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TOPIC: Problematic fifth act

Problematic fifth act 10 years 1 month ago #18

  • William Shakespeare
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In re. Louis Scheeder's comments on the fifth act of *Merchant*. The "On such
a night as this..." debate can and has been played as a fight. I remember Bill
Alexander fot the RSC in 1987 making the scene about a pair of impulsive
adolescents who had married for lust learning that they had nothing in common
beyond an ability to drive one another crazy. The debate degenerated into
petty carping, and at some point in the scene, it became clear that things had
gone too far for either party ever to forgive the other. I seem to recall
Lorenzo hitting Jessica, but I may be confusing this with another production.
I saw about five *Merchants* around then. In any case, I remember thinking that
Alexander obviously subscribed to Robert Brustein's idea that if Shakespeare
(or Moliere, Chekhov etc.) had lived long enough, he would eventually have
written the great plays of each subsequent time period. The last act of
Alexander's *Merchant* looked like a rough draft for *Who's Afraid of Virginia
Woolf*.

I don't know that the fifth act of this play can ever be again the romantic
idyll that Shakespeare seems to have intended. The extremes to which
anti-Semitism has been taken in this century resonate too powerfully for an
audience to be comfortable with a supposedly "happy ending" involving a cadre
of young Christians (at least three of whom are unapologetic anti-Semites)
triumphing over the humiliation and potential suicide of an elderly Jew, no
matter how unpleasant a person this Jew might have been.

I've seen directors try all kinds of things in an attempt to make the fifth act
the logical extension of the other four, but I've never seen a fifth act fail
to acknowledge the presence of Shylock's ghost. The closest I've ever seen
anybody come to the mood of the ending as written was in the most recent
*Merchant* at Stratford, Ontario (Brian Bedford was the Shylock) directed, I
think, by John Neville. The production cut Shylock's enforced conversion, and
this, along with a radiant Portia from Seanna McKenna, made it easier for the
audience to enter into the romance of the final scenes. At the other extreme,
Michael Addison's 1992 production at the California Shakespeare Festival, which
set the play in Mussolini's Italy, ended with Antonio taking off his overcoat
to reveal a brown shirt and fascist party arm band.

Matt Henerson
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Problematic fifth act 9 years 1 month ago #1310

  • Matthew Barbot
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I think the question falls largely to how we deal with Jessica in the fifth act. Is she happy, or did she get more than she bargained for?
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