Critic’s Notebook: Al Pacino in ‘The Merchant of Venice’


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Al Pacino’s Shylock is the talk of New York at the moment, at least when the conversation turns away from the insufferable heat wave. His performance in the Public Theater’s production of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” (running in rep with Michael Greif’s staging of “The Winter’s Tale”) marks a return to form for the actor, who just received an Emmy nomination for his portrayal of Jack Kevorkian in the HBO film “You Don’t Know Jack.” It’s also the most intriguing element in veteran director Daniel Sullivan’s handling of a play that is as curiously compelling as it is notoriously troubling.

The Shylock problem, as the case might be called, boils down to an anti-Semitic question: How could Shakespeare, the sagest writer in the history of the English language, have trafficked in ethnic slurs and stereotypes? Were Shylock simply a demeaning cartoon, the play would be easy to dismiss. But Shakespeare, as was his wont, humanized the figure of the villainous stage Jew, a staple of Elizabethan theatergoing. Consequently, “Merchant” holds a commanding interest even as it offends contemporary sensibilities.


Pacino tackles the challenge through a disciplined reworking of the controversial character, bringing some outer-borough realism (Borough Park, Brooklyn meets the Bronx’s Grand Concourse) to an old-world caricature. To continue reading Charles McNulty’s critic’s notebook, click here.

--Charles McNulty\charlesmcnulty