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According to two newspapers reporting the launch of the 1998 season at Shakespeare's Globe, the programme will feature that well-known "comedy" The Merchant of Venice. I personally had never thought of this exploration of racism and Shylock's poignant voyage of self-disovery as a comedy, and redefining it as such would certainly be a footnote in Shakespearian scholarship.

Come May, of course, the Evening Standard and Express on Sunday might be proved right. The groundlings at the new Globe are an unpredictable lot and may well hoot with laughter at Portia's transvestite disguise, or hiss Shylock's demands for his pound of flesh. It's a horrible thought, but might there even be football-crowd shouts of "Jew" at the Globe?

After all, the groundlings hissed the actors playing the French in Henry V last year, cheered the Scots (which bewilders me, but means Macbeth could get a good hearing in years to come) and, at one performance, shouted out that Henry's execution of Bardolph was "typical of New Labour".

Artistic director Mark Rylance has certainly not discouraged booing, hissing and verbals from his audience. "To me, it's preferable to the false sense of awe you get in a classical theatre," he says. I'm not so sure. Rylance must be congratulated for achieving 90 per cent attendances for some very difficult plays in very dodgy weather. But, if the price of re-creating the atmosphere of an Elizabethan bear-pit is that Shakespeare's Globe is afraid of staging Hamlet or King Lear, then that is too high a price to pay.

Rylance is of course aware that there are problems with audience participation. Hence his decision not to stage an out-and-out tragedy until the actors have got the "emotional measure" of the space. I take this also to mean that the complexity of one of the great tragedies might be reduced by overt displays of favour or loathing from the spectators. But the problems can be just as great with Shakespeare's non-tragedies, particularly The Merchant of Venice. Shakespeare's public was not part of a multi-racial society with a collective consciousness touched by the holocaust. Besides, 400 years after it was written, the jury still seems to be out on Shakespeare's own judgement on Shylock. Sir Peter Hall and others are adamant that Shakespeare is exposing the racism of Shylock's detractors. But there is also a body of opinion, led by the playwright Arnold Wesker, that the play itself is racist. He is not the only Jewish spectator to feel less than comfortable watching the play.

"It's not a comedy, it's a problem play," agreed a Globe spokeswoman this week, "but we believe in confronting the issues it raises." Rylance has given the strongest of hints as to his view that the play is about the exploration of being an outsider. He has cast a German actor as Shylock. But complexities of this nature are hard to equate with an audience that has tacitly been given the green light to come out with cheers, boos and one-liners. The Merchant this summer may be the uncomfortable catalyst that forces Rylance to take a sterner view of audience participation.

The 1998 Globe season runs from 19 May to 20 September. Booking opens on Monday: 0171-401 9919

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