Layers of meaning in 'Merchant'

New production on PBS provides insight; 'Local News' is a must-see for news buffs

The Merchant of Venice is arguably the most difficult play in all the Shakespearean canon to produce. We know the savagery that anti-Semitism has wrought in the world all too well. The Holocaust hangs over our heads. And, indeed, the most famous productions in recent years have all changed the mood of the play to make the Christians unsympathetic and the Jewish money lender, Shylock, a tragic hero. Until now.

Trevor Nunn has mounted a moving, insightful version of the play (PBS, Masterpiece Theatre, Oct. 8, 9-11 p.m.) that exposes the meanness of anti-Semitism and the uselessness of revenge. In this production, Shylock is tragic, but he is culpable - not because he is a Jew, but because he seeks revenge. The "pound of flesh" demanded by modern drug dealers and Mafia bookies in the movies these days is treated in high relief here - there is no question that it is wrong. But there is no question that Shylock has been wronged, too.

The story is based on two ancient tales - one about a bloodthirsty usurer and the other about suitors who must choose among enigmatically labeled boxes of lead, silver, and gold to win a lady. Shakespeare intertwines these two familiar stories to set off different attitudes toward wealth and generosity, love and marriage, and assimilation versus culture shock.

In Shakespeare's day, few Jews were in England (they had been banned 300 years earlier). Queen Elizabeth's doctor, a Spanish Jew, was accused of colluding with the King of Spain to poison her. His famous trial and execution were abuzz in the land.

Christopher Marlowe had written "The Jew of Malta," in which his diabolical hero was an extreme caricature, though witty, wily, and more clever than the Christians.

Loaning money with interest had been considered morally wrong since medieval times, and it was forbidden to Christians. Though most other forms of livelihood were denied Jews, they were despised for pursuing this profession, one of the few open to them. The Elizabethans were indeed anti-Semitic and ignorant about Jewish culture.

But Shakespeare was no ordinary Elizabethan. His play still has much to say to us. His Shylock is complex, and the wrongs done him are grievous. Shylock is mocked, spat upon, kicked, persecuted - his people reviled and his daughter seduced. None of this justifies demanding a pound of flesh from his antagonist, Antonio, who has hurt him and then cannot pay him what he owes. But it does explain the motives behind Shylock's implacable hatred.

Interestingly enough, it is a woman, another second-class citizen, who knows the law well enough to save Antonio's life. Her speech, "The quality of mercy is not strained..." is one of the most oft-quoted in Shakespeare. And though the Christians, including Portia, prove themselves less than merciful to Shylock, they do refuse to take his life, and they restore him half his property.

The lesson here is about the wages of vengeance. In other Shakespeare plays - "Hamlet," "Macbeth," "Titus Andronicus" - revenge is perceived as a correct response to the murder of innocents. But it is not murder Shylock is avenging. Perhaps Shakespeare eventually saw through all forms of vengeance. In "The Tempest," his hero lets his enemies go, having first corrected them.

As if to underscore the complexity of the issues, director Nunn's sets are stark - layers of gray and beige. He sets the story in the 20th century between the two world wars, and we know that in Italy in the 1930s, fascism and anti-Semitism are on the rise.

Derbhle (pronounced "Dervia") Crotty as Portia plays the role with high style and penetrating intelligence. Nunn chooses to make Antonio (David Bamber) homosexual, to explain why he would risk his life for Bassanio's good fortune. It's the only bad choice in the production, because it makes Antonio selfishly motivated instead of heroically generous (if culturally handicapped).

Actor Henry Goodman, who is himself devoutly Jewish, plays Shylock in delicate layers, searching out the deepest meaning of every one of his lines and then radically revealing the character's humanity and pathos: Shylock is a man who has been pushed too far.

A new documentary series about a struggling news organization, called Local News ... One Station Fights the Odds (PBS, Tuesdays at 10 p.m., begins Oct. 9), sheds light on the problems, large and small, that afflict TV newsrooms. It is a must-see for news buffs.

WCNC-TV is the NBC affiliate in Charlotte, N.C. Filmmakers spent a year following the news director and his team of reporters around while bomb threats intimidate the school system, white families sue to overturn busing, and a variety of reporters leave the station. Advice from experts to help raise ratings stresses that "local" news should mean "crime" news.

Trying to balance advertisers' demands, appeal to the public, and still cover the news that really affects viewers' lives can be tough.

Says series executive producer David Van Taylor: "Local news is a daily drama filled with fascinating issues. People on news teams make decisions every day that have an impact in their communities. We wanted to give people an idea of what [reporters] are up against when they try to do the right thing."

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