The headline in the performance review of Friday, Nov. 13should have amused me. “Tone Deaf Masterpiece?” As a teacher of both Shakespeare and theater reviewing, however, I was depressed by the tone-deaf review of Lafayette College Theater’s “The Merchant of Venice.” Sadly, Jay Bickford’s misreading of the production is quite common in the world of Bardolotry. Anyone who thinks the play is a happy little ditty about lovers has obviously not read Shakespeare’s work, which I agree is indeed a masterpiece. But it is a terribly complex play about terrible people who treat others in terrible ways. Portia is a racist (cf. her comment, after spending a scene insulting just about every European suitor, in 2.7 about the Black Prince of Morocco “A gentle riddance. Draw the curtains, go./Let all of his complexion choose me so.”) Bassanio, after wasting the money that Antonio has already given him, asks for more to go fortune hunting for a hot lady. (cf 1.1: “In Belmont is a lady richly left; and she is fair….”) And of course Bassanio is confident that he can manipulate Antonio’s love for him to get the money.
The anti-Semitic language, from Lancelot, from Lorenzo, and from the rest of those Venetians is frequent and malicious. Antonio himself has spit on Shylock, and promises to do so again. In the famous courtroom scene of Act Four, Portia manipulates the law to utterly ruin Shylock, and then, to add insult to injury, forces him to turn Christian, to abandon his culture, his religion, his identity.
If the audience is seduced by those whom we assume to be the “good guys” just because they are white Christians who prevail, perhaps we have missed both Shakespeare’s and Professor O’Neill’s point. We get seduced by these characters and neglect to really listen to their words, swept along by our assumptions and prejudices, just like the Italians and the Germans in World War II. And perhaps we are in danger even today of falling for Fascists, as we listen to the Presidential candidates who, with their racist rhetoric, similarly seduce people who are not listening or not thinking. The cast for this play did a fabulous job of seducing the audience, and Prof. O’Neill’s invocation of fascism is spot-on. The last ten seconds of the play should have made that crystal clear.
Prof. Suzanne Westfall
Westfall is a professor of English and Theater.