Testing Our Metals

How The Merchant of Venice invites us to examine our own values

By Shira Ginsler

The beautiful Portia, heroine of The Merchant of Venice, can only marry the man who solves a puzzle invented by her father. Each suitor must choose among three caskets made of different metals, and if he chooses the one that contains Portia’s picture, he wins her hand. After her undesirable wooers make unsuccessful attempts, Bassanio chooses the right casket, passing over “gaudy gold” and silver, the currency of exchange, in favour of “meagre lead.”

Antoni Cimolino, the Festival’s new Artistic Director and director of next season’s Merchant, says that the caskets reflect the thinking of various characters in the play. Some live in the golden world of ideals: Bassanio idolizes Portia; Antonio, the merchant of the title, wants to martyr himself for his friend by giving that famous pound of flesh when he can’t pay back the money he borrowed on Bassanio’s behalf. Others live in the silver world of commerce and legislature, knowing “the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

And through their examples, says Mr. Cimolino, we learn that “the only true value in the world is that of the basest matter, lead. Shakespeare invites us to realize that all the things that are really worth anything in life are free.”

Mr. Cimolino is setting his production in the Italy of the 1930s, with a cast that includes Brian Bedford as Shylock, Tom McCamus as Antonio,
Michelle Giroux as Portia and Jonathan Goad as Gratiano. “The great thing about the ’30s,” he says, “is that there’s both a sense of beauty” – an important ingredient in bringing the play to life – “and a sense of looming chaos because of the imbalance in the world. I think that serves this play well – a play that Shakespeare wrote in a pre-revolutionary time.”

The catastrophe looming over Europe in the 1930s, of course, was World War II, which is practically synonymous with ethnic and religious hatred, another theme in The Merchant of Venice. Shylock, the Jew, isn’t the only object of discrimination: citizens of England, France, Scotland, Germany, Spain and North Africa are the butts of jokes too. “It seems to me that Shakespeare is really trying to understand how we make some people the ‘Other,’ ” Mr. Cimolino says.

And that “we” is important. The characters are people we would like to know: young, smart, fashionable. To give them a veneer of vanity or shallowness “would be to ask the audience to take a stupid pill and say, ‘Those people on stage have prejudices, and they’re being portrayed as idiots; whereas we in the audience do not have prejudices, and we are much better.’

“I think Shakespeare is trying to surprise you into discovering your own racism. You laugh at the joke about the drunken German; then Portia, the heroine, turns and says of the Arab suitor, ‘Let all of his complexion choose me so.’ It should stun you for a moment.”

The Merchant of Venice is sponsored by Scotiabank.

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