Merchant vs. Malta— No Contest: Shylock Wins!

F. Murray Abraham’s performance as Shylock for Theatre for a New Audience touches greatness in every aspect of an immensely challenging role. The magnificent veteran actor inhabits Shylock’s soul in ways that had me riveted.

The key that Mr. Abraham has unlocked is Shylock’s humanity. Yet he does so without a trace of the sentimental. The new production of The Merchant of Venice is paired in ambitious repertory at the intimate Duke Theater on 42nd Street with Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, a lesser play. Mr. Abraham plays that cartoon ogre, Barabas. Small wonder the anti-Semitic T.S. Eliot greatly admired Marlowe’s savage caricature of the Jew. There are echoes of The Jew of Malta in Shakespeare’s later Merchant. But the lunatic Barabas is a fairytale devil and bogeyman of the medieval Miracle Plays who literally ends up in a boiling cauldron, whereas the tortured Shylock is a modern, mortal man whose life ends in humiliation and tragedy.

Shakespeare would have seen The Jew of Malta—the smash hit play of the day. I’ve always imagined him—Marlowe’s great rival, after all—thinking to himself a bit enviously as he watched the crowd-pleasing grotesqueries of The Jew of Malta’s laborious plot unfold: “I can top that!” He did. W.H. Auden pointed out that Shakespeare could have made his Shylock as absurdly wicked as Barabas, who poisons nuns for sport. As Auden shrewdly argued, “The star actors who from the eighteenth century onwards have chosen to play the role have not done so out of a sense of moral duty in order to combat anti-Semitism, but because their theatrical instinct told them that the part … offered them great possibilities.”

Not a narrowly stereotypical Shylock, then, nor a cravenly sympathetic one. Mr. Abraham’s sure theatrical instincts have created the most authentic Shylock I’ve seen. Quite simply, you believe he exists in all his complexity. This is a Shylock who’s no longer a dramatic myth, but flesh and blood. So complete is Mr. Abraham’s rigorously intelligent, passionate performance—and Shylock is nothing if not a man governed by unruly passion—that even the hackneyed “Hath not a Jew eyes?” is delivered freshly in burning, despairing indignation, as if for the first time.

It troubled me initially that the admirable director, Darko Tresnjak, had set his minimalist production in modern dress, as though we were on Wall Street. (Shakespeare’s Venice is at best token, and the word ghetto is mentioned only once.) In any case, Mr. Abraham, dressed in a business suit and yarmulke, brings an entire world onstage with him—the world history of the persecution of the Jews.

Shylock is many things, but not a hypocrite. The hypocrites are the double-dealing, “virtuous” Christian elites, with “fair” Portia, the idealized symbol of Christian virtue, the racist. (“The villainy you teach me I will execute,” goes Shylock’s infamous self-justification, not without cause). Mr. Abraham conveys a Jew who’s cultivated, pious, pedantic, loving, contemptuous, convulsive and merciless. Shylock, the usurer, is no sweetheart. But among the good things about this conflicted man are his religious faith, learning, sobriety, respect for the law, love of his daughter, reverence for his adored late wife, and blind belief in the very thing he can never have: justice.

“I crave the law!” is the desperate demand of someone the law will always betray. The line between justice and vengeance in A Merchant of Venice is almost invisible from any angle. The defection of Shylock’s beloved, feckless daughter, Jessica, into a Christian marriage marks his descent into near-madness. His insistence on the letter of the law and his pound of flesh amounts to a license to murder. And yet we feel sympathy for the righteous, perverse Shylock. He’s practically the only character in the play to keep his word, though his word is his pitiful destruction.

The trial scenes—usually a forgone conclusion, a ritual to be got through, like the often wearisome casket scenes—contain a real sense of tension for a change. The outcome seems to hang in the balance, as all good trial scenes must, until “fair” Portia moves the goalposts and condemns Shylock to the ultimate humiliation of Christian conversion. To witness Mr. Abraham’s cowering, broken Shylock then is too terrible.

How we miss Shylock when he’s dispatched into history! He appears in only five of the 20 scenes—and he takes the play. But Mr. Tresnjak’s cool, modernist production, with its Mac PowerBooks and witty photo ops, makes the dread casket scenes genuine fun, and if one or two of the jokes misfire, it’s forgivable. Among the fine, well-spoken ensemble, Kate Forbes—whose Helena in Mr. Tresnjak’s All’s Well That Ends Well was a supreme achievement—confirms with her compelling Portia that she’s among America’s leading classical actors. This production is a model for all those who insist that only the British know how to act Shakespeare.

I wish I could say the Marlowe was just as successful. The Merchant of Venice is the future, and this Jew of Malta is a serious misstep backward. I’m afraid that David Herskovits’ interpretation is only in tune with the campy, anything-goes productions of the classics in the park. It treats the costume drama as a mere romp, and as the night wears on threatens to turn into Spamalot, though without the laughs. You cannot caricature a caricature. The production lacks the wit and moral seriousness of The Merchant, while reducing to a farce Marlowe’s scathing view of the Christian world.

Under the circumstances, Mr. Abraham’s Barabas seems almost genial. “Asleep!” the actor gently chastised a lady in the audience without breaking stride. She’d nodded off in the second half. “Caught you asleep there!” There was good-natured laughter both onstage and off.

Nobody nods off when Mr. Abraham is Shylock. To the contrary, we’re awakened to his unforgettable, brave new interpretation.

Merchant vs. Malta— No Contest: Shylock Wins!