Vindicating Shakespeare

A theater director's study of The Merchant of Venice

Non-Fiction - Education
228 Pages
Reviewed on 04/11/2021
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Author Biography

My first contact with The Merchant of Venice was when I played Lancelot Gobbo for the off-Broadway, Provincetown Playhouse Repertory Company in Greenwich Village, N.Y. in 1958 and neither at that time nor since have I ever considered the play or Shakespeare to be antisemitic. My later academic studies had, of course, made me aware of the prevailing critical attitudes and presumptions about the play, but having come to the recognition that the prime tenets of the modes of analysis employed by the director and actor are often in direct contradiction to the precepts of critical literary analysis, my studies of the criticism did nothing to change my mind.

However, in 2006—on discovering that a group of students at a Jewish Orthodox Parochial School for Women in England had refused, that same year, to take their A-levels on Shakespeare’s The Tempest because they had been told by their religious leaders (who had never even read The Merchant of Venice) that the portrait of Shylock was antisemitic—I became so incensed at this blind, prejudiced perpetuation of the accusation that I decided that I would do my best to disprove what I considered to be a gross calumny. This book is the result.

    Book Review

Reviewed by Jon Michael Miller for Readers' Favorite

Vindicating Shakespeare: A Theater Director’s Study of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice by Stephen Byk is a brilliant comprehensive academic study worthy of the highest praise for its thoroughness and its success in meeting the author’s stated objective. But why does Shakespeare need vindication? Well, because due to this particular play, he has been accused by many of being anti-Semitic. Shylock, the play's antagonist, is a Jew and does not behave very well, exhibiting a number of stereotypes accepted by people who hate Jews. Was Shakespeare, like the preceding Christopher Marlowe, author of The Jew of Malta, likewise exploiting the anti-Semitic sentiments of Elizabethan theater-goers? Not according to author Byk, who has gone to extraordinary lengths to disprove the accusation in this dazzling and persuasive study not only of The Merchant of Venice but of the performance history of the play through the ages.

Author Byk begins with a contrast between literary criticism and theater arts theory, saying, among other differences, that the performance director must begin with a “believable, unambiguous, and unassailable interpretation” of the playwright’s purpose. In contrast, armchair literary critics have the luxury of presenting options. Mr. Byk’s absolute interpretation of The Merchant of Venice is that Shakespeare intended this play to dramatize his society’s anti-Semitism in order to criticize it, not to espouse it as Marlowe’s purpose was. To prove this point, Mr. Byk completes an act by act, scene by scene director’s interpretation that intends finally to settle the point. After reading Vindicating Shakespeare by Stephen Byk, we can dispense with any suggestion that as a person Shakespeare was anti-Semitic. Byk’s study is the perfection of academic proof.