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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.