Willow Geer (left) is Portia and Alan Blumenfeld is Shylock in in “The Merchant of Venice.” Photo by Ian FLanders

Our time is right for staging of ‘Merchant of Venice’


What is “The Merchant of Venice” selling? Is it anti-Semitism or a dramatic commentary on the anti-Semitism of William Shakespeare’s time? With a view favoring the latter, a new production of the controversial play, opening June 3 at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga Canyon, is being staged as a commentary on the anti-Semitism of our own time.

The 16th-century play has a long history of prompting unease, ire, protest and censure from Jews for its portrayal of Shylock, a vengeful Jewish moneylender who demands a pound of flesh for repayment of a debt. In light of a recent rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States and in countries around the world, the producers of this updated version believe it is time to look at the play with fresh and wary eyes again, after they produced it 15 years ago.

“There’s so much anti-Semitism in the world, and this play is perfect for now because it mirrors our own society a bit,” said Ellen Geer, artistic director of Theatricum Botanicum and the director of both productions of the play.

The play addresses a “lack of caring about humanity — it puts it right smack in front of your face,” said Geer, the daughter of the late Will Geer, an actor and social activist who was the theater’s founder. “It’s a beautiful piece of art about human beings when there is no love and caring about each other” — a condition she sees mirrored in the political reality and economic disparity of our times.

Alan Blumenfeld, the actor playing the leading role of Shylock, agrees about the timeliness of the production. “In a time when we have rising anti-Semitism and bigotry and hatred and violence in the world and in our country, there is no better time to do this play,” he said.

Blumenfeld, who played Shylock the last time Theatricum Botanicum staged “The Merchant of Venice,” hopes the audience will see in the play, which has characters spitting at Shylock, “an all-too-real reflection of what’s going on [today],” similar to people pulling headscarves off Muslims, turbans off Sikhs or yarmulkes off Jews.

After the July 15 performance, audience members will have an opportunity to air their thoughts on the play in a “prologue discussion.”

“We want now to have the audience deal with it and face it,” Blumenfeld said. “I welcome the conversation.”

The play and Shylock — who often is invoked as a Jewish stereotype of greed and callousness — have generated discussion among Jews for centuries. In the 1920s and ’30s, during a period of rising anti-Semitism throughout the world, the B’nai B’rith Messenger, Los Angeles’ Jewish newspaper of the time, published several articles on whether the play should be banned from public schools, along with a commentary that argued it should not be censored at all.

“Fifteen years ago, there was a real fear from the Jewish community about doing this play because in their mind it was something detrimental, and it’s not,” said Geer, who believes the community’s attitude has changed.

That discussion continues today, with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) offering a guide for high school teachers that explores “the problematic issue of anti-Semitism as a part of the broader discussion of the play.” Theatricum Botanicum also runs its own program called “School Days” to educate a younger audience from the Los Angeles Unified School District about its productions, including “The Merchant of Venice.”

The depiction of the play’s lead character has taken on its own cultural reality, with even Merriam-Webster defining a shylock as a “loan shark,” an image that Blumenfeld doesn’t think “will ever disappear from the cultural imagination.” Calling someone a “shylock” still is considered an anti-Semitic slur, as then-Vice President Joe Biden learned in 2014, when he was criticized by the ADL for using the word in referring to those who make bad loans to people in the military (a gaffe for which he apologized).

Still Blemenfield said, “I don’t think that the play is an anti-Semitic play.” said Blumenfeld. As if to give a preview of the prologue discussion to come, he pointed out that even though Shylock does ask Antonio, the merchant of the play’s title, for a pound of flesh in their contract, it is done, as the text says, in “merry sport. It’s a joke, an aftselakhis,” Blumenfeld said, using the Yiddish word that roughly means “to spite you.”

Blumenfeld, who has been a guest star on more than 300 television episodes and performed in more than 40 films, is perhaps best known to TV viewers as the telepathic father in the NBC series “Heroes.” He also has directed a series of plays that dealt with the secular history of the Jewish experience in the United States, written by his wife, Katherine James. As a Jewish actor in the role of Shylock, Blumenfeld, who was raised a Conservative Jew and is a member of the humanistic-oriented Sholem Community, said the challenge is “to find a complete human within what could be a stereotype.” He noted that, in the past, actors playing Shylock often would “put on a red wig and big, hooked nose, and you would play the evil Jew, even with the language that defies it.”

In pursuit of a more nuanced portrayal as well as an imprimatur, Blumenfeld said two rabbis were consulted before going into production — Rabbi Susan Goldberg of Wilshire Boulevard Temple and Rabbi David Bouskila, director of the Sephardic Educational Center. Considering that the play is set in the 1500s — Jews were expelled from England in 1290 and from Spain in 1492 — “both rabbis agreed that Venetian Jews would be Sephardic,” he said. As a result, one scene is going to have a Sephardic lullaby added called “Durme Durme,” which Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, will sing to him — an addition the actor hopes will help his character seem more human.

“We need some insight into Shylock as a loving person,” Blumenfeld said.

He also expects that some of the recent acts of anti-Semitism that have gotten attention — such as the overturning of headstones in a St. Louis Jewish cemetery and the carving of swastikas into cars in Denver — will help a younger audience see Shylock from a more recognizable perspective. “Our parents saw Jews humiliated in public in Nazi Germany,” but a younger generation “has not seen that until now,” he said.

By the play’s end, Shylock suffers humiliation, is broken financially and is forced to convert to Christianity. Blumenfeld hopes the audience, due to their own recent rude awakening, will now have some rachmones, or compassion, for him. 


“The Merchant of Venice” opens June 3 and runs through Oct. 1 at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga. A prologue discussion will follow the July 15 performance. For tickets and information, call (310) 455-3723 or visit theatricum.com. 

Biden regrets making ‘Shylock’ reference


Vice President Joe Biden acknowledged that he made a “poor choice of words” in using the term “Shylock” to describe unscrupulous lenders.

Biden was reacting Wednesday to remarks by Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, in response to the vice president’s use of the term this week.

Speaking to the Legal Services Organization, a group that funds legal assistance for the poor, Biden referred to the experience of his son Beau, the Delaware attorney general who has served in Iraq.

Beau Biden, the vice president said, had been approached by service members who had been preyed upon by unscrupulous lenders.

“People would come to him and talk about what was happening to them at home in terms of foreclosures, in terms of bad loans that were being — I mean, these Shylocks who took advantage of these women and men while overseas,” he said.

Foxman, in a statement to Yahoo News, said the term was “offensive.”

“When someone as friendly to the Jewish community and open and tolerant an individual as is Vice President Joe Biden uses the term ‘Shylocked’ to describe unscrupulous moneylenders dealing with servicemen and women, we see once again how deeply embedded this stereotype about Jews is in society,” Foxman said.

In a statement emailed from his office to JTA, Biden agreed with that characterization.

“Abe Foxman has been a friend and advisor of mine for a long time,” Biden said. “He’s correct, it was a poor choice of words, particularly, as he said, coming from ‘someone as friendly to the Jewish community and open and tolerant an individual as is Vice President Joe Biden.’ He’s right.”

Full of sound and fury: Bloch’s ‘Macbeth’ opera gets a rare airing


Ernest Bloch, the renowned 20th century Swiss-born American composer, wrote just one opera, “Macbeth,” and it has rarely been produced in the United States since its 1910 Paris premiere. Now, the Long Beach Opera is presenting the opera’s first U.S. staging since John Houseman’s 1973 production, at the Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro on June 15, 22 and 23.

Like Houseman’s “Macbeth,” which was presented at the Juilliard School in New York, the Long Beach Opera’s production of Bloch’s three-act adaptation of Shakespeare’s five-act play will be sung in English in a libretto rescored by the composer in the early 1950s from the French to fit the English dialogue. 

It will feature baritone Nmon Ford in the title role, with soprano Suzan Hanson as the malevolently ambitious Lady Macbeth, tenor Doug Jones in the roles of Banquo, Duncan and Lennox, and baritone Robin Buck as Macduff. The Long Beach Camerata Singers will make up the chorus.

Although Bloch later became famous for his enduring Jewish-inspired works — “Schelomo” for cello and orchestra, the “Baal Shem Suite” and the “Sacred Service” —”Macbeth” shows him as a young composer absorbing the whirl of music around him, not only of Wagner and Mussorgsky, but of Debussy and Richard Strauss, as well. 

Completed in 1906 when he was 26, Bloch’s “Macbeth” already shows a striking confidence and maturity, not least because the young composer was risking comparison with the other operatic “Macbeth” up to that time — Verdi’s, which premiered in 1847.

“It’s very impressive for a first and only opera,” said Andreas Mitisek, Long Beach Opera’s music director, who is also stage director for this production. 

“Bloch had a great sense of timing and a gift for building tension and suspense,” Mitisek said. “He knew how to use music and a wide vocal range to underscore and portray emotions.” 

Mitisek especially admires the composer’s powerful handling of famous scenes like Macbeth’s dagger scene (“Art thou but/A dagger of the mind …?”) and the guilt-ridden Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene, memorable for lines like, “Out, damned spot!”

The conductor, who plans to use a Romantic-size orchestra of 40 or so musicians to convey Bloch’s very melodic, lush sound, added that even the orchestral interludes in “Macbeth” “carry an emotional charge.” 

Because Bloch’s operatic version of Shakespeare’s narrative of witches, power struggles, murder and madness is heightened, Mitisek said it’s important to keep the focus around the two main characters. “Everything feeds into their thirst for power,” Mitisek said. “The play is like a Greek tragedy. The truth in it speaks to our time. We see these things happening over and over again.”

Mitisek, who is also general director of the Chicago Opera Theater, recently announced that that company will be giving performances of “Macbeth” in September 2014 at the city’s Harris Theater.

Although the Nobel Prize-winning French author Romain Rolland rated Bloch’s “Macbeth” highly in 1910, and, more recently, critic Andrew Porter called it the best opera based on a Shakespeare tragedy, Bloch didn’t write another.

“Bloch was not enamored of the intrigues and politics he observed in getting ‘Macbeth’ to the stage in Paris,” said David Z. Kushner, music professor emeritus at the University of Florida and author of “The Ernest Bloch Companion.”

Nonetheless, according to Kushner, between 1911 and 1918, Bloch worked on but did not complete a biblical opera, “Jezabel.” The sketches and drafts are in the Ernest Bloch Collection in the Library of Congress.

Ernest Bloch, second from left, with the cast of “Macbeth” in Rome, 1953.  Photo courtesy of the Ernest Bloch Foundation

In his later years, Bloch, like Saul Bellow in literature, came to dislike being thought of as a Jewish artist, preferring to be seen in a more universal light. Bloch’s daughter, Suzanne, a renowned early music specialist who died in 2002, promoted her father’s legacy for years, often noting that his Jewish-inspired music, which amounted to less than one-third of his total output, was crowding out other major works. 

Kushner agreed, citing Bloch’s five string quartets (“I wish they could find their way into the standard chamber music repertoire”), violin concerto, “Concerto Symphonique” (for piano and orchestra), “Sinfonia Breve,” the two violin sonatas and two concerti grossi as among the composer’s greatest accomplishments.

Bloch was the son of a cantor and not himself a practicing Jew, but he delved deeply into spiritual impulses. “It is the Jewish soul that interests me,” he wrote, “the complex, glowing, agitated soul that I feel vibrating throughout the Bible … the sacred emotion of the race that slumbers far down in our soul.”

After he arrived in America in 1916, his “Jewish Cycle,” which includes “Three Jewish Poems,” the “Israel Symphony” and settings for voice and orchestra of Psalms 22, 114 and 137, made him famous. (Bloch became an American citizen in 1924.) 

Kushner noted that Bloch’s” Jewish label” was also “cemented by the imprimatur of a Star of David with his initials, EB, encased within on the cover” of his scores. 

Bloch’s grandson, Ernest Bloch II, 75, who plans to attend the opening of Long Beach Opera’s “Macbeth” on June 15, is taking up where his late Aunt Suzanne left off.

“My major purpose is to enlarge and extend the Bloch legacy,” he said by phone from Oregon. Ideally, he said, he would like to digitize all of his grandfather’s works to make them more available to the public.

Bloch was 21 when his grandfather died in 1959, and recalled visiting him many times at his home on the Oregon shore. “He loved America,” Bloch said. “He endured anti-Semitism and man’s inhumanity to man. When he got to New York, it was like coming to another planet.”

After a tumultuous, itinerant life, which included significant stints as the first director of the Cleveland Institute of Music and five years as director of the San Francisco Conservatory — Bloch’s students include George Antheil and Roger Sessions  — Bloch finally fetched up on the shores of Agate Beach in Oregon. 

The grandson observed that Bloch composed many of his finest works there, including most of his five rhythmically intense, brooding and meditative string quartets.

“When he settled in 1941 in the only home he ever owned, he finally got to a place where he could do what he was put on earth to do,” the younger Bloch said. “The later works were in many ways his best works.”

The composer also was once treated like a rock star. “He had one heck of an ego,” the grandson said. 

But, he added, Bloch also had a softer side: “I got to know him in the 1940s, and when I contracted polio at age 5, he showed me the importance of patience.” 

In “The Essential Canon of Classical Music,” Juilliard professor David Dubal said the composer “used his art to probe his psychological states,” calling him “an artist of lofty feeling, often with an agonized sense of suffering humanity.”

Bloch’s early score for “Macbeth” already embodies this sensibility. Moreover, Mitisek’s staging for Long Beach Opera’s production poses a question that tormented Bloch for most of his life. The audience, Mitisek said, will observe the opera from the left and right of the stage. 

“The action will take place between them,” the conductor said. “Like watching voyeuristically, with everyone looking at it from different angles. All the characters, good and bad, are also parts of us we don’t let out. Have we learned how to become more human? One hopes.”

Abraham unlocks nuances of Shylock in ‘Merchant’


F. Murray Abraham’s performance as Shylock, praised by New York critics as the greatest in memory, owes much to the fact that the actor is almost invariably taken as Jewish.

That pardonable error, he says, is central to his portrayal of the much-vilified Jewish moneylender in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” which opens April 14 on The Broad Stage in Santa Monica.

The initial “F” in Abraham’s name stands for Fahrid: His father emigrated from Syria to the United States in the 1920s, and his grandfather was a chanter, equivalent to cantor, in the Syrian (Syriac) Orthodox Church, a denomination that traces its origin to the very beginning of Christianity.

However, everyone calls him “Murray,” he peppers his conversation with words like mishpachah, landsman and mazel tov, and, “Even people who know I’m not Jewish insist that I am,” he said.

In a phone call from Boston, one stop on his four-city tour of “The Merchant of Venice,” Abraham related a recurring little fantasy.

“I’m flying in a plane that’s taken over by Arab hijackers,” he said. “They collect all the passports, see the name Murray Abraham and get ready to shoot me as a Jew. I won’t tell them otherwise, but I think, ‘The joke is on you — you’re killing one of your own kind.’ ”

The present tour of “Merchant” started in New York, where critics like The New York Times’ Charles Isherwood went unusually wild over the production, including the direction by Darko Tresnjak and, particularly, Abraham’s rendition of Shylock.

The character of the Jewish moneylender, originally portrayed as an unmitigated villain, has been gradually humanized, but arguably no previous interpretation has gone as far as Abraham’s. In an era of virulent anti-Semitism in Christian Europe, “Shakespeare was the first playwright to draw the Jew as a human being, rather than just as the devil,” Abraham said.

“I think Shylock is a great, strong man, who has been driven [to his revenge]. If I’m successful in conveying this, audience members will feel that they would have chosen the same course as Shylock.

“As a matter of fact, some people have written me, after seeing the play, that ‘Shylock should have taken the pound of flesh. Antonio deserved it.’ ”

Abraham noted that his calling as an actor demands that he bring a sense of humanity to even the most reprehensible character, for otherwise “he becomes just a cartoon.”

In this sense, his greatest professional challenge was to portray Roy Cohn, Sen. Joe McCarthy’s right-hand man, in the Broadway production of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America.”

“I hated Cohn so much, I didn’t know whether I could play him,” Abraham recalled. “Then, during an overseas flight, I was reading the script and next to me sat a man who recognized me. He told me he was a lawyer and had gone up against Cohn in an earlier case.

“I asked the man what Cohn was like, and he answered: ‘Roy Cohn was the best lawyer I have ever seen. I couldn’t take my eyes off him.’ That statement opened the door into Cohn’s character,” Abraham said. “I had found one way to respect the man.”

Director Tresnjak stages “Merchant” in modern dress, with Wall Street replacing the Rialto of 16th century Venice. This device, and the actors’ approach, connects the play to today’s headlines in a very direct, if painful, way.

Now, as five centuries ago, “We have a warped system of justice in which the rich bend the law for their own benefit,” Abraham observed. “We nail people, as the Venetians did with Shylock, by calling them aliens.

“What is it about human nature that we need to spit on others?” he asked. “Look what the Jews and Arabs are doing to each other. They’re cousins, for God’s sake. Or do we fight because we’re family?”

Abraham was born in Pittsburgh but grew up in El Paso, Texas, where his Jewish friends taught him to pronounce mishpachah the Southern way. At 71, he can look back on a career record of some 90 stage plays and 80 movies. His prizes include a best actor Oscar for his role as Antonio Salieri, Mozart’s nemesis, in the 1984 film “Amadeus.”

Yet, for all his experience, and after playing Shylock more than 100 times, there are still times when Abraham will suddenly forget a line.

“It happened to me yesterday [in Boston],” he acknowledged. “If that had occurred when I started out as an actor, I would have wet my pants, but now I don’t scare anymore.

“Since I’m such a great actor,” Abraham added with a laugh, “I just gave Shylock a brief, thoughtful pause, and the play went on.”

His upcoming run in Los Angeles marks a return to the city of his stage debut, in the 1966 production of Ray Bradbury’s “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit,” at the venerable Coronet Theatre.

“The Merchant of Venice” will run April 14-24 at the 499-seat Broad Stage in Santa Monica. Parking is free. For information and tickets, phone (310) 434-3200 or visit www.thebroadstage.com.

Seniors Flock to OASIS of Learning


“Make the shape of a U with your hips,” coaches belly-dancing teacher Elexa Williams. Her students willingly comply, rolling their shoulders, gyrating their torsos and undulating their hips as they follow the teacher’s example. Around their waists, the participants wear scarves adorned with rows of coins, and as they move, the room fills with a rhythmic jingling sound.

Down the hall, students peer intently at computer screens, struggling to learn the nuances of sending e-mails and creating documents in Microsoft Word.

OASIS, a program offering educational, enrichment and volunteer opportunities. Part of a national network, OASIS in Los Angeles is a program of Jewish Family Service, and is co-sponsored by Robinsons-May, the Los Angeles Department of Aging and the Westside Pavilion.

OASIS provides an eclectic array of classes, many of which are free. Fitness fans can choose among such options as chair exercise, yoga and karate. Art buffs can study French and American impressionism or drawing. Others can explore Jewish spirituality, analyze Shakespeare or play guitar. Some of the classes are even taught by retired professors from UCLA and USC. And seniors who wish to travel can choose among a variety of day excursions and extended trips.

“I think OASIS is wonderful because they have so much to offer,” said Aura, a 72-year-old participant in the belly-dancing class. She also takes “The Rabbi Speaks,” with Rabbi Michael Resnick, and a bridge class, which she said “works the aging matter in your brain.”

“OASIS provides learning and growth opportunities for active people who live at home,” program director Victoria Neal said. “It’s a progressive alternative for those who might feel like they’re with old people’ when they attend senior centers or meal programs.”

Neal estimates that between 1,200 and 1,500 individuals ranging in age from 60 to 95 attend classes at OASIS’ Westside locations each week. Most Westside classes meet within OASIS’ warren of classrooms inside the Robinsons-May at the Westside Pavilion. Others meet in community rooms within the shopping center. Satellite locations include the Farmers Market, Park La Brea, Workmen’s Circle and Jewish Family Service’s Pico-Robertson Storefront and Freda Mohr Multiservice Center on Fairfax. In Woodland Hills, classes are offered in conjunction with Pierce College through the Encore-OASIS program.

The national OASIS program was founded in 1982 in St. Louis by educator Marylen Mann and Margie Wolcott May of the May department store family.

“They wanted to create a program fostering wellness, companionship and vitality for mature adults,” Los Angeles OASIS assistant director Rachelle Sommers Smith said. “They didn’t feel that existing programs offered sufficient stimulation for retired people.”

OASIS is now available in 26 cities nationwide.

For the past five years, Fanny Behmoiras, 66, has been making a weekly trek to Pico-Robertson from Encino to attend the life history writing class.

“I come rain or shine,” said Behmoiras, who has written 153 vignettes, including those describing her family’s flight from Cuba in 1961. During this session, she shares her account of the joy of her grandson’s bar mitzvah, followed days later by the anguish of losing a cherished family member.

Her instructor, Bea Mitz, explains that participants write their memoirs to leave a history for their children and grandchildren. “They do this so that whoever follows will not have to say, ‘I didn’t ask … I wish I knew.'”

Bella Haroutunian, 73, follows life history with an intermediate computer class.

“I started a year ago,” Haroutunian said. “I had very little knowledge about computers, and I wanted to write my memoirs.”

Now she uses the computer not only to compose her life story, but also to e-mail friends and family and research her upcoming trip to Europe and Russia.

It makes me feel that I’m a little bit up-to-date,” she said. “Before, I felt that I was so behind on this technology.”

Neal says many OASIS participants explore new hobbies or careers through the program.

“They’re doing what they love to do and never had a chance to do,” she said.

OASIS also provides volunteer opportunities for seniors, who help keep the program running. Ruth Morraine, 94, has been volunteering twice a week since 1991, assisting with clerical and bookkeeping tasks. She doesn’t seem at all daunted by the need to take a taxi and two buses to reach her destination. As Morraine says, “Age is just a number, honey.”

For more information, visit or call (310) 475-4911, ext. 2200 (Westside); (818) 710-4163 (Woodland Hills); (323) 298-7541 ext. 2517 (Baldwin Hills); (310) 547-0090 (San Pedro) or (562) 601-5010 (Long Beach/Lakewood).

Menkes’ ‘Divorce’


Dr. John Menkes’ “Lady Macbeth Gets a Divorce” at the Beverly Hills Playhouse is a witty and diverting drawing-room comedy that elicits something most sitcoms don’t: real laughs.

The story is as familiar as Shakespeare: In a Vermont village, Fiona has had it with her lost and lazy failure of an antique dealer husband, Freddie. Freddie, played by Robert Sherer, is Dilbert on downers. “After I have a good night’s sleep,” he tells his wife, “I feel like I’ve accomplished something.”

Urged on by a household ghost, Fiona (Suzan Crowley) plots to kill visiting old, rich Uncle Duncan (Brendon Thomas Dillon) before he marries aspiring starlet Dilly (Jerri Manthey) and sends his money her way. The original Macbeth is a spur to Menkes’ imagination, but wisely he never lets it get in the way of a good laugh. There’s plenty of those to be had here, at the expense of health food fanatics, day dreamers, schemers, wannabe actresses, lusting old men, even porn movie producers. The action moves at a good clip, and Menkes throws in enough surprises to keep the audience blushing.

Directed by Manu Tupou, the play suffers slightly from a couple of the actors’ determination to keep their voices down. But Crowley’s Fiona has a rich booming voice that commands everyone’s attention. It is easy to imagine her playing the real Lady M.

Menkes has written a delightful show, an evening’s easy pleasure. What makes his accomplishment even more appealing is that he only moonlights as a playwright. By day, Menkes is one of the world’s pre-eminent pediatric neurologists. His “Textbook of Child Neurology” is now in its sixth edition, and he has served as director of pediatric neurology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and in a similar capacity at Johns Hopkins, UCLA and the Veterans Administration.

Born in Vienna, Menkes came to the United States as a refugee from Hitler’s Europe. His other writing includes a medical thriller, “The Angry Puppet Syndrome” (Demos Press) and the award-winning play “The Last Inquisitor.” Those are serious works on weighty subjects. “Lady Macbeth Gets a Divorce” is just seriously funny. Who knew the good doctor had it in him? Thankfully, he does.

“Lady Macbeth Gets a Divorce” plays at the Beverly Hills Playhouse, 254 S. Robertson Blvd., through May 27. For ticket information, call (323) 655-8587.

Shylock Reinterpreted


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.