If any theatrical character continues to haunt and fascinate us centuries after his debut upon the stage, it is Shylock, the frightening, agonized Jewish moneylender who demands to be repaid only with a pound of flesh. While Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” has always ranked among the most popular of the Bard’s plays in this country, Shylocks are popping up all over the city these days.
Three years ago, F. Murray Abraham starred Off Broadway at Theatre for a New Audience in both “Merchant” and Christopher Marlowe’s “Jew of Malta.” Last fall the York Theater Company produced “Merchant,” in tandem with Marlowe’s play, at the Manhattan JCC. And Edward Hall’s Propeller Theatre of Great Britain recently brought a bold, all-male production of “Merchant,” set in a prison, to the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
This month, two more productions of the play hit the boards: one at Shakespeare in the Park, directed by Daniel Sullivan and starring Al Pacino as Shylock (reprising his role in the 2004 film directed by Michael Radford) in repertory with “The Winter’s Tale,” and one by the Queens Shakespeare Company at the Bowne Community Church in Flushing.
Why does this murderous Jew remain so immensely popular? How does this play, and the larger-than-life Jewish character at its center, speak to us today, in post-Madoff New York?
The last time that “Merchant” was presented in Central Park, a firestorm of controversy broke out. Joseph Papp had selected “Merchant” in 1962 as the inaugural production at the Delacorte Theater, starring the non-Jewish actor George C. Scott as Shylock. When CBS announced that it would present a live telecast of the production, the New York Board of Rabbis demanded that the program be canceled, calling the play “a distortion and defamity of our people and our faith.”
Papp’s vigorous defense of the play marked the first time that he publicly identified himself as a Jew. The brouhaha ended up being good for publicity; the program was seen by an estimated two million viewers, which is conceivably the largest American audience ever to view a Shakespeare play at one time.
Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public, insists that the play is “not anti-Semitic. It’s a play about anti-Semitism in a place in which anti-Semitism is part of the air that people breathe. Seeing that darkness enriches but in no way invalidates the play.”
More than a play about Jewishness, Eustis said, it is a play about the stock market. The pound of flesh is a “commodity to be traded. The play taps into a deep anxiety about capitalism and the privileges that come from oppression.” Eustis compared Shylock’s situation to that of present-day American Indians who own casinos.
According to Eustis, Pacino is one of the few American actors who are “not afraid of being ugly. He doesn’t feel the need to make the character be nice in order of us to be sympathetic to him. Sometimes he’s scary, sometimes heartbreaking and sometimes he behaves reprehensively.”
Eustis emphasized Shylock’s status as the quintessential outsider; when he demands his pound of flesh, he brings the whole system of Venetian law into question, making the entire society ground to a halt. “He stops the country cold in its tracks; he’s one guy against the entire system, like in his film, ‘Dog Day Afternoon.’”
Nanette Asher, who is staging the play for the Queens Shakespeare company, is especially drawn to this crusading aspect of Shylock (played, in her production, by Jonathan Emerson), whom she calls “heroic.” Asher claims that the Christians “behave monstrously and try to turn him into a monster.” His complexity as a character may put him, Asher suggests, in the same league as Hamlet, and she sees “a little bit of Shylock” in both Malvolio in “Twelfth Night” and Jacques in “As You Like It” — very different characters who both cling to a sense of superiority and end up apart from the human community.
Shylock, in Asher’s eyes, is a “human being who is persecuted because he is a Jew, just as many people are persecuted because of their religious beliefs.” While she did not know about the Public Theater production when she chose the play for this summer, she speculated that “some kind of vapor gets into the mind of directors and they end up doing the same play at the same time.”
Two books published in the ‘90s have become required reading for directors of the play. The first is John Gross’ “Shylock: A Legend and Its Legacy” (Simon and Schuster), which traces the evolution of the character from a comedian in a red wig (traditionally worn by Judas in the medieval Miracle plays) in the 17th century to a bloodthirsty villain in the 18th century to a more balanced mix of victimizer and victim in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The second is James Shapiro’s “Shakespeare and the Jews,” (Columbia University Press), which argues that “Merchant” is about the construction of British identity in the face of potent challenges by a number of disenfranchised groups in English society, including the Puritans. “Much of the play’s vitality can be attributed to the ways in which it scrapes against a bedrock of beliefs about the racial, national, sexual and religious difference of others,” Shapiro writes.
Taking “Merchant” outside a strictly Jewish context reminds us that there are many despised figures in the play, including the Spanish and Moroccan princes who seek Portia’s hand. As Alisa Solomon, a former theater critic for The Village Voice who teaches at Columbia asks, “Why be so preoccupied with Shylock? Shylock is not the center of the play; the center keeps moving.” Nevertheless, she notes, “Anti-Semitism is always there if you want to scratch the surface.”
The late David Nathan, a British critic, actually called for a ban on productions of the play, which he saw as atrocious in the wake of the Holocaust. He changed his mind after seeing Trevor Nunn’s production at the National Theatre in London, which was set in the interwar period and starred Henry Goodman as a warm-hearted, Yiddish-speaking Shylock who resignedly tossed his yarmulke onto Portia’s scales when he was defeated at the end of the trial scene.
In a recent New York Times book review of Anthony Julius’ “Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England,” the literary critic Harold Bloom questions the idea, put forth by Julius, that “The Merchant of Venice” is both an anti-Semitic play and a play about anti-Semitism. Bloom sees it exclusively as the former, insisting that the “humanizing of Shylock only increases his monstrosity” and adding that it pains him “to contemplate the real harm Shakespeare has done to the Jews for some four centuries now.”
Nevertheless, the idea that Shylock should be presented in a sympathetic way is almost axiomatic by now. On the Yiddish stage in America, as theater historian Joel Berkowitz has written, numerous Shylocks, from Jacob Adler to Rudolph Schildkraut, presented the character as more sinned against than sinning. And Laurence Olivier — who famously called the play “horrid, cruel and one of the most popular plays in the whole collected volume of Shakespeare” — screamed so loudly after his final exit from the stage that it seemed as if his heart had been crushed.
Could the character be performed in present-day New York, where the theater audience is so heavily Jewish, in anything but a highly sympathetic way? Richard Clothier, who played Shylock in the blood-soaked British import at BAM last year, certainly bucked the trend; he gouged out a Christian’s eye as he delivered the customarily pleading and heartrending “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech.
But Pacino, who reportedly begged to play Shylock for the Public, where he can play the entire role rather than the truncated version in the Radford film, seems to be embarked on a different path, one that is much more in tune with the sensibilities of his audience. Last month, Pacino took a trip to Borough Park, where he shuckled along with worshippers in a chasidic synagogue and dined in a kosher restaurant. As Eustis concluded, “There’s no possibility of seeing the Jew as Other in terms of the audience in New York; Jews are at the heart of the audience, and that completely affects the event of the theater.”
The Public Theater’s production of “The Merchant of Venice” will be performed in Central Park beginning Saturday, June 12. For ticket information, visit www.shakespeareinthepark.org. The Queens Shakespeare Company’s production runs through June 12 at the Bowne Street Community Church, 143-11 Roosevelt Ave. in Flushing. It will also be performed later in the month at the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center on the Lower East Side. For information, call (212) 868-4444 or visit www.smarttix.com.
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