Shakespeare for the Masses is an Island institution, known for appropriating the Bard’s plays as quick and easy-to-understand comedies. Since 2008, co-creators Nicole Galland and Chelsea McCarthy have adapted a number of Shakespearean dramas, even challenging tragedies such as “King Lear” and “Julius Caesar.” However, on this particular adaptation, “The Merchant of Venice,” they faced a new kind of challenge: How do you make comedy out of a play that might be a little racist?
“The Merchant of Venice” is controversial for its treatment of the character of Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, who will be played by writer and Martha’s Vineyard poet laureate Arnie Reisman.
Shakespeare’s play follows two storylines. One is the romantic comedy of Bassanio trying to win the girl, Portia. “The other half of the story is what made the play so troublesome throughout the 20th century, and still today,” Ms. Galland said in an email to the Times. Bassanio needs money to win Portia, so he enlists the help of his friend Antonio. Antonio in turn becomes indebted to Shylock, under the agreement that if Antonio can’t repay the loan, he will owe Shylock a pound of flesh.
“Shylock is the ‘comic villain’ of the piece,” Ms. Galland said. When Antonio can’t pay up, “Shylock is in fact actually going to take that pound of flesh … because he’s a horrible evil character … because he lacks Christian virtues like mercy … because he’s a Jew.”
That’s how Shakespeare presents it, at least. And when the play was written (sometime between 1596 and 1598) no one seemed to blink an eye. Needless to say, we’ve evolved some as a society since then.
“‘Merchant’ is always controversial, primarily because it appears to put Jews in a bad light with the characterization of Shylock as seemingly a caricature of a money-grubbing, inhumane loan shark, a monster who would be willing to extract a pound of flesh from a client,” Mr Reisman told the Times.
“Almost everyone these days has a problem with how Shylock is depicted and treated,” Ms. Galland said. “The Al Pacino movie did a good job displaying that in a way that was both historically accurate but also hip to modern sensitivities. I saw a brilliant production of the show in New York that convinced me Shakespeare wrote the play as a diatribe against Christian hypocrisy. So it can be played to make Shylock sympathetic.”
Mr. Reisman agreed that Shakespeare may not have intended Shylock as a villain. “I think Shakespeare was attacking his era’s bigots,” Mr. Reisman said. “Also, Shylock is pretty tired of being treated like dirt, so he throws in his special penalty clause. When it’s ultimately pointed out to him that nowhere in his contract does it say he can also have blood with his flesh, he backs off his agreement. After all, he really doesn’t want to kill Antonio, just make a point, just scare the willies out of him and the rest of his kind. So, as much as Shylock can be seen as somewhat monstrous, I truly believe he can also be seen as sympathetic.”
With this in mind, the Shakespeare for the Masses team abridged and reconstructed the play to make it more suitable for today’s masses. “Chelsea and I, sharing the narrator role, deconstruct and comment on the play,” Ms. Galland said. “And we rewrote the ending of the play so that it would work better for a modern audience.”
“We’re essentially saying to the audience, ‘Look, here’s the play — it has some problems, let’s talk about why. Only when we do it, it’s not didactic, it’s funny. I promise.”
Shakespeare for the Masses: “The Merchant of Venice.” Saturday, Jan. 9 at 7:30 pm, and Sunday, Jan. 10, at 12 pm. Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, Vineyard Haven. Free. For more information, visit vineyardplayhouse.org.