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Shakespeare & Shylock

The Merchant of Venice

a play by William Shakespeare, directed by Daniel Sullivan
at the Delacorte Theater, New York City, June 8–August 1, 2010; and the Broadhurst Theater, New York City, October 19, 2010–January 9, 2011
Joan Marcus
Al Pacino as Shylock and Lily Rabe as Portia in the Shakespeare in the Park production of The Merchant of Venice, New York City, 2010


On the streets of Warsaw and Kraków, alongside carved wooden figurines of Saint Nicholas and potbellied beer drinkers, they sell little Orthodox Jews, black-capped, black-garbed, and bearded. A few wear the tallit, the prayer shawl; others play the fiddle and the horn for klezmer music; but the great majority are sad-faced men with staring eyes and their hands held in front of them forming a slot in which is inserted not a prayer book but a złoty. I have severely undeveloped taste for kitsch and have no idea why people find these objects cute or funny. The yid always clings to money? Or the poor yid is down to his last cent? Or, when you are looking for money, you can always turn at last resort to a yid?

I am confident that a certain percentage of those who buy the figurines are themselves Jews, picking up a souvenir of their visit to Auschwitz or their package tour of the sites Steven Spielberg used in filming Schindler’s List. On the shelf back home the tchotchkes serve as a material reminder of the completed pilgrimage—like the little badges that Christian pilgrims in the Middle Ages used to buy at Santiago de Compostela—or perhaps as an emblem of the terrible fate that they, the modern pilgrims, somehow avoided.

There were moments in the Public Theater’s recent Merchant of Venice, directed by Daniel Sullivan and performed at Shakespeare in the Park, in which Al Pacino’s rumpled, bearded Shylock uncannily resembled one of these Polish figurines. Pacino is, for a start, very short—next to Byron Jennings’s lean, anguished Antonio or Lily Rabe’s statuesque Portia, he looked positively shrunken in the black suit by costume designer Jess Goldstein, seeming more an animated block of hard wood than a creature of flesh and blood. (The sense that he was a manikin was heightened by the rapturous applause of the starstruck audience, which treated his mere appearance on stage as if it were an impressive conjuring trick, a celluloid image come to life.)

Pacino’s miming of a Jew was itself an odd piece of artifice, bearing roughly the relation to any imaginable Jewish reality that the figurines for sale in Warsaw bear to Roman Vishniac’s photographs of the doomed inhabitants of the ghetto. “Ay yam contendt,” his broken moneylender, reluctantly agreeing to convert to Christianity, declared in accents that only alluded to the way Jewish immigrants actually sounded. Pacino’s distance from the truth of my grandpa Mendel, my cousin Meyer, and innumerable others did not seem to me a sign of failure; rather it served simply to reinforce the still greater and more consequential distance between Shakespeare’s imaginary Jew and the real sixteenth-century Jews whom Shakespeare, the inhabitant of a country that in the wake of the expulsion of 1290 was effectively Judenrein, could not have encountered.1

In the earliest productions, Shylock was played with a bright red wig and a grotesque hooked nose. He was in appearance the wicked Jew of anti-Semitic fantasy, one of those hideous faces that leer at the suffering Jesus in paintings by Hieronymus Bosch. That Shylock has not always seemed completely fantastic—the equivalent of the Big Bad Wolf or the malevolent dwarf in “Rumpelstiltskin”—is the consequence of Shakespeare’s eerie, virtually uncontrollable ability to confer reality on whatever he chose to imagine. In the case of The Merchant of Venice, that ability put intolerable strains on the structure of the comedy, so that the last act, with its music and its banter about the rings, has proved almost impossible to bring off successfully.

To his credit, Daniel Sullivan does not even try for a comic finale: none of the lovers is remotely happy; disappointment, betrayal, and recrimination lurk just below the surface; and the playful vows to abjure the marriage bed forever have the queasy air of irrevocability. The flood of money cannot wash away the pain in Antonio’s face as pretty, petulant Bassanio waves him away, while lonely Jessica despondently drops the deed of gift her father has been forced to sign into the pool by which she sits. A few moments earlier, at the close of the previous scene, that pool had served as the baptismal font into which Shylock was shoved, and it is as if that vivid bit of stage business has contaminated its waters. “I am sure you are not satisfied,” Portia says in her final speech; never have words rung so true.

But the play’s structural defects are more than compensated for in the stupendous opportunity it has long presented to the actor playing Shylock. The great performances of our time have included Laurence Olivier’s neurotic, buttoned-up Victorian businessman, barely controlling the hysteria to which he is destined to succumb; Anthony Sher’s intellectual avenger who tragically fails at the last moment to do what he had set out to do; Henry Goodman’s unbearably poignant Weimar outsider caught up, along with Portia, in a spiraling horror neither of them can escape; and, more recently, Murray Abraham’s tormented, passionate father in a decadent Venice indifferent to his anguish.

Al Pacino does not belong in this company. His Shylock had no inner life or psychic resources, no baffled search for a source of comfort, no deep pathos, no gleeful intelligence, no sly comedy. Even his painful memories of his dead wife Leah, whose turquoise ring Jessica has stolen and traded for a monkey, lacked conviction. The poignancy of Shylock’s agonized protest—“I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys”—rests on that word “wilderness,” but Pacino let the emphasis fall heavily on “monkeys,” as if the question were whether Jessica had struck a sufficient bargain for so valuable an object. On such seemingly insignificant details, the complexity of a character is built—or, in this case, fails to be built.

But Pacino did convey one thing brilliantly: what Shylock calls “a lodged hate and a certain loathing” he feels for the Christian Antonio. All of the best moments in this production were built around this all-consuming hatred. “I’ll have my bond,” Pacino spat out again and again with insane rage and vindictiveness at the merchant kneeling before him. And in the courtroom, reiterating implacably, “An oath, an oath! I have an oath in heaven,” Pacino struck what seemed to be a prayer book in his hand: “By our holy Sabbath have I sworn/To have the due and forfeit of my bond.” The murderous hatred his Shylock feels is a religious obligation.

In some productions, the feeling is mutual, so that Shylock the Christian-hater and Antonio the Jew-hater are doubles, as the simple question asked in the courtroom seems to imply: “Which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?” But not in this production: Daniel Sullivan cut the line completely. No one in his right mind could confuse these two antagonists. The Christian characters are generally softened: Salerio and Solanio are harmless ciphers, Graziano is more gracious than grating, Antonio overcomes his reluctance and shakes Shylock’s hand even before their contract is agreed upon. Cuts remove the clown Lancelot’s horrible tormenting of his blind father and spare Portia her racist slur on the complexion of the Prince of Morocco.

All that is left then is Shylock’s hatred, and the question is what that hatred means, in this production and in the play that Shakespeare wrote.


In the great courtroom scene, The Merchant of Venice stages an appeal to mercy as a universal human value that transcends all local enmities, all sectarian differences, all political and legal systems, particularly those that attempt to define, to restrict too narrowly, or to compel—Shakespeare’s word is “strain”—their desired results:

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath.

But Pacino’s Shylock listened to the words with an expression of weary contempt, as if he had heard of all this humbuggery before, presumably in the Christian sermons that Venetian Jews were forced to attend. Surrounded by the hostile goyim—the spectators in Sullivan’s production formed a kind of lynch mob—the Jew could easily detect, beneath the language of universalism, the allusion to the Lord’s Prayer:

Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this:
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy,
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.

Portia’s talk of salvation anticipates the final solution to the dilemma of hatred that the play will shortly reach: the forced conversion of Shylock to Christianity.

Forced” is perhaps not quite right. Compulsion is an unwelcome guest at comedy’s banquet. Christianity linked its eschatological hopes to the conversion of the Jews, but it did not want the generous offer of redemption to be enforced by the execution of those who refused to be saved. Jews could be made to feel the consequences of their stubbornness—spat upon, beaten, forced to live in ghettos, excluded from most occupations, wantonly robbed, and on occasion abandoned to the homicidal wrath of the mob—but they could not simply be told that they must convert or die. Hence in Shakespeare’s Venetian courtroom, Shylock’s “consent” is specifically solicited:

PORTIA: Art thou contented, Jew? What dost thou say?
SHYLOCK: I am content.

But of course, the duke has just declared explicitly that Shylock “shall do this, or else I do recant/The pardon that I late pronouncèd here.” The pardon in question is of a death sentence. So the guilty Jew, after all, is given the choice of losing his life or converting. He chooses, perhaps not surprisingly, to become a Christian and thereby to ratify his own absorption and that of his only child into the dominant religion and the dominant culture. And with that absorption, he quietly disappears.

Jews in the sixteenth century routinely called upon God to avenge their injuries at the hands of the goyim. Then, as now, the Passover Haggadah incorporated the bitter verses of Psalm 79:

Pour out Your wrath upon the nations which do not know You,
And upon the kingdoms which do not call upon Your name.

But the vengeance for which they prayed was the Almighty’s. Whatever they felt in their hearts, the inhabitants of the ghetto did not publicly declare their own murderous designs upon Christianity, and they did not in fact pose a threat to their persecutors. There were no Jewish gunpowder plots, no fraternity of assassins secretly meeting in synagogue basements.

Of course, medieval and Renaissance Europeans heard horrific stories about the Jews, and the fact that we now know those stories to have been untrue is obviously irrelevant to their contemporary impact. Chaucer’s prioress was not alone in rehearsing the myth that Jews routinely murdered Christian children. The myth, often linked to the notion that the victims’ blood was used to make Passover matzoh, had sufficient credibility to lead repeatedly to the trial and execution of Jews accused of ritual murder. As late as 1913 the charge was brought against Menachem Beilis in Kiev; Beilis was acquitted, but only when the jury split by a vote of six to six.

  1. 1

    In Blood Relations: Christian and Jew in The Merchant of Venice (University of Chicago Press, 2008), the late Janet Adelman, reviewing the evidence that individuals and small groups of converted Jews were living in England in Shakespeare’s lifetime, argues that they have a “shadowy” presence in his depiction of Shylock. See also James Shapiro, Shakespeare and the Jews (Columbia University Press, 1996). 

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