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About Merchant of Vanice

  • Date Submitted: 06/07/2014 10:27 AM
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This article is based on the Selma and Jacob Brown Annual Lecture presented at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

In May 1943, audiences were delighted at the Burgtheater in Vienna. The Holocaust had been raging for 17 months. The city on the Danube was Judenrein. Members of the Nazi party in Vienna considered it a perfect opportunity to celebrate their achievement with a production of The Merchant of Venice. Werner Krauss, a Nazi himself, played Shylock as revoltingly alien, dirty, and repulsive, slinking furtively across the stage.

Fifty-six years later, at the Shakespeare Theater in Washington, D.C., Hal Holbrook played a dauntless Shylock, honorable and proud, a man of integrity and courage.

A revolting Shylock in Vienna, a noble Shylock in Washington. With only 400 lines, on stage for only five of twenty scenes, no character in Shakespeare's repertory runs the gamut of diverse and contradictory interpretations like Shylock. Through the centuries, critics have been so at odds with each other in their Shylockian interpretations that you might think we were reading a vast assortment of different plays altogether.

One of the reasons for this variability is that Shakespeare ingeniously creates a profusion of equivocal signals to the point where the play is always urging us, as the famous critic Hazard Adams put it, to "look again." There seems to be no doubt, however, that Shakespeare wanted us to look again and again not just at Shylock with his five appearances but at all the other major characters in the play.

Shakespeare's portrayal of Shylock can only be understood if we turn our attention away from Shylock himself, temporarily, and focus on everyone else. Shylock is an unattractive person, but the same can be said for all the other characters as well. Antonio, Bassanio, Portia, Nerissa, Gratiano, the Duke, Gobbo, all have innumerable flaws. They're all hypocrites, absorbed in the influence and power of money,...

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