In the summer of 1944 the last Jews were deported from Venice to Auschwitz. About the same time Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and theatre and film director Veit Harlan discussed a project to film Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Harlan, the director of the anti-Semitic film Jud Süss, was still finalising his work on Kolberg, a historical drama due for release in the new year. With the Soviets advancing towards Germany he had been loaned 187,000 soldiers and sailors and 6000 horses for the battle scenes. The two men had a major disagreement about The Merchant of Venice. Goebbels wanted a serious treatment, Harlan saw a sparkling comedy—probably a bubbly Jew-baiting farce—with Shylock played as a “bad clown”.
The minister suggested sentencing Shylock to death by horse. Borrowing the end of Christopher Marlowe’s play The Jew of Malta, which both men misremembered as having the villainous Jew torn apart by four horses, he suggested the film should state that this was also what happened to Shylock. In Marlowe’s play the evil Jew Barabas dies when he tumbles through a trapdoor into a heated cauldron he had prepared for his Christian enemies.
Goebbels was not just being cruel and vindictive. He was being cruel, vindictive and logical. Shakespeare’s happy ending has Shylock forced to convert to Christianity. Prayers and holy water would not have saved him from Nazi race laws. For Shakespeare Jewishness was a matter of religion, for Goebbels Jewishness was a racial offence.
The same problem of “racial shame” existed in dealing with Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, who converted and married a Christian. Harlan suggested that the film Antonio, the merchant, should reveal himself to be Shakespeare, the author, and claim Jessica as his natural daughter. Goebbels asked if Harlan was mocking him, for the audience would surely laugh. Harlan didn’t see a problem. “When a Jew,” Goebbels said, “wishes to tear the heart out from one of his debtors, it isn’t the subject for a comedy.” “He only wished to, but he didn’t do it,” replied Harlan.
Goebbels wanted the play translated into simpler cinema-friendly language. To demonstrate the obscurity of Shakespeare’s words he read aloud Portia’s mercy speech. “Mr Minister,” said Harlan, “I wouldn’t ever hire you as an actor.” Goebbels, noticeably tense, had lost the sense of humour of his earlier days and was not amused. The subject was not brought up again. Goebbels had other preoccupations and other appointments in 1945.
The most notable production of the Merchant during the Nazi dictatorship had taken place the year before in Judenfrei Vienna. Shylock was played by Werner Krauss. During the Weimar period he had performed the role for Jewish director Max Reinhardt. Krauss, who played Dr Caligari in the 1920 German Expressionist film, had also performed all the Jewish roles, except Süss, in Jud Süss. If a film of the Merchant had gone ahead he would probably have again taken the role of Shylock. An account of his Vienna performance suggests what audiences might have seen:
The pale pink face, surrounded by bright red hair and beard, with its unsteady, cunning little eyes; the greasy caftan with the yellow prayer-shawl slung around; the splay footed, shuffling walk; the foot stamping with rage; the claw-like gestures with the hands; the voice, now bawling, now muttering—all add up to a pathological image of the East European Jewish type, expressing all its inner and outer uncleanliness, emphasising danger through humour.
On Shakespeare’s own stage the Merchant was a comedy. For over a century, and in different versions, the part of Shylock was associated with comic actors. In the eighteenth century, the role changed direction as actors reading the published script discovered a far darker figure. Then, their villain Shylock gave way to a nobler individual whose character had been warped by Christian intolerance. Along the way the other characters clinging to his gabardine were also re-sculpted to suit contemporary prejudices. Now, in the shadow of Shylock, a pioneer Social Justice Warrior with a blunted knife, Antonio has become lowercase christian, uppercase LGBTI and Portia, a Twitter princess, does legal contract work in the anti-discrimination industry.
Historical studies of the Merchant jump from the play’s light-hearted infancy into its more serious adolescence and adulthood. Disappointingly, and despite enthusiastic academic quarrels over the players and the stagings, there are no first-hand accounts of its early performances as a comedy. Notable amongst the many studies of the play is Shylock by John Gross, an entertaining and opinionated biography of the play’s most memorable character.
Seeking to restore appreciation of the play as a comedy, the American critic Walter Kerr suggested that Shakespeare’s source for Shylock was the non-Jewish Pantalone, a stock character in commedia dell’arte—a bearded, ungainly figure with a large nose. Shakespeare built on him to produce a comic villain.
Seemingly squashing an idea that the play could be seen as a comedy is Shylock’s memorable and heavily serious “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech. The monologue, a highly charged actor’s bonbon, raises Shylock above the villainy which has been attached to his name and saves Shakespeare from a charge of anti-Semitism. It is a defining speech in powerful or pretentious portrayals of Shylock by actors like Laurence Olivier, Orson Welles, Al Pacino, John Gielgud, Peter O’Toole, and thousands of acting school students. All this noble sweat contributed to very un-comical performances.
In 1592 Marlowe’s dastardly, devilish Jew of Malta was first performed. In 1594, Queen Elizabeth’s physician, Roderigo Lopez, a converted Portuguese Jew, was executed for his supposed involvement in a plot to poison her. On the scaffold, about to be hung, drawn and quartered, he professed his love for the Queen and Jesus Christ. The audience waiting for his torture to begin laughed. Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice was probably written in 1596-97.
Restoring the comedy to the play, casting a comic actor or clown as Shylock and performing the piece with a glance towards commedia dell’arte and the playing conventions of Shakespeare’s time may offer a far different Merchant from the one we are used to. Restoring the comedy recharges the play’s anti-Semitism. On one side an anti-Semitic play, on the other an anti-Semitic audience. In our theatres, in modern productions, we approve Shylock’s words with silent reverence; we ignore Shakespeare’s appealing invitation to indulge in Jew baiting.
At the beginning of Act III, Scene i, Antonio’s friends Salerio and Solanio are talking. When Shylock comes onto the stage Solanio invites us to laugh and jeer at him:
Let me say “amen” betimes, less the devil cross my prayer, for here he comes in the likeness of a Jew.
At the end of the conversation that follows, Salerio cues the famous monologue. He asks Shylock if he really intends taking Antonio’s flesh: “What’s that good for?”
Shylock’s reply is blackly comic and threatening: “To bait fish withal. If it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge.” Though revenge is both the beginning and the end of the text, actors tend to speed over these words as they head towards the quotable quotes in the middle section of the speech.
Shylock speaks of Antonio, who has brought retaliation upon himself, he says, by the bad treatment he has dealt out. Here, Elizabethan audiences would not have been on Shylock’s side. The clown cries and the audience cheers his oppressor for he is sobbing over attacks made on him because of his usury:
He [Antonio] hath disgraced me and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies—and what’s his reason?
Later, in the trial scene, Antonio states his reason, and productions need to balance Shylock’s complaints with the play’s arguments against usury:
I oft delivered from his forfeitures
Many that have at times made moan to me.
Therefore he hates me.
Shakespeare’s texts were published with very few stage directions. At this point, I suggest, Shylock turns away from Solanio and Salerio and talks to the audience. He answers his own question—“What’s his reason?” If he said “Because I am a Jew” we could imagine that he was continuing to talk to the men on stage. Instead his response is the strong, declamatory, “I am a Jew.” The actor has turned aside to address the audience directly. For post-Holocaust theatre-goers that statement can be electrifying. Shakespeare’s mob may have booed.
In our theatres we become tense (or not) waiting for what we know is coming: “Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?”
This is one of the series of rhetorical questions which are now heard in supportive audience silence. Actors and directors imagine we are all silently saying Yes. In the boisterous traditions of Elizabethan theatre Shakespeare and his actors expected the audience to loudly answer No. It is here where we and the sixteenth century very definitely move apart.
In 1939 the American critic Mark Van Doren wrote that Shakespeare “would seem in fact to have attempted a monster, one whose question whether a Jew had eyes, hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections and passions would reveal its rhetorical form, the answer being no”. Each time we think Yes, our forebears may have indulged in joyful Jew baiting and yelled No.
This first question, “Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?” may not be quite what we think it is. From a slightly different direction from what we expect the words are laid out for the actor to perform a bawdy balletic movement. In clownish and obscene Jew mockery Shylock takes us in a flowing movement from his hands which travel down to indicate his organ (penis) and flutter outwards to describe its impressive dimensions (size) then wave through senses and affections to finish at the heart for passions (or either back to his organ or to point to a comely face in the audience). All his actions which play on his words invite mockery and derision from a noisy and lively Elizabethan audience. The humanistic-seeming question we warm to is not a sensitive plea for tolerance but a boisterous racist satire of Jewish sexual boasting.
Gordon Williams in his Glossary of Shakespeare’s Sexual Language indicates another Shakespearean linking of the word dimensions applied to penis size in a remark by Falstaff in Henry IV, Part 2. The laughter is followed by exaggerated clown pathos, “fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is?”
The audience is being set up. Shylock is about to puncture his bubble of sentimentality with a two-part joke. First comes a bawdy word which no comic actor would allow to escape the audience’s notice. The second part is an anti-climax which allows the comic to mock the audience who laughed in expectation of something racy: “If you prick us [pause for a snicker], do we not bleed?” A clown or a comic like Roy Rene would have gained a laugh from prick and then shaken his head over his audience’s dirty-mindedness when he completed the line. The whole sentence is a reference to witchcraft. Pricking suspects to find patches of skin that did not bleed was a test for uncovering witches. The audience who laughed at Lopez’s execution would have answered Shylock’s question with an enthusiastic No. Shakespeare, standing behind his creation, is not protecting Jews from accusations of witchcraft, he is associating them with the occult to make a joke.
The next question appears to lack gravitas: “If you tickle us do we not laugh?” Tickle can refer to sexual intercourse in Shakespeare’s writing. There may be a dated joke here, with some suggestive clowning, which would have amused his audience.
Now the bad clown re-emerges, the words become serious and return to revenge. “If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.” One of the medieval crimes assigned to Jews was poisoning, and the word may have stirred memories of the recent accusations and execution of Lopez. The you Shylock rails against is no longer Antonio or the actors on stage but the entire audience, who have been laughing at him. “If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why revenge!” Three times Shylock punches out the word revenge, threatening the whole audience. “The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.” The monologue closes on a dangerous climax worthy of Mr Punch.
For a true performance of the play this may be much closer than our abbreviated and tiresomely contemporary, cut and self-admiring productions. Yet, it is impossible to perform. Post-Holocaust audiences cannot possibly laugh at Shylock—Shakespeare’s Jewish devil—and answer No to his questions.
And yet, if we followed Goebbels it only needs several very small changes to bring the anti-Semitism up to date to play before an upright, uptight BDS audience. First, sew a star to Shylock’s chest—no, not the familiar yellow one, but a blue Star of David ripped from one of the flags the thugs haven’t burnt yet. Then slightly change the text, replacing Jew with Israeli. They would love it.