Shylock is outraged.
That pretentious bigot Lorezo is assuring the Doge of Venice that condemning money-lenders isn't anti-Semitic. "The bond is inhuman, not the man," he says. "No one doubts the Jew is human. After all, has not a Jew eyes? Has not a Jew Hands? Has not a Jew organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?
"No, No, NO!" shouts the Shylock of Arnold Wesker's "The Merchant," which opens tonight at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater. "I will not have it. I do not want apologies for my humanity."
After all hath not a Jew a better answer than that to the stereotype of the avaracious Jew?
"The Merchant is Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" as seen from the ghetto. Making a pound of flesh serve as a bond is obviously sarcasm. Shylock is naturally greedy for knowledge, not for money. Jessica may be fed up with having a bunch of quibbling philosophers at the lunch tabel, but when she grasps Lorenzo's WASP mentality, she realizes that there are worse things. Shylock isn't thinking revenge, but "How will this affect the Jews?"
This Sylock is so appealing that even Antonio hangs around him as a relief from the boredom of being a merchant of Venice.
It is the Shylock that Zero Mostel was rehearsing at the time of his death; the part is now played by his understudy, Joseph Leon. The play has been performed in Europe, but this is its premiere in English.
In "The Merchant," the flesh-as-collateral agreement is Shylock's satirical answer to the law requiring a bond between Christian and Jew, even if the Christian can't provide normal security and the Jew doesn't require it. Shylock feels compelled to collect his pound of friendly flesh only when convinced that a precedent of law-bending would endanger the Jews' legal protection against hostile Venetians.
The quality of mercy, the gentle rains and that stuff get somewhat lost in his version, where Portia's solution is greeted by Shylock as his salvation. (It is a new Portia, too. As her puzzle-loving father has stuck her with a husband selected by a game, she directs her dreams of happiness to a small business administration.)
But Legal Aid's loss is the Anti-Defamation League's gain.