The Merchant of Venice, currently playing in New York’s Central Park and starring Al Pacino as Shylock, has been the hottest ticket of a typically slow summer in New York theater. Reviews have been glowing, praising Pacino’s performance for its clarity and unexpected understatement. But his major accomplishment has been to make it safe to hate Shylock again.
Merchant is a comedy, and Shylock, whose Jewishness is one of his defining characteristics, was originally played as a clownish miser with murderous impulses. You can imagine the crowds at the Globe cheering when the cunning moneylender gets his comeuppance. In the early 19th century, productions began to soften the character, presenting him as more conflicted and tragically flawed. The Holocaust accelerated the shift toward making him gentler and more empathetic. Shylock isn’t a morality tale caricature like Christopher Marlowe’s titular Jew of Malta, a vengeful and dastardly merchant who gleefully boasts of poisoning wells. But he’s close, presenting a problem for contemporary actors trying to avoid playing into the stereotype of the greedy Jew who cares more about money than mercy.
In a 1970 production at London’s National Theater, Laurence Oliver played Shylock like an assimilated Victorian banker who discovers his Jewish identity (and a prayer shawl) after he feels the sting of losing his daughter. Two decades later, Dustin Hoffman delivered a more genial, minor key turn on the West End and then Broadway as a successful businessman who stoically puts up with bigotry and abuse until he snaps. Even Pacino himself has tried to make Shylock more likable, when he starred in the fairly conventional 2004 movie, which adopted the old tack of making the play explicitly about anti-Semitism. The movie opens with a scroll describing hostility toward Jews in Venice, leading to an invented scene in which Antonio spits on Shylock out of pure spite. Pacino plays the Jew, as he’s called repeatedly in the play, as a pragmatic sufferer of slights. Attempting to win the audience’s sympathy, he sobs when his daughter Jessica leaves him for a Christian. He’s a loving father hurt by the loss of a child, abused by a cruel society. No wonder he overreacts with that whole pound-of-flesh business, insisting that his borrower live up to his contract.
Ron Rosenbaum convincingly argued at the time that in straining to give us a politically correct, sanitized Shylock, Pacino offered a “keenly measured evasion,” one that misreads the intention of the play. Perhaps Pacino was persuaded. His hardheaded new performance seems like a direct rebuke of his previous one, going against the grain of the usual cheap humanizing. This Shylock is strong, humorless, and not quite as smart as he thinks he is. And director Daniel Sullivan’s melancholy and deceptively bold staging provides a sturdy platform for the star by playing against the conventions of traditional comedy. In the ingenious final scene, the couples pair off, as they do in Shakespeare comedies, but they remain alienated from each other. This is also the rare Merchant of Venice that makes no apologies for its politics. In so doing, this production embraces the play’s “problems”—and even exploits them.
The most common defense of Shylock rests on a reading of his best-known speech, which asks plaintively “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?” This speech, the reading goes, is a multicultural plea to see all people, Jews and gentiles, as equals. The problem with this interpretation is that, like so many of Shylock’s monologues, this speech is actually a piece of rhetoric. In this case, it is a piece of rhetoric designed explicitly to justify one simple point: Not that Jews are like everyone else, but that Jews, like everyone else, are entitled to their revenge. Shylock’s series of questions are a preamble to this crucial point: “And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.”
Pacino grasps that this is the crucial point of the speech and delivers it in an angry cadence, without a drop of pathos. He shows admirable restraint here, refusing to pull on heartstrings, shout unnecessarily, or deploy excess charm. His Shylock is self-serious and righteous, a solemn prig surrounded by frivolous men. Unlike when he plays Richard III, Pacino does not make villainous deeds look like devilish fun. Instead of enjoying his bitterness, he is carried away by it. At one point, what he treated as a silly joke in the movie—a pun comparing “land rats” to “pi-rats”—becomes a distinctly bad joke here, accented with a old man’s “Ha!”—he sounds for a moment like Chris Matthews—that browbeats his audience into appreciating his lame wordplay.
In the movie, when Jessica leaves home, Pacino fell to the ground in despair. In the Park, he stays upright and seems more upset that she took his money than that she departed. He thus sacrifices any sympathy he might have earned from audiences empathizing with the pain of losing a daughter, while at the same time risks playing into the stereotype of the Jew obsessed by money. But Pacino captures the spirit of the character without simplifying him. Shylock may have started as a simple archetype—based on Marlowe’s prototypical Jewish villain—but Shakespeare couldn’t help but make him more complex and compelling. Other productions that have set out to be faithful to the original play have gone further in portraying Shylock as a vile stick figure, but that too does the play a disservice. Pacino finds a way to humanize Shylock without making us feel sorry for him. For all his faults, his Shylock holds onto his dignity.
When Portia outfoxes Shylock in the courtroom scene, stripping him of his money and having him forcibly converted, men shove Pacino to his knees. Yet he does not look defeated. When he comes to the line that has baffled generations of actors—after losing his wealth and being forced into Christianity he strangely says, “I am content”—Pacino is defiant, even proud. The system is unjust, he knows it, and there is nothing he can do about it. But his stern countenance indicates that he has no intention of groveling.
At this point in the movie version, Pacino fell to the ground again; he is not pushed down. The last time we see him he is alone and melancholy in a courtyard, an outsider silenced. The production in the Park is more adventurous, adding a silent conversion scene in which a brutal man shoves Shylock’s face into a pool of water—a baptism by force. But when Pacino gets up, he does not stumble. He picks up his yarmulke and puts it back on, suggesting that maybe he won’t convert after all. He then walks off the stage into a column of smoke. He is not a likable hero, but no victim either. In the end, by not fighting the unpleasantness of the character, Pacino actually avoids making him a stereotype. This is a strong, unrepentant Shylock, like him or not.