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Shakespeare, Shylock, anti-Semitism— and Al Pacino (1st comment)BY: Carol Rocamora 07.11.2010
At least since the Holocaust, Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice has been widely reviled as an anti-Semitic screed. But Al Pacino’s majestic portrayal of Shylock in New York suggests an entirely different interpretation: of Jews (and Israel too) surrounded by a hostile world.
The Merchant of Venice. By William Shakespeare; Daniel Sullivan directed. Through August 1, 2010 at Delacorte Theater, Central Park (near 80th St.), New York. shakespeareinthepark.org.
Shakespeare (and anti-Semitism) on trialCAROL ROCAMORA
It simply can’t be helped. As soon as those words “The Jew” are uttered on stage today, as they are repeatedly with venom and hostility in Shakespeare’s (alleged) comedy, The Merchant of Venice, a contemporary public is going to bristle– especially when Jews are in the audience.
More than bristling: This well-known story, in which a Jew is tried, humiliated, and brought publicly to his knees, can provoke an urban audience to alarm and heated debate.
What is the nature of Jew-hatred in this classic? Is this play about anti-Semitism, or is it an anti-Semitic play? Was Shakespeare depicting an anti-Semitic world to “hold a mirror up” to his anti-Semitic audience, or to entertain it? Or, even more disturbing, was the immortal Shakespeare himself an anti-Semite?
Given the play’s original full title—“The most excellent Historie of the Merchant of Venice, with the extreame crueltie of Shylocke the Jew towards the sayd Merchant in cutting just a pound of his flesh….”, we are bound to ask: Where does the Bard stand?
These questions hang in the air each starry night over the outdoor Delacorte Theatre in New York— after a performance of the Public Theatre’s stellar production of The Merchant of Venice, part of the summer Shakespeare in the Park festival.
The truth of the matter is that any recent staging of The Merchant of Venice since the Holocaust has provoked instant controversy. How could it not?
Flesh as collateral
We all know the story, and cringe in its retelling: Antonio, an established, respected Venetian merchant, seeks to borrow 3,000 ducats from Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, in order to help his friend Bassanio woo the lovely Portia. Provoked by Antonio’s racial slurs (“dog,” “cur”), Shylock names the price of a pound of Antonio’s flesh as collateral– to which Antonio high-handedly agrees. When Antonio’s investments at sea are lost, however, and he forfeits his loan, Shylock insists on his “bond,” and the case is tried before a Venetian court.
Shylock (whose misery is compounded by the betrayal of his daughter, Jessica, who has stolen from him and eloped with a Christian) insists on the bond even when offered double. However, when a judge (Portia, in disguise) points out that he is entitled to a pound of flesh— no more, no less– and that the shedding of one drop of Antonio’s Christian blood will be punishable by death, Shylock backs off and accepts the double offer. Too late, though: As a result, Shylock is ultimately divested of all his holdings, publicly disgraced, and coerced into Christian conversion.
England without Jews
A few facts about Shakespeare’s times, to provide perspective: Jews were expelled from England in 1290 by Edward I and weren’t readmitted until 1650 (when they were vilified and treated with contempt). During those intervening centuries in Europe, under a succession of Popes, Jews were consistently and cruelly persecuted.
In Venice, for example, they were forced to live in ghettos, curfewed there after dark, and barred from practicing any trade other than money lending, or “usury” (i.e., lending with interest, a practice that was forbidden to Christians but permitted by Jews, compounding the disdain of the former for the latter as well as the resentment of the co-dependency).
So wherefore Shakespeare’s choice of topic for this play? Historians question whether Shakespeare had ever even met a Jew— although at the time the play was written (1596-97) conversos (converted Jews) lived in England, and stereotypical negative images of Jews were readily available.
Some scholars note that anti-Semitic plays were highly popular in Shakespeare’s time (e. g., Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta), and suggest that the promise of a box-office success might have been a motivation. (Anti-Semitism in Shakespeare’s England has been fully documented in James Shapiro’s recent study, Shakespeare and the Jews, as well as in John Gross’s Shylock: A Legend and Its Legacy.)
But that was 400 years ago. Why is a play with such toxic substance still produced today, Shakespeare’s poetry notwithstanding?
The critic Harold Bloom has pronounced Merchant unplayable in post-Holocaust times. The scholar Anthony Julius, in his new study, Trials of the Diaspora: Anti-Semitism in England, also questions the purpose of its revival, saying it will make audiences “simply recoil; the play is so ambiguous, so troubling, both in its anti-Semitism and in its insights into anti-Semitism, that it mostly causes a perplexed unhappiness, though it has been used often enough in the centuries to promote elation at the spectacle of a Jew’s humiliation.” (It numbered among Hitler’s favorite plays).
Other commentators, including the British playwright Arnold Wesker, have argued that the play should be banned from performance today in its present text. The writer/director Julia Pascal went a step further.
“What do you do with the image of Shylock standing in the court with a knife and scales in front of the bare breast of Antonio?” she asked rhetorically. “It’s the image of the Jew cutting the flesh of the Gentile. It’s the central motif of all anti-Semitism.” Her solution is not censorship, but rather adaptation– one that she frames in a contemporary story of a young Holocaust survivor who visits the Jewish ghetto in Venice and meets a troupe of traveling players rehearsing the play. (Pascal’s adaptation was performed at London’s Arcola Theatre in 2007).
The rabbis object
And yet, the fact that the play continues to be performed on the English-speaking stage in its original text may be a good thing – a kind of cathartic, communal consciousness raising that brings the ugliness and destructiveness of anti-Semitism to light, with the hopes of understanding its roots and salving its deep, inflicting wounds with the balm of Shakespeare’s humanism.
When Joseph Papp, for example, announced that his 1962 production of The Merchant of Venice (starring George C. Scott) would be televised, the New York Board of Rabbis demanded that the airing be cancelled, calling the play “a distortion and defamity of our people and our faith.” (Papp persisted, in the process publicly identifying himself as a Jew, and the production subsequently aired before an audience of 2 million, still the largest U.S. audience to see a Shakespeare play to date at that time.)
Today, all rests, understandably, on the portrayal of Shylock, Shakespeare’s unique creation, of whom critic Harold Bloom writes: “No representation of a Jew in literature ever will surpass Shylock in power, negative eloquence and persuasiveness.” (Some have suggested that the play should have been titled Shylock.)
How do we feel today about this controversial, complex character? Do we hate him for his uncompromising quest for revenge, for his inability to show mercy, for his intention to extract the pound of flesh himself? Or do we feel sympathy for him as the tortured object of such irrational, abusive prejudice? Do we feel compassion for him as a father cruelly betrayed by a daughter? Do we pity him for his devastating public humiliation, for his loss of human rights, of dignity?
Recent productions hinge on the crucial interpretation of this layered and complex character, striving to find ways to portray him as sympathetically as possible, often working against the text in order to do so.
Welles vs. Olivier
In a 1969 film version, Orson Welles played Shylock the traditional way: as scruffy and scrappy, dressed in the black garments of the European hassid, with a scraggly beard and tousled hair. In contrast, Laurence Olivier, who famously called the play “horrid, cruel, and one of the most popular plays in the whole collected volume of Shakespeare,” struck at the heart of the play’s anti-Semitic content with both his words and his interpretation. In Jonathan Miller’s 1970 production he played Shylock as a wealthy, well-dressed, assimilated Jewish businessman, very much the modern British gentleman and a far cry from the hook-nosed, greedy stereotype – thus underscoring the insidious anti-Semitism still perceived to be embedded in the British social system.
“Olivier screamed so loudly after his final exit from the stage that it seemed as if his heart had been crushed,” wrote the critic Edmund Jonah.
More recently in London, Dustin Hoffman’s low-key, genial Shylock (1989) and Henry Goodman’s warm-hearted, Yiddish-speaking Shylock (1999) both sought to downplay the character’s darker side. Next, in 2007, F. Murray Abraham’s Shylock came across as nuanced and human – certainly in comparison to the role of the villainous Barabbas (from Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta), which Abraham also played in repertory at New York’s Theatre for a New Audience.
Pacino the tragic
But now, with Al Pacino’s remarkable interpretation in New York, we have a full-blown, fully integrated, larger-than-life Shylock, incorporating all the contradictory qualities of the character into one towering figure of tragic dimensions.
Yes, “towering” seems a contradictory term, given the stature of the character (a lowly, despised outsider) and the actor playing him (Pacino measures barely five feet). And yet he does tower. Summoning all the powers of his long and illustrious career, Pacino takes the stage in his mere five scenes with an intensity that blows his excellent supporting cast aside like an atomic force.
With his special signature “stance” (feet planted wide apart, facing the audience), gravelly voice and unique speech cadences, Pacino is mesmerizing, relishing the range of the role and playing its complexities with consummate skill. Dressed in a tallit, this actor famous for his daring gives such an unadorned, vulnerable rendition of “Hath not a Jew eyes, hands…?” that we seem to be hearing Shakespeare’s poetry for the first time.
His anger against Antonio and his world rivals that of Oedipus; his steely tenacity matches Creon’s; and the heartbreak over his daughter’s betrayal is Lear-like in proportion. And when Pacino’s Shylock falls so devastatingly, we experience the requisite elements of pity-and-fear that Aristotle called the essence of tragedy.
The inspired director Daniel Sullivan and his superb scenic designers have set the stark world of Venetian finance on the circular Delacorte stage, with rotating wrought-iron elements that suggest a cold, forbidding division of outsiders and insiders. In the cataclysmic trial scene, Shylock stands center-stage, surrounded by a hostile world of Venice in judgment of him. The “outsiders”– Jews clad in tallit– scurry furtively around the whirling periphery, unable to penetrate into the center to help, as Shylock is divested of his possessions, his money and, most cruelly, of his Jewish identity.
It’s a harrowing, heartbreaking image, one that suddenly evoked (in me, at least) an image of Israel today, lonely and isolated, surrounded by a hostile world in judgment. “If you prick us, do we not bleed?.... If you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” Shylock’s questions, delivered so pointedly and powerfully by Pacino, echo Israel’s questions, too, for which, like Shylock’s, there are as yet no answers.
Soon after the trial scene, on an empty stage, there occurs an unexpected moment (one suggested but not specifically written in the original text, I later found). A pool of water is revealed onstage, eerily illuminated by natural moonlight over the Delacorte. Three Venetians, silent and resolute, lead the defeated Shylock to the water’s edge. One Venetian removes Shylock’s skullcap, seizes him by his hair, forces him to his knees, and shoves his head into the water, as the baptism prayer is recited in Latin. As the Venetian yanks Shylock’s head up, Pacino gasps for breath.
Three times this ritual is repeated, directed by Sullivan with cold, surgical precision. The ritual is completed; the Venetians leave the stage. Pacino rises to his feet, picks up the skullcap, kisses it and places it back on his head. An unforgettable moment, in an unforgettable production.♦
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