Adapting and Directing The Merchant of Venice in the Venice Ghetto

Karin Coonrod

“The Ghetto represents a thriving hub of Jewish world culture, but also a once-quarantined island, confined and marginalized by the dominant Venetian culture. I found myself wondering whether a performance in this re-born Ghetto of 2016, with its inherent contradiction, might uncover something new in the play and in the culture. Perhaps the exorcising of Shylock’s ghost might send an urgent message that we need to hear now more than ever.”

I read and re-read the email from David Scott Kastan, the Yale Shakespearean professor and scholar, inviting me into The Merchant of Venice Project in the Venice Ghetto in 2016. David had aimed an ingenious and provocative way to wrap together the 500th anniversary of the Ghetto’s origin and the 400th of Shakespeare’s death: perform The Merchant of Venice in the Ghetto itself.

My heart and head pounded with exhilaration and a good measure of trepidation. After all, The Merchant of Venice is a play freighted with decades of anti-semitism. The Nazis played it repeatedly to justify their own anti-Jewish killing machines; universities had banned its production; scholars openly called this play not worthy of its author for the play’s treatment of its larger-than-life character, Shylock.

The Ghetto represents a thriving hub of Jewish world culture, but also a once-quarantined island, confined and marginalized by the dominant Venetian culture. I found myself wondering whether a performance in this re-born Ghetto of 2016, with its inherent contradiction, might uncover something new in the play and in the culture.  Perhaps the exorcising of Shylock’s ghost might send an urgent message that we need to hear now more than ever. How would the neighbors in the Ghetto respond to an American theater company taking the lead in this production?

The Ghetto is located on a small island in the northeast of Venice, formally and legally walled off in 1516, just as Venice was at its zenith as a trading and commercial city-state.  The informal mayor of the re-born Jewish Ghetto, Shaul Bassi, also a Shakespearean professor at Ca’ Foscari University in Venice and the founder of Beit Venezia, is busy reviving the historic fabric of the Ghetto, its five synagogues, its evocative all-knowing stone floor, while trying to infuse it and repopulate it with vibrant cultural life, an embrace for all cultures.  David Kastan and Shaul Bassi talked about my directing the play. Shaul was eager for the production not to be imported, but rather to be “made in Venice.”

That raised many production considerations: the languages to be spoken for an international audience, the forming of an international company, both creative team and acting company. It also afforded us a dream open-air venue—the campo, the piazza at the Ghetto center with its stone floor resonant of all Ghetto life, encircled by historic synagogues, eateries, shops and modest apartments, complete with three public wells. And at twilight, our curtain time, when the Ghetto’s inhabitants found their perches at balcony or window, we also found less welcome guests, the chirping cicadas with their incessant mating calls, a backdrop of sexual longing that permeated the Venetian romantic hijinks of Merchant for the first 30 minutes. They stopped every night abruptly at 9:05.

My theater company, Compagnia de’ Colombari, had many years of performing in Italy and working with an international ensemble and it was partly for this reason that David Kastan approached me in the first place.  We had performed the medieval mystery plays on Orvieto’s stone streets and now we were planning to perform on the stone floor of the campo. In my talks with Peter Ksander, set and light designer, the set was simply the thing itself. He designed a stadium seating for audience and plunked it down in the campo facing the most interesting architecture: the Italian and German synagogues, each with five old expressive shuttered windows looking down behind closed eyelids on the playing space. Though Peter and I had much experience together on the island of Manhattan and the cliff town of Orvieto, we never understood until in situ what it meant to build anything in Venice.  The steel traveled from the warehouse to a truck to a canal boat to a hand cart and finally landed on the campo for construction; the whole process orchestrated by our remarkable Venetian technical director, Marciano Rizzo, and his able crew.

Several knowledgeable Venetians pointed me to Stefano Nicolao, our costume designer, who has a well-appointed atelier just minutes away from the Ghetto on the Fondamenta Misericordia (next to some delectable eating places).  It was a particular joy to work with Stefano to push past the heavy period costumes, and to move into a more fluid aesthetic that honored the Elizabethan silhouette with a very light modern touch. I wanted this ease in the clothing, since the audience would witness all the costume changes.

At the invitation of Shaul Bassi and Venice’s Ca’ Foscari University, Beit Venezia and Fondazione Cini, we took “The Shylock Project” (as we called it) into workshop on Isola San Giorgio in the summer of 2015. Here I developed my approach to The Merchant of Venice. From the United States I brought two actors and two dramaturgs and from Brussels, my directing assistant; in Venice we found a lively group of fifteen Venetian performers. Over twelve intense days, the workshop gave me my first opportunity to sketch out my approach to Merchant.

We developed the play mostly in English with two scenes in Veneziano Italian. In lively preparatory conversations with dramaturg Walter Valeri, we chose an oration by Ruzzante “on love” to be spoken by Launcelot—or Lancillotto as we called him—in the prologue, hence starting off the “comedy” on the scent of sexual love. We freely used Italian throughout with bits of Spanish (for Arragon) and bits of Arabic (for Morocco), passages in French and German in the mockery of Shylock, and heightened moments for each Shylock scene in Ladino, Judeo-Venetian and Yiddish.

In popular memory the play hangs on two famous speeches: Shylock’s plea for humanity (“Do we not bleed?”) and Portia’s argument for mercy (“The quality of mercy is not strained”).  The character of Shylock has become iconic over centuries in thematic portrayal from clown-villain to tragic hero. For any director the challenge is to tear the play out of the expected, to break the glazed ice of what we safely anticipate, to uncover what we must know now.

I had considered the possibility of a famous actor to play the role of Shylock. Certainly there have been many memorable performances of Shylock across the boards and on the screen, but was there a 21st century wavelength frequency that would allow this ancient man, this cantor of humanity, to tell us something? Rather than concentrating the dimensions of Shylock on one actor’s interpretation, I went a different direction, and one consistent with my ensemble company: opening up the character to five actors of different age, size, race, gender; each actor to play one of the five scenes.  The point was not to ignore Shylock’s Jewishness or to divide his complex character, but to unlock and unveil the common humanity of his being. Shylock the Jew is also Shylock the immigrant, the other, the stranger. True, a five-actor Shylock would demand more of its audience: my hope was that the audience would find itself in Shylock. Of course Shylock cannot be painted with a single brushstroke: the play takes us through his keen mind, his belief, his love, his sorrow and his murderous rage.

In the Venice workshop we tested this idea. Five actors played five very different aspects of Shylock: the businessman, the father, the mother, the widower, and the killer. The actor who takes the role in the third scene of the play when we first meet the character, Sorab Wadia, spars against Reg E Cathey (Antonio): two cynical businessmen. In their fierce negotiation of the infamous bond, each is a reflection of the other. Both are rivals and players in a high-stakes world, one a Venetian citizen, and the other marked as a resident of the Venice Ghetto, both well versed in the commercial law of Venice, both inside this snarling recognition of the other at the moment that they make the deal, a mutual refusal to break the wall of pride which foretells the play’s tragic climax.

The ugly history of tribal enmity that shadows that first Shylock scene is surely one we recognize: Shylock knows this man well, he hates this Venetian of the dominant class, as a “Christian” who “rails” on him and his “well worn thrift”. Antonio, embarrassed by his need to go to an inferior for an exorbitant loan, responds by bullying, “Well Shylock shall we be beholden to you?”  Shylock sarcastically responds, “Is it possible a cur can lend three thousand ducats?” and “Fair sir, you spat on me on Wednesday last.”  It’s an odd intimacy that infuses their mutual hostility, a Machiavellian respect for the enemy with whom you must ultimately reconcile so that business can resume and life can go on.

And so, both actors are locked in a laser beam of anger, broken only when Shylock suggests the infamous pound of flesh, the “merry sport” which forms the basis of the bond. Antonio slowly begins a deep cackling sound which ignites Shylock to join him. Are they old friends or old enemies? The idea is so ludicrous and transgressive and of-a-sudden, like a men’s locker room bet. Both at this point have no doubt that Antonio’s ships will come in to harbor, as they always do, and the bond will be paid with cash, not flesh.  That was the first of five Shylock scenes, played by the first of the five actors playing Shylock.

Long before the famous court scene and Shylock’s demand for his pound of flesh and the cruel manipulation of justice which follows, Shakespeare has provided the play’s thematic set-up: Antonio’s un-Christian excoriating of the stranger, Shylock’s hatred of his sworn enemy, the cold machinations of Venice’s celebrated commercial prominence, the reduction of human promise to a written bond, with inhuman consequences. Driving the plot is another plot, the love story of Bassanio (played by Michele Guidi from Italy) and Portia (played by Linda Powell from the USA). But it is hardly romantic. Cold commercialism infuses all transactions in The Merchant: the enmity of borrower and debtor, of course, but also the play’s parallel theme of love and marriage, the manipulative dance of the wealthy Portia and the needy aristocrat, Bassanio.

As I understood this play and as I developed the inner architecture of the production’s themes, two crescendos emerged, where the five Shylock actors come together, unified by the gold sashes which adorned them. In the third Shylock scene comes that first crescendo, the very instant of Shylock’s desperate moment of the heart, when he discovers his daughter has left him, and has run away with the Christians.

We watch as the humiliations of marketplace and Venetian citizenship cast upon Shylock devolve into an even more crushing excoriation of family, of tradition, of the spiritual center of Jewish life. Daughter Jessica (played by Michelle Uranowitz from USA) is drawn into an escape plan away from the rule-bound, protective hands of her father by the irresponsible and greedy Lorenzo (played by Paul Spera from France) and his fellows.  On its surface we understand the prodigal nature of her rebellion: a teenage hormone-driven rebellion. Yet on the part of the Christian plotters the intention is to humiliate Shylock, to take that which is most dear to him, to steal it away. Her escape is the unhinging of the play, when Jessica flees with Lorenzo and his pals into the carnival night, laughing giddily with masks, torch and suitcases of Shylock’s money.

This unhinging of the play is what I imagined as the first crescendo. At the call of a haunting trumpet (played by composer Frank London) wafting from the rooftop, the five actors playing Shylock emerge for the first time all together forming a huge circle in the Ghetto’s playing space. (Each actor plays another role.) They are ritualistically dressed by the “black angels” (our visible performing crew) with cloak and thick golden silk sash wound around their torsos to mark the Jew. The Venetians circle around the five Shylocks, hurling ethnic epithets, demeaning, vulgar and vicious, in the same spirit as that of Antonio earlier. The lines are all taken from the scenes between Salanio and Salarino. The third Shylock scene emerges from the circle of five, having discovered what we all have seen: his daughter has deserted at the hands of the Christians. The third Shylock is played by a woman (Jenni Lea Jones from the UK). As the Shylocks slowly walk towards each other, the rest of the company—the Venetians—hurl their growing noise of insults, until the Shylocks come together and Jenni’s Shylock turns around and breaks the unbearable cacophonous mockery with a howl that slams the ghetto into silence. As one audience member remarked, Jenni’s lungful, mournful cry reached something deeper than pain; it transformed into a cure for the Ghetto, a soulful healing. The gathering of all five Shylock actors in that moment knit together the cross-human DNA of loss, rejection, the quest for dignity, cultural continuity, the root of personal existence. That was crescendo number one. The howl was a prologue to Shylock’s rhetorical questions beginning with, “Hath not a Jew eyes?”

Crescendo number two:  the second gathering of the five Shylocks came at the close of the play as a reprise, after the blood-curdling confrontation in the courtroom. In the courtroom setting, Shylock #5 (played by Ned Eisenberg from USA) enters the scene in certitude demanding of Venice strict enforcement for the pound of Antonio’s flesh that belongs to him: “I will have my bond.”   What had been agreed upon “in merry sport” now becomes deadly with the loan past due. For the first time in Merchant we hear the word “mercy”. In the trial scene the presiding Duke (played by Jenni Lea Jones) calls for it and then again Portia (played by Linda Powell) disguised as a man and judge enters the trial with her argument for mercy. Hiding behind it is her manipulation of the power of the state, and Shylock’s impotence as a member of the outcast tribe.

Ned and I spoke about how Portia appropriates mercy as a Christian virtue, ignoring that mercy is a central tenet of Judaism, found in the Hebrew Bible. “He hath showed thee oh man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God?” proclaims the prophet Micah (6:8).    A mercy never expressed for the Jew in the street is conveniently required of the Jew in the court.  How must Shylock be listening to this specious argument: it reeks of dissembling. What is ultimately cast upon Shylock—by a law that is not judicial, not humane, but rooted in power and expressed in cruelty—requires that he give up his wealth, his family and his faith.

Shakespeare leaves Shylock—and us; in the text Shylock does not reappear. The final scene is all restoration of lost rings and financial gifts, and the interplay of women’s wiles and men’s certitude. I am certainly not the first director to puzzle over Shakespeare’s conclusion, comedic for his day, perhaps, and with a bittersweet taste, but unsatisfying. I saw Shakespeare’s gathering of the privileged ruling Venetians in Belmont as a setting for a reprise, where the five Shylocks could enter—one at a time—to repeat Shylock’s words spoken at the beginning of the trial scene, as guardian of his dignity, his personhood, in contravention of the gleeful winners, and finally, as a mirror to the audience: “You’ll ask me why I rather choose to have/A weight of carrion flesh than to receive/Three thousand ducats. I’ll not answer that…”  Referencing animals used as insults against him, Shylock insists on his prerogative, his free will, as a human. And then, as the play concludes, to the audience: “Are you answered?”

The final moment in the Ghetto performance, however, deals with the mercy left unactivated in the play. Onto the Ghetto walls that had witnessed so much over the centuries were projected the words MERCY, MISERICORDIA, RAKHAMIM, leaving the audience with this word, a mercy so eloquently spoken of, but so categorically abandoned.

The problems of justice and mercy, of indebtedness between rich and poor, between those in power and those marginalized outsiders, were brought center stage all the more clearly and poignantly in two performances that followed immediately upon those in the Ghetto. We performed at the Summer Theater Festival in Bassano del Grappa, playing to a house of privileged free-spirited midsummer theater-goers, and the next day to the marginalized inmates of a high security men’s prison in Padova. In both cases the attention shown to the performance of the play demonstrated that Merchant launched from the Ghetto’s stones is a play for our own time. We now prepare for its North American premiere in September 2017, this play in which money and celebrity are valued above all by the dominant culture … in which Shylock is framed to expose the mendacity of the controlling system. Are you answered?

All photograph credits to Andrea Messana

The Merchant of Venice will be performed at Peak Performances, Montclair State University, from September 15-October 1, 2017.