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7 - Playing (in) the Streets: Games and Adaptation in The Merchant of Venice

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 October 2021

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Summary

Abstract

This essay examines key moments in the history of the “jailor scene” (act 3, sc. 3) in William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice to make the case for games and especially dicing as an epistemological lens for the operations of adaptation. Drawing on Gilles Deleuze's account of the double movement of dicing, it argues that games offer not simply a metaphor for rules and free play but also a flexible model for different networks of control and resistance. These networks are on display in the dramatic fiction of Shakespeare's Merchant and in the play's theatrical legacy including medieval Passion plays, Restoration and Victorian productions, and modern and postmodern adaptations.

Keywords: The Merchant of Venice; dicing; adaptation; passion plays; Marowitz, Charles; Variations on the Merchant of Venice

I

In 2011 the curtain rose on Rupert Goold's Las Vegas–themed The Merchant of Venice to reveal gamblers throwing dice at a craps table. Forty years earlier Terry Hands's production “began with the fantastical spectacle of toy galleons being moved about the patterned stage floor according to the fall of the dice thrown by Antonio and his companions in what looked like a giant game of snakes and ladders.” These moments of performance materialized the motif of high-stakes gaming in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. When Antonio and Bassanio hazard all they have on maritime ventures and the casket test, the drama taps into early modern fascinations with financial risk and its prospect of upward social mobility. The repeated references to “hazard” evoke widespread associations between hazard and dicing as well as a specific synonymy: “the game at dice called hazard” was the most popular dice game in England from the Middle Ages through at least the nineteenth century. Games of dice not only evoke the drama's thematic investments; as Hands's and Goold's productions suggest, they also characterize its theatrical history. This essay examines key moments in this history to make the case for games and especially dicing as an epistemological lens for the operations of adaptation.

A crucial point of contestation in recent theories of Shakespeare and adaptation concerns regulation and license. Scholars present disparate understandings of the extent to which political, legal, economic, social, and cultural forces do or do not control adaptation.

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Publisher: Amsterdam University Press
Print publication year: 2021

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