Shakespeare’s, A Merchant of Venice at England’s Agecroft Hall in Virginia

Agecroft Hall, one of the world’s oldest examples of original Tudor architecture, was once part of a larger estate that was established in Lancashire, England in about 1292. This was around three-hundred years before Shakespeare wrote and produced several of the best plays in the English language. Americans have settled on the idea that anything that was built before the American Colonial times, in the 1700’s, is ancient. However, the Agecroft manor house was built on the estate grounds in the fifteenth century and it was securely standing in England by 1597 when Shakespeare first wrote and performed his play, The Merchant of Venice. Perhaps the, then, residents of Agecroft made a short carriage ride to London to enjoy the Bard of Avon’s brilliant tragi-comedy. Perhaps Shakespeare also visited Agecroft on a vacation or business trip? Although Shakespeare’s plays have become more and more popular in the last four hundred years, the Agecroft house became run-down and uninhabited by the late nineteenth century. It was subsequently bought at an auction for $19,000 in 1925  by Virginian, Thomas C. Williams, who had it disassembled, crated and shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to Richmond at the cost of about $250,000. The Law School at the University of Richmond, which is just a few miles west of Agecroft, is now named after Williams. There is no doubt that Williams made a good investment on the property. Although he died after only inhabiting his new property for a year, his wife lived there with her second husband for about forty years. Since 1975, Agecroft Hall has been operated as a museum, as well as a site for Shakespeare plays and other reenactments for literary and historical events from English and early American History. Nearly approaching the one-hundredth year anniversary of its re-resettlement to Virginia, the estate sits now sits on twenty-one acres of valuable and beautiful real estate. See several excellent photographs and a more detailed description of Agecroft at the http://abritandasoutherner.com/agecroft-hall-lancashire-richmond/ website.

On a given day, a visitor might find Charles Dickens roaming the spacious twenty-one-acre ground, or Civil War re-enactors blasting the same people to death over and over. On the last night of July 2016, my wife and I drove our automobile to see the last Shakespeare production this year at Agecroft. We arrived about an hour before the performance to visit the flower and herb gardens, walk the spacious grounds and view the river. Also during our walk, we were entertained by an impromptu troupe of young actors in costume, practicing lines from Hamlet. With our early arrival, we had access to the newly installed, open-seating, stadium seats. The magnificent venue of the stage, which sits in a courtyard of the manor house, allows modern patrons to view dramas in an Elizabethan setting which is very similar to one that Shakespeare’s patrons would have seen them. Due to lightning, thunder, and rain, the second half of the play had to be brought inside to a small auditorium. This decision was understandable considering the weather, but it  was unforgivable considering that the late start and weather delay meant that the play ended about 10:20 p.m. That hour was very late for people who have to go back to the real world on Monday morning!

The current Agecroft version of Shakespeare’s, The Merchant of Venice is produced by the Quill Theatre and directed by Dr. Jan Powell. Although I had read the work,I  had not it performed; consequently, I cannot compare it to any other version. However, I would say that I, along with about 150 patrons thoroughly enjoyed the performance of this highly skilled and experienced Shakespeare troupe. Everyone was on their feet wildly cheering after the final act. The plot, which, typical for Shakespeare, has equal elements of comedy and tragedy and is fairly basic. The male lead, Bassanio, played by Joseph Bromfield, wants to court the wealthy and beautiful lady Portia (played by Addie Barnhart). To be suitable for the marriage, he must, at least, first get out of debt. To raise the money, he asks his best friend, Antonio (played by Iman Shabazz) to secure a bond through the Jewish moneylender, Shylock (played by Matthew Radford Davies).

 

Quill Theatre Production
Shylock, Matthew Radford Davies in Quill Theatre Production, A Merchant of Venice.

Once Bassanio raises the bond, he sets off to court Portia. However, Portia is under the restrictive clause established by her wealthy father’s will: She must marry the suitor who chooses the correct coffin which has a likeness painted of her and a scroll granting permission for the marriage and control of her property and wealth. The three coffins are made of gold, silver, and lead, and each has a symbolic inscription. Before Bassanio has a chance to chose the coffin, two other suitors, who are both very wealthy and powerful, also get a chance to compete for Portia’s hand. The first two suitors are entirely unsuitable. They are most attracted by the wealth and power that they would gain by marrying Portia. Their fool-hearted efforts to court her remind us of lines that modern men might use on internet dating sites. The results are hilarious, as Portia and her assistant roll their eyes and hope that the first two suitors fail and that Bassanio, the one who Portia truly loves, can ascertain the correct coffin. It is ironic that Shakespeare’s use of the coffins symbolizes that the decisions that people make about life and death are so intricately intertwined.

The three caskets (gold, silver, and lead) are major symbols in the play. Each one is inscribed with a symbolic message on the outside and a manuscript inside with a message to the suitor who chooses them. The outside of the gold chest promises, “Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.” The manuscript on the inside contains a skull which contains one of Shakespeare’s most quoted lines: “All that glisters [glitters] is not gold.” On the inside, the manuscript advises the prince who chooses it that, “Gilded tombs do worms enfold.” The inscription on the outside of the silver chest reads, “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.” Though it is ambiguously stated, it means that he is a fool.  The lead chest, which is made of the most modest metal, contains a painting of Portia and an inside scroll stating, “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.” The outside and inside inscriptions of the lead casket are the keys to the drama that unfolds. Although Bassanio ultimately chooses the correct casket and wins the right to marry Portia, his correct choice risks the life of Antonio, whose shipping company is going bankrupt. Subsequently, Antonio is forced to forfeit the bond and he can’t pay Shylock back in time. Under the terms of the deal, Antonio must then repay Shylock with “a pound of flesh.”  The subsequent unraveling of the plot deals with the themes of romance and religious bigotry. Shakespeare allows play attendees and readers of his work to decide whether they believe that justice is more important than mercy and how far that one should go to forgive one who is indebted to another. The play also helps us to connect with the modern hot-topic issues that many of us have about fear and suspicion of immigrants, outsiders, and those who practice unfamiliar religions.

The stripped-down Quill Theatre production of The Merchant relied on excellent authentic costumes and props brought in by actors who were not participating in the upcoming scenes. There were no set designs. There were recorded musical interludes of time-period Baroque pieces before the show and during some of the scenes. A live guitar player and several sweet sounding female singers provided beautiful background music for the love scenes between two of the principal courting couples of the play. The actor who played Bassanio conveyed his lines with minimal expression. Portia was believable and inspiring in her performance and Antonio played his part very convincingly. However, Davies, the Mary Baldwin College Professor who played Shylock, totally stole the show with his powerful interpretation of a man who was bent on extracting revenge at all costs. After his rendition of Shylock, it is hard to decide if he was the villain or the necessary martyr of the play. We left the play with a lot to think about. Mostly, at the late hour of the night, we needed to go to sleep as soon as possible. Today, I also thought that I wanted to re-read the Merchant of Venice, to re-take the extended tour of Agecroft Hall, and to attend the 2017 Quill Theatre productions of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost and Macbeth. These are surely the highest level of literary performances on this side of the James River, at least the one in Virginia!

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Murray Ellison received a Master’s in Education at Temple University (1973), a Master’s of Arts in English Literature at VCU (2015), and a Doctorate in Education at Virginia Tech in 1987. He is married and has three adult employed daughters. He retired as the Virginia Director of Community Corrections for the Department of Correctional Education in 2009. Currently, he serves as a literature teacher, board member, and curriculum advisor for the Lifelong Learning Institute in Chesterfield, Virginia, and is the founder and chief editor of www.LitChatte.com. He is an editor for the “Correctional Education Magazine,” and editing a book of poetry written by an Indian mystic. He also serves as a board member, volunteer tour guide, poetry judge, and all-around helper at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond Virginia. You can write Murray by leaving a Comment on this Blog, or by meeting him at the Poe Museum (see below):

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