Like any good Shakespearean comedy, “The Merchant of Venice” ends with a wedding. However, this comedy might not be what you expect. Loneliness, vengeance, and prejudice pervade this play just as much as romance and hilarious one-liners.
The Tower Players will perform “The Merchant of Venice” in Markel Auditorium at 7:30 p.m. from Wednesday through Sunday with additional performances at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.
“‘The Merchant of Venice’ has always bothered me,” said James Brandon, who directed the play. “It doesn’t give any easy answers.”
The action of the play is divided between two cities: Venice and Belmont. In Venice, a young man named Bassanio, who is in debt, hopes to win the hand of Portia, a rich heiress. To do so, he needs the help of his friend Antonio, a wealthy merchant. But Antonio has invested all of his money in shipping ventures and cannot afford to help his friend.
In desperation, Antonio turns to Shylock, a rich Jew who is both the villain and the victim of this play. Shylock despises these Christian men who look down on him for his religion, so he agrees to lend Antonio the money on the condition that if he cannot repay it, Shylock will claim one pound of the flesh closest to Antonio’s heart.
Meanwhile in Belmont, Portia laments the fact that she cannot choose her own husband. Instead, her father determines that the suitor who correctly chooses between three caskets will win her hand. Men from all over the world come to try their luck, but none succeed.
The play culminates in a court scene, where Antonio begs an implacable Shylock for mercy after all of his ships fail to come back and he cannot repay the loan. It seems that Antonio is doomed, until the arrival of a mysterious doctor changes everything.
Beneath the drama, suspense, and comedy lie serious questions.
“Shakespeare is asking his audience to question how they think about other people,” Brandon said. “What are the limits of friendship? What is the duty of a daughter to her father?”
More obvious to the modern viewer, however, are the obvious questions of prejudice. Throughout the play, Shylock is verbally abused by Antonio, Bassanio, and their friends. They despise him for his usury but are all too willing to borrow his money. For his part, Shylock actively hates the Christians and schemes to avenge himself.
It’s tempting to try to divide the characters into “heroes” and “villains,” but Shakespeare’s characters are hard to pin down.
Johannes Olson, who plays Shylock, gave some insight into his character.
“I saw him as lonely,” Olson said. “Wherever he is, he’s alone. People leave him, and that pushes him over the edge.”
Olson said preparing to play the role helped him understand what it’s like to be an outsider.
“Something I’ve been looking at is, what does it mean to be in a community?” Olson said. “I’ve been doing method work with solitude and being emotionally alone. I’ve learned a lot about where I belong in a community after seeing where Shylock is in this artificial community.”
Research assistant Madeline Campbell, who investigated medieval Venetian culture in preparation for the play, revealed more about the meaning of community in “The Merchant of Venice.”
“James [Brandon] told me that Venice was like New York,” Campbell said. “Everybody there is looking to use you or profit off of you. There is no one in New York City that wants to be your friend unless you already know them. And that’s why Antonio and Bassanio are so compelling, because they have such a true friendship.”
“The Merchant of Venice” doesn’t give any easy answers. What it does give are deep questions, a forbidden romance, and a lot of laughter.
“I think this is one of the funniest plays ever,” said stage manager Sarah Nolting. “Every time Old Gobbo walks across the stage, I can’t help laughing.”
Who is Old Gobbo, you ask? Well, you’ll just have to see the play and find out for yourself.