By William Shakespeare. First published in Britain in 1623 by Edward Blount, William Jaggard, and Isaac Jaggard. Review copy from 'The Arden Shakespeare: Third Series', edited by John Drakakis.
When I reviewed The Taming of the Shrew, one of the things I did was discuss how I might stage it if I were directing a production, giving advice to the actors, etc. However, to be honest, this is not something I can do with The Merchant of Venice, as if I was asked to direct a production I'd likely see if they wouldn't mind something a bit easier to stage today. It can be argued about how controversial it was at the time of writing, but it's hard to read Merchant now without having issues with the way that the cast treats the Jew, Shylock.
First of all, this play is concerned with a lot of things, but the two things it's most concerned with are law and money. Especially money. The play is called the Merchant of Venice, after all. Money can be used to raise your status (which is probably the main reason why Antonio is wiling to help his friend Bassanio win Portia, even if many modern productions play up that it's for repressed love for Bassanio), but money can also be used to make money, which is the business Shylock operates. He is a moneylender. The people of Elizabethan times had a very odd relationship with such 'usury', inasmuch as they needed it to keep the economy going, but all their teachings told them that making money for the sole purpose of making more money was sinful, vile, etc. Therefore, why not give the job to someone who it was perfectly acceptable to hate anyway? Hypocritical, but gets around the problem nicely!
As with most Shakespeare plays, critics and scholars argue constantly about what Shakespeare really meant when he wrote the play. Was Shylock meant to be played as an evil cunning soul who was willing to cut out Antonio's heart for a grudge? Certainly other Jews in drama of the time, such as Marlowe's Jew of Malta, fell into the over-the-top villainy category. On the other hand, Shylock is quite sympathetic for a villain, and even more so in modern times. His speech starting "Hath not a Jew eyes" is justly famous, and one wonders why Shakespeare would make a villain so three-dimensional. (Of course, Shakespeare did this to his villains all the time - take a good look at how compelling the role of Richard III is.) Is Shylock a villain? Or is he the wronged party? Certainly his forced conversion to Christianity - thought of at the time as quite a light sentence - seems unspeakably harsh now. But if he's the tragic hero, what does that make the others?
Speaking of the others, let's look at Portia. She's a great female role, one of Shakespeare's strongest comedic heroines. (The definition of comedy throughout this essay is the one of Shakespeare's time, by the way.) Yes, she's abiding by her late father's rules in regards to who she marries, but she seems to be quite content with that, and manages to end up with the right man in any case. It helps that her other two suitors - a comic African stereotype and a comic Spanish stereotype - are so goofy, of course. (See, and you thought it was just the anti-Semitism that would be trouble!) Her defense of Antonio has some wonderful set pieces, and she shows herself to be cleverer than anyone else there. She even contrasts with Jessica, Shylock's daughter, who also gets the man she wants but does so by defying her father rather than obeying him - and we seem to think that Portia ended up with the better life. Unfortunately, because of the way that we view Shylock, we have to change the way we look at Portia, as well as the rest of the cast. They look, not to put too fine a point on it, cruel and callous.
Now, certainly part of this was deliberate. As always, Shakespeare will never write one point of view when he can show us three or four, and I've no doubt that his contrast of the way Shylock treats Antonio and the way that the rest of the cast treats Shylock is deliberate. I don't think he meant his audience to side with Shylock, or even be uncomfortable, but he wanted them to see the parallels. That said, it makes it quite difficult to stage Merchant today as anything other than a gripping tragic drama. And even in productions where you have sympathetic, likeable Shylocks, you're still left with the fact that he shows himself to be willing to cut out Antonio's pound of flesh. Plus you have the issue of Shylock's last scenes being in Act 4, which leaves you a final act of light-hearted romantic hijinks with rings and promises between a bunch of people who were, in dramatic terms, loathsome earlier on. Why should you care what happens to them after Shylock leaves? (The movie from 2004 gives an epilogue, showing Shylock returning to his Jewish community and being shunned, and many modern productions also show that Jessica remains hated and despised by the rest of the cast, including her husband.)
A good Shakespeare play always inspires constant debate, which no doubt makes Merchant among his very best. As a historical document it's excellent, as a play on paper it's fascinating even if history has made it unpalatable. As a play in the theatre I'd love to see what other performers and directors will do with it. I just wouldn't want to be the one in charge, as I don't think there's a way to please everyone in this production the way I think you can (albeit trying very hard) with Shrew or Much Ado. Nevertheless, everyone should read it, if only for two of Shakespeare's best characters, Shylock and Portia.