The Merchant of Venice is considered on of Shakespeare's finest comedies, and yet one of the most memorable characters of the play is treated horribly throughout and is ruined in the final act.
Shylock is a Jewish moneylender who agrees to lend Bassanio money so that he can woo Portia. Antonio, the eponymous merchant, agrees to guarantee the loan. Instead of asking for interest on the loan, Shylock demands a literal pound of flesh from Antonio if he cannot repay the loan.
Michael Donato portrays Shylock in the Ithaca Shakepeare Company production that opened at Fall Creek Studios on Tuesday, February 12 and will run through March 2. Donato, a graduate of the Actors Workshop of Ithaca, was Sir Toby Belch in last summer's Twelfth Night.
“Part of my job,” said Donato, “ is to show people why Shylock wants a pound of flesh. I have to think, 'If I were treated as he was, would I strike back?' I have to get the audience to understand why he wants what he wants.”
Director Steve Ponton spoke of the routine oppression suffered by Jews in Venice of Shylock's time. “This builds up an enormous resentment in him,” he said, “and when he has a chance to get back at those who have oppressed him, this resentment explodes out of him.”
“Volcanically,” said Donato.
How then do Donato and Ponton plan to balance the drama of Shylock's story with the generally silly courtship comedies that take up the bulk of the play until its final act?
Donato noted that the romance and the various pairings off are punctuated by the disturbing interplay between Shylock and Antonio. “The unhappiness of Shylock is contrasted with the giddiness of everyone else,” he said. “This makes the highs higher and the lows lower. It is like you are eating dessert, but you keep taking sips of bitter coffee.”
Ponton took a more holistic view. “I see it as a whole with all these threads wrapped around and through it,” he said. “In The Merchant of Venice they are more tied together than is usually the case with Shakespeare. He always has a mixture of emphases, but this play really wraps all those threads together.
“This is definitely one of his masterworks,” Ponton continued. “The characters are all rounded, with no two-dimensional characters in there at all. Look at Antonio: he's loyal and generous, but he's a bigot. Part of our intention is to bring all that out and make the play intellectually and emotionally engaging.”
Donato has been studying the history of Venice and criticism of the play, including Harold Bloom's Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. Bloom finds the play profoundly anti-Semitic because Shylock is portrayed as being out of control in his passion for revenge.
“You don't want Shylock to succeed [in getting his pound of flesh],” said Donato, “but you don't want to see him destroyed entirely. And you ask yourself, 'Why is Portia doing what she is doing?'” In the climatic courtroom scene a disguised Portia outwits Shylock with oddly literal interpretations of statements made by the moneylender.
Ponton is eager to see how The Merchant of Venice works in the enclosed space of the studio. “The stage is nearly in the round,” he said. “The audience will feel like they are in the courtroom during the scene. It's very immersive.”
“We've planned the lines of sight,” added Donato, “so that someone's front is always facing someone in the audience. You never feels as if you are being left out of a scene.”
This is the 10th season for Ithaca Shakespeare. “We've had a core group that has been doing it for a long time,” said Ponton, one of the founders, “but we bring in others through open auditions. It's an interesting mix.”