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20 february 2021

Shylock, as I've noted before, is one of the characters who don't fit into Shakespeare's comedies: akin to Malvolio, Jaques, Angelo. But Malvolio is just an asshole; Jaques is a pessimist excluded by his own choice, and Angelo is your basic hypocrite. Shylock is hard to get along with because he is a Jew, and that is a permanent problem for Shakespeare and anyone interested in Shakespeare.

Shylock has his noble side. He commands respect because of his insistence on equal treatment, and pity because the deck is stacked against him. Everybody has some reason why it's OK to mistreat Shylock, and when he dares to get his own back, his bitterness redounds on his head along with his deeds.

Still, The Merchant of Venice is an evil play, inextricable from the history of anti-Semitism – and at the same time a great play, full of marvelous poetry and insight. John Gross, thirty years ago, wrote the best and most elaborate treatments of its mixed evil and greatness. Gross' treatment of the cultural history of Shylock is very thorough early on but picks and chooses from the vast assortment of interpretations from 1940 to 1992 – and the volume of readings and performances of Shylock has only grown in the last three decades.

Shylock: A legend and its legacy is divided into three sections: a "direct" reading of Shakespeare's play, setting it in its literary and historical context; a history of Shylock in Anglo-American theaters through the 1930s, and a history of global versions of Shylock that extends to the book's present day. In the second section, Gross offers a strong capsule history of the English and American stages, and in the second and third a good survey of the highlights of academic criticism on The Merchant of Venice. He also offers a convincing reading of Shakespeare's text – though perhaps I'm convinced because Gross' conclusions match my own: the play is a mixture of the wonderful and awful, and its central character a great dramatic creation that has wrought considerable social harm.

Part of the harm came from the curious centrality of The Merchant of Venice in curricula in both Britain and America. I hope to "teach" the play next year, but already with some trepidation, because it's not an easy text to negotiate.

For many Jews, the play was quite simply a sore point … In 1912 Jewish groups in the United States (the only country where Jews were in a position to bring to bear the necessary pressure) began campaigning to have it removed from the curriculum. …
Books should not be banned, except for the most compelling reasons; once you start, you never know where it will stop. On the other hand, school texts are a special case, and it is not hard to imagine circumstances in which being made to read The Merchant of Venice in a classroom could be genuinely inflammatory or hurtful. … But with less and less literature being studied in schools anyway, perhaps the problem will solve itself. (272-73)
Why would educators want to put The Merchant of Venice at the heart of curricula? The question is tangential to Gross' concerns, but one imagines that Portia's "quality of mercy" speech was a factor – and Shylock's "Hath not a Jew eyes?" at the same time: the play offers something for Christian triumphalists and for multicultural liberals too. The theatrical popularity of the play also had something to do with it; The Merchant of Venice loomed far larger in the Shakespeare repertoire in the 19th century (Gross documents) than before or since. The Merchant of Venice was a vital part of current culture. But it was also a convenient resource for communities that didn't like or trust Jews, and wanted to confirm their prejudices.

Gross' theater history of Shylock draws on the same tensions that made the appeal of the character so various and so conflicted. Shylock isn't really a farcical character, but he builds on farcical depictions of moneylenders that go way back before Shakespeare. In the early 18th century, he could still be played for laughs. (The few 20th-century interpretations that took that route mostly met with horrified responses.)

By the Enlightenment, audiences no longer laughed at such farce. The increasing success of the play starting in the mid-18th century saw swings back and forth between Shylock as cold villain (Charles Macklin early on) and Shylock as pathetically flawed but a noble victim (Henry Irving over a century later).

The tradition continues. Any actor approaching Shylock must centrally decide whether to emphasize what is awful about him or what is admirable. The highest-profile living Shylock in 2021 is Al Pacino, who has played the role on stage and starred in the most recent major film production (2004). Pacino tries to have it both ways. His Shylock is snarling and relentless, but also righteously indignant. I think the best line-reading in the film is when Pacino's Shylock learns that his daughter has given away a ring of her late mother's in return for a monkey, and he says that he would not have traded the ring "for a wilderness of monkeys." You get a sudden sense that Shylock is himself an actor, playing both the ferocious villain and the aggrieved plaintiff; at bottom, when he can let the mask slip, he's just a bruised guy who never got over the loss of his wife.

Pacino has some good moments as Shylock, though the film itself is flawed by cuts, rearrangements, and uncertainties of tone. And at the end of the day he's essentially playing Al Pacino as much as a Shakespeare character. But that just puts Pacino in a long line of star Shylocks who made the role their vehicle. Edmund Kean's Shylock, with his over-the-top emoting, was one of the great Romantic theatrical sensations. Edwin Booth and Beerbohm Tree, John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier, all rode Shylock as an expected conveyance to stardom, and really only Henry Irving in that long tradition seems to have found something in the character itself to distinguish his interpretation – and Henry Irving didn't exactly melt into the background of his productions, either.

Yet the fascination of stage performance is that nearly all of it is irrecoverable. Gross notes that we can never really recover the performances of Macklin or Gielgud in the way we can Al Pacino's; and still in the 21st century when everybody records everything, most live theater doesn't become part of an accessible archive. We have to rely on the words of theater critics to distinguish the contributions of great pre- and non-cinematic actors. That vanishing act is a key part of their romance and their appeal.

Gross, John. Shylock: A legend and its legacy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992. PR 2825 .G76