Jeffrey Bracco takes the stage in infamous, classic play
The Santa Clara
April 19, 2018
Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” has long had a reputation for being an anti-Semitic work. That reputation apparently pushed director and Santa Clara alum Kit Wilder to ask: “Is it really?”
Yes, Kit. That’s why when you “floated the idea to many in the theater community. They were unanimous in their reaction: ‘Don’t do it!’”
But hey, at least the acting and set design were impeccable.
“The Merchant of Venice” is, according to Wilder, one of Shakespeare’s most frequently performed plays.
It was written in the late 16th century and is generally regarded as a comedy. The cast features Santa Clara professor Jeffrey Bracco in the role of Antonio, a Christian merchant. Antonio asks a Jewish banker named Shylock, played by Brian Herndon, for a loan.
Shylock has experienced much suffering and abuse at the hands of the Christian population in Venice, including Antonio, and he draws up a contract dictating that Antonio must give up a pound of his flesh if he is unable to pay his debts within three months.
Wilder took advantage of the intimate setting of local theater group City Light Theater Company’s thrust stage by creating an intense depiction of the supposed comedy. He used a simple set that lent itself to quick transitions between scenes.
The main set piece, circular and placed slightly offcenter, had a rotating ring around it that allowed the setting to easily switch between scenes in Venice and Belmont.
Bracco told the Santa Clara in a postshow interview that the conflict between Antonio and Shylock is a result of the fact that “[Antonio] sees himself in Shylock.” The bond between the two men remains tangible, even when they are not on stage together.
For example, in the play’s final scene, we see Antonio deviate from his established dislike of Shylock.
He hesitates to leave the stage and takes Shylock’s yarmulke out of his pants pocket. Antonio holds the yarmulke in his hands for a moment before shaking his head and throwing the garment to the center of the stage.
“We wanted to bring the play back to Shylock,” Bracco said of this interpretive choice made by himself and the director.
Herndon gave a brilliant depiction of Shylock; he reacted with dignity yet was clearly hurt by the treatment he received at the hands of the Christians of Venice. “I think that there’s ample justification, even if it’s not right what he does, for why he does it,” Herndon said.
“[Herndon] shows Shylock’s humanity. He’s this normal guy who has been put upon,” Bracco said. Even though Herndon portrayed Shylock so well, there were still audience members who confronted him about his acting and costume after the show.
Performances of “The Merchant of Venice,” no matter how well executed, have a history of controversy. As aforementioned, the play is commonly viewed as wildly anti-Semitic.
Wilder, however, disagrees. “Let me offer, right here, right now: ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is not antiSemitic,” he writes in a statement included in the playbill. He believes that, due to a lack of evidence of anti-Semitism in the rest of Shakespeare’s bibliography, it is unlikely that the Bard intended “The Merchant of Venice” to be anti-Semitic.
Wilder argues that the hatred directed at every character in the play creates a narrative that is not specifically anti-Semitic. Because “The Merchant of Venice” “offers a like portrait of anti-Christian sentiment, anti-Moroccan sentiment, antiSpanish sentiment, anti-French sentiment, and even antiEnglish sentiment,” the play cannot be specifically considered anti-Semitic.
However, it’s difficult to ignore the fact that the triumphant moment in the play comes when Shylock is defeated by the Christian characters.
The most celebrated moment on stage involves a complete tearing apart of all that Shylock values—including a particularly degrading moment when he is forced to denounce the faith at the core of his identity.
Power dynamics play a massive role in the punishment of Shylock, who insists that Antonio be held to the bond of his debt.
In court, Portia, played by Maria Giere Marquis, abuses the law that would otherwise have given Shylock his revenge and twists it to destroy his livelihood. The law does not apply equally to all—an issue frequently cited regarding the American court system.
In his director’s statement, Wilder discusses the idea of the “casket scene,” a reference to the moment in which Bassanio, played by George Psarras, chooses the proper casket to win the right to marry Portia.
Similarly, Wilder suggests that, much like Bassanio, each audience member must “make up his or her own mind about the play.”
Feel free to do so, but be aware of the context of the text you engage with.
Contact Ethan Beberness at email@example.com or call (408) 554-4852.