The Merchant Of Venice - Henry Goodman - Trevor Nunn
Oliver Theatre - National Theatre Company - South Bank

On 9 May 2000 I saw the production directed by Trevor Nunn of Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice by the National Theatre Company at the Oliver Theatre on London’s South Bank.

As Mary Warnock says in the foreword to the programme (M.Warnock sits as an Independent in the House of Lords and her latest book is An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Ethics): “The Merchant of Venice is a play of commerce, where both goods and actions are weighed up, their worth compared, their real values estimated. In this sense it is a morality play. How are we to judge what is more valuable than what? Can we trade off one value against another? The great friendship of Antonio for Bassanio, which forms a seemingly unchallengeable foundation for the events of the play, finds expression in a financial transaction.”

This play is set in comfortable Edwardian times with a sort of gentleman’s club setting for the opening scene with leather furniture and – amidst the music and champagne – almost uniformly maroon-suited chaps horse-play in a fashion we would today recognise as garish. Yet there doesn’t seem to be any homoerotic feeling between the middle-aged merchant, Antonio, and the fortune hunting Bassanio - the pair could well be merely distant brothers. Really, a play more of going through the motions than showing any real emotion. There is no real impression of an anti-Semitic Edwardian society looking down on Shylock as a despicable outsider even if Portia does flinch from the embrace of Shylok’s daughter, Jessica. Chic Edwardian Venice is shown as a mercurial place where anti-Semitism runs rife under a veneer of parties..

Portia succumbs to Bassanio’s unromantic and far from smitten overtures as dutifully as she does for her appearance in court. The well-dressed Antonio takes the threat of violent death and losing Bassanio with a stiff upper lip. At the finale he stands alone contentedly smoking a cigarette as if a good fag was all he ever really wanted!

Henry Goodman won a Laurence Oliver Best Actor award for his role as Shylock: a character with a tragic flaw (the desire for revenge) is motivated by a lifetime of taunts and insults. “Sufferance is the bade of all our tribe”. During the 14th Century a new element entered into the Jewish relations with Venice. Before the Jew and merchant were almost synonymous. But then the feudal system prevented Jews from being merchants and the only profession left open to them was that of a money-lender; they were overwhelmingly confined in spite of themselves to this degraded and degrading occupation.

In the end when Portia begs foe mercy Shylock stands on his bond from which he thinks is his right to exact his penalty. The trial scene achieves some tension and emphasises the gloating triumph of the Christian Venetians when they force Shylock to convert. But it is only towards the end that you get a real sense of what Shylock has lost when Jessica weeps with the memory of her own culture.

Shylock, a Jew, was played by Henry Goodman; Antonio, a merchant of Venice by David Barber; Bassanio, Antonio’s friend by Alexander Hanson; Jessica, Shylock’s daughter by Gabrielle Jourdan; Portia, a rich heiress by Derbhle Crotty and Lorenzo, in love with Jessica, by Jack James.

It is a tale of how racial prejudice was a rife then as it was today and, once again, religion the source of much hatred. In 1215 the reigning Pope, Innocent III, decreed that any Jew above the age of 13, or any Jewish woman above 11, was to wear a mask, a yellow patch, front and back. On the outer garment: the badge to be a mark of shame and drive them out of European society.


Verinha Ottoni.


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