When William Shakespeare introduced Portia, a heroine who disguises herself as a legal clerk and argues a vital case, people sitting in the early audiences might have nudged each other and laughed. “Ha! A woman pretending to be a lawyer! Very funny!”
Nowadays, law-school populations are close to 50 percent female, so Portia’s feat doesn’t seem to break quite as many barriers.
“Obviously, things are not the same right now,” said Andrew Hubatsek, who is directing Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” at the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble’s Alvina Krause Theatre. “We’re leaning less on the fact that (she and her friend) are disguised as men, but that they’re disguised.”
Still, the heroine’s venture into the courtroom is a bold move for someone in her circumstances.
“Portia is restricted in her choice of lifestyle and of mate by her father,” Hubatsek said. “Mostly it’s a contractual agreement. She’s an heiress, and for many characters in the play, their lives are pretty much ruled by money or the need of it.”
Now, to whom would the Venetians of the story go when they need money? Why, to the moneylender, of course. Shakespeare’s famous moneylender is named Shylock. He is Jewish, and the way the people of Venice mistreat him because of his religion is likely to make modern audiences cringe. They spit at him, spurn him, call him a dog.
Toward the end of the play, when the legal system has turned against Shylock’s claim for a pound of Antonio’s flesh, that character demands Shylock become a Christian. Again, modern audiences are likely to be appalled.
“There are lots of problematic things in the play. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t (stage the production),” Hubatsek said, “That’s one thing that seems totally unacceptable to modern audiences, that you’re going to force someone to change their religion. There have been productions where they’ve cut that out.”
But maybe being true to Shakespeare, and keeping that incident in the script, will prompt more dialogue during the discussion sessions that are scheduled after each performance.
The play “definitely covers religious intolerance,” Hubatsek said. Also, “Shylock is not a citizen of Venice, and how we treat people who are not citizens, how they have less rights under the law is something still going on today.”
As greedy and vengeful as the character Shylock may come across, Hubatsek said, some scholars say Shakespeare was careful to “place him in a very human light.”
“Shakespeare was writing in response to a Christopher Marlowe play called ‘The Jew of Malta,’ where the Jewish character was a villainous vampire of a person. But this character (Shylock), as bad as he may be, is a human. He is driven to be vengeful by the Christians in the play who have mistreated him.”
In addition to evening and matinee performances for general audiences, several daytime shows have been scheduled to accommodate high-school groups. The high-school students, who will see the same 90-minute version of the play as the adult audiences do, will take part after the performances in such workshops as a mock trial, a discussion of the director’s vision and a discussion of legal and moral implications brought up in the storyline.
“I call it ‘guerrilla Shakespeare’ because it’s intense,” said Paula Henry, who is in charge of student programs for BTE. “Our student audiences will get it fast and get it hard.”
“I have seating available for all six matinees,” she added. “If you book a seat, you automatically get to stay for a workshop.”