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."