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Shylock examined

06 November 2015

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OF ALL the enormities broadcast on TV last week, none was so distressing to churchpeople (even though, as they say nowadays, nobody died) as the enforced baptism of a Jew.

It was a made-up scene appended to a recent Shakespeare’s Globe production of The Merchant of Venice, depicting the sentence pronounced on the anti-hero examined in Imagine. . . Shylock’s Ghost (BBC1, Tuesday of last week). Alan Yentob and the novelist Howard Jacobson explored how this play can be presented nowadays — or even whether it should be presented at all.

To what extent has it reinforced anti-Semitism down the centuries? Whose side is Shakespeare on — the mistreated Jew, who, in his turn, demands his pound of flesh, or his tormentors, who are themselves undone by love?

Jacobson and Yentob consulted critics, actors, and historians. They enjoyed themselves swanning around Venice in a gondola, ignoring the fact that Shakespeare’s Venice is a literary device, an exotic location where we can enjoy things happening that would hardly take place under our grey skies — but which bears no resemblance to the real contemporary Serenissima.

It seemed to me that the experts had deeper insight than our guides, more understanding of the context, and more ability to see the 17th century in its own terms, not judging it by today’s moral and ethical standards.

They also had more understanding of the fact that Shakespeare is on both sides and on none; that he was able to favour his audience with the scheming, villainous Israelite whom it was their duty to despise, and yet give him speeches that overturn these prejudices. He shows us the innocence of young people in love, yet reveals that they are also proud bullies.

Although an unsatisfactory documentary it raised important questions, and left them with us to ponder and resolve.

Jacobi on Garrick: Godfather of the British stage (BBC4, Sunday) explored how the modern appreciation of Shakespeare was born through Garrick’s revolutionary way of acting. Eschewing the formal Baroque and classical tradition, he interpreted the great roles in a completely new way that, to his contemporaries, seemed astonishingly naturalistic.

We would nowadays consider his productions absurdly melodramatic, but this is how culture develops. What will our successors think of the way we do things?

The Dresser (BBC2, Saturday) showed us a fictionalised version of the final exponent of Garrick’s style — bombastic, sentimental, overbearing. This TV account of Ronald Harwood’s play about the relationship between an actor-manager giving a provincial tour of King Lear during the Blitz and his faithful dresser was, I think, the best transfer from stage to small screen that I have ever seen.

Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Anthony Hopkins led us through cruelty, loyalty, and generosity, comic and tragic together. Here was great art communicated with bruising devotion. This was a great TV drama, giving much to contemplate to all those of us who perform in that senior branch of showbiz, the Church.

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