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Men Playing Women Playing Men 
Although they took part in plays on the Continent, and participated in the Comedia Dell Arte, women did not act on the English stage in Shakespeare's day. The parts of women, and sometimes of old men, were acted by child actors - boys whose voices had not yet changed. 

Children could be apprenticed to a mature actor, who would teach them the art of performance. Several sharers in the Lord Chamberlain's Men started out as child actors. Several of Shakespeare's plays, particularly the comedies, capitalize on the effect of boys acting women - who then take on disguise as boys. It is clear that the boys were fine actors, since Shakespeare wrote some major parts for the women in his plays. So popular were the young actors that whole acting companies were created with child performers - the Children of the Chapel. 

The concept of equality between the sexes would have seemed very foreign to most in Shakespeare's day: Adam was created first, and Eve from his body; she was 14 created specifically to give him comfort, and was to be subordinate to him, to obey him and to accept her lesser status. A dominant woman was unnatural, a symptom of disorder. 

The medieval church had inculcated a view of women that was split between the ideal of the Virgin Mary, and her fallible counterpart, Eve. Unfortunately, the Virgin Mary was one of a kind, so there was often a general distrust of women; Renaissance and Medieval literature is often misogynistic. 
Adam and Eve (Detail). Saenredam Art Gallery of Greater Victoria Royal, and the Paul's Boys. The children's companies played regularly at Court, and used the indoor theatres at St. Paul's and the Blackfriars 

The boys were chosen for their voices, and could be "pressed"-- forced into service, as soldiers were in time of war. They were educated in grammar and rhetoric as well as in singing and acting. The puritans, who disapproved of the theatre in general, were particularly scandalized by boys cross-dressing as women. 

Will Wollen




Interview with Michael Pavelka - Designer

What does a theatre designer do? 
A theatre designer works closely with the director, actors and other members of a production team to provide scenery and costumes for a performance. Everything you see on the stage – and I mean absolutely everything - has been ‘designed’. All the parts of the design should support the ideas behind the production and often the designer’s view will shape the show’s concept as well as its style and ‘look’. 

How does the process work?
Designers usually make drawings and accurate models to share their ideas with everyone else; particularly when working with an ensemble company like Propeller. This time I used computer programmes to model the set instead of building a scale model from card and glue. These will then be used in different ways to realise the actual set, costumes and props. Sometimes the designer will also draw pictures of how the different scenes will look; this is called storyboarding, and helps everyone to see how the designed production will move in time and space as the story is acted out. 

The designer will try to oversee as much of the building of the production as possible, attending rehearsals, costume fittings and visiting the workshop where the set is constructed and painted. When all the parts of the show come together in the days leading up to the first performance (or opening night), the designer is on hand to make sure the ideas are completed on stage and make any last minute changes. It is most important that a designer uses eyes and mind as well as hands! 

You’ve designed a number of Propeller productions now. Have you established a different process for working with this company? 
It’s an ensemble which means that the performers have to have great confidence in how they will physically use the set and costumes. They have to be completely familiar with all the design’s possibilities before the first public performances, which means that the designed pieces should be used as early as possible in rehearsal. 

What has changed over the years is that I now tend to design a sort of ‘tool kit’ of ideas that the director and actors can experiment with and refine. This is very exciting as they will use the elements in ways that I had not originally thought about – many heads being far more inventive than just one. I might start out with a storyboard idea or two, but they are usually for key moments rather than solutions for every scene. 

It is great knowing many of the actors well but also absorbing the methods and ideas of ‘new boys’. I have the rare opportunity design clothes that fit a body and movement that are familiar to me and discuss an actor’s interpretation of a part in an easy-going spirit as we have faith in each other’s skills. 
In this respect the production design becomes increasingly owned and occupied by the whole ensemble, creative team and production staff. Our aim is ‘total’, integrated and exciting theatre. 



Shakespeare makes use of two distinct settings for The Merchant of Venice. Venice, as in Shakespeare's time, is the city of commerce where wealth flows in and out with each visiting ship. Venice is also a cosmopolitan city at the frontier of Christendom, beyond which lies Asia, Africa, and the Ottoman Empire. Society in Venice is a predominantly male world, where the single female, Jessica, is locked up in her house, and can only escape in disguise as a male. 

Belmont, on the other hand, is the home of Portia and her mysterious caskets. It is a place of romance and festivity to which the victorious Christians retire at the end of the play. Like the forests in As You Like It and A Midsummer Night's Dream, Belmont is an idealized "green world" that is removed from the ruthlessness of the real world. Unlike Venice, it is controlled by women (though Portia's dead father lingers). 

Will Wollen


"The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare’s most stimulating and controversial dramas which we have set in a prison called Venice - an environment which brings out the more radical tendencies in human nature, an environment that is fertile ground for the ferocious intolerance that Shakespeare examines." Edward Hall



Sources & Inspiration for the Story 

Written sometime between 1596 and 1598, The Merchant of Venice is classified as both an early Shakespearean comedy (more specifically, as a "Christian comedy") and as one of the Bard's problem plays; it is a work in which good triumphs over evil, but serious themes are examined and some issues remain unresolved. 

Shakespeare wove together two ancient folk tales, one involving a vengeful, greedy creditor trying to exact a pound of flesh, the other involving a marriage suitor's choice among three chests and thereby winning his (or her) mate. Shakespeare's treatment of the first standard plot scheme centers around the villain of Merchant, the Jewish moneylender Shylock, who seeks a literal pound of flesh from his Christian opposite, the generous, faithful Antonio. Shakespeare's version of the chest-choosing device revolves around the play's Christian heroine Portia, who steers her lover Bassanio toward the correct humble casket and then successfully defends his bosom friend Antonio from Shylock's horrid legal suit. 

In the modern, post-Holocaust readings of Merchant, the problem of anti-Semitism in the play has loomed large. A close reading of the text must acknowledge that Shylock is a stereotypical caricature of a cruel, money-obsessed medieval Jew, but it also suggests that Shakespeare's intentions were not primarily anti-Semitic. Indeed, the dominant thematic complex in The Merchant of Venice is much more universal than specific religious or racial hatred; it spins around the polarity between the surface attractiveness of gold and the Christian qualities of mercy and compassion that lie beneath the flesh. 

Will Wollen


Here is a selection of songs from Pocket Merchant.

"Music in Propeller shows is written by the company. Basically, we jam. We come up with some rough ideas, then Ed listens and says, 'That’s too American. That’s not up-beat enough. But what was the thing you did with that guitar, I liked that'. At our first music call at the end of week 1, we brainstormed and came up with some simple Jewish klezmer sounds, some traditional Christian hymns, lots of angry prison percussion, and some heavenly gospel harmony. Ed likes the percussion, he likes the hymns. I just hope he likes the gospel too."

Jon Trenchard, who played Jessica during the main tour of The Merchant of Venice.

More information coming soon.


Production Timeline

The Merchant of Venice was performed 47 times at Stratford-upon-Avon between 1880 and 1978; in London, 35 times between 1890 and 1914. The play was performed 48 times between 1768 and 1989 on Broadway; and the Internet Movie Database records 17 22 film and television versions between 1908 and 2009.


Henry Irving took on Shylock in 1879, taking Disraeli's tenure as an occasion to play it more sympathetically. Shylock, Irving said, was "the type of a persecuted race; almost the only gentleman in the play, and the most ill-used." Henry James wrote Irving "looks the part to a charm, or rather we should say, to a repulsion"; but the Spectator praised him as "the very image of exhaustion, a victim, entirely convinced of the justice of his cause, he looked like a Spanish painter's Ecce Homo."

Of Edmund Kean’s performance of Shylock at Drury Lane in 1814, William Hazlitt writes…MR. KEAN (of whom report had spoken highly) last night made his appearance at Drury-Lane Theatre in the character of Shylock. … Perhaps it was the most perfect of any. Notwithstanding the complete success of Mr. Kean in the part of Shylock, we question whether he will not become a greater favourite in other parts. There was a lightness and vigour in his tread, a buoyancy and elasticity of spirit, a fire and animation, which would accord better with almost any other character than with the morose, sullen, inward, inveterate, inflexible malignity of Shylock.

Antony Sher played Shylock in a production of Merchant directed by Bill Alexander in 1987. Alexander turned up 'the anti-Semitic volume as loudly as possible' (Christopher Edwards, Spectator, 09/05/87). Sher exaggerated the racial traits of Shylock with 'a heavy accent, a shuffling gait, a beard, long hair and exotic clothes' (Spectator, 09/05/87). This Merchant, with Christians and Jews trading in spit and venom, and a star of David daubed onto the back wall of the set, was a bold attempt to free the play from charges of anti-Semitism. In this production, Shylock is an ugly character who is only responding to the much worse behaviour of his tormentors.

Gregory Doran directed The Merchant of Venice in 1997 and set the play in sixteenth century Venice. Philip Voss played Shylock in a Venetian society 'where Jews and Christians deal with each other without making to hide their mutual disgust, while still admitting that they are collaborators in the business of getting and spending' (James Treadwell, Spectator, 20/12/97). Voss's Shylock was hailed by some as a rediscovery of the essences of Shakespeare character after the inevitable, albeit understandable, politicisation of Shylock in more recent times. Alistair Macaulay described these 'essences' brought out by Voss: 'He is so naked in his religiosity, in his hatreds, in his money dealings, in his grief, in his vengeance, that, just as we are about to identify with him, we recoil from him. . . He is awesome and embarrassing' (Financial Times, 15/12/97).

Loveday Ingram's 2001 RSC production of The Merchant of Venice cast Ian Bartholomew as Shylock. Set in late Victorian times, this Merchant began its run on the Pit stage at the Barbican, went onto the Swan Theatre in Stratford, and then onto an international tour. This production was described by several commentators as a return to a more romantic interpretation of the play where Shylock's character was less angry and less prominent.

Al Pacino takes on the role of Shylock in Michael Radford’s film in 2004. “Anti-Semitism in Shakespeare’s time was a different sort of anti-Semitism than what the Russians and the Germans put everybody through in the 20th century. I don’t know where Shakespeare’s sympathies lie, and I don’t care, because I’m making this film in the 20th century.”  Says Michael Radford, director of the hard, clean, uncluttered “Merchant of Venice” stunningly shot in Venice.

Will Wollen