Rethinking Shakespeare's 'Shylock'

Hal Holbrook returns to the stage to play the controversial villain asunbowed.

Don't wait for Shylock to wring his hands in the new production of "The Merchant of Venice" at Washington's Shakespeare Theatre.

There's no groveling about the set or piercing offstage howl, as Shakespeare's controversial villain faces the defeat of his cruel suit against the merchant, Antonio - and the forfeit of his fortune and faith. This Shylock wraps his rage about him and strides, unbowed, from the scene.

"I chose to play Shylock absolutely implacable," says actor Hal Holbrook, growling out the last syllables of that word.

"Laurence Olivier is the greatest actor in this century, but I can't understand the reason for his wailing [as Shylock]," he says. "Why would this proud man who was so enraged that he breaks the rules of his own religion ... why would such a man crawl out beaten and wailing?"

Mr. Holbrook is best known for his one-man tour de force, "Mark Twain Tonight!" which he has performed nearly 2,000 times since 1958. It's this role that has kept him on stage, despite nearly cornering the market on playing powerful politicians and lawyers-gone-bad in a long and successful Hollywood career.

The role of Shylock gets him back to some of the issues that inspired his work on "Mark Twain," especially bigotry and racism. Both "The Merchant of Venice" and Twain's "Huckleberry Finn" have been drummed out of the curriculum in many secondary schools because of their blunt treatment of these problems. Holbrook insists that this is a mistake.

"I'm distressed by this fashion of political correctness, because I don't see any positive results from it," he says. "You don't solve problems by smoothing them over; you solve them by facing them."

Early on, Holbrook urged Shakespeare Theatre director Michael Kahn to set this play in its original context, in Renaissance Italy.

"It's the only way you can face up to the dark images and the dark shadows of this play - all of which concern the racism against the Jews that is rampant," he says. Another key decision in this production is to place Shylock in the context of a Jewish community, instead of representing him as the lone outsider, as he is in most productions.

*'The Merchant of Venice' will be performed at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C., through July 18.

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