It wouldn’t beatragedy if Shylock wasawoman
IF MAUREEN Lipman was serious when she told this newspaper a few months ago that she would like to play Shylock, she might find a willing home for such a production at Shakespeare’s Globe. The theatre’s incoming artistic director Emma Rice has argued for an age — and a stage —of gender equality. In other words, women will be eligible not only for the 155 female roles in the Shakespeare canon but the 826 male ones, too.
Casting a Shakespearean role with a different gender than the one envisaged by the Bard is nothing new. Leaving aside the more obvious examples of boys playing female roles when the plays were first staged, ever since Sarah Bernhardt’s Hamlet women actors have taken on Shakespeare’s best known male roles. Among the most audacious of these was seen recently at the Donmar Warehouse when Ashley McGuire unforgettably played Falstaff in an all-female version of the Henry IV plays.
If anybody had doubts that Shakespeare’s characters should be available to women, then that performance proved that it is as ridiculous to assume that only men can play men as it is that only Jews can play Jews. Or, put another way, that only white people can play historical white characters, which is why anyone who complained of say, Adrian Lester’s ter- rific Henry V would have looked like an idiot, especially as Nicholas Hytner’s production was updated to the present day.
Women, the record seems to suggest, tend to go for the more alpha male of Shakespeare’s men. Richards II and III have been played by Fiona Shaw and Kathryn Hunter respectively, Janet McTeer took on the role of arch-chauvinist Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew, Vanessa Redgrave was a memorable Prospero and Lear has also been played by a woman — Hunter again. Off the top of my head I can’t remember if Lady Macbeth’s husband has been played by a woman, but there must be many a female actor out there who would like to take it on. But Shylock? Apparently not. At least not in a high-profile production. Is it fair to suggest that Shakespeare’s Jew is less of an attraction to women actors than the other major (non Jewish) male Shakespearean roles? And if it is, why might that be so?
There is an obvious risk of attributing motives to women, especially if you’re a man. If one wanted to play devil’s advocate, however, you could, I suppose, construct an argument along the lines that women
MARTY FELDMAN was a born anarchist, but even anarchists need rules to break and, for Marty, from a very early age, those rules were dictated by his faith. Born to devout Russian emigrants in the Canning Town of the mid-1930s, young Marty would dutifully attend synagogue on Saturdays, and cheder on Sundays.
Then came comedy, and the avenue he needed. The release valve for his angst and anti-authority attitude. He was expelled from more schools A recent Globe production, above, and Dustin Hoffman as
Shylock might feel less inclined to play another victim of bigotry given their own marginalised status within theatre and victimised status outside it.
But there’s also a nagging thought that Shylock has been, and perhaps still will be, denied the range of artistic reinterpretation afforded to his Shakespearean peers. Could that be because Jewishness is such a dominant feature in the minds of non-Jews, and therefore non-Jewish female actors, too, that to bring gender politics to the table feels like fiddling around the edges? It’s as if Shylock isn’t considered as worthy of being played by a woman because the perception of him as a character is so limited to his Jewishness. A man such as Brutus, in many ways a very masculine character, might be quite a fruitful role for a woman to play, such as Harriet Walter did in Phyllida Lloyd’s all female production of Julius Caesar. But Shylock is Jew first and man second.
Of course, women don’t primarily play male characters because they want to deconstruct or interrogate ideas of masculinity. Most of the time it’s because male characters, Jewish or otherwise, offer them a spectrum of experience, expression and exploration that female roles rarely have.
Having a woman play Shylock certainly opens up whole new areas of interpretative possibility. It is possible, for example, to imagine new light being thrown upon the relationship between Shylock and his treacherous daughter Jessica. And the Jew-hating brutality meted out by Antonio and his chums could be all the more shocking if the victim were played by a woman — the kind of shock you should feel when the man being abused is played by a man, but don’t.
And if Shylock were played by a woman, how would that inform the moment the Jew’s knife nears the Christian merchant’s bare flesh? Might it feel more like revenge for the metaphoric, and sometimes actual, rape of a people than the unjust payback of an obsessed man? Might the knife stray down the abdomen, and beyond? After all, the pound of flesh has been linked to the medieval fear of the Jew as a castrater. Which in turn begs another question: if Antonio were a woman, how would that effect Shylock’s single-minded determination to kill?
Then there is the gender-bending element already within Merchant. With a Shylock played by a woman, it might be tempting to play off one woman dressed as a man with another — the other being Portia, who disguises herself as a man. A director could have fun with that. Especially one as good as Maureen Lipman.