Edward Hall’s The Merchant of Venice at BAM
A few weeks ago, I published a short story on Wattpad called “The Merchants of Venice.” This essay will explain what I was trying to do with the short story and unpack some of its influences.
In 2009, I attended a production of The Merchant of Venice by Edward Hall’s Propeller Company at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I knew the play well, having taken the role of Bassanio in high school and studied Shakespeare at college. Hall’s production, however, offered a radical departure from the norm. Not only was Propeller an all-male company, but the entire play was set in a prison. The Christian merchants—Antonio, Gratiano, Bassanio, and Lorenzo—were a gang seeking power over a Jewish gang led by an equally tough Shylock, for control of the jail and access to the “women,” who in this case were the prison “wives” of the dominant gang members.
I found the production revelatory. Merchant had always struck me as more of “problem” play—more akin to the cynical Troilus and Cressida and nausea-inducing Measure for Measure than the delightful As You Like It, rambunctious Twelfth Night, or playful Much Ado About Nothing. There is no disguising Merchant’s anti-Semitism or the mercenariness of the male protagonists. What has tended to be hidden, however, by the pretty language and the supposed paradise of Portia’s estate in Belmont are the intersecting bonds transacted and extended throughout Merchant. Not only did Propeller’s production make Belmont fantastical—since these men were never getting out of jail to go anywhere—but it brought forth, in the most literal way possible, their enforced and perpetual situational bondage.
One obvious bond is Shylock’s arrangement with Antonio for a loan of money in exchange for a pound of the Christian’s flesh. It is simultaneously a contractual agreement and a metaphorical tie between Christian and Jew—one that binds them emotionally and psychologically together, to either’s disgust. Such emotional and financial bonds—between Antonio and Bassanio; between Portia and her late father; between Portia and her would-be husbands; and Jessica and her father Shylock—reveal a world where love is inextricably bound to the promise and acquisition of money. In fact, one might go so far as to say that love is money. Even though Portia’s dead father has tried to educate her on the meaning of true love, and Bassanio makes the right choice in picking the casket of the “least” value, the suitor is, quite literally, a financial speculator as much as a romancer. Bassanio’s, Gratiano’s, and Lorenzo’s speculation pays off handsomely.
Propeller’s production brought out starkly the “bond” that men share and the homoeroticism of men conspiring to gain access to women and their money. Hall highlighted how women, through marriage, are stripped of their independence and wealth. Devoid of the delusions of romance and with everyone locked away in prison, this production showed clearly how dominant men competed with other dominant men for sex, money, and status; and yet how all the would-be players were ultimately constrained by a system (capitalism, perhaps) that held them unwittingly together in bondage. The flip-side of bondage is betrayal or forfeiture, and the play is full of it: Jessica betrays Shylock; Bassanio betrays the love that Antonio bears him by effectively leaving him for a woman; Shylock’s bond is forfeited when Portia, in the disguise of Balthasar, betrays the Jew in court by asking for mercy and then deploying legalism to win the case; and Lorenzo and Jessica’s great encomium to love in Act V Scene I (“The moon shine’s bright) presents a litany of lovers who have betrayed and cheated.
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Cannibalism in Autumn
These were the themes that I took into the story that became “The Merchants of Venice.” The main character, Tony, is obviously a stand-in for Antonio. Like the Shakespearean character, Tony is a merchant and single. Shakespeare always leaves someone alone at the end of his major comedies: Antonio in Merchant, Jacques in As You Like It, The Captain and Malvolio in Twelfth Night, Don Pedro in Much Ado About Nothing. Some have argued that this is Shakespeare’s psychological response to thwarted homosexual love that (then) had no option for marriage. That seems to me to be the least interesting theory. More intriguing (to me) is the concept that the singleton sees marriage for what it (then) was—a contractual exchange of property among men. Burned by an impossible love, the lone figure has no time for the delusions that genuine affection can last a lifetime or for the supposed notion that genuine love can exist only in marriage. The lone figure is therefore the most honest, or at least the most open-eyed about life.
With this in mind, I decided to make Tony cynical and knowing—and the world in which he moves exploitative and dehumanizing. He trades in human beings, forming bonds with women and girls young enough to be his daughter through money or the addicting ties of hard drugs. He lives in a world where no one is who they seem to be, where love is always purchased or sold, and where the pounds of flesh that he commodifies are extracted through exploitation and in mutual parasitism—rather as in Dali’s Cannibalism in Autumn (above). It seemed a fair reflection of Shakespeare’s world—at least as expressed through Propeller’s production of Merchant. Tony’s sangfroid is hard won: he’s careful to hide his emotions, particularly when it might manifest itself in fear, behind a veneer of nonchalant superciliousness.
I populated the story with other names from Merchant—Lorenzo and Jessica—and made Tony’s brother and sister-in-law William and Kate (after Shakespeare and the name that Shakespeare gives his sparkier female characters). Tony’s escort became Bianca, or “white,” to play on the name given (occasionally ironically) to virtuous virgins in Shakespearean and Jacobean dramas (cf. Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew and Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women). The one sop to my own experience was to recall my aunt’s concern regarding her daughter’s marriage to her husband that she would be swaddled in love and not allowed to grow as her own woman. Thankfully, this concern has not proven true. As in Merchant, the relationship that truly matters is between two men: in my story that between the two brothers. I had my own brother in my imagination as I wrote the dialogue between Tony and William—although my brother’s children aren’t yet old enough to be married, and I haven’t ever seen my brother drunk. I also expressed a genuine emotion when I describe Tony’s voice thickening over never having children.
Finally, a word about Tony’s phrase “le point vierge.” The phrase was coined by the French Catholic theologian Louis Massignon, and was taken up by the American Trappist monk Thomas Merton. It literally means “the virgin point,” and refers to that part of the soul that remains immaculate and/or the genesis point of spiritual purification. Here Antonio, ever the cynic, is corrupting the phrase to refer to Jessica’s physical and metaphorical deflowering following her wedding. He is also expressing contempt for a notion of marriage whereby a relationship is made “honest” by the sacrament.
That said, almost in spite of himself Tony recognizes that in Jessica and Lorenzo’s marriage is the possibility of a rededication to another, more authentic set of relationships between a couple than have defined his life heretofore. Tony knows that William sees through his glib sophistication. Although William doesn’t really press Tony on what he does for a living, Tony is fully aware that William is comfortable with the choices that he (William) has made, in a way that Tony is not with his own. Their relationship may depend upon subterfuge—on not stating out loud what Tony does for a living—but Tony and William rely on the other’s discretion, and that is enough to sustain them. That’s why, even though William’s drunken observation that Tony could do worse than marry Bianca is shot through with a teasing, passive-aggressive irony, it’s also a genuine wish on William’s behalf that Tony find some permanent happiness. I left the tone of Tony’s response deliberately vague. We, like Tony, have no idea of who Bianca is and what she genuinely wants for her future.