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The Merchant of Venice
updated 12.3.2002

Dear Masterpiece Theatre,
I haven't visited this forum for a long time. It surprises me still that no one else seems to have realized that Shylock has the best lines. I agree that William Shakespeare throwing scraps to the groundlings is, to our generation, an irritant. However, it worked in the production, which left us with a terrible sense of doom. The actress who played Portia has the physical presence to be a convincing youth. I rate her as the best Portia I've ever seen.

Barbara Fearnley-Wood
Newmarket, ON




Dear Masterpiece Theatre,
This was a wonderful interpretation of The Merchant of Venice, with such a sense of menace at the end. Please, to all those critics, what was the name of the "Merchant?" Peter O'Toole made his "name" in this role when he was a young man at the Bristol Old Vic. Antonio or Bassanio, who cares? Ask yourselves, who gets the best lines? Why is it that given the limited and racial horizons of the "groundlings," Shakespeare made three racist targets, Macbeth, Shylock and Othello, his "anti" heroes. They tower over the rest of the cast. Think, I beg you, think!

Barbara Fearnley-Wood
Newmarket, ON




Dear Masterpiece Theatre,
I suppose we all see in a production what our faith and allegiance allow us to see. Certainly your contributors so far to The Merchant of Venice Forum have focused on the production's version of the Jewish question. Of course that is important, but perhaps less so to those of us who are not Jews.

While I was struck by the strong emphasis on attitudes towards Jews, I also observed and responded to the vigor and strength of the female characters. Here is a story in which their attitudes and actions have major effects. Because of them, promises are extracted and promises are made that affect the lives of most of the major characters -- and not just a few minor characters. In particular, I was swept along by Portia's emotional reactions to events. Rarely have we seen both her complete faithfulness to her father's demands and her intense desire for the right man to solve the riddle of the caskets so powerfully enacted. Her dilemma seemed to me to rival Shylock's. Does anyone agree?

Roger Watkin
Sheffield, UK




Dear Masterpiece Theatre,
The Merchant of Venice was an excellent performance. It was riveting. Because I am Jewish, I was particularly moved by Henry Goodman's performance as Shylock, which evoked deep sympathy. I could see how he wanted revenge -- mostly because of the pain of losing his daughter, rather than a mere hatred of Antonio or all Christians -- although they are connected because he blamed them for stealing his daughter and for her theft of his wealth.

If this play is about "being honest and honoring one's commitments," then Shylock was perhaps the most faithful of the characters. He demanded strict adherence to the rule (of law), and perhaps it was his inflexibility that drove his daughter away. As a Jewish parent of two daughters, I am sensitive to the issues of assimilation and intermarriage. For centuries, Jewish parents expected and demanded faithfulness from their children, and they responded to intermarriage by cutting off relationships. Shakespeare may not have intended to comment on this situation, but the play brings this issue to the forefront of my mind.

Was Shakespeare condemning blind adherence to laws, piety, prejudices, and love? Mercy and forgiveness are honored in this play. Shylock's rejection of mercy was his undoing. On the other hand, Portia's forgiveness of her husband will save their relationship. It seems that Shakespeare not only condemns Shylock's merciless insistence on faithful devotion to inflexible rules, but also to condemn "Society's" injustices -- such as slavery and (perhaps, I hope) Christian hatred of Jews.

I have a cursory familiarity with Jewish history at the time of Shakespeare. And I believe that there were very few (if any) Jews in England at the time. I suspect that Shakespeare drew his depiction of Shylock from what he had heard or read about Jews, rather than his personal contact. So it is amazing that Shakespeare composed such a great speech expressing the common humanity of Jews and Christians.

On a side note, it is interesting that the first ghetto in history -- ghetto being an Italian word -- was established in Venice (I believe around the 17th century) when Jews were forced to leave various neighborhoods and live in only one quarter of that city. Of course, prior to the creation of the Venice ghetto there were many cities in Europe that had never allowed Jews to live within the city walls or that only permitted some to live there upon the payment of a special tax or tribute. And the most frightening series of events in Jewish history at this time (after the Crusades) was the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, the forced conversion of Jews (in order to protect their property, homes and even lives), and the subsequent Inquisition of these "new Christians" for not being faithful Christians. Therefore, it is not unusual that the denouement to the dramatic "cutting of the flesh" scene should include the conversion of the Jew, as well as the threat to his life and production.

Fortunately, this production evoked sympathy for much of what happened to Shylock. Because of his intransigence, I could abide a result where Shylock would lose his property. But I felt most uncomfortable by Shylock's decision, whether forced or voluntary, to convert. The ploy -- that Shylock could take flesh but not take blood -- was fair. And the denial of his principle and interest seemed legal -- once Shylock had insisted on the "pound of flesh" remedy and rejected the alternatives. But the ultimate undoing of Shylock was the result of discriminatory laws. The injustices that restricted Jews (e.g. from shedding Christian blood) but did not similarly restrict Christians was not lost on me. It was probably apparent to Shakespeare, but probably unappreciated by his contemporary audience. Certainly, his audience would cheer Antonio's rescue. And they would probably ignore the fact that his rescue was the result of the application of an inequitable discriminatory collection of laws -- laws that were the precursor of the Nazi Nuremberg race laws.

But what made me most uncomfortable was Shylock's conversion to Christianity. Although this was common in Europe for centuries -- and although the PBS production evoked considerable sympathy (as well as ambiguity) for Shylock's predicament -- I still felt offended by what I believe was Shakespeare's "playing to the crowd." Popular Christian belief at the time was that Judaism was a threat to Christianity and that ultimately God wanted all Jews to convert to the "one true faith." In fact, the preferred solution was thatJews should be "encouraged" to convert voluntarily. Forced conversions were disapproved by the Vatican. I do not know how sophisticated Shakespeare was with regard to these religious issues, but the ambiguity of Shylock's conversion -- was it voluntary, forced, a result of his desire to keep some of his wealth, or due to despair -- was masterfully conceived, albeit personally disturbing.

I would like to believe that Shakespeare was critical of the anti-Semitism that was popular in his time. But his audience could no more discard this belief than it could abandon its acceptance of slavery. I did take comfort in the ending of this production, which appeared to be "inconclusive" -- sort of like "all's not well when it ends." Shylock's daughter is terribly pained by her loss. Although Bassanio explains his reasons for giving up his ring, Portia remains hesitant regarding her husband's ability to keep his promise. Essentially, this is not really an "ending" because so many of the relationships have to be repaired.

Similarly, I would like to think that Shakespeare wanted his audience to face the broader issues of repairing society -- perhaps more critically and more equitably?

Myron Schreck
Moscow, ID




Dear Masterpiece Theatre,
I watched last night's production of The Merchant of Venice from beginning to end, but that's not a compliment. I couldn't believe the anti-Semitism broadcast in the name of art. There have been many pieces of hateful literature throughout the years, aimed at different groups -- blacks, Catholics and others -- and despite their being written by well-known authors, they are not produced out of respect. When is the last time anyone saw Uncle Tom's Cabin anywhere or Birth of a Nation? For PBS to publicize this rabid version of the production is, at best, insensitive.

Mary Leister
New York, NY




Dear Masterpiece Theatre,
The Merchant of Venice was a marvelous production. The acting (especially the characters of Shylock and Antonio) brought out the depths and nuances of meaning in this complex play. I particularly liked the fact that the production didn't shy away from things that might spark controversy -- there was no attempt at covering up the anti-Semitism of even the "heroes" like Portia; and Antonio's love for Bassanio, which is crucial to understanding the play, was developed well throughout.

PBS may get complaints about these aspects of the production -- ignore them. You, and the director, made the right choices. The filming itself was also very effective: it respected the integrity of the play as a play (not a film), while introducing just enough camera movement, close-ups and so on to hold our interest and to emphasize important moments.

I did have a quibble with the sometimes extensive cuts to the text, and I'm troubled by the rearranging of the text at the end. It was effective, but perhaps made the play's ending happier and more hopeful than it deserves to be. Anyway, not only did I love watching this production, it's something I plan to show to my students the next time I teach Shakespeare. Please give us more Masterpiece Theatre productions like this (and fewer sentimental adaptations of children's stories!).

Candace Lines
Minneapolis, MN




Dear Masterpiece Theatre,
I enjoyed the production of The Merchant of Venice tremendously. It's the first time I understood the play in a larger way. It holds many lessons for humanity to apply to today's events. It shows, among many things, that people haven't changed much in the last 500 years.

Couching the play in the 1920s-30s was a brilliant idea. Much of the treatment in various scenes was extremely imaginative and brilliant. I was very impressed.

Joanna Aloni
Los Angeles, CA




Dear Masterpiece Theatre,
I will try to watch this wonderful production of The Merchant of Venice, or at least record it. Unfortunately, you chose the evening of a Jewish holiday for broadcast. For some Jews it is Shemini Atzeret (the 8th day of the Sukkot Festival), and for Reform Jews it is Simchat Torah, which has a grand celebration. It is like programming an Easter service on Christmas Eve.

Rabbi Irwin Goldenberg
York, PA




Dear Masterpiece Theatre,
The Merchant of Venice -- stunning. Henry Goodman's performance took my breath away. This play is all too relevant today with people "feeding their revenge" against the innocent. As a Jew, I felt great sympathy for Shylock -- but actually he represents (for me) all oppressed minorities. If you treat them like animals, they may indeed act like crazed animals.

And the lines about mercy vs. justice -- after watching the play, I went to the library to get the original play to read it. I also made a tape of the play to have my friends watch. Keep up the good work.

Mel Feuerman
Great Neck, NY




Dear Masterpiece Theatre,
After seeing the current production of The Merchant of Venice, I found myself terribly offended. In today's age and times, it is inappropriate, in my opinion, to present a play in which extreme prejudice is not rejected. Here is a play in which a Jewish merchant has been terribly abused by all of the gentile citizens, but when all else fails, he is used to provide a loan to a selfish profligate. When the loan is not repaid all hell breaks loose.

His anger at the gentiles is probably justified because of the suffering he has experienced at their hands, but certainly his hard-nosed desire to extract a pound of flesh is inappropriate, though perhaps understandable.

Shakespeare fails to find a just solution. Despite some great lines that show Shylock to be as human as his antagonists, he is doomed. To make him a pauper (half of his possessions go to his son-in-law and half to the state) and to cause him to give up his religion is a horrible answer. The manipulation of the law in the play is so much an example of what happens today. The doge is a despicable tyrant. That all the gentiles live happily ever after and Shylock becomes a pauper and is lucky to be alive through the "good will" of the doge, is not a satisfactory conclusion.

This is not, in my opinion, appropriate to our time -- or any time -- and I am terribly disappointed that it was shown on Masterpiece Theatre. If the intent was to expose prejudice, a much better vehicle could have been employed.

Ralph Schefflan
New York, NY




Dear Masterpiece Theatre,
Bravo for The Merchant of Venice! After a very long dry spell, a "masterpiece" has finally been broadcast. Please give us more of this sort of programming rather than the drivel of the past several seasons.

William F. Johnson
Sedalia, CO



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