In the language of the dramatist's time, the word meant 'wary', 'elusive', 'private', even 'wild' as an animal is wild. Both the Duke and Angelo are called 'shy' in Measure for Measure. And their situation has certain affinities with Shylock's, in that two men of intense reclusiveness are called on to enforce a fully public law and order. Shakespeare's Venice has the same quality of publicity, its rich young people given to a glitteringly shallow rectitude. John Gross's absorbing study confronts an enigma, the fact of a villain's peculiar authority in a play in which he appears in only five scenes. This enigma may in part be resolved in terms of a tension that gives the play disturbing life: Shylock's authority derives from his depth of shuttered isolation, and he is an individual because he is locked into and yet out of the moneyed city he inhabits.
A comparable, energising tension can be found throughout Shylock: Four Hundred Years in the Life of a Legend. It strikes a reader at first as enjoyably easy and relaxed, a professional wealth - from a practising drama critic - of theatrical anecdotes. The book is structured in three sections, and the second, called 'Interpretations (1600-1939)' is basically a stage history of The Merchant of Venice and Shylock's role in particular. Other books have been written on these subjects. None has Gross's breadth and range. His information is unassuming, conversational, yet encyclopaedic and scholarly. There is a profusion of knowledge and insight here that floods over from the text into some unusually interesting footnotes. The narrative itself is crammed with vivid instances, from the still undiscovered young Edmund Kean, trudging out bitterly one January night in 1814 through snow and slush to present his Shylock for the first time, and saying, as he went, 'I wish I was going to be shot', to the superb French Shylock, Harry Baur, a Jewish film actor whose career (Gross tells us) 'was cut short in 1943, when he died as a result of being tortured by the Gestapo'.
John Gross's achievement is to have written on a large and important subject, one on which he feels deeply, in a manner that is humane yet temperate and detached; and to have handled complex materials so untendentiously that they seem to grow towards the sombre conclusion his Shylock reaches. The book uses as part of its argument the stage history it contains. In this second section, it traces the shift from a meanly comic reading of the play, when it came back on to English stages in the early 18th century in such specimens as Macklin's 'unyieldingly malignant' villain, to an image nearly opposite - the late 19th- century Shylock acted by Irving as nearly heroic, nearly tragic, and found by him 'almost the only gentleman in the play, and the most ill-used'.
The purpose of the book's first and third sections is to explain this shift. Shylock's Jewishness is the centre of this variously proliferating study. John Gross has a thesis: that 'Shylock did not 'just happen' to be a Jew; nor, indeed, was he just a character in Shakespeare. In the course of 350 years he has also acquired a permanent place in world mythology'. There are times, he adds, 'when single- mindedness in a critic becomes indistinguishable from failure of imagination'.
Thus his first section, 'Shakespeare's Shylock', gives attention to the play's literary source, to the character's family and his idiosyncratic use of language. But Gross is more concerned with a larger cultural and social background which he sees the character as rooted in: in the social practice of usury, condemned by the Church but not always specifically Jewish, in the legalism that figures in trial scene, and in the continually 'expelled' but pre-Ghetto world of European Jewry in Shakespeare's time, possessed of a spiritual strength and emphasis which the poet (in John Gross's view) hardly allows his character.
In the second section, stage history is used to show how production and performance embody social attitudes. The third, 'Citizen of the World', brings that history up to the present day, and widens the field to record what has happened in German, French, Russian, Yiddish, even Japanese theatre ('Correctly holding her fan, Kiyoka then spoke convincingly of the quality of mercy'). This world- wide dissemination of The Merchant of Venice, translation in its fullest sense, supports the book's theme. We meet translations of Shylock too into economic and psychological discourses - Marxist and Freudian readings.
But Gross's subject is the human meaning of Shylock - as a myth, dense with social stance and political pressure- grouping. From this meaning, he argues, centuries of savage anti-Semitism cannot and should not be abstracted. A play that - he would say - originates from medieval prejudice may even itself have helped that prejudice to survive. From 1930 onwards in particular, many directors, critics, actors and academics have knowingly or unknowingly conspired in the terrible human 'failure of imagination'.
This is a quietly powerful book, which takes its strength from a serious belief in literature: a belief that great writing is in some sense true, and that it matters. It tackles a subject always peculiarly difficult, the definition of this truth. Shakespeare is perhaps a great writer just because he possessed different gifts in perfect balance: his creative intelligence worked at once on the inside of human beings and on the outside of societies. His Shylock commands assent because known on the inside. But the 'shy' man is locked into the only society of Shakespeare's time where he could become socially important, and then as a Jew and a usurer - a lonely man, but a lender. Shakespeare made of Venice, the chief trading-centre of his world, a symbol of the market-place all human beings live in, getting and spending; and an emblem of the terms on which ordinary love must be lived out. Shylock, the villain of this world, is at once dangerous and endowed with a fierce gravitas, an authority to which attention must be paid.
John Gross argues that the Holocaust has absolutely changed our sense of Shakespeare's play: 'It is still a masterpiece, but there is a permanent chill in the air, even in the gardens of Belmont.' This is true, but not the whole truth: it works by its own 'single-minded' presuppositions about what our original sense of the play was or might have been. But the fact is that Gross is never quite as interested in the shy side of Shylock as in the social world that locks him in.
He finally concedes, with the fairness that marks all his procedures, that 'the lovers are true lovers'. Yet even this falsifies by making wrong distinctions of 'lovers' versus 'villain', of Christians against Jews, of Portia against Shylock. Gross has nothing to say of the play's last scene at Belmont. The power of the play and its unpalatable plot is to link together, in a chain, villain and lovers, Jews and Christians. Portia needs Bassanio who needs Antonio who needs Shylock. The terms they all share are those of love and money, realities more serious to them than any religious faith.
Belmont in the end says about 'true lovers' roughly what Cosi fan tutte would say: the truth is in the life, not in the love. The loss of the lovers' rings make the moneyed or money-seeking young people outsiders to their own ideas of love and fidelity, just as they themselves have made an outsider of Shylock: in penance, perhaps, for the kind of insider they finally force him to be. Shylock is is admitted into the full society of Venice broken, dispossessed and denatured. But the lovers have lost a lot too. John Gross's sentence might read instead: 'It is still a masterpiece, and there was always permanent chill in its air . . . 'Reuse content