"Shakespeare's Villains: A Master Class in Evil" -- Steven Berkoff's new one-man show at The Public Theater this month -- gives us more than we bargain for. The idea itself has merit: a preeminent classical actor in a one-man revue of Shakespeare's great villains. Rather than the traditional one play, one villain -- we get eight. Berkoff tears his way through the best antagonists the Bard has to offer. The list includes Iago, Richard III, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth (simultaneously), Coriolanus and even Hamlet ("What, Hamlet a villain? How can this be? He's blonde! He's Kenneth Branagh!"). It's a fast-forward version of Shakespeare 101 with the teacher you always dreamed of, but probably never got. Berkoff mixes bold physical performance with an off-the-cuff lecture style. He introduces a character, gives a brief review of motives and previous interpretations, then plunges in. Yet his rich performances and cunning insights are only a piece of it. We get something even more powerful and unsettling than top-notch stage villainy. We get Shylock.
Let me back up. Berkoff begins by telling us that villainy springs from"the absence of love or compassion." A villain is a villain because there is something fundamentally human missing. They are lacking"the milk of human kindness." Shakespeare's villains take us in and win us over by sharing this emptiness. They seduce us with it. We see our personal alienations magnified in their own, and subconsciously, vicariously, relish as they take vengeance upon the world.
This identification with evil is titillating. And Berkoff's acting skills are unsurpassed. But this is the evil of the stage; it safely resides within the bounds of fiction. It is only theater; still make-believe. Still safe.
Until Shylock appears.
"Shakespeare wrote Shylock as this filthy creature in this encrusted cap, egg sandwich in the back pocket, old coat stiff with spit. He doesn't have the coat cleaned because he'd just be spat on the next day, and what was the point? You'd just be wasting money," Berkoff declares. With that his back hunches, his lips curl up over his gums and saliva begins to dribble down his chin. He spits out Shylock's words with a mixture of vehemence and ingratiating fear. This is not the noble and wronged member of a persecuted minority; this is atavistic, half man-half animal, Caliban.
Berkoff plays the Shylock of the Elizabethan stage. Outside of Nazi Germany, this bogeyman has rarely, if ever, been seen in the twentieth century. It is the embodiment of the medieval myth of the Jew, which is what Shakespeare took his inspiration from. What he wrote is not the result of contact with the Jews of his time. In all likelihood, Shakespeare never met a Jew in his life. They were expelled from England in 1290, and not readmitted till Cromwell's revolution. English society went over three centuries without any contact with them. In this time, it was easy for the myths to take deep root.
And the myths were horrid: The Jews were mysterious, scheming and greedy. Their religion prescribed violent ritual sacrifices of Christian children. They were the delegates of Satan. They stole and hoarded money. They were the agents of enemy countries. The list goes on and on. At the root of this myth was their otherness. While Christianity rapidly spread through Europe, the Jews held fast to their old ways of life. To ensure Christianity took a strong hold, its leaders strengthened their ranks by demonizing those who differed.
Of course anyone who reads the play sees that Shakespeare created more than just a caricature. If anything, he is working against it. Shylock is human. However evil his intentions and actions are, and however unfairly the play treats him, he still generates empathy. This is what makes him dangerous.
The famous Shakespeare critic Harold Bloom wrote"One would have to be deaf, blind and dumb not to recognize that Shakespeare's grand, equivocal comedy The Merchant of Venic e is nevertheless a profoundly anti-Semitic work." Shylock has lived on through the centuries because he was both grand and equivocal. If he and the play had been merely anti-Semitic, they would be a blurry memory. But he is a horrible, mythical stereotype made human. Given life and breath by the greatest poet of the English language. There's no avoiding the fact that Shakespeare's influence was not always benevolent.
And so, at the end of a century that has sought to infuse the stage with political correctness, we are presented with Berkoff's racist stereotype. What does he hope to accomplish with it? His Shylock is vital because it sheds light on the play's terrible legacy. Bloom was not alone when he observed that Merchant was"more of an incitement to anti-semitism than The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion." This forgery of Jewish doctrine -- written in czarist Russia and used to justify the infamous pogroms of the time -- was later adopted (along with Merchant) as gospel by the Third Reich.
Watching Berkoff writhe and scheme and spit is like watching a window to the past. Through it we see the history of Shylock. We see his influence, and the effect is chilling. Unlike the other villains Berkoff portrays, Shylock exists in the real world. His shadow falls far across our past and spills into the present. Its blackness doesn't fade, even after the lights come up.