“Merchant of Venice” Gets a Superior Reading

“Merchant of Venice” Gets a Superior Reading


By an interesting coincidence, a new CD recording of “The Merchant of Venice” appeared on the Naxos Audiobooks label. I finished hearing it on the very day that I watched an episode of the marvelous John Barton’s “Playing Shakespeare” master class on DVD in which Patrick Stewart and David Suchet switched Shylocks in some of that character’s famous moments.

Not only were their readings radically different but their very bodies and facial expressions added to the masterful but different characterizations. I belabor the obvious, because it is difficult to judge a performance accurately from an audio medium rather than from a visual one. I am sure that this Naxos version was based on the much celebrated performance of Antony Sher as Shylock. I found it hard to get a good idea of how he looked on stage; but he came across vocally as a man who has kept his dignity at the expense of great suffering all these years and is then driven into madness by his daughter running off with a good deal of his riches.

The question of the play’s anti-Semitism is best avoided here; but a lot depends on the Shylock to treat the subtext one way or the other.

Sher as Shylock in one of drama’s most terrible moments

The fact that the rest of the cast is just as greedy for money as Shylock is well handled in the non-vocal reactions, such as laughter at the money lender. Although his role is fairly small, Roger Allam creates a noble Antonio, while Emma Fielding (Portia) and Cathy Sara (Nerissa) handle their first scene with good pacing and humor. It is not clear if Portia knows in the trial scene exactly how she is going to beat Shylock or is winging it; but any director would be hard put to “show” that on a CD.

It is a good point that the Prince of Aragon (Sam Dastor) and Prince of Morocco (Ray Fearon) are not played as pantomime fools but show just enough arrogance to get what they deserve in choosing the wrong caskets. Good grades to Director John Tydeman.

Older recordings I have heard feature Tony Church, Hugh Griffith, and Trevor Peacock as Shylock. This new set surpasses them all.

The running time of the two CDs is 150 minutes and there are photos and brief bios of the cast.