The Merchant in Venice: A review by Hannah Armbrust Badia

Twilight steals over the canals and bridges of Venice, and as birdsong gives way to the raspy hum of cicadas, the buildings that surround the Campo Nuovo, the Jewish ghetto's central square, burn in the setting sun. Their colors warm and intensify, while the flagstones begin releasing the day's accumulated heat. A rich perfume hangs in the air, stirred by fans and the audience's conversation. Almost imperceptibly, the air begins to cool. The audience falls quiet, and suddenly, music and motion fill the square. It is the opening night of the Compagnia de' Colombari's production of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice.

Venice, Venezia.  Equally in English and Italian, the name is rich with drama, tradition, and allure. Foreigners and Italians alike are drawn to her winding canals, tight alleys, shimmering lagoon; to her history of turmoil, intrigue, and masquerade. Venice, the tease. Venice, the darling; in recent centuries a playground and refuge for expats—attracting authors, musicians, and artists with her pageantry and general liberality. Venice, the inscrutable, its darker history lurking under the surface. The year 2016 marked two anniversaries: four hundred years since the death of William Shakespeare, and five hundred years since the establishment of the Jewish ghetto in Venice, an early instance of a group within Europe being segregated and surveilled based on religious differences.

In fact, the term “ghetto” originated in Venice, as corruption of the Venetian “geto” (foundry) that used to occupy the neighborhood. Around the time of the Ghetto's creation, Venice was one of the most powerful, advanced, and diverse cities in Europe, but ongoing wars and rivalries had enflamed fears and suspicions surrounding various groups of foreigners, notably among them the Venetian Jews. An edict declared that for the good and safety of the city, all Jews must be within the confines of the ghetto by nightfall, when the gates would be locked.

Although Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice does not reference the Ghetto specifically and it is improbable that Shakespeare visited Venice, the play is deeply rooted in the city's mystique, and Shylock, though fictional, has become, for better or worse, perhaps the most famous of Venetian Jews. In fact, it is Shakespeare's characterization and treatment of Shylock that makes the play controversial for modern audiences. At times, the play is even written off as not performable, an anti-Semitic stain on Shakespeare's canon. With this history, the decision to produce and perform the play within the Ghetto for the first time as a way to honor both anniversaries was courageous, and ultimately, I felt, a kind of exorcism and redemption for both Shakespeare and Shylock.

The Compagnia de' Colombari is an international theatre company, based in New York City but formed in Orvieto, Italy in 2005 by theater artist Karin Coonrod and college professor John Skillen. The company’s experience working cross-culturally, particularly in Italy, made it ideal for this project. The Ghetto's main square, the Campo Nuovo, traditionally the heart of the communal life, was the stage. The surrounding buildings framed the set, with Jessica appearing in one of the windows. The drama inhabited and embodied the space, and I, watching, felt invited in as well. The lighting, designed by Peter Ksander, contributed to this feeling of intimacy. As the natural evening light mixed gradually with and was finally replaced by the staged lighting, the boundaries between external and internal space merged, while at the same time, individual locations were sculpted from the expanse of the square.  These subtle lighting transitions enhanced and defined the action which moves rapidly between multiple locations, subplots, and characters.  

Photograph by Andrea Messana

Photograph by Andrea Messana

Director Karin Coonrod's interpretation of the play was tactful, sharp, and contemporary. The decision to produce the play in the Ghetto was gutsy, since the play is often classified as anti-Semitic. Coonrod sculpted the play into something more complex. She worked under the supposition that Shakespeare uses the action to frame anti-Semitism and expose the hypocrisy of the dominate culture. This exposure is the play's intension. This interpretation allowed Shylock to be elevated into something at once Jewish and universal, representing all outsiders.  His rage, grief, frustration, and wit are moving and recognizable. Coonrod accented this universality by having Shylock played by five different actors, including one woman, of varying ages and ethnicities. Each actor accentuated a different aspect of the character and together created a complex portrait. (Each also doubled as another character – another bold and electrifying choice.)

Two scenes struck me with particular force and have remained with me in the months since I saw the play. The first, played by Shylock one, is the moment when the initial bond is struck between Antonio and Shylock. The performance complicated the balance of power and prejudices between the two characters in unexpected ways. Shylock already dislikes Antonio, because he has complicated his business ventures and treated him badly in the past, while Antonio, for his part, despises Shylock and wants only to strike a quick and convenient deal for cash without any personal contact. “Shall we be beholding to you?” he half sneers. There is an entitlement and a superiority in Antonio's position. The moving moment for me in this production was when Shylock says, “I would be friends” and extends his hand, offering to forget the past and lend the money without interest. He is asking for Antonio to relinquish superiority and acknowledge his humanity. Antonio shows no empathy, no mercy, but a bond, the bond for a pound of flesh, is struck between them nonetheless.

Our treatment of the outsider and the role of mercy seem particularly relevant this year, as debates about immigration and security have divided both the United States and Europe. Increasingly, there is an atmosphere of fear coupled with a distinct lack of the civility, empathy, and humility which would enable us to shake hands with the Other. This moment challenged me to consider my role and position both as an outsider and to outsiders.

The second scene that continues to haunt me takes place after Jessica, Shylock's only daughter, has robbed him and run away with the Venetian Lorenzo. As she and the merry company disappear into the darkness, a mournful trumpet calls the five actors playing Shylock together, unified by their golden sashes (which signify their Jewishness). Then the whole city seems to mock him, surrounding him and reviling his shame and misfortune, while the five remain still in the center of this mocking. We are drawn into the grief, rage, and humiliation of Shylock. The taunting and laughter becomes a kind of rhythm that compresses the Shylocks. In this moment, a wail of anguish rips the night in two. We have reached a turning. The lament comes from the female Shylock. The pain is raw and maternal. Shylock is not only being publicly shamed; he has lost, been betrayed by, his only child. His wife is dead, so this loss cuts him to his core. And from this loss, this complete humiliation comes the cry, “I will have my bond,” which is a call for retribution, a legal repaying, but also a cry for a type of connection. The desire that above all Antonio should share this experience of loss, of vergogna, shame. As the echoes of this unimaginably long and profound wail dissipate into the night, over the buildings and canals, it seems to bring a healing release to the space.

The honesty and diversity within play as performed by the Colombari feels risky, vibrant, and sacred. The creation of such theatre is a humble and costly experience with so much work, time, preparation, and sacrifice going into an event, an occasion that is by its very nature transient and unique. The drama has lingered with me, haunted me in a way, especially that shattering howl of desolation, which ripped apart and drew together the center of the play, pleading for mercy, for empathy even more strongly than Portia's famous speech. My feeling at the end of the play was of having taken part in a sacrament.

The production of the play was itself a response, a solution to the problem proposed by the play—who is the outsider in our midst? How do we share our differences with mercy? Its staging beautifully and profoundly confounded any dismissal of the play as anti-Semitic. From the first to the final moments, the play fought to be honest about the flawed humanity yet ultimate value of each character, using both word and action to expose the misconceptions and prejudices that we can harbor unaware.  That glimpse of the angel and the demon, which linger and war within us, has stayed with me. The rage and revenge we succor combat daily with the mercy and love towards which we reach. The whole cast and crew created something greater than its individual parts—a performance that served as both exorcism and redemption.