Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Merchant of Venice (The Arden Shakespeare). Edited by John Drakakis.

Few quotes better encapsulate the post-war attitude to The Merchant of Venice than this marvel from Dennis Kennedy: “Since 1945 we have been in possession of a new text of the play, one which bears relationships to the earlier text but is also significantly different from it.” Placed at the centre of the introduction to John Drakakis’s third Arden edition of the play, it marks the historical moment when the play stopped being a “comedy” and became something rather more uncomfortable and in the shift away from obvious stereotyping into a work which has become very difficult to perform.

Most of the plays have probably undergone this kind of transformation, not least Hamlet which now exists in a kind of post-Freudian state. Certainly I’ve never seen a production that has been able to turn Shylock into the complex figure our sensibilities demand and also make Portia sympathetic enough after her treatment of him so that the more traditional romantic comedy elements don’t stick in the throat. Presumably that’s why it’s one of the few plays I simply can’t watch or listen to for pleasure but instead to see if the company have cracked this almost impossible code.

Drakakis, a professor of English Studies at the University of Sterling, tries his best to convince us, by offering a detailed overview of the influences underpinning Shakespeare’s characterisation, from the real life position of Jews within Venetian society to their theatrical tradition, notably in Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta and the sources for that tricky romance story, with its caskets and rings. Along with the editing of the play itself and the accompanying notes, this is the work of a couple of decades which is ably demonstrated by the breadth of quotations on display and intertextuality.

If I’m confused as to how Drakakis seeks to position Shylock and the Christians, it’s perhaps because his introduction isn’t quite as accessible as similar efforts in other Ardens and expects a certain level of background knowledge of the reader. Certainly this feels like more of a straight academic text than Keir Elam’s efforts on Twelfth Night or Charles Forker’s Richard II though I should admit that I’m far more familiar with both of those plays than The Merchant of Venice which could account for the disconnect. Even so, I learnt more here about The Jew of Malta than when it was forced on me during A-Level English Literature.

The theatrical history offers steadier ground. Drakakis emphasises how revivals through the 18th and 19th centuries edited and rewrote the text to make Shylock a much more central figure often losing Portia altogether and either increasing his pantomime villainy or in a few cases shaving his darker excesses. It isn’t really until recently that the language of the play was returned to anything Shakespeare intended, but with directors employing the play to reflect the Jewish experience in a range of historical periods. In that context, the new Globe’s unreconstructed ’98 production in which the audience was actively encouraged to hiss Shylock as he came on stage in the pantomime tradition is especially daring.

The Merchant of Venice (The Arden Shakespeare). Edited by John Drakakis is published by Methuen Drama. £9.99. ISBN: 9781903436813.  Review copy supplied.

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