For modern-day audiences, Shylock – the Jewish money lender from The Merchant of Venice – is one of Shakespeare’s most problematic and complex characters. Yes, he wants to go through with the ghastly act of cutting out a pound of Antonio’s flesh when the latter defaults on his bond but throughout the play he is also repeatedly antagonised by anti-Semitic taunts and the audience cannot fail to be moved by the famous “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech or writhe uncomfortably in the closing scenes when Shylock is forced to convert to Christianity as part of his prescribed punishment.
Whether Shylock is indeed a villain or a victim is the question at the heart of Gareth Armstrong’s award-winning play, superbly performed by Rhodri Miles at The Georgian Theatre Royal last week.
There are many layers (and roles) in this clever piece but the commentary is largely delivered by Tubal – Shylock’s advocate on stage and the only other Jewish man in the whole of Shakespeare. Tubal is a likeable and accessible story-teller who is rather put out by the fact that he is only given a meagre eight lines of dialogue in one scene – where he notifies his friend on the exploits of Shylock’s daughter Jessica who has run off with her lover and some of Shylock’s money.
Despite his lack of presence in the actual play, Tubal now has a lot to say and the audience is informed about the dark history of Jewish persecution in both literature and in real life. We find out that the storyline of The Merchant of Venice was a popular tale in England in the 16th century and that casting them as the ‘baddies’ was good for boosting sales at the box office. Indeed, Barabas in Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (written ten years before The Merchant of Venice) famously ‘gets his dues’ when he is boiled alive in a vat of oil.
We also hear about the Jews’ expulsion across Europe in the 13th century, the tale of the little boy (later to become St William) whose death was blamed on the Jews who used his blood to make bread, and more latterly the Nazi war crimes. Incidentally, we discover that Hitler loved The Merchant of Venice but had it re-written so that Jessica had a Christian mother so as not to pollute the bloodline.
But does Shylock carry some responsibility for his treatment in the play? Well, admits Tubal, anyone who dogmatically sharpens their knife on their boot demanding to cut open another man’s chest would nowadays be sectioned or put into therapy.
All this considered, it was still a hugely enjoyable night out and there was plenty of humour to balance out the more sombre detail of the past. Miles moves with effortless energy between the many characters (Pontius Pilate, Romeo, Max Reinhardt, Dracula and Richard Burbage to name but a few) and brings to life the rich language of the play itself through its extensive cast. One minute he is Tubal, the next he is Shylock, quickly followed by Portia and Antonio. The lighting also helped with the flurry of transformations, adding mood and focus to the ever-shifting scenes, as did the use of a few well-chosen props or the odd stereotypical ginger permed wig or hooked-nosed mask. As a one-man performance, this was up there with the best.