Playing Shylock

Playing Shylock

In conversation with Richard Brown who is playing Shylock in 'The Merchant of Venice' at the ADC Theatre this July.

I like to ask straightforward questions about my character, which eventually stray into simply asking is he nice or is he nasty, hero or villain? Give me Macbeth or Richard III, no problem. But Shylock, now, that is a very different matter. He is proud of his Jewish world, but he hates Christians, he is a concerned father, but he is also a tyrant to his daughter, he is a successful businessman but in a rigged economy, a crusader for common humanity and decency but equally a hater, a schemer, intransigent and inflexible. You could say that he is a bit like all of us, a complicated, complex jumble of conflicting characters and emotions, depending on which way the wind is blowing. Most actors approaching his part learn not to iron him out. He is a lot of different things. Go with them all and at the end of it you will have a Shylock. But that will never be a definitive Shylock, and that is my point.

In a wonderful masterclass of the 80s, John Barton, co-founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company, talked about the part with two famous actors who have played him: David Suchet (who is Jewish) and Patrick Stewart (who is not). Their approaches to Shylock were very different but somehow they both ended up in the same place. And their verdict? Shylock is both a bad man and a bad Jew.

But that was in the 80s. The world was a different place then. I cannot help but feel we live in a world of greater tensions now. Things move on, so has our view of Shylock also moved on? It is worth asking the question, but in doing so, where do you start?

Photo by Paul Ashley

What does history tell us and how has it influenced our thinking?

We might as well start with Shakespeare’s own time. I think we can be pretty certain that Shakespeare never visited Venice. However his placing of this drama in that city shows a great understanding.  Venice was indeed a major centre of commerce and it did indeed tolerate a Jewish quarter. The quarter was a restricted, gated area, and was called the Ghetto. This was the original of a term widely used since and associated with the Holocaust. But in creating Shylock as his villain or victim in the play, would this have struck a chord with his audience? Probably not. The Jewish population of England had been expelled in the thirteenth century by Edward I. There were no Jewish quarters in London. True, laws could be quite relaxed and there was a famous case which may well have influenced Shakespeare’s writing. Around two years before he wrote The Merchant, Roderigo Lopez was hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn. Lopez was a Portuguese physician of Jewish faith who had become a doctor to Queen Elizabeth, was not only allowed into the country but was apparently doing rather well for himself. Unfortunately he ran foul of Elizabeth’s favourite, the Earl of Essex, who trumped up charges against him and Lopez was accused of being “a perjured, murdering villain and a Jewish doctor worse than Judas himself…”  He stood no chance. Still, no doubt, the audiences to Shakespeare’s play would have delighted in Shylock’s downfall, some no doubt would have witnessed Lopez’s grizzly end. Without hesitation he would have been seen as a villain. In a society far less compassionate than our own I doubt if anyone would have cared.

Photo by Paul Ashley

And more recently …

Over the years leading up to the Second World war, I doubt if this attitude would have changed. We know even in early 20th Century literature, Jewish characters were generally held in contempt. But also, just look up the images of Victorian actors playing Shylock. There it all is, exaggerated makeup, grotesque expression, quite clearly revelling in Shylock the outsider in decent society.

But…. whether consciously done or not, it is the genius of Shakespeare’s writing and characterisation that he leaves just enough wriggle-room for interpretation to be turned completely on its head. I know from acting the part that a small change of emphasis on one line or even one word can create the very opposite impression.

Since the Holocaust, the trauma has shaken us out of our stupor of stereotyping races and individuals (well, maybe not entirely but in that case our target lies in other areas). We now understand so much more the frustration and claustrophobia of Shylock. Now, even more than the 1980s I have just mentioned.

Photo by Paul Ashley

A personal interpretation and theory …

So, for what it is worth, I would like to think of my Shylock as a man frustrated at every turn by prejudice and contempt, a wronged man but one who, his better judgement being stifled by the world around him, allows himself to follow the wrong paths, make the wrong decisions. Perhaps, ultimately he is a bad man, but we can see why.

A postscript which is a personal theory: I have said that in Shakespeare’s time, Jewish persecution was not rife in England simply because there were few Jews. But persecution for belief was one of the strongest themes of the times. Under Queen Mary it was Protestants, under Elizabeth in was Catholics. There is circumstantial evidence to suggest that the Shakespeare family were sympathetic to Catholicism. However to produce a Catholic victim for a tragedy might be a step too far.  Maybe when Shakespeare turned to a Jewish villain, was there a parallel in his mind? In which case, for Shylock, read any victimised group of people in the World. That is a theme that will keep changing for centuries.

Shakespeare Shorts: The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night
Tuesday 11 - Saturday 15 July 2023, 7.45PM
Saturday 15 July 2023, 2.30PM
Tickets from £11

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