Not Shylock - A Shylock

This Sunday, we head up to Stratford for an extended stay, much of the month of August. I’ll be posting reviews of the shows we see while I’m there. In fact, I’m considering doing rather a bit more writing of that sort, and consolidating the work at a new blog. But I’ll let y’all know about that if and when it launches.

In the meantime, last night I finally saw The Merchant of Venice in Central Park, directed by Daniel Sullivan with Al Pacino as Shylock. This is, if I’m keeping proper count, the fifth Merchant I’ve seen, not including film versions. I am, generally, a skeptic of productions that treat the play as something other than a comedy, particularly as a tragedy with Shylock as the tragic hero, and this was an example of same. I feel such productions unbalance the play, making two-thirds of the action seem superfluous, and I also find you have to work hard against the text to make Shylock into anything but a villain at the start.

But this production was an exception to my rule, one in which Shylock did indeed come off as a tragic figure, but that manage to achieve that without working too hard against the text.

In effect, the production said: yes, Shylock is a villain, from the first; an unpleasant, conniving, greedy, cold, miserly, nasty man, bent if not on killing Antonio certainly getting him at his mercy. Before he has suffered the pain and humiliation of his daughter’s flight and theft, Shylock is already plotting villainy, and the casual anti-Semitism and hypocrisy of the Christian society around him does not begin to justify his bad character (nor could it). But once he has suffered that great loss, he turns implacably murderous, and it is Pacino’s achievement that it is when he becomes most plainly bent on murder that we find his Shylock most human, and most sympathetic.

The production deals with the anti-Semitism of the play by subtly reminding us that this is not the story of the Jew but of a Jew – of Shylock – and that even this Jew is no more than human. That’s the point of Shylock’s famous “hath not a Jew eyes” speech – he’s not saying to the Christians that he is as human as they, and not less than human. He’s saying he’s as human as they – and not more than human. They expect him to shrug off wounds that would make a saint bleed – would they do so? Wouldn’t they seek bloody revenge if so provoked? Then why shouldn’t he? He’s only human. And, by the same token (though he doesn’t say this), he’s not a devil, not a supernatural creature of evil. He’s only human.

The reminders that Shylock is just one man, and neither the representative of all Jewry nor some kind of devil, come at three points in the play. First, Tubal, Shylock’s co-religionist, shows alarm when Shylock reveals his vengeful plan. He’s not strong enough to actually object (no objection is in the text, for one thing) but he is obviously scared and disturbed. Second, Shylock himself, at the trial, has to visibly gather his strength to steel himself to do the deed. One has the sense of a man who is fighting his own humane impulses, forcing them down, committing himself voluntarily to a course that, under normal circumstances, he would not consider. This Shylock does not seem to be hesitating because of what Portia says. It’s a drama internal to him, and it takes a great actor like Pacino to pull it off. Finally, the director added a wordless scene after the trial, right before the return to Belmont, depicting the baptism of Shylock. After being immersed, Shylock is helped out of the pool by Tubal and a young Jewish boy, who are clearly willing to help him and take him in even though he has just been cut off from the community by conversion. But Shylock rejects them, and walks off alone, vaguely in the direction of the Christians, but not to join them or to be welcomed by them. While none of this is in the text, and, I would argue, is not really in the spirit of the text as a whole, it’s all stuff you can get away with – it doesn’t obviously run counter to the text. And it does a great deal to make Shylock plausible as a solitary villain, and one with tragic dimension, rather than the embodiment of some ancestral Jewish evil.

As for unbalancing the play, Sullivan deals with this by cutting out much of the comedy and highlighting the problem aspects of the romantic comedy. In particular, Lily Rabe’s Portia goes on a very interesting journey. My own read on the Portia-Bassanio story is rather cynical. He’s a shallow fortune-hunter, and she takes him precisely for his faults as much as his virtues; his shallowness and soft-headedness tell her that he’ll be easily mastered, no threat to her as mistress of her house and of the fortune that he thinks is his. She is no more betrayed by his disposal of the ring than she is doubtful of her inevitable triumph over Shylock: she knows the law, and she knows Bassanio, and the business with the ring is as cunningly-laid a trap for her husband (and for Antonio, who she binds far more effectively than Shylock ever did) as was the trap she laid in court to catch the Jew.

That’s my read from the text. But that’s not what Rabe gives us. Her Portia starts rather innocent, genuinely besotted with Bassanio, and when he does, in fact, give her the ring, she is quietly shattered. She staggers home with Nerissa and wonders how she’ll ever feel sure in her marriage again. It’s Antonio who traps himself, offering himself once more as surety, and this she seizes upon. She ends as the sovereign over all in Belmont, but she doesn’t start there; she goes on quite a journey, in fact. Do I buy it? Not entirely – in particular, I have a hard time squaring the Portia we get at the outset with the woman who so thoroughly triumphs at court, and who is, at the end, able to summon lost fortunes from the deep without a word of explanation. But I’ll admit, Rabe’s is a far more sympathetic and complex character than the Portia I have in mind, and is probably a necessary choice in a production like this that forgoes comedy so as not to have the love story jar next to the downfall of Shylock.

Hamish Linklater’s Bassanio and Byron Jennings’ Antonio gave me more what I expected, and left me well satisfied with what I was given. Jennings makes a rather old Antonio, but I think that’s all to the good – Bassanio becomes his unwitting Bosie, whom his Antonio dotes on manipulatively, wanting nothing more than that the Jew should rip out his heart so that he might lay it at his beloved’s feet. All this is conveyed very subtly, and Bassanio seems blessedly clueless about the whole thing.

Jessica and Lorenzo are a bit more of a problem. Their trajectory is correct – their love curdles almost as soon as they reach Belmont, that much is clear from the text, but what’s missing from their performance is any idea of the source of the sourness that caused it to curdle. She’s Jewish, and he finds he can’t actually deal with that? She realizes he’s just after her money, and feels betrayed? He likes to sleep with the window open but she keeps the window closed? We don’t really have a clue, and do they failure of their romance fails to have meaning. Tacking on a moment of regret for what has happened to her father, meanwhile, which seems to be de riguer these days, always strikes me as rather against the text, but if you’re going to try that you need to set up some basis for that regret in the earlier relationship between father and daughter, which this production does not do.

The rest of the case is generally excellent, particularly the lusty pair of Nerissa (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) and Gratiano (Jesse L. Martin). The only glaring weakness is Jesse Tyler Ferguson’s Launcelot Gobbo, whose only purpose is to serve as comic relief, but who is never actually funny. But given that this production cuts virtually all the jokes, downplays those that remain, and moves at a pace more suited to a romance, or to All’s Well That Ends Well than to a comedy, I’m not sure Ferguson is ultimately to blame.

The set will likely have to be completely redone for the Broadway run to come, but I found it very effective, a series of concentric fences dividing Jewish and Christian Venice. The late-19th century period costumes are elegant, if more flattering to the peacockish men than to the women.

All in all, an exceptionally strong take on the play, particularly given that it had to work uphill against my own predilections, and well worth a turn on Broadway.


But there is another production, one that looms in my mind’s eye, but that I have never seen, and if nobody does it I’ll eventually have to direct it myself, somehow.

Shylock, in Shakespeare’s original conception, is not a tragic figure. Merchant is a comedy. Shylock is more complex than Don John in Much Ado and more sinister than Malvolio in Twelfth Night, but he is nonetheless structurally their kin. We are meant to laugh at him. I believe that Shakespeare’s audience would have, and did, that they were not really scared of Shylock because they knew he was fated to lose, that it would only be justice if he did. Yes, a lot of what Shakespeare was doing in the play was criticizing Christian society for being mercenary and hypocritical – but when he uses Shylock to make these points, Shylock is playing a Satanic role, God’s prosecutor, convicting (Christian) humanity. He’s not building up Shylock himself into either a genuine adversary to the divine or a human tragic figure.

So how can we recover a truly comic Merchant without simply recreating the anti-Semitism that made the jokes funny in the first place? Well, here’s my idea.

In my mind, I see Shylock in a bright red wig (a symbol of Judas, by the way), in Groucho glasses and mustache, and clownishly ill-fitting clothes. I see him come on stage, lisping his “three thousand ducats” and the audience . . . well, I don’t know what the audience would do. Freak out, I suppose. They wouldn’t know what to make of it. Nervous laughter, I guess, is what you’d mostly get.

But that’s what we should get. This is a comedy, even if it’s now a comedy that should make as distinctly uneasy. All those Jewish actors, from Jacob Adler to Dustin Hoffman, who found tragic dignity in Shylock – I’d like to see one try to find it in this production. That would be a challenge – for us to see the humanity not in a Shylock that is portrayed to work our philo-Semitism, but one that is portrayed almost the exact opposite. It would be like the “If You Could See Her Through My Eyes” number in Cabaret.

I picture one scene in particular, a wordless scene added before Act 2 Scene 5, of Shylock alone in his study, that would give the audience a bit of relief and help them understand what was going on. Shylock would be alone in his study, and would take off the glasses and mustache, take off the wig, slouch in his chair, and look at a picture of his late wife, Leah. And talk to her, in low, inaudible tones. And then he would notice his daughter, Jessica, watching him from the doorway. Flustered, he’d quickly put back on the wig and glasses, don the mask – and she would flee. And then Launcelot Gobbo would come in and we’re into the scene.

Why insert this scene? Three reasons. First, I think it’s important to drive home the alienation between Shylock and Jessica in a way that leaves us sympathetic to both of them. If he dotes on her, we think she’s cruel to flee and steal from him; it stacks the deck in his favor and we have no sympathy for her. If he is miserly with his affection, then we have insufficient sympathy for him – unless that miserliness is grounded. And here it is. And, further, it foreshadows and gives psychological basis for Jessica’s decision to steal her mother’s ring, and then cruelly trade it for a monkey. (“I would not give it for a wilderness of monkeys” – that’s the best line in the whole play, the one that brings the most sympathy to Shylock, the only line that gives us a biographical basis for his character that is other than his Jewishness, and I’d want to build on it.)

Finally, and most importantly, the scene would drive home that being Shylock, playing Shylock, means something for Shylock. This is a role he inhabits. Yes, he looks like he’s playing a clown – maybe he feels he has no choice but to play a clown – but by this point he is choosing to play a clown, a sinister, murderous clown. He needs to put on the mask to defend himself – against Jessica as much as against Antonio and his brethren. If Shylock means something to a Jewish actor, if he means something to a Jewish audience, this is the heart of the meaning – the choice to play this role, to reclaim it, make it something tragic, something with pathos. Can that be done? The production in my mind dramatizes that struggle, the struggle to reclaim Shylock that is the challenge every production of Merchant faces.

It’s a little meta, I know, but I think it could be enormously powerful. Because Shylock is a terrible role to want to put on. No Jew in his right mind should actually want to justify Shylock. But somehow we want to. The play is too strong to be dismissed, and too horrifying to be accepted, and so reclaiming the role seems like the only thing to do. But reclaiming it in the usual way runs the very real risk of justifying Shylock, and that we must never do.

And I think it would be much more effective, if we’re trying to dramatize the bigotry of the Christians, to dress Shylock as a clown, because it makes us complicit. I mean, dressed like that, we think he’s ridiculous. We’re on Gratiano’s side. Not so if Shylock is a pious traditional Jew or a dignified Rothschild.

You know, I may just do it one day. I’ll let you know if I do.

If you want to hear even more of my thoughts about Merchant, my review of the last production at Stratford, from 2007, is here.