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Shylock in Red?

In response to:

Shakespeare & Shylock from the September 30, 2010 issue

To the Editors:

In an otherwise illuminating review of the Public Theater’s production of The Merchant of Venice [NYR, September 30], Stephen Greenblatt writes that in “the earliest productions, Shylock was played with a bright red wig and a grotesque hooked nose.” There’s no evidence for this in Shakespeare’s play at all—in contrast to Christopher Marlowe’s caricature Barabas in The Jew of Malta, who does resemble this medieval stereotype. The tradition that Shakespeare’s Shylock was “a red-hair’d Jew” derives from a forgery perpetrated by the nineteenth-century scholar John Payne Collier, but not even Collier says anything about a grotesque or hooked nose. Other than the loose upper garment that he wears (which Shylock calls “my Jewish gaberdine”), there’s nothing in The Merchant of Venice that visibly distinguishes Shylock from his Christian adversaries. And that’s exactly Shakespeare’s point.

James Shapiro
Columbia University New York City

Stephen Greenblatt replies:

I am grateful for James Shapiro’s welcome reminder that, for all we know, Richard Burbage—if he was, as is sometimes thought, the first Shylock—may not have looked significantly different from Antonio: after all, that is, as I remarked in my article, a possible implication of Portia’s question (cut by Daniel Sullivan), “Which is the merchant here and which the Jew?” But for my description of the old theatrical tradition of playing Shylock with red wig and hooked nose, I was relying on the earliest surviving allusion: not Collier’s nineteenth-century forged elegy to Burbage but rather a much earlier source, one whose authenticity has not, as far I know, been called into question. In 1664, Thomas Jordan (circa 1614–1685), who had before the Civil War been an actor with the King’s Revels Company, wrote a ballad retelling the plot of Shakespeare’s play. The ballad is pedestrian enough, but its description of the “vile Jew” provides a highly probable glimpse of Shylock’s early stage appearance:

His beard was red; his face was made
Not much unlike a witches.
His habit was a Jewish gown,
That would defend all weather;
His chin turned up, his nose hung down,
And both ends met together.
(Reprinted in the New Variorum Merchant of Venice, edited by Henry Howard Furness, 1888)
This is not, to be sure, proof positive, but it is striking that when in the nineteenth century the great actor Edmund Kean performed the part in Drury Lane, spectators were evidently taken by surprise: “By Jove! Shylock in a black wig!”

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