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Playing the Unplayable

Shylock: A Legend and Its Legacy

by John Gross
Simon and Schuster, 386 pp., $25.00

Histories of the staging of Shakespeare’s plays have changed a good deal in the decades since G.C.D. Odell’s extensive Shakespeare from Betterton to Irving, published in two volumes in 1920. The fascinating new books by John Gross and Marvin Rosenberg are both brimming with fresh ideas and information that will ensure their being read for decades to come.

As his subtitle shows, Mr. Gross’s book is much more than a stage history of Shylock. He begins with “an account of the elements that went into” Shylock’s making—stereotypes of Jews as they were seen before Shakespeare—and then traces Shylock’s fortunes “in the theater, at the hands of critics and commentators, as an inspiration to other writers, as a symbol and a source of debate.” He is concerned not only with Shylock but also with “the history of folklore and mass-psychology, of politics and popular culture”—and particularly with the history of anti-Semitism.

Before Shakespeare created Shylock, the myth of “the Jew” portrayed a poisoner (like Marlowe’s Barabas in The Jew of Malta), a sorcerer, a ritual murderer—in short, a monster. Shakespeare reactivated the myth but according to Mr. Gross “muted some of its uglier aspects.” On the other hand, “there is no hint in Shylock of an inner faith, or of religion as a way of life…[His] stage-Judaism is a pseudo-religion, a fabrication.”

Naturally Mr. Gross wonders how much firsthand knowledge of Jews went into the invention of Shylock.

Officially there had been no Jews in the country for centuries. But a handful of Marranos, crypto-Jews from Spain and Portugal, made their way to London during the reign of Henry VIII, and a somewhat larger colony, numbering perhaps a hundred in all, established itself during the reign of Elizabeth.

Outwardly these Marranos were Christians, “but they retained many Jewish affiliations, and some of them may well have practiced Jewish ceremonies in private.” Could Shakespeare have known any? “Yes—but there is absolutely nothing to show that he did.” There is no hard evidence that Shakespeare ever met a Jew. But what of the amazing “Jewishness” of Shylock, so different from any Jew in pre-Shakespearian literature? (“Jewishness,” says Mr. Gross, “is one of his primary characteristics; he emphasizes it himself, and it is emphasized for him by everyone with whom he has dealings.”) Did Shakespeare create this Jewishness ex nihilo and impose it on a mindlessly unresisting world, or did Shylock become an icon because many take him to be quintessentially Jewish, even if less agreeably so than any Jew they have personally known? “To the audiences of the world Shylock is the embodiment of the Jew,” says Supposnik, a character in Philip Roth’s Operation Shylock, “in the way that Uncle Sam embodies for them the spirit of the United States.” In a recent review of Roth’s novel Harold Bloom called Shylock “the ultimate Jew,” and added:

Is there a more memorable Jewish character in all of Western literature than Shylock? As a critic, not a novelist, I myself am unhappy at confessing that I do not know a stronger Jewish character than Shakespeare’s anti-Semitic creation, who has an existence as convincing as Hamlet or Iago even though compared to Hamlet or Iago he speaks only very few lines.1

Shylock is a libel, but at the same time so convincing that he—together with Tubal and Jessica, in effect a Jewish community—must have been based on direct observation.

But how? Some years ago I read the following, in an early version of the modern newspaper. “Saturday, 2 June [1655]. This day some Jews were seen to meet in Hackney; it being their Sabbath day, at their devotion. All very clean and neat, in the corner of a garden, by an house, all of them with their faces towards the East; their Minister foremost, and the rest all behind him.”2

An unusual event, it seems. The not unfriendly tone is interesting—and such a “meeting” might just have been witnessed by Shakespeare in the 1590s, when he wrote The Merchant of Venice. The play, however, raises the possibility of something more than the playwright’s glancing contact. So we must remember that many foreigners came to London, and that Shakespeare seems to have sought them out. For instance, he actually lived as a lodger with a French Huguenot family, from about 1602; the Globe theater was built by Peter Street, a carpenter and contractor of Dutch origin; our only surviving likenesses of Shakespeare, the Stratford bust and the First Folio engraving, were the work of Gheerart Janssen and Martin Droeshout, both members of London’s immigrant community.

Even more to the point, Shakespeare wrote Othello not long after a Moorish embassy arrived in London. The Moors caused quite a stir,3 and Shakespeare, as a servant of the Lord Chamberlain, could easily have observed them. I believe that there is every likelihood that Shylock—like Othello, Fluellen, Dr. Caius, and many more—was distilled from raw materials personally encountered, or even sought out, by the dramatist.

Either at home, or perhaps abroad, Shakespeare seems to have come across a Jewish family, or community. (And why not abroad? Was he less curious about human diversity than Marlowe, Jonson, Donne, and all the other writers who managed to cross the seas?) Yet Mr. Gross makes out a good case for believing that however far Shakespeare traveled, he did not get as far as Venice, at any rate by the time he wrote The Merchant.

More than 2,500 Jews had settled in Venice by 1600, in the Ghetto Nuovo and the Ghetto Vecchio. “The ghetto system, which was subsequently adopted, along with the name ‘ghetto,’ by other Italian cities,” is not referred to by Shakespeare.

Shakespeare’s knowledge of Jewish life in Venice was clearly very limited. It is true that in a number of respects the picture he draws coincides with actual conditions. He is right, for example, in his assumption that Shylock’s legal status is that of an alien…. But there are also mistakes, such as the notion that a Jew would have been allowed to have a Christian servant living in his house, in the way that Lancelot Gobbo does.

And “Shylock would no more have felt free to dine with Bassanio, as he does in the play, than Bassanio would have felt free to invite him.” (A question: Although Shylock changes his mind later, does his first reaction, when invited to dinner, not mean that Shakespeare knew how strongly Jews felt about kosher cooking? “Yes, to smell pork, to eat of the habitation which your prophet the Nazarite conjured the devil into! I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following; but I will not eat with you…” [Act I, scene iii]).

Tracking Shylock and his interpreters through the centuries, and through many countries, Mr. Gross expresses doubts about various familiar reductions of the play to oppositions such as Judaism vs. Christianity or Justice vs. Mercy. “Needless to say,” he explains, “the notion that Judaism has an inadequate grasp of the concept of mercy is a travesty—as much of a travesty as it would be to suppose that Christianity has an inadequate grasp of the concept of justice…endless exhortations to deal mercifully can be found in the writings of the Rabbis.”

He is equally opposed to simplifications of Shylock. “Shylock would not have held the stage for four hundred years if he were a mere stereotype.” Yet Macklin’s Shylock of 1741 (described as “unyieldingly malignant”) seems to have come close to a stereotype, and is treated generously by Mr. Gross: this was “one of the great triumphs of the eighteenth-century stage.” He leaves us in no doubt, though, that later performers had a better understanding of Shylock’s complexities. Particularly Edmund Kean (from 1814) and Henry Irving (from 1879), both strong on “dignity,” two of the greatest Shylocks of modern times.

Kean’s “impassioned acting” worked for and against Shylock, making him more three-dimensional than Macklin’s. Audiences thrilled “to the sudden musical charm of [Kean’s] voice when he addressed Jessica, to his chuckle when he said ‘I cannot find it in the bond.’ ”

At the exclamation, “I would my daughter were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear! would she were hearsed at my foot, and the ducats in her coffin!” [Kean] started back, as with a revulsion of paternal feeling…[and he] gasped an agonizing “No, no, no.”

As for Irving, Shylock’s complexities first dawned on him while on a Mediterranean yachting cruise. He landed at Tunis, and there saw a Jewish merchant, “at one moment calm and self-possessed, then in a helpless rage over a dispute about money…. He was never undignified until he tore at his hair and flung himself down…he was old, but erect, even stately…. As he walked beside his team of mules he carried himself with the lofty air of a king”—a performance transferred direct from Tunis to the Lyceum Theatre, London (except that, inexplicably, Irving omitted the team of mules).

While he dislikes stereotypes, Mr. Gross is admirably open-minded about many different interpretations of Shylock, accepting that the spirit of the play “can cover a number of possibilities.” I thought him too open-minded about Shylock’s opponents.

Ease, grace, attractiveness—those are the province of [Shylock’s] enemies….We should not take the professions of the “gentle” characters entirely at face value. They can be decidedly businesslike when it comes to pursuing their own interests….But that does not mean that we are supposed to “see through” them, or to identify them with their limitations.

This is generosity to a fault, and Mr. Gross knows it. He worries about Bassanio and his friends, and the audience’s response to them, and later returns to this issue as if fingering a wound.

He is aware, of course, that many critics have expressed a different view. Hazlitt could “hardly help sympathizing with the proud spirit [of Shylock],” and was unhappy about the “triumphant pretensions of his enemies”4—Hazlitt, though, was a “man of the left,” and therefore, it seems, predisposed to quarrel with the establishment. Thomas Campbell, who thought that Shakespeare traces the blame for the play’s racial antagonism “to the iniquity of the Christian world,” was likewise on the political left, and (hmm!) “was also closely associated with the Jewish financier and philanthropist Isaac Lyon Goldsmid.” Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch may have dismissed most of the play’s Christians as either “wasters” or “rotters,” but we don’t need to take him too seriously since he was “nearly fifty when he first became a don in 1912, [and he] retained much of the free and easy style of the man of letters” (a sad put-down, from the author of The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters).

I am being unfair: Mr. Gross’s scattered asides, as he disposes of “dissident” interpretations, must not be ascribed to prejudice but rather to his anxiety to do justice to both sides. That said, should we not look beyond the prejudices of later critics (most of them seem to have been prejudiced one way or the other), to the prejudices of Shakespeare’s own day? In Shylock’s case, and also in Bassanio’s?

  1. 1

    The New York Review, April 22, 1993, p. 48.

  2. 2

    Perfect Proceedings of State-Affairs, in England, Scotland and Ireland, No. 297 (spelling modernized).

  3. 3

    See Bernard Harris, “A Portrait of a Moor,” Shakespeare Survey 11 (1958), pp. 89–97.

  4. 4

    Hazlitt, Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays.

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