Arts & Culture

Operation Shylock

There have been many, many Jews in show biz over the years, on the silver screen and on the stage, behind the scenes and behind the scripts, but perhaps non has publicly represented and portrayed the Tribe more famously-and with … Read More

By / June 23, 2010

There have been many, many Jews in show biz over the years, on the silver screen and on the stage, behind the scenes and behind the scripts, but perhaps non has publicly represented and portrayed the Tribe more famously-and with flagrant, problematic prejudice-than William Shakespeare’s Shylock, the vengeful, money-lending antagonist of the Merchant of Venice, which opened its summer run in Shakespeare in the Park on Saturday.

It is universally accepted that the Merchant of Venice is, at the very least, partially anti-Semitic in nature-the text characterizes Jews as greedy, spiteful, stubborn and corrupt-though Shylock is so much more complicated than I ever could have imagined. See, I had never read the play or seen the film until today, though Shylock and his embodiment of all of the worst Jewish stereotypes have always been familiar; a deeply ingrained part of the cultural conversation about Jews and Judaism.

Today, I watched two film adaptations of the famous play, one from 1973 starring Lawrence Olivier as Shylock, and the other from 1994, starring Al Pacino (who will be reprising his role after 16 years at Shakespeare in the Park). I was struck by the vast differences between the two Shylocks-there could be an ocean between them. Olivier’s Shylock is a loose cannon-a merciless and vengeful villain who reiterates the stereotypes put upon him as such. Pacino, on the other hand, presents a much more morally ambiguous interpretation of Shylock. He is problematic of course, but unlike even the text from which the character was crafted, Pacino’s Shylock is surprisingly sympathetic-his pathologies can be largely traced to the conditions in which Jews were forced to live at the time. In the very first frame of the film Antonio, who promises a pound of his own flesh as collateral against a late or incomplete payment of a sum he borrows from Shylock, spits in Shylock’s face in the middle of a crowded, public place. Later, Shylock reminds Antonio of this, as an explanation for the perverse request of flesh versus monetary interest. Pacino’s "Jew" is, much more so than Olivier’s or maybe even Shakespeare’s, largely a product of nurture rather than a reflection of the inherently flawed and morally bankrupt nature of the Jews. Not to say Shylock’s actions aren’t perverse or spiteful or downright disgusting: Yes, Shylock is partially evil. But so is everyone else in Venice.