Home > Multimedia Essays > Shakespeare’s Shylock: An overview and some famous portrayals

Shakespeare’s Shylock: An overview and some famous portrayals

Note: I do not own any of the pictures here. 🙂


I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands,
organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same
food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases,
heal’d by the same means, warm’d and cool’d by the same winter
and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If
you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?
And if you wrong us, do we not revenge? If we are like you in the
rest, we will resemble you in that.

The Merchant Of Venice Act 3, scene 1, 58–68

Shylock, the Jewish moneylender of Venice, is considered to be one of the most complex characters Shakespeare had ever written. Historically, the Jews during the Elizabethan era were often portrayed as the over the top caricatures of a villain who is an embodiment of deception and evil. They were required by law to wear red hats and live only in a specific area. On a side note, this reminds me of the Chinese merchants living in old Spanish colonial Philippines who were heavily taxed and were required to live in the Parian. Going back, what is different in Shakespeare’s portrayal was that even though the elements of the Jewish stereotype are present in The Merchan of Venice (though no murder was committed by Shylock and he also did not die in a gruesome way), he showed that the other characters were not saints themselves. This whole complexity of Shakespeare’s Shylock inspired numerous arguments, readings, and criticisms. Numerous articles, essays, and even books have been written tackling whether the character was truly an evil and greedy Jew (the stereotype during those times) or a sympathetic one who was “flawed, human, and oppressed[1].”

A book written by Kenneth Gross entitled Shylock is Shakespeare posits that the reason why Shylock is such an intriguing character is perhaps because he is the voice of the Bard himself! He speculates that Shylock is “a mask for Shakespeare’s own need, rage, vulnerability, and generosity, giving form to Shakespeare’s ambition as an author and his uncertain bond with the audience[2].” This along with the other numerous readings and criticisms are all speculative for no one truly knows what Shakespeare’s intentions were with the character. Shylock, along with numerous other Shakespeare characters, was perhaps “meant” to be read in a variety of ways. This is interesting for actors then can add their own interpretations in their portrayals of the characters. The characterization of Shylock as a sympathetic character was said to have begun with Edmund Kean’s portrayal in 1814. Before this, Shylock was most often portrayed as a comedic character of a “repulsive clown or a monstrous villain.” Since then, numerous actors have given life to the character. Below are just three of the more famous portrayals of the Jew:

1. Laurence Olivier as Shylock in a 1973 TV adaptation.

Laurence Olivier as Shylock

This adaptation is considered to be the most convincing screen adaptation of the play even though the action was updated to the nineteenth century. Olivier’s portrayal of Shylock had the audience and the critics divided. Reviews such as that of John Murphy in bardolatry.com did not like his portrayal as he states in his article that:

“…Olivier, who is little more than memorably awful as Shylock. My sister, Rachel (who has an elephantine memory), hadn’t seen the movie in many years, but could still do a spot-on imitation of Olivier’s buck-toothed, eye-rolling, and wildly over-the-top portrayal of the money-lender that had me convulsing with laughter and quite nearly requiring medical attention. So Olivier does manage to make an impression, but it’s the kind of impression that can color a person’s appreciation for Shakespeare for life. If any teachers are reading this and have Merchant on their curriculum, I’m begging you not to show your students this movie! Like Olivier’s offensively awful performance as the Moorish general in Othello, his performance as Shylock would probably have turned me off to Shakespeare had I seen it at a more impressionable age…[3]

While Time magazine had this to say of Olivier’s portrayal:

“And as Shylock, Miller has Laurence Olivier—at 62, performing the role for the first time in his career. In keeping with the period setting, Olivier does away with the hooked nose, greasy locks and biblical rantings that have served stage Shylocks down through the centuries. His is a Jew who has come out of the ghetto and into his own, proving that you can teach an old dog nouveau tricks.

Yet if this Shylock is more or less domesticated, he is not quite tamed. His fashionable top hat comes off to reveal a yarmulke on his head. His upper-class speech breaks down into a breathy canine laugh or into red-faced rages of snarling and spitting. Once, after his humiliation in court, his dignity falls away completely and he lapses offstage into a piercing primeval wail of lamentation. Disappointingly to some, this is as near as Olivier comes in this characterization to performing at full classical pitch. Nor does he modulate to softer emotions. He tears angrily through the “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech, from which most Shylocks wring the last drop of pathos.

Like the production as a whole, Olivier makes no easy appeal to the audience’s sympathies, but holds to an avid, harshly funny portrayal of the cruelty of human justice and the bitter ironies of human mercy. At the end of Shakespeare’s text, Jessica and the merchant, the two characters whose triumphs have been bought at the cost of Shylock’s downfall, pause alone and silently onstage before the final curtain. The moment apparently is intended by Director Miller to evoke Shylock, and it works. Such is the flinty power of Olivier’s unorthodox performance that his unseen presence dominates the stage at that moment as few actors ever do when they are actually on it.[4]

A link to the actual movie: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0EGBKuapkX4

2. Patrick Stewart’s 2001 one man show Shylock: Shakespeare’s alien where the whole show is about Shylock.

Patrick Stewart as Shylock

In this show, his aim was because “Shylock is one of the most commonly reviled characters in Shakespeare. Through performance and analysis I try to reveal him as a more understandable and even sympathetic character than he is normally thought to be[5].”

A review by Catherine Ellis described Stewart’s performance and how “he illustrated how you could dissect Shylock’s lines and put them together as a believable whole. There’s more than one way of playing the part and, as Patrick pointed out, the particular interpretation he illustrated was the one he felt comfortable acting. It could be summarized as presenting Shylock as a proud, witty and urbane man driven to violence by despair over the desertion of his daughter to a Christian lover and by the mocking intolerance of others. Not every actor can talk intelligently about plays and acting, Patrick can. It’s a pity so few interviewers know how to ask him sensible questions on the subject.[6]




3. Al Pacino as Shylock in the 2004 movie adaptation.

Al Pacino as Shylock

Critics have mentioned that his portrayal of the character as one of the highlights of the film. Below is an excerpt of an interview regarding the character and Shakespeare[7]:

Q: How do you view Shylock?

Al Pacino: I see him as more sinned against than sinning. When I chart the history of this character, when I go into his life and his conditions, that’s what I come away with.

Q: Because of the history of this play and the rise of anti-Semitism around the world today, can ‘Merchant’ not be seen as some kind of a provocation?

AP: I never had a desire to do ‘Merchant of Venice’ for a lot of reasons, but certainly I just couldn’t quite see the character. I saw some great performances done, but I myself had no relationship to it. But then I read Michael Radford’s text and I thought I understood somehow where Shylock was coming from. I thought that he made a case for Shylock and in doing that I was able to see the other elements of the character, those human elements. I started to understand his motivation and that was the point for me. I thought, ‘I can play this.’ Before that I didn’t know how I would approach it, but I saw a character that I could understand and identify with.

Q: Is his tragedy that he lived during his time?

AP: I would say that, and his tragedy is also how he dealt with these conditions. As Michael Radford says, it’s a kind of road rage really because of what he’s come to in his life. It’s sort of being violated by the conditions of his life. I remember going into it very much with Michael and Jeremy Irons and talking about that scene with the pound of flesh … and knowing that what Shylock is really doing there is taking a risk. He doesn’t know Antonio’s ships are going to sink. It’s a way of standing up to the oppressors, his way of posturing to them.

Q: Talk about approaching the ‘hath not a Jew eyes’ monologue. Is it about racism and is it indicating that Shakespeare wasn’t anti-Semitic?

AP: This is a real case against prejudice. It’s one of the great speeches against it. What I liked about it, what I felt about the way Michael set it up, and what I finally related to, was the fact that it was something that was happening on the street. It wasn’t a speech anymore. It was an incident that was taking place. Of course it’s wonderful. You get a speech like that and you really want to give it the old gun.

Q: Yet it seemed you low-keyed it if anything.

AP: You know, you want to be Mr. Righteous, Mr. Right, and Michael kept moving me away from that and saying, ‘This is something that’s got to do with something that’s happening inside of him.’ It’s an episode that happens on a street. You’ve got the whores looking at him and you’ve got those two guys that he’s talking to and it just happened. It might not have happened. He might’ve just kept walking, but he turned around and just said it. You know, I’m sure that it’s happened to everyone: where we’ve had an opportunity sometimes that we just want to say, ‘You know, f— off.’ He’s earned the right in a way to speak out like that and he does it in that instant and it’s over. I only wish that I could talk about things that bother me like that.

Q: What keeps Shakespeare so fresh in our minds?

AP: Lots of things. First of all though, let’s start with this: one has to have an appetite for it. I mean, it’s not a criteria for, ‘Oh, you’re going to be a big-time actor if you do Shakespeare.’ No. I mean, Charles Laughton, one of the greatest movie actors of all time, stage actors, too, never did Shakespeare. He couldn’t get around it. Paul Muni never did Shakespeare. It’s just something that either appeals to you or it doesn’t. There are a lot of great actors out there who aren’t doing Shakespeare. They have no desire to. It’s whatever rings your bell.

In order to end this essay, here is a link to a video clip that sets the context for Shylock’s famous speech I quoted in the beginning: http://www.uoguelph.ca/shakespeare/multimedia/video/shylock_speech.asx


[1] Jami Rogers, “Shylock and History,” http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/merchant/ei_shylock.html (Accessed 18 February 2011)

[2] “Shylock is Shakespeare,” http://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/S/bo4038443.html# (Accessed 24 February 2011)

[3] John Murphy, “Merchant of Venice,” http://www.bardolatry.com/2010/01/21/the-merchant-of-venice-1973-starring-laurence-olivier/ (Accessed 24 February 2011)

[4] “Theater: A 19th century Shylock”  http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,909215,00.html#ixzz1FCcQ3eEb (Accesed 24 February 2011)

[6] Catherine Ellis, “An Evening with Patrick Stewart,” http://www.pcstories.net/shylock.html (Accessed 24 February 2011)

[7] Ivor Davis, “Oscar winner Al Pacino speaks about Shylock,” http://www.jewish-theatre.com/visitor/article_display.aspx?articleID=1131(Accessed 24 January 2011)


Categories: Multimedia Essays
  1. March 11, 2011 at 9:21 pm

    Al Pacino, more than Patrick Stewart, as Shylock was certainly outstanding. I remember being honestly impressed when I watched a copy of this movie despite my misgivings about some of the other aspects of the entire film. He was already a lauded celebrity in 2004, but just like in his work for “The Godfather”, his claim to popularity and stardom can be justified by virtue of this one play alone.

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