- The Merchant of Venice, and: Othello
The 2007 Stratford, Ontario productions of The Merchant of Venice and Othello vividly dramatized Venice’s unique geography, mode of transportation, and cultural practices in order to make spectators reexamine their preconceived notions of Italy’s remarkable city. Whether the location was evoked by means of language from the texts (for example, Iago’s reference to the Sagittary Inn in Othello, or Shylock and Solanio’s frequent mention of the Rialto in Merchant) or by a set design, both Stratford productions used place as a character rather than as merely a backdrop which the [End Page 82] characters inhabit. In this review I examine how theatrical evocations of Venice in both plays shaped and reaffirmed the identities of the racially-marked characters—Shylock the Jew and Othello the Moor. Ultimately, the portrayal of Venice onstage affected the characters within that setting, while in turn, the characters’ actions affected the audience’s perceptions of that space.
The director of The Merchant of Venice, Richard Rose, treated Shakespeare’s Venice as more than just backdrop. For example, in the opening act, a modern dance routine echoed the merrymaking of the Venetian Carnival. The Christian characters, dressed in black and wearing double-sided masks, moved around center stage, reenacting an ancient Lenten rite during which twelve pigs and one bull were sacrificed. One side of the characters’ masks displayed a white mime face, which could have depicted Christian purity and innocence. The back side of the masks exhibited pig heads. Recalling early modern anti-Semitism, this dramatic scene could have also been a deliberate jeer toward Jews. The large, roasted pig placed in the center of a long table positioned behind the dancers as they encircled and pretended to slaughter Antonio, concealed by a large bull mask, heightened the play’s theme of sacrifice. The eclectic mix of Gregorian chant set to rock and roll music, to which the Christians performed their moves, reminded the audience that even in a more recent era, Jews were still persecuted.
Throughout the production, Rose’s additions of brief instances that screamed “Venice” effectively characterized the city. A clear example occurred when Lorenzo, Gratiano, Salarino, and Salerio reached Shylock’s house by rising up from a trap door. The actors poked their heads through the middle of the stage to appear like they were traveling in a gondola. At the same time, blue and white lights, along with calming wave sounds, heightened the authenticity of the Venetian moment. Figuratively, the path leading beneath the stage represented the downward spiral to corruption, which is exactly where hypocritical Lorenzo went after he revealed (by his gestures and facial expressions) that he was more interested in the jewels Jessica gave him than in the devout and loving woman. The mask he wore prior to 1.1, paralleled his duplicitous nature during the masque in 2.6. By rising up from the theatre basement, the characters incited the audience to imagine that events were simultaneously taking place underneath it. In this manner, Rose evoked the fluidity with which Venetians were able...