Sunday, May 27, 2012

A debt repaid

Last night I finished making amends for an 18-year-old wrong.

In English class my senior year of high school we were assigned two oral book reports – one a novel of our choosing, the other a Shakespearean play. It was the spring semester and projects and scholarship applications were coming fast and furious, so I felt the need to cut a corner or two. I liked Shakespeare…starting with Romeo and Juliet in 8th grade on through A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Macbeth into high school I felt an affinity for the works much more than most of my classmates I’m sure. There was a certain feeling of accomplishment that came over me when I peered at the often arcane structure and syntax of the lines, and there, out of the mists and fog, I got it. Kind of like eating something because it’s good for you and enjoying it at the same time. I think I most enjoyed the stories…the twists and turns, the triumphs and tragedies that could still entertain hundreds of years after they were written. The lyricism of the dialogue was nice, but in my mind it was secondary…just there to make it all pretty. And beset by work on all sides, it made for an impediment that I wasn’t interested in wrestling with.

Enter Cliff’s Notes. Yes, that sure ticket to academic Hades cursed by high school English teachers everywhere. I had used Cliff’s Notes in the past, but only in their capacity to do good…to review and expound upon material I had already duly read in its original format. But this time I was going to use it for nefarious means, in the very capacity explicitly warned against in ominous smallcaps in each edition’s preface:


But how would anyone know? It was an individual report, and an oral presentation at that. I could wing it. And wing it I did. Quite successfully, I might add, my energies in the meantime apportioned to more pressing matters.

Oh yeah, the play? The stumblingblock to my progress? The Merchant of Venice.

Time counts, and keeps counting. I had survived that report, that class, high school, and college. Year by year, new knowledge piled on top of the old. Cobwebs formed on the older memories, scattered and languishing in remote corners of my mind. Dusty and neglected, they began to fade. Some, like my time spent with The Comical History of The Merchant of Venice, were from their birth never that strong to begin with. Their passing was almost effortless, like a puff of smoke dissipating in a light breeze. I had a hazy remembrance of Shylock, Portia, the pound of flesh, and little else. Maybe enough to recognize a midlevel Jeopardy question. And this disappointed me. I was disappointed in myself. I felt responsible for that play. As silly as it sounds, I still felt, almost two decades removed from that English class, that that play was mine.

I still like Shakespeare. Probably now more than ever. I’ve made it one of my life’s goals to never stop learning. I am now my own teacher with the world as my classroom. The more I learn, the more I realize that a person could spend a lifetime in a single short corridor of the vast maze of human knowledge and still never master it alone. So I follow my interests, hoping if nothing else to appreciate and contextualize what I see. I’ve recently started reading Shakespeare again, revisiting old favorites from school and experiencing others for the first time. I still have my old essays and worksheets from the first go-round. It is surreal to be able to have a sort of discussion with my old self, comparing and contrasting opinions then and now, a time removed from the present roughly 5% of the lifetime of the plays themselves. My Shakespearian renaissance began with Richard III, the play I did my first classroom presentation on back in 9th grade (and actually did read). It has continued with The Tempest, Othello, and King Lear. I am doing it partly as entertainment, partly as Jeopardy research, and partly as learning for learning’s sake. My current effort is powered chiefly by the No Fear Shakespeare series, a side-by-side “plain English” version of the more popular plays (yes, still taking shortcuts). I was able to “read” King Lear in one day this way. To get more out of the plays I follow-up with the respective chapter in my SparkNotes “Literature” reference book…scene-by-scene synopses, notable quotations, important thematic elements, etc. Finally I’ll watch a video stage adaptation or feature film to tie it all together. So, in a more elaborate and leisurely way, I’m still using Cliff’s Notes.

One day, I looked up, and there was The Merchant. After 18 years, Shylock had come to me to extract his pound of flesh. It was time to repay him.

This time would be different. The No Fear treatment I had been giving the other titles would not suffice. I jumped right to the Mother of All Shakespeare Editions, the master’s- / Ph.D.-level Arden Shakespeare. I was going to, to quote Shylock (you knew this was coming), “better the instruction.” (To give you a feel for Arden’s approach, approximately 75% of each page in the play portion of the book is taken up by footnotes, and fully half of the entire work is introduction and appendices). My reading sequence was thus, scene by scene: original text (Arden), modern text (No Fear), footnotes (Arden). I consulted my SparkNotes and Oxford Companion to Shakespeare occasionally for summaries and analysis. It was slow going, but I felt as if got as much as I could out of it. I waded through the meandering and often opaque Arden introduction the best I could. When I had finished I watched the minimalist 1980 BBC television version on youtube then the 2004 Al Pacino movie version from netflix. Last night was the final step in my atonement, a live production by the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company.

I stepped out of the parking garage and was instantly set upon by an assumed panhandler / irritant of some sort whom I identified by her repeated “excuse me”s as she approached from across the street. After the third repetition of her uninvited query she muttered something to herself and gave up. I had successfully ignored her and was continuing on my way. Dinner was a few blocks away at a place I had read about on urbanspoon called “Tom and Chee”, sort of a sophisticated grilled cheese and tomato soup type of place. I’ve never been a fan of grilled cheese (I remember those gooey, boring versions Mom used to always make Dad out of Kraft slices, white bread, and what seemed like a stick of butter), but the menu looked appetizing, the ranking was high, and my sense of adventure there enough to give it a try. The menu is huge, a good 20 feet of chalkboard running across the top of two adjacent walls above the counter. I had done my homework though so I was ready to order shortly after I walked in. I had the bacon and blue (bacon, blue cheese, and mozzarella) on wheat with a side of chunky tomato basil soup. $7.99 for a moderate portion. Ok at first, it grew on me, especially after I started dipping it in the soup. By the time I was done I was glad I had tried it, fat content aside. Comfort food that would be even better in the cold of winter. I had timed things pretty well. A leisurely walk back to the parking garage to leave my sunglasses and I was at the theater around 25 minutes before curtain. The place is pretty small…the lobby and the theater itself. It reminded me of a narrow, shrunken movie theater. I had chosen my seat, H1, on the aisle and about halfway back. Even the back row would have had a good view…in the front you would have to be careful not to trip the actors as they walked past during the foreground parts.

I enjoyed the play. The theater was small enough to lend an intimate feel. Maybe it’s the difference between theater and film, but the acting seemed a little heavy-handed and melodramatic at times. The play was bookended by a pair of invented scenes: an opening pantomime similar to the one in the film providing background for the animosity between Antonio and Shylock and an ending with the now-outcast Shylock barred from the Ghetto and being spat on by Tubal, the play ending with his bloodcurdling wails. The latter scene embodied both what I liked and disliked about the production: (sporadic) thematic darkness and overacting, respectively. Much of the play was done a bit light for my taste…its classification as a “comedy” taken in the literal modern sense most of the time with lines I had always read as black comedy. A group in the back seemed determined to laugh at every line even remotely considered funny, as if to project to everyone their ability to recognize and appreciate 400-year-old puns. I look at Shakespearian humor like I do Austin Powers or Monty Python…funny, but in a smile-to-yourself amusing way rather than laughing out loud. And I can’t say the cast didn’t encourage them. The actor playing Gratiano wrung out every bit of the crude and loutish nature of the character through gestures as well as line delivery. Engaging and popular, yes, subtle and nuanced, no. Portia was weak and scared during the trial scene, quite different from the nervous confidence I like. I did like the treatment of Lancelet, however. His manic and inventive monologue in Act II Scene 2 had everybody laughing (myself included). Unfortunately the fact that the actor who played him recognizably doubled as Tubal undermined the latter’s more serious bearing in the scenes in which he appeared. And the flamboyant Arragon was so over-the-top that he got his own round of applause when he exited.

Part of what makes Shakespeare great is that his plays are open to interpretation. Different productions can emphasize or minimize details to create a version of a play thematically distinct from others. The Cincinnati version seemed to want to do a bit of everything. The difference between the light approach to the “comedic” bits and the often dark treatment of Shylock’s rage and ultimate victimization was a bit jarring to me. I like the overall dark and cynical approach the movie version did a good job with. Subjectivity was alive and well, as I overheard fellow audience members discussing and critiquing during the intermission. A Jewish family a couple of rows up thought Shylock was being played as too deranged after his yelling stab at a piece of bread to close out the first half. A professorial man further back was discussing with his family the climate of anti-Semitism prevalent in the play. The final (invented) scene of Shylock at the gate was obviously meant to engender sympathy toward the character, but such a potentially heavy-handed portrayal still meshed well with the complex nature of the man apparent in all but the most blatantly anti-Semitic productions over the years.

So, 18 years later, I now know The Merchant of Venice. This time, I read it. My debt is paid.

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