Sanitizing Merchant: Pacino Plays Shylock Like a Grouchy Tevya

Believe me, I don’t want to be one of those dreary people who are forever lecturing us on how the movie version of some classic betrays the book. But I have to say that the forthcoming film version of The Merchant of Venice, the one starring Al Pacino as Shylock, may be the most misguided literary adaptation since the Miramax Mansfield Park. (You know, the one that showed us a throbbing D.H. Lawrence fable of sexual liberation we had failed to notice seething beneath the surface of Jane Austen’s most anti-liberation novel.

But it’s hard for me to withhold comment, since I just delivered a talk (before seeing the Pacino Merchant) at a “Shakespeare and Politics” colloquium at Fairleigh Dickinson University on the strategies of evasion that contemporary Shakespearean productions have used to erase or occlude the anti-Semitism in the play. And since I’m working on a book on Shakespeare scholarship and just published an anthology on contemporary anti-Semitism, it’s something I have strong feelings about. And I can’t help feeling the erasure of the play’s anti-Semitism in this film-however well-meaning-is part of the problem, not a solution.

Al Pacino has demonstrated a sensitivity to the complexity of Shakespeare (and ability to play the complexity) in his Looking for Richard. And he does an honorable job embodying the Shylock that director Michael Radford has sculpted from Shakespeare (Mr. Radford gives himself a “screenplay by Michael Radford” credit for “revising” Shakespeare’s work-that is, mainly cutting the potentially offensive parts of the characterization and adding an extra- textual “historical context”).

Already there is talk of Oscars, and in its review, The Hollywood Reporter called Mr. Pacino’s performance “keenly measured.”

But I regret to say that it’s a keenly measured evasion. The Shylock that Mr. Radford has given Mr. Pacino to play is an inoffensive, defanged, P.C. Shylock. A Shylock that is less like Shakespeare’s Jew than a heroically suffering Everyman, a Brechtian Mother Courage figure of endurance, persisting however put upon. A Shylock safe for civics classes. A Shylock who is more like a somewhat grouchy version of Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof.

Indeed, you might as well call this forthcoming film The Usurer on the Roof.

But that’s what you get when your producer, Cary Brokaw, announces (in the production material for the film): “This is a play about Anti-Semitism … and about discrimination, and about prejudice but it is not Anti-Semitic. Shylock is a very sympathetic character. We understand his pain …. “

Well, yes, it’s sympathetic-if you leave all the unsympathetic bits out (“He found just the right things to cut,” Mr. Brokaw says of director Radford).

Then you can say, as Mr. Brokaw does, somehow channeling Shakespeare, “It’s so clear that Shakespeare is writing about racism but he’s not racist and the play is not racist. It’s a true statement about culture at a particular time.”

Forget the implicit contradiction in that last line. (Is D.W. Griffith’s pro-K.K.K. film The Birth of a Nation “not racist” because the image of black people in it was “a true statement about culture at a particular time”?)

Hey, what’s all the fuss been about, then? When the Nazis put on no less than 50 productions of The Merchant of Venice in the 30′s, it was not because it was anti-Semitic-perish the thought. They just wanted “a true statement about culture at a particular time.”

Everyone in the production seems to be buying this line. The actress who plays Portia informs us, via the production notes, that “the depth in Shakespeare’s play could never solely be trivialized under the guise of racism. ‘What I want people to take away from this is it’s about human forgiveness and how we rise above the norm for us, the prejudice and the differences. It’s not Christian versus Jew, it’s human and personal.’”

So even thinking of it as about “racism” is trivializing it. And none dare concede there is anti-Semitism in the play (it’s, rather, “about anti-Semitism”), or say it has something to do with the theological specificity of religious hatred directed at the Jews. Not ecumenical enough. So it’s about intolerance in general. About how we should all love each other.

And then, in an interview I found online, director Radford clued us in to what his Merchant is really about:

” The Merchant of Venice I saw as a piece that basically spoke not just of Jews and Venetians. But using the epoch of the 1500s it spoke of a very modern situation–that is two cultures that don’t understand each other in terms of culture and beliefs. I think it’s a film that’s talking about something other than the controversy between the Jews and Christians. It does speak of that, but it’s a text set back then. We all hope that people understand what we are saying.”

Actually, it’s not that easy to understand what he is saying. I’d venture to translate that he means that the whole “controversy” between Jews and Christians (his way of speaking about 2,000 years of murderous religious-inspired hatred of Jews, I guess) is not a truly fit or relevant subject for our times. It’s so five centuries ago.

I think what we’re supposed to understand-the “very modern situation” he’s speaking of-is the clash of civilizations that Europe is undergoing between Muslim immigrants and Western culture.

All this raises an interesting question: What does it mean to stage or film The Merchant of Venice? Does it mean that you can put on a “piece” that is a plea for tolerance designed to be safe for high-school civics classes and call it The Merchant of Venice? It’s the question raised by the famous 17th-century “happy ending” adaptation of King Lear by Nahum Tate (which was virtually the only version of King Lear played for more than a century), the one that had Shakespeare’s all-too-downbeat tragedy end instead with Cordelia alive and marrying the good guy Edgar to rule over a peaceful and united kingdom.

You want tragedy in King Lear, that old thing? You see The Merchant of Venice to be anti-Semitic, at least in part, or about Jews? How silly and antiquated. Merchant of Venice teaches tolerance, and Shylock is an oppressed hero.

An interesting contrast to the words of John Gross, the astute British critic whose definitive 1992 history,

Shylock: A Legend and Its Legacy, concludes rather unequivocally:

“Shylock is meant to be a villain. There can be arguments about his motives and his personality, but there can be no serious argument about his behavior. Given the opportunity-an opportunity which he himself has created-he attempts to commit legalized murder. He is also a Jewish villain. He didn’t have to be: Christians were moneylenders too, and the story would have worked perfectly well with a Christian villain …. Behind his plot against Antonio lie fantasies of ritual murder, ultimately going back to the Jews’ supposed role in the Crucifixion.”

Mr. Gross concludes: “I personally think it is absurd to suppose that there is a direct line of descent from Antonio to Hitler, or from Portia to the SS, but that is because I do not believe that the Holocaust was in any way inevitable. I do believe, on the other hand, that the ground for the Holocaust was well prepared, and to that extent the play can never seem quite the same again.”

But hey, let’s not let that harsh our mellow. That’s so 50 years ago. We’ll make an uplifting Merchant. In sanitizing the play, in making it a universalist fable of the injustices of intolerance, in occluding the problem of anti-Semitism, this production erases history.

This urgent flight from even conceding that there is a problem, that the play is not just about anti-Semitism, but that Shakespeare’s Shylock is an anti-Semitic caricature, may be part of a trend, one that could come under the rubric of “anti-Semitism denial,” the phrase coined by Gabriel Schoenfeld (in The Return of Anti-Semitism). Things that seem to involve anti-Semitism (Mel Gibson’s Passion, Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, which many clever reviewers have informed us, contra Roth, is not really about Jews and anti-Semitism, but about George Bush), really aren’t about anything as parochial and old hat as Jews and Jew hatred. Please, that would be missing the deeper, more sophisticated and universalist point. Abstraction, one-dimensional political allegory, substitutes for the complexity of history.

Anti-Semitism is, of course, a bit embarrassing to talk about-one doesn’t want to let so parochial a concern intrude upon sophisticated literary discourse, or inhibit in any way a fanciful literary critic or an au courant director. Why be bound by the ostensible content of a controversial work when one can use it to demonstrate one’s belief in tolerance and one’s other political virtues?

Which is what Merchant director Radford does. Of course, his Merchant is not an anti-Semitic work: He just removes all the most anti-Semitic elements from it. Not the anti-Semitic taunts against the Jew Shylock, but the elements in the original Shakespearean text which put the Jew in a bad light. Which identified Shylock’s flaws as specifically Jewish flaws, which exploited venomous racial and religious stereotypes that deepened rather than ameliorated the anti-Semitism that could be dismissed as cartoonish caricature in Marlowe’s Jew of Malta.

It’s not that I want to see anti-Semitic characterizations perpetuated, but erasing and sanitizing history is not the solution. It’s as if someone took you down to lower Manhattan, and showed you a beautiful new development that was growing around a large hole in the ground, but refused to acknowledge the murderous hatred that had produced Ground Zero.

If you want to see a disturbing rather than comforting Shylock, if you want to understand the anti-Semitic potential of the Shylock that Shakespeare wrote, the Shylock that has incited hatred of Jews over history, rather than the sanitized Shylock of Mr. Radford, catch one of the British (Jewish) actor Steven Berkoff’s embodiments of Shylock in his Shakespeare’s Villains one-man show (see my Observer column on Mr. Berkoff, Jan. 29, 2001).

Or, better, read the astonishing passage from Philip Roth’s novel Operation Shylock, one of the most impassioned passages in his entire impassioned body of work, in which one of the characters delivers an ecstatically enraged exegesis of Shylock’s first three words, “Three thousand ducats” (this is the amount Shylock is asked to lend the Venetians in a bond sealed with the infamous pound of flesh):

“I studied those three words by which the savage, repellent, and villainous Jew, deformed by hatred and revenge, entered as our [i.e., Jews'] doppelgänger into the consciousness of the enlightened West. Three words encompassing all that is hateful in the Jew, three words that have stigmatized the Jew through two Christian millennia …. ” Stigmatized the Jew as caring only for money at the expense of flesh and blood.

And Mr. Roth’s character goes on to remind us what the defining Shylock of the eighteenth century, the actor Charles Macklin, did with those three words:

“We are told that Mr. Macklin would mouth the two th’s and the two s’s in ‘Three thousand ducats’ with such oiliness that he instantaneously aroused, with just those three words all of the audience’s hatred of Shylock’s race …. When Mr. Macklin whetted his knife to carve from Antonio’s chest his pound of flesh, people in the pit fell unconscious …. “

Who can blame Mr. Pacino for not wishing to evoke the implicit hatred in the role? But then why do the role at all? Why do a bowdlerized erasure of the harsh truth about the role?

But Mr. Roth’s character is no less (justly) harsh against what he calls the “vulgar sentimental offense” of the Victorian versions of Shylock, “a wronged Jew, rightfully vengeful.” Mr. Roth’s character condemns this as well: “the vile Victorian varnish that sought to humanize the Jew, dignify the Jew has never deceived the enlightened European mind about the three thousand ducats … that chilling and ferocious Jew whose villainy flows inexorably from the innate corruption of his religion.” Shakespeare’s Jew.

If you want to put on a Merchant of Venice as an examination of an important historical source of anti-Semitism, as an investigation of the question of where Shakespeare stands in relation to it, there’s justification for that. But there can’t be an investigation if you erase the original. And to claim that it’s an antidote to anti-Semitism rather than an example is “vile varnish,” whitewash.

It refuses to concede that Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice is a fact of history, not just a play-a real problem that a little cutting won’t solve. A problem that calls for “negative capability,” the ability Keats attributed to Shakespeare of holding two opposed points of view “without irritable reaching” after certainty. And yet, all the production’s voices ring with hysterical certainty: No anti-Semitism here!

Many find it hard, especially those who have succumbed to uncritical bardolatry, to hold in mind the possibilities that Shakespeare could be both the greatest writer in the language and not the greatest human being who ever lived, that he was vulnerable to flaws and that, when he wanted to incite people against a Jewish character, he knew how to incite people against a Jew all too well.

His saving grace is that he didn’t make a habit of it; it seemed about theatrical effectiveness here rather than committed animus.

But the anti-Semitism is still there, no matter how desperately one hangs onto one speech (“Hath not a Jew eyes …. lf you prick us do we not bleed”?), which is often misread or recited out of context as a plea for tolerance when, in fact, in the play it’s as much “Jewish” casuistry, disguised self-incitement to revenge (if you read the speech to the bitter end).

Shylock, if played like Shakespeare’s Shylock, is a problem one can’t wish away. One can cut it out, so to speak, but the play is something else without it.

In my talk at the Fairleigh Dickinson colloquium, I spoke about the strategies used to sanitize Shylock besides invoking “if you prick us do we not bleed?” Strategies of evasion that modern actors and directors use to sanitize Shylock.

The first is to give us a kinder, gentler, warmer, fuzzier, more dignified Shylock. The user-friendly Shylock (usurer-friendly?). Olivier’s dignified Edwardian banker. The Shylock of Henry Goodman at the Royal National Theater in 1999, a calm, likable, even clubbable chap. A strategy that inevitably deepens rather than erases the anti-Semitism of the play. Because if the production is in any way faithful to the central moment of the text, when Shylock sharpens his knife ecstatically preparing to cut out the “pound of flesh” from Antonio, then the entire gentrifying process performed on Shylock works to argue, in effect, that even the most likable, dignified Jew will-when it comes down to it-be ready and willing to cut the heart out of a Christian to settle a debt.

The other chief sanitizing strategy of contemporary Merchant s is to emphasize the supposedly equivalent miscreance of the money-hungry Christians. Yes, they’re louts and layabouts and materialistic, but in being so, they are explicitly defying the purported loving essence of Christianity. While Shylock (in the actual play, anyway) is fulfilling the true mercenary purpose and destiny of Jews in his greed. It’s in his Jewish genes.

But hey, no problem, just leave that stuff out. And you’ve got your lesson in tolerance that high-school teachers can safely send their students to. We can make the rest of literature safe, too; I guess we should get started.

Oh, well. Whatever you think of it, it is not a “safe” play. I concluded my talk by advancing a view of the religious subtext of Merchant, inspired by William Empson, involving a rift within Christianity. The one involving the Socinian Heresy over the Doctrine of Satisfaction-Jesus as the “pound of flesh” that the Christian God required to pay the debt for man’s Original Sin: God as Shylock, Empson might say. So it’s dangerous to Christian doctrine as well, I think.

Another strategy deployed recently is Stephen Greenblatt’s conjecture (in Will in the World) that Shakespeare was chastened by the bloodthirsty, inciting effect that Marlowe’s Jew of Malta had on crowds, and wanted to make a kinder, gentler, more humanized Jew in response.

Nice if that were the effect, but again, “humanizing” can backfire and make the villainousness of Jews something more deeply embedded than the comic-villain mask that Barabas the Jew of Malta dons. A more human Shylock can make for a more anti-Semitic Merchant of Venice.

Marlowe’s Jew of Malta is a comic-strip villain, a mustache-twirling, cape-swirling comic caricature of evil. Humanizing Shylock gives the audience a more “naturalistic” basis for their distaste for Jews.

Michael Radford’s chief strategy of evasion is Al Pacino. Mr. Pacino is too smart to make Shylock saintly. Instead, he gives us a Shylock who is not a kinder and gentler, warm sort of guy. He’s angry, even bitter about oppression, but he’s just trying to go about his business, a Jew in an anti-Semitic world that locks him up in the ghetto at night.

Mr. Pacino is great at being the hardy, put-upon Joe Sixpack Shylock. And to some extent, his soulfulness and craft work: You feel his pain, and you feel anger against prejudice and what it can do to its objects and all those good things. But is sanitizing Shakespeare the solution?

PS: I suppose it’s true I have some special animus against sanitized Shylocks because I think one of them killed Zero Mostel. That’s right, you may not recall, but Mostel dropped dead after his first performance as Shylock in the British playwright Arnold Wesker’s Broadway-bound play of that name (loosely based on Merchant), which was beginning tryouts in Philadelphia.

Mr. Wesker had written the ultimate nice-guy Shylock. His Shylock was a genial bibliophile, intellectual and friend of Antonio. And yet the attempt to make Shylock the ultimate nice Jewish guy and then have him seek to cut out his friend Antonio’s heart was making the entire production incoherent, according to Mr. Wesker’s candid diary account in The Birth of ‘Shylock’ and the Death of Zero Mostel.

And Zero Mostel was rendered incoherent, as I read it, by the attempt to tame him into Mr. Wesker’s gentrified Shylock.

Mr. Wesker doesn’t say it himself, but I can’t help wondering if the attempt to make sense of the incoherent role contributed to Mostel’s sudden death after the first performance. Yes, there were many medical risk factors, but I blame the curse of Shylock.