Berkoff, Shakespeare and the Sword of Kean

I’d heard a couple of misleading things about Steven Berkoff

before he came to the Public Theater with his one-man show on Shakespeare’s Villains . I knew vaguely

he was an actor-director, considered an outsider and some kind of avant-garde

critic of establishment Shakespeare in the U.K.


And then there was the remark a renowned Shakespeare scholar

made to me about Mr. Berkoff’s Hamlet .

I’d asked the scholar-a notoriously cantankerous and hard-to-please guy-which

was the most impressive performance of

Hamlet he’d seen. “Steven Berkoff’s,” he said without hesitation. “It

sounds kind of wild and crazy when you describe it, though,” he added “because,

for instance, in the closet scene his Hamlet fucks Gertrude.”

Also misleading. Well, as we’ll see, partly misleading.

But I think what’s most misleading about Mr. Berkoff is the

avant-garde label. He likes to say that most contemporary directors and players

of Shakespeare are still working with “Pasteur’s microscope” while what he does

is comparable to the electron microscope.

True in part, perhaps, but I think the best way to look at

Mr. Berkoff, now 63, is not as an avant-gardiste but as a kind of flamboyant

throwback: a throwback to an earlier, grander age of Shakespearean players, the

age of Garrick and Kean and Edwin and John Wilkes Booth. An era in which

Shakespeareanactors-whenthey weren’t assassinating Presidents-were slaying

audiences. An era when grand, operatic, gestural histrionics caused weeping,

wailing, fainting and frenzy. When Shakespearean actors did to audiences what

rock stars do today.

It’s a style of acting most modern Shakespeareans have

abandoned, virtually fled from, in order to seek the subtleties and the

subtexts in a more “naturalistic” style. But Shakespeare wasn’t always a naturalist.

After all, he wrote in iambic pentameter, not prose, for the most part, and

even his prose is heightened, not prosaic. And watching Mr. Berkoff, you

realize there’s something lost, something missing in even the very best of

contemporary players: the pure relish for the grand gestural operatic moment,

the thespian passion that made Shakespeare the rage, rather than just a sage.

Mr. Berkoff’s impassioned embodiment of Shakespearean

villains is often electrifying in that old-fashioned pre-Victorian way. He

endows them with a disturbing power, more profound than the intellectual explanation of evil he offers during his

show, which relies a bit too much, for my taste, on social-worker victimology:

Figures like Richard III turn bad because they “lack love” or, like Shylock,

they’re “cut off from community.”

But I’ve sometimes found,

in talking to talented actors (Jack Nicholson, for instance), that they need an

intellectual rationale to hang on to in order to liberate-give them permission

to unleash-performances that strike chords darker and more disturbing than the

abstract rationales. And when I say Mr. Berkoff’s histrionic style is a

throwback, I mean that as a compliment. Not “throwback” in the sense of

antiquated, but “throwback” in the sense that you feel hurled back in time to a kind of experience whose raw power made

Shakespeare the rage. Closer to what it was like to be present when

larger-than-life acting sensations like Burbage, Garrick and Kean stalked the


In fact, when we met at his hotel in Gramercy Park to talk

about Shakespeare and acting, Mr. Berkoff told me an extraordinary, emblematic

story about the histrionic tradition: the story of “the sword.”

It’s a story that begins with Byron and Edmund Kean, one of

the great Shakespearean actors of the early 19th century.

“Kean!” Mr. Berkoff exclaims. “He was our greatest, our

patron saint of the theater. He is the true tiger

of the theater. So great-even by reputation, people would faint . Even Byron apparently, in the box one night when Kean was

playing, I think it might have been Othello. And Byron is a quite tough guy,

you know. He’s a poet but he’s tough and he’s seen it all, but he got so

excited he actually passed out

watching. He passed out like people did when they saw Olivier.

“Byron thought Kean was so unbelievable that he had a sword

made. He had a sword inscribed to Kean. And Kean was very flattered because he

was a little bit feeling inferior to these educated poets, you know,

Oxford-trained and cultivated. Kean tried to learn, to teach himself Latin. It

was very moving ….”

There is perhaps a bit of self-identification here with

Kean. Mr. Berkoff, too, was self-educated, does not share in the Oxbridge

background of the main line of Royal Shakespeare Company types in the U.K. He

grew up in London’s East End, a relatively poor Jewish neighborhood, dropped

out of school at 15 and sometimes betrays a touching insecurity about his lack

of Latin-like Kean, indeed like Shakespeare, who was gently mocked by Ben

Jonson for having “small Latine and lesse Greeke.”

But he seems quite knowledgeable about Shakespearean acting.

He continues with the story of “the sword”: “Then Kean died. The sword was

auctioned off and then got into the hands of a dealer. And one day [John]

Gielgud-in 1935, I think-was playing Hamlet. Someone managed, a dealer, to come

backstage and brought the sword and said, ‘This is the most amazing performance

I have ever seen on any stage anywhere in my life,’ and presented him with

Kean’s sword. He said, ‘You must keep this sword, John.’ So John was thrilled,

and he kept the sword for about 15 years. Then one day, Gielgud went to see

Olivier playing Richard III and he says”-Mr. Berkoff does a beautiful Gielgud

imitation, urgent, faint and musical-“‘I can’t … I can’t carry the sword! This is impossible. This man is mad ,

wonderful, exotic. Really, I would feel guilty

to have the sword in my cupboard. I give it to Larry. I don’t give a damn, I’m

done with it.’

“So he goes to Larry and says, ‘Please take this as my

respect for your wonderful performance.’ And Larry said, ‘Well, John, are you

sure you want to give it to me? Because it’s….’ ‘Well, we should pass it on , Larry. If you see somebody, somebody fantastic, something moves you, let’s

pass this wonderful thing on because it comes from Byron to Kean to me. I don’t

think I really deserved it, but it came to me. But you, ­Larry-wonderful, wonderful performance. Take it, take it,


‘Thank you very much, John; John, it’s beautiful and thank

you, darling.'”

Now Mr. Berkoff shifts from playing Gielgud to playing


“Olivier took the sword and then he keeps the sword and he’s

thinking, ‘Oh shit, who should I give it to?’ See? And he goes to the theaters

and he thinks, ‘This one? Burton? Hmmmm … no, no, no. Scofield? Yes, he’s pretty

good, pretty good. Alec McCowen? Excellent, excellent-um, no one really.’ And

then he’s dying and Joan [Olivier’s wife, Joan Plowright] is saying, ‘Larry,

what about the sword, the sword?’ ‘Well, uh, I haven’t seen anybody really that I felt like giving it to’-This is what I’m

imagining now,” Mr. Berkoff stipulates. “But in the end, he didn’t give it to

anybody. They were not good enough. He knew his standard and he wanted someone

that would thrill him, and he never gave the sword….”

I was fascinated by Mr. Berkoff’s rhapsodic account of

Olivier, an actor who’s become so much a cliché for acting “greatness” that one can forget the force of that

greatness. But Mr. Berkoff can’t forget that Olivier was a force, a power that

changed his life. One he first experienced when he was an acting student with

little interest in Shakespeare.

“I was never into Shakespeare at all as a youth,” he told

me. “I didn’t know anything about Shakespeare.… I didn’t have any revelatory

experience [until] I started watching Olivier’s films.

“It was that experience, seeing him and wanting to be him in

a way, like Muhammad Ali wanted to be like Joe Louis. Olivier was my mentor, my

master; I became obsessed with Olivier, totally obsessed, and I felt that his

daring and what he did was to take the craft into a kind of-an almost

supernatural realm, a ferocity, an energy that I thought was just kind of quite

incredible. That daring, that physical daring.”

Daring, Mr. Berkoff believes, is what’s missing from

contemporary Shakespeare. I’d asked him if he had a critique of current

Shakespearean productions in England-the Royal Shakespeare Company,

establishment Shakespeare. At first, he tried to sound dispassionate.

“I don’t really give a-I don’t really think too much about

them, because I do my own thing. So I mean, I don’t regard them in any

particular way.”

And then, slowly-well, not that slowly-he segued into a rage.

“I think they are traditional and they are still working

with the same telescope-the same microscope that Pasteur used. They have not

yet invented the electron microscope, so they are still looking at things in a

very simplistic way. They’re looking at things through a milk-bottle lens.

They’re not allowing the insight of the unconscious or its physical

manifestations. No shortcuts of using modern techniques that we use in film of

fast forward or flashback. It’s pedestrian, simplistic and eventually damaging.

Deeply damaging to Shakespeare because the human mind is now so sophisticated

through the kind of swift-moving, inventive shortcuts you find in literature,

television, movies, even video. They are taking, dragging Shakespeare on his

knees. They rely on one or two stars and surround it with a tepid, insipid,

ridiculous, dull, placid, old-fashioned, decayed, pedestrian production.”

“But do you have a critique ?”

I asked (jokingly). Not pausing, he continued to rage on:

“It’s awful-I mean, it’s so

awful. Not only is it awful, it’s awful because they consciously resist anyone

like myself or any innovator saying, ‘Let us have a go.’ But they persist in

doing the same old crap. Bring on the dry-ice machines. If I see another ice

machine and steam, I think I’m going to kill somebody.”

The last truly great Shakespeare he saw, he says, was

Olivier’s Othello . “I was very

excited, of course, seeing my idol. And he came on and the whole audience froze . I mean really frightened, frozen,

awestruck. Because he’s kind of like-this is an ­acting machine ; this is, you know, the Rocky of the classical theater. And

he came on with the robe and he had this white costume and his black makeup

that took three hours to put on, and he’d polished his face, even the eyelids

and under the eyelids and inside the eye, the white and everything, and pink

palms-everything worked , so it was

beautiful. And you have this voice, really deep, wonderful voice: ‘ Keep up your bright swords …’

“And I was thrilled, of course. We’re watching him like he’s

taking us to another world, the world of the super-actor. Something thrilling

about that, quite thrilling, like seeing Kean. As he got into it, as Iago put

the poison in and he starts getting into second gear, you know, he starts to do

things vocally and physically which are strange and bizarre. And with his hands

and fingers and teeth. And he gets excited and starts going into the furore , the fit: ‘ Be sure of it, give me the ocular proof …’ And he grabs himself and

suddenly he becomes-and his hips are moving and there’s excitement and he comes ! Fantastic!

“It’s the end of the first act, you know, and the curtain

comes down, the audience can’t clap because it seemed silly. You couldn’t clap;

clapping was not enough . It seemed

like you’ve seen a human sacrifice

and you could not clap that. You couldn’t even live anymore.”

He laughs. “That was a fantastic night. Everybody changed that night. Nobody remained ever

the same. And then gradually people shifted in their seats and got up. Nobody

spoke. People could barely speak to their partners. Their voices sounded thin,

empty. You couldn’t speak, you were like awestruck. You couldn’t say, you know,

‘What did you think?’ to your lady friend. It was fantastic. So that was

something I never ever witnessed. An audience that was stunned into fright.

Stunned. And then, that night, everybody changed. People who had never made

love to their wives in 30 years fucked like pokers.”

“Was it his charisma or was it, did he have some vision of

Othello that was different from-?”

“It was charisma, power, it was a daring movement, strange,

absurd mannerism, howls, screams, crying. I mean, heaving, you know, weeping.

And crazy gestures. Like when he had the fit: cross-eyed, smelling his hands

and all kind of things he’d worked out or had read about epilepsy when the

smell comes and the-you know, it was the beauty of the gesture ….”

The beauty of the gesture, yes. It’s this gestural power, I

believe, that makes Mr. Berkoff’s Shakespeare so distinctive, links it to the

era of Garrick and Kean. There’s one moment in his show that is a direct

throwback to Garrick. I might not have noticed it for what it was if I hadn’t

recently read about it-but there it was, when Mr. Berkoff was doing a bit from

the scene in the first act when Hamlet first sees the ghost of his father.

The ghost catches him by surprise. It’s midnight on the

battlements of Elsinore, where Hamlet’s come with Horatio to glimpse the

specter he’s heard about. As he waits, he delivers a long meditation on the

origin of evil-its source in the “vicious mole of nature” within man-when,

suddenly, Horatio interrupts:

“Look, my lord, it comes.”

It’s the moment when the supernatural abruptly breaks into

Hamlet’s previously naturalistic world (in which evil is merely psychological:

“the vicious mole of nature “).

It’s at this moment-at the first glimpsing of the ghost-that

Mr. Berkoff, as Hamlet, slowly turns and gives a sudden, exaggerated gesture:

One hand flies up to his face to forfend the dread sight, the other shoots out

and up as if to touch the specter. I’d just seen a drawing of that very

gesture, one of the most famous in theatrical history. The gesture made by the

legendary Shakespearean Garrick when he played Hamlet.

“Were you consciously replicating that gesture?” I asked Mr.


“Oh, yes,” he said. “One critic-I forget who it was-said

that when Garrick saw the ghost, he made the whole audience think there was a ghost there. The temperature of the theater went down . The critic actually felt

it getting cold . He did something. It started very, very

slow, and then he sees it, and then he goes-from the slowness and people

getting used to slowness…”

We were in the brightly lit dining room of the Gramercy Park

Hotel as Mr. Berkoff began to act out the Garrick-seeing-the-ghost gesture.

It’s late morning; the place is empty except for a waiter rattling a tray of

coffee cups. Nothing could be further from the chill, midnight parapets of

Elsinore. And yet …. Mr. Berkoff begins the gesture just as slowly as he says.

He turns in his seat toward me, glances up to his left-and suddenly, without

warning, like some swift Bruce Lee kata ,

one hand shoots up, fending off the Supernatural, the other shields his eyes

from the terror. I have to admit it snuck up and startled me, that gesture: a

representation of terror that was itself terrifying.

There was, however, one gesture (shall we say) from his

production of Hamlet that Mr. Berkoff

didn’t reproduce in his one-man show:

the gesture which led that Shakespeare scholar to recall that Mr. Berkoff’s

Hamlet “fucks Gertrude.” Of course, ever since Olivier it isn’t novel to play

up the Oedipal tension between Hamlet and his mother, particularly in the

so-called closet scene when Hamlet confronts her with her sexual guilt for

betraying his father. But fucking

Gertrude-was it an effort to top Olivier, so to speak?

“Did you ‘fuck Gertrude’?” I asked him.

“No, not at all,” he says.

“It looked as if I

was,” he continues, “because it’s a very dramatic scene and I do have Gertrude

on the floor. We had no bed in our production. And as I’m telling her, you

know, ‘Refrain,’ etc., etc.-refrain from having sex with Claudius, your

husband’s murderer and usurper-I’m on top of her by that time; not kind of

crotch-to-crotch, but just on my knees holding her down. And I say, ‘It shall

go hard / But I will delve one yard

below their mines / And blow them at the moon,’ and it was almost orgasmic when

I say this to her …. I tried to make the words fit and I pressed myself right

into her crotch. I didn’t fuck her, of course, but I pressed myself right into

her crotch and had an orgasm. It’s quite disgusting,” he laughs. “Because I got

up and loosened my trouser where [ I think he means “as if” ] the sperm flowed

down the leg.”

Well, I guess that explains the misunderstanding.

“Yes, well, a little frottage,” he says. “I was using her

body as a kind of metaphor, to point [illustrate] the lines.” It was violent,

he says: “It was sex and murder.”

Mr. Berkoff has an interesting theory that sex or talk of

sex in Shakespeare is almost inevitably followed by violence, even murder. He

believes that “in Shakespeare’s warped mind” there is some unhealthy connection

between the two.

“Shakespeare’s warped mind”: I think it’s valuable and

important that Mr. Berkoff is capable of an unsparing critique of Shakespeare,

a refreshing departure from the kind of Bardolatry which insists on seeing

Shakespeare as exempt from all mortal and moral flaw.

Which brings us to Mr. Berkoff’s Shylock.

It’s the most truthful and the most terrible moment in his Villains piece. It’s the most truthful

and the most terrible Shylock I’ve seen. Truthful, in part, because it’s a throwback,

a throwback to the deeply repellent character Shakespeare created. A throwback

that has no truck with contemporary cant of the sort that attempts to exculpate

Shakespeare and Shylock. The intellectual fallacy, the comforting but deluded

evasion that has pervaded many recent productions of The Merchant of Venice : the belief that if you make Shylock a nicer guy , play him with more dignity,

you can somehow transcend the ineradicable anti-Semitism of the character.

The problem with the warm and fuzzy Shylock-the feel-good

Shylock, you might say-is that it doesn’t diminish, it actually deepens and

exacerbates the ­anti-Semitism. The “nicer” you make the moneylender, the more

you end up making the play not about the villainy of one Jew, but the villainy

of all Jews-a deep-seated villainy that subsists beneath the surface in even

those who appear nice on the surface. The more warm and fuzzy you make Shylock,

the more you make The Merchant of Venice

a play about the fact that even such a Jew will not hesitate, when it comes

down to it, to take a knife and cut the heart out of a Christian.

Sorry, it’s just not a character you can make nice about or

rationalize, as some do, by emphasizing the play’s critique of the money-hungry

Christians as well. Christians weren’t slaughtered because of their religious

stereotypes in Europe; Jews were. None of the Christian characters played the

ugly and vicious role Shylock did in Nazi propaganda.

Steven Berkoff’s Shylock is courageous in being utterly

uncompromising on the stage. His Shylock is the Jew in the medieval woodcut.

His Shylock is a creature of  sinister

obsequiousness and spittle, a groveling incarnation of the Jew of Goebbels and

Streicher-and, alas, Shakespeare.

Again, Mr. Berkoff’s achievement as an actor is more

impressive than his intellectual rationale, which seems to me to let

Shakespeare off the hook by arguing that since Shakespeare didn’t really know

any Jews (most of them had been expelled from England in the 13th century), his

Shylock is just a matter of taking a stock-villain stereotype down from the

shelf. No special animus. Mr. Berkoff compares Shakespeare’s Jewish villain to

his use of Italian villains, the way they reflect their stereotype of the

scheming “machiavel.”

But Shakespeare’s Italian villains, however sinister, are

more Commedia dell’Arte types-they don’t partake of the deep theological hatred

that Christian anti-Semitism endowed Jews with, the sick Christ-killing imagery

that Shakespeare endows his Jew with.

But Mr. Berkoff’s embodiment of Shylock (as opposed to his

exculpatory intellectual rationale) is a powerful piece of truth-telling, and

an important reproof to the feel-good Shylocks of late.

Which made the applause even more puzzling. In the version

of the Villains piece I saw at Joe’s

Pub back in November (Mr. Berkoff’s in a larger venue at the Public this

month), Mr. Berkoff’s Shylock was the last bit before the intermission. And

after a slight pause to register that it was the first-act curtain, the crowd

burst into applause. Of course, it could be interpreted as applause for Mr.

Berkoff in general and not for Shylock. But it didn’t leave me feeling like

applauding, precisely because it was so truthful.

Perhaps the audience had bought into Mr. Berkoff’s

intellectual rationale-Shylock’s just another colorful Shakespearean

villain-but the flesh-and-blood embodiment was something more profound and

disturbing than that. It deserved praise, yes, but applause seemed all wrong.

As Mr. Berkoff said of Olivier’s Othello: “It seemed like you’ve seen a human sacrifice , and you could not clap that.” Berkoff, Shakespeare and the Sword of Kean