The Baltimore Shakespeare Factory’s new performance of “The Merchant of Venice” is actually quite old, as it revives the Elizabethan pronunciation of the text, speaking the Bard’s words with inflections that haven’t been heard in centuries. “The Merchant of Venice” is a weird play made weirder by the original-pronunciation (OP) production. Theater critics Maura Callahan and Baynard Woods went to see it and engaged in the following exchange.
Baynard Woods: Watching the Shakespeare Factory’s production of Shakespeare’s comedy “The Merchant of Venice,” I was reminded that comedic plots are so much more improbable than those in tragedy because it truly takes a miracle or a deus ex machina in order for things to work out well, whereas disaster and catastrophe are easily naturalistic. But, despite its inherent racism, which I’m sure we’ll get to soon, I like the darkness of the comedy. And the way that part of the comedy is the inherent stupidity, not of “the Jew,” but of men, who are universally ignorant, whereas the women are all clever.
Maura Callahan: The women in “The Merchant of Venice” are significantly more intelligent than the men, but they only use their wit to secure their places as wives. That’s really the only way they can use it—unless they disguise themselves as men. Portia can only save Antonio’s life when she’s dressed as a male doctor, even though she’s the most knowledgeable of the law. The only way she can exercise any power—and clean up the mess made by the male characters—is by not being a woman.
As for the comedy, I think that comedy, in the modern sense of the genre, comes from a place of realness or absurdity. Something can be funny because it illuminates real but overlooked moments, or something can be funny because it’s ridiculous. Or real experiences can be revealed to be somewhat absurd or vice versa. Shakespeare’s comedies, which are comedies for the reason that they end positively (and that they’re filled with puns and irony and dick jokes and smiling), are funny to me because of what you’re saying; the fortune of the characters is so improbable. But at the same time, “The Merchant of Venice” paints the characters as very real, albeit sometimes over-the-top, people, with men that are ignorant and women that are clever—and everyone’s sneaky.
BW: Yeah, I agree that, especially in this case, it is almost quite tragic. Of course, Shylock, the Jew, comes across in this really bizarre way. It is actually the “Christians” who turn out to be “tricky” and sneaky. I mean, he sets up this crazy deal, where he gets a pound of flesh as surety on the loan, because of the way he is dehumanized by the merchant. So there is something about him that is so horribly stereotypical that we can see almost that he is only seen on the stage through the eyes of the Christians. It would be interesting if someone did a “Grendel” or “Wicked” treatment. “Shylock!”
All of this is, I think, heightened by the OP, which has the quasi-Brechtian effect of distancing us a bit more from the characters and their actions—but not too much. More than anything I felt like I was listening to Ghostface Killah when I didn’t understand something—I might not get everything, but there’s still a sense of what is going on, and a beautiful flow. But it’s a tremendous testament to the actors that they were able to pull this off and maintain a degree of naturalism. I especially found Valerie Dowdle, as Portia, quite compelling.
MC: The OP made the characters seem earthier, less refined than we tend to interpret Shakespeare. There’s a reason why Americans often link modern English accents to sophistication—and why the English often associate American English to stupidity. After Shakespeare, after America was colonized, wealthy English people developed the modern English pronunciation to distinguish themselves from the lower classes—which is why Americans still pronounce “r”s, as the actors did onstage. So in that sense, I actually felt a bit closer to the characters than I did when I’ve heard Shakespeare performed with modern English pronunciation. That might be unique to American audiences. The fact that this is the first time since the new pronunciation took over that “The Merchant of Venice” has been performed in OP is pretty incredible.
BW: Yeah, it’s hard to imagine the kind of training the actors actually did to make that happen because it’s not like they could just listen to the BBC all day and try to pick up a modern accent. David Crystal, who coached them, along with his son Ben, wrote a spectacular encyclopedia of the English language and it must have been a real intellectual thrill to undertake something like this. It’s definitely worth going, even if just for the rare experience of hearing this, and even if it means sitting through the rather dreadful covers of modern songs done on the lute.