ORANGE — Of all the tragic figures Shakespeare created, Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice" has leaped out of the theater into reality with the greatest vengeance. His "pound of flesh" has through the centuries taken on a monstrous symbolism for anti-Semites who saw in him validation of their prejudices.
Shylock's name has not only entered our language as a colorful term for an unscrupulous moneylender, but also the character has been treated as such a potent stereotype that Shakespeare's own reputation has, in post-Holocaust times, acquired a stain.
Because it seems to endorse the historical caricature of the vile, malevolent, uxorious Jew, "Merchant" allows anti-Semites to enlist the Bard as their ally and causes others to ask if Shakespeare, in fact, shared the racist beliefs of his time.
Says Neil Vipond, who will play Shylock in Shakespeare Orange County's "Merchant" (opening tonight at Chapman University's Waltmar Theatre in Orange): "I've wondered if Shakespeare was aware that he'd written a temperamental work which was racially or religiously questionable."
That Jews were seen as cruel, diabolical creatures went without question in Renaissance Venice, where the play is set. That Shylock is reprehensible, a foul heathen out to victimize God-loving Christians, is an article of faith for his enemies on the Rialto, the Wall Street of Venice. Lending money for interest made him, by canonical definition, a usurer.
"But there's an emotional power to the part that I think is almost unique in Shakespeare," said Vipond, a noted Canadian actor whose slight build, fresh manner and liquid voice suggest a much younger age than his white hair and 45-year theater career would indicate.
"Even Lear's mad rages don't quite meet the emotional power of Shylock," he maintained in a recent interview before an afternoon rehearsal. "There's an openness about him. He's right there. There's nothing hidden. Nothing removed or remote. There may be a kind of manipulation to him, but he is who he is."
An actor of wide experience, Vipond got his classical training at the Shakespearean Festival Theatre in Stratford, Ontario. He started there in 1953 under the festival's founder, distinguished British director Tyrone Guthrie, and stayed for five seasons.
During that period, Vipond worked with Alec Guinness in "Richard III," James Mason in "Measure for Measure" and "Oedipus Rex," Christopher Plummer in "Hamlet" and Anthony Quail in Marlowe's "Tamburlaine the Great," which went on to Broadway.
When Vipond made a committed shift to New York in the late 1950s, he did Brecht's "The Good Woman of Setzuan," starring Zero Mostel and Uta Hagen. Following that, he played Hamlet, off-Broadway, did "Much Ado About Nothing" with John Gielgud directing and was cast as Duncan in "Macbeth" at Lincoln Center.
"I've been in 'Merchant' before, but I've never done Shylock," Vipond said. "For a long time there were three or four parts in Shakespeare that I thought I really wanted to do or that were left for me to do. One was Prospero and one was Lear." (He played both to critical acclaim--Prospero in 1993 and Lear in 1994--at the Glendale-based company A Noise Within, where he has helped earn its reputation as Southern California's top classical troupe.)
"I've always wanted to get my hands on Shylock simply because in reading Shakespeare you know it's one of the great parts," Vipond continued. "It's possible that Shakespeare had the anti-Semitic attitude of his time. But he had the artistry of a genius and simply could not write the pure villain. He humanizes the man.
"Usually when 'Merchant' is done now--and I don't think it's just because of our recognition of the Holocaust--it's the Christians who are shallow and contemptible and treat Shylock shabbily. Certainly, Shakespeare did not write sympathetic characters in any of those people, maybe not even in Portia.
"He's had a lifetime of abuse," Vipond said. "He's an accredited businessman. People use him to borrow money. He's an integral part of the Rialto. Within that context, he's successful. He has jewels and thousands of ducats. But Antonio, who's like a Rockefeller, can walk up to him and abuse him.
"Shylock says, 'You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,/ And spit upon my Jewish gabardine." He says, 'You do void your rheum upon my beard.' You know? And now you ask me for money? What does Antonio say? 'I am as like to call thee so again,/ To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too.' All Shylock wants is for Antonio to stop spitting on him, to stop disgracing him as a businessman."
When Shylock agrees to lend three thousand ducats for three months to Antonio's best friend, Bassanio, the scene is frequently played right from the beginning as though Shylock wants to exact a pound of flesh from Antonio, who volunteers to stand good for the loan in case it's not repaid.