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Home :: Archive :: 1997 :: December ::
Claudius; Quarter Turns of Ham; Shylock's pounded
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 8.1222.  Wednesday, 10 December 1997.

[1]     From:   Simon Malloch <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 09 Dec 1997 23:14:09 +0800
        Subj:   Re: SHK 8.1220  Re: Claudius

[2]     From:   Susan Gray <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 9 Dec 1997 12:00:44 EST
        Subj:   Quarter Turns of Hamlet

[3]     From:   Daniel Traister <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 9 Dec 1997 12:52:47 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   THE TIMES: ARTS Shylock's pounded flesh


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Simon Malloch <
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Date:           Tuesday, 09 Dec 1997 23:14:09 +0800
Subject: 8.1220  Re: Claudius
Comment:        Re: SHK 8.1220  Re: Claudius

It was only after I saw Branagh's Hamlet that I began to perceive that
the tragedy could be about Claudius.  This is no doubt due in part to
Derek Jacobi - his acting brought out that interpretation, I felt.

Simon Malloch.

[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Susan Gray <
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Date:           Tuesday, 9 Dec 1997 12:00:44 EST
Subject:        Quarter Turns of Hamlet

Anyone looking for different takes on Hamlet for their classes might be
interested in Margaret Atwood's very brief and funny piece called
"Gertrude Speaks" printed in _Good Bones_.  It's written from Gertrude's
point of view, speaking to Hamlet.

Cheers,
Susan Gray

[3]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Daniel Traister <
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Date:           Tuesday, 9 Dec 1997 12:52:47 -0500 (EST)
Subject:        THE TIMES: ARTS Shylock's pounded flesh

Without permission from THE [London] TIMES: ARTS (December 9, 1997)

        Shylock's pounded flesh

For 400 years, actors have wondered how to play the Bard's Jew. Heather
Neill reports:

In the first production of <I>The Merchant of Venice</I>, in 1597,
Richard Burbage played Shylock dressed in a red wig. The hair was an
important signal: it put Shylock in the tradition of the villain of the
medieval mystery plays in which Judas and Satan sported just such a
garish trademark. But nothing Shakespeare did was that simple; his Jew
had feelings expressed in poetic verse, intelligence, a quick wit and a
daughter who betrayed him.

Shakespeare's character has survived, a "real" person complicated enough
to be open to interpretation and analysis, yet he was invented at a time
when it would not have occurred to audiences to feel any discomfort at
the portrayal of a villain with certain stereotyped racial
characteristics.

Today, seeing Shylock as a representative Jew, especially in the light
of 20th-century history, actors, critics and audiences are faced with a
problem. If Shakespeare was as humane as we would like to believe, if he
was sophisticated in language and psychology beyond any expectations we
may have of his contemporaries, what can he have meant by this portrait
of a vengeful, greedy, merciless Jew? It is difficult to ignore the fact
that Nazi directors staged <I>The Merchant of Venice</I> in Germany some
50 times between Hitler's rise to power in 1933 and 1945.

Some commentators declare the play unstageable now. The Jewish
playwright Arnold Wesker has written a companion piece, <I>Shylock</I>,
which redresses the anti-Semitism he finds in <I>The Merchant of
Venice</I> and which he advocates should always be acte d and studied
alongside it.  Modern directors deal with the Shylock problem in various
ways, usually making him sympathetic, sometimes even turning him into
the hero of the piece.

To begin with, 400 years ago, it was different. There were few Jews in
Elizabethan England, Edward I having expelled them 300 years earlier,
which perhaps added spice to the notion of an exotic alien race, members
of which few playgoers would have known.

Other villainous stage Jews were common. Marlowe's Barabas (sharing a
name with the murderer freed by the mob in preference to Jesus on the
eve of the Crucifixion) was a monstrous caricature, although it is fair
to say that the Christians in <I>The Jew of Malta</I> are a pretty
odious lot as well.

During the 18th and 19th centuries all the leading actors tackled "the
Jew". Charles Macklin frightened George II with his savage performance
in 1741. In 1814 Edmund Kean broke with the tradition of the
one-dimensional villain and, dispensing with the red wig, impressed
Hazlitt with the intensity of his acting. But it was Henry Irving, in
1879, who first invested Shylock with a degree of humanity.

The roll call of great actors continues into the 20th century: Donald
Wolfit's Shylock was "full of venom and hatred" and, according to the
writer John Gross, Michael Redgrave and Emlyn Williams presented
conventionally villainous readings of the part in the 1950s.

Then, in 1960, Peter O'Toole's interpretation at Stratford marked a
turning point. Perhaps it was not so much that the horror of the
Holocaust had taken this long to be acknowledged, but rather that the
theatre had become a forum for political ideas. His Shylock, directed by
Michael Langham, was a heroic, dignified figure, in contrast to what one
reviewer described as "a gushing, nervous, trivial band of Christians".

The RSC's 1997 Shylock, Philip Voss, had a walk-on part in that
production and still says it is the best he's seen to date. He,
meanwhile, having begun with trepidation, has found the part rewarding.
"He's a rich, deep character, an outsider, which is very appealing. He's
an incredibly witty man. I don't think Shakespeare is anti-Semitic:
Shylock becomes unhinged because his daughter betrays him. That short
scene with Jessica shows how much he loves her, has dominated her but
loved her too."

The most famous speech in the play - "Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a
Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?" and so on
- is often cited as proof of Shakespeare's humanity. Voss delivers it
standing upright, "not kicked and bleeding; he's presenting an
argument".

In the intervening years, Laurence Olivier's Shylock in Jonathan
Miller's Victorian-dress 1970 production for the National Theatre was
memorable for his emphatic Jewishness and the downplaying of other
strands in the plot.  The text was slightly cut to omit unsympathetic
lines.

In the early 1990s, the director David Thacker also made judicious cuts
and also made Shylock (played by David Calder) a businessman among other
businessmen. But this time the setting was the contemporary Stock
Exchange and due weight was given to the casket scenes. Shylock was a
reasonable man driven mad by the defection of his daughter with a
Christian, and so completely won the audience's sympathy that there was
an audible expression of horror when he was ordered to renounce his
faith and become a Christian.

Ten years ago Antony Sher grappled with the role in Bill Alexander's
1987 RSC production. A South African Jew, Sher was all too aware of
racial prejudice and sought to stir it up in the audience to shake their
complacency, giving them an unsympathetic, an gry, exaggerated Jew. A
yellow star of David was sprayed on to the wall at the back of the
stage.

Gregory Doran, who directs Voss in this season's <I>Merchant</I>, played
Solanio in 1987. That production, he believes, "loaded the play in the
post-Holocaust sense. It over-balanced it. The casket scenes went for
nothing, but they are crucial because it is all about human values -
Portia is a commodity too.

"The play has been hijacked by history. We are putting it back into the
world of renaissance trade. We've started with the title: Shylock was a
merchant of Venice. I wanted to take the swastikas and stars of David
out of the play."

The differences between Shylock and Antonio, he believes, have more to
do with commerce than race - a Jew, unlike Christians, was allowed by
his religion to charge interest. "Shylock doesn't expect to ask for the
pound of flesh," he says, but, driven mad by Jessica's elopement with a
Christian, he seeks revenge and then, having gone too far, discovers
that he is an alien after all.

Four hundred years on, Shylock can still be approached as if for the
first time. Whether private person or representative Jew, caricature
villain or grieving father, as much as any character in the canon he
demonstrates Shakespeare's extraordinary malleability, the chameleon
property which allows succeeding generations to find themselves
reflected in the plays.

<I>The Merchant of Venice <I>opens at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre,
Stratford (011 44 1789 295623), tomorrow.
 

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