Shylock: a Stage History of Anti-Semitism

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Shylock: A Stage History of Anti-Semitism
Part of what makes the works of William Shakespeare so significantly transcendental is that his plays are able to flourish through ever-changing societies. Over the course of nearly 400 years, his plays have remained some of the most beloved in literature because of their ability to speak to audiences of every age, race, ethnicity, class, and gender. By looking at the performance history of a specific play, or a specific character in that play, we become aware of how Shakespeare’s work changes over time, is shaped by society and, in turn, shapes society around it. The evolution of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, especially on the German stage, is a great example of this simultaneous influence of society and change. “The history of The Merchant of Venice gives us a glimpse of the changes in the theatre over a period of 360 years while the history of the playing of Shylock gives us the groundwork for some generalizations as to the shifts of social attitudes over the same period” (Lelyveld 3).

Written as a comedy, The Merchant of Venice has undergone a sort of genre shift in the last hundred years or so. Along with plays such as Taming of the Shrew, Measure for Measure, Othello, and The Tempest, it has become more widely accepted as a problem play. Problem plays always deal with a societal controversy such as racism, colonialism, or sexism. In this case, the problem that seems unavoidable is anti-Semitism. However, it is important when reading any work that is not contemporary to consider the time period in which it was written, as well as the possible intentions of the author. In her introduction to the play in The Norton Shakespeare, Katherine Maus poses questions about the play such as, “Is it anti-Semitic? Does it criticize anti-Semitism? Does it merely represent anti-Semitism without either endorsement or condemnation? Are the Christians right to call Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, a ‘devil,’ an ‘inexorable dog’; or is he merely the understandably resentful victim of their bigotry?” (247). Thinking about these questions as we read the play helps give more depth to the character of Shylock and provides us with an understanding of the wide range of performance styles the role has taken on since its inception. Based on Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, The Merchant of Venice focuses on a Jewish man as the center of discrimination. In Shakespeare’s day, however, this treatment of a Jew would not have been viewed as offensive. On the contrary, “audiences of the day primed to view Shylock as a natural-born villain, would have been surprised to find any of his speeches moving. Since the Holocaust, however, productions of The Merchant of Venice have challenged the age-old caricature of the Jew” (Downer 209). In the years following the Holocaust, productions of this play have tended to move away from the idyllic version of Portia’s Belmont and turn their attentions to Shylock and the ghetto. Arthur Horowitz believes that “contemporary performance history is awash in guilt, controversy, re-examination and reinterpretation - becoming a receptacle for innumerable ethnic, religious and political corrections, adaptations and emendations - subversions and provocations - with adaptors and directors willfully mandating their own standards of positivity and negativity” (8).

When the play was written, Shylock was presented as a generally comic figure. Charles Macklin was the first noted actor to make the jump from comedian to villain when he accepted the role in 1741. Although Shylock was the speaker of many emotional passages, actors of the time usually chose to portray him as either comical or evil, the norm for Jewish roles in the Renaissance. These portrayals “echoed medieval Christian dramas in which the Jew was represented in the same manner as Satan: clever and calculating, a master of negotiation and deal-doing, at once physically and verbally comical” (Downer 217), and were compared to...
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