On Tuesday Carolyn and I went to see the Merchant of Venice performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford. In the early years of our marriage we used to love going to see Shakespeare. As an English teacher, it was helpful for ‘professional development’, but it was also something we enjoyed doing together. Sadly, in recent years, the busyness of life and the cost of living have meant we’ve dropped the habit, but for Carolyn’s birthday I managed to get some great seats for a performance at the newly refurbished RSC theatre.
I’ve always said that if you’re going to watch Shakespeare you must see it at Stratford. It’s easy to do Shakespeare badly (NEVER go to an amateur performance!), but I’ve never seen a duff performance done by the RSC.
And the version of the Merchant of Venice we saw was no exception.
Starring Patrick Stewart as Shylock (if you’re over 40: Captain Picard of the Next Generation, if you’re under 40: Professor Xavier in the X-Men) it was both a mesmerising and disturbing interpretation.
Aside from the fact that it was set in 1950-60s Vegas, what was fascinating was the post-modern twist Director Rupert Goold gave to the play.
The basic plot of Merchant of Venice is that a wealthy Merchant - Antonio - agrees to lend his friend Bassanio the money he needs to win the wealthy Portia’s hand in marriage. However, because all Antonio’s ships are still at sea, Bassanio borrows the money from a Jewish money-lender called Shylock, putting up Antonio’s property as security.
Shylock hates Antonio and hopes he will default on the loan. In anticipation of this he demands an extra clause in the contract: if Antonio cannot pay him back, Shylock will have a pound of his flesh.
Bassanio succeeds in winning Portia’s hand and they are married. However word reaches Antonio that his entire fleet of ships have been lost at sea! He is now destitute and cannot pay Shylock back. In response, Shylock demands his pound of flesh and is about to cut out Antonio’s heart when a loop-hole is discovered in the contract: the penalty is a pound of flesh, but there is no mention of blood. Shylock may have what he demands but if he sheds even a drop of blood the contract will be forfeit and all his property will be confiscated. Shylock is charged with attempted murder and is ruined.
In Shakespeare’s time, Jews were regarded with contempt and Shakespeare reflects this in the way his heroes and heroines mock, deride and insult Shylock throughout the play.
He’s clearly a villain, however for a 21st century audience living in the shadow of the Holocaust, this anti-Semitic aspect of the Merchant of Venice has always been troubling. At the end of the play Shylock is forced to give up his wealth and become a Christian. He leaves the stage a broken and humiliated man.
In the last scene of the play, the three main couples patch up their quarrels and are reconciled to each other and word reaches Antonio that all his ships have unexpectedly reached port intact. It is a typically Shakespearian happy ending!
However the post-modern twist in this production is particularly seen in the Director’s re-interpretation of this last scene.
In a post-modern world that has rejected the need for God, happy endings are far too simplistic. The anti-Semitism the main characters display towards Shylock and the way they humiliate him in victory doesn’t sit well with us.
And so the Director chose to turn the play on it’s head and conclude with an unhinged and unhappy ending.
Revenge has not satisfied the main characters. Their contempt for Shylock has destroyed their own relationships. Their hatred for him has fractured their own happiness. As the last scene progresses the three main couples fall out with each other, and as the lights fade they remain unreconciled, alienated from one another and deeply unhappy.
Because they have been unable to show mercy to Shylock, they are unable to forgive each other. The play ends with Portia’s psychological breakdown. The last view we have of her is a broken woman, weeping and alone on centre stage, estranged from Bassanio and robbed of her innocence and beauty.
It’s a classic post-modern twist on the happy ending.
In a culture that has largely binned the need for God, neat endings are no longer acceptable. Life is not fair, there is no absolute justice in the universe, relationships don’t get patched up, forgiveness is rare, happiness is fleeting.
It’s a bleak portrait of life... but at least it’s an honest one.
Airbrush God out of the universe and you ultimately lose any sense that there’s someone in control or a cosmic happy ending to look forward to.
However, while a shock to the system, the twisted ending of RSC’s Merchant of Venice gave me cause to hope, because it showed that there is at least some appreciation in our day and age of the consequences of living in a world without God.
The book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible is the soundtrack of our day and age. Until its author, King Solomon, had faced up to the meaninglessness of even the fullest of lives without God, he wasn’t motivated seek God and search for truth. Until he saw the true bleakness of his situation, he wasn’t in a position to ask the right questions.
In order to seek after God again, people in our day and age need to be brought to the same bleak position Solomon reached when he asked:
‘Who knows what is good for a man in life, during the few and meaningless days he passes through like a shadow? Who can tell him what will happen under the sun after he is gone?’ (Eccl 6:12)
Maybe that’s where Western culture is heading. As rampant materialism and the new pseudo-spiritualities of our age fail to satisfy our deepest longings, perhaps it is only as we realise the bleakness of life without God that we will start to search for him.
Today a third generation of children are being born in the UK with no roots whatsoever in the Christian faith. We can only hope and pray that they wake up to the true consequences of life without God and are prompted to start asking these sorts of questions.
Because the good news of the Gospel is that the answers are found in Jesus:
‘I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.’ (John 10:10)