“I have always admired this play and also been confounded by it,” says Tom Blachly about William Shakespeare’s comedy-drama, “The Merchant of Venice.” “There is so much going on in this play, and it has some of Shakespeare’s most beautiful language. He was at the height of his lyrical powers when he wrote it.”
Beginning Thursday, for two weekends, Plainfield Little Theatre will present “The Merchant of Venice” at the Plainfield Opera House. Directed by Blachly, the production is set in 1930s fascist Italy. It features a cast of Plainfield Little Theatre veterans and new faces, with Sorsha Anderson as Portia, Richard Littauer as Bassanio, Adam Woogmaster as Antonio and Matthew Grant Winston as Shylock.
“It is rife with controversy, but I do feel it speaks to our times. One of its themes is difference and discrimination,” Blachly said. “The society that Shakespeare has created in Venice is a complicated one. It is multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious. People are wrestling with issues of identity and with society.”
“Shakespeare always relates the personal to the political, the individual and society. We see larger issues of what kind of society Venice is.”
Bassanio, young and noble but low on funds, needs cash to pursue courtship of the lovely and wealthy heiress Portia. Bassanio turns to his friend Antonio, a prospering merchant, for a loan. Antonio’s money is at the moment tied up in ships and cargoes, but he’s due for profits when they reach port. Antonio, confident that the ships will come in, is willing to guarantee Bassanio’s loan when the young nobleman turns to Shylock, the Jewish moneylender.
There is bad blood between Shylock and Antonio, with the latter’s anti-Semitism and attacks on Shylock for charging interest on loans, a practice not followed in the merchant and noble classes. Shylock loans Bassanio the money and foregoes interest, instead conditioning the loan on a pound of flesh, Antonio’s flesh, should he fail to repay it on time.
Bassanio travels to Portia’s home, and succeeds at a challenge her father has left to determine her groom. All should be bright, but the ships have not arrived, the loan is due and Shylock is inflexible in his terms. The resolution, with disguised Portia at the forefront, plays out in public in Venice.
“We see conflicts within individuals and how confines of society influence their decision-making and where they find themselves in society,” Blachly said. “Shylock is the best example — he is prevented from competing with the merchants of Venice so he is forced to become a money lender. The environment led to the decision.”
“If you do a close reading, you see that Shakespeare takes great pains to place Shylock into this larger context. Yes, he is evil in wanting the pound of flesh, but Shakespeare also makes it clear that he is vilified, spat on in the marketplace and relegated to the ghetto, where the Jews lived and could not leave,” Blachly said.
“Shakespeare makes it clear that Shylock is using Antonio’s bond to test the laws of Venice. If you’re not going to uphold my right, then the laws of Venice have no meaning.”
The 1930s setting is an appropriate fit with the similarities in the environment for Jews in Shakespeare’s Venice and Mussolini’s Italy.
“Portia is one of the great women’s roles in Shakespeare,” Blachly said. “The play is in many ways her journey. In the beginning she is confined by her father’s will. She is left the estate, but can only marry the one who chose the right casket. In the first half, she is passive, can’t get on with her life, and has to be freed by the caskets.
“Once she gets free, she not only takes charge of her life, she takes charge of everything.”
The Plainfield Opera House stage has been reconfigured for “Merchant of Venice,” extended into the seating area. Blachly encourages people to reserve early, as there will not be as many seats available as usual.