‘Merchant of Venice’ still relevant today

Nobleman Bassanio is in a bit of a pickle. While seeking to woo the beautiful heiress Portia, he finds himself short of the funds necessary to have a shot at love with the lady. His friend Antonio may be able to secure a loan for him through the moneylender Shylock, a Jewish man, but Shylock doesn’t exactly maintain the highest opinion of the notably anti-Semitic Antonio. So in the event of the debt being unpaid, Shylock demands a pound of Antonio’s flesh.

Yes, flesh. Kind of puts those student loans into perspective, huh?
This is William Shakespeare’s infamous play “The Merchant of Venice,” which began Oct. 19 at the Quirk Theatre. Presented by the EMU theatre department, the production is the first of many this school year.

Luna Alexander graces the stage as the elegantly-dressed Portia, alongside John Vesbit as Antonio and Elliot Styles as Bassanio. James Groat Jr. gives a poignant performance as Shylock, as does Lauren Bronson, who portrays his daughter, Jessica.

The play takes the audience to Venice, Italy during a much different time in history. The designers began working nearly ten weeks before production even started, taking great care to craft the props and scenery to perfection. The end result is a visually stunning backdrop for the classic story.

Though the world has shifted greatly since Shakespeare walked the earth, “The Merchant of Venice” feels relevant in a society where cold hard cash still rules and bigotry rears its ugly head now and then.

“In the world in which we live, the topics that Shakespeare addressed centuries ago are particularly relevant today,” said Lee Stille, director of the production.

“It’s interesting to see how [Stille] adapted it to this audience to show that these Christians were really cruel to the Jews and portrayed just how much a victim they were in that culture,” said Sarah Neumann, a senior majoring in theater, acknowledging how the play had been used during the Nazi era to paint the Jewish people in an unfavorable light.

In spite of its controversial elements, modern audiences can find much to learn and relate to in “The Merchant of Venice.”

“I do not feel that at its core the play is anti-Semitic, but more an indictment of people who hide behind religion,” Stille said. “I see it as a very human play.”

Getting “The Merchant of Venice” or any of Shakespeare’s works to resonate with college-aged individuals living nearly half a millennia later is no easy task, considering how drastically the English language has evolved in that time. Accordingly, some of the humor in this tragic comedy may float over the heads of audience members today.

“It’s really cool to see how they can still make this audience laugh without speaking in plain English,” Neumann said.

That being said, Shakespearian English can be difficult to decipher, especially when attempting to unravel the complex plot lines presented within the play.

Justin Fluellen, a junior majoring in creative writing, said, “I’m struggling to understand it because I’m not really good with Shakespeare. But from [what] I’m getting, I think it’s pretty interesting.”

Still, students can appreciate Shakespeare’s masterful grasp of the English language and the art of storytelling in the twenty-first century.

“He has a way with words,” said Kyle Radabaugh, a sophomore working as part of the lighting crew. “The way he writes is very lyrical, very poetic. In a way, that makes him very fascinating to watch and to see on stage.”

You can catch “The Merchant of Venice” at Quirk Theatre Oct. 25 at 10 p.m., Oct. 26 and 27 at 7 p.m. and Oct. 28 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $12 for students and $15 full price.

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