Shylock, Jewface and the long history of the ‘Jewish’ nose

Non-Jewish actors playing Jewish roles need to be sensitive to what they are taking on

August 25, 2023 11:39

To play Shylock, does one need to wear a prosthetic nose and a red wig? Historically, it seems so. From 16th-century England to Germany in the 1940s, that was how the most famous Jewish character in literature was portrayed.

As the first woman to be playing the role in a significant production of The Merchant of Venice 1936 — which is about to open at the RSC’s newly refurbished Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon in September, followed by a nationwide tour — I have gone deep into the history of how Shylock has been depicted on stage.

What I uncovered was both deeply unpleasant and fundamental to the debate about Jews and noses today.

What it boils down to is this: over the centuries, the prosthetic nose was a shorthand, catering to audiences that wanted their Jews easily identifiable and in the quickest way possible.

Yet in a 1911 study, an anthropologist measured the noses of 4,000 Jewish people in New York and found no major difference in size or shape compared to the general population.

I wanted to reclaim this compromised, outsider character, together with the difficult, trope-filled play. Alongside my director, Brigid Lamour, I created a version that I hope is in keeping with our times.

For centuries, Shylock has represented the Other, a symbol of the un-Christian, un-Godly vice of money lending. But in our production, which portrays the character as a woman, Shylock is neither a pure villain nor a victim. She is a recognisable woman, whose generational trauma and life experiences brutalised her to the point of becoming the monster commonly portrayed in the play.

My Shylock draws heavily on my Bubba, Annie, and my great-aunts, Machine-Gun Molly and Sarah Portugal (who smoked a cigar and was never seen without a slash of red lipstick), who navigated the East End like the tough matriarchs they were forced to become.

These women were survivors. Bubba Annie escaped the violent pogroms of the Pale of Settlement and was sent to London to work in Auntie Yetta’s factory, for a penny a week. She slept on the floor of the factory on a rolled-up mattress, until Isaac, the boy from the next village and a fleeing Jew himself, came and found her and married her.

They lived in one of the slum tenements off Cable Street, alongside all the other Jewish immigrants who dreamed of an education but had to eke out a living in the schmatte trade, sometimes supplemented by money-lending under the counter.

Annie called England the Golden Medina; no one wanted to behead or rape you for being a Jew. Then, in October 1936, she watched Oswald Mosley and his private militia of Blackshirts from the British Union of Fascists put up poster after poster about the slippery, alien, untrustworthy Jew, who was not welcome on England’s shores. That was the backdrop to the flying stones and smashed windows, which came to a head in the march on Cable Street; BUF posters showing Jews as hook-nosed and malevolent. That nose again.

Shylock is probably the most famous Jewish archetype in the canon of literature and has left a legacy in how Jewish people are seen. Yet Shakespeare had probably never met a Jew because there weren’t any living openly in England. He wrote The Merchant of Venice in the late 1590s and it was first performed in 1605; the Jewish community had been viciously expelled from England in 1290 and wasn’t readmitted until 1656, 40 years after the Bard’s death.

Shakespeare doesn’t physically describe Shylock — how could he? — other than referring to the character as wearing Jewish gaberdine and a beard. He certainly doesn’t mention a nose. But the very first performances had Shylock wearing a red wig, a thick red beard and a large, hooked nose.

A grotesquely large nose had been the norm for portraying Jews since medieval morality plays. Now, however, the character of Shylock and the “look” became merged. The red hair had connections with the devil (a constant slur pinned on Shylock in the play) and also with the red hats that Jews had to wear in the Venetian ghetto. And the nose. Ah, the nose.

Over the century, Shylocks continued to sport this look. Sometimes, as in the influential Irish actor Thomas Doggett’s interpretation in 1701, the moneylender was portrayed as a clown. But more often, he was a monstrous villain. In 1741, the prominent dramatist Charles Macklin decided that there was nothing clownish about Shylock at all and went all out to frighten audiences with a Jew who was all piercing black eyes, long, loose black robes like a spider, and a huge, hooked nose. According to accounts of the time, audiences fainted at the horror of the performance.

The openly antisemitic actor Werner Krauss played Shylock in Nazi Germany. The script he used was a redacted version created by Goebbels, who removed the famous speech “hath not a Jew eyes”. Unsurprisingly, Krauss opted for the full prosthetic nose and beard, which he also sported in the vile Nazi propaganda film Jud Süß. To him, that was simply what a frightening Jew should look like.

Wherever you look, the idea of Shylock with a long pointed or hooked nose comes back again and again.

I suppose Jewish people are frightening for antisemites, because we often have no identifiable physical trait that makes us stand out. We can shapeshift into “Christian” society. We can pass and assimilate by changing clothes alone. The phrase “but you don’t look Jewish” can sometimes include an undertone of affront.

Other than being made to wear yellow stars or pointed hats, how could we be othered? By giving Jewish characters a prosthetic nose, they can be seen and reviled. That’s why non-Jewish actors playing Jewish roles need to be sensitive to what they are taking on.

The Merchant of Venice 1936 opens at the RSC Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, on 23 September, before a nationwide tour. See press for listings.

August 25, 2023 11:39

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