The Merchant of Veniceis one of Shakespeare’ most challenging plays. Although a title widely recognised, the play is paradoxically one that is not often performed. In the literal sense, this play is a comedy. It ends with (spoilers incoming) the reconciliation of the central couple, as well as Antonio’s rescue. However, performed now to a modern audience, the play’s ending poses a greater problem. How can the disturbing scenes of Shylock (and Jessica’s) forced baptism fit into this comic world onstage? Once as much a part of the salvific narrative as Antonio’s freedom, this forced baptism is harrowingly cruel. The decision to stage the baptisms at the end of the play was not taken lightly. It is of the utmost importance that Shylock and Jessica’s personal tragedy is given space and allowed to breathe. Meanwhile, we have decided to retain the traditional comic energy behind the play’s final scene and the exchange of ‘the rings’. The audience may well find the juxtaposition of such tragedy distressing in the light of a carefree, youthful celebration. Yet this parallel is integral to Shakespeare’s masterpiece. We have not sought to whitewash this play, or represent anything unnecessary. The question must be asked: is it acceptable to celebrate above, as those below us suffer? As I said, the play is a challenging one.
One of the ideas I was most excited to implement was the casting of Shylock as female. This was not a choice made for the sake of ‘gender-bending’, but to challenge and change our prior perceptions of this character. Usually played as ‘old’ (although only called this once in the script) and verging on vampiric, the changing of Shylock’s gender has had monumental ramifications on both herself and those she interacts with: most importantly with her daughter, Jessica. One of the most illuminating experiences of directing this play has been during the audition process. Here, we gave the Act II scene V speech to our prospective Shylocks. Upon first reading, the speech seemed angry, cold. Suddenly, with the knowledge that Shylock has a strong maternal instinct, the speech changed entirely. In the scene itself (played out excellently by Megan Gilbert and Jess Murdoch), Shylock is welcoming in Shabbat, the traditional Jewish day of rest. She bonds with her daughter in a soft, and rare, moment of religious and familial comfort. All the more tragic when this is ultimately stripped away at the play’s close. Now losing the one thing she loves most in the world, Shylock’s obsession with her ‘bond’ is coloured with an even greater sense of desperate sympathy. Like many other characters in Shakespeare’s plays, Shylock is woven into a tapestry of mothers (and fathers like King Lear) who tragically yearn to reclaim their one love: their child. To Shylock, Antonio’s flesh must suffice as a horribly macabre surrogate. The play becomes a story about a mother who, after the loss of her daughter (and not least the anti-Semitism she endures daily), is driven to one of the deepest places of human experience: revenge.