It's true that Shakespeare doesn't paint a particularly flattering portrait of his Jewish moneylender Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, and that can be problematic. As he is played by Jonathan Pryce in the Globe's 2015 production of the play, Sherlock doesn't elicit or receive a great deal of sympathy here either and yet Jonathan Munby's direction still manages to bring out what is great about the character and essentially what is great about Shakespeare's writing as a whole; in Shylock he reveals our humanity as it is made known through all our weaknesses.
Whether his actions may be judged proud, defiant and even vindictive, Shylock nonetheless has suffered no small measure of personal abuse for being a Jew, and it has cost him no small amount of business profit either as a moneylender in Venice. He has even been the victim of personal attacks on the part of Antonio, who now comes to borrow 3,000 ducats on behalf of his friend Bassanio. Is it any wonder Shylock would be inclined to take advantage of the situation?
There's an obvious lesson here about going through the world humbly and not judging others lest you find yourself similarly judged one day, but Shakespeare is not concerned merely with elaborating such truisms. Shakespeare looks for the truth in the truisms and finds in The Merchant of Venice that there's one major impediment to behaving as we perhaps should; money. Money and human kindness are not really all that compatible. All wisdom and good intentions go out the window when money is involved. It brings out the worst in both Antonio and Shylock, and in all men.
But that's only one part of the story in The Merchant of Venice. What of the use that Bassanio intends to put the 3,000 ducats? It's not to buy love, but to show its relative value. We already know that wealth alone is of little importance to Portia and that Bassanio has already won her over, and the test of the caskets that will prove that Bassanio knows that love, friendship and trust are more important than precious objects. Money can be a distraction however, and Bassanio has another lesson to learn all over again later when he and Gratiano part with their beloveds' wedding rings.
Ultimately, this is what Bassanio and Portia bring to the play in its contrast with Shylock and Antonio's story. "All that glisters isn't gold" indeed, but again rather than rely on truisms and clever sayings - even though this play has more than its share of quotable and insightful Shakespeare - Shakespeare puts them to the test and, quite literally, gets to the heart of what is important. Shylock might only see the heart as "a pound of flesh", but how much more valuable is understanding the workings of the heart and listening to it?
Even the question of Jessica's leaving her father's house has a part to play in the deeper issues at play. Again, on the surface her willingness to convert to Christianity appears to be another anti-Semitic attack on her father's religion, but it could be argued that it's about putting love above religion as it means she can marry Lorenzo. Or, simply another truthful human observation, it's the sign of rebellious youth doing this to spite her father, not a slight against being a Jewess. A viewer in the present day might also be surprised to find that there is also a measure of a woman asserting her own desires above those of a proscriptive religion, although it's arguable that by converting to Christianity and marriage that she just swaps one set of bonds for another.
There are many ways to draw out the essential themes of The Merchant of Venice and in Shakespeare it's often the space between the drama and the comedy that gives room for the choice and balance of emphasis. It's not by chance that one of the most famous lines in the play that pleads for Shylock's humanity "If you prick us, do we not bleed?" is followed by the less often quoted line "If you tickle us, do we not laugh?". The nature of the Globe, which draws from a close rapport with the audience, is a sure-fire way of addressing these contrasts that bring its concerns to life, and it's in coming to life that the truths of the play hit home.
The comedy then, such a vital element for establishing that connection and creating a space for the drama to be all the more real, is well played here. Launcelot Gobbo is one of the best conduits for this, and in the Globe's production Stefan Adegbola takes that as far as actual audience participation with amusing and effective results. Through such techniques Jonathan Munby's production asks the audience to actually put themselves in the play, invest in the characters and the dilemma, and when you do that not only does the meaning of the work become apparent, but the brilliance of the dramatic construction reveals itself.
Even if it does no more than that Munby's production succeeds marvellously, and indeed it doesn't really add any further elaborations of its own and there are no clever concepts or modernisations; it's all doublets and drawers. The courtroom scene is well-played with all the waiting to the last-minute nerve-wracking tension that it can generate. It's good also to see the Jessica and Lorenzo subplot played in full and not cut as it often can be, as it can add considerably to the play's themes. By the same token, there is no cutting back on the play's more controversial aspects either, with the director choosing to even dramatically emphasise the downfall of the Jew with an extended scene that shows Shylock's forced conversion to Christianity, a charged conclusion that ends the play on a rather more sombre and thoughtful note.
Globe on Screen's The Merchant of Venice is released on DVD by Opus Arte. The DVD is dual-layer and encoded in NTSC format for international compatibility. The disc is region-free.
As with most recent years, all the 2015 Globe on Screen productions - Richard II, The Merchant of Venice and Measure for Measure - are released on DVD only. In the case of The Merchant of Venice the video quality is reasonably good within the limits of the NTSC Standard Definition encoding of a live theatre performance. The image is relatively clear and certainly good enough for standard sized screens. Anyone more used to High Definition presentations on larger screens will find that the detail isn't all there and colours are a little oversaturated. On the whole though, the transfer is more than acceptable, only really showing its limitations in the second half when the evening darkens in the open-air Globe Theatre. Blacks flatten out and lose detail, reds bloom and shifting artefacts are more noticeable in backgrounds. Little of this however will be obvious unless you are projecting to a large screen.
The audio tracks are plain Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround. The recording of the live performance is good, the dialogue always bright and clear, the words perfectly audible and well articulated. The shorter musical interludes between scenes are loud and punchy, while the longer musical sections, and sometimes backing music like that which raises the tension in the court scene - are well balanced with a bright tone. I didn't notice any particular benefit or difference between the Dolby Digital 2.0 and the 5.1 mixes, but both are good.
Optional white subtitles are available for hard of hearing or should you just enjoy reading Shakespeare's text, which is always worth exploring. Subtitles are white and in English only. On the disc itself, the only extra feature is a Cast Gallery. The enclosed booklet has an essay by Farah Karim-Cooper on the theme of value and worth in the play, with emphasis on how it relates to the women in the play and their traditional status as possessions. There is also a synopsis of the plot.
Director Jonathan Munby plays it fairly straight in this production of The Merchant of Venice at the Globe, but in doing so plays to its dramatic strengths. The production is however not without its own strengths in Jonathan Pryce's Shylock, Rachel Pickup's Portia, but also in the attention it gives to the Jessica/Lorenzo subplot and its decision not to hold back from fully representing some of the more controversial elements of the play's Jewish subject matter. Not least of course the Globe audience also has an important part to play here, and it gives the piece another dimension that you can't get anywhere else.
The Globe's 2015 Merchant of Venice tickles 'til we laugh and cuts 'til we bleed.