A German actor, Norbert Kentrup, is to play Shylock at Shakespeare's Globe this summer. The Merchant of Venice will be presented in Tudor costume, directed by Richard Olivier, whose production of Henry V wasthe Globe's "authentic" piecelast year.
Modern productions of this play always stir debate in post-Holocaust Europe, but Olivier is tackling even more challenges than usual. Last year groundlings gleefully chucked cabbages at the French in a possibly tongue-in-cheek display of jingoism during Henry V. What will be the result if certain groups take advantage of the Globe atmosphere to indulge in anti-semitism such as they imagine Elizabethan audiences would have expressed?
Olivier is unfazed, delighting in the sense of danger. He has been running workshops as part of a wide-ranging programme of supporting events organised by Globe Education and has found the participants overwhelmingly pro-Shylock. "From my point of view," Olivier says, "too much so. He tends to be seen as a Jew rather than a character with murderous intent. He is a bad Jew, a bad person, not a bad-person-and-a-Jew. Admittedly not all the other characters make that distinction. He believes he is a devout, faithful Jew, but he is going against the Commandments in planning murder." (He threatens to exercise his legal right to cut a pound of flesh next to Antonio's heart when he defaults on a loan.)
Olivier admits that it is the defection of Shylock's daughter, Jessica, who elopes with a Christian, which causes his final murderous rage, but, he says "everyone in Shylock's household at the beginning of the play wants to leave".
Olivier relishes the complication of character in the play, however. The "Hath not a Jew eyes" speech, usually cited as proof of Shakespeare's humanity and a means of drawing sympathy to Shylock, is, he says, "not just a plea for humanity but for revenge. It does both. There is not one character or situation which could not be interpreted in a completely opposite way. Antonio, for instance, in coming to Bassanio's financial rescue, could be a loving, generous, paternal businessman or an anti-semitic repressed homosexual. It's a matter of finding the right balance in each scene."
Norbert Kentrup as Shylock will look and sound different from everyone else, an alien, even in a multiracial cast. He will wear a red cap or badge, just as Jews had to in Venice, and will speak with a German accent.
The plot, set in Belmont, in which Portia's suitors have to choose a particular casket to win her, is ,believes Olivier, a reflection of typical fairytale qualities in the play and proof that her father had her best interests at heart when he hatched the plan. "He wanted to protect her from gold-diggers. In contrast the only time we see Shylock interact with Jessica he is repressive. He confuses love with wealth. He believes he can own or buy whatever he wants."
Olivier acknowledges that it is impossible to avoid "the ugly issues raised by the play". He is grateful not to be doing a modern-dress production, but "if people do boo, they should be booing the character, not Jews in general".
Rehearsals and workshops have given rise to passionate discussion. "If the production can evoke a hundredth of that discussion, it will have served a useful purpose."
* From May 20. Globe Education 0171 902 1400; tickets 0171 401 9919
An article by James Shapiro on Jews as aliens in Shakespeare's time appears in the next edition of 'Around the Globe' magazine, available at Shakespeare's Globe, New Globe Walk, London SE1 9DT (pound;3 inc pamp;p)