The Merchant of Venice: What is the sum of prejudice?

by Alicia Anstead

Robert Brustein, founder of American Repertory Theater, will moderate A Conversation on Shakespeare's Jews, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday January 26 at Emerson College's Paramount Mainstage. His co-conversationalists include Jeffrey Horowitz, Tina Packer and F. Murray Abraham. The discussion will center on the Theatre for a New Audience production of The Merchant of Venice, directed by Horowitz and featuring Abraham as Shylock. Abraham is currently teaching master classes at Emerson, and Merchant will run at the Cutler Majestic Theatre March 29-April 10. Brustein recently spoke with Harvard Arts Beat editor Alicia Anstead about Shylock, identity in theater and the exchange he hopes to inspire. The following is an edited and condensed version of their conversation.

What is your own sense of Jewishness in Shakespeare? What do you pay attention to in Shakespeare’s depiction of Jews?

I’ve written a book that has a chapter on this issue. It’s very unlikely that Shakespeare ever saw a Jew or met one. What he saw was [Christopher] Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta. He was very under the influence of Marlowe. What Shakespeare does with almost any character is humanize his source material. That’s what he did intermittently with Shylock. Shylock is really meant to be a comic villain and was played that way throughout most of the 17th and 18th centuries. In the 20th century, given the impact of the Holocaust, it was very hard to play Shylock the way he was written. The closest I’ve ever seen to that was at A.R.T. Will LeBow played him like a stand-up comedian under Andrei Serban’s direction.

How is Shylock usually played?

Usually he is played as a Holocaust victim, as a fringe character in a menacing and rather cruel society with an emphasis on that one speech of his in which he indicates that he shares humanity with other people. It has often occurred to me that, as beautiful as that speech is, it could have also been made by a hyena or baboon. All he’s saying is: Don’t we breathe? But that’s not the way you judge people, and that’s not the way Shakespeare judged people either.

Let’s go back to the comic villain idea. Is there any way to have someone onstage be in the world of stereotype and not be offensive? Is there any way to have a stereotype be workable onstage?

Stereotypes have traditionally been the very matter of the stage. My book is about prejudice and supposes that Shakespeare was prejudiced against women, races, democracy and the common man – all those things we cherish. The point of the book is not that we dismiss Shakespeare because he’s prejudiced but recognize that we have our own prejudice. A lot of political correctness is another form of prejudice. We like to feel superior to other people, and we find various ways to do it.

Are you drawn to The Merchant of Venice?

I’m not crazy about The Merchant of Venice. I don’t particularly like the characters. Portia worries me – partly because she’s racist, but I wouldn’t reject her for that because of all the reasons I just said. There’s something priggish about her, and prim and self-important. Antonio is a bit of a whiner. Jessica betrays her father without a second thought. Launcelot Gobbo is one of the dumbest fools in Shakespeare. I’m not wild about the play – not because it’s about Jews. The Jew of Malta is so wildly stereotypical; it lives as a caricature. In a way, I prefer the caricature to the effort to humanize. It’s not a successful effort.

What do you hope will come from a discussion about Shakespeare's Jews?

My own personal hope is that we begin to look at plays as more than the sum of their prejudices. It’s becoming more and more impossible because people like to be aroused. We’re currently in the grip in this country of a brutalized sensibility that doesn’t respond to nuance, doesn’t respond to adventure, doesn’t respond to anything that’s different from received opinion. And I think that’s true of liberals as well as conservatives.

F. Murray Abraham as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice by Theatre for a New Audience. Photo: Gerry Goodstein
Two productions of Merchant are popular right now: Al Pacino's and F. Murray Abraham's. Is there a reason we're doing this show at this moment?

It’s nothing more complicated than the fact that it’s a great role for an actor who’s hungry for a character. I don’t think Shylock has particular resonance now more than he did in the past. I’m glad we’re past the point where we have to play him as a Holocaust victim.

But pain can be very potent. If you have a history of pain, when does it become OK to laugh about it?

The next day. It sounds cruel and callous, but it seems to me the only way to recover from a bad time is to start laughing about it. You should be able to laugh at yourself as well, and not depict yourself as a victim, which is the most unattractive way to portray human beings. It was Nietzsche, who was actually very philo-Semetic, who said: "Life is hard to bear but do not affect to be so sensitive."

[Caption: Robert Brustein]