SSC's 'The Merchant of Venice' puts compelling spin on Bard classic

Seattle Shakespeare Company consistently brings us the Bard’s classics in innovative productions, proving Shakespeare’s plays and plots have a universal quality.

To emphasize that, for SSC’s latest production of, “The Merchant of Venice” the fourth time in their history — director Desdemona Chiang sets the play in the here-and-now. It runs at Center Theatre through April 15.

Although the play debuted in the late 1590s, during the past 400 years it has been set in many eras, just as Shylock’s role has been interpreted in many ways: A repulsive clown. A monstrous villain. A proud aristocrat. Even as a sympathetic figure. According to scholars, the 18th century English actor Edmund Kean was the first to portray Shylock in a way that up till then no one except perhaps Shakespeare had envisioned — the tragedy of a man.

In SSC’s compelling production, the role of Shylock is played by a woman, the amazing and talented Amy Thone. All the more intriguing, because the play’s heroine, Portia, disguises herself as a man to take on Shylock in court. In Shakespeare’s time a man would have played Portia, disguised as a woman until the court scene, when he would be disguised as a woman who is disguised as a man.

Shakespeare had no problem with gender-bending. He cast men in the female roles when they were first staged. And he created cross-dressing roles for Rosalind from, “As You Like it,” Viola in, “Twelfth Night,” and of course, Portia in, “The Merchant of Venice.”

But in 1899, the great Sarah Bernhardt took it even further — she dared to play Hamlet. Since then, women actors have taken on Shakespeare's best known male roles; Janet McTeer as arch-chauvinist Petruchio in, “The Taming of the Shrew.” Vanessa Redgrave made a memorable Prospero in, “The Tempest.” And more recently, Glenda Jackson triumphed onstage as, “King Lear.”

In SSC’s, “Merchant,” the wealthy heiress, Portia, beautifully portrayed by Jen Taylor, is one of the most impressive of Bard’s women in drag. She proves herself as clever as she is lovely. According to her father’s will, Portia is forced to issue her suitors a challenge for her hand in marriage. It could almost be a modern TV game show. The men must choose between three caskets, one of gold, one of silver and one of lead, and whoever chooses the casket with a portrait of Portia inside, wins her hand. The suitors reveal their character by which one they select. The correct casket is the one made of lead, not of gold or silver.

Portia secretly favors the handsome, young Bassanio, but he needs $3,000 ducats (In present day, that’s roughly $530,000), so that he can woo her. Attracted by Portia’s fortune as well as her beauty, Bassanio borrows the money from his close friend, Antonio, a merchant of Venice who makes his money from trading fine goods carried to and fro in his sailing ships. All would be fine except Antonio has taken out a loan from Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, on the assurance that his ships will make it back to the city. They don’t, and Shylock demands repayment with a pound of Antonio’s flesh

Portia turns out to be the smartest character in the play especially during the trial scene where she outwits all the men in the courtroom, including the presiding Duke of Venice (Carter Rodriquez) and her new husband, Bassanio, by turning the final verdict against Shylock thereby sparing Antonio.

Taylor delivers Portia’s “quality of mercy” soliloquy with poignancy and power.  But we must not overlook Shylock’s infamous soliloquy, “Hath not a Jew eyes?” which Thone injects with both pain and rage.  

Naturally, a woman playing Shylock invites new interpretations. The Jew-hating rhetoric expressed by Antonio and his pals becomes all the more shocking. An impressive and undaunted Darragh Kennan, as Antonio, spits on Shylock, in severe contrast to his treatment of his beloved friend, Bassanio (the charming Richard Nguyen Sloniker). Yet, there is an element of melancholy about Antonio. One theory has suggested he is secretly in love with Bassanio.

Shakespeare also dares to introduce the idea of women's rights and their equality with men. This was totally taboo in Elizabethan society. Women were considered to be chattels.   

Discrimination is a resounding theme in, “The Merchant of Venice.” All of the characters are affected by inequality, but it is more pronounced in Shylock, the Jewish usurer, who is treated with scorn and derision by all the characters, including his daughter, Jessica.

Even if’ you’ve never seen, “The Merchant of Venice,” you will recognize memorable lines and expressions we use every day: In the twinkling of an eye. (Launcelot); Love is blind. (Jessica); All that glisters is not gold (Duke of Morocco); With bated breath" (Shylock),

But what exactly did Shakespeare see in the character of Shylock? Was Shakespeare being anti-Semitic by pitting Judaism against Christianity, or was he merely exploring the anti-Semitism of 16th century English people?  That question has been debated for 400 years, with no definitive answer. Keep in mind that Jews were cast out of England in 1290; therefore most of what Shakespeare knew about them was most likely hearsay or legend.

If this xenophobia sounds familiar, it should, given the actions of our dear leader and his political cohorts’ treatment of minorities and immigrants. As a 19th century French critic and journalist once wrote, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

The entire SSC cast is superb. Lindsay W. Evans delights as Nerissa, Portia’s lady-in-waiting and confidante, as does Tim Gouran, as Gratiano, who woos Nerissa. Also notable is Katya Landau as Jessica, Shylock’s unhappy daughter who forsakes the Jewish faith, steals from her father’s fortune, elopes with Lorenzo (Trick Danneker), and becomes a Christian.

Officially, the Bard’s play is categorized as a comedy, but with Shakespeare, things are not always as they seem. Tragedy lurks just below the surface: Racism, justice, mercy, antisemitism, sexism, religious law, and civil society. The list could go on and on.

“The Merchant of Venice,” remains Shakespeare’s most controversial play, described by many as flawed and fascinating — a piece of tragedy within a romantic comedy. Perhaps Antonio said it best: “I hold the world but as the world … A stage where every man must play a part, And mine a sad one.”

Seattle Shakespeare Company presents, “The Merchant of Venice,” through April 15 at the Center Theatre in Seattle Center; tickets range from $25-$55. Call the Seattle Shakespeare Company box office at 206-733-8222 or go online at for tickets. Discounts are available for groups of 10 or more.