Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 4, No. 97. Sunday, 21 February 1993.
Date: Sunday, 21 Feb 1993 17:13:28 -0500 (EST)
Subject: Re: Shakespeare and Anti-Semitism
Robert O'Connor asks the right question, at least as regards contemporary
approaches to *Merchant*, whether in class or in the theater. Clearly,
there is plenty of anti-semitism in the play, as expressed by almost all
of the Venetians who stand opposite Shylock. Even the RSC admit this when
they try to stage the play, while at the same time insisting that the play
itself is not anti-semitic. The latter point is much more difficult to
defend, as most critics sooner or later discover. Some years ago the RSC
tried to demonstrate what they meant by staging Merlowe's *Jew of Malta*
back to back with *Merchant*--the one at the Swan, the other (with Antony
Sher) at the main house, but in my view it badly backfired.
The fact is that the play is so full of inconsistencies and contradictions
that no simple, reductive statement can be made. I suggest people
seriously interested in the problem read Norman Rabkin's illuminating
essay in *Meaning and Shakespeare* as well as Mahood's brief survey of the
stage history and the play's background in her NCS edition.
But to return to ROC's question, I believe actors have to try to
incorporate in their renditions of Shakespeare these very contradictions,
and we as critics and teachers have to reveal the ambivalences within the
text. These, I think, will reflect our ambivalences, which we may or (more
likely) may not be fully aware of, especially as we approach this play or
others like it.
P.S. Whoever informed Professor Jones at Cornell College that Macklin was a
tragic Shylock misinformed him, I believe, at least if the implication was
that he anticipated the *tragic* Shylock of Henry Irving. Macklin was a deadly
serious Shylock, but none the less a villain--as opposed to the comic
villains of his predecessors on the stage. That Shakespeare may have
initially conceived Shylock as a comic figure is very likely, and I have
seen the character portrayed that way quite successfully--much to my
astonishment, having been brought up as I was on the Irving conception.