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WITH THIS RING I THEE SHRED

March 9, 2010

Haven’t talked Shakespeare in a bit, but the calls about Merchant of Venice (#merven) auditions are already starting so it’s moving back into the mull over space in my brain. And my holdover obsession from my last reading is RINGS. Three of them: Portia’s, Nerissa’s and Shylock’s.

Shylock has a ring, you say, I missed that. If you did, go back, because I can’t get the thought out of my head that it is THE pivotal moment for his character. As Shylock is having a meltdown over his daughter’s disappearance with his goods, having only just paused that to finish his meltdown over the unfair treatment of Jews and moneylenders, his fellow moneylender Tubal reports he saw a ring Jessica traded for a monkey. Shylock’s wife had given him that particular turquoise ring before their bethrothal. Tubal’s revelation comes at the end of a scene mixing Shylock’s rage and thirst for revenge over his daughter’s betrayal with Antonio’s ill fortune and the opportunity it affords Shylock to settle a lifetime of grievances (III i) This scene changes the whole tone of the play and Shylock’s interaction with the world around him. And Shakespeare tosses in this moment of sentiment/personal history/real emotion(?) after Shylock’s totally over the top, playing to the balcony seats, possibly staged and well rehearsed rant*.

So we come to the make or break scene, but while most seem to focus on the big dramatic “Hath a Jew not eyes” speech, I find myself focusing on what Shylock says after, when left alone with his only peer in the play and discussing the trigger of his raging sorrow (Jessica’s betrayal). Taming of The Shrew (#tamingshakespeare) taught me to only pay as much attention to the “BIG” speeches as the play actually requires so what I find myself wondering is not does Shylock bleed but does he shed a turquoise tear over wife’s loss and daughter’s treason.

And now to the shredding. Well, it’s going to take an exceptional actress to convince me that Portia’s not just a bubbling fountain of egocentric, self important, smart ass cruelty. What she does to Shylock could be justified as over protectiveness of Bassiano but then I stumble over the cruel trick she and Nerissa play on their newlywed husbands. First, they give Bassiano and Graziano rings and make them swear never to take them off, give them away, etc. Then, Portia and Nerissa, disguised as learned doctor of laws and his clerk, demand the men give them the rings as payment. Later in the final act, Portia and Nerissa claim to have lain with the doctor and the clerk by virtue of their possession of said rings. Oy. I must say the men show remarkable forbearance. Almost (only almost) more than finding a Portia, I worry about finding a Bassiano who can make Portia seem lovable. And Portia never bothers to explain that it might be a response to some of Bassiano’s protests of his loyalty to Antonio during the trial. Shakespeare often leaves a kick in the teeth for directors in Act V (if he hasn’t earlier aka Act I, sc ii of The Tempest, which should just be a prequel titled The Duke Of Milan).

So while many people focus on the three caskets, gold, silver and lead, that challenge Portia’s suitors, I find myself obsessed with three rings.

*I admit to pre prepping the occasional rant while pacing in my office/backyard/empty theatre; haven’t you?

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