Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

"Hath Not a Jew Eyes?": Edmund Kean and the Sympathetic Shylock

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

"Hath Not a Jew Eyes?": Edmund Kean and the Sympathetic Shylock

Article excerpt

   I went to see him the first night of his appearing in Shylock. I
   remember it well. The boxes were empty, and the pit not half
   fun: 'some quantity of barren spectators and idle renters were
   thinly scattered to make up the show.' The whole presented a
   dreary, hopeless aspect. I was in considerable apprehension
   for the result. From the first scene in which Mr. Kean came
   on, my doubts were at an end. I had been told to give as favourable
   an account as I could: I gave a true one. I am not
   one of those who, when they see the sun breaking from behind
   a cloud, stop to ask others whether it is the moon.

   William Hazlitt "Preface," A View of the English Stage, 1818
   (Howe, 5: 174-75)

Edmund Kean brought a complicated sympathy to his role as Shylock, and, in the performance history of The Merchant of Venice, influenced how the character developed on stage and off. Since Kean, theatrical and literary readings of The Merchant of Venice have focused on the representation on Shylock as a cultural signifier of Jews and Jewishness.

In many ways Kean was the Byron of the stage, self-consciously living the life of the Romantic artist who burned out through his own passionate excesses. But if these excesses led to Kean's premature destruction, according to those who most admired him, they also were the sources of his sympathetic identification with the character. Hazlitt theorized that in such identification actors reveal a sympathetic imagination: "The height of their ambition is to be beside themselves. To-day kings, to-morrow beggars, it is only when they are themselves, that they are nothing. Made up of mimic laughter and tears, passing from the extremes of joy or woe at the prompter's call, they wear the livery of other men's fortunes; their very thoughts are not their own" ("On Actors and Acting," Howe, 4: 153; Bate, 156). If (as Hazlitt argued) theatre is a school for cultivating sympathy and developing moral sentiments, an actor such as Kean was a teacher instructing the audience in the complexities of sympathy. How did Kean's instruction in The Merchant of Venice relate to Shylock's vengeful warning to Salarino and Solanio: "The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction" (3.1.68-69)? In other words, how does the theoretical emphasis on cultivating one's sympathetic imagination work when the object of sympathy is a Jew who is not accepted in either Shakespeare's imaginary Venice or in early-nineteenth-century England?

Biography helps explain Kean's success as Shylock. He was illegitimate and from the lower classes, exposed to theatre and performance at an early age, and his first performance as Shylock at Drury Lane on January 26, 1814 was a turning point in both his life and in the life of British theatre. Although there is no evidence, one biographer claims that Kean may have been Jewish and that the Keans at some point had changed their name from Cohen (Hillebrand 6), which might explain why Kean was drawn to the role of Shylock at age twenty-seven and re-interpreted it. Instead of playing Shylock as a villain, Kean presented him as flawed but human.

Everything about Kean--his style of acting, his politics, his demeanor--set him apart from his main rival,John Philip Kemble. According to Jonathan Bate, Kean broke the Kemble "family hegemony" over the London stage (137). In contrast to Kemble, Kean was, as Jane Moody writes, a "studied iconoclast" (230) who knew what he was doing--he studied his effects and had a strategy for his performances. G. W. Lewes, remembering a performance he had seen in 1825, similarly observes that Kean was not just "impulsive" but "regulated, "with the "precision of a singer" (17). According to Tracy C. Davis, "his mode of acting emphasizing intense emotions and marked mood swings won out over the neoclassical restrained style of the Kembles, who had seemed to emphasize showing ideals in statuesque standard poses (points' held to applause') rather than embodying the emotional explosiveness of human experiences in made-to-order fluid combinations. …

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