Despite the general approbation for this summer’s Shakespeare in the Park staging of "The Merchant of Venice," the production was dealt a serious blow this week. Stephen Greenblatt, America’s leading Shakespeare scholar, wrote a scathing review of Al Pacino’s performance in the New York Review of Books.
"The great performances of our time have included Laurence Olivier’s neurotic, buttoned-up Victorian businessman," he writes, "Anthony Sher’s intellectual avenger…Henry Goodman’s unbearably poignant Weimar outsider…and, more recently, Murray Abraham’s tormented, passionate father in a decadent Venice indifferent to his anguish."
But, he adds, "Al Pacino does not belong in this company. His Shylock had no inner life or psychic resources, no baffled search for a source of comfort, no deep pathos, no gleeful intelligence, no sly comedy."
Which is not to say it isn’t worth a view. The Broadway transfer begins previews October 19, and runs through January 9, but there is more to it than Pacino. Namely, there is his character, Shylock, which has confounded audiences and scholars alike for nearly four decades. There is still no consensus on whether we can take Shakespeare to be an anti-semite based of his crude Jewish caricature. But in his review, Greenblatt comes down decisively on the side of "yes, we can."
But Greenblatt elucidates the ways in which Shylock reflects an anti-semitic view, suggesting that Shakespeare’s anti-semitism was something different, if still no less real. He does a convincing job inveighing against serious critics like Anthony Julius, whose recent book "Trials of the Diaspora" calls "The Merchant of Venice" “a blood-libel narrative subject to considerable elaboration.”
In fact, Greenblatt argues, what makes "The Merchant" different is that Shakespeare doesn’t simply regurgitate popular 16th century myths like the blood-libel (which is, that Jews killed Christians and used their blood in matzah). Instead, Shakespeare blamed Christians for goading Jews into their own crudity.
Some will no doubt call this an apologia, that Greenblatt is somehow justifying Shakespeare’s anti-semitism because he recognizes that his own Christian society is in part to blame. But to do so would be to miss what makes Shakespeare so compelling, in all of his plays, be it "The Merchant," "Richard II," "Hamlet," "King Lear," "Othello," and so much else.
In almost all of them, the critique of his own society, matched to splendid verse, lend them their weight. At the height of his celebrity, Shakespeare refused to water down his work for the market; and instead, he put his own society up to a mirror, reflecting truths they must have found ugly.
And indeed, we still do.