Boyd Tonkin: Shunning this play is a pitiable act of prejudice understanding

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The Independent Online

Any student or theatre-goer who chooses to reject "The Merchant of Venice", just as the city's smug Christians spurn Shylock will cut themselves off from one of the liveliest, toughest and most necessary conversations about art, prejudice and performance in Western culture.

From the play's text, it seems likely that the quarrel over anti-Semitism began in Shakespeare's imagination in the mid-1590s. Traits of the stereotypical Jewish villain found (but also subverted) in Christopher Marlowe's play " The Jew of Malta"fused with events such as the execution in 1594 of Elizabeth I's Jewish physician, Dr Rodrigo Lopez, on a trumped-up spying charge.

Ogre and hero, monster of implacable revenge and noble accuser of Christian hypocrisy and injustice, Shakespeare's Shylock allows for a rainbow of different – and clashing – interpretations. In print, on stage and on screen, from the age of Edmund Kean to that of Al Pacino, he has never stopped attracting them.

Crucially, the arguments about both Shylock and the play have, over the past century, been pushed forward by Jewish actors, writers, directors and critics. In the early 1900s, the celebrated Yiddish actor Jacob Adler broke with Henry Irving's late-Victorian "sympathetic Shylock" to emphasise the character's pride. Adler's Shylock did not plea for indulgence, but demanded rights.

More recent Jewish responses – from the critic Harold Bloom, for example, or the playwright Arnold Wesker – have refused to sidestep or mitigate the anti-Semitism charge. Yet the most compelling Shylock of recent times came from another great Jewish actor: Henry Goodman. And so on ...

This is a wrangle that has exercised many of the finest creative minds of the past 200 years. What could be more pitiably prejudiced than to refuse to engage with it?