Page 45 Review by Stephen
Promises, promises, and exchanges of vows
Had Shakespeare decided to apply rhetorical skills to law instead of theatre then English literature would be much impoverished, yet I fancy many lost causes would have been won. The legal debate in the Merchant Of Venice is perfect evidence of that for its oratory - guilefully staged and executed by a disguised, fair Portia - serves both.
There are two main plot threads which are wittily entwined: the courtships and the court case. Antonio secures an interest-free loan from Shylock to be repaid within three months so that his friend Bassanio can woo Portia, although he will have to solve a riddle which all others have failed at in order to prove his suitability as a suitor: priorities are important! The collateral he stakes - the forfeit Antonio will pay - is that proverbial pound of flesh: if he fails to come up with the goods, Shylock will be entitled to quite literally carve out a pound of Antonio's flesh from wherever he chooses.
Guess what happens next?
What's interesting is that it's the Venetians' very goading of Shylock and his (hmm...) "Jew heart" that prompts this unorthodox approach to money lending. The ensuing court case - to determine whether Shylock is indeed entitled to start slicing and dicing - is an equally loaded affair, but it's so incredibly clever than one can't help but grin throughout. Portia hasn't finished, though. Just as she tested her suitors so rigorously before even considering their hand in marriage, so now she tests Bassanio's verbal fidelity versus gratitude for legal services rendered. Will he part with his engagement ring which he swore never to remove and give it to his very own missus (the ironies of disguise - Shakespeare really loved that one), to thank her for saving his friend?
Not really fair, Portia!
Hinds has, once more, chosen a completely different style to draw in here, with black line and blue more reminiscent of Dave McKean's CAGES than his own colourful take on THE ODYSSEY. It really opens the play out as the cast roam the meandering streets of Venice, crossing its old brick bridges and meeting off St. Mark's. It's a contemporary version, but I don't mean that in the same way that Antony Johnston's JULIUS radically reinterprets the play with real wit and relish; I mean the setting is contemporary and the language to begin with has been made more accessible before easing us gradually into something more closely resembling the original text when it's at its most important (the court scene). It's also, I should add, substantially abridged, which would have delighted me during my school trips to Stratford, aged thirteen.
All this is discussed by Hinds in the back along with the key question one cannot avoid given the treatment of Shylock, and the constant, disparaging use of the word 'Jew': is this an anti-Semitic play or anti-racist tract exposing the raging anti-Semitism in Shakespearean England? Well, it's more acknowledged than discussed, and I can only add that I winced every time Shylock was hailed as "Jew" rather than Shylock but at least Hinds left it there for, one would hope, much more discussion in schools.