The Merchant of Venice: Shakespeare in Performance
Host Aaron Henne: Welcome to the second episode of the fourth season of theatre dybbuk’s The Dybbukast. This episode is presented in collaboration with the Shakespeare's First Folio: 1623-2023 festival at Portland State University. I'm Aaron Henne, artistic director of theatre dybbuk. This is the second in a three-episode series connected to theatre dybbuk's most recent production, The Merchant of Venice (Annotated), or In Sooth I Know Not Why I Am So Sad. That production combines text from Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice with Elizabethan history and news from 2020-2023. This episode was recorded live as part of the First Folio festival on October 26, 2023 during our residency in Portland, Oregon. The residency included a performance of The Merchant of Venice (Annotated), or In Sooth I Know Not Why I Am So Sad just a few nights prior to the presentation that you will hear. Titled "Shakespeare in Performance," this illuminated lecture brings together a talk from Dr. Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, Visiting Scholar at Portland State University and Scholar-in-Residence at the Portland Shakespeare Project, with readings of excerpts from Shakespeare's Merchant and other related materials. Dr. Pollack-Pelzner takes up the question: “Why perform The Merchant of Venice?", discussing its production history, scholarship related to the work, and his own personal relationship to the play.
And now: “The Merchant of Venice: Shakespeare in Performance”.
We hear audience applause.
Dr. Daniel Pollack-Pelzner: I am very honored to be able to inaugurate this speaker series for Shakespeare’s First Folio. I don’t generally subscribe to the Greek myth of parthenogenesis, where ideas spring fully-formed from the brain of their creator, but this is an exception. This is the brainchild of Jonathan Walker. And when I first met Jonathan two years ago, he gave me this vision that in 2023, we were going to have this city-wide celebration of the 400th anniversary of the publication of the First Folio. And it was going to include performances from the opera, and the ballet, and the symphony, and PSU’s own theater program. And there would be a speaker series with scholars from across the country connecting issues from Shakespeare’s day to our own time. And there would be an exhibition with books not only from Shakespeare’s works, but works that Shakespeare inspired as well. And I thought, well, that sounds amazing, and I’d also like to see Oz someday if that also comes to be. And lo and behold, it’s 2023, and it’s actually all happening! Tonight, I am honored to share the stage with the wonderful actors from theatre dybbuk, who have come up from L.A. as part of their adventurous experimental theatre company to share their work with us this week. And raise your hand if you were able to see the production of Merchant of Venice (Annotated) on Monday night. Wonderful. Wasn’t that just a remarkable and revelatory work? And just for reference, in Merchant of Venice (Annotated), which one of you played Shylock?
Joe Jordan: I played Shylock.
Julie Lockhart: I, too, played Shylock.
Diana Tanaka: I, three, played Shylock.
Inger Tudor: Actually, I played Shylock as well.
Adam Lebowitz-Lockard: Shylock was played by me.
Daniel: Perfect. Ok, well, I will take that as a license for us to enjoy a certain freedom in performance tonight, as well as, perhaps, a provocation to ask how the performance of Jewishness in Shakespeare — which is a concept that we may want to interrogate a bit — intersects with the performance of other aspects of identity that Shakespeare’s play invites us to explore. And as we think about Shakespeare and performance tonight, I’m going to focus on The Merchant of Venice, because that’s the play that theatre dybbuk has brought so sharply into dialogue with us this week, and also because it’s a play that has fascinated and troubled me my whole life as a Shakespearean.
My talk tonight is going to have three parts. In the first part of my talk, I’m going to share some of my personal encounters with performances of Merchant. In the second part, I’m going to look back at the history of ways that a particular character in Merchant has been performed, from Shakespeare’s time to our own. And then in the third part, I’ll suggest some ways that this performance history might be helpful for us as we embark on a year of celebrating and exploring Shakespeare’s resonance across four centuries.
All: Part One: The Merchant of Venice is Going to Be Your Play.
Daniel: It all started when I was in fourth grade, and my bubbe, Yvie, gave me a copy of a nineteenth-century story version of the plays by Charles and Mary Lamb, called —
Diana: Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare.
Daniel: But I got confused and called it —
Adam: Shakespeare’s Tales of Lamb.
Daniel: I was nine, ok? But it prompted a crack from my elders about how I was going to have my mouth full of —
Julie: The Merchant of Venison.
Daniel: And ever since, it’s been kind of like, Mary Had a Little Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare. Everywhere that I went, The Merchant of Venice was sure to go. It was the first play that my New York grandpa took me to see on Broadway, in a luminous staging directed by Peter Hall, with Dustin Hoffman as Shylock and Geraldine James as Portia. I was 10. I was entranced. And I think I was entranced for a narcissistic 10-year-old reason. In the climactic trial scene of the play — do you remember the plot of Merchant of Venice? You know, it’s this old story that Shakespeare adapted from an Italian source. A Christian gentleman of Venice, Bassanio, wants to woo a wealthy heiress, Portia, and so he goes to his friend, the merchant Antonio, to finance his courtship, and Antonio borrows the funds from a Jewish moneylender, Shylock, who agrees to lend him the money, interest-free, on the condition that if Antonio defaults on the loan, Shylock can cut off a pound of Antonio’s fair flesh, as, apparently, Jews were always hankering to do to Christians. Now, you know what happens: Antonio’s ships are lost; he defaults on the loan; and after Antonio’s friend elopes with Shylock’s daughter, taking Shylock’s money, Shylock demands his pound of flesh; and Portia, in disguise as a male legal authority, shows up in court to save the day for Team Christianity. At first, however, when Portia seems to side with Shylock that he’s entitled to his bond, here’s what Shylock calls her. And we’re gonna switch around the parts tonight. I’ll tell you who’s speaking. So just imagine Shylock’s words landing on the ears of ten-year-old Daniel. Portia upholds the bond, and Shylock replies:
Joe: A Daniel come to judgment! Yea, a Daniel!
O wise young judge, how I do honor thee!
Daniel: Shakespeare was calling my name! The Biblical judge Daniel — my namesake — was the eponymous standard of wisdom and virtue. And then, a few minutes later, after Portia cleverly traps Shylock in the literalism of his contract, pointing out that he’s entitled to his pound of flesh but if he sheds a drop of Christian blood, he’s going to face the death penalty, then Bassanio’s friend, Gratiano, salutes Portia again:
Julie: A second Daniel, a Daniel, Jew!
Now, infidel, I have you on the hip.
Daniel: And then once more, as Shylock tries to get out of this situation by saying he’ll drop the pound of flesh demand, Portia insists that he follow his bond to the letter and face the penalty, and Gratiano repeats:
Julie: A Daniel, still say I, a second Daniel!
I thank thee, Jew, for teaching me that word.
Daniel: I was so flattered! It was as though the play was inscribing me as its password to wisdom. Portia was a Daniel! I, Daniel, could be a Portia! And that nominal repetition —
Julie: A Daniel, a second Daniel!
Daniel: — allowed me, I think, to bypass Gratiano’s other terms of identification:
Julie: Infidel. Jew.
Daniel: With which I might otherwise have had to face a less flattering reflection. It’s a mechanism that I’ve come to see as characteristic of the play, and of Shakespeare performance history: In whom does a performance allow us to see ourselves reflected? And what kind of reflection does that performance offer?
It didn’t even occur to me, when I was sitting in the theater as a ten-year-old, to think about how my grandpa, sitting next to me, might see himself reflected in it. I do think I was aware that The Merchant of Venice was not a topic on which all Jews agreed. Maybe I was even aware that there is not a single topic on which all Jews agree, except for the inferiority of Portland bagels, although even that, I gather, is sort of up for debate. But I remember that my grandma, Bubbe Yvie, who told me often how much she loved Shakespeare —
Diana: Bubbale, I love Shakespeare!
Daniel: My grandma, who would take me to many of his plays over decades at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, gave me the strong impression that we, as a Jewish family, should have nothing to do with Merchant. And then there was my grandpa, who had decided, long before I was born, to have nothing to do with my grandma, taking me to see Merchant on Broadway.
Joe: Daniel, my boy, I got us house seats to see Dustin Hoffman!
Daniel: Grandpa Max didn’t like to talk about his childhood, so I’ve come to learn bits and pieces of the story after he and Bubbe Yvie passed away. He was born on the boat, as his family fled Ukraine in 1922, with a stop in Romania, on the way to the United States. But this was a time of rising prejudice against Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, of legalized immigration quotas, and so the boat wasn’t allowed to enter the U.S. They went to Canada instead, to Quebec, where the father abandoned the family. Grandpa Max grew up speaking French.
Daniel: And when he was 12, his mother took him across the border to stay with an aunt in New York City, while his mother went to clean houses upstate. The aunt didn’t have the means to take care of Max along with her own children — this was The Depression — and so she put him in an orphanage. And somehow, he made his way to Stuyvesant High School, supporting himself by working as a janitor at night, and then to the army as a medic. And that’s when he finally became a citizen. And after the war, he went to college on the G.I. Bill, and he wanted to become a doctor, but Jewish quotas, again, kept him out of med school, so he got a Ph.D. in psychology, and he became a professor at Queens College in New York. And he told me that he used to teach Shakespeare in his lectures to illustrate psychological processes. In fact, the word, “psychological,” was introduced to English by a Shakespeare critic, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who apologized for this clunky neologism, imported from German, but said that English lacked a word to describe —
Adam: Shakespeare’s philosophy of mind.
Daniel: Grandpa Max didn’t actually tell me that. I researched that in grad school. But I think Grandpa Max would have liked it. And so I imagine for him, getting to take his grandson to see a Broadway show, with a movie star — a play by Shakespeare, no less — must have been a sign that he had made it in America. His days of precarity, of being excluded from citizenship, excluded from a profession, because of his Jewishness, were over. What did he feel then, during the trial scene, when Portia tells Shylock, after Shylock has agreed to drop his suit:
Inger: Tarry, Jew,
The law hath yet another hold on you.
It is enacted in the laws of Venice,
If it be proved against an alien
That by direct or indirect attempts
He seek the life of any citizen,
The party ’gainst the which he doth contrive
Shall seize one half his goods. The other half
Comes to the privy coffer of the state;
And the offender’s life lies in the mercy
Of the Duke only, ’gainst all other voice.
In which predicament, I say, thou stand’st.
Daniel: So no matter how long you’ve lived in this society, no matter how well you’ve done, under Venetian law, a Jew was —
Inger: — an alien.
Daniel: A Jew could never be —
Inger: — a citizen.
Daniel: And as a result, his property, and even his life —
Inger: — lies in the mercy of the Duke.
Daniel: Now, Grandpa Max had not indirectly sought the life of a Venetian citizen by seeking to cut off a pound of his flesh, so perhaps Portia’s speech wouldn’t have felt like a mirror of his own status between alien and citizen. It’s also true that Grandpa Max tended to fall asleep at the theater, —
Joe snores loudly.
Daniel: — a trait that I, unfortunately, have inherited from him.
Adam snores loudly.
Daniel: So it’s possible he wasn’t even awake for this speech. But if he did hear it, I wonder if he would have perceived a reflection in the spectacle of an inhumane Jew — the very threat that was used to justify immigration quotas in the 1920s — seeking protection from a legal system that regards him as —
Inger: — alien.
Daniel: The only thing I remember for sure is that, like me, he thought the actress who played Portia was a lot better than Dustin Hoffman. The Merchant of Venice was also the first production that I saw at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, two years later. I was twelve. It was a gripping modern-dress production directed by Libby Appel, and here’s what really struck me: The clown, Launcelot Gobbo, made his first entrance bopping to his Walkman. (We hear the song, “Gonna Make You Sweat”) You remember what a Walkman was? Now, I had just gotten a Walkman myself so that I could listen to Blazer games on my headphones at night, in bed, after I was supposed to be asleep. Sorry, Mom. So when I saw the clown onstage sporting my new accessory, it was almost as good as hearing my name on stage. I was so smitten that I don’t think I even paid any attention to what the clown was saying. Here’s the actual speech. It’s one of those sort of good angel/bad angel soliloquies, where he’s trying to decide whether to quit working for Shylock, who’s his master. His conscience tells him to stay, but the fiendish devil tells him to go. At least, that’s how the comic routine starts.
Adam: 'Budge,' says the fiend.
'Budge not,' says my conscience.
'Conscience,' say I, 'you counsel well.'
'Fiend,' say I, 'you counsel well.'
To be ruled by my conscience, I should stay with the Jew my master,
who, God bless the mark, is a kind of devil;
and, to run away from the Jew, I should be ruled by the fiend,
who, saving your reverence, is the devil himself.
Certainly the Jew is the very devil incarnation,
and, in my conscience, my conscience is but a kind of hard conscience,
to offer to counsel me to stay with the Jew.
The fiend gives the more friendly counsel: I will run.
Daniel: I thought this was hilarious when I was twelve. I didn’t know the medieval genre, the psychomachia — a kind of drama that personifies internal conflict as a battle between good and evil figures. I didn’t know Shakespeare was doing a kind of parody riff on the devil’s temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. I just felt like I was watching Shakespeare via Robin Williams — a kind of manic, split personality, crosstalk act, complete with a Walkman! But, of course, the humor of the clown’s breakdown hinges on identifying the Jewish character as —
Adam: — a kind of devil.
Daniel: So devilish, in fact, that the clown can convince himself that abandoning his master — which was a big taboo, even a crime, in Shakespeare’s day — is no worse than staying in service to a Jew. Is this, I wonder now, how Shakespeare saw Jews; as —
Adam: — the very devil incarnation?
Daniel: Or was the joke that only a foolish clown, an ignorant doofus, would make this equation? After I saw this production, my second Merchant in two formative years, I remember my dad telling me:
Joe: Daniel, The Merchant of Venice is going to be your play.
Daniel: I was excited. I got to have a play. Did everyone get to have a play? I kind of wanted mine to be A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Merchant seemed like a tricky responsibility. But the idea that it was somehow my bequest — maybe not my birthright, but a cultural patrimony I could claim — had a powerful allure. I wasn’t the first budding Shakespearean to feel it. When I was in grad school, the lions of the field, the towering scholars of my parents’ generation, were pretty much all Jewish men named after English kings.
Julie: James Shapiro.
Inger: Stephen Greenblatt.
Joe: Stephen Orgel.
Adam: Stephen Booth.
Diana: Harold Bloom.
Daniel: I’ll add my advisor —
Inger: — Marjorie Garber, —
Daniel: — whose name comes from a Scottish princess. These eminences were mostly born just after World War II and came of age in the heyday of the humanities, when the pinnacle of academic achievement was to study English literature, and the crown jewel of English literature was William Shakespeare. Becoming a Shakespeare scholar was the yeshiva kid’s assimilationist fantasy, the ultimate infiltration of the WASP establishment, especially at a New England university. And that Shakespeare had written one of his most popular plays about a Jew made it all the better.
Or did it? All these scholars wrote about The Merchant of Venice, and their perspectives, like those of Bubbe Yvie and Grandpa Max, did not agree. There’s my grad school mentor, Stephen Greenblatt, who, while acknowledging that the structure of the play, as a comedy, compels us to root for young lovers to overcome the gloomy paternal blocking figure like Shylock; to cheer for so-called Christian mercy triumphing over Jewish vengeance, and Christian generosity appropriating the wealth of Jewish, literal-minded usury; to laugh as a denizen of the Venetian ghetto is outwitted by Portia — nevertheless, Greenblatt writes:
Inger: What Shakespeare bequeathed to us offers the possibility of an escape from the mental ghettos most of us inhabit. He did so by giving Shylock more theatrical vitality — quite simply, more urgent, compelling life — than anyone else in his world has. The Merchant of Venice’s imaginative generosity provides too much insight into Shylock's inner life, too much of a stake in his identity and his fate, to enable the audience to laugh freely and without pain.
Daniel: And then there’s my undergraduate professor, Harold Bloom.
Diana: One would have to be blind, deaf, and dumb not to recognize that Shakespeare’s grand, equivocal comedy The Merchant of Venice is nonetheless a profoundly antisemitic work.
Daniel: What was this 400-year-old piece of writing that had somehow become my play? What on earth had I inherited?
All: Part Two: A Brief History of The Merchant of Venice in Performance.
Daniel: We’re going to jump around in time a little bit. A couple years ago, I was back in Ashland at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I had become a Shakespeare professor, and I was taking a group to see some plays and talk about them afterward. Over the summer, I’m standing at the bricks, in front of the theater, my cell phone rings, and it’s Dave Miller, who hosts the OPB talk show, “Think Out Loud”. I’d been on the show once or twice. Dave Miller says:
Joe: Dan, in Shakespeare’s day, did Shylock wear a red wig?
Daniel: Now that’s a question I don’t get asked every day. I mean, you’re in the Shakespeare business, you get the odd question, but I can usually answer my phone with a relative degree of confidence that nobody’s going to ask me, out of the blue, whether Shylock wore a red wig. I don’t actually answer my phone at all, as my mother-in-law can attest, but it’s not because I’m screening my calls for Shylock-related inquiries. I just prefer texting. But the wig question is a good one, because it gets at the history of how Shylock has been imagined onstage, and how we imagine Shylock was imagined.
There is indeed a tradition that Shylock may have been played, in the Elizabethan era, in a red wig. In Shakespeare’s all-male acting company, basically any difference in identity — playing female, playing royal, playing Black — was accomplished through some form of costume, of makeup, of prosthetics, and so too, the theory goes, with playing Jewish. The red wig, as a theatrical prosthetic, would have associated Shylock with the character of the devil in older religious morality plays, presented as a kind of infernal personification with fiery crimson hair. The wig, that is to say, would have been the visual confirmation of the clown’s suggestion that Shylock is —
Adam: — the very devil incarnation.
Daniel: Incarnation is a fascinating word, isn’t it? Most editors think that the clown is bumbling the phrase, “the devil incarnate,” that is, the devil in the flesh — carnis is Latin for meat, for flesh — which opens up a whole web of associations between anti-Christian behavior and matters of the flesh that Shylock seems to summon. But the clown’s malapropism, I think, also allows us to hear the word, —
Adam: — “carnation,” —
Daniel: — the pink flower, as though fleshy malevolence might somehow bloom into a more alluring rosy hue; or, more literally, as some other editors have proposed, that Shylock was red on top. So why does this matter? If Shakespeare was envisioning a red-head Shylock, that would seem to invite his audiences to see the character less in the Greenblatt view —
Inger: — imaginative generosity provides too much insight into Shylock's inner life —
Daniel: — and more in the Bloomian mode —
Diana: — a profoundly antisemitic work —
Daniel: — that is, the incarnation of a popular fantasy, a popular nightmare even; the Jew as the devil, hungering, in the old pernicious legend, for Christian blood. Now if we look back at the first published version of The Merchant of Venice, in 1600, that seems to be the entertainment on offer. So the title page of this edition advertises what you’ll get inside if you buy the book, and the font starts really big and then it gets smaller.
Julie: The most excellent
History of the Merchant
With the extreame crueltie of Shylocke the Jewe
towards the sayd Merchant, in cutting a just pound
of his flesh: and the obtaining of Portia
by the choyce of three
Daniel: You can hear, I think, in Julie’s decrescendo that the rom-com plot — who obtains Portia and her dowry by choosing the right chest — gets the lowest billing, even though the Folio — the First Folio — categorizes this play as a comedy. The big draw, what makes this story —
Julie: — “most excellent,” —
Daniel: — is —
Julie: — the extreame crueltie of Shylocke the Jewe.
Daniel: That’s what you’re paying to see. That’s why you would want to buy a copy of this play, which the title page tells us, is the same version that —
Julie: — hath been divers times acted by the Lord Chamberlaine his Servants.
Daniel: So it was a hit. They kept performing it. Over and over. Because there was evidently a demand to see a really cruel Jew. And Elizabethan spelling wasn’t standardized, so this title page spells “extreame,” e-x-t-r-e-a-m-e. There’s an extra vowel stuck in there to draw out the cruelty even longer.
Julie: The extreeeeeeame crueltie of Shylocke the Jewe.
Daniel: Now, the title-page reading of this play runs counter to a story we often tell about Shakespeare — the Greenblatt version — which is that Shakespeare inherited centuries of myths and popular folk tales about villainous money-lending Jews, the sworn enemies of Jesus, who practiced their secret rituals by cannibalizing Christians, and he entered a theatrical climate in the 1590s dominated by his rival, Christopher Marlowe, who had scored a huge hit with a play called —
Diana: — The Jew of Malta —
Daniel: — whose title character, a rich Jew named Barrabas — as Monday night’s performance explored, it’s a name taken from the guy who, according to the Gospels, the Jews freed instead of Jesus on the cross — Barrabas. And, in Marlowe’s play, Barrabas, who’s furious at the Christians who’ve despoiled him, boasts about his cruelty to Christians:
Joe: See thou pity none,
But to thyself smile when the Christians moan…
As for myself, I walk abroad ’a nights
And kill sick people groaning under walls.
Sometimes I go about and poison wells.
Daniel: He was like the Joker, or Hannibal Lecter — a kind of monstrous, gleeful fantasy of antisocial villainy; highly entertaining, in a sadistic vein, and often revived on stage, especially after the drama of Queen Elizabeth’s doctor, who’s a converted Portuguese Jew named Roderigo Lopez. The Jews had been expelled from England since 1290, so, officially at least, any Jews in Elizabethan England were converts, likely fleeing the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal. And this converted Doctor Lopez, as you may have learned on Monday night, was accused of a plot to poison the Queen. Lopez was convicted — probably wrongly — and publicly executed, as he protested on the scaffold:
Adam: I love the Queen as well as I love Jesus Christ!
Daniel: A protestation that was apparently met with jeers from the crowd —
Daniel: — which assumed that he didn’t love either the Queen or Jesus Christ, and was merely crowing duplicitously like Marlowe’s Barrabas, who tells the audience:
Joe: We Jews can fawn like spaniels when we please,
And when we grin, we bite; yet are our looks
As innocent and harmless as a lamb’s.
Daniel: So Shakespeare enters this climate of this immensely popular, villainous stage Jew, bolstered by centuries of bloody-minded conspiracy, and, in the marvel of his sympathetic imagination and humanist sensibility, instead of the stereotype, he gives us this speech:
Diana: I am a Jew.
Hath not a Jew eyes?
Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?
Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by
the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer,
as a Christian is?
If you prick us, do we not bleed?
If you tickle us, do we not laugh?
If you poison us, do we not die?
Daniel: Some of you perhaps got to experience theatre dybbuk’s performance installation this afternoon at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education that featured this speech repeated for two and a half hours, which really gives you a chance to reflect on its range of possible effects.
All (overlapping): If you prick us, do we not bleed?
If you tickle us, do we not laugh?
If you poison us, do we not die?
Daniel: A plea for human compassion across difference is certainly one of those effects. But the red-wig version might lean a little bit more heavily on the speech’s concluding lines:
Diana: 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?
If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.
If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility?
If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge.
The villainy you teach me, I will execute,
and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.
Daniel: You could maybe call this a humanist account of vengeance, or maybe even a systemic account of the structural conditions that produce the impulse toward revenge. And it’s an account that’s proved tremendously alluring, not only for people who want to demonize Jews, but for some Jews as well, who want to justify the need for vengeance. This is how you treat me. What do you expect me to do?
All: If you wrong us, shall we not revenge?
Daniel: It’s an impulse that I can recognize in myself. it’s not an impulse I’m proud of, nor one I try to act on, but it’s one that’s not alien to me either. Now, we don’t know how this speech was performed by Shakespeare’s company. We don’t even know who played Shylock. Would it have been the leading player, Richard Burbage, who’d brought other villains like Richard III to life? Would it have been the comic buffoon, Will Kemp, playing the sort of comic-blocking figure? Even the printed text of the play, both in the 1600 Quarto and the First Folio, seems ambivalent about whether Shylock is an individual or a stereotype. When other characters are trying to appease or flatter him, they usually call him —
Inger: — Shylock.
Daniel: And when they’re contemptuous of him, they usually call him —
Adam: — Jew.
Daniel: But it’s not just the characters. The text — the printed text of the play itself — uses two different character names, two different speech prefixes for Shylock’s lines. Sometimes the script says that the person speaking the next line is —
Inger: — Shylock.
Daniel: And sometimes the script says the person speaking the next line is —
Adam: — Jew.
Daniel: This leads to many unsettling moments, like this one in the courtroom scene. Diana, would you say what the text says is the name of the character who is speaking?
Diana: The Duke.
Joe: Antonio and old Shylock both stand forth.
Julie: Is your name Shylock?
Inger: Shylock is my name.
Daniel: Which is it? Is it Jew or Shylock? It’s as though the printed script itself is undercutting the character — this isn’t really Shylock, it’s just the Jew. Or that the figure is hovering between a type and an individual. Pretty much every modern edition of the play that you, you know, buy at the bookstore, changes all of the character names to say Shylock. But the 2010 Arden edition, which is a really respected scholarly edition of this play, subscribes to the theory that the typesetter — the compositor, in Shakespeare’s day — was supposed to set “Jew” throughout the play, using the Latin-derived spelling where a J would be printed as an I, so Jew would be spelled I-E-W. But then, according to this theory, the compositor ran out of Is, so he had to use the name Shylock instead. Maybe? Following this theory, the Arden editor turns all of the names for this character to Jew, which leads to a kind of menacing rhythm when you see all of these character names laid out on the page.
Daniel: I assigned the Norton edition instead this year. But this, I think, is the red-wig version of the play. Is this how it was performed? We don’t know. The first description we have of Shylock in performance is more than a century later, in 1741. Merchant had been revived, after the theaters were closed during the English Civil War, in a comic, trimmed-down adaptation in 1701 called —
Adam: — The Jew of Venice.
Daniel: Interesting shift. We can talk about titles later if you want. And this was an adaptation where Shylock was played by a well-known comic actor, and this became the standard version for the first half of the 18th century. But then an Irish-born actor, Charles Macklin, decided he would depart from that comic mode and strive instead to terrify his audience. This is how a contemporary account described Macklin as Shylock:
Julie: Picture to yourself a rather stout man with a coarse sallow face, a nose by no means lacking in any one of the three dimensions, a long double chin. As for his mouth, Nature’s knife seems to have slipped when she carved it and slit him open on one side all the way up to the ear. He wears a long black gown, long wide trousers, and a red three-cornered hat.
Daniel: According to this account, Macklin defined the character from his very first line. Shylock’s first line is a striking one in the play. For context, Antonio, the merchant’s, first line is:
Diana: In sooth, I know not why I am so sad.
Daniel: Portia’s first line is:
Joe: By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is aweary of this great world.
Daniel: Shylock’s first line is:
Julie: Three thousand ducats, well.
Daniel: There are lots of ways to play that. The Victorian actor, Henry Irving, was said to deliver the line as though he were unconcerned with money.
Inger: Three thousand ducats, well.
Daniel: Orson Welles, a century later, recording an album version of the play, asked the line as a question.
Adam: Three thousand ducats, well.
Daniel: Charles Macklin, the terror of 1741, was said to draw out the sibilant sounds.
Julie: Macklin lisps as voluptuously as if he were savoring the ducats and all that they would buy.
Joe: Ththththtree thththththousssssand ducatssssssss, well.
Daniel: I guess it was kind of like Shylock as Gollum. Apparently, he was such a monster that King George reported having nightmares afterward. And it was phenomenally successful. Macklin played Shylock on the London stage for the next fifty years, until he was 90 years old! This was an era in which English colonialism was expanding. Shakespeare was becoming canonized as the national poet amid debates about what English identity was, and Charles Macklin’s biographer suggests interestingly that performing this stage Jew actually helped him legitimate his Irish ancestry and be accepted on the English stage. We can return to these questions of Jewishness in relation to other identities a little bit later. In any case, the verdict on Macklin, attributed to Alexander Pope, was:
Inger: This is the Jew that Shakespeare drew.
Daniel: So we’ve gone from mythic to comic to horrific. The next big shift is tragic. That was the dominant mode in the 19th century, inaugurated by the brilliant actor Edmund Kean, of whom the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge — psychological Coleridge — observed:
Adam: To see him act is like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning.
Daniel: Kean was the emblematic romantic actor. He was impulsive, emotional, mercurial. He was born into poverty; always saw himself as a kind of outsider, which may have led him to sympathize to a certain degree with Shylock. First of all, he wore a black wig. I cannot overstate how radical a choice this seemed to his contemporaries. It was like they were going to see the musical Annie and found instead that Annie had come out as a brunette. It was a total departure from the red-wig tradition. And along with this tonsorial shift, Kean’s signature line came a little later in the play, after Shylock learns that his daughter Jessica has eloped with Lorenzo, a Christian gentleman, converting to Christianity and taking his wealth along with her. And it’s a moment that could be played to reinforce an avaricious Shylock, who’s more concerned with his ducats than his daughter, as one of Antonio’s friends jokes. And, indeed, Shylock’s reaction to hearing that Jessica is spending his wealth abroad is a challenging speech.
Joe: Why, there, there, there, there!
A diamond gone, cost me two thousand ducats in Frankfurt!
The curse never fell upon our nation till now; I never felt it till now.
Two thousand ducats in that, and other precious, precious jewels.
I would my daughter were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear!
Would she were hearsed at my foot, and the ducats in her coffin!
No news of them?
Daniel: It’s a potentially harsh vision, wishing for his daughter’s death. But here’s how Kean did the speech, according to a contemporary account:
Diana: At, “I would my daughter,” Kean started back, as with a revulsion of paternal feeling from the horrible image his avarice had conjured up, and, borrowing a negative from the next inquiry — “No news of them?” — he gasped an agonizing, “No.”
Daniel: Something like this:
Joe: I would my daughter were dead at my foot —
No, no, no!
Daniel: This was a Shylock of recognizable human sympathy, a father mourning the loss of his daughter, a man who, as the critic William Hazlitt wrote of Kean’s performance, drawing a line from another grieving father, King Lear —
Inger: More sinned against than sinning.
Daniel: And that tragic mode became the standard, sustained throughout the 1870s, the age of Prime Minister Disraeli, by actor-managers like Henry Irving, who saw Shylock as:
Julie: The type of a persecuted race; almost the only gentleman in the play, and the most ill-used.
Daniel: In this era, a common choice was to cut the final act of the play entirely, when the victorious Christians return to Portia’s estate to enjoy their recovered bounty and work out their romantic and erotic pairings. Instead, productions would end with Shylock’s defeat at the end of the Act Four trial scene. It was Shylock’s tragedy, not Portia’s comedy. I don’t want to suggest, however, that the history of Merchant in performance is a progressive march toward ever expansive sympathies. Because even as Jewish actors started to portray Shylock on the Yiddish stage — one even changing the end of the courtroom scene so that Shylock drops his knife and shouts:
Joe: Ikh bin dokh a Yid!
Adam: I am a Jew. Do you think I’d do something like this?
Daniel: Even at this time, moving into the 20th century, the red wig came back with William Poel’s neo-Elizabethan staging, and Shylock as a monster started to return to vogue. In the 1920s, right-wingers published screeds propounding their conspiracy theories of Jewish global financial control with titles like:
Julie: The Kingdom of Shylock —
Daniel: — and —
Diana: — Democracy or Shylockery?
Daniel: I’m not going to linger over Nazi productions of Merchant, except to note that the biggest challenge for their interpretations was not the “Hath not a Jew?” speech, though that was often cut. The problem for Nazis, as Merchant —
All: — Annotated —
Daniel: — helps us see, was that Shylock’s daughter’s elopement with a Christian would be in violation of the Nuremberg Laws that had just passed banning Jewish intermarriage. And the solution for the Nazi stage was to make Jessica Shylock’s foster daughter. In that case, the Reich’s Drama Master wrote to Joseph Goebbels in 1942:
Adam: I would see no reason why this classic work — which, moreover, in a talented performance, can offer support to our anti-Jewish fight — would not be allowed to return to Berlin.
Daniel: In 1942, German Jews themselves were not allowed to return to Berlin, but Shylock was. And indeed, there’s a terrible sense in which his entrance seemed to facilitate their exit.
Diana: If you poison us, do we not die?
Inger: If you poison us, do we not die?
Joe: If you poison us, do we not die?
Julie: If you poison us, do we not die?
Adam: If you poison us, do we not die?
Daniel: John Gross, a London theatre critic who wrote a cultural history of Shylock, concludes:
Joe: I personally think it is absurd to suppose that there is a direct line of descent from Antonio to Hitler, or from Portia to the SS, but that is because I do not believe that the Holocaust was in any way inevitable. I do believe, on the other hand, that the ground for the Holocaust was well prepared, and, to that extent, the play can never seem quite the same again.
Daniel: Some version of this history was on my mind when I was standing on the bricks at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and I got a call asking —
Joe: — Did Shylock wear a red wig?
Daniel: I was standing in front of the Angus Bowmer Theater, which is named for the festival’s founder, Angus Bowmer, a Shakespeare professor who, in 1935, had this wonderful vision for an Elizabethan stage in a small town in southern Oregon. He had planned a Shakespeare performance for the town’s July 4th celebration, remounting a production he’d done at a local college. And as the story goes, the town officials insisted that he host a boxing match on the stage beforehand to cover the expected losses from the play. It turned out though that the play was a hit, so much so that its proceeds covered the town’s losses from the boxing match. And the play that Wednesday night, July 3, 1935, was The Merchant of Venice. Angus Bowmer directed, and he also played the role of Shylock. He had a hooked nose, a straggly beard, a skullcap, and a long black robe. It was a huge success. It became his signature role. He went on to play Shylock in seven subsequent seasons. And I say this not to single out, or even fault, Angus Bowmer, who seems, by all accounts, was a wonderful, enterprising guy, and who founded a festival that I adore, and even, in years later, thought better of his portrayal, saying of Shylock:
Inger: He might be stingy, he might be funny, but he still feels pain and is capable of being destroyed by the people around him who do not understand him.
Daniel: Prosthetic Jewface, as we might call it, was quite a common practice, as we’ve seen in this history. Laurence Olivier, my Bubbe Yvie’s favorite actor, showed up to play Shylock at the National Theater in 1970 with a whole bag of prosthetics: a hooked nose, a wig, a set of jutting teeth. His Jewish director, Jonathan Miller, was horrified. They compromised on the teeth. And, according to Miller’s biographer, Olivier came around, saying:
Julie: In this play, dear boy, we must at all costs avoid offending the Hebrews. God, I love them so!
Daniel: Thank you, Sir Laurence. His most memorable choice, besides the teeth, came after Shylock was defeated in the trial and forced to convert to Christianity. Olivier exited the stage, contained. And then, from offstage, the audience heard a shattering wail.
All: Final Part: Multiplying Merchant.
Daniel: So what do we do with this play? And why am I still drawn to it? I want to acknowledge that in a lecture called “Shakespeare in Performance,” I’ve focused on one narrow issue in one Shakespeare play. Performances have approached Merchant from lots of different angles. Some have spotlit Portia’s quest for female autonomy in a patriarchal society, in which, as she notes, the terms of her father’s will limit her marital and financial options:
Inger: I may neither choose who I would nor refuse who I dislike; so is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father.
Daniel: This was a big challenge for Victorian-era productions: how to establish that Portia outmaneuvering and outwitting all the men around her was actually a sign of wifely devotion and not a subversion of the patriarchal systems. More recent productions in the past fifty years or so have also been interested in how bonds of same-sex love play in relation to heterosexual marriage plots, as when Antonio tells Bassanio:
Diana: My purse, my person, my extremest means
Lie all unlocked to your occasion.
Daniel: We might think the question is whether Antonio is the means through which Bassanio pursues Portia, or whether Portia is the means through which Antonio pursues Bassanio. One of my students proposed that the end of the play is really less of a marriage plot than a thruple, in which Antonio is a kind of melancholy third wheel. And then, an important strand in contemporary performances of Merchant has been to ask how relations of difference across religious lines intersect with racial and national distinctions, as when Portia dismisses her unsuccessful suitor, the dark skinned Prince of Morocco, with this unsavory line:
Julie: Let all of his complexion choose me so.
Daniel: Recent productions that cast Black actors as Shylock and Jessica invite these questions as well. And, I’d say, at latest, current of interest—I’m thinking of important scholars like Kim F. Hall and Ayanna Thompson, Ian Smith, Arthur Little—has been in the precarity of how whiteness is defined, and its instability of category in the play, as when Lorenzo appears to distinguish Jessica’s whiteness from her father’s Jewishness by praising a letter she hand-wrote:
Joe: I know the hand. In faith, ’tis a fair hand,
And whiter than the paper it writ on
Is the fair hand that writ.
Daniel: If you’ve seen theatre dybbuk’s performance of Merchant —
All: — Annotated —
Daniel: — you’ve engaged with these issues, and many more, including the broader anxiety, not entirely confined to the Elizabethan era, of a society that’s starting to rely on seemingly unlimited capital for all of its ventures — economic, romantic, global — and seems unsure about what happens to human relationships and moral values in a world of questionable, even devilish, speculation. Ultimately, I think—or, at least today I think—that The Merchant of Venice isn’t actually about Jews. Or, put another way, it’s not about actual Jews. It’s about a constellation of concerns that feared and fascinated Elizabethans that Shakespeare bundled together under the convenient label —
All: — “The Jew”.
Daniel: Or, sometimes, under the name —
All: — “Shylock”.
Daniel: Even though the name Shylock has become eponymous in later centuries for a certain Jewish stereotype, the scholar Stephen Orgel — I’m switching Stephens here at the eleventh hour — points out that for Shakespeare’s audience, Shylock would not have sounded like a Jewish name. In fact, in contrast to all the Italian names in the play —
Daniel: Shylock was a recognizably English name. It appears all over English census lists of the period. “Lock” meant “hair,” and “shy” meant “white,” so Shylock was an equivalent name to “Whitehead” or “Whitlock.” Stephen Orgel concludes:
Diana: All those pleasure-loving types in the play are Italians, but for an Elizabethan audience, Shylock is one of us.
Daniel: And yet, even if it’s not a play about actual Jews, it has become one, just as Shylock has become a name for qualities people think they don’t like about Jews. And that condition of having your lived experience shaped by the stories people tell about a version of you that they imagine and fear is one, I conjecture, that many of us have experienced. And so, in the spirit of Merchant —
All: — Annotated —
Daniel: — I like to bring other stories to the table alongside Shakespeare’s. And, in my classes, I’ve started teaching Merchant alongside several other plays by contemporary Jewish writers. I’m thinking of Paula Vogel’s Indecent, which traces the history of lesbian love on the Yiddish stage; S. Mantell’s Everything that Never Happened, which foregrounds Jessica’s experience of passing; and a new play by Edward Einhorn called The Shylock and the Shakespeareans, which explores how an innocent Jewish moneylender is framed by a group of white supremacists who call themselves Shakespeareans. And then I turn back to Shakespeare’s play, which always yields some surprise, some oddity I hadn’t factored into my interpretation. It's more than I can assimilate into any single idea, any reflection of Daniel, even a second Daniel. It can never be my play, nor should it — at least not my play alone.
And I hope that’s a lesson of looking at Shakespeare in performance, in the scope of the First Folio festival that Professor Walker has curated, with so many different performance partners across the city: no one has a monopoly on Shakespeare. And the voices he gives us, I think, are most resonant when they take on the experiences and the perspectives and the values of their interpreters. The plays are capacious enough mirrors to reflect many parts of ourselves back, both our fears and our fantasies. They have a wide enough array of notes that they can resound in many voices. And they sound best, to my ear, when they’re not monologic but polyphonic; sometimes in dissonance, sometimes in harmony, sometimes jarring, sometimes ringing anew.
Diana: If you wrong us, shall we not revenge?
Adam: The very devil incarnation.
Inger: If it be proved against an alien.
Joe: O wise young judge, how I do honor thee!
Julie: I thank thee, Jew, for teaching me that word.
Adam: For teaching me that word.
Inger: For teaching me that word.
Joe: For teaching me.
Diana: For teaching me.
Daniel: Thank you.
The audience applauds.
Aaron: Thank you for listening to this episode of The Dybbukast, “The Merchant of Venice: Shakespeare in Performance”. Actors featured in this episode were Joe Jordan, Adam Lebowitz-Lockard, Julie Lockhart, Diana Tanaka, and Inger Tudor, with musical support by Andrew Anderson. Thank you to Dr. Daniel Pollack-Pelzner for authoring the lecture and for collaborating on the event's creation. This episode was edited by Gregory Scharpen, with story editing for the podcast presentation by Julie Lockhart.
Thank you to Dr. Jonathan Walker, Professor of English at Portland State University and the creator of the Shakespeare's First Folio: 1623-2023 festival for all of his support, and to Karin Magaldi, Professor and Head of the Theatre Program at PSU. We'd also like to express our gratitude to Griffon Singleton and the entire student tech team at PSU for making recording of the event possible.
Please visit us at theatredybbuk.org, where you will find links to a wide variety of materials which expand upon the episode’s explorations. And if you want to know more about theatre dybbuk’s work in general, please sign up for our mailing list on that same website.
This is the second in our three-episode series that intersects with theatre dybbuk's production, The Merchant of Venice (Annotated), or In Sooth I Know Not Why I am So Sad. This episode was presented in collaboration with the Shakespeare's First Folio: 1623-2023 festival at Portland State University.
This season of The Dybbukast is generously supported by a grant from Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah. Our residency in Portland, which included the live event, "Shakespeare in Performance," was supported by The Covenant Foundation. This episode is supported in part by a grant from The City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs. The Dybbukast is produced by theatre dybbuk.