May 2, 2001
My Three Shylocks
Shylock, the Jew, is the most memorable and controversial character in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. In the course of the four centuries that have elapsed since the first presentation of this work, the portrayal of Shylock has become a mirror of each succeeding Christian society's attitude towards the Jewish community in their midst. One of the most popular theories is that Shakespeare was pandering to the anti-Semitic views of the Elizabethan era when he penned this comedy. The possibilities of honing Shylock's persona are vast. I have chosen three precise options for the portrayal and development of this challenging role; Shylock the Villain, Shylock the Victim, and Shylock the Catalyst.
-Shylock the Villain-
The portrayal of Shylock the Villain requires the least amount of theatrical talent for an actor. All of the pitiful, anti-Semitic conceptions of a typical Jew would be employed. A false nose accompanied by loud, Yiddish accented speech, and a slovenly appearance would be emphasized. There are two sub-divisions of Shylock the Villain. At this juncture, we branch off into two entirely different perceptions; the concept of a comic villain and the concept of a somber and serious villain.
The comic villain would certainly add a red fright wig to his costume. A knowledgeable audience would understand the obvious reference to Judas of Iscariot and the less sophisticated portion of the audience would simply revel in the comic appearance of red hair on a Jew since they are usually portrayed with very dark hair. The comic villain would deliver his lines in a boorish and overbearing manner. Shylock's devious nature is clearly shown as he woos them with street humor. "Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken in what part of your body pleaseth me," is an excellent example, for in the Elizabethan era "flesh" was a well known euphemism for "penis."
The serious villain would be costumed identically to the comic villain with the notable absence of the red wig; the nose and Yiddish accent would remain the same. This villainous Shylock does not employ any overt tactics to seduce the audience. Shakespeare provides this Shylock with an introduction that leaves us no choice but to label him a villain. He speaks an "aside" before engaging in a conversation with Bassanio.
I hate him for he is a Christian
But more for that in low simplicity
He lends out money gratis, and brings down
The rate of usance here with us inVenice.
Shylock is materialistic to the core and appears more concerned about the loss of his ducats than the flight of his daughter, Jessica. "My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!" and "I would my daughter were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear" spill out of his mouth like a true villain.
The most intense challenge for any actor playing Shylock as a villain would be his approach to the scene with Salario and Salanio. The words cry for compassion from the audience and...