Questions about the true identity of that playwright we know as William Shakespeare are ever-present but invariably take on the quality of pseudo-conspiracy theories. Yet watching a production of “The Merchant of Venice” from Shakespeare’s Globe in London, now at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater in a brief, sold-out engagement, one of the quirkier recent theories to emerge began to take on a certain intriguing quality.
That theory suggests Shakespeare was actually Amelia Bassano Lanier, a woman of Italian descent and a published poet who lived in England as a Marrano Jew (a convert to Christianity who practiced Judaism in secret), at the very same time as Shakespeare. The notion has its appeal here in part because Shakespeare (who, it is believed, never traveled much beyond England) set so many of his plays in Italy (from Venice to Verona, Padua, Florence and Rome). In addition, he could have had very little direct knowledge of Jews since they were officially expelled from England between 1290 and 1655.
All this came to mind in large part because in Jonathan Munby’s Globe production, it is not so much the character of the reviled Venetian Jewish moneylender, Shylock (played by Jonathan Pryce), who grabs the spotlight as it is that of his daughter, Jessica (played by the actor’s real-life daughter, Phoebe Pryce, who is riveting). And beyond Jessica, there is something a bit proto-feminist at work throughout. But more about all that later.
‘THE MERCHANT OF VENICE’ Recommended When: Through Aug. 14 Where: Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand on Navy Pier Tickets: $78 – $88 (sold out) Info: www.chicagoshakes.com Run time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, with one intermission
One thing is for certain. “The Merchant of Venice” continues to be a deeply problematic and provocative play on many fronts, and Munby’s production leaves many of the age-old questions still dangling. Shylock and Antonio emerge here as somewhat equivalent victims and victimizers, which could easily (and rightly) raise the hackles on many backs. But what is made clear here is that nearly every character in this play is capable of hypocrisy and betrayal, often with money as a crucial factor. And the scenes of the darkest discrimination bang up against the broadest farce to somewhat jarring effect, suggesting that Shakespeare (whoever “he” might be), not only understood that his audience required a certain amount of comic relief, but that life just happens to be that way.
Munby sets the overall tone in an interesting way, with the play’s opening scene (set against designer Mike Britton’s ornate gilt-topped columns, and enriched by his sumptuous costumes suggesting the wealth of Venice at the time) capturing the city in feverish carnival mode, complete with a masque about love. The live music (by Jules Maxwell) grows increasingly frenzied and, with a clarinetist at the center, comes with an anachronistic touch as it suggests the Jewish klezmer style of centuries later.
Venturing beyond the ghetto in which Venice’s Jews were forced to live is Shylock, wearing his kippah (religious cap). He is brutally beaten, cursed and spat upon for no reason at all. Of course this does not ultimately prevent the Christian shipping magnate, Antonio (the understated Dominic Mafham), from asking Shylock for a loan that will enable Bassanio (well played by Dan Fredenburgh) — his young friend, and the man he secretly lusts for — to, ironically enough, pursue the wealthy Portia (Rachel Pickup, who makes her quite a nasty piece of work). And Shylock, long subjected to such treatment, seeks his revenge by exacting unusual terms (“a pound of flesh”) should there be a forfeiture on the loan. It is a deal, of course, that will tragically undo him.
Back to the “feminist” element. Both Jessica and Portia rebel against being controlled by their fathers. While Portia’s father is dead, he has left a ridiculous test for her suitors that essentially robs her of any choice in who she will marry. Jessica is kept under lock and key by Shylock because he wants to protect her from the cruelty he has experienced in the wider world (something never suggested here), yet she ends up destroying him — converting, eloping with a Christian and stealing her father’s assets. She will pay the price for her betrayal in ways both small and large, and one of the most noteworthy things about this production is the way this is revealed in ways that have little to do with Shakespeare’s dialogue.
At one point, Lorenzo (deft work by Andy Apollo) tries to engage Jessica in a Venetian social dance, but she is awkward and unfamiliar with the steps, and his friend, Portia, jumps right in to blatantly show her up. Portia also hands Jessica her empty wine glass as if she were her servant. And it will be Portia, too, who, disguised as a learned legal scholar, will ultimately wreak havoc on Shylock. Only his total humiliation finally jolts Jessica into understanding what she has done, but it is too late. Phoebe Pryce’s chanting of a Hebrew prayer in the final moments of the play (not part of the script at all) is a stunner, as is the actress.
Pryce’s performance as Shylock is low key and elicits surprisingly little pity, even in the great speech that asks: “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?” And his forced conversion is rather perfunctory in the scheme of things, although the Latin mass observed as he is baptized is perhaps enough to make the point.
Special applause goes to Stefan Adegbola as Launcelot Gobbo, Shylock’s servant and Jessica’s co-conspirator, whose improvisational antics involving two audience members are superbly done.
All in all, though this is far from a definitive “Merchant,” it makes you unsettled. And that is as it should be.