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My Daughter! O My Ducats!

Saul Elkin is Shylock and Adriano Gatto is Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice, which opens on Shakespeare Hill in Delaware Park on Nune 16.

Saul Elkin plays Shylock as Shakespeare in Delaware Park gets underway

The Merchant of Venice opens at Shakespeare in Delaware Park this weekend. Saul Elkin has twice before played Shylock, the Jewish money lender who unsuccessfully seeks to avenge himself on his anti-Semitic enemy, Antonio. Elkin recognizes that this is a great role, but the actor and founder of Buffalo’s long-running Shakespeare festival nonetheless revisits the play with trepidation.

Interpretations of The Merchant of Venice typically reflect the predispositions of individual readers, for Shakespeare portrays every character in the play with complexity. We cannot, for example, watch the trial scene, in which Shylock stubbornly demands a pound of Antonio’s flesh, without feeling both disdain and compassion for a man who may be ruthless, but has undeniably been wronged. In addition, Shakespeare makes clear that Shylock is asking only what the law allows—no more and no less—and that if the situation were reversed, his Christian adversaries would show him no mercy, either. Similarly, Shakespeare confronts us with the goodness and the failings of Portia, of Antonio, and of Jessica.

For Elkin, rendering a multifaceted interpretation of Shylock, who could be played as a villain, gains importance because of the actor’s own Jewish heritage.

“What I find so remarkable,” says Elkin, “is that Shakespeare has written a play that speaks to us so vividly today, even in the post World War II era. At two points, he gives Shylock the opportunity to explain the difficulty of his situation. When he first appears, he explains his disdain for Antonio, and in the ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’ speech, Shakespeare gives us a speech for the ages!”

Shakespeare scholars are always intrigued to discuss the playwright’s sources for his stories. While most agree that The Merchant of Venice follows Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, other influences are apparent. Some speculate that the character of Shylock was inspired by Rodrigo Lopez (c. 1525-June 7, 1594), a Jew from Portugal who, professing to be a Protestant, rose through the social ranks of London society, and eventually became chief physician to Queen Elizabeth I. He was eventually implicated in a conspiracy plot against the queen, resulting in his brutal execution. While Elkin does not think that Lopez was the model for Shylock, he does think that Shakespeare would have been aware of his unjust persecution.

Indeed, while Jews were officially expelled from England by the edict of 1290, there was, without question, a Jewish presence in London during Shakespeare’s time, and he would have been aware of prejudice against them—made vivid, of course, by the Lopez case.

In any event, Shakespeare gives the actors playing the characters in The Merchant of Venice great latitude to create fully dimensioned people. As a result, the play, one of the finest Shakespeare ever wrote, has gained tremendous popularity in recent years. This year alone saw the production starring Al Pacino and Lily Rabe transfer from Central Park to Broadway for an extended run—Pacino also appeared in a film version. In a production at Theater for New Audiences, F. Murray Abraham played the role, as well.

“Interestingly,” says Elkin, “our decision to perform The Merchant of Venice in Delaware Park was made before these productions.”

Anticipating the inevitable question, Elkin explains that he elected not to see Al Pacino or F. Murray Abraham play the role.

“I did not want to be influenced,” he says. “And I think we have managed to put our individual mark on the play [directed by Brian Cavanagh]. Ron Schwartz has designed a wonderful set for us—keeping us minimal and in Shakespeare’s versatile theater, while still placing us in Venice at canal side! And more than Broadway, I think, in Delaware Park, that we are very close to the feel of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater—where people from all walks of life come and see the play.”

In addition to Elkin as Shylock, Portia will be played by Susan Drozd. Peter Palmisano is Antonio. Adriano Gatto is Bassanio. Kay Kerimian is Nerissa. David Autovino is Gratiano. John Kaczorowski is Lorenzo. Leah Russo is Jessica.

The Merchant of Venice will play on Shakespeare Hill in Delaware Park, behind the rose garden on the Lincoln Parkway side, at 7:30pm, Tuesdays through Sundays—weather permitting. Admission is free. There are no seats, so bring a blanket!

The plot of The Merchant of Venice

Enjoyment of Shakespeare in Delaware Park is unquestionably enhanced by familiarity with the plots of the plays. Knowing what is about to happen will also reduce your desire to talk during the performance—which is as annoying to others as letting your children and your dog run around the park noisily, or setting up a chair too low on the hill, or getting up frequently during the performance. For the convenience of our readers, here is an outline of The Merchant of Venice:

Bassanio asks Antonio, a Venetian merchant, for a loan in order to court Portia, a wealthy heiress. Because his money is invested in a number of ships at sea, Antonio suggests that Bassanio secure the loan from a moneylender, using Antonio as his guarantor.

Meanwhile, in Belmont, Portia is unhappy with the terms of her father’s will, which stipulates that she must marry whatever man solves a riddle and correctly chooses one of three caskets.

In Venice, Antonio and Bassanio ask Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, for a loan. Shylock dislikes Antonio, who has a reputation for anti-Semitism. Shylock nonetheless offers to lend Bassanio 3,000 ducats with no interest—slyly stipulating that if the loan goes unpaid, Shylock will be entitled to a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Antonio imprudently agrees.

That very night, Shylock’s own daughter, Jessica, elopes with Antonio’s friend Lorenzo, and Shylock’s servant Launcelot leaves Shylock’s employment to work for Bassanio. When Shylock learns of his daughter’s betrayal, he is furious and saddened, particularly when he is told that Jessica has taken a ring that had been a courtship gift to him from her late mother, and exchanged it for a monkey. “I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys!” Shylock takes vengeful comfort in a rumor that Antonio’s ships have been wrecked and suggesting that he might be unable to repay the loan.

The next day, Bassanio leaves for Belmont to seek Portia’s hand, accompanied by his friend Gratiano. In Belmont, following unsuccessful attempts by the princes of Morocco and Arragon, Bassanio chooses the correct casket, winning Portia as his bride. In the joy of the moment, Gratiano confesses that he has fallen in love with Portia’s lady-in-waiting, Nerissa, and the couples determine to have a double wedding.

Echoing the story of Shylock’s stolen ring, Portia gives Bassanio a ring as a token of her love, and elicits his oath that he will never part with the jewel, under any circumstances. Lorenzo and Jessica arrive unexpectedly. The celebration is spoiled when word arrives that Antonio’s ships have, indeed, been lost and that he has forfeited his bond to Shylock. Bassanio and Gratiano immediately return to Venice, hoping to save Antonio’s life. Portia and Nerissa determine to follow their fiancés, disguised as men.

Shylock ignores all pleas to spare Antonio’s life, and offers his famous and eloquent explanation for his actions: “He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies; and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?”

A trial is arranged to arbitrate the matter. A legal expert arrives to hear case, who turns out to be Portia in disguise. Portia implores Shylock to show mercy—“The quality of mercy is not strained…”—but Shylock will not budge. Bassanio offers Shylock twice the amount due him, but Shylock refuses. Portia studies the contract, determines it to be legally binding. Shylock joyfully praises her wisdom, but as he is about to collect his due, Portia warns him that he must do so without spilling a single drop of Antonio’s blood, as the contract refers only to “flesh.”

Sensing a trap, Shylock proposes to take Bassanio’s money instead, but Portia forbids him to go back, insisting that he take his bond as written or nothing. She then informs Shylock that he is guilty of conspiring against the life of a Venetian citizen, and mercilessly decries that he must surrender half of his property to the state and the other half to Antonio. Antonio forgoes his half of Shylock’s wealth on two conditions: first, that Shylock convert to Christianity, and second, that he leave his estate to Lorenzo and Jessica upon his death. Shylock agrees and exits, utterly destroyed.

Before she departs, Portia, still in disguise, pressures Bassanio into giving her his ring as a reward for her wise litigation. Reluctantly, he does. Gratiano, in turn, gives Nerissa, his ring.

When Bassanio and Gratiano arrive at Belmont, the next day, their wives torment them, accusing them of giving their rings to other women. Finally, Portia reveals her deception and the couples are reconciled.

Finally, Portia tells Antonio that three of his ships are saved, and Nerissa informs Lorenzo and Jessica of their inheritance from Shylock. Lorenzo greets the news with a reference to Moses: “Fair ladies, you drop manna in the way of starved people.” Jessica receives the news in silence.