Shylock is in a class almost by himself

June 02, 1993|By Ron Grossman | Ron Grossman,Chicago Tribune

Shylock is Shakespeare's least politically correct character but also one of his most enduring.

"In the extent of his fame, Shylock belongs with Don Quixote, Tartuffe, Sherlock Holmes, Robinson Crusoe," author John Gross notes. "He is a familiar figure to millions who have never read 'The Merchant of Venice' or even seen it acted; he has served as an inspiration for hundreds of writers and a point of reference for innumerable publicists. There are times when one might wish it were otherwise, but he is immortal."

It is easy to understand why an enlightened theater historian as Mr. Gross might occasionally wish that Shylock had never been made part of the dramatis personae of "The Merchant of Venice."

Shakespeare made Shylock the epitome of a prejudiced portrait of the Jew: He is shrewd, driven by greed and thinks Christians were made for plucking.

"Invested with Shakespearean power and in time, with Shakespearean prestige, Shylock the Jewish villain became part world mythology," Mr. Gross observes.

Yet in the four centuries since "The Merchant of Venice" was first performed, Shylock has fascinated not just anti-Semites but liberals.

German productions of the play were frequent during the Nazi era, but it was also performed by Jewish actors during the great days of New York's Yiddish theater.

So compelling have audiences found the character that they could be enthralled by actors playing Shylock in a foreign language. In 1919 London theatergoers queued up to see Louis Bouwmeester, a 74-year-old actor from Holland, play Shylock in Dutch while the rest of the cast spoke English.

The play was performed by at least 100 production companies in New York alone during the 19th century, when it was the literary work most read in American schools.

"The Merchant of Venice" was made into a film at least seven times before talkies were born, proving that Shylock didn't even need to speak to work his magic.

The character also captured some of those who played him. Junius Brutus Booth, the most celebrated Shylock of the American stage, came to think that he himself must be

Jewish, supporting that idea on the questionable hypothesis that his name was related to "beth," the Hebrew word for house.

Portugal's King Luis I translated the play into Portuguese. King Rama VI of Siam made a Thai translation, and Shylock entered the dictionary of many languages as a verb meaning to engage in sharp business practices.

"The only other Shakespearean character who has had a similar privilege conferred on him is Romeo," Mr. Gross notes in "Shylock," an absorbing study in literary longevity.

All this fame has come to a character who appears in only five scenes of a romantic comedy, Mr. Gross observes. Why?

Mr. Gross gives us no clear answer, except to note that such was Shakespeare's talent that he occasionally created characters too large to be contained by the plot-line of the play in which they appear.

The Bard also had a way of tempering otherwise cut-and-dried characters with just a hint of ambiguity.

Shylock may be an unappealing character, yet Shakespeare also used him to make a compelling appeal on behalf of mankind's essential brotherhood.

"If you prick us, do we not bleed?" the old Jew asks his Christian tormentors. "If you tickle us, do we not laugh?"

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Shylock"

Author: John Gross

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Length, price: 386 pages, $25

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.