Jonathan Epstein, Second-Year Acting and Shakespeare professor at the FSU/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training, has spent his summer in Lenox, Massachusetts at Shakespeare & Company, where he is taking on the challenging and difficult role of Shylock for the second time in The Merchant of Venice.
“The Merchant of Venice,” like “The Taming of the Shrew,” is one of the Shakespeare plays that makes modern audiences feel increasingly and understandably uncomfortable. To interpret the tale of Shylock’s downfall as anything other than anti-Semitic is seemingly to go against plain common sense. But Shakespeare, being a great dramatist, took great care to give the devil his due, portraying Shylock not as a pasteboard villain but as a man of flesh and blood whose malevolence arises in part from the contempt in which he is held by the community in which he lives. “If you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” he asks us, and his terrible fate is portrayed not as the deserved fate of all Jews but as the result of his individual choice of murder as the instrument of his vengeance. Add a generous helping of exquisite poetry and the result is a permanent masterpiece that makes you squirm in your seat—if it doesn’t, there’s something wrong with you.
All that said, “The Merchant of Venice” inevitably poses problems for actors and directors who are reluctant to give ethnic offense, and the success of their productions necessarily depends on the ingenuity with which they contrive to draw the sting. Tina Packer, to her credit, confronts the problem head on in her thrilling new Shakespeare & Company production, upping the ante as high as possible by boldly underlining the apparent anti-Semitism of Shakespeare’s text—every repetition of such ugly phrases as “villain Jew” and “dog Jew” cracks through the air like lightning—while simultaneously placing it in a wider theatrical context. Her Shylock ( Jonathan Epstein) is a cultivated, well-spoken gent, a man at first glance more sinned against than sinning, which makes it all the more shocking (not least to the disapproving members of his own temple) when he lets the mask slip and confesses his thirst for blood.