"The Merchant of Venice" is playing tonight (8 p.m., Channels 22 and 26), and not everyone is pleased.
THIS BBC/Time-Life import "would have warmed the heart of Nazi propagandist Julius Streicher," says Nathan Perlmutter, national director of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith. Perlmutter accuses PBS of being "awash in bad taste" for agreeing to put actor Warren Mitchell's Yiddish accented portrayal of Shylock on the air.
It is, of course, hard for anyone but Mitchell himself to say if he approached the role with the idea of warming Nazi hearts. It seems clear, however, that Mitchell and director Jack Gold meant to break with the post-World War II trend of playing the moneylender as either (a) ethnically unrecognizable or (b) completely sympathetic.
Mitchell (who originated the bigoted prototype for Archie Bunker on British TV) plays Shylock as unequivocally Jewish, unequivocally stereotyped and unequivocally unattractive. But being a good actor, he also makes Shylock vivid and credible. And he is just one part of a lively and sharp-edged production that -- by refusing to turn Shakespeare into a paragon of interracial understanding -- lets the true complexity of the play shine through.
It would be foolish to deny that Shylock belongs to an offensive tradition in English life and literature. It would be even more foolish to use that a s a pretext for discarding or disfiguring this eloquent play. Tonight's production -- with its elegant scenery (the walls of Venice in mottled gold), with its unusually sprightly rendering of the comic interludes involving the Gobbos and the rings, and with a graceful Portia in the person of Gemma Jones (of "The Duchess of Duke Street") -- reaffirms what a loss the loss of "The Merchant of Venice" would be.
Shylock, as Mitchell portrays him, has a chip on his shoulder from the start, and his thick accent and simple black garb help establish a cruel sense of distance between him and the majestically clothed, colorful Venetians. Even when the merchant Antonio first applies for a loan, there is real hate in the air -- and John Franklin-Robbins brings out all the sneering haughtiness of Antonio as surely as Mitchell brings out the petulance and spite of Shylock.
Without imposing 20th-century motives on a 16th-century play, it seems fair to regard Shylock as just one element in "The Merchant's" diverse portrait of human malice and materialism. The Jewish moneylender was an all-too-familiar symbol of greed to the Elizabethan mind. The esteemed merchant was a less familiar symbol, but obviously the author had questions about acquistive men of all sorts. There are, in fact, clear paralles between Shylock and Antonio, two capitalists who have reserved most of their softer feelings for two favorite children -- Jessica (Shylock's daughter) and Bassanio (Antonio's surrogate son).
Some viewers will overlook such matters. Some viewers will overlook the injustices that help account for Shylock's character. Some viewers will overlook the historical and cultural context in which the play was written. The producers, wisely, have decided to overlook all these various overlookers. t