Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11
Shylock: The Infamous Secret Jew
Linda Rozmovits, University of East London
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6963
Despite its deliberate failure to meet the Victorian vogue for spectacular theater,1 Henry Irving's Lyceum production of The Merchant of Venice set "a record without precedent in the annals of the stage" (L. Irving 356). Mounted and rehearsed in the space of three weeks—Irving having opted to avoid "hampering the natural action of the piece with any unnecessary embellishment" (H. Irving, MV preface)—the production, which opened on 1 November 1879, ran for seven straight months, or two hundred and fifty consecutive performances. During the course of that season it was estimated that "330,000 people had visited the Lyceum," generating receipts amounting to some fifty-nine thousand pounds (L. Irving 357). Subsequently, Irving revived the production "nearly every season, took it on every tour, played it perhaps a thousand times, and was still playing it the week he died, more than twenty-five years after the first night" (Hughes 227).2 On 14 February 1880 the fact that The Merchant had "for the first time in history [been] played for a hundred nights in succession" (Theatre 1/3/80, 188) was celebrated with dinner for three hundred at the Lyceum at a cost of six hundred pounds (L. Irving 357). And nearly ten years after it opened, the production still had enough cachet that Irving was summoned by the Prince of Wales to perform the trial scene from The Merchant of Venice along with The Bells (also a play about a Jew) on a specially prepared stage at Sandringham. With one minor exception it was the only theatrical entertainment that Queen Victoria had attended in the twenty-eight years since the death of Prince Albert (512).
Undoubtedly, Irving's star status contributed to the success of the production, but there seemed to be more to it than that; the favorable reception of Irving's Shakespearean offerings was by no means assured. He had had only middling results with both Coriolanus and Twelfth Night (Hughes 226) and was widely considered to have failed outright with Macbeth (E. M. Moore 209). Yet, with The Merchant of Venice, Irving "made Shakespeare [truly] popular—an achievement of which but few of his predecessors . . . could boast" (Theatre 1/12/79, 292). Thus, the phenomenon seems to be one that cannot be accounted for by cult of personality alone. Moreover, the fact that the production "provoked a controversy" over which both Irving's supporters and detractors "took up extreme positions" (Hughes 225) suggests that something else lay at the heart of it all. That something else, without a doubt, was Irving's treatment of the figure of Shylock, for in Henry Irving's Lyceum production of The Merchant of Venice, in all but the most literal of senses, Shylock wins the trial.
While aspects of Irving's Shylock were recognizably indebted to theatrical predecessors such as Charles Macklin and Edmund Kean, Irving was considered to have utterly redefined the role. In popular terms he was widely perceived to be "the first star actor to play Shylock for sympathy" (Maude 172). In an earlier age the part of Shylock had been a two-dimensionally villainous one; as a sort of stock evil buffoon, Shylock was traditionally fitted out with a grotesque red wig and made exaggerated gestures meant to convey the immeasurability of his inhumanity and greed. Moreover, in performance a farcical piece entitled The Jew of Venice was actually favored over The Merchant from the time of the Restoration until 1741, when "Macklin persuaded the management of Drury Lane to restore Shakespeare's text in place of George Granville's adaptation" (J. R. Brown 187). Challenges to...
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this long tradition of farce had been made by sophisticated interpreters who realized that to play the role entirely in this spirit was to diminish its dramatic interest. But Irving had taken this idea further than anyone before him, moving beyond the difference in degree to effect a striking difference in kind. Irving's Shylock
was venerable, lonely, grieved, austere: he moved with pride and grace; his humour was coldly cynical, rather than sardonic; his thought was meditative, not sullen, and his anger was white and tense; in defeat he called forth pity and awe. (194)
In other words, under Irving's direction The Merchant of Venice had ceased to be a comedy and, as one worried critic noted, "foster[ed] the delusion that the play is a tragedy" (Athenœum 8/11/79, 605), with Shylock emerging "as something very like a tragic hero" (Hughes 226). To viewers of the Lyceum production, "as in the writing, so in the acting of the play, the first and highest merit. . . [was] the presentation of its tragical element" (E.R.R., "Henry" 16).
It is sometimes suggested that Irving's sympathetic portrayal of the Jew was opportunistic in that he had no choice but to dispense with the traditional histrionic reading of Shylock, since he was not particularly robust and therefore had "not sufficient physical force for such clamorous exhibitions" (Cook 224). An observer at rehearsals for the production once claimed that, although Irving "'shot' for Shakespeare's Shylock," he found that "at least two of the scenes were beyond his powers," forcing him to "develop . . . a 'Shylock' he could compass" (Barnes 104). This seems unlikely at best. There were plenty of dramatic moments in living's repertoire which required physical force, and discussion of his intentions for the role of Shylock was ongoing for years after the production first opened.3
Similarly, claims that Irving's sympathetic Shylock "grew less sympathetic over the years" may be dispatched (J. Gross 141).4 A review of the 1887 London revival of The Merchant confirms that, in the long term, Irving stood his ground. "Mr. Irving's view of the character of Shylock and his subtle appeals for sympathy on the Jew's behalf," the reviewer wrote, "remain of course unchanged. Right or wrong, his is a noble ideal of the part, and he is not likely in any way to lower it" (review [Enthoven]). Indeed, at times Irving's determination to play Shylock as he had developed him at the Lyceum was cause for consternation. On his American tour of 1883 Irving felt that, though the critics consistently applauded his performance, audiences were somewhat taken aback.5 Joseph Hatton has noted that American spectators expected "in his Shylock a very hard, grim, and cruel Jew":
Many persons hinted as much to him before they saw his impersonation of this much-discussed character . . . Singularly sensitive about the feelings of his audiences, and accustomed to judge them as keenly as they judge him, he fancied . . . [they] were not stirred as they had been by his other work in response to his efforts as Shylock. (262-63)
Irving himself expressed the fear that the audiences were not with him:
I always feel, in regard to this play, that they do not quite understand what I am doing. They only responded at all . . . where Shylock's rage and mortification get the better of his dignity. (Qtd. in ibid. 263)
Hatton sought to reassure Irving by pointing out that audiences were so strongly accustomed to a histrionic Shylock that they were "probably a little disappointed" by a "view of the part [which] forbids anything like . . . the strident characteristics of most other Shylocks" (263-64). Irving was unwavering in his reply:
I never saw Kean's Shylock, nor Phelps's, nor, indeed, anyone's. But I am sure Shylock was not a low person; a miser and usurer, certainly, but a very injured man .. . I felt that my audience to-night had quite a different opinion, and I once wished the house had been composed entirely of Jews. I would like to play Shylock to a Jewish audience. (264)
Yet, while the production was an unprecedented popular success, for Irving's antagonists there was still plenty to fault. It was suggested, for example, that the physical mannerisms and affectations of speech displayed by Shylock were not the product of inspired interpretation but were, in fact, simply Irving's own. Both Irving and Ellen Terry, one critic observed, "have strange mannerisms; they never divest themselves of them, and hence .. . are successful where the parts . . . they play lend themselves to mannerisms . . ." (Truth 6/11/79, 568). Punch's theater critic liked the production and so "dismissed] Mr. Irving's peculiarities of gait and utterance with . . . [the] remark that they are [at least] less noticeable in Shylock than in any part in which I have hitherto seen him" (Punch 15/11/79, 225). While George Bernard Shaw, not a fan, summed up the general objection by saying that "the truth is that he [Irving] has never in his life conceived or interpreted the characters of any author except himself (Shaw, Dramatic Opinions 56). The most strenuous objections to Irving's Merchant of Venice, however, were reserved for his editorial treatment of the text.
Irving's acting version of the play reduces Shakespeare's text by approximately 25 percent, cutting nearly six hundred lines. Some critics have argued that this was a conventional and logistically motivated editorial intervention, that Irving's text was simply based on Charles Kean's published version of 1858, and that all Irving did was reduce the number of scene changes and eliminate material that failed to advance the plot significantly (Hughes 227). Some of Irving's detractors, however, have argued to the contrary that the cuts he made to the text of The Merchant of Venice were anything but superficial. Irving "does not merely cut plays," it was said, "he disembowels them" (Shaw, Dramatic Opinions 55). And in this case what Irving's antagonists claimed he did was excise "passages [and]—indeed, whole scenes—which tended to discredit Shylock" (E. M. Moore 203). While these objections to Irving's textual alterations are often questionable insofar as they take the form of ad hominem attacks on a man arrogant enough to have tampered with Shakespeare's text, they do nevertheless raise an interesting question.6 In isolation, eliminating gratuitous remarks about Shylock's evil nature or reducing the amount of raving about the loss of his ducats would not be gestures drastic enough to alter the play radically. But, in combination with a staging strategy that made Shylock the center of attention and a use of stage business which mitigated the conventional crudity of many of his remaining lines, these cuts can be seen as part of a systematic transformation of the text. Whether one approves or disapproves of Irving's editorial conduct, its overall effect was, clearly, to tender an account of Shylock which valorized the character's sufferings rather than confirmed his status as an object of scorn.
The two most obvious alterations Irving made to his acting version of The Merchant of Venice were that, first, he consolidated the scenes involving Portia's suitors, pretty clearly in order to reduce the number of scene changes; and, second, predictably, he edited out virtually all references to sex. The first group of changes has no obvious effect on Shylock's part unless one considers that cutting back on Portia's speeches increases proportionally the amount of time given over to Shylock, while the second eliminates only the small handful of insults against the Jew which are bawdy in addition to being racial. But several outstanding alterations fall into neither of these categories and, for a number of reasons, suggest that something more than directorial pragmatism or prevailing standards of good taste may well have been at stake. For, although they are extremely limited in terms of the number of lines they constitute and could hardly be described as essential to the narrative, these passages, as I shall argue, could have attacked the very foundations of Irving's monumental success. All three of these passages concern Shylock's relationship to his daughter, Jessica.
In order of their appearance the relevant omissions consist of all of act 2, scene 3, which is only twenty-one lines long and includes a brief exchange between Jessica and the clown Launcelot Gobbo; act 2, scene 8, lines 12-24, which is a conversation between two minor characters; and act 3, scene 1, lines 22-37, which is a continuation of this same conversation, which by this time includes Shylock. The impact of the absence of these lines, however, is best appreciated if the passages are considered in terms of their content rather than their chronology, so I will begin by considering the latter two passages first.
The first part of the conversation between Salerio and Solanio (friends of Antonio) recounts Shylock's discovery that he has been robbed and abandoned by his daughter:
Solanio: I never heard a passion so confused, So strange, outrageous, and so variable As the dog Jew did utter in the streets: "My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter! Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats! Justice! The law! My ducats and my daughter! A sealèd bag, two sealèd bags of ducats, Of double ducats, stol'n from me by my daughter! And jewels, two stones, two rich and precious stones, Stol'n by my daughter! Justice! Find the girl! She hath the stones upon her and the ducats!"
Salerio: Why, all the boys in Venice follow him, Crying his stones, his daughter, and his ducats.
Of this exchange Irving retains only the first six lines, therefore editing out both the belabored farce of Shylock's apparent inability to distinguish between his ducats and his daughter and Salerio's description of the spectacle of the anguished Shylock taunted and pursued by "all the boys in Venice." The effect of this is, arguably, considerable, since, by ending the exchange as he does, Irving effectively replaces a raving burlesque with the cynical reporting of what now appears to be a comparatively sympathetic, rational, and not unwarranted call by Shylock for "Justice! The Law! My ducats and my daughter!"
The second passage follows from the previous exchange but now includes the presence of Shylock, who confronts the two men about their having known of his daughter's intended flight:
Shylock: You knew, none so well, none so well as you, of my daughter's flight.
Salerio: That's certain. I for my part knew the tailor that made the wings she flew withal.
Solanio: And Shylock for his own part knew the bird was fledged, and then it is the complexion of them all to leave the dam.
Shylock: She is damned for it.
Salerio: That's certain, if the devil may be her judge.
Shylock: My own flesh and blood to rebel!
Solanio: Out upon it, old carrion! Rebels it at these years?
Shylock: I say my daughter is my flesh and blood.
Salerio: There is more difference between thy flesh and hers than between jet and ivory, more between your bloods than there is between red wine and Rhenish
In this instance Irving cuts everything after Shylock's exclamation "My own flesh and blood to rebel!" and moves directly to the discussion of Antonio's losses at sea which follows. While the excised material might seem merely to prolong the already well-established exchange of hostilities between the Venetians and the Jew, it becomes apparent under scrutiny that the omission of the half-dozen lines significantly alters the exchange. For to end on Shy lock's lament for his faithless daughter is to construct the issue as one of female disobedience, as a crisis of gender, while to end on Salerio's denial of the legitimacy of Shylock's paternal claim—"There is more difference between thy flesh and hers than between jet and ivory, more between your bloods than there is between red wine and Rhenish"—is to introduce the question of race.
If we look to the final omission from the text, the matter becomes even more explicit, as Jessica considers the twin evils of female disobedience and racial disavowal and in so doing raises the prospect of something more harrowing than either, namely, miscegenation:
Alack, what heinous sin is it in me To be ashamed to be my father's child. But though I am a daughter to his blood, I am not to his manners. O Lorenzo, If thou keep promise, 1 shall end this strife, Become a Christian and thy loving wife.
Whatever the personal intentions of a theatergoer at the time, the experience of watching Irving's Merchant of Venice could hardly do less than bring to mind two of the most prominent social crises of the day. The first, as we saw in the previous chapter, is embodied in the figure of Portia and concerns the increasing claims of women over their futures and their social mobility. The second, embodied in the figure of Shylock, evokes the specter of race—the stranger in our midst. The importance of Jessica, as these omissions from the text show, is that she is the figure in which these crises of race and gender are most provocatively manifest for being most perilously entwined. And yet Jessica is an extremely difficult character to pursue, from a historical perspective, because the evidence of attitudes toward her tends to be circumstantial rather than direct. Nevertheless, I would argue, she is pivotal in many ways, and appreciating her importance means that we need to understand not just what people were saying about her but also why they were saying so little when they were saying anything at all.
One obvious difficulty in approaching the character of Jessica is the extent to which she is overshadowed, legendarily, by her larger-than-life father but even more so by the cult of Portia, a difficulty considerably compounded by the popular association of the two characters with figures as charismatic in their own rights as Henry Irving and Ellen Terry. Indeed, in Irving's production the sidelining of Jessica was clearly reinforced by the casting of the role. For at the Lyceum the part was played by an actress named Alma Murray, who was apparently so young and undistinguished that a reviewer for Blackwood's Magazine complained of its having been "regarded of as so little importance as to be intrusted to .. . [a young lady] who would be weak in the smallest of comediettas" (12/79, 651). As we shall see, this marginalization of Jessica served a particular function in relation to Irving's production, but the character's diminished status was by no means limited to that context alone.
In a literary culture so heavily dominated by character criticism, for example, Jessica was seldom the focus of substantial interest in her own right. Partly this was due to the prevailing conventions, which tended to focus on leading roles, and partly to the associated bias in favor of characters who lent themselves to the endorsement of an exemplary nature. Thus, when she is acknowledged, it is often just in passing or in an aside as the lesser party in an unfavorable comparison with Portia. Anna Jameson's reference to Jessica simply as one of "the other female characters of 'The Merchant of Venice'" who deserves our notice, primarily because "something of the intellectual brilliance of Portia is reflected on [her]" is fairly typical (39). It's not that Jessica is seen to be utterly unworthy of attention. Indeed, "in any other play," Jameson consoled her readers, and,
in any other companionship than that of the matchless Portia, Jessica would make a very beautiful heroine of herself . . . Nothing can be more . . . elegant than the scenes between her and Lorenzo . . . Every sentiment she utters interests us for her . . . And the enthusiastic and generous testimony to the . superior graces and accomplishments of Portia comes with a peculiar grace from her lips. (39-40)
The most commonly held perception of Jessica, then, was that, if she were herself short on virtue, at least she could detect it in others. "One of the things we like best in Jessica," one commentator wrote, "is her genuine admiration of Portia .. . It augurs the development of her own character . . . into something ampler and more responsible" (Verity xxxiii). Helena Faucit held a similar view. That Jessica can, "despite her training, appreciate goodness and virtue," she wrote, "may be inferred from what she says of Portia" (Martin 36).
Occasionally, Jessica would be acknowledged for other reasons, but this was usually done with considerable resentment—much as one would acknowledge the winner of a door prize—for being the character who gets to have the beautiful poetry of the last act of The Merchant of Venice spoken to her, although she has done nothing special to deserve it. As one particularly peeved reviewer put it, Jessica was someone "to whom one always grudges the loveliest lovelines ever spoken" (qtd. in Hughes 232).
Where we do find evidence of a less backhanded interest in Jessica, suggestively, the emphasis is often placed on the utility of her part rather than on its moral content or iconic significance. In a society intent on emphasizing the structural perfection of Shakespeare's plays, in other words, one way of dealing with Jessica was clearly to relegate her to a role that, if morally treacherous, was at least structurally recuperable for linking the casket and bond stories together or for providing the contrast needed to develop other characters. Thus, the Jessica-Lorenzo plot was seen as "assisting" the main plot by "bridging over the three months' interval between the signing of the bond and its becoming due" or by "occupy [ing] some of the superfluous characters of the Merchant's story" (Barnett 10). Similarly, its relation to the "main drift of the drama" was explained in terms of its furnishing "a contrast to the graver love-story of Bassanio and Portia" or illuminating the character of Shylock, giving greater insight into his "avarice," his "motive in pressing for the execution of the bond," and showing him "in his domestic relations, which we would not otherwise see" (Verity 119).
On all counts, then, it was difficult for Jessica to compete. She could hardly command the interest of a Portia or a Shylock, and, however key she might appear with hindsight, from a late Victorian perspective she was notable mainly for her failings, "properly kept subordinate" (Jameson 39) and recuperable only through her structural utility and awareness of the superiority of those around her. But, this being said, there is evidence that points in another direction and which suggests that there were aspects of the character that could not be so easily dismissed. For, despite her obvious and deliberate marginalization in popular attitudes, in pedagogy and literary scholarship, but especially in Irving's high-profile theatrical production, there is a palpable anxiety about Jessica which far outweighs her ostensible lack of importance.
One place we immediately get a sense of this is in discussions of Jessica which take place in the notes accompanying school editions of The Merchant of Venice, possibly because this is a forum in which moral issues would be difficult to ignore. And here we begin to get a sense of the true depth of feeling associated with the character and of the terrible dilemmas her situation must have posed for a late Victorian audience. Specifically, one is struck by the resonant and highly contested way in which the theme of public accountability extended beyond the parameters of Shylock's story to encompass that of his daughter, the notion of judgment figuring centrally throughout. "Jessica's conduct stands at the bar of judgment," wrote one editor. "Although she describes her home as a hell, and from Shylock's nature that can well be believed, there could not be baser ingratitude in a Jewess than to steal her father's jewels and money, and take flight with a Christian" (Crook lv-lvi). Or, contrastingly, "Jessica is not to be judged by any present-day standard of morality," wrote another:
The poet himself evidently intended her failings to be regarded with much leniency, and we must endeavour therefore to view her in the light of a . . . lively young girl, driven to rebellion by the oppression of her father and the joylessness of her life at home. Otherwise we shall be unable to justify such glaring transgressions as the appropriation of her father's ducats and her desertion of him in his old age. (Wood, Manuals 16-17)
Clearly, the difficulty with the story of Jessica was that it presented a litany of what to a late Victorian audience would have been highly charged moral concerns in an uncomfortably complicated set of relations to one another—female disobedience, racial and religious disloyalty, the effects of an unsuitable domestic environment, premeditated deception, conversion, and, of course, miscegenation.7 And, like the question of Portia's feminism or lack of it, it thus occasioned substantial disagreement about Shakespeare's intentions in representing the character and her actions as he did.
Sometimes, Jessica's disregard for family loyalty is seen to be mitigated by her genuine feeling for her lover, so that, while she is censured for not even making the "pretence of being a dutiful daughter to the Jew, whom she deceives with the lightest conscience," she is redeemed for being genuinely in love with Lorenzo" (Wood, Manuals 16-17). But at other times no such allowance is made, and, despite "all her . . . love of Lorenzo," she is declared to be "but a heartless beauty" (Meiklejohn 4). Likewise, while Jessica's Jewishness is in some cases seen to be enacted through her disobedience, at others it is an attribute made tragic by actions declared to be uncharacteristic of this normally loyal race. Thus, we are told in one instance that "there could not be baser ingratitude in a Jewess than to steal her father's jewels and money and take flight with a Christian" (Crook lv-lvi), while in another we are assured that "to rob her father of his ducats and precious stones . . . was a touch of Judaism too much for Christian forgiveness" (Meiklejohn 4). In another still, Jessica's mercurial racial identification itself becomes the key to her redemption, since, it is claimed, "she is not a Jewess in heart and feelings . . . and will readily become a Christian when she marries her lover" (Wood, Manuals 16-17).
It is perhaps not surprising, then, that Henry Irving opted to sever rather than untangle the Gordian knot of racial and domestic affiliations which Jessica brings to the text of The Merchant of Venice. For it is harder to imagine anything that would more immediately provoke a late Victorian audience than the suggestion that a faithless daughter could become a faithful wife; that the endowment of manners could be distinguished from the inheritance of blood; that a Jew of discreditable family could become a Christian; and, perhaps most disturbingly, that, in spite of it all, Jessica was a serious marriage prospect by virtue of her dowry, regardless of how it was obtained. What is crucial to recognize here is that in this marginalized and, as we have seen, easily excised character, whose own shortcomings serve primarily to endorse our adoration of the heroine, is constituted a site of significant struggle. And what I am arguing about Henry Irving's Merchant of Venice is that its fantastic attractions must be understood in terms of the conflicts and social anxieties it strategically excised when it selectively redefined the representation of Shylock's relationship to his daughter.
Irving's phenomenally successful bid for Shylock as tragic hero is substantially underwritten by his portrayal of the character as a benevolent patriarch betrayed by his thankless child. Audiences saw a Shylock who was "tenderly attached to his daughter" (Hawkins 194), a father who loved Jessica "with no ignoble love" and "feels bitterly her desertion of him and her renunciation of the old faith" (F. Marshall, "Introduction" 251). In order to gain this effect Irving had to play quite deliberately against the text, even after having excised so many lines. And he apparently did so without reserve:
after Shylock's outburst in III, i, "I would my daughter were dead at my foot," etc. (lines 88 ff.), Irving paused, hid his face in his hands, and murmured an anguished "No, no, no, no!" . . . in the subsequent self-pitying lines on his losses, he opened his robe and smote himself continually, slowly, and heavily on his bare breast . . . after Jessica's elopement .. . the curtain . . . rose on Shylock silently walking in the moonlight across the bridge and deserted streets to his home. Originally, the curtain fell as he reached his door, later only after he had knocked several times. (E. M. Moore 201-2)8
While the gender politic is thus exploited in order to gain sympathy for Shylock, the racial element is, for the same reason, deliberately downplayed. Irving all but eradicated any suggestion of the Jew's conventionally anticipated obsession with money. Indeed, "to one alert listener at an early performance . . . [Shylock] spoke 'with the reflective air of a man to whom money means very little.' " This was apparently more than Irving had intended, and he was compelled to amend his reading of the character in order to convey at least the fact that money was indeed important to Shylock "as a shield against persecution" (Hughes 230). This greatly modified relation of the character to money was something that many viewers were moved to comment upon. Rather than endorse the customary view that Shylock's greed was an inevitable manifestation of his racial identity and a quid pro quo for the play, commentators sought, instead, the mitigating circumstances that had led Shylock to be so. "His avarice," it was argued, was "a vice forced upon him by circumstances" (Hawkins, "Shylock" 194). And, they said, "that it was not personal avarice is . . . proved when Shylock scorns thrice his principal proffered to cancel his bond" (Conway 836). Moreover, the sort of reading which sought and found in the character an impressive display of family feeling further identified Shylock as the jealously maligned self-made man. According to some, Shylock cared about money
not for the pleasures it can purchase for him, nor with that narrow-minded vanity in the sense of possession which the mere miser feels; but rather because it is the evidence of his own thrift and industry, the . . . witness, in one respect at least, to his superiority over the Christians who despise and persecute him. (Marshall, "Introduction" 251)
We can see, then, the extent to which Irving's sympathetic portrayal of Shylock depends on a disavowal of race mobilized by the vilification of Jessica. To have allowed the racial question to stand would have been to engage the single element most liable to undermine Irving's carefully wrought appeal. The stage having thus been set, the tragic hero was now free to play out his final moments of glory in the trial scene. For the Jew, safely divested of all but the most sentimental attributes of race, was now eligible to occupy high moral ground.
Drawing on Charles Kean's conception of a diagonal staging, "the design for the trial scene fulfilled the major function of centring the action on Shylock" (Foulkes, "Staging" 317). It was here that Irving was most liberal with his use of innovative stage business, introducing "a crowd of Jews . . . to emphasize the . . . persecution theme" (E. M. Moore 202), and that the originality of his performance was at its most striking. "Unlike other Shylocks, Irving made his strongest effects in the Trial Scene. Here his dignity had its full scope" (J. R. Brown 194):
At the end of Portia's verdict he dropped the scales and stood as though mesmerized . . . his lips murmured incoherent words as his whole body resumed a dreamy, motionless attitude. When Shylock grasped the severity of his sentence, his eyelids became heavy as though he was hardly able to lift them and his eyes became listless and vacant. The words "I am not well . . ." were the plea of a doomed man to be allowed to leave the court and to die in utter loneliness. But Gratiano's ill-timed jibe governed Shylock's exit. He turned. Slowly and steadily the Jew scanned his tormentor from head to foot, his eyes resting on the Italian's face with concentrated scorn. The proud rejection of insult and injustice lit up his face for a moment, enough for the audience to feel a strange relief in knowing that, in that glance, Shylock had triumphed. (L. Irving, qtd in. E. M. Moore 202-3)
The strength of Irving's performance in the trial scene was so overwhelming that it generated difficulties for the other actors and, in particular, for his co-star, Ellen Terry. Terry's own popularity had been greatly enhanced by her debut performance of Portia in the Bancroft's production of The Merchant of Venice four years earlier. Visually stunning but otherwise undistinguished, the production had been praised mainly for Terry's performance, and, undoubtedly, this was something audiences had in mind when they purchased their tickets for the Lyceum Merchant of Venice. But Irving's Shylock was heroic to the extent that it necessitated a radical revision of Ellen Terry's carefully thought out and established interpretation of her role. In effect, Irving's Shylock made Ellen Terry's Portia impossible. "I am," she wrote, "of the mind that Portia in the trial scene ought to be very quiet... But as Henry's Shylock was quiet, I had to give it up. His heroic saint was splendid, but it wasn't good for Portia" (qtd. in Taylor 191).
Another objection arising out of Irving's portrayal of Shylock in the trial scene was that the representation of the Jew so altered people's expectations of the play that it became virtually unrecognizable. Although his Shylock was "undoubtedly a great piece of acting," it was seen to be "un-Shakespearian if not anti-Shakespearian" (Jones, qtd. in Sprague, "Irving" III). "There was no question .. . of a bad Shylock or a good Shylock . . . when . . . [Irving's] own creation came into conflict with Shakespeare's he simply played in flat contradiction to the lines and acted Shakespeare off the stage" (Shaw, Dramatic Opinions 56). As one anonymous reviewer put it, "Before a persecuted Hebrew prophet for hero, a dull ill-mannered Christian for villain, and an incomparable Portia flinging in her lot with the might-is-right party, Shakespeare retired discomfited" (qtd. in Taylor 191). These sorts of opinions were far from quibbling. Where you stood in relation to Irving's Shylock was a matter upon which people staked their personal reputations. And on at least two notable occasions prominent members of the audience went to extreme lengths to dissociate themselves from Irving's reading of the play.
The first such incident actually took place at the dinner celebrating Irving's one hundredth performance of The Merchant. Lord Houghton, known as an after-dinner speaker and seated to Irving's right, had been asked, according to custom, to propose a toast. Rather than inviting the assembled guests to join him in celebrating the achievements of Irving and his company, however, Lord Houghton reprimanded Irving "for following the example of some contemporary historians in white-washing and rehabilitating the established villains of the drama." "He for one could not accept Shylock as 'a gentleman of the Hebrew race with the manners of a Rothschild' " (qtd. in L. Irving 354-55).
Even more striking, perhaps, was a comparable incident involving John Ruskin. After attending a performance of The Merchant, Ruskin had been invited to meet Irving backstage. At that meeting Ruskin praised Irving's performance, describing it as "noble, tender, and true." The compliment was somehow relayed to Clement Scott, editor of Theatre magazine, and found its way into the pages of that publication a short time later. By the next day, however, Ruskin had decided that he had only praised Irving out of politeness and thus wrote to the actor in order to express his views "with more accuracy and frankness." What those views consisted of, primarily, was the belief that Irving's Shylock was, precisely, un-Shakespearean, or, as Ruskin put it, "not .. . in harmony with his [Shakespeare's] design" (L. Irving 346). But this retraction was conveyed too late to stop the compliment he had paid Irving from appearing in the pages of Theatre, and Ruskin was so vexed by this that he once again felt compelled to reply. Here the story becomes truly baroque, for, while Ruskin was clearly incensed about being represented as approving of Irving's Merchant of Venice and was accordingly anxious to retrieve his reputation, he suddenly declared himself to be in poor health, too ill to carry on the debate, and so engaged a Mr. Laister to continue the correspondence with Irving on his behalf. In the event Laister wrote to Irving, communicating Ruskin's views, and it is worth noting here the more specific meanings that the phrase "not in harmony with Shakespeare's design" began to reveal once Ruskin had handed over the disagreeable task of being specific on the subject of Shylock to someone else. "You are probably aware," Laister wrote,
that the Play in question, as revived, has given rise to a vast deal of public teaching, the moral of which Mr. Ruskin and others greatly deplore; and he naturally desires to correct any wrong impression which the unqualified publication of the paragraph in The Theatre might create. (Qtd. in L. Irving 348)
Ruskin had told Laister about the original letter he had sent to Irving and directed him to request that "the whole of that letter" be published in the Theatre as a retraction. Irving's response, not surprisingly, was to "decline to enter into correspondence with a stranger" and to inquire why "Mr. Ruskin . . . does not write to me in person .. . if he has any communication to make to me" (349). Despite these considerable difficulties, a version of Ruskin's letter finally did appear in Theatre, allowing him to have his say. And what he actually did say at that point was: "I entirely dissent (and indignantly as well as entirely) from his [Irving's] general reading and treatment of the play." Furthermore, Ruskin went on to suggest that anyone interested in a fuller rendering of his views on Shakespeare's meaning in The Merchant of Venice should consult his essay "Munera Pulveris," in which he argued that "[the inhumanity of mercenary commerce] is the ultimate lesson which the leader of English intellect meant for us" (Theatre 1/3/80 169).
Such incidents are telling, particularly in light of the fact that, for most of the hundreds of thousands of spectators attending the Lyceum production, Irving's Merchant of Venice was a triumph and Shylock's exit from the trial scene "the crowning glory" of the play; for most it was the ultimate tragic exit, "and many of the audience actually wept" (Hughes 238). At one point during the opening run Irving cut the entire fifth act, thus ending the play with Shylock's exit from the trial. While the piece was only acted in this form for two months, in order to allow Ellen Terry to star in a one-act version of Iolanthe appearing on the same bill, the gesture gave rise to an apocryphal legend. Whenever Henry Irving played The Merchant of Venice, people liked to believe, he played it that way.
But even more powerful than the objection that Irving's Shylock was un-Shakespearean was the fear that it was not. For, if Irving were right, then the bard of Avon might indeed have written the play as a plea for toleration toward the Jews.9 Moreover, once the conventions governing dominant representations of Jews had been exposed and the possibility raised that Shylock was neither grotesque nor merely a clown, the attention of the Victorian public was forced away from the artificiality of the theater to the world outside its doors. The problem with Irving's sympathetic Shylock was that it tended to dispel Victorian nostalgia for the Elizabethan age, leaving nothing in its wake but the threat of internationalism and the increasing pressures of modernity. It admitted the presence of Jews in modern English society and asked, in a way that could not be ignored: If Shylock were not the loathsome and primitive buffoon he had long been held to be, then who was he? How did he get here? And where did he come from?
The simplest and perhaps, for that reason, one of the most popular answers to these questions was that Shylock had come from "somewhere else." The character was declared to be manifestly un-English, the invention of foreigners, undoubtedly having gained entry into England by unconventional means like a dangerous foundling taken in by an unsuspecting English couple. "The Germans have started a theory," one critic wrote,
that in Shylock Shakespeare wished to portray a sort of noble and dignified martyr to popular prejudice, and this nonsense has been still further elaborated by some of our own critics, who ask us to believe that the Jew of Venice is the embodiment of the spirit of toleration. (Truth 6/11/79, 569)
Another line of argument contested the sympathetic Shylock by construing him as a logical impossibility, in effect, as an anachronism whose admission to the realm of possibility invidiously altered the terms of the debate. "To say that . . . [Irving's] was the Jew that Shakespeare drew," wrote one commentator, "would be to quote Pope's doggerel inopportunely." Rather, he argued, "it was the Jew idealized in the light of the modern Occidental reaction against the Judenhetze, a Jew already conscious of the Spinozas, the Sidonias, the Disraelis, who were to issue from his loins" (Walkley 136). The un-Shakespearean Shylock altered the balance of power in ways that, up to this point, had been inconceivable, and he rudely exposed the extent to which the inner sanctums of politics and finance had been penetrated by Jews. In the words of one of Irving's first reviewers:
Irving has . . . impart[ed] to his impersonation . . . the ruling feelings of a Jew such as Shakespeare has drawn... [and] these... reveal a lofty consciousness such as once manifested to an English constituency by a candidate "descended from a line of Jewish merchants who had . . . told the electors that his ancestors had been princes and statesmen when theirs were staining their bodies with woad." (E. R. R., "Henry" 16)
Yet another response to the question "Who is Shylock, and where did he come from?" was generated in literary-historical circles in which the matter was taken up as a question of genealogy seeking out the origins of Shylock. But, while, in one sense, this was simply the predictable academic response to Henry Irving's "admirable impersonation" of Shylock and the interest it rekindled in a subject that "had long been a bone of contention among critics" (Lee, "Original" 185), in other ways it was more than just another round of debate about literary representations of Jews. As we shall see, the ostensibly editorial task of locating the "original of Shylock" became a search for origins in a number of far-reaching and unforeseen ways, suggesting—at least to a contemporary cultural historian—that the critical exigency here lies not with discovering the historical origins of Shylock but, rather, with examining the motivations of late-nineteenth-century Shakespeareans.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3879
A Jew, in the dictionary, is one who is descended from the ancient tribes of Judea, or one who is regarded as descended from that tribe. That's what it says in the dictionary; but you and I know what a Jew is—One Who Killed Our Lord .. . All right. I'll clear the air once and for all, and confess. Yes, we did it. I did it, my family. I found a note in my basement. It said: "We killed him. signed, Morty." And a lot of people say to me, "Why did you kill Christ?" . . . We killed him because he didn't want to become a doctor, that's why we killed him. (Bruce 40-41)
Ruy Lopez, a Jewish Portuguese doctor and personal physician to Elizabeth I, was accused of conspiring to poison the monarch, found guilty, and publicly hanged in June 1594. The affair was widely considered to have inspired both the figures of Shylock and of Marlowe's Barrabas, since it was believed to be roughly contemporaneous with the first productions of both The Merchant of Venice and The Jew of Malta. While it now seems possible that Lopez was indeed involved in espionage and had, in fact, intended an attempt on the queen's life,10 what is at issue here is not Lopez's demonstrable innocence or guilt but, rather, the manner in which his story, as it was understood at the time, seized the attention of a number of critics and historians in the latter decades of the nineteenth century. I shall return to those accounts of the Lopez affair later on. For the moment, however, it will be helpful to define the story's parameters and to provide a basis for understanding why it was that people, three hundred years later, wished to find in Lopez a prototype of the figure of Shylock.
Lopez is believed to have settled in England in 1559. He "rapidly reached the highest places in the medical profession in London [and] was the first to hold the office of house physician at St. Bartholomews' Hospital." By 1575 he was listed as one of "the chief London doctors" and shortly afterward served as physician to the household of the Earl of Leicester. In 1586 he was appointed personal physician to Queen Elizabeth, who, in addition to bestowing the honor of his appointment, granted Lopez "a monopoly for the importation of aniseed and sumach into England" (Lee, Lopez 132-33). Lopez's success excited a considerable degree of envy, a fact witnessed by the derisory accounts of his rise to public prominence set out in the pamphlets of the day. Gabriel Harvey described him as a man who "by a kind of Jewish practis hath growen to much wealth and sum reputation as well with ye queen herself as with sum of ye greatest Lordes and Ladyes" (qtd. in Lee, Lopez 133). One of these lords was the Earl of Essex, whose increasing animosity toward Lopez seems to have been central in contributing to his demise.
Essex attempted to engage Lopez in gathering political intelligence about Spain. Lopez declined, however, and compounded Essex's irritation by disclosing details of his activities to the queen. The intrigue that ensued is unimaginably complicated and cannot be entered into here, but, in briefest outline, a plot was hatched in which Spanish spies in London were alleged to be conspiring to poison both Queen Elizabeth and Don Antonio of Spain. As alleged conspirators were arrested and made statements under torture or threat of torture, Lopez was brought under suspicion. Essex "insisted on his guilt," and Lopez was imprisoned and tried. "The prosecution was conducted by Sir Edward Coke . . . who described the prisoner as 'a perjured and murdering villain and Jewish doctor, worse than Judas himself " After Lopez's conviction the queen "delayed signing the death-warrant for three months" but was ultimately unable to prevent his execution. Even in death, however, to those at court Lopez appeared to maintain his privileged vicinity to the center of power; "the queen is said to have worn at her girdle until death .. . [a] jewel given to Lopez by Philip of Spain" (Lee, Lopez 134).
There are two powerful metaphors at work in the story of Dr. Lopez which merit particular attention. One is the metaphor of Marranism, or the secret profession of Judaism, to which I will return. The other is the metaphor of the Jewish doctor in an otherwise Jewless state.
At the time that Lopez was appointed personal physician to Queen Elizabeth, England had been, technically speaking, Jewless since the year 1290, when the Jews were expelled by King Edward I. In fact, Jews had been secretly settling in England at least since their expulsion from Spain in 1492. More to the point, however, as Gil Harris has noted, in acquiring a Jewish doctor for the monarch, England was participating in a long-standing if "seemingly inexplicable tradition" of popes and Christian rulers "receiving care from Jewish physicians" (8). This custom posed more than just the obvious paradox of entrusting the well-being of the head of state or the head of the church to an individual whose entire race had been banished for political and spiritual undesirability. For, renowned as they were for their skills in curative medicine, Jews were also commonly believed to be experts in the art of poisoning; and Jewish physicians, it was assumed, participated in a secret but nonetheless somehow universally acknowledged program of "diabolical revenge against Christianity."11 "The Vienna Faculty of Medicine believed that a private code adhered to by Jewish physicians obliged them to murder one patient in ten [while,] according to Spanish authorities, the figure was one in five" (7). The very Jewishness of the physician was seen to embody "semi-magical properties" (8) so that, absurdly, the attraction of the Jewish court physician was precisely the danger he or she brought to bear. Harris's analysis of the phenomenon is persuasive. The point in employing a Jewish doctor, he says, was that, "as in a modern-day vaccination," the presence of a Jewish physician at court enacted a regulated exposure of the body politic to a toxic substance (9). If Jews could not be hermetically excluded from the state, then at least their secret and powerful presence within it could be harnessed and controlled. When England purged Dr. Lopez from its body politic, it reasserted the integrity of its political boundaries, expelling what was undesirable while appropriating the doctor's seemingly ominous powers for itself.
The issues surrounding Lopez's Marranism are similarly intriguing. Marranos were enforced Jewish converts to Christianity. Yet, though these people were, strictly speaking, fully Christian, in practice the term was perceived to be "synonymous with the secret profession of Judaism" (Lipman I), and the case of Dr. Lopez typifies the Marranos' habitual fate. For, while he had "been baptized, and was a professing member and communicant of the Church of England," according to his enemies "he was said to be no Christian at heart" (Dimock 440-41). On the scaffold Lopez protested his innocence, affirming, up until the moment of his death, his loyalty to church and queen. Yet, though
with his last words he emphatically insisted that he had loved his mistress better than Christ Jesus . . . coming from one believed to be in secret a Jew by religion as he was by race, this did but excite the derisive laughter of the multitude. (469)
Of all the ways in which Lopez's story prefigures the institutional anti-Semitism of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century commentators on Shakespeare, it is the issue of his Marranism, I would argue, that comes closest to providing a root metaphor for it all. It is a metaphor that I would now like to explore.
In Spain during the Middle Ages Christians, Muslims, and Jews coexisted successfully, if at times uneasily, for centuries. With the Catholic reconquest of Spain, however, the social position of the Jews became increasingly difficult to resolve. For, while Jewish participation in the consolidation of the Catholic state was, on the one hand, considered to be crucial, on the other, it was an enduring point of convergence for popular resentment. On the most basic level the allegiance of the Jews had to be secured in order to ensure that they did not side with the Muslims, but their position was considerably more complex than that. Barred from certain trades and professions, Jews had tended, historically, to earn their living by the provision of services and, as a result, possessed administrative and diplomatic skills that the state was anxious to deploy on its own behalf. Moreover, as occupants of the cultural space between Muslims and Christians, Jews were particularly well placed to serve as "intermediaries" in the adaptation of Muslim institutions to Catholic forms of administration (Poliakov 110). But this Jewish participation in the unification of the Catholic state, effective as it was, gave rise to a dilemma. For, the more successful the mediation and thus the stronger and more unified the state, the more conspicuous became the position of Jews as infidels outside the Catholic Church. And, the more pronounced the infidelity of the Jews seemed, the more it appeared that there was something nefarious about their influential position within Spanish society. Over time perceptions of the social position of Spanish Jews deteriorated into the classic anti-Semitic trope that conveyed the belief that Jews constituted a privileged urban economic caste who exercised a disproportionate influence within the nation, "earning their living without much labour while sitting on their bottoms" (Berná ldez, qtd. in Kamen, Spanish 10). And, not surprisingly, the long-standing oscillation between tolerance toward the Jews and discrimination against them eventually degenerated into one of the most protracted catastrophes in Jewish history, culminating in the Inquisition and the explusion from Spain.
The mounting hostility toward the Jews in Spain expressed itself in conventional ways. Jews were prohibited from participating in trade and commerce, their social mobility and literal freedom of movement were severely restricted, and they were subject to massacres and innumerable smaller-scale physical attacks. Some official efforts were made to ensure the safety of the Jews, but these were effective only in limited ways and in the short term. Significant numbers of Jews converted to Christianity over the years in order to escape persecution, but, as they tended to maintain their associations with unconverted Jews, it was felt that the menace to the Catholic state endured. Many of the converts "lived close to the Jewish quarter to which they still felt a cultural affinity; they retained traditional characteristics in dress and food . . . [and] some returned actively to the practice of Judaism" (Kamen, Spanish 27). In 1492 the situation was declared to be intolerable, and it was decreed that the presence of Jews in Spain would no longer be allowed. In July of that year an ultimatum was issued: submit to conversion or be expelled. Hundreds of thousands of Jews fled, initially mainly to Portugal, where they enjoyed a brief period of security. Unfortunately, this only lasted for five years as one of the conditions of a marriage, negotiated between King Manoel of Portugal and Isabel, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, was that the Jews of Portugal convert to Christianity or face expulsion. The Marranos were those who, rather than suffer the terms of exile, chose to convert to Catholicism and stay in Spain.
Once a Jew had become a convert and was no longer subject to political and religious disabilities, there was nothing to impede his or her progress in Spanish society. Understandably enough then, given that they were now free of long-standing restrictions, converts rapidly made their way into the professions, especially law and medicine, the political and financial administration, the municipal councils, the legislature, the army, the universities, and even the church (Roth 21). Moreover, "commercial agility and a . . . disposition to mutual help . . . put them in the vanguard of the new urban bourgeoisie and, in the next century, of the protocapitalist and entrepreneurial class that was then budding in Spain and Portugal" (Yovel 16-17). But, while this successful absorption of the Marranos into every aspect of life should, at least in theory, have satisfied the terms of the act of homogenization which the Spanish state had so forcefully sought, in fact, it merely recast ancient hostilities. For, where once the objection to their presence lay in the question of religion, it now came to be expressed in terms of blood. The Marranos, it was said, were tainted, inferior, impure.12 And, like the unconverted Jews before the expulsion, they were considered to be exercising an undue influence over Spanish affairs.
By the mid sixteenth century, for example, "it was reputed that most of the Spanish clergy resident in Rome in search of preferment were of Jewish origin" (Kamen, Spanish 22) and that a considerable number of Spanish bishops were, in reality, converted Jews. Wealthy Marranos "intermarried with the highest nobility of the land . . . [so that] within a couple of generations, there was barely a single aristocratic family in Aragon, from the royal house downwards, which was free from the 'taint' of Jewish blood" (Roth 21). The Marranos, or New Christians as they were sometimes called, appeared to have finessed their way "into the heart of Christian society, into the ranks of the aristocracy and the Church" (Kamen, Spanish 22). And, willfully blind to the role that the enforced conversions had played in creating this situation, popular prejudice held that an alien infestation was hollowing the nation out from the inside.
What the Marranos found themselves confronting was the paradox of assimilation in its most overt form. For, in choosing to submit to conversion in order to avoid expulsion or death, the Marranos had responded to the tacit assurance conveyed by the state's ultimatum: "Become like us—abandon your difference—and you may be one with us." But assimilation is, precisely, a paradox, and the offer of undifferentiated acceptance is thus, by definition, always falsely tendered. "The more you are like me," says the dominant culture, "the more I know the true value of my power, which you wish to share, and the more I am aware that you are but a shoddy counterfeit, an outsider" (Oilman, Jewish 2).
While the church could not officially sanction the shunning of Marranos, since the mass conversions had been undertaken at its behest, and to deny their legitimacy would be to deny its own jurisdiction, in practice there was little if any distinction maintained between Marranos and unconverted Jews. The Franciscan Alfonso de Espina gave voice to a widespread belief when he declared that "there were two types of Jews, public Jews and hidden Jews, and that both had the same nature" (Poliakov 181). Unconverted Jews suddenly seemed preferable, since there was at least little doubt about their identity. The problem with the Marranos was that they claimed to be Christians, which, of course, they were—except that everyone knew that they weren't. Jews outside the church were infidels, but they had been dealt with, expeditiously, by the general expulsion. False Christians, which is to say secret Jews inside the church, however, were heretics, and this was by far the greater menace. It was a situation that only the Inquisition could resolve.
The methods of the Inquisition are well documented, and there would be no point here in reiterating the fate of the Marranos at its hands. What is germane to this discussion, however, is the question of how the Inquisition identified its subjects, for deciphering the secrecy of the Jews and learning to deal with their "inherent duplicity" was, as we shall see, a preoccupation that the Inquisition shared with a great many cultures, late Victorian literary society among them.
Historiographically speaking, the secret life of the Marranos is a subject of considerable debate, but, for the time being, the traditional account of their existence is the one that matters here and runs as follows. Publicly, the Marranos lived as Christians, and while there were some "who had not been over-sincere in their attachment to Judaism, and did not find much difficulty in accommodating themselves . . . to their new religion .. . the vast majority," it was believed, "had accepted Christianity only to escape death, and remained at heart as completely Jewish as they had ever been" (Roth 19):
Outwardly they lived as Christians. They took their children to church to be baptized, though they hastened to wash off the traces of the ceremony as soon as they returned home. They would go to the priest to be married, though they were not content with the ceremony and, in the privacy of their houses, performed another to implement it . . . Their disbelief in the dogmas of the Church was notorious, and . . . not always concealed. They kept all the traditional [Jewish] ceremonies, in some instances down to the last details. They observed the Sabbath so far as lay in their power; and it was possible to see, from a height overlooking any city, how many chimneys were smokeless on that day . . . they married exclusively amongst themselves ... In race, in belief, and .. . in practice, they remained as they had been before conversion. They were Jews in all but name, and Christians in nothing but form. They were moreover able to transmit their disbelief to their children, who, though born in the dominant faith and baptized at birth, were as little sincere in their attachment to it as their fathers. (20)
The problem with the Marranos, then, was considered to be twofold, a fact that is evident in the twin discourses that arose antagonistically around them and engaged, in tandem, notions of racial predisposition and of the pernicious exploitation of the private sphere. Jews can never be anything other than Jews, it said. Their race is the most important thing about them; they cannot form alliances or make commitments as anything other than Jews.13 No matter what they say or do in public, in the privacy of their homes they will revert to their innate identity. Their participation in public ceremonies and their declarations of loyalty to persons or institutions outside their own ranks mean nothing, since at home they will simply wash away any trace of these commitments and cease to be their public selves. Jews only marry other Jews. Jews have Jewish children, to whom they communicate, by both biological and social means, the essence of deceit.
The reputed cunning and boundlessness of the Marrano conspiracy set the Inquisition a special challenge, for it found the greatest perils in the greatest semblance of order and the truth to be indistinguishable from lies. Thus, the more mundane and normal the behavior of a Marrano, the more likely he or she was to be brought under suspicion. "Edicts of Faith" were issued which "summoned . . . the faithful . . . to denounce to the . . . authorities any person . . . guilty of . . . heretical offenses" (Roth 99-100). But, as these offenses were necessarily secret, and therefore might not appear to be heretical at all, the edicts included detailed descriptions of the sorts of behaviors true Christians ought to look out for. Some of these behaviors constituted forms of religious observance which would, indeed, identify a practicing Jew, but others, like the smokeless chimneys on Saturdays, were not overt acts but merely absences or actions so commonplace that it was only in the Inquisitorial imagination that they could have significance at all. People were denounced for not eating hare, cuttlefish, or pork; for "putting on clean or festive clothes"; and for "cleaning their houses on Friday." Adherents to the Edicts of Faith were solemnly informed that Jews had a tendency to wash their hands (100-101), creating a social climate in which the "mere regard for personal cleanliness might be enough to convict a person of secretly practising Judaism . . . and so cost him his life" (105).14
I will return to the question of how late Victorian commentators on Shakespeare approached the Marrano Lopez and the matter of his relation to the figure of Shylock. But, before doing so, it will be helpful briefly to clarify several points of historiography.
The story of the Marranos is, as I have indicated, a traditional narrative that presents an epic of steadfast belief in the face of insuperable adversity, but, as Miriam Bodian has argued, the tendency to locate the problem of Marranism so firmly within the sphere of religion is reductive on several counts. The overemphasis on religion tends to discount questions of commercial and economic interest and to ignore the complexities of social and familial relationships and of self-perception and definition in a context in which people were subject to protracted and contradictory pressures. Thus, the Marranos are unified into a coherent group and the ineffable complexities of their Marranism reduced to a matter of religious fidelity or infidelity and, occasionally, even further to one of personal sincerity or insincerity.
Even more worrisome, however, is the extent to which the traditional account of the Marranos and their secret faith replicates the logic of Inquisitorial paranoia. For, although historians such as Cecil Roth embrace the cause of the Marranos, valorizing their crypto-Judaism, in order to do so they must leave intact the notion of the racial predisposition of Jews to duplicity. To put it another way, the concept of the Marranos' unshakable loyalty to Judaism is as tied as the tropes of the Inquisition are to the belief that Jewishness is a function of biology or of social characteristics so profoundly embedded that they are effectively quasi-biological. So, while these narratives champion rather than denounce the Marranos, they nevertheless participate in a discourse about Jews which attributes their social and political behavior to their race. More recent work has moved away from this presentation of crypto-Judaism as a coherent phenomenon.
Increasingly, for example, it has been recognized that "patterns of converso behaviour did not simply emerge from some primordial Jewish stratum of consciousness" and that Marrano identity, therefore, needs to be understood "as a changing cultural construction evolving over many generations and answering a variety of needs" (Bodian 50-51). Rather than secretly returning to Judaism at any cost, and with biologically programmed inevitability, Jewish converts to Catholicism displayed a wide range of responses to their respective situations, responses that varied tremendously, from generation to generation and from individual to individual, even among members of a single family. Moreover, compounding these differences were the relative levels of acceptance or rejection which Marranos experienced within their social and religious communities of resettlement and the variety of their relationships with the Jews and Gentiles they encountered outside the Iberian Peninsula. Most profoundly, however, as Yirmiyahu Yovel has argued:
people do not discard their past simply because they make new decisions or embark upon a new course; a being endowed with consciousness and memory cannot simply return to the point of departure, even when reverting to a position once held in the past and then abandoned. The Marranos had lived among Christians for generations, partaken of their mores and education, practised their customs—at least outwardly—and internalized the same symbolic universe and mode of thinking. (41)
Thus, whether they believed themselves to be true Christians, Christians in name only, or once and forever Jews, the Marranos clearly bore with them enduring confusions of identity which made them, at best, the subjects of benign curiosity and, at worst, of opprobrium and oppression. Only by recognizing these complexities can we begin to appreciate the enduring fascination and treacherous promise attached to figures such as Ruy Lopez and the Shylock he may or may not have inspired.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2230
The question of the Lopez affair and its relation to the figure of Shylock drew the attention of a number of critics and historians in the latter decades of the nineteenth century.15 These accounts portray Lopez's treachery, his influence on the design of Shylock, and Shakespeare's intentions in representing the Jew. The study 1 would like to focus on, however, is the one that addressed itself most directly to the Victorian Shakespeare establishment and which was, most obviously, part of the wave of response to Irving's Merchant of Venice, appearing as it did in the Gentleman's Magazine in February 1880, about halfway through the production's opening run. Moreover, the essay, entitled "The Original of Shylock," deserves particular notice here not only for "attract[ing] . . . the attention of Shakespearean scholars" (SSL 3) but also for its part in launching one of the Victorian era's most distinguished literary careers. The eighteen-year-old undergraduate author of the essay went by the forenames Solomon Lazarus. But, for the sake of his career he changed his name, it is popularly believed, on the advice of Oxford's Benjamin Jowett, ironically, a man who had himself been accused of excessive displays of religious radicalism.16 As an eminent Shakespearean, editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, first biographer of Queen Victoria, fellow of the British Academy, founding member of the English Association, and member of the Athenaeum Club, to name only a few of his distinctions, Solomon Lazarus was better known to the world as Sidney or, more fully, as Sir Sidney Lee.
In his search for the original of Shylock, Sidney Lee posits four categories of evidence pertaining to the putative links between Shylock and his historical prototype. In outline he argues that the date of composition of The Merchant of Venice more or less coincides with the date of the alleged conspiracy and its aftermath; that the text of The Merchant contains topical references; that Shakespeare's protagonist, the merchant Antonio, was likely drawn with the protagonist of the Lopez affair in mind; and that Shylock and Lopez display similarities of character too great to be coincidental. As general categories of evidence, these seem fair enough, and, indeed, at the time of the article's publication they greatly impressed established authorities in Elizabethan studies such as J. O. Halliwell-Phillips and F. J. Furnivall. In the context of this study, however, the evidence that Sidney Lee offers with regard to Lopez and his relation to Shylock is compelling primarily in ways that the author and his contemporaries probably did not intend. Rather, what is remarkable from this vantage point is the extent to which the perception of a significant relation between the two figures is, effectively, inevitable, as are the particular narrative formulations mobilized in telling the story of Lopez and Shylock. It was a story that had been told before.
Sidney Lee's most straightforward argument is that pertaining to The Merchant's date of composition, his claim being that the play "appeared for the first time not much more than three months after Lopez's famous execution" (Lee, "Original" 198). But, while it seems unlikely that Shakespeare—or, for that matter, anyone living in London at the time—would have been unaware of so public an event as the execution of the queen's personal physician, Lee's dating of the play and his connection of the two events is largely speculative. Nonetheless, at the time this would have constituted a scholarly argument. His remaining points, by way of contrast, display increasingly prominent elements of fantasy amid the learned speculation.
Lee's identification of topical references, for example, suggests that the connections he was arguing for were, in some imaginative sense, already in place. A conventional allusion to "the rack," which occurs as part of an exchange between the lovers Portia and Bassanio, is taken, without question, to allude to the fate of those implicated in the plot against Elizabeth,17 while an anachronistic reference to trial by jury—a procedure not known in Venice during the time in which The Merchant is set—leads him directly to conclude that it must have been intended to suggest "the way in which an English court of law would treat a Jew" (Lee, "Original" 199). As far as the link between the protagonist of the play and the protagonist of the Lopez affair is concerned, somewhat fantastically, Lee's evidence here consists of little more than the fact that they were both called Antonio. Pointing out that "the name Antonio .. . was very common among the Portuguese"—the protagonist of the Lopez affair was Don Antonio, pretender to the Portuguese throne—it is not "by any means," Lee argues, "so ordinary an Italian one as Lorenzo or Ludovico" (197). It is difficult to know how to respond to this assertion, especially considering the stir it caused in the Shakespearean academic community at the time. To respond insofar as possible in the spirit of the author, however, one can only point out that, with the exception of certain "Citizens," "Servants," "Soldiers," "Ladies," "Gentlemen," and "Ghosts," Antonio is, as a matter of record, the single most commonly occurring name in all of Shakespeare's oeuvre.
Finally, there is Sidney Lee's claim that the similarities of character between Lopez and Shylock are too great to be coincidental. While Lee concedes that not much can be said definitively of Lopez's character, since his "extant correspondence is very incomplete, and gives us only glances here and there of his characteristics," he is nevertheless willing to comment, with authority, on points of character. Firstly, although he doesn't say why, Lee asserts "with some probability" that "the spirit of revenge in the doctor's case was similar in calibre to that in Shylock's." Even more to the point, however, he commits himself with "certainty" to the following claim:
In their devotion to their family the two Jews closely resemble each other. Neither Lopez nor Shylock, in good fortune or in bad, fail to exemplify the Jewish virtue of domesticity. Lopez excused his attendance at court on the ground that the illness of his wife detained him at home. His Dutch correspondents never omit to send his family affectionate remembrances from his Jewish friends in Holland, whatever be the subject of the letter, and he never omits to return them. Similarly, Shylock's love for his daughter and for his wife Leah, whose memory he piously cherishes, are touches of character which theories of dramatic art only incompletely explain. (Lee, "Original" 198-99)
There are two chronically recurring narratives at work here, the first of which is the story of "the Jewish virtue of domesticity," a virtue that, as we have already seen, necessarily connotes hidden vice. The fact that Lopez's correspondence includes conventional greetings and inquiries after the welfare of friends abroad or that, as a husband and doctor, he should have attended his wife in illness is to Sidney Lee, as they would undoubtedly have been to the Inquisition, signs of the innately suspect nature of Jews. Here, as everywhere else, Jewish participation in the commonplace is a sign of secret goings-on. Thus, the fact that Shylock loves his daughter and reveres the memory of his dead wife cannot possibly be taken at face value. They are enigmatic signifiers, "touches of character which theories of dramatic art only incompletely explain."
The second narrative at work here is one that Sidney Lee authored but did not, in any ordinary sense, write. For, like a man holding up a mirror while looking in the mirror, Sidney Lee, in rooting out the story of Lopez embedded in the figure of Shylock, manifested yet again the infinitely regressive life of the secret Jew. The story of Lee's own life is the story of a great public figure, a man who made his way, by virtue of his talent and industry, to the top of the Victorian intellectual establishment; it is the story of a man deemed fit to write the life of the queen. Considering the accomplishments he could list by the time he died, one would hardly remember that what had launched his career was nothing more than an essay exposing the relation of an infamous Jewish villain to a secret Jew, a great public figure who, like Lee himself, had made his way, by virtue of his talent and industry, to the top of the Elizabethan establishment and who, until he was found out, had been deemed fit to guard the life of the queen. Even less would it be remembered that until he had written that essay, as a young man, Sir Sidney had gone by another name.
1 On spectacular production, see Michael Booth, Victorian Spectacular Theatre, 1850-1910 (London: RKP, 1981); Richard Foulkes, ed., Shakespeare and the Victorian Stage (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986), esp. "Part 1: Shakespeare in the Picture Frame"; William E. Kleb, "Shakespeare in Tottenham-Street: An 'Aesthetic' Merchant of Venice," Theatre Survey 16.2 (1975): 97-121.
2 The dominance of Irving's interpretation is further indicated by the fact that no notable production of the Merchant which did not feature Irving in the role of Shylock was mounted in London until 1905. For a complete list of notable productions and revivals, see Freda Gaye, ed., Who's Who in the Theatre (London: Pitman, 1967), 1434. For a more general overview of Jews on the late Victorian stage, see Shearer West, "The Construction of Racial Type: Caricature, Ethnography, and Jewish Physiognomy in Fin-de-Siècle Melodrama," Nineteenth Century Theatre 21.1 (1993): 4-40.
3 Irving's first public defense of his Shylock appeared in Theatre on 1 Dec. 1879 (254-55), as part of a symposium on the character. For a lengthy reassertion of his original intentions several years into the history of the production, see Joseph Hatton, Henry Irving's Impressions of America, vol. 1 (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington, 1884), 262-75.
4 John Gross's claim that "it is generally agreed that his [Irving's] interpretation grew less sympathetic over the years" (141) is unsupported by any convincing evidence. Virtually the only critic to express this view was William Winter, a notorious American theater critic and by Gross's own admission an extremist, who was known as an arch-conservative and a bigot, consistently antagonistic toward non-Anglo-Saxon foreigners on the American stage (Oxford Companion to the Theatre 897). Winter's account of Irving's Shylock, in Shakespeare on the Stage, appears to be Gross's source. But what Gross fails to take into account is Winter's own reading of The Merchant by which he then measures the legitimacy or illegitimacy of subsequent interpretations of Shylock's role. The lurid language Winter uses to describe his ideal of a convincing Jew, coupled with his belief that "the true Shylocjc of Shakespeare" must be "hard, merciless, inexorable, terrible" (178), strongly suggests that Irving's softening of the role did not sit well with Winter's own feelings about Jews. The two men were friends for many years, and it is likely that Winter was reading into Irving's performance what he wished were there but, as other evidence would suggest, manifestly was not.
5 For a selection of reviews of Irving's American tour of 1883, see Mr. Henry Irving and Miss Ellen Terry in America: Opinions of the Press (Chicago: John Morris, 1884).
6 Edward Moore, in his essay "Henry Irving's Shakespearean Productions" (Theatre Survey 17.2 : 201), says, for example, that Irving "cared nothing about realizing a play as written, but only about making his effects; and splendid as these no doubt were, most of us would rather have Shakespeare's."
7 On the importance of conversion as a cultural motif and of the father-daughter relationship in this context, see Michael Ragussis's compelling Figures of Conversion: "The Jewish Question" and English National Identity (Durham: Duke UP, 1995).
8 Robert Hichens, in his essay "Irving as Shylock" (in We Saw Him Act, ed. H. A. Saintsbury and Cecil Palmer [London: Hurst and Blackett, 1939], 168), remarks on how unforgettable this bit of stage business was.
9 For an example of just such a discussion, see Frederick Hawkins, "The Character of Shylock;" Theatre (1 Nov. 1879): 191-98; and the roundtable discussion involving numerous commentators, including Irving himself, the following month (Theatre [1 Dec. 1879]).
10 For a recent account of Lopez, see David Katz, "The Jewish Conspirators of Elizabethan England" The Jews in the History of England, 1485-1850 (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1994): 49-106.
11 See also, Sander Gilman. Jewish Self-Hatred (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1986): 37 ff., 61 ff.
12 On changing perceptions of Marranism, see Miriam Bodian, " 'Men of the Nation': The Shaping of Converso Identity in Early Modern Europe," Past and Present 143 (1994): 48-76.
13 See Gilman, Jewish Self-Hatred, chap. 3, esp. 83 ff.
14 On this point, see also Moshe Lazar, " 'Scorched Parchments and Tortured Memories': The 'Jewishness' of the Anussim (Crypto-Jews)," in Cultural Encounters: The Impact of the Inquisition in Spain and the New World, ed. Mary Elizabeth Perry and Anne J. Cruz (Berkeley: U of California P, 1991), 182 ff.
15 See Arthur Dimock, "The Conspiracy of Dr. Lopez," English Historical Review (July 1894): 440-72; and John W. Hales, "Shakespeare and the Jews," English Historical Review (Oct. 1894): 652-61'.
16 See C. H. Firth, Sir Sidney Lee, 1859-1926, in Proceedings of the British Academy (London: Humphrey Milford, 1929), 15:3.
Bassanio: Let me choose, For as I am, I live upon the rack.
Portia: Upon the rack Bassanio? Then confess What treason there is mingled with your love.
Bassanio: None but that ugly treason of mistrust Which makes me fear th'enjoying of my love. There may as well be amity and life 'Tween snow and fire, as treason and my love.
Portia: Ay, but I fear you speak upon the rack, Where men enforced do speak anything.
Bassanio: Promise me life and I'll confess the truth.
Portia: Well then, confess and live.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 552
Examination and Study Guides and Other Editions of Shakespeare and The Merchant of Venice
Barnett, T. Duff, ed. Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice. London: Bell, 1893,
Crook, C. W., ed. The Merchant of Venice. London: Ralph, Holland, 1907.
Meiklejohn, J. M. D., ed. Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice. London: Chambers, 1879.
The Merchant of Venice. As presented at the Lyceum Theatre under the Management of Mr. Henry Irving. London: Chiswick, 1881.
Verity, A. W., ed. The Merchant of Venice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1912.
Wood, Stanley. Supplement to The Merchant of Venice. Questions and Notes. Dinglewood Shakespeare Manuals. Manchester: Heywood, 1891.
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Source: "Shylock: The Infamous Secret Jew," in Shakespeare and the Politics of Culture in Late Victorian England, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998, pp. 61-95.