Sympathy for the Devil





The Merchant Of Venice is more than 400 years old, but it still strikes a chord with audiences the world over. Why do you think that is?
The Merchant Of Venice is just such an exciting play. The narrative is full of suspense and the characters are fascinating. It’s so compelling to watch.

At its heart, the play looks at how we deal with difference, and how we respond to people who are not like we are. That’s still very, very relevant today; whether it’s Christian versus Jew, or Israeli versus Palestinian, or Muslim versus Christian – or even not a religious thing. It’s a notion of one subset of a social stratum against another. The Merchant Of Venice also forces us to ask: If someone wrongs you, do you respond in kind or is there a point at which mercy comes in to it? In society today, we are still dealing with these issues; and in our personal lives we also deal with these issues too.

What drew you to this 2017 production of the play?
There are so many reasons. First, Shylock is on the bucket list for all middle-aged character actors with a bit of European heritage, like me! Second, I’ve only performed with Bell Shakespeare once before [playing Roderigo in 2007’s Othello] but I love the company so much; they do incredible work. Third, I’ve really enjoyed the work of rising director Anne-Louise Sarks over the past few years. Fourth, there’s such a lovely group working on the play – some cracking actors, clowns and good-hearted people.

Shylock has been described as one of the most divisive fictional Jews in history. Why is that?
In theatre and literature there have been many anti-Semitic caricatures of Jewish characters. The Jew has been presented as the devil or the dog or the goat. And of course, in the past 400 years, there have been anti-Semitic readings and performances of The Merchant Of Venice. But I think Shakespeare, the disruptive marketer that he was, was trying to do something different.

Shylock suffers so much bigotry and prejudice and that’s the origin of his resentment and bitterness. Ultimately, I don’t think he is a bad person. I see a proud, stubborn man who is the target of so much hate and so many bad deeds that he comes to a place where he can only see revenge. That’s very sad but, in the context of the play, I think it’s justifiable. This is a personal vendetta. It’s more representative of someone who is obsessed by loss, rather than someone who’s motivated by purely religious conditions. That’s my reading of it.

In our production, Anne-Louise and Benedict Hardie, the dramaturg, have given another Jew in the play, Tubal, some lines in Yiddish that roughly translate to “Show mercy Shylock, show mercy”. So, there’s another Jew in this production saying, “Calm down. You don’t have to do this. There is another option…” which I think is really interesting.

As well as the religious persecution, Shylock also suffers some devastating family events. We learn in the play that Shylock’s wife has died previously and then we see his daughter, Jessica, run out on him. How does that affect him?
He’s lost his wife. His whole world revolves around Jessica. So, I think that the loss and the betrayal of the daughter, who’s stolen all this money from him, fled in the middle of the night with a Christian – it’s very messy. In many ways, I think Antonio becomes the target of Shylock’s anger after that loss. Shylock doesn’t like Antonio, that’s set up at the start, but it escalates when Jessica elopes in a plot, which Shylock thinks Antonio is involved in. That is the primary motivator for revenge, as Shylock says: “The pound of flesh which I demand of him is dearly bought”.

It’s still a bloody way to exact revenge though isn’t it? Shylock wants to inflict a fatal injury upon Antonio, and pursues that all the way to the Duke’s court. But after Portia exposes the legal flaw in the case, Shylock is punished. What do you make of that punishment?
I think it’s horrific. Having previously implored Shylock to be merciful, Portia and the Duke then show very little mercy towards Shylock. They grant him his life but they take everything from him, and castrate him on so many different levels. They take his money from him and we see the effect that has upon Shylock: “You take my life when you take the means whereby I live”. And they force him to become a Christian, stripping him his Jewishness, which is perhaps just as cruel as what Shylock was intending to do to Antonio. And all this punishment can only be meted out because Shylock is considered an “alien” and not a Venetian citizen.

The basis for the punishment is that Shylock is different; he is an outsider.

The 2017 Bell Shakespeare production of The Merchant Of Venice is being performed in Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney – and is touring nationally – until 26 November 2017.

Andy McLean is a Sydney-based writer who grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon. He frequently tweets and shares Shakespeare minutiae from @1andymclean