Archive for the 'Merchant of Venice' Category

How NOT To Hate Shakespeare

Sunday, January 29th, 2017

In this October 2016 TED talk, Shakespearean actor and educator Rob Crisell makes a passionate argument for Shakespeare, for teaching Shakespeare, and for teaching Shakespeare through performance. Whether you’re already with him on these three points or not, it’s well worth checking out:




Enjoy!

Shakespeare Clickbait

Wednesday, December 25th, 2013

How far should we go to get people to read Shakespeare? I say we do whatever it takes.

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My teenage daughter and her friends think that posts like this can’t go viral. Please help me teach them an important lesson by sharing this on Facebook and Twitter.

Shakespeare Song Parody: We Love the Plays of Shakespeare

Friday, June 28th, 2013

This is the last in a series of 40 pop-music parodies for Shakespeare fans.

So far, we’ve had one parody for each of Shakespeare’s 38 plays and one for the sonnets. We finish the Shakespeare Top 40 with a tribute to all of the plays, one last time.

Enjoy!

We Love the Plays of Shakespeare
sung to the tune of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel

(With appreciation to everyone who has followed along on the journey…)

Harry, Suffolk, Somerset,
Richard Plantagenet;
Warwick, Edward, Margaret, Rutland,
Younger Lord Clifford;
Lord John Talbot, Tony Woodeville,
Duke of Bedford, Joan La Pucelle;
Duke of Clarence, Tower Princes,
Richard the Third…

Antipholus, Dromio,
Balthazar, Angelo;
Titus gets Tamora by
Baking her kids in a pie;
Tranio, Petruchio,
Katharina, Widow;
Proteus and Valentine have
Bid Verona goodbye…

We love the plays of Shakespeare,
Jumping off the pages,
Burning up the stages.
We love the plays of Shakespeare.
First, we learned to read them.
Now, we go to see them.

Don Armado, French Princess,
Costard and Holofernes;
Romeo’s Apothecary,
Juliet’s Nurse;
Gaunt John, he passed on,
Henry’s back and Dick’s gone;
Quince, Flute, Snout, Snug,
Bottom’s got a curse…

King John, Pope, France,
Bastard’s got a second chance;
Shylock and Antonio,
Portia and Bassanio;
Bardolph, Boar’s Head,
Prince Hal, Hotspur dead;
Tavern Hostess, Lord Chief Justice,
Henry on his deathbed…

We love the plays of Shakespeare,
Jumping off the pages,
Burning up the stages.
We love the plays of Shakespeare.
First, we learned to read them.
Now, we go to see them.

Benedick, Beatrice,
Dogberry and Verges;
Cambridge, Scroop and Grey,
Fight on St. Crispin’s Day;
Cassius, Cicero,
Julius Caesar, Cato;
Duke Senior, Jacques,
Poems posted on the trees…

O, O, O…

Olivia, Antonio,
Toby Belch, Malvolio;
Ophelia, Claudius,
Hamlet kills Polonius;
Falstaff once adored
Mistress Page and Mistress Ford;
Agamemnon, Pandarus,
Cressida and Troilus…

We love the plays of Shakespeare,
Jumping off the pages,
Burning up the stages.
We love the plays of Shakespeare.
First, we learned to read them.
Now, we go to see them.

Helena for Bertram fell,
All’s Well that Ends Well;
Angelo, Claudio,
“Friar” Duke Vincentio;
Desdemona, Othello,
Duke, Iago, Cassio;
Kent’s stand, Lear’s Fool,
Edmund’s death, Edgar’s rule;
Three Witches, two Macbeths,
Scottish spirits come unsex;
Antony, Cleo P.,
Who else would you want to see?

We love the plays of Shakespeare,
Jumping off the pages,
Burning up the stages.
We love the plays of Shakespeare.
First, we learned to read them.
Now, we go to see them.

Marcius, Cominius,
Volumnia, Aufidius;
Cupid, Lucius,
Timon, Flavius;
Gower, Thaliard, Pericles,
Antiochus, Simonides;
Posthumous is shipped to Rome,
Iachimo’s gone to his home…

Autolycus, Leontes,
Perdita, Polixenes;
Stephano, Trinculo,
Ship, wreck, Prospero;
Henry starts a second life,
Anne Boleyn’s his second wife;
Kinsmen our guy partnered for;
May have helped with Thomas More…

We love the plays of Shakespeare,
Jumping off the pages,
Burning up the stages.
We love the plays of Shakespeare.
And where we have gone,
The play will start anon,
Anon, anon, anon, anon, anon, anon, anon…

We love the plays of Shakespeare,
Jumping off the pages,
Burning up the stages.
We love the plays of Shakespeare.
First, we learned to read them.
Now, we go to see them.

We love the plays of Shakespeare!

Hat tip to Shakespeare Online for the chronology.

You can click to read all 40 song parodies here.

Shakespeare Song Parody: Three Caskets

Friday, March 1st, 2013

This is the 26th in a series of pop-music parodies for Shakespeare fans.

Enjoy!

Three Caskets
sung to the tune of “Four Minutes”

(With apologies to Madonna, Justin Timberlake, and Timbaland)

I’m on the spot
And gotta choose from three caskets,
(Fricki, fricki) three caskets. Hey!

Hey, come on, Portia.

Come on boy,
I’ve been waiting for somebody
To come pass this test.

Now, don’t waste time,
Tell me the rules,
Let me prove that I am the best.

Read each inscription,
Choose the right one,
And then open the lid.
Inside one, I am hid.

Girl, I can solve this test,
Just gotta show me where they are.
I’ll do as you have bid;
You’ll be glad that I did.

If you choose now,
You could lose now.
Take some more time;
No harm in pushing it back.

If I pick right,
And, hey, I just might,
This ordeal ends,
For now I’m living on the rack.

Choose the right box.

Gotta choose from three caskets to win the girl.

Loose the tight locks.
You’re my man!

You’re my world!

Choose the right box.

Gotta choose from three caskets to win the girl.

Loose the tight locks.

Gotta choose from three caskets, uh huh, three caskets.

Come, give it up.
No need to be so shy, lock.

You gotta read my thoughts:
(pick lead, pick lead, pick lead)

That’s right, come, give it up.
No need to be so shy, lock.

You gotta read my thoughts:
(pick lead, pick lead, pick lead)

Remember, this suitor test
Was my father’s invention, yeah.

So the Silver one holds what I deserve,
And then the Gold
Has what all men desire.

All that glisters isn’t gold, I should mention, yeah.

But if I choose the Lead,
It means I would give and hazard
All that I have for you.
Which I’d gladly do.

If you choose now,
You could lose now.
Take some more time;
No harm in pushing it back.

If I pick right,
And, hey, I just might,
This ordeal ends,
For now I’m living on the rack.

Choose the right box.

Gotta choose from three caskets to win the girl.

Loose the tight locks.
You’re my man!

You’re my world!

Choose the right box.

Gotta choose from three caskets to win the girl.

Loose the tight locks.

Gotta choose from three caskets, uh huh, three caskets.

Come, give it up.
No need to be so shy, lock.

You gotta read my thoughts:
(pick lead, pick lead, pick lead)

That’s right, come, give it up.
No need to be so shy, lock.

You gotta read my thoughts:
(pick lead, pick lead, pick lead)

Time to choose, yeah.

(pick lead, pick lead, pick lead)

Gonna choose the Lead casket… and there’s the girl.

How Real is Richard?

Wednesday, February 13th, 2013

It’s been exciting to see Shakespeare so much in the news lately. The confirmation of the discovery King Richard the Third’s skeleton last week has thrust our beloved Bard back into the international spotlight. But just how relevant is Shakespeare to this discovery? How closely related is Shakespeare’s classic villain to the original owner of the bones found under the Leicester parking lot?

Shakespeare wrote that which we call History plays, but these are plays and not histories. Shakespeare often wrote about “real” people and events, but he always put his unique take on it. He could change any details that he wanted. Did you know that the real Hotspur was 23 years older than Prince Hal, even though the two men were portrayed as contemporaries in Shakespeare’s 1 Henry IV? That Rutland, killed as a small child in Shakespeare’s 3 Henry VI, was actually older than his brothers George and Richard? That there were two different men named Edmund Mortimer, conflated into a single character by Shakespeare? And obviously, no matter how historical his characters, we all understand that he certainly was willing to put words in their mouths.

None of this matters, of course. Saying that Shakespeare got it wrong misses the point entirely. Shakespeare’s intent was to create entertaining theatrical plays. And Richard III is one of the most enduring and popular works of art ever to spring from the human imagination. So, yeah, I’d say Shakespeare actually got it right, wouldn’t you? An archeological discovery can tell us about history, and this is a particularly exciting discovery at that, but it sheds no new light on Shakespeare’s work. We already knew that Shakespeare based his work on Tudor historians, and that he shared their bias towards the Tudor view of history.

So when we ask whether characters from Shakespeare are “real” or not, it may not be such a binary question. I would prefer instead to think of it as a spectrum. More specifically, I have created a seven-point scale to compare how real the characters from Shakespeare actually are.

Enjoy!

* * *
Level Seven
Historical Characters Doing Historical Things
Examples: Henry VIII, Henry V

Even at the highest level of Shakespeare’s reality-based characters, there is still a lot of spin-doctoring going on. Shakespeare doesn’t just write about his country’s greatest heroes without a little glorification. But the stories Shakespeare tells about characters at Level Seven are fairly consistent with their historical accounts. Shakespeare himself must have been at least somewhat impressed with his own account of the life of Henry VIII when he originally gave his play the title All is True.

* * *
Level Six
Historical Characters Doing Speculative Historical Things
Examples: Julius Caesar, Cleopatra

I wanted to make a distinction between historical figures that Shakespeare wrote about from relatively recent time periods, and those from antiquity. There are numerous historical accounts of the lives of the ancient Greek and Roman leaders, so Shakespeare was actually writing from sources, but there is only so much faith that we can put in them. The primary difference between Level Six and Level Seven is the amount of time that has passed since the historical figures lived.

* * *
Level Five
Historical Characters Doing Highly-Speculative Politically-Convenient Historical Things
Examples: Richard III, Joan La Pucelle

Here we can put the characters that Shakespeare had a political reason to vilify. We see a version of history, but it’s a version that’s unapologetically slanted in the direction that Shakespeare’s audiences or benefactors would have appreciated most. Shakespeare is still writing mostly from sources, but the sources may themselves be politically biased, or Shakespeare just felt free to add his own spin to events as he wanted to portray them. The character of Richard III can go here.

* * *
Level Four
Historical Characters Doing Non-Historical Things
Examples: John Gower, Macbeth

There really was a historical Macbeth, but it’s doubtful he did many of the things attributed to him by either Shakespeare or history. Sure, Shakespeare was writing from a historical source, and had political reasons to vilify Macbeth, but the story is so far divorced from reality that we really need a new category to describe it. Level Four is for a character who really lived, but isn’t necessarily portrayed doing the things the original historical figure would actually have done.

* * *
Level Three
Legendary Characters Doing Legendary Things
Examples: Agamemnon, King Lear

Did any of these people really exist? And if they did, are the stories about them true? Probably not. But the stories were passed down from generation to generation, either in oral traditions or written texts, as though they were true. We can’t prove that there wasn’t some actual human being in the dark backward and abysm of time that inspired the legend. Level Three quantifies the precise amount of benefit-of-the-doubt I’m willing to give to that possibility.

* * *
Level Two
Characters Doing Fictional Things Who Couldn’t Possibly be Based on Real People (*snicker*)
Examples: Falstaff, Polonius

These are fictional characters, but audiences at the time would have understood the public figures they were based on. Maybe. If Polonius was based on William Cecil, Lord Burghley, then he could be placed one step above a completely fictional character. This is Level Two. Shakespeare expressly denied that Falstaff was meant to be John Oldcastle to satisfy one of Oldcastle’s noble descendants. But what was Shakespeare’s original name for the character Falstaff? It was John Oldcastle.

* * *
Level One
Fictional Characters Doing Fictional Things
Examples: Puck, Shylock

These are purely fictional characters, invented by Shakespeare or his literary sources. They are not real people. They are not based on real people. We will not be finding their bones under any parking lots. We are not worried about pleasing their descendants. If Shakespeare had simply confined himself to his own considerable imagination, we would still have an impressive panoply of Shakespearean characters to entertain us. But the conversations and controversies surrounding his plays would not be nearly as interesting.

Shakespeare Autocorrect

Tuesday, December 25th, 2012


Shakespeare’s Most Underrated Characters

Sunday, August 5th, 2012

Over at Pursued by a Bear, Cassius put together a series of videos lauding Shakespeare’s Most Underrated Characters back while I was on hiatus. They’re definitely worth checking out. Even when you disagree with one of her choices, she makes a compelling case.

Still, she includes such “underrated characters” as Hamlet and Othello. And while I totally get that a character can be highly rated and yet underrated, a list like this is an opportunity to bench the starters and let the minor characters show their stuff. Basically, what I’m saying is, I want to play too. Now that I’m back, here is my list, with a hat tip to Cassius for the idea.

An old theatre maxim says there are no small parts, but below you’ll find some really outstanding exceptions. Some of them don’t even have names. If your reaction to seeing some of these is “Wait… who?” then I’ve done my job. But don’t dismiss them just yet; they’re on this list for a reason. Let’s start the countdown at 50.

50. Costard (Love’s Labour’s Lost) – With so many foolish characters in one play, it’s easy to overlook the actual clown. But Costard spins some impressively deft wordplay that puts more erudite characters to shame.

49. Pinch (The Comedy of Errors) – Just as things get about as silly as you think they could get, enter good Doctor Pinch. While others suspect Antipholus of mere madness, Pinch tries to exorcize Satan from within him.

48. Fluellen (Henry V) – The Welsh captain may speak his bombast with a funny accent, but he’s not a man to be trifled with. He bravely leads his troops into battle, and handles himself ably in private matters as well.

47. The Scottish Doctor (Macbeth) – A doctor is brought in to cure Lady Macbeth’s madness. Sadly, modern psychiatric practice would be far beyond the reach of Shakespeare’s England, let alone Macbeth’s Scotland.

46. Peter Quince (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) – It can’t be easy to construct a troupe of actors from weavers and tailors, but this is one carpenter who is up to the task. Ah, the joys of community theatre.

45. Antipholus of Ephesus (The Comedy of Errors) – The other three twins may have more stage time, but the funniest moments of the play come from the misfortunes that befall the local Antipholus.

44. Corin (As You Like It) – The old forest-dwelling shephard councils the younger love-struck Silvius, matches wits with Touchstone, and reminds us that courtly life isn’t better than the simple life, just different.

43. Antonio (Twelfth Night) – Sebastian’s savior and friend mentions that he happens to be a wanted criminal. But his love and loyalty prove to be powerful forces, as is his rhetoric when he thinks he’s been betrayed.

42. Paulina (The Winter’s Tale) – Hermione may have been the one to fake her death, but it’s Paulina who has to sell it. And sell it she does, without so much as flinching. Note to self: stay on Paulina’s good side.

41. Joan La Pucelle (1 Henry VI) – Joan of Arc, the peasant girl who led troops in winning great battles against the English, was a revered heroine among the French people. Of course, Shakespeare wasn’t French.

40. Oliver and Celia (As You Like It) – They seem like they’re going to be purely functional roles: Orlando’s evil brother and Rosalind’s supportive cousin. And then, boom, they meet and it’s love at first sight.

39. Chorus (Henry V) – The “muse of fire” prologue stands out, but the Chorus stays on the job throughout the play, adding vibrant imagery to expand the theatrical experience beyond the limitations of the stage.

38. Adam (As You Like It) – Rather than embody the bleak vision of Jacques’s last age of man, the spry Adam warns Orlando of the plot against him and faithfully agrees to serve him in exile. Eighty years young!

37. Pompey (Measure for Measure) – Not quite Pompey the Great, his bum is the greatest thing about him. Sent to prison, the former brothel bartender feels right at home among his old customers.

36. First and Second Lords (All’s Well That Ends Well) – This list has a soft spot for characters who aren’t even given names. The Lords are real characters that help advance the plot over multiple scenes. No respect!

35. Duke Senior (As You Like It) – A lesser man might be slightly annoyed by having his entire dukedom usurped. But Duke Senior takes “being a good sport” to a whole new level. And notice he’s not given a name either.

34. Charmian and Iras (Antony and Cleopatra) – When Cleopatra chooses to leave this world, she is flanked by her two most loyal servants – Iras just before and Charmian just after. Good help is hard to find.

33. Lord Stanley, Earl of Derby (Richard III) – Richard is so crazed with paranoia that when he accuses Stanley of betrayal, we completely believe the good earl’s denial. But wait… yeah, he went right to Richmond.

32. Archibald, Earl of Douglas (1 Henry IV) – “That sprightly Scot of Scots… that runs o’ horseback up a hill perpendicular” is outbattled by Hal, outwitted by Falstaff, and ultimately captured and released. Ah well.

31. Son and Father (3 Henry VI) – On the battlefield, Henry observes a son who has killed his father and a father who has killed his son. He thus realizes the heavy cost of the war, and his own responsibility for it.

30. The Thane of Ross (Macbeth) – Whether it’s victory in battle or the slaughter of your family, nobody delivers the news like the Thane of Ross, whatever his actual name may happen to be.

29. Roderigo (Othello) – Often overshadowed by the more dynamic characters in the play, Roderigo is a fantastic comic role. Hopelessly in love with Desdemona, Roderigo is an easy target for Iago’s machinations.

28. Iachimo (Cymbeline) – This “little Iago” deserves better than to be thought of as a diminutive derivative. But unlike his nefarious namesake, he never really meant any harm, and is honestly repentant at the end.

27. Lord (The Taming of the Shrew) – We remember Christopher Sly, but what of the Lord who devised the over-the-top prank in the first place. Actually, either one could make this list; they usually both get cut.

26. The Provost (Measure for Measure) – When the Duke realizes he can no longer implement his plan alone, he recruits the Provost, who proves to be an able accomplice. But why does he not have a name?

25. The Queen (Cymbeline) – She’s the classic fairy tale wicked step-mother, who even has the self-awareness to swear she isn’t. On her deathbed, she admits she never loved Cymbeline. It’s good to be the Queen.

24. The Earl of Suffolk (1 Henry VI) – He woos the young Margaret for the king, but has some grand designs of his own. “Margaret shall now be queen, and rule the king; But I will rule both her, the king, and realm.”

23. Casca (Julius Caesar) – Other characters consider him dull, blunt, and rude, but don’t take their word for it. I find Casca to be witty, wise, and shrewd. Read over his lines and decide for yourself.

22. Countess of Auvergne (1 Henry VI) – Talbot takes a break from invading France to be flattered by the noblewoman’s invitation to her house. It’s a trap, but she ends up having him over for Freedom Fries anyway.

21. Rumor (2 Henry IV) – Best. Prologue. Ever. The living embodiment of Rumor brags about the damage he’s done, while seamlessly bringing us up to speed on what’s happened since Part One. Open your ears.

20. Simpcox and Wife (2 Henry VI) – They are almost the definition of small Shakespearean roles. But their scene is genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. Go check it out!

19. Mariana (Measure for Measure) – She shows up late in the play, and even then she’s no more than a convenient plot device with very few lines of significance. But then the final scene arrives, and … wow.

18. The Bishop of Carlisle (Richard II) – Richard is defeated, and Henry would be King. Carlisle protests vigorously, describing exactly what will result. As Shakespeare and his audience know, he’s absolutely right.

17. Antonio (The Tempest) – I have to admit that some of the nobles from the boat tend to blend together for me, but Antonio, who usurped his brother Prospero, stands out as the most cold-blooded.

16. Moth (Love’s Labour’s Lost) – Compare Don Adriano de Armado and Moth with Zap Brannigan and Kif. Note that Kif’s first Futurama episode was entitled “Love’s Labour’s Lost in Space.”

15. Mistress Overdone (Measure for Measure) – She’s had nine husbands (“overdone by the last”) and this clear-eyed brothel owner still manages to run her business like a professional.

14. Gratiano (The Merchant of Venice) – It’s okay if you don’t remember. He’s the other guy, the one who ends up with Nerissa. But he’s also a really clever comic character who can be a lot of fun to play.

13. John Talbot (1 Henry VI) – He only appears in a couple of scenes, but Lord Talbot’s son can display valor and loyalty in rhymed couplets like nobody else.

12. Thersites (Troilus and Cressida) – Shakespeare describes him as “a deformed and scurrilous Grecian,” and that’s just in the Dramatis Personae.

11. Lord Chief Justice (2 Henry IV) – Henry V’s harsh denial of Falstaff overshadows the new king giving a high place of honor to the constable who chased him down throughout his wayward youth.

10. Doll Tearsheet (2 Henry IV) – Falstaff’s favorite prostitute knows how to handle herself in a bar fight. She gives Pistol a tongue-lashing he really should have had to pay for.

9. Apemantus (Timon of Athens) – Oh yeah, I went there. But you don’t have to read the whole play, just check out the mother joke in the first scene.

8. Pistol (Henry V) – The loudmouth soldier tends to get overshadowed by Falstaff. But his bombast can shatter the stage when he’s ready to discharge.

7. Domitus Enobarbus (Antony and Cleopatra) – He’s a loyal soldier who abandons Antony only because he can’t support his self-destructive behavior. When Antony returns his treasure, Enobarbus dies of shame.

6. Arthur (King John) – He has few scenes, despite being an important character to the plot. He makes the list for successfully appealing to the heart of a man who has been sent to murder him.

5. Lady Grey (3 Henry VI) – After her side has lost the war, the Widow Grey bravely stands up to the new King. He cannot intimidate her, so he marries her instead. She’ll be Queen Elizabeth in the next play.

4. Sir William Catesby (Richard III) – We remember the evil machinations of Richard and Buckingham, but Catesby is there with them every step of the way, and seems to have no conscience about it.

3. Tranio (The Taming of the Shrew) – It’s easy to forget about Tranio. But while his master is playing servant to win his one true love, Tranio’s the servant who is playing his master – the much harder role!

2. First Gravedigger (Hamlet) – Often dismissed as merely a comic character, the Gravedigger gives Hamlet a chance to reflect on matters of life and death, thus underscoring one of the major themes of the play.

1. Jack Cade (2 Henry VI) – He’s an unlikely claimant to the throne, but his populist rhetoric has the power to start a rebellion at least. This is, I believe, Shakespeare’s most underrated character.

And finally, I invite my friends at Pursued By a Bear to join me in awarding an honorable mention to the most awesome, most minor character in the entire canon…

THE BEAR!

Shakespeare Anagram: The Merchant of Venice

Saturday, May 23rd, 2009

From The Merchant of Venice:

Go with me to a notary, seal me there
Your single bond; and, in a merry sport,
If you repay me not on such a day,
In such a place, such sum or sums as are
Express’d in the condition, let the forfeit
Be nominated for an equal pound
Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken
In what part of your body pleaseth me.

Shift around the letters, and it becomes:

Obama’s Cardholder’s Bill of Rights may hamper undue predatory lending.

It won’t cap interest rates, but may end each hidden fee or a funny (or unfunny!) practice to rake your income.

And less opaque info may open the noose of those who offer money at usurious rates.

But it’s still a hoax. Pay them off.

Best of the Bard

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

I was telling someone of my list of favorite scenes this evening, and it made me think of a reading that I was planning to have several years ago. Instead of choosing one play, I would edit together a collection of the most popular scenes for us to read. Due to scheduling problems, we weren’t able to have the reading, but I did send out an invitation. The invitation was written largely in iambic dimeter (!), and I thought the readers of this site might appreciate it.

Enjoy!


Best of the Bard

A witches’ brew. A fiery shrew. A knavish sprite. A portly knight. A maid’s disguise. A Jew’s surprise. A bastard’s plan. Each age of man. A paper crown. A motley clown. A nightmare haunt. This John of Gaunt. A guarded door. A jealous Moor. A castaway. St. Crispin’s Day.

A eulogy. A balcony.

The death of kings.

And other things…

It’s the very best of all the scenes, speeches, and sonnets from Shakespeare, hand-picked and edited by yours truly. Be there … or not to be there.

Theatre: Propeller’s The Merchant of Venice

Sunday, May 17th, 2009

In the performing arts, there is often a distinction made between creative artists and interpretive artists. In the theatre, the creative artist is the playwright who created the original work. Interpretive artists include actors, directors, designers etc. who take these creative works and interpret them for the stage. The word “creative” here is used in its narrowest sense; clearly a great deal of creativity is needed to be an interpretive artist.

How wonderful, then, to encounter a company like Propeller, that under the direction of Edward Hall is able to stage vibrant, original works that not only remain faithful to the original texts, but illuminate them. Their brilliance is not only that they go beyond the play, but also that they bring the play along with them. They are interpretive artists and creative artists at the same time. I had the opportunity to see their productions of The Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music two years ago, so when I heard that they were returning to BAM with their production of The Merchant of Venice I knew not to miss it. I went in with high expectations, and they were well exceeded.

The entire production is set inside a prison. Two levels of prison cells loom large as they stretch around the perimeter of the stage. The all-male cast is in drab uniforms and prison tats. The Christians and Jews congregate in different cliques in the yard. And when Antonio crosses that line to borrow money from Shylock because of his love for Bassanio, the concept is so strong that you might as well be watching an episode of HBO’s Oz. But these elements are in the play already; the concept brings them to the fore.

The prison connection is a bit more abstract in the Belmont scenes where Bassanio and his rivals must choose their caskets, though these scenes are the comic highlight of the production. Portia is a prisoner in a different sense, in that she is not free to marry who she chooses, and so the setting for these scenes works more on the symbolic level. But Shakespeare’s play does contain a sharp contrast between the realistic world of commerce in Venice and the fairy tale world of Belmont, a contrast that the production concept, once again, illuminates. Once Bassanio chooses the correct casket, Portia removes her artificial feminized clothing, and joins the rest of the prisoners in the yard.

Men play female roles in female clothing, but with no wigs. This was also true of the earlier two productions I saw, but in this case there was an extra layer to the choice, as it left the impression that all of the characters were biologically male while some had female gender identities. Not a word of the original Shakespeare is changed to accommodate the sex of the characters nor the prison setting, so the audience is left to absorb these elements conceptually while listening to the dialogue. When Portia and Nerissa arrive dressed as young men, the conceit of a man playing a woman playing a man requires a bit of extra audience attentiveness, but it works well.

The cruelty of the prison setting allowed the production to explore what the play has to say about the cruelty of society and man’s inhumanity to man, and it did so by playing with our sympathies. When Antonio asks for money from Shylock in this production, he is an uncouth thug trying to bully the prison loanshark. But as sympathetic of a character as the original Antonio is, that’s an undercurrent of the original play. When Shylock delivers his most humanizing speech in this production, he does so while committing a violent prison atrocity. But if you read the whole scene, that’s faithful to the original play as well. In the end, Antonio wins his case in this production, not just because the judge is really Portia in disguise, but also because he is able to rile up an angry mob against the Jew.

And, in a very real sense, that’s part of the original play, too.