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Home :: Archive :: 2007 :: February ::
F. Murray Abraham as Shylock and Barabas
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 18.0124  Friday, 9 February 2007

[1] 	From: 	Edmund Taft <
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 	Date: 	Thursday, 8 Feb 2007 13:41:32 -0500
 	Subj: 	F. Murray Abraham as Shylock and Barabas

[2] 	From: 	Alan Horn <
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 	Date: 	Thursday, 8 Feb 2007 16:33:00 -0500
 	Subj: 	Re: SHK 18.0112 F. Murray Abraham as Shylock and Barabas


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		Edmund Taft <
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Date: 		Thursday, 8 Feb 2007 13:41:32 -0500
Subject: 	F. Murray Abraham as Shylock and Barabas

Brian Willis writes,

>"Actually, Charles Macklin was the first actor that we can determine
>played Shylock for sympathy - in 1741, well before Irving and an
>influence on Garrick."

I was always under the impression that Macklin (1741) played Shylock as a 
dark, malevolent monster, one who, at least in his expressed thoughts, 
wanted to eat Christians alive! There's no sympathy for Shylock here. In 
fact, Pope's comment, alluded to by Willis, seems to express approbation 
precisely because of the lack of sympathy in Macklin's portrayal. I think 
that Edmund Kean, however, did create sympathy for Shylock, but he's later 
- 1814.

Ed Taft

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		Alan Horn <
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Date: 		Thursday, 8 Feb 2007 16:33:00 -0500
Subject: 18.0112 F. Murray Abraham as Shylock and Barabas
Comment: 	Re: SHK 18.0112 F. Murray Abraham as Shylock and Barabas

Time Out New York had a provocative review of this double bill, copied 
below.

Alan Horn

***************
The Merchant of Venice + The Jew of Malta
Theatre for a New Audience runs rings around anti-Semitism.
By Adam Feldman

The Merchant of Venice, as everyone knows, is one of Shakespeare's 
"problem plays":  a purported comedy that no longer strikes anyone as 
funny. The troubling character of Shylock, the bloodthirsty Hebrew usurer, 
unavoidably overshades the romantic antics of the Christian characters, 
which continue for a full act after Shylock is banished, broken, from the 
stage. In other words, the play doesn't have just any old problem: It has 
what we might call, with the full historical weight of the term, a Jewish 
problem. (Not for nothing was it a favorite in Nazi Germany.) As Harold 
Bloom has argued, "One would have to be blind, deaf, and dumb not to 
recognize that Shakespeare's grand, equivocal comedy [...] is nevertheless 
a profoundly anti-Semitic work."

For the past two centuries, convention has treated The Merchant of Venice 
(1597) as a play about anti-Semitism, with Shylock rebirthed as a flawed 
but sympathetic figure, acting out against the abuse he has suffered under 
a hypocritical Christian society. This tradition lives on in Theatre for a 
New Audience's current staging of the piece, which goes an extra step by 
presenting it in repertory with Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta 
(1589), a comparable but more outrageous portrait of Jewish malice. The 
playbill includes a long excerpt from Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the 
World, in which the author favorably compares Shakespeare's Jew to the 
gleefully wicked Barabas, Shylock's counterpart in Marlowe's pitch-black 
comedy.

What the program leaves out is Greenblatt's catalog of "impulsive, 
unself-conscious Jew-baiting" in Shakespeare's other plays, both before 
and after The Merchant of Venice. As this omission suggests, Theatre for a 
New Audience's juxtaposition of Shakespeare and Marlowe has an implicit 
goal: to rescue Shakespeare from the stain of Elizabethan bigotry by 
presenting his work in counterpoint with Marlowe's-or rather, with a 
deeply debased version thereof. For in weighing the two plays, the 
productions keep a heavy thumb on Shakespeare's side of the balance: The 
Merchant of Venice, directed by Darko Tresnjak, has been given a sensitive 
and insightful account, whereas The Jew of Malta has been surrendered to 
director David Herskovits's puerile vandalism. This arrangement does not 
quite fix the plays' problems so much as it fixes the fight.

The quality of Tresnjak's staging is mercifully high, and presents the 
most compelling possible argument for Shylock in the form of F. Murray 
Abraham, an actor of tremendous dignity and command. The devastating 
emotional high point of Abraham's performance-astutely placed just before 
intermission-comes in the discovery that his feckless daughter Jessica 
(Nicole Lowrance) has traded away a turquoise ring that Shylock had 
received from his late wife. This emphasis casts rich shadows on the 
play's fifth act, which also involves misplaced rings.  Glossing over 
Shylock's anti-gentile villainy as smoothly as imaginable, the 
production-set in the very near future-finds lovely moments of 
complication everywhere in the text, notably in the relationship between 
Jessica and her Christian lover, Lorenzo (Vince Nappo). The gracious 
heiress Portia (a fine Forbes)-whose suitors must choose among three 
inscribed caskets, ranging from falsely alluring gold ("Who chooseth me 
shall gain what many men desire") to humbly valuable lead ("Who chooseth 
me must give and hazard all he hath")-is subtly revealed to be in the 
thrall of shallow appearances herself.

This bejeweled production, however, is purchased at a cost, which is the 
wholesale ridicule of Marlowe. If this Merchant of Venice is a 
ring-beautifully wrought, despite a hole of unaddressed prejudice at its 
center-Herskovits's The Jew of Malta merely is a zero: full of sound 
effects and fury, signifying nothing. Cast in counterpart roles-Abraham as 
Barabas, Lowrance as his convert daughter, etc.-the same actors who 
perform so superbly under Tresnjak are sabotaged by the director's 
har-de-har-har approach, whose ironical, awkward style forces them into 
strained glibness, at once hectic and aloof.

The Jew of Malta is a much more complex play, and Barabas a fuller 
character, than Herskovits's infuriating staging ever manages to convey. 
(This was clearer in Brian Kulick's 2004 reading at the Classic Stage 
Company, in which Ron Leibman played Barabas as a slyly seductive 
Maccabee.) As Ron Rosenbaum suggests in his recent book, The Shakespeare 
Wars, Marlowe's over-the-top caricature is arguably "far less insidiously 
anti-Semitic" than Shakespeare's more obviously human creation. The 
twinned productions of these Elizabethan relics wind up exaggerating the 
conventional wisdom about each of them, as if setting out to polish the 
high and mar the low; it might have been more interesting to have reversed 
this valuation. This version of The Merchant of Venice is a significant 
accomplishment. But one can't help feeling that, in staging what many men 
desire instead of hazarding itself, Theatre for a New Audience has chosen 
the golden casket.

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