My Problem with Shylock

By Cary M. Mazer, Guest Dramaturg

Cary M. Mazer is Chair of the Theatre Arts Program at the University of Pennsylvania, where he teaches theatre history and dramatic literature, directs, and writes about Shakespeare Performance History. At People's Light, he has served as Guest Dramaturg for
The Importance of Being Earnest, Misalliance, and Heartbreak House.
Sometimes I just wish that, like Shakespeare’s lost plays, Love’s Labors Won and Cardenio, no copies of the script of The Merchant of Venice had survived. It would make things much simpler. Yes, I know: the dramatist invests the character Shylock with a stubborn streak of humanity, which rises up to surprise us just when we think we know the character, and that potentially elevates the character beyond the stereotype of the villainous Jewish moneylender. I know that Shylock is almost angelic compared to Barabas, the nun-poisoning title character of The Jew of Malta, a bloody play of intrigue by Shakespeare’s earlier contemporary Christopher Marlowe. And I know that the great actors of the past four centuries have relished the character’s contradictions and complexities, as I’m sure Paul Meshejian will when the People’s Light production goes into rehearsal.

But however much Shakespeare’s dramatic creation goes beyond the stereotypes promulgated by contemporary culture and the contemporary stage, the outlines of the stereotype are still there. Shylock is a usurer, and by his own admission hates his rival Antonio for lending money without interest, thereby undercutting his business. He rates virtually all human relationships—even with his own wayward daughter, and with the memory of his beloved wife—in terms of their monetary value. In defense of his right to take revenge on his Christian enemies, he is given one of the most eloquent statements of human dignity; but this magnificent speech ("Hath not a Jew eyes ... ?") is, nonetheless, a self-serving justification of his own desire to wreak a horrible, inexorable, unrelenting, bloody revenge. As recent scholars (most notably James Shapiro, in his book Shakespeare and the Jews) have demonstrated, Shylock, whatever his complexity and humanity, is the repository of centuries of cultural anxieties about Jews: that they bear collective guilt for Christ’s crucifixion; that they can’t be trusted when they refuse to convert to Christianity, and can be trusted even less when they do; that they murder Christian children and harvest their blood to bake their Passover matzoh; that they will forcibly convert and forcibly circumcise and/or castrate adult male Christians. None of this may be explicitly present in Shakespeare’s depiction of a Jew; but the image of a Jew, knife drawn and freshly sharpened, murderously approaching a saintly sacrificial Christian to extract a portion of human flesh, certainly plays into the worst fears, and the worst stereotypes, of contemporary Christian society.

It is no wonder, then, that for all of the productions over the past century that were sympathetic to Shylock (and for all of the Jewish actors who played the role, such as David Warfield, Morris Carnovsky, Albert Basserman, David Suchet, Dustin Hoffman, Anthony Sher, Ron Liebman, Henry Goodman and others) the play has been strangely attractive to anti-Semites. Werner Krauss, who had played Shylock in one of the many pre-WWII German productions directed by Max Reinhardt, reprised the role for a blatantly anti-Semitic production in Germany sponsored by the Nazis, capitalizing on his notoriety for playing the villainous title character in the notorious propaganda movie, Jew Süss. And even productions with a far less sinister agenda have – intentionally or inadvertently – played into the play’s seductive anti-Semitism. When the reconstruction of the original Globe Theatre finally opened in London for its first season in 1997, the Artistic Director discovered that the audience at their premiere production of Henry V enjoyed booing the French generals standing in the way of Henry’s victorious conquest of France; wishing to reprise this sense of audience involvement, they revived The Merchant of Venice the next year, inviting the audience to boo at Shylock, to laugh at his agonies over his daughter’s betrayal, and to cheer when he is finally ignominiously banished from the stage. I’m glad I wasn’t there to see it.

And so, I sometimes wish the play would just go away.

When I was invited to serve as Guest Dramaturg for this production, I imagined that I had been hired in part because I was a Shakespeare scholar, because I was a specialist in the performance history of the plays, and because I had worked with the company before. But I suspect that I was hired because I am a Jew, and, like a canary in a mineshaft, could provide an early warning to the artistic staff about how the production might play to Jews in the audience.

As I cannot make the play’s anti-Semitism disappear, I might feel it my responsibility as a dramaturg to subvert the play, to stand it on its head. There’s plenty of precedent for this. Nineteenth-century productions romanticized Shylock, seriously tipping the balance of the play from comedy to tragedy. Other productions have tried to free the play from its latent anti-Semitism by making it a play about anti-Semitism, either by making the Christian characters as venomous in their hatred of Jews as Shylock is of the Christians, or (in Bill Alexander’s notable 1987 production for the Royal Shakespeare Company) by making Shylock so grandly unpleasant that we in the audience found ourselves being seduced into our own prejudicial hatred. Other productions have framed the action as a play-within-a-play, most notably George Tabori’s multiple post-WWII adaptations, in which he imagines inmates in a Nazi concentration camp being forced by their commandant to perform the play for the entertainment of the guards. Playwright Arnold Wesker became so frustrated with the limitations of such tinkerings with the play that he rewrote it altogether, creating his own play The Merchant (later retitled Shylock).

But that’s not my job as a dramaturg. It’s up to the dramaturg to assist the director and the actors in this process of exploration. Our collective job is to ask questions, not to find answers; a difficult play like this isn’t designed to be "solved," but rather to be brought to life, in whatever richness and complexity this particular group of actors can discover.

If we’re lucky, we can create a world that can account for Jew and gentile alike, for feelings of love and community as well as prejudice and hatred – a world of commerce and merchandise in which people learn what things are truly worth to them, even if a few of them never learn that lesson, or learn instead the wrong lesson of hatred, vengeance, vindictiveness and exclusion. If we succeed, the play in performance might prove not to be inherently anti-Semitic, but rather will be... Well, I’ll just have to wait and see what it turns out to be.

And if we don’t succeed, we might inadvertently play into the play’s own hatefulness. Working on a play that is in part about complicity, I will have become an accomplice.

But then again: like Antonio the merchant offering to wager his life to stake his friend’s romantic ventures; like Bassanio choosing from among the three caskets; and like Shylock daring to become a murderer to achieve his own personal sense of justice, I’ll just have to take the risk. As the characters in the play discover, you can’t know what something is worth to you unless you are willing to risk something for it.