Except for perhaps Hamlet, most scholars, teachers, critics, and Bardologists tend to consider Shylock, Shakespeare’s most controversial character. No matter how ably portrayed on stage or academically disseminated in essays, Shylock’s image as a tragic villain remains largely unchallenged. That is except for the challenge that actor/playwright Gareth Armstrong puts forth with a lot of dramatic effort to demonstrate Shylock’s common humanity in the face of common inhumanity. With due respect to Shakespeare’s decision to call his play “The Merchant of Venice,” it is commendable that Armstrong has finally elevated Shylock to title role in his play.
If Shakespeare’s text brilliantly and ingeniously tells a good yarn, it also confirms Elizabethan England’s ignorance and disdain of the Jew not only on religious grounds but also as the proverbial loan shark. It is unlikely that Shakespeare felt the need to be so culturally scrupulous as to create a menacing, segregated antagonist who is also human. Armstrong covers all the bases, or at least skirts over them.
Far be it from this critic to diffuse or counter any of the considerations, arguments, and ruminations that propel the Welsh-born veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company. His absorbing and wit-infused lecture cum one-person play, tries hard to be as informed and informative as it is entertaining. For the most part, it succeeds.
Except for a large sepia-toned photo of Venice’s Rialto Bridge that serves as a backdrop, the items on the stage of the intimate Perry Street Theater are there to fulfill the essential requirements of Armstrong’s lively performance. A desk and a steamer trunk with “The Merchant of Venice” written on it suggest a touring actor. A spiral staircase leads to a bookcase from which a pile of dusty old volumes amusingly tumble off upon Armstrong’s entrance. A swagged red velvet drape completes the picture.
Armstrong curiously but cleverly frames his analysis from the perspective of Shylock’s only friend and ally, Tubal, who, in “Merchant” is a man of few words. In Shylock he does most of the speaking. This is a funny and artfully consigned conceit considering that Tubal, the only other Jew in the play (and the only other Jew in Shakespeare’s entire canon) has only eight lines in “The Merchant of Venice.”
Under Frank Barrie’s concealed direction, Armstrong brings an air of persuasive authority to all the characters in various and carefully selected scenes as well as other plays of the period, including Marlowe’s “The Jew of Malta.” The beauty and effectiveness of the play is largely due to his ability to tackle scenes involving multiple characters with a rapid change of voice and body language.
In addition to brief and amusing impersonations of the most famous of Shylock’s portrayers, including Edwin Kean and Henry Irving, he offers a bemused vision of famed producer Max Rhinehart’s elaborate production, as well as a frightening reminder of how easily it was for the Germans to cozy up to Shakespeare’s canon, and particularly “Merchant.” With impeccable flair and a degree of chutzpah, he portrays Shylock, Portia (with a special affinity for “the quality of mercy is not strained” speech), Antonio, and The Duke in the famous trial scene. Except for an occasional change of wig and robe, his costume consists of a black coat and hat.
But don’t think of this play as a stunt, but rather as the most expedient way for us to encounter the issues and characters that are necessary to fulfill Armstrong’s purpose. Since many actors as well as academics have attempted to provide a definitive take on Shylock, whether presenting him as a comical Jewish stereotype or a pathetic victim forced into usury by a hateful society, it is good to be reminded that Shakespeare was anxious to give more heft to a character he pinched from a 14th century Italian fairy story called “Il Pecorone.” Shakespeare was right to set his story in Venice, “one of the last places in Western Europe where Jews are tolerated. As long as they keep to the ghetto.”
With no apologies to Shakespeare, “Shylock” has forged a more dimensional and pro-active Tubal, who is only too happy to upstage the more professorial Armstrong when an opportunity to chew a little scenery comes along. As insightful as Tubal’s gingerly acted interventions into the “Merchant’s” plot are, it is Armstrong’s accelerated course on the history of Jews in Europe, including the accusation of “blood libel” that prompted increased anti-Semitism and the exile of Jews from England and that gives this play added power. The actor’s asides make it clear that Shakespeare’s perception of Shylock came directly out of a society that was openly hostile to Jews. Serving the needs of his theater and as a playwright with an eye to the box office, Shakespeare would have had no qualms pandering to his audience, an audience willing and ready to mock the Jew, any Jew.
As the professor we all wish we had and as the actor we always knew we could depend upon, Armstrong has supplied all the background, including the suppositions and theories surrounding that “pound of flesh,” to make even a rudimentary familiarity with “The Merchant of Venice” unnecessary.
Aside from Romeo, Shylock is the only Shakespeare character to have become a noun. Aside from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Tubal may be the Bard’s only other character to have earned the distinction of getting more lines. Simon Slater’s original, exotic music provides the right mood for the lines eloquently spoken by the playwright-performer. Did I mention that I had a good time? HHH
“Shylock,” Perry Street Theater, 31 Perry Street (west of Seventh Avenue). Tickets $20 to $55. Call 212-868- 4444. Through March 1.