The NAXOS productions of Shakespeare's plays are ALL very well done. There is never a hint of overacting, and the lines are always read in a way that makes the language seem natural and the emotions genuine.
This should not be regarded as a Branaugh play so much as a NAXOS play. He is not the only amazing actor in this cast. Geraldine McEwan steals many scenes as the rotten old deposed Queen Margaret. This is no small feat, considering the one-dimensionality of Margaret's character. John Shrapnel is also fantastic in the role of Lord Hastings, as is Nicholas Farrell in the role of Buckingham, and Barrie Jaimeson is always fun to listen to, no mater which role he's reading.
I absolutely love this production of this play. I own this version as well as the Caedmon production, and the contrast is just remarkable. The NAXOS characters seem so alive and natural in contrast to the Caedmon cast, which seems quite artificial and grandiose. Shakespeare wrote plays about humans, and he intended these plays to be enjoyed by all people, not just the nobles and the snobs. NAXOS has certainly succeeded in that mission.
The Merchant of Venice has received criticism that usually reflects the values of the critic and the times of the criticism rather than the quality of the play. Perhaps my review will be judged similarly, but one can only try. If you hear or read this play, you will undoubtedly form your own opinions as to how Shakespeare portrayed Jews and Christians. Regardless of what that opinion is, there is probably ample evidence in the play to support it.
My opinion is that, contrary to the to the opinion of the notable Shakespeare critic Harold Bloom, the play is not anti-semetic. It certainly depicts a time in European history when anti-semitism prevailed, but Shakespeare seems to have taken great pains to show the deep personal hurt caused by such attitudes. (For example, see Shylock's dialog in Act 1, scene 3.)
Shylock, in my opinion, is one of Shakespeare's more sympathetic villains. He is neither evil by nature, nor by religion. His villainy is borne out of revenge. He has had his business undermined, been "spet" upon, slandered, and generally treated like a dog because he is Jewish and he lends money with interest. The Christians of the day would, of course, seek revenge if they had been treated likewise. So does Shylock.
Here's the lesson: Revenge solves nothing. It's kinda like the old lessons that violence begets violence, hate begets hate, or even Shakespeare's own sin will pluck on sin. All of Shakespeare's characters have some human weakness, and Shylock's is his lust for revenge, though the play clearly shows in Act 3, scene 1, that revenge is not a Jewish flaw, but a human flaw. The only difference between Christians and Jews in this play is that the Christians get away with revenge and the Jew doesn't.
This is one of the finer Harper/Caedmon plays. They are usually WAY overacted, but not so much in this play.
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