Friday, March 16, 2007

Kenneth Gross's "Shylock is Shakespeare"

Kenneth Gross, Professor of English at the University of Rochester, is the author of, most recently, Shylock Is Shakespeare.

Here he imagines who would best capture the central role in The Merchant of Venice:
Who would play Shylock?

The actors I’ve seen playing Shylock -- variously stoic, angry, seductive, sorrowful, playful, self-righteous, wearied, fearful -- wanted to keep audiences in view of a human Shylock. They showed us a Shylock who even in his rage or blind love of money is vulnerable, and who in turn makes us vulnerable. (David Suchet’s and Laurence Olivier’s were the best among these). One aim was to avoid either over-sentimentalizing Shylock as pathetic victim or producing something bluntly antisemitic. It’s understandable, but there was something guarded about all of the performances. None attempted a Shylock either as scary or as wild as the play suggests is possible -- especially in the trial scene, where Shylock embraces his own reduction, makes a dangerous mask of his own monstrosity in the eyes of the Christians, and uses this to stun them, question them, to turn their prejudiced visions back against them. Here’s what I said about this in my book:

“I have never seen an actor capable of bearing fully the bitter humor of the part, ready to show himself at once wounded and elated by Shylock’s rage, lifted up by his grotesque histrionics. For myself, I think that the greatest Shylock of the twentieth century would have been Zero Mostel. In part I am recalling Mostel’s performance in the 1974 film version of Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, when he changes from a boisterous, officious, aggressively courtly friend of the hero into a snorting, raging animal, taken over by an impulse that seems at once uncontrollable and curiously pleasurable, like a sneeze, something caught from the invisible infection of other human rhinoceroses popping up in the world of the play. But mostly I’m imagining a Shylock who would be a more ferocious version of Mostel’s Max Bialystock in Mel Brooks’s 1968 film The Producers, huge, louche, abject, mocking, contemptuous, restless, insinuating, shameless, and seductive. Bialystock is a man who swindles poor old ladies out of their life savings in order to fund an antisemitic farce that he knows will be a crashing failure, but that will thereby gain him an incalculable profit. He is a clown who succeeds ruinously, against his very will to fail, when the musical he produces, ‘Springtime for Hitler,’ turns out to be a huge comic success — driven as it is, we come to see, by a generous anger against Nazi violence that the greedy, servile producer can barely acknowledge even to himself. Mostel would have invented for us a Shylock who ate his own and others’ rage for breakfast. What you want, if only for a moment, is Shylock the maddened clown, one who gapes back at the gaping pig, who listens to that shrieking bagpipe and finds himself standing, shamelessly, with relish and knowledge, in his piss-soaked pantaloons and gabardine.” (Shylock is Shakespeare, 81-82.)

That’s extreme, but Merchant is a play that demands extremity as well as subtlety. That would go for directors as well. I think that Peter Brook (who has refused to direct the play) or the great Italian theater director Giorgio Strehler would have discovered amazing things. Among film directors, consider Orson Welles (who made a handful of great Shakespeare films) or Ingmar Bergman (who is himself Shakespearean in scope). The main thing is to find artists who approach the play with more wonder and less fear.
Gross offers more reflections on Shylock's character in passages he wrote about the Page 69 Test applied to Shylock Is Shakespeare.

Read an excerpt from Shylock is Shakespeare.

--Marshal Zeringue