Merchant of Venice

Performance history

The earliest performance of which a record has survived was held at the court of King James in the spring of 1605, followed by a second performance a few days later, but there is no record of any further performances in the 17th century.[18] In 1701, George Granville staged a successful adaptation, titled The Jew of Venice, with Thomas Betterton as Bassanio. This version (which featured a masque) was popular, and was acted for the next forty years. Granville cut the clownish Gobbos[19] in line with neoclassical decorum; he added a jail scene between Shylock and Antonio, and a more extended scene of toasting at a banquet scene. Thomas Doggett was Shylock, playing the role comically, perhaps even farcically. Rowe expressed doubts about this interpretation as early as 1709; Doggett's success in the role meant that later productions would feature the troupe clown as Shylock.

In 1741, Charles Macklin returned to the original text in a very successful production at Drury Lane, paving the way for Edmund Kean seventy years later (see below).[20]

Arthur Sullivan wrote incidental music for the play in 1871.[21]

Shylock on stage

Jewish actor Jacob Adler and others report that the tradition of playing Shylock sympathetically began in the first half of the 19th century with Edmund Kean,[22] and that previously the role had been played "by a comedian as a repulsive clown or, alternatively, as a monster of unrelieved evil." Kean's Shylock established his reputation as an actor.[23]

From Kean's time forward, all of the actors who have famously played the role, with the exception of Edwin Booth, who played Shylock as a simple villain, have chosen a sympathetic approach to the character; even Booth's father, Junius Brutus Booth, played the role sympathetically. Henry Irving's portrayal of an aristocratic, proud Shylock (first seen at the Lyceum in 1879, with Portia played by Ellen Terry) has been called "the summit of his career".[24] Jacob Adler was the most notable of the early 20th century: Adler played the role in Yiddish-language translation, first in Manhattan's Yiddish Theater District in the Lower East Side, and later on Broadway, where, to great acclaim, he performed the role in Yiddish in an otherwise English-language production.[25]

Kean and Irving presented a Shylock justified in wanting his revenge; Adler's Shylock evolved over the years he played the role, first as a stock Shakespearean villain, then as a man whose better nature was overcome by a desire for revenge, and finally as a man who operated not from revenge but from pride. In a 1902 interview with Theater magazine, Adler pointed out that Shylock is a wealthy man, "rich enough to forgo the interest on three thousand ducats" and that Antonio is "far from the chivalrous gentleman he is made to appear. He has insulted the Jew and spat on him, yet he comes with hypocritical politeness to borrow money of him." Shylock's fatal flaw is to depend on the law, but "would he not walk out of that courtroom head erect, the very apotheosis of defiant hatred and scorn?"[26]

Some modern productions take further pains to show the sources of Shylock's thirst for vengeance. For instance, in the 2004 film adaptation directed by Michael Radford and starring Al Pacino as Shylock, the film begins with text and a montage of how Venetian Jews are cruelly abused by bigoted Christians. One of the last shots of the film also brings attention to the fact that, as a convert, Shylock would have been cast out of the Jewish community in Venice, no longer allowed to live in the ghetto. Another interpretation of Shylock and a vision of how "must he be acted" appears at the conclusion of the autobiography of Alexander Granach, a noted Jewish stage and film actor in Weimar Germany (and later in Hollywood and on Broadway).[27]

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