Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Shylock, Part 2

Early Merchant rehearsal, scripts still in hand, pencils tucked in caps. With Darin Robert Cabot, left.


This continues from the previous post, which sets forth the Very Big Problem with The Merchant of Venice and my assignment to play Shylock. Click here to read that one.

The following is cobbled together from notes, journaling, and comments I've made for local interviews.

Shylock appears only in five scenes, and walks out of the play in Act IV Scene 1.

A personal "what if." I'm a third-generation Italian-American. My grandfather was a baby when the family came over. My grandfather experienced social prejudice against Italians, despite his service in World War II. My father saw a little. Me, very little. Obnoxious stereotypes prevail, of course, but I've not experienced direct oppression or abuse for my ethnic background. My grandfather stood a real risk of being punched in the face for being Italian; I've not experienced that, but I can imagine what that would be like. In the face of that, and with very little formal schooling (he quit after sixth grade), he became a successful businessman.

Thinking often of my grandfather, I've come to relate to Shylock as a second or third generation Venetian. Born there. Successful. Law abiding. Hard working. My Shylock is secular yet proud of his Jewish heritage. (My grandfather assimilated to WASP business culture but was very proud when I learned to speak and write some Italian.) Within the boundaries set against me (Shylock) I have built something for himself. Nonetheless, treated like a foreigner in my own land; I need permission to move about freely, live in a ghetto, and being spat on, kicked, mugged or scammed, is  part of daily life.

Shylock could certainly be played as a flat stereotype, but Shakespeare provides material for a more complex and contradictory - i.e. human - character. What was the playwright's intention?  Why write a speech like "Hath not a Jew eyes" yet write such an unjust conclusion for the character?

Clothing choices: Shylock is neatly dressed, what might be business casual in the imaginative time and space of our play. He occasionally wears a kippa but also wears a kufi-style hat.

I don't imagine my Shylock praying much in daily life, but he would have a mezuzah at the entrance to his home, he would go to synagogue every week, and he would see that Jessica is educated in Jewish history and religion.


Act I, Scene 3. We meet Shylock as he listens to Bassanio propose a loan. Antonio is the co-signer, yet he shows up only later, what's that about? It's a very awkward scene between three men.

Shylock's aside: "I hate him for he is Christian" and yet never, in soliloquy or dialogue, does Shylock seem to have a religious dispute. The "Christians" are the people who oppress him: not just as individuals but as a society. I have Cherokee friends who occasionally complain on Facebook about "unegs" - white people as a mass. Shylock has no beef with their god - though he remarks more than once on their hypocrisy. He is angrier that Antonio undermines his business. "He lends out money gratis and brings down the rate of usance with us here in Venice." Right, because that's one of the only ways he's allowed to make a living, and here comes Antonio imagining himself as a Zorro, paying off people's debts to save them from interest and undercutting what enterprise is permitted to Shylock.

(Antonio is like the capitalist who preaches about the free market but is happy with interventions that insulate the right people.)

The easy choice (and a bad one): Shylock is out for blood vengeance from the beginning, to "feed fat the ancient grudge." The proposal of a "pound of flesh" is a devious plot.

Another choice that is supported by the text: Shylock is as bitter as his aside indicates, but he embarks instead on a positive quest. The bid for friendship or at least acceptance is not a deception. It is also in his self-interest.

Shylock never seems religious in private or public, but he is quite proud of Jewish folklore and wisdom tales. "I would be friends with you and have your love," not a duplicitous statement but a genuine bid for acceptance. He has a captive audience because they want to borrow money from him. He tells a long story about Jacob shepherding his uncle's sheep - I play it as an attempt to reach Antonio, to amuse him and show that taking interest is an honest enterprise. Interestingly, the religious argument is presented by Antonio: Shylock talks about human enterprise; Antonio preaches divine providence.

I play the interest-free loan as a serious offer, the pound of flesh as truly a "merry sport," as I have acknowledged early in the scene that Antonio is a low-risk borrower. I don't think he'll default. The "pound of flesh" is a shared joke. The humor in the scene and the unusual loan are tactics for the larger objective of putting this personal conflict to rest. We might not become buddies but maybe the ill-treatment and undermining of my business will stop.

I leave happy. This, too, was a way to thrive.

Act II, Scene 5. Next time we see him, he is losing his servant to Bassanio - the very guy who just borrowed money and needed a co-signer because his own credit was so bad. The guy is like a money sieve, and now Launcelot wants to go work for him instead. Top of the scene, I'm teasing him, but letting him go.

This is the only scene we see Shylock interact with his daughter, Jessica. The Christians have invited him to dinner - he doesn't want to go, but feels he has to. His objective is building bridges, with the long goal of ending the conflict, established in the first act. We allow Shylock to be affectionate with his teenage daughter. He tells her to stay inside only after he hears there will be boys in masks partying in the streets; not unreasonable given their position in this society. He entrusts her with his keys and goes off to his diplomatic dinner date, hoping to build bridges.

Act III, Scene 1. Here is where it pivots; this is where Shylock changes. So much heartbreak has taken place offstage. Jessica ran off, taking a great deal of money and valuables with her. This scene is very tricky. His positive objective has fallen apart. While he was trying to engage Antonio and Bassanio, their friends made off with his daughter - he has been stabbed in the back.

"Why there there there there!" - this is an odd speech, and I have become a student of its disjointed thoughts and pivots. It is commonly believed the speech shows Shylock being more upset about the lost wealth than his daughter. This plays into the anti-Semitic stereotype. On the other hand - it is a pretty big chunk of money, and the ring she took (and pawned) had sentimental value to him - it is the only time he mentions his wife, Leah. (Who is - dead? Divorced? As an actor, I've answered that question for myself.) It doesn't seem to me Shylock is centrally focused on the loss of wealth - but the expense is not nothing, either.

Something I know about anger is that often the object we rant about to our friends is not what's really bothering us. It's easier to bitch about the money than to wail, "Why did she leave?" Because if you go there all you can do is cry. It seems natural to me to read "two thousand ducats in that - and other precious, precious jewels" as a dichotomy, referring to a material loss and the loss of a beloved daughter.

He also says "The curse never fell on our nation til now - I never felt it til now." That's interesting. Previously he has described being spat upon and kicked and tormented in other ways. Historically, he would have been forced to live in a ghetto, subject to curfew, forced to wear identifying clothing. But he says that only now does he feel the curse on his nation - or, as I understand it, the weight of oppression. Losing Jessica is a bigger blow to him than all the previous mistreatment.

It seems like the right way to play the speech, but making it clear is a challenge, and I'm playing against a widespread interpretation of that speech.

It's also important to show human pain because it contrasts with the way Solanio and Salerio have been talking about him in a previous scene, mocking Shylock as running about screaming "My ducats!!" It is important, next time we actually see Shylock, to see him not as the rumor presents him, but as a man in pain, to see a grieving father rather than some greedy moneylender.

Here we have the full-throated "Hath not a Jew eyes?" speech, which is in prose and not in verse. It's eloquent in its way but not pretty. It describes the injustice and marks the point where Shylock begins to focus on revenge. Anger is not good for ethical judgment. The opposite of injustice is justice, but Shylock fixates on revenge. Such is the human condition.

Anger is also a hook through the nose, as we see when Tubal stokes Shylock's anger to a boiling point, for reasons that are not spelled out in the text.

This is the scene where we learn, as does Shylock, that Antonio may indeed be unable to pay back the loan, and suddenly that "pound of flesh" clause isn't a joke, and Shylock is contemplating something unthinkable.

Interesting detail: he tells Tubal to get the arresting officer and meet him at their synagogue. No reason is given. It could be a place where they'd have privacy. Fleeting thoughts about how, in the United States, African-American churches have been safe havens to gather and plan insurrections against racist institutions....


Act III, Scene 3. We play this as if there had been an attempt at mediation offstage. Shylock is having none of it. "Talk not to me of mercy." He says over and over again, "I will have my bond." It's a joke among the cast. "I will have my -- line?" The line is a blunt instrument and he just smacks Antonio with it over and over again. It couldn't be more clear that Shylock has committed himself to a course of action and is insulating himself against changing his mind. It is really a grandiose kind of revenge: not only that Antonio suffer physically, but the state will uphold it, in public and in front of all the people who have tormented Shylock.

Only a very, very angry person could believe this would work out.


Act IV, Scene 1. The court scene. Shylock turns up believing the law upholds his claim. The Duke tries to talk him down, and he is offered three times the money he is owed. He refuses it. Portia, disguised as the hotshot attorney from out of town, declares Shylock the winner of case but offers him one last chance to take justice rather than revenge. "Take thrice they money. Bid me tear the bond." Shylock does not turn back: he says no.

This is a very well-written scene. It's a great courtroom scene. The legal argument is exciting and the stakes are undoubtedly very high. The Duke has yielded his power as judge to a stranger from out of town - and the presiding judge actually grants that Shylock is legally entitled to his revenge. Antonio must prepare to die, and says his goodbyes as Shylock waits with a knife in his hand. It's an amazing scene already, and then at the last second Portia finds the legal loophole.

Sometimes when I play this scene, there is a wave of relief at this point. A sense that perhaps I have a way out of doing this thing, a chance to walk this back and keep face, my point having been made, now let's settle this. But it is now too late. Portia has me over a barrel and I soon realize that, of course, the laws are set up to defend challenges to the existing social relations. I tried to make the court of law a field of class struggle, and the class structure predictably defended itself and crushed me. Within three minutes, Antonio is dictating terms, including that, in return for the "favor" of having his property stripped from him, Shylock also lose his cultural identity: "...that he presently become a Christian." And the Duke says "He shall do this" or else face the death penalty. Shylock has just been stripped more naked than naked - and from the perspective of the play's "good guys," this is a happy ending.

Theatre artists far more august and famous than me have struggled with how to portray this moment. Olivier did this famous long wail after he exited the court. (I've even read that he injured his throat doing it during his run onstage.) In the 2004 film by Michael Radford, in which Al Pacino played Shylock, as he exits the courtroom the crowd tears off his headcovering and spits upon him. Our production is so bare bones, we have no crowd. The final moment of subjugation passes silently between Shylock and Antonio, in a physical gesture as Shylock prepares himself to depart the court. For much of the play, I have alternated between the posture of a confident man and a beaten dog. In this last transition from dog to man Shylock walks out of the play.

Tomorrow, we'll have our first audience, and we'll see if any of this actually plays.



3 comments:

Adam Gertsacov said...

It's a lot of fun to play Shylock! Some good notes and thoughts.

I definitely think that Shylock is not out for revenge from the beginning. He's not a schemer about the pound of flesh. He's just trying to make it in the world, and he sees Antonio as a way to become more assimilated, more accepted. And when they shun him again, and then again, and then try to cheat him, he snaps.

We had played Shylock as a Raymond Patriarca type (but Jewish) We set his offices in that abandoned arcade machine building on Atwells ave.

Something that I found though, is that after my final exit, there's a whole nother act where you are basically the only person backstage. It gets lonely. I remember thinking that people in the play did really not like me.

And the next year I played Malvolio, and it's basically the same. At the end, you are alone backstage.

Robinanna neibauer said...

Adam, I wish I could play those roles. Can a girl play them too?! I wish they both got what they wanted.

Robinanna neibauer said...

I think that Antonio did that to sabotage his business. He was trying to impoverish Shylock. He did that because Shylock was a Jew.