Shakespeare and Anti-Semitism


Shakespeare and Anti-Semitism


Search our Archives:

Opinion & Society

What the Yiddish Actors Saw

By David Basch

The information about Adler appears in John Gross's book, Shylock (1992). Gross mentioned how Adler had played Shylock not as a man of wild character but as one of great dignity, a person with "high intellect, and proud convictions." But Gross offered no insight on how Adler had justified his cleansing of the Jew that everyone else saw as bestial. Nor did Gross mention, if he knew of it, the similar thesis later presented by Morevski that had been made available in a 1967 English translation. The rude fact is that what these Yiddish actors saw was so out of tune with mainstream Shakespearean commentary that their view was entirely dismissed. Gross left the impression that Adler's Yiddish view was little more than baseless, Jewish special pleading an understandable, quaint, but artless, ethnic wishful thinking.

It is unfortunate that Gross did not probe the matter more carefully as he did probe so many other aspects of Shakespeare's play. He thereby lost the opportunity, as we shall see, to inform the intellectual community of the valuable insights that the Yiddish actors had brought. As to Adler's rationale for his benign view of Shylock, if there was indeed more to it than his own ethnic bias, we can only guess since all commentators were silent about this. Happily, we are not left to wonder about what led Morevski to his conclusions. Gathering dust in a university library was a copy of Morevski's slim volume that told all.

Morevski the theorist brought an actor's perspective to the task of understanding Shakespeare's play. He began his book by pointing out the relationship between actor and playwright. Ideally, as he saw it, it is the actor's duty to bring to life the words and events that the playwright created and not his own ideas about them. Here Morevski refers to the work of great playwrights, masters, worthy of the name. Like Hamlet who lectures actors in a traveling troupe that he would rather have the "town crier speak his lines" if an actor insisted on putting himself first before the lines, Morevski too objected to egotistical, overreaching by actors and directors.

Presumably, Morevski would have objected to the touch added by playing Antonio wearing a crucifix that Shylock rudely shunts aside in lunging to cut Antonio's flesh an exaggerated stoking up of the anger of the audience against the Jew. He would also have objected to the staging that presented Antonio in court bound and gagged before Shylock. Both of these rancorous excesses, which have appeared in productions of this play, are questionable in their stoking up of extreme emotion. They suggest that the great playwright was deficient in doing this properly with his dialogue and needed the external support from an even greater actor or director to shape the scene.

This point of not trying to outdo the author of the play becomes clearer as Morevski discusses the relationship of the playwright to his characters and to his play: since characters in the work of a first rate dramatist express themselves as fully themselves in the words they speak, there is no room to find the personal views of the dramatist in these words. Thus the evil Richard III and the righteous Hamlet speak fully as Richard and Hamlet and shed no light on the views of their creator who, by the way, to this day has remained noticeably in the shadows of his work. Morevski emphasized that what is revealed about characters contributes to the significance of the play as a whole. The capable playwright, thus, will make every word, phrase, and event telltale in portraying his characters and he will not introduce gratuitous idle chatter or actions since doing so would bring loss of focus and chaos. The playwright must not fail in holding to this standard for it is within the larger whole that he thereby creates that we find the meaning and moral universe of a play the aspects that reveal the playwright himself.

In illustrating his concepts, Morevski presents chapters analyzing the principle characters of The Merchant of Venice. While almost universally critics have seen Bassanio and Portia primarily as paragons of virtue, exemplars and personifications of the ideals of their religion, to Morevski their lines tell a different story. For example, when Bassanio is asked by merchant Antonio about his new love, Portia, the very first thing Bassanio mentions is that "in Belmont is a lady richly left." To Morevski, this immediately reveals the financial interest that was uppermost in Bassanio's mind — not at all what should be expected as the first concern of an alleged paragon of virtue considering an affair of his heart.

Similarly, the image of Portia as a paragon suffers when the same method is used to reveal her character. Portia jests to Nerissa, her lady-in-waiting, concerning one unsavory suitor for her hand. Portia tells her that if he seemed about to choose the right casket from among the three that will win Portia's hand in marriage, Nerissa was to tempt him with a glass of rhenish wine placed on a contrary casket. To most critics this merely reflects Portia's quick wit. However, to Morevski it suggests more than that. Here was revealed a determined and cunning woman quite willing to manipulate events in order to have her way, rather than one who will remain saintly serene in abiding by her sworn duty to uphold the stipulations of her father's marriage covenant. This is again behavior that is far less than that of the moral paragon everyone has assumed.

Morevski's insight on Portia is further confirmed when Morocco, a dark skinned suitor, chooses the wrong casket. Morevski had found Morocco's moving words of love to Portia revealing of him, not as the comic, low character that is often played, but as a true and worthy man of honor and love. Morevski noted that Morocco's words importuning Portia were characterized by tender phrases of endearment reminiscent of the Song of Songs. Morocco's failure to choose correctly now dooms him to a lonely life without marriage in accordance with the oath he had agreed to as a condition of his failed candidacy for Portia's hand. Yet despite the sadness revealed in his parting words, Portia, without a tinge of compassion, quips to Nerissa, "Draw the curtains go, — Let all of his complexion choose me so."

Morevski also turns his perceptive eye to an analysis of Shylock, a man without friends, reviled by all the presumably respectable people in the play arrayed against him. One way Morevski brings out the meaning of attitudes about him is through the parallels in the lines spoken by various characters about Shylock as compared with those spoken about the loved merchant, Antonio.

Thus, when rich merchant Antonio's friends think he is depressed because of the danger in losing his trading ships on the seas, all are understanding of the natural pain expected in the face of such material loss and are brimming with sympathy for him. It is fully recognized that money and property are vital assets, any loss of which could, with validity, bring unhappiness and despair. Yet, when Shylock, the widower, has been robbed by his daughter of his gold and jewels, not to mention of his future in the loss of his only daughter, and runs aimlessly, shocked and beside himself in pain and confusion, there is no compassion from these same people. Instead, Shylock is railed as comic and mercenary, overly concerned with material things — a Jew.

There are more such insightful discussions of character in Morevski's book, but what must interest us now is his informative clarification of the difference between melodrama and drama. In melodrama, stock situations are presented with little depth. However, in authentic drama, situations grow from character and plot. As an example of bungling melodrama, he describes a situation of an eight year old match-girl, who, on meeting an old woman, recognizes her as her mother lost "lo these twenty years." In this vein, Morevski points out the unreality of Antonio's jeopardy from the Jew in the friendly Venetian courtroom that for the moment seems compelled to honor Shylock's agreement. This unreality is especially marked in a court in which burly Bassanio asserts an oath that "the Jew shall have my flesh, blood, bones and all, Ere thou shalt lose for me one drop of blood."

In this now obviously melodramatic situation, Morevski clearly saw the nature of the true situation presented by Shakespeare. Antonio's so-called danger in the court is only Antonio's hysteria at work, not a genuine threat to his life at all. The "danger" in the situation is unreal, akin to the finding of the mother of an eight year old, lost lo' these twenty years. The implication is that what makes Shylock's threat believable to audiences is that Shylock is a Jew, a devil. This feeling holds despite the fact that many episodes in the play would testify oppositely about him. Thus, were Shylock not a Jew, would anyone believe that a sober banker which is what Shylock is in today's terms would actually cut up someone he hates? In crafting events that show up these inconsistencies, Morevski asserts, Shakespeare reveals his own attitudes and perspective.

Morevski's insight on the unreality of Shylock's threatening appearance in the court is further confirmed when he brings to the surface the meaning of a brief incident used to increase the suspense. Shylock stands firm and alone while being barraged and disparaged by the Duke, Antonio, Portia, Bassanio, and Gratiano. Shylock continues to maintain his dignity against their verbal assaults when Gratiano cries to Shylock, "Can no prayers pierce thee?" Shylock calmly continues to sharpen his knife and responds, "No; none that thou hast wit enough to make." Morevski finds in this response the key to understanding what is happening in the courtroom.

Here, anchored in the bedrock of Shakespeare's text, Morevski identifies the essence of the action. Shylock's words tell that, while the pleas of Gratiano, a vicious ruffian in the story, will not avail — as focused by Shylock's word "thou" addressed to him — the implication to be drawn from this word is that, while Gratiano's plea will not avail, Shylock is open to a plea from merchant Antonio himself. Asserts Morevski, it is here that is revealed what the great Shakespeare intended in the scene. The grim face and stern words of Shylock are nothing more than a charade. It had been put on by Shylock for the purpose of throwing a scare into Antonio, forcing Antonio to openly plead for mercy, thereby wresting from him a shred of dignity for himself from his persecutors. Suddenly, the intimations of Shylock's benign character are harmonized with his actions. In the scene, we had been witnessing Shylock's charade and the resistance of the others to Shylock's self assertion.

As the play unfolds, hard-hearted Antonio, contemptuous of the Jew, is unwilling to make any such plea. In the end, Shylock's charade fails. Antonio is relieved by Portia's clever intercession of the necessity to humble himself and to placate the despised Jew. Portia first encourages Shylock's threats toward Antonio and then suddenly pulls the rug out from under him, ruthlessly defeating Shylock and leaving him frozen in a demonic pose, with no chance to show the court that he will renounce his bond. It is apparent that in this scene a director's insertion of a bound and gagged Antonio would completely defeat the possibility that audiences will recognize Antonio's obstinacy and Shylock's attempted charade. Similarly, showing Shylock as contemptuous of a crucifix would be far from what he is about.

When the significance of this event is brought out, thanks to Morevski, what should occur in conjunction with all the revelations of character is nothing less than the transformation of the meaning of the play a full reversal of the identity of the good and the bad characters. It becomes possible to recognize Shylock as innocent of evil intent and to be aware of the cruelty of his enemies in bringing him down to utter defeat. He is impoverished of all his wealth and is forced to convert. Nowhere in the play is to be seen any mercy toward the Jew, the very mercy that Portia had hypocritically extolled as so wonderful "that [it] falleth as the gentle rain" the mercy that she had earlier so sanctimoniously demanded Shylock show to Antonio. As A. E. Moody, a noted scholar, observed, "Christian values in the play are not so much celebrated as are absent."

Despite Morevski's able presentation of his thesis, it had come to naught in the circles of dramatic criticism. So out of tune were his logical, though radical, views with the prevailing concepts of the play, that his book was dismissed out of hand. The so-called literary experts were quite satisfied that they had already done their job well. There was no room for second thoughts on the conventional concept that the play is in the religious tradition of a morality play. Besides, were Morevski's views to have been taken seriously, the concept of the play as understood with a heroic Portia would have become a shambles. No one could begin to conceive of Shakespeare's play in a way that could reconcile it with Morevski's insights. A devilish Shylock was needed to make sense of the conventional view, even if the price of holding to this thesis was to accept a flawed play and a flawed Shakespeare with anti-Semitic views. Needless to say, this also entailed the loss of the poet's underlying message of brotherhood and kindness to the stranger that a sympathetic understanding of the play actually urges throughout.

But because there remained inexplicable contradictions in Shakespeare's play that Morevski didn't address, it became easy for critics to dismiss his insights and to pick and choose interpretations about parts of the play that, while it made the play somewhat incoherent as a whole, yet, enabled the assumed traditional religious morality theme to appear plausible as the playwright's true intent.

It was to be left to later commentators to deal with Morevski's views and the various loose ends of the play, such as the troubling, unexplained "bond of flesh" why on earth was this in the play? and the matter of Shylock's vicious aside about Antonio, "I hate him for he is a Christian," which were to be explained by others much later. For example, concerning Shylock's seeming hateful remark about Antonio, Neil Hirschson in an article in Midstream magazine in the late 1980's, showed evidence in the text of the play that Christian Antonio is actually a Jew who had converted. This insight transforms Shylock's words into something far from a racist denunciation of Christians. But such revelations lay decades in the future and, even today, remain to be fully assembled in giving coherent understanding to the play.

What is important to note is that the fate of Morevski's book revealed an academic and intellectual community that had, by and large, failed to confront its responsibility to truth. The contradictions that Morevski raised should have triggered further exploration to find a new unity within it and to challenge the grotesque idea that the jewel of Western culture could have created a vicious Jewish stereotype unworthy of his art and his moral stature. Lamentably, Morevski's book, a critical datum of intellectual history, was buried in the decades ahead, a cautionary tale for those who passively rely on authorities to do their thinking for them.

Nevertheless, in the annals of literature, Morevski had made a major contribution to understanding Shakespeare's play that enabled others to finish the unraveling of the mysteries that he began. Morevski cracked the smugness of complacent critics and started to reveal to the world that the poet had a message in his work that contradicted and far transcended the anti-Semitism of his milieu. What the Jewish actors, Morevski and Adler, had long ago detected turns out to have been well ahead of its time and fully on the mark.


This article is adapted from Chapter 8 of the author's 1996 book, SHAKESPEARE'S JUDAICA AND DEVICES, and that for more information on Judaic influences in Shakespeare, readers can consult the author's web site at


from the December 2007 Chanukah Edition of the Jewish Magazine

Please let us know if you see something unsavory on the Google Ads and we will have them removed. Email us with the offensive URL (