New 'Merchant Of Venice' Recasts Shylock As A Sympathetic Everyman Actor Jonathan Pryce is playing the Jewish moneylender in a new touring production of The Merchant of Venice that reimagines Shakespeare's supposedly-comic villain as a tragic and universal figure.
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New 'Merchant Of Venice' Recasts Shylock As A Sympathetic Everyman

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New 'Merchant Of Venice' Recasts Shylock As A Sympathetic Everyman

New 'Merchant Of Venice' Recasts Shylock As A Sympathetic Everyman

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Shakespeare's play "The Merchant Of Venice" is a troubling comedy.


JONATHAN PRYCE: (As Shylock) You call me misbeliever, cutthroat dog and spit upon my Jewish gaberdine, and all for use of that which is mine own. Well, then, it now appears you need my help.

SIEGEL: The play's villain is Shylock, a Jewish moneylender. He gives one of his Christian tormentors a loan on condition that, if the merchant doesn't repay, Shylock gets a pound of the borrower's flesh. While Shylock does give a famous speech that nobly decries the dehumanization of Jews, the play is full of anti-Semitic language and ideas. Shakespeare's Globe Theater has a production of The Merchant of Venice on tour. It's in Washington, D.C., right now. It's gotten good reviews, especially for actor Jonathan Pryce, who plays Shylock and who joins me now. Welcome to the program.

J. PRYCE: Thank you.

SIEGEL: I should tell people who don't recognize you by name or by voice that you're the Jonathan Pryce of HBO's "Game Of Thrones," of "Wolf Hall" on PBS and from "Miss Saigon" on Broadway and from the movies "Brazil," "Evita" and lots of others. Is this your first Shylock?

J. PRYCE: It is, yeah. And I never thought I would play Shylock. And I never thought I'd be appearing at all in "The Merchant Of Venice." It's a play I've never, in the past, liked. And when they asked me from the Globe last year if I wanted to do it, my immediate reaction was no.


J. PRYCE: Well, as I say, I've never liked it. I'd always considered it to be a racist play, an offensive play. It's billed as a comedy. I always thought it wasn't particularly funny. So I said no and immediately regretted it because I either say no too quick or yes too quick.

SIEGEL: Well, what changed your mind?

J. PRYCE: Well, I asked for time to reread it and reading it from Shylock's point of view, thinking I would play Shylock, and also reading it in 2015. The political situation in the world today, the fear of the alien, fear of the immigrant - it became a very relevant piece. And it has huge resonances and echoes of what's happening today.

SIEGEL: Among the things that have been added to this production of "The Merchant Of Venice" is this exchange we're going to. These are - these are excerpts from a video that's been made of the play on stage. This is an exchange between Shylock and his daughter, Jessica.


J. PRYCE: (As Shylock, speaking Yiddish).

PHOEBE PRYCE: (As Jessica, speaking Yiddish).

J. PRYCE: (As Shylock, speaking Yiddish).

P. PRYCE: (As Jessica, speaking Yiddish).

SIEGEL: In case anyone's confused, Shakespeare did not write the play in Yiddish, but that exchange has been - has been added.

J. PRYCE: Yeah. What Jonathan Munby, our director, wanted to do was to emphasize the storyline of Jessica, Shylock's daughter, who leaves the household. She says this house is hell. And she goes and marries a Christian, taking all of Shylock's money. What it does is it gives them a context. And you see the abuse, which, you know it's very often the case the person who is abused becomes the abuser. And he's very controlling of his daughter. And I think that's also what we wanted to emphasize, that Shylock was - he's a human being who has been constantly abused and reviled and spat upon and treated badly. And you see it gives a reason for him to do what he did. So what we wanted to do is to have that scene - the father and daughter scene, ironically played by a real father and daughter.

SIEGEL: This is your daughter who's playing Jessica.

J. PRYCE: That's my daughter playing my daughter.

SIEGEL: That scene that's played by you and your daughter, Phoebe Pryce, as Jessica has the effect, for me, of saying, while this is a universal theme, it's also - this is very much about a Jew. And this is about things Jewish that are happening in this play.

J. PRYCE: Yeah, and it's also about a man with a family.

SIEGEL: With a family.

J. PRYCE: And I just tried to humanize him. I mean, you introduced him as the villain of the piece. I do not see him as the villain of the piece at all. I see Shylock as - in 2016, as a kind of everyman figure. He's every immigrant. He's every person who's trying to escape. And it becomes a very universal piece. Otherwise, I don't think it's palatable.

SIEGEL: Playing Shylock, you get to read this most recognizable speech from "The Merchant Of Venice."


J. PRYCE: (As Shylock) Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, passions? Fed with the same feed, here hurt by the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is. If you prick us, do we not bleed?

SIEGEL: How did you approach that?

J. PRYCE: Well, I approach everything within the context of the scene. And what we added - just before he says this, he's being verbally abused by two young Venetians. He's then spat on, and it comes out. It's not something he goes around with this speech in his head and waiting for the opportunity to say this. It comes out of anger and frustration and the opportunity to get to say it.

SIEGEL: You mentioned that you have played a lot of Jewish parts. I read somewhere that you were once up for a part, and the director rejected you at first because you weren't Jewish enough.

J. PRYCE: Well, I wasn't Jewish at all, yeah. And he wanted to cast a Jewish actor, and my response was I worked for Mel Brooks 30-odd years ago, and Mel Brooks thought I was Jewish. And if Mel Brooks thinks I'm Jewish, that's got to be good enough for you.

SIEGEL: (Laughter). Jonathan Pryce, thank you very much for talking with us.

J. PRYCE: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: Jonathan Pryce, who plays Shylock in the Globe Theatre's production of "The Merchant Of Venice," which goes from Washington, D.C., to Chicago, later to China and eventually to Venice.

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