The Merchant of Venice has the most varied and controversial performance history of any Shakespeare play. Opposite ends of the social and political spectra appropriate it to make entirely different arguments. Ironically, the play itself is about the difference between the letter and the spirit of language and the law. The play abounds in antitheses. The living and the inert, the productive and the fruitless, the spiritual and the material are its foundation.
Following World War II, the play was untouchable for several decades. The prejudice and vitriol directed at Shylock were inescapably associated with the Holocaust. The breaking of his traditions, the disrespect of his religion, and the destruction of his culture were too painful to witness. Fascism had been crushed to defeat these atrocities. To show them on stage, with the oppressors triumphant and secure, was unacceptable. Some people still feel that way today and they cannot be reasonably gainsaid.
We join the long line of interpreters to relate to the play on terms for our own times. Our setting is a twisted near future, now more likely than it was when we began to plan this production. Populism defies globalization and nationalism resists diversity. Lines of defense expand to confront the perceived threat from multitudes of “Others.”
Racism and the exploitation of its fear and loathing by moneyed interests are the pernicious enemies of community and progress. We’re entering an era that will take much time and energy to resist and to combat intolerance. We must reveal the faces behind the masks, the real beneficiaries of division and strife. We need to understand their strategies. We must stand up for the Others.
Our chosen story has no satisfactory ending. We offer it as a cautionary tale, an example of the institutional normalization of injustice. It’s not realistic to think that hatred and corruption never prevail and that evil never wins. But conscience and righteousness succeed more often when we’re vigilant and prepared.
Much Ado About Gender
By Gaby Schneider, dramaturg
As I write this, I’m sitting backstage during our final dress rehearsal, reflecting on the intense and inspiring journey of putting this show together. What began as a few ideas bouncing around in Glenn’s car when he drove me home after a rehearsal for Cymbeline is now a fully realized production, and it has been one of the most exciting creative processes I’ve been involved in, both individually and collaboratively. My name may be the one credited with the adaptation, but it was an open document, one that wouldn’t be what it is now without the input of the cast and some healthy debates during our read-thrus.
We started with a “what-if” premise: What if Beatrice were a man? What if Benedick were a woman? The two seemed so similar that they were almost like the masculine and feminine versions of the same character. If they traded places, what would happen to the story? Would anything happen?
I went into the process of adapting the script as a sort of experiment to answer that question. At first there was a logical progression of steps. First, reassign each characters’ lines to the other. Simply swapping their names made the most sense, since they are already so similar in sound and meaning (“blessed”). Then change the pronouns accordingly, along with each mention of their names by other characters, and swap some “signiors” for “madams” and vice versa. Next came the interesting part: what parts of the text no longer made sense? Which could be adjusted to fit the new scenario, and which were better left out? I cut as ruthlessly as I could stand to, and not only for gender-related reasons. I’ve never believed in “dumbing down” the classics, but the downside to a text so wonderfully dense with puns, irony, and wordplay is that sometimes the jokes just honestly don’t hold up. I hope you don’t mind that we’ve spared you some old-fashioned cultural references for the sake of keeping it snappy; the true situational humor of the plot should more than make up for it!
The real question, the deeper idea that makes gender swapping and cross-casting more than a gimmick, is gender roles. As I discovered while editing, traditional concepts of masculinity and femininity are ingrained into the very structure of this text. Much of the plot puts the men on one side and the women on the other, mirroring each other. We’ve changed a lot of that through casting—in addition to the Beatrice/Benedick swap, Leonato has become Leonora, Friar Francis has become Reverend Frances, and several other originally male roles are played by women. Some of these fit smoothly into a modern reinterpretation without changing much at all. Others seem to have complicated things even more. The female antagonists, for example, have gained agency, but also judgement, and Benedick’s choice to side with Hero against Claudio gains an element of female solidarity when it is Beatrice who does it. While we definitely applied our modern sensibilities in deciding what to cut and what to change, I hope we went beyond “rehabilitating” a play we love from old-school patriarchy and heteronormativity. I hope we inspired new questions. I hope we made you think!
So what did you think?
Questions you might consider:
How did the characters’ genders influence your perception of them?
If you’ve seen the play before, how did this version differ?
What role does reputation or “noting” play in our lives today?
Have you ever trusted gossip or hearsay over your own opinions? How did it work out?
Have you ever been falsely accused? Misjudged someone? Had your trust broken? Been deceived?
Would you forgive Claudio?
Were Beatrice and Benedick as similar as we first thought? What differences did you notice?
Did they love each other all along?
Did Don Pedro really want to marry Benedick (or Beatrice, in the original text), or was he just joking around?
What’s your favorite Dogberry-ism?
What do you think about his treatment of Conrade and Borachio?