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Facing Shylock in The Merchant of Venice


By Matthew Grant Winston

Photo of and by Matthew Grant Winston

It’s hard to imagine a greater challenge for a Jewish actor than playing the infamous Shylock from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Shylock is familiar because of many famous portrayals, yet elusively complex—is he villain, victim, or both?

In an era rightly sensitized by the greatest humanitarian catastrophe in history, the play invites charges of anti-Semitism; the actor must balance the risk of offending a modern audience against an inauthentic portrayal, or one that’s slavishly derivative.

I want to share my approach to this great role, and how I reconcile being Jewish (raised Reformed and Bar Mitzvahed) with playing a Jewish villain, who for many Jews epitomizes the most harmful of anti-Semitic stereotypes.

First onto my reject pile went imitation—company-mates from my freshman year at SUNY Purchase College love to remind me about my all-too-close impersonation of Peter O’Toole in Becket—so despite my admiration for Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, and a host of great BBC portrayals of Shylock, I knew that wouldn’t work.

Next onto the pile was the “super-saturated you” of classic method acting, expounded by my mentor David Garfield. Although the deep self-knowledge of his approach can build emotional versatility, it risks bringing the same persona to every role—a bit like Jack Nicholson, perhaps.

That left two approaches I’ve chosen to blend: first, animal exercises, in which you study a creature closely—a vulture, for Shylock—and embody its physicality until you know it so well you can transfer it to a character. The second is the great Michael Chekhov’s refinement of the method-acting approach, wherein an actor uses physical gestures to awaken his subconscious connections to his character’s emotional states.

I’ve felt connected to Shylock for a long time; he’s no stereotype. He and his fellow Jews have been abused to the breaking point by the dominant culture, and he’s hardened his heart to survive. But we glimpse the feeling human soul within when he learns that his daughter, “fled with a Christian,” has traded his stolen turquoise ring for a monkey. “Thou torturest me, Tubal. It was my turquoise. I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor. I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys.” Those understated lines, and that ring, embody a man’s grief and loss.

My grandfather Irving Winston, passionate and bullheaded, fled starvation in Russia when he was 13. I remember him unkind at times, especially to my grandmother; tyrannical and brilliant, more tough than tender—qualities that must have seen him through extremes of deprivation. Like him, Shylock has developed survival mechanisms—he’s been put upon, spat upon, publicly humiliated, undermined repeatedly in business. As written by Shakespeare, he’s a full human being with universal feelings.

The shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue demonstrates that anti-Semitism is alive and well in America. The Merchant of Venice is a problematic part of that dark history. Sublime in its poetry and in its exploration of the risks, illusions, and realities of love, it makes us uncomfortable even as it uplifts us.

We can’t turn away from the ugly and distasteful issue of anti-Semitism. We must face with honesty and courage the instinctive human fear of what looks different, what acts, dresses, worships, and sees the world differently. For this and other reasons I’m happy to play Shylock in these times, and I hope to embody him in all his truth and fullness.

The Merchant of Venice plays at the Plainfield Opera House on February 14, 15, 16, 21, 22, and 23 at 7 pm and February 17 and 24 at 2 pm. General admission is $15, and students / seniors are $12. Call 229-5290 or email blachly@together.net for ticket reservations.