Training Theatre Artists to Make a Difference
In one of our first rehearsals, Eleanor Holdridge specified that she didn’t like to talk about what ‘time’ our production of Merchant of Venice would take place. She believes that it is set both when the play was originally written and in the present day. The meaning that I took from this, was that the play exists both in the historical roots and prejudices of when it was first performed, and in the performance of it today for our modern audiences with our own biases. In many ways, this way of thinking about the world of the play has proved to be a significant aspect in working on Shylock in these early weeks.
Shylock is a character who has drastically changed over the course of time, even though his dialogue has remained unaltered. Originally, he was essentially a villainous, albeit comedic character in performance. This was not something new or odd for Elizabethan audiences. There are a great number of plays that both predate and were concurrent with the Merchant of Venice that depicted Jews as evil characters. Audiences would have no trouble hating Shylock and cheering at his failures. However, Shakespeare’s villains are never just villains. As a result, Shylock was not written like Marlowe’s evil, cunning Barabas. Instead, he was something much more akin to a flawed human in a society that despised him.
Nonetheless, Shylock would not have been considered a tragic character until centuries after Merchant of Venice’s initial performance. One of the earliest prominent performances of him as a sympathetic character would not come until 1814, when Edmund Kean played the role. However, even after Kean’s portrayal had won him great accolades, the tides had not changed. Other famous and significant actors, including Edwin Booth, would still go on to perform the character as a villain well into the mid to late 1800s. And, again, in the 20th century, there was a great surge in the number of performances of the play in Nazi Germany, where Shylock would be once more played as a villain of unrelenting evil.
Many modern audiences can have trouble imagining Shylock as a villain or a comedic character. Now, instead of being ‘just a comedy,’ Merchant of Venice is one of the ‘problem plays.’ In a post Holocaust world, the vindictive slurs that are tossed at Shylock and his fellow Jews are now no longer cause to cheer but cause to squirm. When Shylock asks, “Hath not a Jew eyes,” he is demanding from the prejudiced majority something as simple as human decency. But Shylock is prejudiced too. Shylock hates Antonio. Shylock hates Christians and what they’ve done to him. And just as Shylock’s famous speech ends, he wants his revenge and he is more than willing to see it to the gristly end.
So, as an actor, I have all of that history. I have all of Shakespeare’s text – contradictions and all. He exhibits Jewish stereotypes that Elizabethan audiences would have immediately picked up on, but he also exhibits a humanity that modern audiences can feel. And this is where the work begins. These first few weeks are about finding my version of Shylock with this group of artists, at this point in time, for this audience. And there is a lot of ground to cover and a lot of complexity to find in a character that is, like everyone, deeply flawed and most importantly, entirely human.
Grant Cloyd will be playing Shylock in CUA’s upcoming production of Merchant of Venice, running April 24-27th