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

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. His acting, gratefully, betrays none of the crackpot flamboyance of his Herod in “Salome,” the role that had many of us wondering whether he had been studying the vocal patterns of Jerry Lewis.

By contrast, the approach here is constrained, cramped and even monochromatic. Pacino provides more theatrical lift than he did for Michael Radford’s hushed 2004 film version of “The Merchant of Venice,” in which the preferred mode of dialogue is whispering. His accent for this outdoor production has a more of a monotonous insistence, and his stooped, world-weary demeanor brings to mind a kind of Willy Loman of the shtetl (or ghetto, to be more historically accurate, which was never a priority for Shakespeare).

But Pacino and Sullivan realize that, although Shylock may burn his way into the audience’s imagination, the play doesn’t belong to him. He isn’t even the title character, as is often mistakenly assumed. That honor belongs to Antonio (Byron Jennings), the curiously depressed merchant who borrows money from Shylock for his dear friend Bassanio ( Hamish Linklater) to woo the wealthy Portia (Lily Rabe) in Belmont.

What Antonio’s exact feelings are for Bassanio is one of many ambiguities in a play that, replete with games, riddles and disguises, enjoys keeping an audience guessing. (Of course, anyone who agrees to the possibility of sacrificing a pound of flesh for his best buddy clearly has a passionate connection.) Sullivan’s production doesn’t make the most of the work’s manifold mysteries. Shakespeare’s mischievous contrapuntal comedy finds contrasting perspectives for every character, not just Shylock, who’s both a farcical villain and an anguished father mistreated by Venetian wastrels. The storytelling smoothness of this al fresco staging skirts some of the knottier realities.

These Christians, after all, aren’t such an upstanding lot. Bassanio may be genuinely in love with the heiress Portia, but he’s also a fortune hunter looking to get out of massive debt. Antonio is undoubtedly a devoted friend, but he’s also a racist nut-job whose habit of spitting on Shylock in the Rialto points to the need for a good psychiatrist and anger management classes. Portia, the heroine, whose glorious “The quality of mercy is not strained” speech is a set piece for ingénue actresses everywhere, can’t seem to heed her own advice when Shylock’s comeuppance is brutally meted out in the trial scene, in which she, in disguise as a learned doctor, outfoxes Shylock’s demand for his bond’s penalty to be observed to the letter of the law.

These contradictions aren’t something that one must read into the text; Shakespeare was fully aware of his ironic method. Portia, early on, tells her waiting-gentlewomen Nerissa (an extremely fine Marianne Jean-Baptiste), “I can easier teach 20 what were good to be done than be one of the 20 to follow mine own teaching.” Her words linger as Shylock’s wealth and dignity are assailed without compunction in an Act 4 capper that leads, in one of Sullivan’s few directorial liberties, to a forced baptism.

Modern viewers perennially underestimate the past. The tonal challenges posed by “Merchant” — a mélange of romantic comedy, melodrama and unexpected tragedy — didn’t simply announce themselves in the middle of the 20th century. It is inarguably harder to figure out how to stage the play in the wake of the Holocaust, but the 19th century was also puzzled by Shylock’s dichotomous nature. Edmund Kean’s groundbreaking performance personified what William Hazlitt described as the “strong, quick and deep sense of justice mixed up with the bitterness and gall of his resentment” — no easy recipe to get right.

To understand Shylock one has to understand the character within the larger context of the work that contains him. Shakespeare’s knowledge of Jews was scant in an England that had expelled them three centuries before the writing of the play. Sociological excavation, in short, won’t take us half as far as thematic analysis. “Merchant” is a work that is as much about the spiritual emptiness of worldly goods (observe how Shakespeare introduces Antonio and Portia with sorrowful notes) as it is about the misleading nature of appearances and the blurry distinction between aggrandized self and denigrated other.

Sullivan’s otherwise shrewd staging perhaps ghettoizes Shylock too much from his Venetian surrounding, preventing the recognition that the usurer and the merchant have more in common than the latter would care to admit. When Portia arrives in the courtroom incognito, she asks, “Which is the merchant here? And which the Jew?” This resonant line has been cut from Sullivan’s production along with any hint of the strangely mirroring nature of their identities.

It’s important to remember that Shakespeare didn’t invent his plot out of whole cloth but cobbled it together, as was his custom, through a variety of Italian and English sources. What’s fascinating is the way his ever-perceptive artistry subverts tradition, bestowing a soul to a stereotype while maintaining its conventional outline.

There may be no justification for the figure of Shylock today, but Pacino, in a production that serves him adequately well, does justice to the complicated conundrum of a character whose hold on us defies our better judgment.