Monday, July 25, 2016

The Merchant of Venice in Venice, Italy

The Merchant of Venice at Hotel Danieli - Photo by Mirco Toffolo
(Venice, Italy) When William Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice around 1596-98, a Jew had not lived legally in England for more than 300 years, and the Jews in Venice had been consigned to the ghetto. So when Shylock, a Jewish money-lender, demands a pound of flesh after a Venetian merchant defaults on a loan, Shakespeare knew he was dropping his characters into dynamite, a setting which still raises explosive issues up until the present day.

Shylock - Photo: Mirco Toffolo
A streamlined version of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice was presented on the opulent ground floor of the Hotel Danieli on Wednesday night, July 20, the marble columns of the 14th century Palazzo Dandolo creating a natural setting for a "story about friendship, money, revenge, hatred and love."

Presented as a staged reading in partnership with Kings Theatre Portsmouth, the show was a production of the Teatro Stabilie del Veneto - Teatro Nazionale, in association with the Federation of the Friends of Israel Associations and the Hotel Danieli, so there was a lot of cooperation between different entities to get the tale on its feet.

The production commemorates the 500th anniversary of the founding of the Jewish Ghetto in Venice in 1516, and the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare in 1616, a hundred years later.

At the time The Merchant of Venice was written, Jews had been banished from England since King Edward I's Edict of Expulsion in 1290, the main reason being that Jews were practicing usury, or charging interest on loans, particularly loans with land as collateral -- in cahoots with the barons -- which, after doing some research, utterly simplifies a very complex situation, too complicated to delve into here. If you would like to do some research on your own, you might start with the unedited full-text of the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia.

Narrator - Photo: Mirco Toffolo
In the version presented at the Danieli, many of the characters were eliminated from the original text, and the action moved along briskly with the use of a narrator. At the fast pace, what became more apparent was how human and deeply complex all the main characters were, and how relevant the story is to this very day. The roles of Jews, the banking system, as well as women in society are current topics of discussion, as they were centuries ago. And is Antonio, the merchant of Venice, actually gay?

For those of you who are not familiar with the story, again, I'll let you do your own research -- if you don't want to read Shakespeare, you can watch the 2004 film starring Al Pacino as Shylock, set in Venice. Here is a clip of the famous, powerful speech (for email subscribers, click here):



In the streamlined version adapted by Sophia Pauly and directed by Paolo Valerio, I was most impressed that 430 years ago Shakespeare wrote such a strong female character like Portia, who dresses up as a man, poses as a lawyer, and logically and concisely argues in court to save the life of the man who just might be her scheming husband's lover. Not only is Portia beautiful and wealthy, she is also super-intelligent.

Portia - Photo: Mirco Toffolo
What is even more astonishing is that at the time Shakespeare created Portia, not a single woman had ever received a laureate from a university. Though there were educated women, the first woman in the world to be awarded a Ph.D. degree after a public examination was a Venetian, Elena Cornaro Piscopia, who received a Doctorate of Philosophy on June 25, 1678. Elena's father, Gian Battista Cornaro, was a powerful Venetian nobleman who was not permitted to marry her mother because she was a commoner, though he repeatedly tried to legitimize his family -- even the nobility was subject to restrictions on their lives by the Venetian Republic. As the daughter of a man of great wealth, Elena's brilliance was admired and honored throughout Europe. In fact, we can also commemorate the 332 anniversary of Elena's death, which will be tomorrow, July 26.

And, of course, there is the eternal question of Shylock demanding his pound of flesh, and whether or not The Merchant of Venice is anti-Semitic.

Antonio & Bassanio - Photo: Mirco Toffolo
To me, we should also examine the character of Bassanio, a Venetian nobleman who schemes to marry Portia, a wealthy heiress, to get out of debt. Bassanio hits up Antonio, his beloved friend, for the cash to pose as a contender. Antonio's funds are all tied-up in ships at sea, but he agrees to guarantee a loan -- which is where Shylock, the Jewish money-lender comes in. If it weren't for Bassanio's duplicitous behavior in the first place, who uses not only his best friend, but his own wife to solve his financial problems, Shylock would never have come into the picture.

The evening began with a Kaddish, a hymn of praises to God in the Jewish prayer service, which the audience was asked to stand and recite in Italian. The main goal of the Federazione delle Associazioni Italia-Israel is to help people learn about the cultural, political and social life of the State of Israel, and to foster the development of friends with Italy.

The narration of the condensed story of The Merchant of Venice was in both English and Italian, as was the program, so the audience could follow the dialogue, which was all in English. I studied Shakespeare many years ago, and was thrilled for the opportunity to hear the Bard's words in English, in Venice, where the play is set.


After the show, we were treated to a delightful array of Merchant of Venice-themed food, a cocktail dinner with nibbles named things like "Three chest of gold, silver and lead" -- skewers of chicken, guinea fowl and goose; "Mirth and laughter" -- mixed fried fish; and Artichokes à la Shylock, washed down by Pommery Brut Royal Kosher Champagne.

Photo: Mirco Toffolo
The Merchant of Venice at the Danieli was one of several performances set to take place this year in Venice, the city where Shakespeare set the play.

On Wednesday, July 27, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the US Supreme Court Justice herself, will play the presiding judge in Shylock's Appeal, a mock trial that will reconsider the judgment against the Jewish money-lender. Six performances of The Merchant of Venice will be presented in the actual Venice Ghetto from July 26 to 31.  In a side event, Ginsburg will chair the bench of five jurists who will hear Shylock's 2016 appeal. I have always adored Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and am eager to learn how the appeal is resolved.

UPDATE July 28, 2016: You can read the article by Rachel Donadio in the New York Times to learn the result of the mock appeal: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Presides Over Shylock's Appeal.

Venice Ghetto today - Photo: Cat Bauer
Then, October 19 through 21, the Globe Theatre's production of The Merchant of Venice starring Jonathan Pryce will be performed at the Goldoni Theatre here in Venice. I just read the New York Times review by Charles Isherwood dated July 22, 2016 of the Lincoln Center performance, and it appears that The Merchant of Venice is undergoing an international makeover:

"...Mr. Pryce’s Shylock, meanwhile, evinces little rage and thirst for vengeance — he knows better than to fall into the traps laid for him — but instead argues his case with a measured rationality that, despite its monstrous consequences, never feels tinged with unbridled malice. 

On the other hand, Portia — disguised as the lawyer Bassanio [sic: Bassanio is Portia's husband; she is disguised as the lawyer Balthazar], arguing for the life of Antonio — seems almost sadistic when she gives her verdict in Shylock’s favor, only to reverse herself at the last minute and, with cool calculation, assert that Shylock himself is guilty of trying to take the life of a Christian. Mr. Pryce’s confusion and abasement are painful to watch, as Antonio seems to relish his control over his persecutor’s fate, allowing him to live only if he converts to Christianity."

Does this mean we must reinterpret The Merchant of Venice once again in the near future, focusing next time on the role of Portia and the education of women in society throughout history?

A tale from The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare, direction by Paolo Valerio, adaptation by Sophia Pauly, was performed at the Hotel Danieli Luxury Collection Venezia on July 20, 2016, featuring Stephanie Dickson, Enzo Forleo, Joe Parker, Sophia Pauly, Grant Reeves and Sabrina Reale on piano.

Ciao from Venezia,
Cat Bauer
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog

1 comment:

  1. When William Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice around 1596-98, a Jew had not lived legally in England for more than 300 years, and the Jews in Venice had been consigned to the ghetto. So when Shylock, a Jewish money-lender, demands a pound of flesh after a Venetian merchant defaults on a loan, Shakespeare knew he was dropping his characters into dynamite, a setting which still raises explosive issues up until the present day.

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