Drawn to Shylock

Tania Thompson
 | Sep 02, 2016
Patrick Stewart as Shylock

Scott Handy as Antonio and Patrick Stewart as Shylock in the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Actors Who Portray Shakespeare’s Most Complex Character

In his adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, playwright Aaron Posner has created a new play—think 5% Shakespeare and 95% Posner. His District Merchants places Shakespeare’s characters in the world of post-Civil War Washington, D.C., an era when issues of inequality were thought to be fixed. But they weren’t.

Posner retains Shakespeare’s character of Shylock—the Jewish moneylender—and fashions him into a Reconstruction Era ​merchant.

Shylock is a complex and contradictory character, traits that have attracted numerous actors through the centuries. Here’s a look at some actors who have portrayed Shakespeare’s Shylock in more recent times.

Laurence Olivier Shylock

Laurence Olivier as Shylock in the 1973 television adaptation.

Al Pacino Shylock

Al Pacino in the 2004 film.

British actor Patrick Stewart portrayed Shylock three times onstage, once in 1963 at Bristol Old Vic and twice at the Royal Shakespeare Company (1978-9, 2011). He told The Guardian newspaper that, “in the company of actors, you find yourself being treated as an outsider: I've never been teased and made fun of more than I have on those occasions. People gang up on you when you play Shylock. But what keeps you coming back to him is that he has some of the most interesting, colourful and idiosyncratic language in Shakespeare. Nobody else speaks like Shylock. It sets him apart.”

Anthony Sher, Royal Shakespeare Company (1987-8)
“It's a terrific part in a very difficult play. Shakespeare writes him in three dimensions: the great "Hath not a Jew eyes" speech is a wonderful cry of pain from an oppressed man, but when he flips, and becomes unreasonable in the trial scene, the man who has been persecuted becomes the persecutor. That is a syndrome that has fascinated me all my life because of my South African upbringing.”

Paul Rider, Derby Theatre (2011)
“You play Shylock with trepidation, because there is so much inherited baggage. The pound of flesh that Shylock demands is central to your understanding of the play, but why does he pursue that to the bitter end? As I worked on it, I found I understood: he's a widower; his daughter steals from him and marries a gentile; and he's left with this void, which he fills with the most negative of emotions, revenge. It didn't make him any more pleasant a man, but a very human man, subject to all the fallibilities that humans are prey to.”

Other notable actors who have portrayed Shylock include:

  • Jonathan Pryce in 2016 at Liverpool Playhouse and Lincoln Center Festival.
  • F. Murray Abraham in 2006 at the Royal Shakespeare Company.
  • Al Pacino in the 2004 Michael Radford film, and again on Broadway in 2010.
  • Dustin Hoffman in1989 in Peter Hall's production at London’s Phoenix Theatre; the play transferred to New York in 1990.
  • Lawrence Olivier portrayed Shylock in 1970 at the Old Vic Theatre, in 1972 at the Royal National Theatre and in a 1973 television adaptation of The Merchant of Venice.
  • John Gielgud in 1932 in the West End, 1937 at Queen’s Theatre.

A Sneak-Peek at the Cast of SCR’s District Merchants

We’re excited for the start of rehearsals for Aaron Posner’s District Merchants—the West Coast premiere of Aaron Posner’s new play. Here’s the great cast we have assembled:

  • Matthew Boston (Shylock) makes his SCR debut. He portrayed Shylock in the Folger Theatre world premiere of District Merchants.
  • Chris Butler (Benjamin Bassanio) previously appeared at SCR in Death of a Salesman.
  • Akeem Davis (Lancelot) makes his SCR debut. He portrayed Lancelot in the Folger Theatre production of District Merchants.
  • Matthew Grondin (Finn) makes his SCR debut. His recent theatre credits include A Moon for the Misbegotten at Rubicon Theatre Company and Rabbit Hole at Actor’s Co-op.
  • Helen Sage Howard Simpson (Portia) makes her SCR debut. Her recent credits include MacBeth and The Pliant Girls at Fugitive Kind.
  • Kristy Johnson (Nessa) previously appeared  at SCR in Jitney.
  • Montae Russell (Antoine) previously appeared at SCR in Jitney.
  • Rachel Esther Tate (Jessica) makes her SCR debut. Her recent credits include Stupid F**king Bird at Cygnet Theatre and Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at Arena Stage.

Learn more about District Merchants and purchase tickets.