The Return Of Shylock

Ideas Two New Interpretations Of Shakespeare’s Infamous Villain Come Center Stage This Season

By Gabriel Sanders

Published November 19, 2004, issue of November 19, 2004.
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In November 2003, when billionaire George Soros was first establishing himself as a force in the presidential campaign, a writer for the Web site GOPUSA spelled out his feelings about the financier with great conciseness when he referred to him as a “Hungarian-born descendant of Shylock.”

Shakespeare’s most famous villain may be more than 400 years old, but he is with us as much as ever before.

Hot on the heels of an election campaign in which “The Passion of the Christ” managed to assume enormous symbolic significance, Sony Pictures Classics is set to release the first-ever big-screen version of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” — a work that easily rivals Mel Gibson’s “Passion” in its ability to inspire controversy — with megastar Al Pacino in the role of Shylock. At the same time, British actor Gareth Armstrong, long familiar with the role, is set to begin the first New York run of his one-man interpretation of the Shylock story. As the two new Shylocks enter into the public discussion, scholars and media critics alike — many of whom participated in the debate over the Gibson movie — are lining up to weigh in on the question of just what a Shylock revival has to say about the relationship between Jews and Christians today, and about the American mood generally.

“The Merchant of Venice” never has lent itself to easy categorization. Although originally billed as a “comicall history,” which, by the standards of the day, would have made it a play with a happy ending, by 1709, when the first critical edition was published, its editor, Nicholas Rowe, had arrived at a different classification. “Though we have seen the play received and acted as a comedy,” he wrote, “I cannot but think it was designed tragically by the author.”

Rowe’s vision was ultimately expanded upon so that by the 19th century, the role of Shylock no longer was that of buffoon or villain (as it likely was in the play’s earliest versions) and instead a sort of tragic hero, albeit of an unusual kind. This fundamental tension — between Shylock the stock villain and Shylock the noble victim — is what has allowed the character to be interpreted as freely as he has been throughout the years. It is important to remember that in the scheme of things, the Shylock role is a small one: He appears in a mere five of the play’s 20 scenes.

But the role was, no doubt, changed irrevocably by the events of the 20th century. Shakespeare, as John Gross points out in his magisterial “Shylock: A Legend & Its Legacy” (Simon & Schuster, 1993), was embraced completely by the Nazis. Almost all his plays were produced under the Third Reich, and none more frequently than “The Merchant of Venice.” Between 1933 and 1939 there were no fewer than 50 separate productions. In a sense, it is with this legacy that today’s directors continue to grapple.

Director Michael Radford announces his intentions even before a single line of dialogue is uttered. With mournful, Hebraic-sounding music playing, we see a Talmud going up in flames. Fear not, the director implies, this is not going to be an antisemitic “Merchant.”

In fact, according to some, Radford might be looking to tweak one whose work was, in some quarters,deemed antisemitic.

“This is Mel Gibson’s ‘Passion Part II,’” said James

Shapiro, professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University and the author of “Shakespeare and the Jews” (Columbia University Press, 1996). “When you go down Gibson’s road, this is where you end up. You can’t have the demonization of Jews without seeing where it ends up — and it ends in ghettoization and persecution.”

For Shapiro, the new version of the play has become especially relevant in light of this year’s presidential elections.

“The synergy between Catholics and Protestants that was behind the success of the Gibson film was also behind the success of Bush/Cheney’s re-election,” he said.

But not all see the Passion/Merchant connection as Shapiro does.

“It’s easy to maintain that if you demonize people long enough, you are going to lead to ghettoization and persecution,” said William Donohue, president of The Catholic League and a leading defender of Gibson’s film. “The question is did Mel Gibson do that. I don’t think that he did. If this is an answer [to Gibson], it’s kind of an awkward answer…. There was all this talk… that Jews were going to be beaten up. There wasn’t one instance of violence reported anywhere in the world.”

For its part, the Anti-Defamation League, one of the leading critics of Gibson’s film, seems unperturbed by the latest Shylock offering.

“The subject is full of potential pitfalls,” said Ken Jacobson, the ADL’s associate national director, who saw an early version of the film. “But they made every effort to try to contextualize the events. They begin by putting on the screen three different things: how there was antisemitism, how Jews were put in ghettos and how Jews were forced into the profession of money lending. That goes a long way toward alleviating some of the inherent problems of the play. We feel that they did a very fine job.”

The ADL itself has an interesting history with the play. Among the first campaigns ever undertaken by the organization, after it was founded in 1913, was an effort to convince school superintendents to drop “The Merchant” from their curricula. Indeed, as recently as 1981, when PBS was looking to broadcast a BBC version of the play that the ADL found not entirely to its liking, the group tried to keep the play from being aired.

Jacobson, who said he was unaware of this history, said that the ADL is not in the business of censorship.

“And,” he said, “we’ve come a long way in this country.” Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the new productions are philosemitic ones.

Then again, philosemitic productions can pose problems all their own. In the postwar years, there has been the urge among directors to imbue the character with all the dignity that the Nazis stripped away. But the risk, then, is a Shylock as two-dimensionally noble as the Nazi version was villainous. It is on this terrain that we find the second new production this season.

Gareth Armstrong’s is not an ordinary Shylock. For one thing, he doesn’t appear in “The Merchant of Venice.” Instead, his “Shylock,” a two-act one-man show, is part Shakespeare, part history lesson and part morality play.

The play begins much as Radford’s rendition does: with haunting music, in this case a traditional Kol Nidre performed on a single violin. But then the two productions part ways. While Radford then must busy himself with a full-scale drama/comedy, replete with the elaborate courtship of the fair Portia and the requisite Shakespearean games of dress-up and the ensuing confusion of identities, Armstrong, by slicing away everything that doesn’t deal with Shylock directly, manages to maintain throughout the tone set by the song of that mournful violin.

Armstrong, who has had considerable experience as a Shakespearean actor, knows the Shylock role well. He not only has played it, but also studied its history, as well as the history of European antisemitism. Interestingly, however, it is not as Shylock that Armstrong performs onstage, but the bit player Tubal, the only other Jew in the “The Merchant of Venice” — in fact, the only other Jew in all of Shakespeare, barring Shylock’s daughter, Jessica. Telling Shylock’s story from the perspective of his one and only friend gives Armstrong an opportunity to humanize the role in a way no interpreter has before. In John Gross’s book, “good” Shylocks are said to be “dignified.” Armstrong’s Shylock portrayal is positively reverential.

At times, it is as though the play is meant as nothing short of a tribute to the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust. Indeed, in Armstrong’s telling, there seems to be a fairly tidy line of progression from the Jewish expulsion from England in 1290, through Shylock, to Auschwitz.

The Radford movie’s closing moment is a poignant one. We see Pacino’s Shylock, newly converted to Christianity, standing outside the synagogue doors with his head uncovered, broken and alone.

But Armstrong does him one better. He exits the stage through a corridor of yellow light — the yellow of the Jew’s star. One can’t help but think he’s headed to the gas chamber.

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