Venice” is 400 years old. The play was first entered on the register of the Stationer’s Company in July 1598, along with a proviso that it shouldn’t be published till the Lord Chamberlain gave his consent. And that didn’t happen until 1600. It may be of some small comfort to know that, even in Shakespeare’s day, artists and managers had to shear their way through red tape.
Although four centuries have passed and the play has become a standard work in the classical repertoire, the Jews have not forgiven Shakespeare for his depiction of Shylock. He remains for many the unexpungable Jewish stereotype, and there are many Jews who, on principle, refuse to attend performances of the play so as to avoid its prickly anti-Semitism.
Certainly, Shylock is portrayed as a money-obsessed usurer, a merchant more concerned with his wealth than his daughter’s welfare. His vindictiveness against Antonio is heartless, and his suit against him remorselessly cruel. But it is equally true that Shylock, and the Elizabethan Jews like him, were viciously oppressed by their Christian society, and, although the pillars of that society hotly condemned usury, they had no compunction about availing themselves of its benefits.
But Shylock is not Barabas, the horror-comic monster of Marlowe’s “Jew of Malta,” and, given the temper of the times and the intensity of the prejudice against Jews, how does one account for those jolting moments in the play when Shylock asserts his common humanity and staunchly upholds the dictates of that same Venetian law which ultimately strips him of all his dignity? “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” Where, in the nefarious reaches of Iago’s black heart, are there any such redeeming sentiments? Where in Aaron the Moor’s rapaciousness in “Titus Andronicus” does one find any comparable sense of human empathy? If the object is to ridicule and debase a villainous character, why complicate the issue with such contradictory utterances?
The great villainy in “The Merchant of Venice” is not Jewry but usury, and since, in the main, the Jews were the usurers, Shylock is necessarily impugned. But a great artist knows that a one-dimensional character is anathema to the Muse, and so Shylock is written with enough subtlety to permit his vengeful nature to be mitigated, neutralized and, in some instances, even exonerated.
When the charismatic Jewish actor Jacob Adler played Shylock in 1901, he saw him as a man “of high intellect, proud convictions and grand character.” His Shylock was a patriarch and “a higher being” who, in Adler’s interpretation, would, with divine compassion, have refused the pound of flesh had it been granted. The Jewish public of New York’s Lower East Side worshiped that performance, nor was Adler the first to temper the character’s venom.
In 1847, Edmund Kean had already given a wholly sympathetic portrayal of the Jew, and Henry Irving’s Shylock, 32 years later, was so morally superior to the Christian bigots who victimized him, his cruelty, in the face of those persecutions, seemed entirely justified.
One can whitewash Shylock’s character only so far. He is the scheming antagonist of those stalwart venture capitalists Antonio and Bassanio, and he is brutally punished at the end of the Trial Scene, when the Court declares he shall deed his goods to his traitorous daughter, and then really puts the boot in by decreeing he shall “presently become a Christian.”
But, for some 150 years, actors and directors have found a way of salvaging a character that 17th-century England was encouraged to abhor, and, in my view, the tree on which such reinterpretations sprout can always be traced back to the spadework of the original author.
Othello is also victimized by a callous and prejudiced society and emerges not only sympathetically but heroically. A different kind of abuse is meted out to Shylock, and he too, despite the fact that Jews were blackened for centuries both before and after, manages to emerge with his humanity in tact.
To hold a grudge for more than 400 years is itself a kind of Jewish thing to do.
Jewish Journal theater critic Charles Marowitz writes from Malibu.