock quickly backs down – he’ll have the three thousand ducats instead. Bassanio is willing to give him the money, but Portia dishes out justice in an ironically unmerciful fashion. Just before, she had been going on about the divine qualities of mercy. But how is she any better than Shylock now? Shouldn’t she have just let him take his money and leave with his tail between his legs?

This scene doesn’t make me hate Portia, but it does prevent me from really loving her the way I love other stand-out Shakespearean heroines. There is a hypocritical quality about her, unfortunately, that I just cannot overlook.

Shylock – why doesn’t Shylock back down from the bond? My response to this was simple: why should he?

On-stage, Antonio loves to play the poor little victim. I genuinely dislike his character for this reason. Off-stage, it has been said that he has treated Shylock badly for being Jewish. And when they made the contract, it was agreed that this was a contract between enemies.

Somebody suggested that Antonio took the pound of flesh nonsense as a joke – because Shylock couldn’t really be serious could he? If this is true – and it could be played like this, if the actor was so inclined – the fault is still Antonio’s. I say this because I know that Shylock is not the sort of character who says things lightly. When he said the cost would be a pound of Antonio’s flesh, he meant it. And if Antonio has been awful to him in the past, why should he feel sorry for him?

I want to note that I do not think that Shylock is a good person, necessarily. I don’t think he’s 100% bad either. I think he’s very set in his ways and unable to express a lot of emotion (particularly toward Jessica, who I think he does really love in his way). He has clearly suffered a lot of abuse in his life, and so his disposition isn’t really much of a surprise. I think everybody can agree that Shylock isn’t blameless in this play – but I think we can also agree on one important thing: we pity him.

We pity Shylock in a way we do not pity Antonio, or any other character in the play. When he is forced to convert to Christianity at the end of the play, the sadness and anger you feel for him are very difficult to ignore. I do not think Shylock deserved what he got. I think Portia should have just let Bassanio give him the three thousand ducats. I know Shylock would have left filled with shame – and I would have accepted it. But stripping him of everything he has – and even of his Jewish faith – is too much. Because of this, I cannot love any of the characters in this play. I can only pity Shylock.

The merchant – we did not really discuss this in class, but who is the titular merchant of Venice? Many people think it is Antonio, and in my edition of the play, it even lists him as ‘the merchant of Venice,’ in the dramatis personae.

But I think Shylock is the merchant of Venice. Despite his faults, he is one of the most powerful characters in the play. He remains with a reader long after they’ve returned the play to their shelf, and with an audience member long after they’ve left the theatre. I think Shakespeare was very aware of the kind of character he had created – a character powerful and impactful enough to be referenced in the title.

I’d say it is in reference to Antonio…if this were The Martyr of Venice. But it isn’t, so Shylock it is.

SHAKESPEARE · THE MERCHANT OF VENICE

IF YOU PRICK US, DO WE NOT BLEED?

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Jessica (Phoebe Pryce) and Shylock (Jonathan Pryce) in the Globe’s production of The Merchant of Venice

Reading The Merchant of Venice proves something that I have always known and sworn by: Shakespeare’s plays are meant to be seen, and not read. Not that reading them is a bad thing – it can be very fun. But seeing a play really makes all the difference.

In 2014, I saw a free production of The Merchant of Venice put on through UC Davis’ Shakespeare on a Shoestring program. I went in with no previous opinion of the play – I didn’t even know what it was about! I vaguely remember enjoying it, but it wasn’t one of my most memorable Shakespearean experiences.

I was surprised when our professor told us to read The Merchant of Venice as part of our block of Shakespearean comedies. Very little about this play is funny to me. The blatant anti-Jewish sentiments expressed throughout only serve to unsettle me. The viewpoints in the play don’t really change my opinion of old Will – he was simply a product of Elizabethan times.

Despite how uncomfortable the play is, Shylock is still a very interesting character. Perhaps the only interesting character, really. It’s very clear that you aren’t supposed to like him – and I don’t. But I don’t hate him, either. I feel such pity for him, even though he still hasn’t made it clear whether he cares more about Jessica or his precious ducats. He lives a tough life, hated mostly because of his faith. It’s sad, and in a sense, you can understand his thirst for revenge.

I enjoyed the scenes in which Portia’s suitors would try to win her hand in marriage. All they had to do was choose the correct chest. Between the three, I knew lead box would contain Portia’s portrait (and therefore her hand in marriage), but it was fun watching those silly men choose the silver and gold chests for silly, selfish reasons. If you can trust Shakespeare to do one thing, it’s to prove time and time again that pride will always lead to man’s downfall.

I do not mind Launcelot as much as I do other fools – mostly because his job isn’t exactly ‘jester.’ He’s just a servant who is short a few brain cells. After reading Twelfth Night and As You Like It, I was reminded of my incredible hatred for Shakespearean fools. Yes, that means I hate Feste. And Touchstone. And literally every fool that I’ve come across. I can’t stand their nonsensical bantering. It takes forever to decipher, and I’m always much more interested in the actual plot of the play than in the silly ramblings of these clowns. Any Shakespeare professor worth his salt will remind you of the importance of fools – and of their observant, witty natures. But I cannot find it in myself to care. We love to analyze Shakespeare – I’m very guilty of this – but the fools always end up being too much of a chore for me. At the end of the day, aren’t these plays meant for entertainment?

I will make another post on The Merchant of Venice once I’ve finished it. After that, I think, we’ll be reading Henry V. And I’ll find myself going once more unto the breach!