Shylock – A History

The figure of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, perhaps more than any other character of Shakespeare’s, has divided critics and audiences for centuries. How are we to take this money-hungry usurer, who tries to claim a pound of another human’s flesh in payment of a debt? And what bearing does Shylock’s religion have on how he is perceived by the audience?

Shakespeare was not the first to put a Jewish character on the English stage. Some years before, dramatist Christopher Marlowe wrote a play called The Jew of Malta. His protagonist, Barabbas, was truly evil – he murders numerous characters, and poisons a convent full of nuns! By comparison, Shakespeare’s treatment of Shylock is more even-handed. He does some things that we might consider wrong, like seeking revenge on Antonio. At the same time, he is never purely evil for evil’s sake, and Shakespeare gives him a depth of motivation lacking in Marlowe’s play. Can you think of any moments in the play that might cause Shylock to act as he does?

Little is known about performances of The Merchant of Venice during Shakespeare’s life-time. We do know that it was acted more than once for King James at Whitehall palace in 1603, which suggests it was popular. Then the stage history of the play falls silent for almost one hundred years, until a man called George Granville re-wrote parts of Shakespeare’s play and called it The Jew of Venice: A Comedy in 1701. The fact that Shylock’s character now features in the title shows how important his role would become in the success or failure of future productions. The subtitle ‘A Comedy’ raises the question of whether Shakespeare ever intended the role of Shylock to be funny.

It is listed under Comedy in the collected works of Shakespeare from 1623 – what do you make of this play falling into the category of ‘Comedy’? Can you suggest any other categories that might suit the play better?

Over time, actors who played the role of Shylock felt that he was more tragic than comic, and brought to the part a complexity that went beyond easy caricature. Shylock was not a figure of fun, but a flawed human being, worthy of sympathy instead of laughter. Shakespeare’s writing is so flexible that there is still no final word on how to play the part. In the eighteenth century you could go to see a mean and malicious portrayal by Charles Macklin, while at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Edmund Kean brought to the role a new sense of dignity. Instead of the bright red beard associated with Shylock previously, Kean wore his hair black – suddenly it was becoming harder to see what the difference was between Shylock and everyone else. As Portia asks in the trial scene,

‘Which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?' (4.1.70)

In the late nineteenth century, an actor called Henry Irving took Shylock in a new direction. By re-arranging parts of the text, he emphasised how Shylock is picked on by other characters, who disliked him because of his religion. Suddenly Shylock’s actions were not simply the product of a character flaw, they came from years of persecution and bullying. This forced characters, and audiences, to think about their own role in Shylock’s actions, since he has been pushed to the limit of his patience. Suddenly Shakespeare’s play was transformed from an anti-Semitic play (unwilling to accept Jewishness) to a play about anti-Semitism. What is the difference between these two, in your opinion? 

After World War II, nothing could be the same again. During the Holocaust, millions of Jewish people were murdered in Europe.Suddenly Shakespeare’s play had an impact that he could never have predicted. A German production in 1985 cast a Holocaust survivor, Fred Düren, as Shylock, and in the trial scene he wore a gabardine and the dress of a concentration camp inmate. Audiences were made to face the logical conclusion of hating a person because of their faith. Considering what you know about World War II, should this affect how actors and audiences interpret Shakespeare’s play?

In 1970, Laurence Olivier played Shylock at the Old Vic theatre, under director Jonathan Miller.  Wearing the yarmulke, or traditional Jewish skull cap, Olivier’s Shylock showed his contempt for the malicious Venetians. Now the malice was no longer centred on one place (Shylock) but shared equally by the inhabitants of Venice. John Barton took a different tack when he directed Patrick Stewart as Shylock for the RSC in 1978. Here Shylock is again the bad guy, who locks away his money and slaps his daughter without cause. This ran the risk of appearing to be anti-Semitic. In your own reading, do you see Shylock as a villain or a victim? Has this changed over time? Why?

In Michael Radford’s film from 2004, Al Pacino plays Shylock as a tragic outsider, who is spat on by Jeremy Irons’ Antonio in the opening sequence. Pacino brings the necessary intensity to the role, and there is no question that he is a broken man by the end of the play. While Radford’s film is set in Renaissance Venice, some directors have updated and relocated Shakespeare’s story. Rupert Goold’s 2011 production at the RSC swapped Venice for Vegas, and Patrick Stewart as Shylock was surrounded by the seedy underbelly of the casinos in Sin City. Would you update the play if given the chance? When and where would you set it?

The open-air space of the Globe theatre means that whatever happens onstage includes the audience too. During the Globe-to-Globe festival in 2012, the theatre invited the national theatre of Israel to perform the play in Hebrew, by a cast of Jewish actors, meaning that Shylock’s vindictiveness was not about religion. How did you find being able to see the rest of the audience during the show? Was it distracting, or did you feel you were part of something bigger?

Dr Derek Dunne
Globe Teaching Associate