Towering Mercy: A Qualities of Mercy Dispatch
by Kathryn Vomero Santos
On Wednesday, March 20, 2019, my Trinity University students and I paused our discussions of The Merchant of Venice to attend a vigil honoring the victims of the shootings at the Al Noor and Linwood mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. As we gathered around the Murchison Tower — the university chapel’s campanile that rings on the quarter hour and features prominently in our university logo — we grieved with our Muslim peers, colleagues, and friends. We listened as they read the names of the dozens of people who were killed or injured while they prayed, and we heard their calls for accountability and resistance in the face of Islamophobic violence and the rise of Christian white supremacy worldwide.
The words spoken that day by my colleague and religious studies scholar Dr. Sajida Jalalzai resonated in many ways with our initial conversations about Shakespeare’s play and its contemporary echoes. Reflecting on the work of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Dr. Jalalzai noted that “[w]hat we say, the articulation of thoughts that we put into words and bring into the world matters. They can be used for good, and, as we have seen all too many times in our world, they can be used for evil.” As we returned to the classroom in the following weeks to think about how to engage with a play that traffics in the rhetoric of religious and racial intolerance, our approach to the difficult task of adapting Shakespeare’s fraught text for The Qualities of Mercy Project was undoubtedly shaped by this moment of profound grief.
The iconic Murchison Tower that served as the site of the vigil would become a visual and sonic bookend for our video contribution, which took up the charge to situate the play within our particular location in San Antonio, TX, by focusing quite locally on our campus in the midst of Trinity’s highly visible 150th anniversary celebrations. Our discussions about where to film and how to link our set of three scenes (Act 3, Scenes 3–5) doubled as an occasion to reactivate and reflect on campus spaces. We situated these reflections within larger ongoing conversations about the complicated history of a formerly Presbyterian small liberal arts university whose founding in Reconstruction-era Texas depended in large part on wealth acquired through practices of chattel slavery. Reading and performing The Merchant of Venice in the university’s fourth and current home atop a hill overlooking San Antonio, a city with a deep history of colonialism and racial segregation, allowed my white and BIPOC students to begin talking to each other about the fact that our campus was built with a predominantly white Christian student body in mind. Laying our scenes within the very site of our learning demanded that we all think about how spaces of education are constructed, for whom they are built, and whom they continue to exclude.
One of the most difficult practical aspects of the project for us was the fact that we were working on a set of three consecutive scenes featuring several groups of characters rather than just a single scene from the play. The action and conversations we set out to perform on our campus included Antonio’s growing concern about his debt to Shylock, the development of Portia and Nerissa’s cross-dressing plans, and the troubling banter among Launcelot, Jessica, and Lorenzo about issues of interracial and interfaith sexuality. Not only did the scenes themselves seem to resist our attempts to create coherence, but each of the three groups of students also took a different approach to the assignment. As we workshopped the individual proposals and provided feedback on unedited footage, we came to understand as a class that our campus-turned-set could be one way to embrace this multifaceted approach — an approach that allowed for different ways of thinking about collectivity and community without necessitating uniformity.
The group working on 3.3 did the most to modify Shakespeare’s text. While Shakespeare’s Antonio is palpably nervous about his fate at this point in the play, my students wondered how genuine or believable that concern would be on our campus when this white, able-bodied, Christian man embodies so many forms of privilege. Would it perhaps be more appropriate to create a version of Antonio who is sure that things will work out for people like him? Is the justice system — in Venice, on our campus, in our city, state, and nation — designed to favor the Antonios among us?
Running across campus to confront Antonio and Solanio seated comfortably in a pair of white Adirondack lawn chairs (another iconic symbol on our campus), Shylock breathlessly delivers his demands to “have [his] bond” exactly as they appear in our edition of Shakespeare’s text, only to be met with dismissive commands to calm down. Their decision to retain Shakespeare’s language for Shylock while writing an entirely different modern dialogue for Antonio and Solanio highlighted the stark contrast between the characters’ respective relationships to the law. The group concluded that although Solanio acts as a bystander to Antonio’s behavior in their version of the scene, having a Black woman play the role of interlocutor and sidekick for a white woman in the role of a self-assured Antonio further highlighted the inequities both in the play and on our campus. By altering the scene in these ways, the students showed how 3.3 already anticipates the play’s decidedly unmerciful ending.
The privilege that Antonio embodies and embraces in our version of 3.3 features prominently in the establishing shots of 3.4: the camera pans over beautiful campus buildings and portraits of wealthy white donors in order to bring the viewer into Portia’s domestic space as she hatches her plan to make the law bend to the interests of her fellow white Christians at Shylock’s expense. The fact that the students chose to perform the scene itself in the lobby of our theater building reflected their discussions about the play’s metatheatricality and its potential for powerful social commentary on the performative acts of identity making that occur beyond the stage in everyday life. How do purpose-built spaces of theater, in other words, encourage us to ask questions about the complex embodied practices through which identity is expressed, constructed, and perceived?
As Portia and Nerissa exit in pursuit of the plan that will ultimately bring the play to its troubling conclusion, the video fades into the Parker Chapel, where we immediately hear Launcelot’s skepticism about Jessica’s recent conversion to Christianity. With their copies of Shakespeare’s play nested inside a set of Christian hymnals — a clever but poignant solution to the challenge of memorizing lines — the students working on 3.5 noted how the experience of delivering and listening to the scene’s antisemitic and anti-Black “jokes” inside this space of Christian worship and community made them confront their own complicity, even as they set out to critique the hatred that drives the supposed humor of this scene. The Murchison Tower bells with which our video opened ring once again as Jessica and Lorenzo go in for dinner and the credits roll.
In the process of locating our collective contribution to The Qualities of Mercy Project within Trinity University, my students and I reflected frequently on the many ways in which Shakespeare’s play shined a bright light on the white Christian roots and spaces of our now-secular institution. As a class, we came to terms with the fact that the harm that we bear witness to in the The Merchant of Venice is not something that we can dismiss as firmly in the past when people in our local and global communities are experiencing increased discrimination and violence based on how they worship, the color of their skin, and the language they speak. As productive and necessary as our inward-facing examination was, it also served as an urgent reminder that our campus on a hill is largely isolated from the rest of San Antonio, a city through which hundreds of migrants in desperate need of our mercy are passing every day.
Kathryn Vomero Santos is Assistant Professor of English and Interim Co-Director of the Humanities Collective at Trinity University. Her cross-historical research examines the role of translation in the formation of linguistic, racial, national, religious, and gendered identities in the early modern period and in contemporary adaptations and appropriations of Shakespeare’s works. Her scholarly essays have been published or are forthcoming in Shakespeare Quarterly, Shakespeare Studies, Philological Quarterly, and several edited collections. She has also written about the cultural function of Shakespeare in popular media such as WTF with Marc Maron and Netflix’s The Crown. With Liza Blake, she co-edited Arthur Golding’s A Moral Fabletalk and Other Renaissance Fable Translations for the MHRA Tudor & Stuart Translations Series (2017). She is currently writing a book about interpreters and practices of live translation in early modernity and is co-editing a collection of essays entitled Shakespeare at the Intersection of Performance and Appropriation with Louise Geddes and Geoffrey Way. You can find her on Twitter @KathrynVSantos.