Shylock’s legacy, and what Shakespeare sawPanel looks at ‘Merchant of Venice’ character Theatre for a New Audience founder and artistic director Jeffrey Horowitz. (KATIE ORLINSKY/THE NEW YORK TIMES) By Laura Collins-Hughes
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 . . .
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.Continued...