'The Merchant of Venice' as Proto-Bromantic Comedy?

I Doth Love You, Man
Drag your pounds of flesh to see the stellar lead performances in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice

The man-crush has been around far longer than bromantic comedies and UFC. In Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote that a customary habit of early-19th-century lawyers such as Abraham Lincoln was to sleep in the same beds as their male colleagues. Jesus of Nazareth had at least 12 dudes really into him. And Ancient Greece, well, you know.

One of the great literary man-crushes is William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Though distinct in Shakespeare’s canon for its portrayal of Shylock, a reviled Jewish moneylender, the play’s protagonist is Antonio, the titular merchant.

The unmarried, wealthy Antonio is so enamored of his youthful friend Bassanio that he lowers himself to deal with a subhuman Jew in order to borrow money so Bassanio can attempt to woo a wealthy woman. And Bassanio obviously returns Antonio’s affections: Even after getting his girl, he’s quite willing to break his vow with her in order to save his friend’s life.

Though usually perceived as a play about prejudice, particularly anti-Semitism, The Merchant of Venice is really about acquiring, keeping and increasing wealth. But since this is Shakespeare, the play is layered with contradictions and ambiguities: Though the quest for money consumes its characters, most are willing to forfeit enormous sums to keep their friendships and friends solvent. Even wealthy Antonio and the loathed Shylock seem to realize the inherent hollowness of lives fueled by the thirst for material gain.

That is borne out skillfully in Shakespeare Orange County’s splendid production. Director Thomas F. Bradac, as usual, takes a straightforward approach to Shakespeare, presenting it as written, with no attempt to soften Shakespeare’s shockingly cruel treatment of Shylock.

The only significant change comes at the play’s end, when Antonio (Carl Reggiardo) repeats the 10 words that begin the play: “In sooth I know not why I am so sad.”

In both moments, Antonio is isolated onstage, with the rest of the characters in darkness. It’s a strong opening and closing image, and it underscores the inherent contradictions of a man who, at the play’s climax, is bankrupt and about to lose his life. But instead of moaning or railing in anger, Reggiardo’s Antonio is resigned, at times even suspiciously welcoming of the dagger pointed at his chest.

The ambiguities don’t end with Reggiardo’s quietly dignified and equally disquieting Antonio.

Michael Nehring’s Shylock is vindictive, hateful, unreasonable and vengeful, but he is also clearly a man whose life is bound by the suffering and anguish of a people treated like vermin by the loving Christians who rule the world in which they live (at the time of its writing, Jews were barred from living in England). After Shylock’s daughter runs off with a friend of Bassanio’s, an elopement Shylock blames on Antonio, he bemoans not only the loss of the money she took with her, but also his loss of her and the resurrection of painful memories of his dead wife.

It’s clear that Shylock is motivated by much more than sheer revenge. Nehring’s Shylock is a mean, bitter man, but he is also deeply pained, something that elevates Nehring’s performance—and the play—to a level above the fact that The Merchant of Venice is so mired in anti-Semitism.

It’s also mired in misogyny. Women are as much objects as the coins the play’s men are consumed with. They are things to be won, wooed or stolen. Portia, the wealthy lady courted by Bassanio, doesn’t even have a choice as to whom she marries; she is bound by a directive of her dead father to marry the man who picks the right door in a 16th-century Let’s Make a Deal-like shell game.

Only when Portia dresses and pretends to be a man does she wield real power. With that said, Kim Shively’s Portia is radiant, constantly bristling at her position and using the only weapons in her arsenal—Shakespeare’s loaded verse—with equal parts ferocity and wile.

The three standout lead performances, augmented by a stellar supporting cast, make this Merchant a quite convincing production; sure, it feels too long, in both running time and in verbal pomposity, but its ability to strike so many human nerves keeps it from feeling like a dry, dusty museum piece.

The Merchant of Venice presented by Shakespeare Orange County at Festival Ampitheatre, 12852 Main St., Garden Grove, (714) 590-7175; www.shakespeareoc.org. Fri.-Sat., 8:15 p.m. $32.

 
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