A kid-friendly "Merchant of Venice"?
October 13, 2011 10:11 PM   Subscribe

Please recommend a video production of "The Merchant of Venice" best suited for an 8-year-old.

This summer we took our 8-year-old daughter to her first Shakespeare play - the Bard on the Beach production of "As You Like It" - and she loved it. At the festival site she also saw posters for "The Merchant of Venice". Fascinated by the costumes and sets in the pictures and by what little of the story-line we could explain to her, she insisted on seeing that, too. Unfortunately by that time all remaining performances were either sold out or on days that conflicted with our existing schedules. So we compromised by promising to find a production of "Merchant" on video or DVD.

The Bard production of "Merchant" was, supposedly, one that somewhat toned down the anti-Semitic aspects - and we're looking for one that does the same. This is not because we're Jewish (we aren't) but because several of her friends are. I'd rather not expose her to concepts that might confuse or distress her unnecessarily, or get her in trouble if she talked about them in the wrong context, or that she's simply not yet able to process.

Any suggestions from the Hive-mind?
posted by e-man to Media & Arts (8 answers total)
I can't imagine that a production of the play exists that downplays the anti-semitism to the degree you'd like. The anti-Semitism is central to the play.

If the sets and costumes are what caught your daughter's attention, why not find a different show that has a similar set design or costume design?
posted by TEA at 10:33 PM on October 13, 2011

The problem is that Shylock's primary motivation is revenge against anti-Semitism.

He hath disgraced me, laughed at my losses...and what's his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?

There's no getting around that. The play doesn't work without Shylock, and Shylock makes no sense except as a man turned hateful by the hate of others.

A list of film adaptations. For a Shakesperian play, your choices are surprisingly limited, only about a half a dozen adaptations in the history of film. The 2004 major motion picture with Pacino as Shylock is the only one that would be easy to find on DVD, and it's not what you're looking for. Like many modern stagings of the play the 2004 film emphasizes the anti-Semitic aspects, and that approach seems wise to me. The younger and more naive the audience, the more I'd want it to be clear what Venice did to Shylock. Eight is a bit young to hear that story, which is a pity because eight would otherwise be a great age to introduce her to Portia.

If you absolutely must show her an adaptation of the play I'd suggest tracking down a copy of The Maori Merchant of Venice. It has an all-Maori cast, which must tone the antisemitism down about as far as it can go. I might like to see it if you can find a copy.

I'm not saying you should lie to your kid, but if you show her Much Ado About Nothing and skip over the opening credits she might not notice until high school.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 1:24 AM on October 14, 2011

....The drawback with my suggestion: the only place you may be able to see it is in New York; the Lincoln Center Library has a collection of DVDs of ALMOST ALL of the Broadway shows that have run in New York since...well, for a long time. (They're for archive purposes only, and you'd have to go to the library to watch it via appointment; but it is free, so if you're in New York in the future it may be something to consider...)

But that said: there was a production of Merchant in the late 80's/early 90's on Broadway that starred Dustin Hoffman; I saw it, and that seemed to tone down the anti-Semitism a bit. Most of the aggregiously anti-Semitic language seemed to be coming from one guy in particular, and the other characters always seemed slightly uncomfortable or eye-rolly when he spoke. It was subtle, but it kind of gave the sense that he was sort of like that one jerk friend some groups have that everyone wishes would shut up when he got going like that...The plot elements stayed the same, but the really aggregious anti-semitism seemed to be subtly handled as an "oh, God, there he goes again" thing.

Again, though, you may only be able to see that if you ever came to New York City. But if you do find yourself on a family vacation, that's an option.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:00 AM on October 14, 2011

It's not "The Merchant of Venice", and it's not quite straight Shakespeare, but the Flying Karamazov Brothers' adaptation of "The Comedy of Errors" is quite kid-friendly: part 1, part 2
posted by hades at 2:38 PM on October 14, 2011

The 1974 TV production directed by John Sichel (from Jonathan Miller's stage production), with Olivier as Shylock, handles the anti-semitism sensitively and imaginatively:

Apparently at Miller's insistence, Olivier plays down the character's overtly Jewish characteristics (certainly compared with his notorious cantor in the 1980 remake of The Jazz Singer), even to the point of having Shylock conceal his skull cap under a top hat whenever he goes about his public business.

As that detail implies, Miller has updated the action to the late 19th century, a time when Jewish bankers were hugely influential in central Europe, but before the overt anti-semitism of the Nazi era: here, it's much subtler but just as destructive. While most productions contrast Antonio (good) and Shylock (bad), here, they are almost indistinguishable in dress, speech and behaviour: it's only Shylock's ethnic origin that sets him apart from the rest of society. Tellingly, Miller cuts the line "I hate him for he is a Christian", underlining his view of Shylock as misunderstood victim. Olivier's animal howl of despair as the trial ends is so unnerving that even his harshest critics are visibly shaken.

The DVD is available in the UK, but I don't know if it's been issued in the US. Amazon has it on instant video, though.
posted by verstegan at 4:42 AM on October 15, 2011

The 1974 TV production directed by John Sichel (from Jonathan Miller's stage production), with Olivier as Shylock, handles the anti-semitism sensitively and imaginatively:

Verstegan, "sensitively and imaginatively" is what I was trying to get at but couldn't articulate - thanks. The library where I work has the video of the 1980 BBC production (Miller producing, Jack Gold directing, Warren Mitchell as Shylock). Do you know if it's similar to the 1974 Miller/Olivier version?
posted by e-man at 2:35 PM on October 15, 2011

No, it's very different. By this time Miller had altered his view of the play and decided that the anti-semitism had to be emphasized as much as possible; his theory was that the play was 'totally symmetrical in its prejudices', and that Shylock and his persecutors were both equally in the wrong. Warren Mitchell plays Shylock almost as a caricature of a stage Jew, speaking in a thick Middle European accent. I think the idea is to unsettle the audience and force them to confront their own prejudices, much as Mitchell does in his role as Alf Garnett, or Sacha Baron Cohen in his role as Borat. It's a fascinating interpretation of the play, but not what you're looking for -- in fact precisely what you're not looking for.
posted by verstegan at 9:45 AM on October 16, 2011

No, it's very different.

OK -- thanks for following up!
posted by e-man at 9:56 AM on October 18, 2011

« Older Moving System Files to a New SSD in a MacBookPro   |   Indian Whiskey NYC? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.