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 …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.