Tonight I visited the Shoe Box Theater in S.E. Portland, and I watched the Northwest Classical Theatre production, http://www.nwctc.org/, of The Merchant of Venice. It was magical. One peak inside the theater and immediately I knew why it was called the Shoe Box Theater. It has 37 chairs arranged in a u-shape, and the space in the middle becomes the stage. This means that all but four seats have front row views. It is very small, just about big enough for one of Paul Bunyan’s boots. Once you are seated and the show begins, there is no way that you can sneak out for any reason. Right before the performance, curtains are lowered on the entry doors and they became the entrances/exits for the actors and actresses.
The actors and actresses delivered a flawless performance. I have never seen Shakespeare come alive like it did tonight. As Shylock was making his final exit, he walked by where I was sitting and I saw tears in his eyes and running down his face. That is what I call a performance. The drama was so gripping that at times we were all on the edges of our seats. This company performs plays mainly by Shakespeare, but they also on occasion will do plays written by Chekhov, Shaw, or Ibsen. This spring they are doing Richard II, and you can bet I will be there getting a front row seat.
I have studied and taught many of Shakespeare’s plays. In fact, I will never forget my summer class of Shakespeare that started at 7:30 a.m. Yea, 7:30 a.m. I love Shakespeare, but that was way to early for “thees” and “thous.” Anyway, I digress. I have had a lot of exposure to Shakespeare, but I have never read or watched the Merchant of Venice. I was appalled at the extreme anti-semite comments and stereotypes. The character of Shylock is nothing more than the personification of every bad stereotype against the Jews. By the end of the play, I felt a real sorrow for Shylock, but I do not think that this is what Shakespeare wanted me to feel toward him. Shakespeare wanted me to feel triumphant that the good Christians had won over the godless Jews. I just wanted to run out and give Shylock a hug and tell the “so-called” Christians where to go and how to get there. Looking around the theater, I could tell that I was not the only one who felt this way. Some people would defend Shakespeare by saying that he was just a product of the times and that this was common back then. Does that make it right? Does that exempt him of the guilt he should feel about writing a popular play that is filled with discrimination? I don’t think so. No matter where you come from, or how you are brought up, you have a choice on how you treat people. I love Shakespeare, and I think he was a brilliant writer for many reasons, but in his personal life I believe he had some character flaws.