The Merchant of Venice Shylock: The Infamous Secret Jew - Essay

William Shakespeare


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Shylock: The Infamous Secret Jew

Linda Rozmovits, University of East London


(Shakespearean Criticism)

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 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:

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!"

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:

You knew, none so well, none so well as you, of my daughter's flight.

That's certain. I for my part knew the tailor that made the wings she flew withal.

And Shylock for his own part knew the bird was fledged, and then it is the complexion of them all to leave the dam.

She is damned for it.

That's certain, if the devil may be her judge.

My own flesh and blood to rebel!

Out upon it, old carrion! Rebels it at these years?

I say my daughter is my flesh and blood.

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...

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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(Shakespearean Criticism)


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.


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