Head’s up, blog-followers. We’re starting our 2011 season of The Merchant of Venice, Cymbeline, Henry IV part 1, Much Ado About Nothing (in High School Residency) and The Taming of the Shrew. Follow this blog and you’ll receive weekly notices of the blog that delves into the minds of our actors.

And now…The Merchant of Venice…

Joel L. Schindlbeck as Shylock

5 scenes and 350 lines or so. Those numbers don’t match up in my mind, except I’ve seen them before. It was the same with Polonius. I remember initially thinking how easy that would be. I wasn’t completely wrong, but it was more fun/exhausting than easy.

So, Shylock walks on stage and drools out these lecture bombs, and I have to not bore the audience thus. I’m considering that my basic goal for this production. Goal one, check. So now, I need to check to see how his speeches are laying out.

At general glance, Shylock’s speeches are obvious acting tools, organized to fuel the action onstage. If, as Hamlet blathers, it is necessary to suit the action to the word, et vice verse, then when the words are aligned to conduct action, your job is a little easier. Or, at least, the basics of your job are that much easier. Shylock’s speeches follow a very clear pattern of perfect verse and rambling prose. Simply having these clear examples laid out in the sequence, as they are in the script, is enough to force an actor through the necessary physical hoops in order to best communicate the arc of this character. Good job, Shakespeare.

For example, let’s take the first scene (I, iii). Shylock first hems and haws his way around young Bassanio. His speeches are prose and can easily be categorized as either Repetitive or Equivocating/Qualifying. When Antonio enters, his speech not only instantly changes to almost perfect verse, but also takes on the purpose of the narrator, doling out his entire mental process of retribution against Antonio. His motives are clear, but only to the audience. From this point on through the play, whenever Shylock talks to or in the presence of Antonio, it’s in almost perfect verse. In this scene, in particular, we go from Passive Manipulation (Repetitiveness and Equivocation) to Active Manipulation with Shylock’s twisty yet perfectly calculated (meter wise) speeches. Some do, however in the latter part of this scene, end up being Equivocating as well, which is a definitive Shylock trait in my head, but the tool of perfect verse leads me to qualify that equivocation as more planned, groined and ostentatious.

Shylock’s next scene (II, v) takes place inside the confines of his own house, the house he runs like a moderately well-oiled clock. There is…Launcelot to take in consideration. But at the top of this scene, Launcelot has just told Shylock two things; 1: He’s quitting and going to work for Bassanio and 2: Antonio, Bassanio and the boys have invited Shylock to dinner, to celebrate the bond seal.

There are three sections inside of this scene for Shylock. First, we see him chiding Launcelot and trying to gather Jessica for last minutes notes of advice (…channelling Polonius…).

What, Jessica! — thou shalt not gormandize,
As thou hast done with me: — What, Jessica!–
And sleep and snore, and rend apparel out;–
Why, Jessica, I say!

His speech is almost perfect in it’s verse, but there is a LOT of mid-line punctuation, which tells me that the speech is quick, snappy and almost sing-songy or balanced in it’s quick volleys. He is rushed, but in charge.

The second section is when he’s giving Jessica the instructions for the house. Following on a similar vein, Shylock (mid-line rushed punctuation and all) changes his volley from Jessica to his own musings, within verse lines as well.

There are my keys, But wherefore should I go?
I am not bid for love; they flatter me:
But yet I’ll go in hate, to feed upon
The prodigal Christian. Jessica, my girl,

However, upon hearing from Launcelot of the masques planned tonight, Shylock loses it and his verse shows it.

Clamber not you up to the casements then,
Nor thrust your head into the public street
To gaze on Christian fools with varnish’d faces,
But stop my house’s ears, I mean my casements:
Let not the sound of shallow foppery enter
My sober house. By Jacob’s staff, I swear,
I have no mind of feating forth to-night:

Instantly, we can see trochees and feminine endings, the first points of irregular verse, pop out in Shylock’s speech. The idea of a masque (the period version of a caustic, drunken, night-time tail-gater) sends fear into Shylock and he hurriedly switches into Nuclear Bomb Shelter mode with ordering the house. Plus, he doesn’t have lay-about Launcelot to help with the house preparations, he’s panicked.

The final Poloniusian (yeah, I made up that word) moment, even comes with Quippy Adages and Repetitive Instruction, delivered with a rushed irregular verse line. And what you have is a perfectly sculpted scene of Shylock’s weaknesses and strengths.

I’ll have to do this for the whole play. I’ve finished my paraphrasing, and am about half-way done with my scansion (thanks, prose lines…) so we’ll see where I can go with this.