You are on your way to class and see a piece of paper that has what you perceive as a swastika on it. Your first response is disgust until you read the writing, “William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice” written on it. You may have some familiarity with that play, so you want to know more. The symbol you actually see is of an unbalanced scale where the upper part is the Christian movement and the lower part is the Jewish population. The winged lion in the middle represents a cathedral in Venice known as St. Mark’s Cathedral. The flier is for West Chester University Theater’s adapted version of Shakespeare’s famous play, which will be performed from from Tuesday, Feb. 28 through Saturday, Mar. 4 at 8 p.m. and on Saturday and Sunday, Mar. 5 at 2 p.m., in the Main Stage Theater at the E.O. Bull Center.
The original script of The Merchant of Venice centers on a man by the name of Bassanio who wants to win the heart of the beautiful Portia. However, he needs money to try to impress her. Bassanio goes to his mentor and friend, Antonio, who says he will support him, but Bassanio must acquire his wealth from money-lenders in Venice using Antonio’s good name as credit.
Bassanio eventually finds Shylock, a wealthy Jewish money lender. Antonio signs a bond that states that if he cannot repay what Bassanio owes, Shylock can take a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Bassanio eventually impresses and marries Portia, but Antonio has lost all his wealth due to the sinking of his ships at sea, and cannot repay the bond. He is now forced into court to have his flesh cut off by Shylock.
The trial ensues and Shylock is adamant about taking Antonio’s flesh. Portia comes in and saves the day disguised as a male lawyer and says that Shylock can take a pound of flesh from Antonio, but can only take exactly one pound and cannot spill any blood. The task proves to be impossible, Shylock loses the bond, is punished by the court and is forced to convert to Christianity. Bassanio and Antonio meet with Portia, and everyone lives happily ever after.
However, in West Chester’s production of this classic story, some underlying themes of the original script are brought to the surface. The concept takes the idea of Anti-Semitism from the Elizabethan times and translates it into the future. The play takes place in the year 2010 where crime, poverty and inflation reign supreme. The production stresses the idea of a rebel Anti-Semitic group who want to have a pure, Venetian state without Jews. The Jewish community is a scapegoat for all the unemployment and rising poverty that Venice is going through. Portia wants to control Antonio, who has been known to be a leader of smaller rebel groups and will eventually become the leader of a well-known Anti-Semitic hate group called the White Light. Lies, deception, violence and hate will ultimately rule Venice and are major themes in this production of The Merchant of Venice.
By highlighting the subtext and setting this play in the near-future, the West Chester Department of Theatre and Dance’s original production of The Merchant of Venice provides strong social commentary on a variety of levels.
For tickets, call the University Theatre box office at 610-436-2533.