When I was 13, my mother took me to see Trevor Nunn’s production of The Merchant of Venice at the National Theatre. It changed my life. Set in the City of London and staged not long after the Barings crash reminded Britain of the destructive nature of risk and debt in high finance, it made Shakespeare’s arguments about financial law and the need to enforce it at all costs feel accessible and relevant.
But what really changed me was the humane and profoundly sympathetic portrait of Shylock, the progressively more alienated and embittered Jewish merchant. For Shakespeare’s audiences, Shylock had been a comic villain. Like the Devil of the medieval mystery plays, or Marlowe’s Barabas, he was to be feared but ultimately mocked. Yet here, given life by the superlative Jewish actor Henry Goodman, he was the most textured, dignified character on stage.
The more racism he experienced, the more he rejected Christian society. It made me understand for perhaps the first time the decisions my own family had made in response to their experience of anti-Jewish persecution. In the closing moments of the play, Shylock’s estranged daughter Jessica began to sing the Kaddish, the traditional Jewish prayer for the dead. And I cried. Powerful theatre teaches us to understand our own stories.
Nunn’s production owed much to his predecessors, but it owed most to Jonathan Miller. His 1970 production of Merchant was the pivot that entrenched Shylock as a tragic hero in the modern tradition. It survives in a TV adaptation and starred Laurence Olivier. Kate Bassett’s biography of Miller reports that Olivier had to be slowly persuaded to relinquish the bag of offensive items with which he’d turned up to the first read-through: “The stock-in-trade hooked nose, orthodox ringlets, and a costly set of jutting teeth that were apparently based on a Jewish member of the NT board.”
Somehow, from this unpromising start, Miller drew out a performance that showed us, 25 years after the Holocaust, the profound pain caused by anti-Semitism. For Miller, Shylock was another Lear, driven into self-destructive vengeance and madness by the loss of a daughter he pushes away. And in the closing moments of the TV version, just as in Nunn’s later production, we hear the Kaddish sung.
There is particular sadness in the current climate in mourning a man who so powerfully used the art of theatre to raise the issue of anti-Semitism among audiences. (Miller with a characteristic pun, described himself as “not really a Jew; just Jew-ish, not the whole hog.”)
There are many other lessons to be drawn from Miller’s extraordinary career. He famously trained as a doctor and guarded his licence to practise medicine fiercely. He first won plaudits as a comedian, starring in Beyond the Fringe as part of the extraordinary quartet that also included Alan Bennett, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. His legacy should remind us that some of the greatest theatremakers work across disciplines and even dip in and out of the arts. Here’s to the next generation of polymaths.
Kate Maltby is a columnist and critic. She currently writes regularly for the Financial Times and the Guardian, as well as a range of US publications. She sits on the board of Index on Censorship and this year’s judging panel for the David Cohen Prize for Literature. Read more of her columns at thestage.co.uk/author/kate-maltby