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Staging of the Trial Scene in Charles Kean's Production of
The Merchant of Venice, Royal Princess's Theatre,
June 12, 1858, With Charles Kean as Shylock

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The Trial Scene is not at all what you thought it was: that is, a serious, quasi-conventional trial that took place in a so-called Court of Justice in Venice, in which a vengeful, merciless Jew (Shylock) sued to obtain a pound of a Christian’s (Antonio’s) flesh, which was security for a loan that he had failed to repay on time. You have no doubt also thought—as everyone else has—that Shylock was a Jew who had been horribly treated by the Christians. In our post-Holocaust world, The Merchant of Venice has thereby become almost unwatchable and unreadable. Some even suggest that the play should be purged from the Canon.
In fact, Shakespeare wrote the Trial Scene as a travesty of a trial that took place in the Court of Queen’s Bench in the London of his time, circa 1597. He had to make it seem that the trial was occurring in a distant place, wherein what seems to be a Jew is treated badly by what seem to be Venetian Christians, all in the guise of what seems to be a harmless romantic comedy.

Bassanio's admonition—
So may the outward shows be least themselves—applies to the entire play. Almost everything and everyone are not what they seem to be.

Shakespeare was in fact addressing a number of then-current issues, chief among them the religious and political conflicts between Catholics and Protestants that arose out of the English Reformation. However, it was illegal in England for playwrights and players to address serious political and religious matters on stage.

A playing company had to submit a proposed play to the Queen’s censor for approval before it could be performed. Consequently, playwrights would have to camouflage any pejorative—especially any seditious—matters. Most of those in Shakespeare's audiences would have been aware of the necessity for such plausible deniability.

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Shakespeare camouflaged his meaning in The Merchant of Venice. The conflict in the play is between Catholics and Protestants, not Christians and Jews. Shylock is not even a Jew, but rather the Devil incarnate. He is not devastated by being forced to become a Christian (that is, a Catholic); instead he is content to become a member of the Christian/Catholic community, from which he had previously been excluded. You can no doubt recognize Shakespeare's penchant for dramatic irony.

I am getting ahead of myself. We must first understand what is actually happening beneath the camouflage. Once we know that what, we can then address the why. This what is to be found in Shakespeare's words in the Trial Scene. A more thorough reconsideration of the why must await another time.

I am using the text that I have prepared, which is based on the 1623 First Folio but with its non-Shakespearean changes and additions removed. All that remains are the most recent words that Shakespeare wrote himself, which he did by marking up a copy of the 1600 First Quarto edition of the play.

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