The Merchant of Venice (06/29/1955)

Shatner as Gratanio in The Merchant of Venice

The third and final major play performed at the Stratford Shakespearean Festival of Canada in 1955 was the Bard’s own, The Merchant of Venice. Probably most famous (or infamous to today’s modern audience) for the character of Shylock, a horribly stereotypical Jew, this somewhat dark comedy also has a fair bit of nuance that is often overlooked plus an intelligent, beautiful and resourceful woman as the leading character. Don’t get too excited though, this role would have still gone to a man in Shakespeare’s time.

Antonio is the titular merchant, which is odd because his role really isn’t that large at all. This play is unique for Shakespeare in that the title character is not the central character. Julius Caesar could be considered similar, in that the title role in that play was also fairly small, but at least all of the action in that play revolved around Julius Caesar in some way. The same cannot be said for Antonio in The Merchant of Venice. The play actually centers more on Antonio’s friend, Bassanio, and his attempts to woo the beautiful Portia whose father has recently died. In his quest for this Grade A poon, Bassanio needs some money to make himself more respectable to Portia. He asks Antonio, who readily agrees but doesn’t actually have the money at hand. He decides that he will go to the Jewish moneylender Shylock and borrow the money, as he knows when his merchant ships come in that he will have more than enough to pay him back.

Now, here we get into the problematic (again, to modern audiences) part of the play…the character of Shylock. The Jewish moneylender makes no secret of the fact that he hates Antonio and all of his friends because they are Christian, and also because Antonio often lends money without charging interest, hurting Shylock’s business. Interestingly, this is relatively accurate for the time…usury was frowned upon for Christians as it was seen as taking advantage of fellow men (of course, this thinking that originated with the teachings of Christ has gone the way of the dodo now, swallowed whole by “capitalism” and mammon.)

As jarring and seemingly stereotypical as Shylock is to our modern ears, Shakespeare actually manages to inject a fair amount of nuance into the character. Antonio and his Christian friends are total dicks to Shylock because he is a Jew, and they are unrepentant about it even as they ask for favors from the moneylender. It’s obvious that at least some of Shylock’s hatred is well-earned and not surprising given his treatment at the hands of the Christians.

Anyway, Shylock lends Antonio the money but charges no interest. Instead, he says that if the debt is not repaid by the agreed upon date he will instead take a pound of Antonio’s flesh. The bargain is struck, and the play turns towards Bassanio wooing Portia and all the shenanigans therein.

Let’s talk about Shatner’s role here; he plays Gratiano, a good friend of Bassanio and Antonio. If this were the movie Swingers, then Gratiano would be the Vince Vaughn character…energetic, a bit crude and a fast talker. Reading through the play, I can easily see why Shatner was tapped for this role. It would have played right into his strengths of manic energy and broad, almost over-the-top outbursts of earnest excitement. Of the three plays that Shatner appeared in at Stratford in 1955, this role was by far his largest and showiest.

Shatner as Gratiano, watching from the columns
Spot the Shat!

When the time comes to repay Shylock, Antonio’s ships are all lost at sea and his money is gone. Shylock demands in court that Antonio give up his pound of flesh as agreed, even though many people offer to pay Shylock two or three times as much as the debt actually owed. I won’t get into all of the details, but Portia impersonates a doctor/lawyer who tries to convince Shylock to be merciful and to just take the money. Shylock refuses because he hates Antonio so much.

With Portia making sure that everyone understands the terms as written and giving the Jew many opportunities to take the money, she tells Shylock that he can have his pound of flesh but cannot take anything more or less and cannot spill any blood (as blood is not in the contract.) This is impossible of course, and Shylock asks instead for the money. Because he had refused this earlier though, he is forced to either take only the pound of flesh (again, impossible) or be tried as an attempted murderer and give up all of his money and convert to Christianity. He does this, because he must, with Shatner’s Gratiano crowing and hollering at him the whole time.

Ultimately the patented Shakespeare happy ending with multiple marriages (or at least betrothals) arrives. Even Gratiano gets married to Portia’s gentlewoman-in-waiting Nerissa. Indeed, Gratiano gets the last line of the play, “Well, while I live I’ll fear no other thing So sore as keeping safe Nerissa’s ring” which is a crude double entendre on Nerissa’s wedding ring and her vagina. Keep it classy, Shakespeare!

The Merchant of Venice ran the length of the festival, with the final performance on August 27th. With that, Shatner and the rest of the performers would have packed up their stuff and headed back out to regional theater or, in Shatner’s case, back to Toronto for another season of television and radio work with the CBC. With the ultimate goal of saving up enough money to get himself to Broadway, the steady work and exposure granted to him through the Stratford Shakespeare Festival was slowly paying off.

Unfortunately, he would soon hit a pretty big snag…all courtesy of his new friend and fellow actor, Lorne Greene. More on this in the next post.

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Shatner’s Web

It’s time to detail all of the connections between The Merchant of Venice and other Shatner appearances! 

Pretty much the entire company would appear in both of the other 1955 Stratford Festival plays. Many had also acted in the 1954 season, as well as in subsequent Stratford productions with Shatner. Indeed, many of them would also appear in the Tyrone Guthrie directed Broadway production of Tamburlaine the Great in early 1956, and the Guthrie directed film version of Oedipus Rex in 1957. Rather than list all of those actors here, and name each and every production they appeared with Shatner in, I’m going to cherry-pick some of the more interesting connections.

Tyrone Guthrie, the director of The Merchant of Venice, would remain artistic director through 1955 and would continue directing plays at Stratford until 1957 (a year after Shatner left.) He had previously directed Shatner in 1954’s Oedipus Rex and The Taming of the Shrew, as well as 1955’s  King Oedipus. He also directed Shatner on Broadway in 1956’s short-lived production of Tamburlaine the Great. Finally, he would direct Shatner in the film version of Oedipus Rex, released in 1957.

Frances Hyland, who played Portia, would also appear with Shatner in Festival’s “Julius Caesar.”

Donald Harron, who played Bassanio, would also appear in the 1979 film Riel.

Robert Christie worked with Shatner prior to Stratford in CBC Theatre’s “The Man Who Ran Away.” He also appeared in Scope’s “The Verdict Was Treason” and in the film version of Oedipus Rex.

Lorne Greene had a small role in this play (in contrast to his starring turn in Julius Caesar,) and had first appeared with Shatner the previous year for the General Motors Theatre episode, “The Big Leap.” He would again appear with Shatner in the 1970 variety special John Wayne’s Tribute to America, and then one last time in the 1985 HBO comedy, The Canadian Conspiracy.

Eric House appeared in an episode of Scope, “The Verdict Was Treason”, as well as in the 1960 TV Movie, Point of Departure.

Lloyd Bochner performed at Stratford for at least all three years Shatner was there and then would appear again with Bill on Broadway in Tamburlaine the Great. Bochner also appeared in a 1960 TV movie made for the CBC titled Point of Departure. They would work together again when he appeared on a 1965 episode of Shatner’s first TV series For the People, titled “Seized, Confined and Detained…” Ten years later, he would work with Le Shat in “Jesse Who?”, an episode of Shatner’s only live-action “Lost Years” TV series, Barbary Coast. Finally, they would both appear in the sprawling Canadian film, Riel, in 1979.

Neil Vipond would also work with Shatner in the 1958-1960 Broadway play, The World of Suzie Wong.

Robert Goodier appeared with Shatner at Stratford for all three seasons The Shat was there, plus in the 1956 Broadway version of Tamburlaine the Great and the 1957 film version of Oedipus Rex. In addition, he was in an episode of Omnibus with Shatner in 1956, Moliere’s School for Wives.

Bruno Gerussi would be seen with Shatner in “Forever Galatea”, an episode of General Motors Theatre, and in 1960’s Festival production of “Julius Caesar.”

Ted Follows would follow Shatner to a 1956 appearance of On Camera’s “Dreams,” as well as to Festival’s 1960 “Julius Caesar.”

William Hutt had previously appeared in a 1955 episode of General Motors Theatre, “The Coming Out of Ellie Swan.”

Further Studies

Some cool pictures of the festival (most with Shatner) can be found here.

Shatner

Author: Shatner

I give myself to him, William Shatner.

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