BOOK REVIEW / Like a villain with a smiling cheek: Shylock: Four Hundred Years in the Life of a Legend by John Gross, Chatto pounds 18

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NOTING that some stage characters are too big for their own plots, the American critic Lionel Abel credited them with the additional role of rival playwrights. Abel's prime example was Hamlet, in which he saw Claudius, Polonius and the Prince all trying to tug the play into their own favourite genre. But the supreme instance of a single character dethroning the writer must be Shylock: a hungry outsider who gatecrashes the comedy, makes mincemeat of its conventions, and then strides off into a legendary after-life, a name well known to people who have never heard of The Merchant of Venice. He merits a biography.

Shylock is what he is: villain, patriarch, money-lender, loving father, avenger, tribal victim. He is the same man all the way through, which has not stopped scholars, actors and other more factionally interested parties from trying to appropriate him. In this widely researched chronicle of his life on and off stage, John Gross examines his origins and subsequent fortunes at the hands of the principal claimants. Beyond a mistrust of stage directors, and a belief that although Shylock belongs to the history of anti-Semitism his story has taken a radically new course since the Holocaust, Mr Gross has no case of his own to argue. Instead he plays the umpire, stepping in to part Shylock from every clinch which he considers wrong- headed, unhelpful, or liable to plunge the subject into inadvisedly deep water.

The value of the book is that it gives all the contestants their say, gathering a mass of scattered evidence into a coherent narrative showing from what materials the character was shaped and into what forms it was later pressed. Shakespeare, James Joyce said, 'drew Shylock out of his own long pocket': an assertion supported by the sharp reminder that both the poet and his father were money-lenders, the Globe built on credit, and that, at the time of writing the play, Shakespeare had forfeited his inheritance in a property dispute. As for cultural and religious tradition, Gross gives us the medieval blood-libel, the Belial legend (of the Devil's appearance in the court of Heaven armed with a pair of scales to claim his portion of mankind), and, conversely, quotes the rabbinical midrash exhorting Jews to mercy (a word, he points out, deriving from the same root as 'mercenary' and 'merchant'). The literary sources are duly scanned, with the discovery that the forced conversion to Christianity was a Shakespearean invention.

Gross is good on Shylock's speech habits - his conciseness, his use of repetition and parallelism - which raise the world of double-entry book-keeping to an emotional white heat. But there is no answer to the riddle of Shylock's name. Gross offers 'shallach' (Hebrew for cormorant), but does not push it. The name, like the character, arrives out of nowhere into an England where, officially, there had been no Jews since the 13th century. There had been stage Jews before, but this palpably human creature, with his stoic dignity and paternal love, did more to crystallise anti-Semitic feeling than Marlowe's Barabas or any other well-

poisoning stereotype.

From Gross's collection of subsequent racial insults, through to Harley Granville-Barker's description of him (in 1938) as 'a sordid little outsider', and Muriel Bradbrook's assertion that 'the concentration camps of Nazi Germany bred . . . a few Shylocks', the scholars and theorists come out worst. In 19th-century Germany he was reviled by academic commentators but humanised in performance. The worst sin of the English stage tradition was (as usual) its blithe indifference to life outside the theatre. By all accounts, Charles Macklin and Henry Irving - the ground-breaking Shylocks of the past two centuries - began with research and observation, but wound up with show business. 'If you tickle us, do we not bleed?', Malcolm Keen inquired in 1932. Then, following Granville-Barker's instructions, there was Gielgud's sordid outsider, neatly coinciding with the Kristallnacht.

There are few certainties in performance history, but from Gross's trawl through the European and American records (not excluding Yiddish versions on Whitechapel Road), there appears to be no development in the character until after the last war. Rather it goes round in circles - villain, clown, victim, tragic hero - with each generation rediscovering what the last has discarded. In 1915, Israel Zangwill pops into Matheson Lang's dressing room and urges him to play the Jew with more intellectual strength. Lang obliges, but the critic Max Beerbohm is unimpressed, and describes Zangwill's face 'shining like Moses, his teeth like the Ten Commandments, all broken'. And it is back to the merry-go-round with Richard Mansfield (Shylock the victim) and James Owen O'Connor (Shylock commits suicide). Until some director finds a means of matching up the two parts of the play (as the Israeli director, Yossi Alfi, may have done by casting Israeli Christians against a Palestinian Shylock), this impasse is likely to continue for ever.

Gross's hero escapes only when he achieves an after-life - as in Irving's idea of him visiting Belmont as a pedlar with a sack of lemons; or in the plays of St John Ervine, Louis Untermeyer and others, where he figures as Antonio's business partner, or successfully lays charges against Lorenzo and Gratiano - thus breaking out of his Shakespearean prison and going on to make his own way in the world.