Review by Gail M. Burns
The Merchant of Venice is fairly early play in the Shakespearean canon, and it is not a particularly good one, being a mash-up of two or three folk tales well known to Elizabethan audiences, that don’t hang together particularly well. Add to that that attitudes towards Jews are very different in 21st century America than they were in 16th century Britain, and you have a real “problem play.” When Shakespeare & Company last staged this work in 1998, then as now with Tina Packer directing and Jonathan Epstein playing Shylock, there was a great public outcry against the play, with questions raised about whether it could, or even should, be staged in modern times.
Having taken the plunge and mounted a new production, I can only imagine the dismay with which Packer and company watched racial tensions and violence erupt nationally during the course of their previews. Merchant… is the big Shakespearean production for 2016, the centerpiece of their season. Would the national mood turn audiences against their choice? Or would they be more open to exploring the prejudice that has always raged within society?
At least on the official opening night, the audience, comprised primarily of the press along with Shakespeare & Company board and company members and donors, was open to being schooled in the depth and persistence of anti-Semitism in particular and racial/ethnic/religious hatred in general. It was perfectly acceptable to be prejudiced in Shakespeare’s time, particularly on religious grounds, as Roman Catholics and Protestants of various ilks waged bloody warfare across most of Europe for the right to be considered the “true” religion of the people. Catholics considered Protestants, Jews and Muslims alike to be pagans and heretics. Their souls were going to burn in hell if not “saved” by conversion to Christianity.