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Shylock’s legacy, and what Shakespeare saw

Panel looks at ‘Merchant of Venice’ character

Theatre for a New Audience founder and artistic director Jeffrey Horowitz. Theatre for a New Audience founder and artistic director Jeffrey Horowitz. (KATIE ORLINSKY/THE NEW YORK TIMES)
By Laura Collins-Hughes
Globe Staff / January 25, 2011

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NEW YORK — A few years before the first performance of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,’’ in the 1590s, Queen Elizabeth’s physician, Rodrigo Lopez, was convicted on questionable charges and hanged. He was Jewish, part of a minuscule minority in Elizabethan England. The fact was used against him at trial.

Whether Shakespeare saw Lopez’s dead body is uncertain, but Theatre for a New Audience founder and artistic director Jeffrey Horowitz believes that he must have. Horowitz also believes that humanism, not anti-Semitism, guided Shakespeare’s writing of Shylock, his most famous Jewish character and one whose name has become a slur. Scholars and audiences alike, however, remain divided on the question.

Tomorrow night, two months before Theatre for a New Audience’s “The Merchant of Venice’’ comes to Boston’s Paramount Theatre, Horowitz will be part of a panel titled “Shakespeare’s Jew,’’ alongside F. Murray Abraham, who plays Shylock in the production, and Shakespeare & Company founder Tina Packer. Robert Brustein, American Repertory Theater founding artistic director, will moderate.

Horowitz sat down recently at his company’s Greenwich Village offices to talk about the play.

Q. “The Merchant of Venice.’’ It’s so heavily freighted . . .

A. With?

Q. Well, it’s one of those plays that evoke a visceral reaction from people the way “The Taming of the Shrew’’ does.

A. [It’s] the most well-attended play of Shakespeare’s in America. If you look at the number of productions in America over, what, a five-year period, there are more productions of “Merchant of Venice’’ than [any] of his plays. It’s definitely on the hit parade. And I think it is because of that visceral reaction. I feel strongly it’s not an anti-Semitic play, although there are many, many, many, many very smart people who think it is. I certainly think Shakespeare was in a subversive way writing about English identity by the way it treats this man. How subversive is it to give a Jew lines? (Quoting from Shylock’s famous Act 3 speech:) “Hath not a Jew eyes?’’ I mean, that would be like if the country were run by the Ku Klux Klan and a writer gave lines to an African-American saying, “Aren’t I a human being, too?’’ We didn’t want to have it that Shylock was a stereotype of a Jew. Shylock is a successful businessman, but he’s lived in a society that’s made him into a villain. He’s no different than these people.

Q. He charges interest.

A. He charges interest; that’s right. When you start looking at what people hate about Jews, money always comes up. They’re materialistic, they’re greedy, they’re stingy — [those are] always the stereotypes. It’s always about money. Sometimes you get the blood-libel thing, but it’s mostly money.

Q. Have you ever been of two minds about this play?

A. I certainly took the criticism very seriously. I read books about it. I wouldn’t [produce] it until I had made up my mind about it. And I certainly would be uncomfortable being Jewish and being called a Shylock.

Q. Has that ever happened?

A. Well, something else happened. I went to drama school in London after college. I had this roommate who had grown up in Oxford. He was erudite; he was poetic. One night we were sitting in the apartment. He said, “Jeff, don’t move. I have to do something.’’ And he walked over to me — this is absolutely true — and he went like this. (He touches his fingertips to his scalp, behind his temples, and feels around.) And I said, “What are you doing?’’ He said, “I know this sounds crazy, but I’ve always been told Jews have horns.’’ And I looked at him. And this was 1970.

Q. You took this production to England, didn’t you?

A. Yes, and that was a huge, huge thing. However, I will say this: No English critic wrote that “Merchant of Venice’’ is an anti-Semitic play. That’s something that Americans would write. Because the population of Jews in England is very small. It’s a very different thing doing this play in England than it is here. It’s hotter here.

Q. “Hotter’’ meaning . . .

A. Disturbing. Because there are people in the audience whose parents or families have survived the Holocaust.

Q. How does that translate to its being on the hit parade?

A. I think these issues are au courant. Why is it a gigantic success on Broadway? It’s not only Al Pacino. I think people are drawn to the play because they know they’re gonna get some serious confrontation about cultural differences, religious differences, racial differences.

Q. There’s a long history of doing Shylock as a caricature.

A. There is definitely that: the flaming wig and the hook nose — oh my God, yes. Absolutely. There is that history, but there is also the history of these extraordinary actors doing this [role]. And what they have done is bring out the humanity in the part. Shakespeare put it in there. That’s why the actors found it.

Q. People cut lines from Shakespeare all the time.

A. Yeah, you have to.

Q. What did you cut from this?

A. Well, we compressed some. None of [the changes] were controversial.

Q. What would have been controversial?

A. Cut [the clown] Launcelot Gobbo’s speech about Jews. Sanitize it. Cut any reference that [the heiress] Portia has about not liking blacks. Those kind of things.

Q. What’s the value in letting those words stand as they are?

A. ’Cause good people do bad things. That’s what Shakespeare says. Very good people are capable of very bad things. Don’t think that the saints are saints. They’re not. None of us are. I think that’s what he’s saying: Face yourself.

This interview has been condensed and edited. Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at lcollins-hughes@globe.com.

SHAKESPEARE’S JEW

Presented by ArtsEmerson and New Center for Arts and Culture at Paramount Theatre, tomorrow at 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $28. 617-824-8000, www.artsemerson.org