Brush Up Your Shakespeare: Shylock Returns
For centuries, Shakespeare’s usurious Jew has been held in contempt. A recent upsurge in his portrayal has shed a more sympathetic light.
Thumbing through the list of William Shakespeare’s credits, it soon becomes clear that he has been having a splendid afterlife; despite dying in 1616, he is nonetheless credited for the scripts of more than 600 films and his plays are staged more often than those of any other playwright. Furthermore, his characters have become cultural excavation sites into which critics and scholars descend in the hope of unearthing yet another shred of previously ignored meaning. This, for example, is how Hamlet became a prominent figure for modern psychoanalysts who explain away the unhappy prince’s maladies in Freudian terms, or how poor Macbeth became the subject of countless studies by political scientists ruminating on the desire for power.
Even in the midst of this cultural cornucopia, however, one figure was conspicuously absent: Shylock. To be sure, Shakespeare’s most famous Jew (one of only three in his repertoire, the others being Tubal, Shylock’s only friend, and Jessica, Shylock’s daughter) is far from unknown. (Indeed, The Merchant of Venicehas been Shakespeare’s most frequently staged play.) The usurer and his famous soliloquy may be as well recognized as Hamlet. Yet, in the massive body of scholarly work devoted to Shakespeare, Shylock is underrepresented: According to some calculations, there are 49 tomes devoted to Macbeth for each one devoted to Shylock, and the ratio between the Venetian Jew and the Prince of Denmark is 1:248.
In cinema, by far the greatest seismograph of our zeitgeist, the situation is bleaker: Of those film adaptations of Shakespeare’s work, The Merchant had never been made into a movie.
That is, until now. In 2004, Michael Radford, director of art-house hits such as Il Postino, released his film version of the play, William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, with Al Pacino as Shylock. And if such a notable first isn’t enough, the same year also saw a spate of all-things-Shylock, including a book, a play and several symposia all devoted to Shakespeare’s Jew.
Why the sudden interest in Shylock? Why now? The answers vary, but most experts agree that the leading reasons are the global political climate in the wake of the September 11 tragedies, the political climate in the United States under the Bush administration and the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere.
James Shapiro, professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University and a prominent Shakespearean scholar, believes Shylock’s newfound cachet may very well be explained by context rather than text.
“One thought,” he said of the current wave of interest in Shylock, “is that this could be a kind of reaction to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. That film dominated public discussion; it showed what happened when you demonize Jews and show them to be Christ killers. What you have in the current interest in Shylock is the next step; it’s saying, ‘O.K., but what happens next, what happens after you demonize the Jews?’ That’s why the movie begins with a scene showing you the persecution and the demonization of the Jews.”
Therefore, he said, the film allows a rare venue for an intelligent conversation about Jewish-Christian relationships, replacing Gibson’s hateful archaism with an argument for “a philo-Semitic Shakespeare.”
It’s a position that Radford readily embraces. “Our script supervisor,” he reminisced, “wasn’t Jewish, and when Al [Pacino] recited ‘hath not a Jew eyes,’ the hair in the back of his neck stood up. When you listen to that speech, you realize that anyone who could write it wasn’t an anti-Semite.”
Instead, he said, Shakespeare tried to capture the intricacies of hatred and persecution. Conducting exhaustive research in preparation for the film, Radford came to believe that Shakespeare based his play not, as many think, on Christopher Marlowe’s earlier work, The Jew of Malta, an uncomplicatedly hateful text, but on the true story of Roderigo Lopez, a prominent English court physician and converted Jew who was falsely accused and tried in Shakespeare’s lifetime.
Lopez’s trial, he said, inspired Shakespeare to transform the Jew “from a grotesque, comical figure into his first, great tragic hero.”
This, he added, helps solve the Shylock conundrum once and for all, transforming Shylock from an anti-Semitic stereotype to a man in full, struggling at reconciling his own identity with the conditions of a gentile society around him.
In a sense, this is a theme reminiscent of Radford’s own life. The English-born director had lived most of his life assuming that he, the son of a former colonial officer, was as British as high tea. When he was 18, however, and about to sail to film school in America, his mother informed him that she—and therefore he, too—was Jewish. Her family, she told her son, fled Vienna to India, where she had met her husband.
Still, Radford’s own identity remained largely unexplored until he began working on the film. It was as much a personal journey as a cinematic effort, and the experience left him armed with several convictions that help explain the sudden popularity of Shylock.
“We live in a world in which races and cultures are at each other’s throats,” he said. “I don’t think, then, that the story is just about anti-Semitism. It’s about a racial minority suffering, any racial minority suffering. The comment that pleased me the most came from a Muslim man who saw a preview of the film in London; he walked up to me and said, ‘I’m a Muslim and I totally identify with Shylock.’ The play shows humanity in all its cruelty, vulnerability, strength and weakness.”
But if the Jewish Radford explains the popularity of Shylock in universal terms, the Presbyterian-raised Welsh thespian Gareth Armstrong is more attuned to the particular connection between Shylock and anti-Semitism.
Armstrong (see center photo, page 2) is Shylock’s missionary. A gaunt man with a thin beard, he has traveled the world for the last six years with a one-man play titled Shylock, in which he, as Tubal, confronts everything from the controversial titular character to Elizabethan acting traditions, the history of anti-Semitism and the hiccups of Christian theology. The play led Armstrong, 56, to write A Case for Shylock: Around the World With Shakespeare’s Jew(Hern/Nick Books).
He came to the role almost by accident when, in 1998, he was assigned to play the Jewish usurer in a production of The Merchant of Venice. Wishing to understand Shylock’s motivations, Armstrong began researching the character, traveling everywhere from the Folger Library in Washington, D.C., to Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon.
What he found amazed him. Shylock’s history, he realized, was intertwined with the story of anti-Semitism, a phenomenon that was more prevalent than he had thought. He learned, for example, that the first blood libel took place in England in 1144 and that in June of 1946, after the Nazi death camps were liberated, a group of 11 Jewish survivors were murdered in Poland by their neighbors, the latter suspecting the Jews of murdering a Christian boy and using his blood to make matza.
Putting anti-Semitism in historical context helped Armstrong empathize with the prickly Shylock; he refers to him in the play, in a plea for sympathy, as a “widower, a single parent, who hates his job, has no friends and lives in the Ghetto.” Nonetheless, he realized that to achieve empathy for the maligned moneylender, the audience would have to undergo a process of education similar to his own.
“It isn’t a gift,” Armstrong said of playing Shylock. “It isn’t like Macbeth, a great part that goes from A to Z and lets the actor and the audience just ride the roller coaster. With Shylock, all you get are flashes, so you have to reconstruct the pieces of his life you don’t get to see. This is why reading Shakespeare’s lines and then telling the audience about the history of anti-Semitism in Europe are two complementary processes that lead to understanding and emotion.”
And, he added, with the advent of contemporary anti-Semitism, more and more people flock to Shylock, hoping to use the timeless figure of the maligned and vengeful Jew to understand timely questions of persecution. Armstrong personally realized the power of Shylock when performing in Austria in 2000, shortly after the far-right politician Jörg Haider came into power there.
“Here I was in Vienna,” he said, “impersonating a Jew, when ostensibly every fourth person you see voted for Haider, when every fourth person you see was an anti-Semite. Still, the shows were sold out, night after night. At first I thought people just wanted to show me sympathy, but I realize now they came because they wanted to understand, through Shylock, what Haider was about, what anti-Semitism was about.”
Whatever the reason for Shylock’s popularity, Al Pacino, who won critical acclaim for his volcanic portrayal of Shylock in Radford’s film, believes there’s another, hidden aspect to Shylock—the complex quality of the character itself.
“I had no desire to do the film,” he said at a press conference. “I couldn’t see the character. Then I read the script and I understood somehow where Shylock is coming from. I started seeing the human elements. I started seeing his motivation. I started to see him as a character more sinned against than sinning. His tragedy is how he dealt with his condition.”
Still, Pacino added, Shylock’s is a complicated role. “Most of Shakespeare’s great characters have great speeches,” he said. “Shylock doesn’t. When he does his famous monologue, it happens in the street; it’s more an outcry than a major speech. I had to do seven takes of that scene. It’s so hard to relate to, because it’s hard to understand. This guy isn’t waxing poetic about life; he’s angry. It’s real anger, and real anger is difficult to deal with.”
Shylock’s visceral anger, he added, is precisely why his time has come. “I don’t think Shylock would have had the same resonance five years ago,” Pacino said. “As I said, he’s about real anger, and real anger is something the world seems to be all about nowadays.”
After years of abandonment, then, Shakespeare’s Jew is back, the star of book, movie and play. Now, however, the true message he had always carried—that of persecution and its horrific consequences—is finally being told and understood.