As I continue through Playing Shakespeare, I’ve come to what Angela called the Battle of the Shylocks. In this episode director John Barton sits down with just Patrick Stewart and David Suchet, both of whom have played Shylock under Barton’s direction, and walks through the whole play with them – starting with look, and then accent, and then how each scene is performed.
Truthfully? I give this one to Suchet.
The two actors are diametrically opposed on the character. I can only assume that they harbor no ill feelings toward each other because of this, but there are times when it makes you wonder. This was no subtle battle of nuance. Stewart starts out very clearly by saying how he didn’t even want to play the character because of all the “traditional” baggage that comes with him. Suchet, on the other hand, comes off as if the role is the sort of thing he’s wanted to play all his life. When Stewart suggests that he found a Shylock who “was an outsider, who was also a Jew”, Suchet counters that his Shylock “was an outsider…because he was a Jew.” Suchet even has statistics – Shylock is called by name 6 times, but addressed as simply “Jew” 22 times.
Merchant of Venice is a controversial play, no doubt about it. It is impossible to have an objective conversation about some topics. David Suchet is Jewish, Patrick Stewart is not. So when Stewart feels that Shylock’s motivation is all about the money, it’s hard not to let that slip into “Patrick Stewart thinks that to be Jewish means to be all about the money.” Since he’s about to play all the sample scenes that way I couldn’t help but wonder whether David found them to be entertaining, enlightening, or offensive.
To both actors’ credit neither of them tries to play Shylock like a good, sympathetic character. Neither one, even if they are living an unfair life, is a nice guy. Stewart even tells of a version where he strikes his daughter.
As they worked through the play I simply could not escape that I was watching Patrick Stewart do Shylock. Maybe it’s because he was not in costume (which, he pointed out, included a very large beard when he played the role). Maybe it’s just the uniqueness of his presence and my familiarity with his work. But he deliberately chose almost no accent, and everything he did he seemed to …well, *boom*. He plays a very loud Shylock who bellows loudly about everything. When he did slip into a normal voice he tended to speak very quickly, and I thought I was listening to his Ebeneezer Scrooge.
Suchet, on the other hand, seemed more like Shylock to me. Again I have to ponder, “Am I projecting? Am I giving more leeway to the Jewish guy in thinking that he looks better in the role?” I’d like to think I’m not. How do you manage to say that the Jewish guy “plays Jewish better” without making it sound awful? His whole approach I just liked better. He brings an accent, a posture, mannerisms, his whole character just felt better for me.
Patrick Stewart’s Shylock was just a businessman trying to get along in the world and work against a handicap he didn’t ask for (albeit a little overly dramatically). Suchet’s was a man who was burdened with the very nature of who he was, who it just so happens was a very good businessman.