Venetian merchant’s ships and spotlight in peril

Photo courtesy of Shakespeare Tavern

The Shakespeare Tavern is an Atlanta playhouse located just down the street from the Fabulous Fox Theatre. While both are known for their performances, the tavern, as its name would suggest, tends to focus on performances of Shakespearean plays, the most recent of which was “The Merchant of Venice.”

With many of the cast members from the May 2015 rendition reappearing in this month’s “Merchant of Venice,” the actors manage to convey their character’s predicaments with all the clarity one can reasonably expect of Shakespeare’s work. Luckily, the rather confusing start to the play sets up the characters and plot no farther than can easily be recapped in later scenes, and the audience soon overcomes the initial confusion to enjoy the later parts of the story.

William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” is named after Antonio (Matt Nitchie), a well-off merchant whose entire wealth is currently invested in foreign trade ships. Wishing to lend money to his friend Bassanio (Chris Rushing), the merchant agrees to borrow from Shylock (Doug Kaye), whom he has always despised both for being a moneylender and for being Jewish. Since this feeling is mutual, Shylock asks for a “pound of flesh” from Antonio should he not repay his loan within three months.

Thus ends the initial confusion as well as the set up of the play. The remainder of “The Merchant of Venice” shows how Bassanio spent Antonio’s money in pursuit of a woman (Portia, Amee Vyas) and finally, how a ruined merchant could resolve his debt.

Though officially classified as a comedy, the dual tales of the lovers and the merchant do not in themselves present much in the way of humor. There are throw-away lines and a few dialogues to make the audience laugh, but these spots of humor do not overshadow the rest of the story, leading one to question why this is still considered a comedy. On the other hand, the hallmark of tragedy (everyone dying in the end) is decidedly absent, as only Antonio’s life is in danger, so the sprinkling of jokes throughout tip the scales in favor of comedy despite the serious storyline.

This Shakespearean comedy will never be remembered for its political correctness or for its character’s stellar judgment and forethought. The story presents more than enough anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry with the actors showing that this was acceptable at the time when the play was written and takes place. It does, however, show that women are far more intelligent than given credit for as Portia, pretending to be a lawyer, seems to know the letter of the law better than all present in the court. This slight admission is not acknowledged by anyone, though and as soon as the cross-dressing ends, the women are treated just as they were before the display of intellect.

In addition to this aspect of a play from centuries in the past, whenever a character must make a pivotal decision, they either choose something foolish or are persuaded against their own judgment to do so. This leads to otherwise seemingly intelligent characters to make huge errors that advance the plot. Such lapses in judgment might be seen as typical human error when seen individually, but it is far easier, in this instance, to see them for what they are: plot devices.

Much like “Romeo and Juliet,” this Shakespearean play would have been extraordinarily short and devoid of a climactic ending had anyone thought about their ventures for even a minute longer.