- Shylock: A Legend and Its Legacy (review)
- Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies
- Purdue University Press
- Volume 13, Number 4, Summer 1995
- p. pp. 113-117
- View Citation
Book Reviews 113 writing and figuring does not guarantee decent behavior or even freedom from atrocity. Greater 'intelligence' does not necessarily lead to greater humanity." Kuhl's book unmistakably illustrates the point with his descriptions of the activities and ideas both of American eugenicists and scientific racists of the 1920s and 1930s and of contemporary American scientific racists. In both cases scholars who claim to be "scientists" may be seen operating on the basis of non-objective and prejudiced ideas, acting mercilessly, and ignoring the human consequences of their ideas and actions. Because it documents how knowledge that lacks an ethical base or knowledge that lacks objectivity resulted in science founded upon bigotry and eventuating in tragedy and inhumanity, Kuhl's excellent book should be required reading in every undergraduate curriculum across the nation. It is recommended without reservation or hesitation. Saul Lerner Department of History and Political Science Purdue-Calumet Shylock: A Legend and Its Legacy, byJohn Gross. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992. 386 pp. $25.00. Theatergoers are generally aware of the ongoing debate over whether Lear or Hamlet is Shakespeare's greatest play. Many theatergoers, however, would undoubtedly express surprise, if not shock, upon learning that the bard's problematic comedy, The Merchant of Venice, has for some time been (with Hamlet) one of his two most popular plays. Readers of the gracefully written, elegantly learned, and deeply probing Shylock: A Legend and Its Legacy will discover the grounds for that popularity and, likewise, for the play's troubled status. Intended for the general reader and theatergoer, the core of John Gross's study is a survey of the play's stage history and critical reception. What emerges with great clarity is "the energy with which [the role of Shylock and the play] kept renewing itself' (p. 217). Virtually nothing is known of the stage history of the play besides a few times of its performance until the early eighteenth century, at which time Shylock was played as a comic villain, complete with red "Judas wig." That tradition was shattered forever in 1741 when Charles Macklin offered a Shylock of unaccommodating ferocity. His riveting performance established the play in the permanent repertoire. 114 SHOFAR Summer 1995 Vol. 13, No.4 Early in the nineteenth century, Edmund Kean expanded Macklin's approach considerably by discovering heroic dimensions within Shylock, elements he emphasized by casting away the traditional red wig and appearing in a black wig and beard. His complex (yet still villainous)··Shylock electrified audiences. Temperaments as diverse as William Hazlitt and Heinrich Heine responded to it immediately, disseminating highly sympathetic critical interpretations of the character. It remained for Henry Irving to complete the transformation of the role from comic villain to tragic hero. For Irving, Shylock became "the type of a persecuted race; almost the only gentleman in the play, and the most ill-used" (p. 147). Since Irving, interpretations have vacillated wildly between these possibilities and have become increasingly complex, to such an extent that contemporary audiences can never be sure what to expect in a performance , beyond the fact that the Christians are now likely to be portrayed as harshly as Shylock himself, and Gross provides an illuminating survey of many productions in varied climes and places. The book documents to great effect the ways by which resourceful actors, responding (at their best) to textual and cultural complexities, can push a major role to opposing extremes (p. 249). By the same token, the interpretive space discovered in the role documents the ways by which Shakespeare's fertile dramatic imagination could develop a character far beyond the functions required by (here) the comic plot. In Shylock, he fashioned a foil to the comic action capable of unprecedented tragic force. Much of this material, of course, is well known; but only the most devoted student of the play is likely to be familiar with many lesser performances discussed here, including those in Yiddish theater and in Israel. Among the book's many treasures, moreover, are Gross's distilled biographies of hosts of actors and directors and critics of the play, biographies which briskly contextualize specific performances and critical assessments. The meticulous survey of the play's...