22nd October 2000
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Shylock and Jewry in Europe

By Eranda Jayawickreme
Gareth Armstrong's one-man show Shy lock, presented at the Trinity College hall in Kandy on September 26, was the first theatrical production -barring Daniel Foley's Shakespeare performance last year, that the British Council had brought to Kandy since the Watermill Theatre Company's wonderfully energetic Henry V two years ago. 

Excellent theatre: Gareth Armstrong in 'Shylock'While obviously a fair comparison cannot be drawn between the two performances, Armstrong's performance, in this writer's view, was in its own way as astonishing as that of the boys from the Watermill in 1998. Employing Shakespeare's The Merchant Of Venice as a suitable vehicle, Armstrong places himself in what must be mankind's most complex and emotional outlook-Jewishness-and offers the audience an alternate view of Shakespeare's single major Jewish figure-although the Tubal in this play would strongly disagree! 

Armstrong presents himself as Tubal, Shylock's 'only' friend who, in addition to being the single other Jew in Shakespeare's oeuvre, is endowed with only 8 lines in Venice [III.1]. Tubal's Jewishness facilitates his ability to present the events in Venice from Shylock's [i.e. a Jewish] viewpoint. His manner is not dissimilar to the alienated, Brechtian style, and the opening minutes reminded one of the Common Man in Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons. This was in keeping with the strong didactic intensions of the play; one of Tubal's purposes is to educate the audience on European society's view towards Jews from the Middle Ages, inclusive of Shakespeare's time.

A clear idea of how Elizabethan England regarded Jews can be gathered from Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta- a play that may have provided Shakespeare with some inspiration for Venice- and the monstrous character of Barabas in particular, whom Tubal assumes for a short period to clarify the point fore-mentioned. Indeed, the full title of Venice, given in the Quarto text of 1600, thus simplifies the play:

'The most excellent Historie of the Merchant of Venice. With the extreme crueltie of Shylock the Jewe towards the sayd Merchant, in cutting a just pound of his flesh; and the obtaining of Portia by the choyse of three chests.'

This supposed lack of ambiguity as regards Shylock's character- Shakespeare's amazing ability to create rounded characters out of thin air was to ensure his redemption later on- led to him being portrayed with varying degrees of comedy, grotesqueness and occasionally downright silliness right through the 17th and 18th centuries (there was no recorded performance of Venice between 1605 and 1741). A good example of this was Charles Macklin's fierce, red-wigged interpretation at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane in 1741; Macklin remained in the role into his 90th year. However, the unstable, frequently inebriated yet amazingly powerful Edmund Kean (1787-1905) was the first actor to transform Shylock from a demon to a man proud of his heritage and driven to revenge by force of circumstance. Sixty-five years later, Sir Henry Irving's (1838-1905) Shylock captured him as a proud yet gently menacing member of a persecuted race: Such an interpretation would be seen to be valid from Shylock's innately sad request to Tubal at the conclusion of III.1 of Venice that they meet at the only place where they can feel totally safe:

'Go, good Tubal, and meet me at our synagogue, go good Tubal; at our synagogue, Tubal.' (115-120)

Armstrong incorporates much of this information into the text, along with details of massacres of Jewish villages in Britain- the Holocaust was, in a sense, the culminating event of a long standing history of Jew baiting-, stories of Jewish migration, extracts from Venice (mainly from III.1 and IV.1) and also a sizable amount of clever humour, such as his exhibition of Macklin's method of utilising his breath for the longest possible period- by bending as far back as he can go- and his asserting that Shakespeare knew 'little Latin, less Greek and absolutely no geography', due to his having given Bohemia a coastline. 

This was a clever mingling of humour, ideas, history and text, which lead up to the final five minutes of the play - its crux - when Tubal, almost as much a spectator now as the audience, comments on the events of V.1 of Venice, where Portia gently teases and then forgives Bassanio for giving her ring to the young lawyer (Portia herself) who had saved the life of his father Antonio by outwitting Shylock on legal terms. But, asks Tubal, what of Shylock himself? Tubal contrasts the happiness of those at Belmont with the despair of Jew who has lost his daughter Jessica, half his fortune and -cruelly- his Jewishness, which he had to forsake for his life. 

The audience is reminded of the ring that Jessica had exchanged for a monkey in Genoa; the turquoise ring, symbolising forget-me-not, that Shylock's now-dead wife had given him in the days of their courtship; the ring that he 'would have not given...for a wilderness of monkeys'. One ring has brought happiness and reconciliation, but the other has brought on heartache that remains unresolved at the end of Venice. Although one does not actually hear it, the anguished cry of Shylock as he exits from the courthouse in IV.1 echoes in the mind at the end of the play, and a virtuoso performance by Armstrong ensured that many in the audience were left drained by its intensity.

Perhaps the single drawback of this beautifully executed performance was something that had nothing to do with the play itself; the hall, with its proscenium stage, did not suit the play's intimate style, as Armstrong sometimes appeared distant from the audience. However, this reviewer could not think of little else wrong as he remained in the player's grasp for the 90-minute duration of the performance.

Shylock was a perfect example of a writer/performer making full use of material that would make for excellent theatre. The British Council should be congratulated for both sponsoring Armstrong and showing a willingness to take its artistes out of the metropolis. It is interesting that Armstrong intends to take his show to Israel following performances in London. It would indeed be interesting to observe how a Jewish audience would react to this Welshman's admirable creation. 

Many emotions and many roles in one man

Gareth Armstrong as writer and performer in 'Shylock'. Presented by the British Council 
By Alfreda de Silva
The award-winning solo performance of Gareth Armstrong brought to the British Council stage a piquant new slant on the tragic-comic life of Shakespeare's Shylock, the Jew. 

Looking for fresh inspiration in the many-stranded haystack so cunningly put together by the inimitable Shakespeare in his - The Merchant of Venice, this remarkable actor and script-writer chanced upon the proverbial needle - Tubal a bit-part player, whom he forthwith elevated to centre stage. 

Through Tubal, Shylock's only friend, also Jewish, Armstrong projected the comedy and tragedy of the man's life, drawing attention to four centuries of his stormy history. 

In so doing, he unravelled, in his exciting performance, a colourful tapestry of Shakespeare's monarchs, actors and other personalities and the passions, fads and foibles of that tempestuous era. 

Armstrong's fantastic script of fact and myth was only matched by his agile movements and bouncing humour on stage - As Tubal, Shylock, Antonio, Portia or whatever else he chose to be. 

And this Tubal, who enlivened the dramatic potential of The Merchant with his prowess as story-teller, had, in reality, only eight lines to speak in the whole play! 

As far as Shakespeare's text goes, Tubal is just someone the Jew refers to when Bassanio comes to him for a loan of 3000 ducats, for which his friend Antonio, the rich merchant of Venice will pledge surety. 

Shylock professes that he is not in a position to raise that amount at one go. "What of that?" he asks "Tubal, a wealthy Hebrew of my tribe will furnish me". 

Antonio, for all his wealth has his ships at sea. And Shylock is aware that anything could happen to them. He says, "There be land-rats and water-rats. I mean pirates." 

The artistry and humour with which Armstrong wove history, literature and legend into a completeness of theatre, with the simplest of props, was astonishing. 

Ninety minutes of uninterrupted entertainment brought to an audience rocking with laughter, a most cleverly interwoven Shakespearean drama, with Tubal holding the fort. The pivotal 'bond story' edged out the 'casket story', with nothing significant lost. 

Shylock's anger, hate, ill-will, and venom came out crisply in lines like, "How like a fawning Christian he looks", when alluding to Antonio. And then again in: "You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog and spit upon my Jewish gaberdine. Hath a dog money? Is it possible?"

Armstrong's Shylock gave ample credence to the twisted wolfish inhospitable, long-suffering miser that Shakespeare had created. He would rather have seen his daughter, Jessica dead at his feet than running away with his jewels and money and Lorenzo, on the night of the masque's pageantry. 

Music judiciously used, and intermittent shadows on the wall, captured audience imagination and held it, as Tubal's story progressed. 

It was Armstrong's inspired script that breathed life into the unknown Tubal. He brought impish humour to his conversation with Shylock - all of his eight lines in the whole play. 

Even as Tubal delighted Shylock with the news that one of Antonio's argosies had been wrecked, he teasingly got on to the subject of Jessica, who had spent four-score ducats in a single night with Lorenzo in Genoa. She had traded a turquoise ring given him by his wife Leah, for a monkey. Then in true Tubal fashion he cheered up the Jew: "But Antonio is certainly undone". 

A handy ploy was the property box, which gave Gareth Armstrong his lightning changes - a Jew's gown and cap, a judge's cloak and a false nose and ginger hair to impersonate the popular image of a Jew. 

In the trial scene, where the learned doctor from Padua, Portia as the judge, turned the tide in favour of Antonio, by seeing through the loop-hole in the bond, the Jew became a figure of hopelessness and derision, a role with which he was not unfamiliar. 

However, Armstrong's script brought sympathy for him. "Where is this quality of mercy now?" asked Tubal, the story-teller, of the audience, at one point. 

The play ended to the satisfaction of all the players, even Shylock. Bassanio, Portia, Gratiano and Nerissa had returned to Belmont to join Lorenzo and Jessica, for whom Portia had a deed of gift from Shylock, bequeathing his wealth to them, after his death. 

Armstrong so peopled the stage of the British Council, that we saw the loves, hates, idiosyncrasies, villainies, laughter, tears and rages of the many, in this one extraordinary man.

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