(l-r) Anton Golikov and Adam Capriolo-Morris
How I will Interpret the Role of Shylock
A character outline
by Adam Capriolo-Morris
When I was cast as Shylock, I had to decide how to portray him. This role has caused controversy for centuries; depending on how he is portrayed, the tone of the play can change drastically. If he is played as a villainous Jew, the play appears clearly anti-Semitic; the audience feels sympathy for Antonio, the merchant who was threatened by Shylock, and ignores the fact that Antonio had bullied and abused him.
I reviewed some famous portrayals of Shylock by great actors of the past three hundred years.
However, if one portrays Shylock purely as a sympathetic victim, the audience feels terribly for him without regard to his cruel intentions and Portia’s starring role becomes incomprehensible. Neither option is dramatically interesting.
So, I did not ask myself whether he was an unpleasant or a sympathetic character, but explored the idea to play him as a flawed human being like many other characters in Shakespeare. He is neither all good nor all bad. I first compared Shylock with two of Shakespeare’s most complex characters, Hamlet and Edgar. I then thought about Shylock’s Judaism and its relevance to the character considering how little Shakespeare knew about Jews. Finally, I reviewed some famous portrayals of Shylock by great actors of the past three hundred years.
"No one, before or since Shakespeare, made so many selves." Regardless of the plot, Shakespeare succeeded in making every character human. Both villains and heroes are multi-dimensional: they can be sympathetic, unpleasant, horrific or charming. For example, Hamlet is the hero of his play. He discovers that his uncle, now step-father, Claudius, murdered his father to take over the throne. After long and painful deliberations, he decides to kill his uncle to avenge his father’s death. Before doing so, he manages to lead his love, Ophelia, to insanity and to suicide, to kill her father, Polonius, and to end the play in a bloodbath by killing Laertes and Gertrude as well. The simple description of his actions, without regard to the complexity of the play, would lead one to think that Hamlet is just a terrible person. But Shakespeare does not just make him a mindless killer, as the audience hears about his love and dedication to his father and pities his extreme loneliness and thoughts of suicide. Despite his actions, we do not consider him a villain, because we constantly feel for him.
Shylock has been mocked, spat upon and beaten by Antonio.
King Lear's Edmund, the greedy, money-obsessed bastard son of Gloucester, is this tragedy's evil male lead. But Shakespeare does not let him simply die as the man who ordered Cordelia's death and caused Goneril and Regan's murder-suicide. As he is killing him, his brother Edgar tells him that he deserves to die, to which Edmund replies: "Thou hast spoken right, 'tis true; / The wheel is come full circle: I am here." Shakespeare gives him almost a whole scene to repent his sins and to attempt to undo the damage he has done.
Both Hamlet and Edmund have a legitimate reason for their initial anger. Doesn’t Shylock? Shylock has been mocked, spat upon and beaten by Antonio. Antonio's friends aid his only daughter, Jessica, to escape, while robbing him. Does he not have as valid a reason to kill Antonio as Hamlet to kill Claudius?
Edmund resents his illegitimate status in his first monologue of the play: “Why bastard? Wherefore base? / When my dimensions are as well compact, / My mind as generous, and my shape as true, / As honest madam’s issue?” Shylock screams out his resentment to being mistreated as a Jew: "Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? (...) If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge? (...) The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction."
...from the moment when Shylock swears to follow through with his pound-of-flesh deal with the merchant, almost all of his actions are at odds with basic tenets of the Jewish faith.
This speech brought me to question Shylock’s Jewish faith. The scene from which the previous excerpt is taken is also the one where Shylock decides to exact the bond and to take revenge on Antonio. However, from the moment when Shylock swears to follow through with his pound-of-flesh deal with the merchant, almost all of his actions are at odds with basic tenets of the Jewish faith. I see Shylock as a ‘fallen Jew.’ Shylock justifies his wish to obtain his revenge against Antonio on all the abuse he has endured, but the Bible orders: “You shall not take revenge.” He thus breaks this Jewish law, as well as the fundamental commandment ordering not to kill. His failed Judaism is an additional flaw which can add more poignancy to his final forced renunciation of his faith.
It is ironic that Shylock’s worst actions, which have fuelled his portrayal as the ‘bad Jew’ are contrary to the Jewish faith which he’s supposed to represent. This can be understood, however, by the fact that Jews had been expelled from England since 1290, three centuries before the play had ever been written. At the time of Shakespeare, the English had heard about the myth of the blood libel, which alleged that Jews used Christian children’s blood for the baking of matzo, the Passover bread. Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta incorporated this legend. The Merchant of Venice alludes to it indirectly in the trial scene when Portia enjoins him from shedding a drop of Christian blood: “Take then thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh; / But, in the cutting it, if thou dost shed / One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods / Are, by the laws of Venice, confiscate / Unto the state of Venice.” Therefore, portraying Jews as beast-like villains, at the time, almost made sense.
As Jews started to return to England with Cromwell, the blood libel myth became less and less prominent and the portrayal of Shylock began to change.
In 1814, Shylock was finally played sympathetically.
Until the 19th century, Shylock was portrayed as a comedic villain along the lines of an evil Pantalone. He wore a bright red wig, had a huge hooked nose and mere appearance brought laughter to the audience. In 1814, Shylock was finally played sympathetically. Edmund Kean, one of the greatest actors of the 19th century, was the first to portray Shylock in this way. The sudden change of Shylock’s portrayal did shock people, but it was well received. For instance, William Hazlitt said: “…a man of genius comes once in an age to clear away the rubbish, to make it fruitful and wholesome." In 1818, Edwin Booth played the role giving him a realistic Jewish depth. Booth had done his research on Jews, visited synagogues and studied Yiddish in order to distance himself from the Pantalone archetype.
More recently, David Suchet and Patrick Stewart played Shylock, in very different ways. In John Barton’s television series Playing Shakespeare, Suchet expresses his belief that Shylock is an outsider because of his Judaism while Stewart says he is an outsider who just happens to be Jewish.
Using Booth as inspiration, I have decided to use a slight Yiddish accent.
I will borrow from the early characterisation the lanky and stooped physical appearance of Pantalone. Using Booth as inspiration, I have decided to use a slight Yiddish accent. The use of this accent separates Shylock more from the Christians, giving a stronger sense of segregation between the two religions. From Kean, I will portray Shylock as a bullied victim, to garner sympathy from the audience. Finally, drawing from Suchet, I will play him as an outsider because he is Jewish. I believe Shylock is cast aside as Jew and not for any other reason, for it is evident in the text. As Suchet points out, Shylock’s name is only mentioned six times, whereas he is called ‘Jew’ twenty-two times in the trial scene.
Obviously there is no one right way of playing Shylock. I do believe, however, there is an important message in the play, which must be conveyed by the actor playing this character. Shakespeare abhors discrimination whether it’s aimed at Jews and foreigners (The Merchant of Venice), bastards (King Lear), black people and women (Othello). As Emilia consoles Desdemona in Othello: “Why, we have galls, and though we have some grace, / Yet have we some revenge. Let husbands know / Their wives have sense like them: they see and smell / And have their palates both for sweet and sour, / As husbands have.”
In Merchant, the Christians are constantly mocking the minorities: Shylock and the foreign Princes. Shylock is a lonely, bullied Jew. His anger is not surprising. My Shylock is on the news all the time; a man having been bullied all his life, brings a machine gun into a school, and fires away.
Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Riverhead Books: New York, New York: p. 1
William Shakespeare, King Lear, Act V Scene III
William Shakespeare, King Lear, Act I Scene II
William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act III Scene I
Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Riverhead Books: New York, New York: p. 171
William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act IV Scene I
Toby Lelyveld, Shylock on the Stage, The Press of Western Reserve University: Cleveland, Ohio, p. 43
Royal Shakespeare Company’s John Barton holds Master Classes: Playing Shakespeare, Television Series
William Shakespeare, Othello, Act IV Scene III
The Merchant of Venice continues at the Dawson Theatre until November 26. Call 514-931-5000.