In her third blog post Michelle discusses the final week of rehearsals and reflects on different aspects of Portia: what historical research can reveal about her, how she behaves as a man, and her attitude to Shylock.
Transcript of Podcast
The Last Week of Rehearsals
We’ve been trying to iron out things that aren’t working, add detail, and establish relationships more firmly. I’m finding the court scene difficult and the ‘Quality of mercy’ speech really difficult, because I’m not entirely convinced of what part of her it comes from. So we’ve been working on that.
Portia as a Lawyer
I think Portia takes a great risk going into the court. She knows what she wants to do legally, but she has to go in blind, pretending she doesn’t know what she wants to do. She’s not a lawyer, or a man, so in some ways this motivation appears to be foolish. If I play it that she is a legal genius the scene will not be as exciting as it can be and it’s highly improbable that she is one anyway. So it seems that she goes for the drama of the moment. I’ve been trying to work out a real through line to explain this – but there isn’t one! You have to take a few leaps of faith.
Researching Historical Context
An actor in our company has been reading this book about Catholicism in Shakespeare. It says, apparently, it was illegal to talk about who would be Elizabeth I’s potential husband. And it may be that Shakespeare explores this in The Merchant of Venice. So if Portia represents Elizabeth I, you have to show a woman who could talk about mercy; who could cope in man’s world; who could pass for a man; whose attractiveness was modelled to be out of people’s reach. The public didn’t want her to marry certain people, i.e. the suitors who come and who get ushered away, but then, of course, you realise that her many different roles don’t create a clear through line. A queen would have lots of attributes, the idea of her being merciful is just one facet.
In this respect Portia is a metaphor – she’s not real. I am trying to find what is real because at the moment she’s like a different character in each scene – as a queen would be. As an actor I have to find some sort of through-line and consistency for the audience to believe me.
Sometimes I find lots of research can be counter productive. I know I could write an essay about Portia and the court room scene, but all this information is not helping me to play it.
Portia and Shylock
I don’t think Portia feels anything towards Shylock. She is indifferent to him. It’s got nothing to do with the fact that he is Jewish. He is someone that she’s trying to convince to show mercy – he could be anyone – he fails to do that and she’s a stickler for contracts and she’s a stickler for following promises out to their very end, even if they are uncomfortable. She believes that if you follow the truth right to the end, good will out. She doesn’t hate him – she’s horrible to him but I don’t think it’s because he is Jewish it’s because he refuses to show mercy rather than anything more sinister.
Portia wouldn’t necessarily talk to Shylock in the street. I think she would be aware that he’s different from her. She would be unsure about his religious beliefs. But, I think his religion is completely irrelevant to her in the court room scene.
Portia goes to the court to get her husband back. She is scared about this man [Antonio] who has so much power over her new young husband. I guess on one level she wants to see what her husband’s life is like without her – what is he up to? He’s already lied to her about having money when in fact he borrowed it. He keeps making promises that he can’t keep. There is an element of her wanting to see him in his natural habitat. Also does she really want to help this friend? This is what I’m struggling with. The director thinks she’s got this arrogance which comes with money. Portia thinks she can buy anything and so she can convince people to do anything. She is like a Paris Hilton heiress.
We went on the stage to do some voice work and it’s so different. I’ve got quite a light voice so it’s really scary. I’m going to keep working on my lower register. I’m also concerned about how to maintain voice over the duration of the run.
These comments are the actor's thoughts or ideas about the part as s/he goes through the rehearsal process – they are simply his/her own interpretations and frequently change as the rehearsal process progresses.