In The Merchant of Venice, "the quality of mercy is not strained -- it droppeth like the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath." Except for one character: controversial Jewish moneylender Shylock, who gets no mercy from the courts and loses kingdom and family.
"Shylock is the ultimate outsider," explains Welsh actor Gareth Armstrong. He'll be appearing in Shylock, an intelligent and transporting one-man show about the Shakespearean, at the Edison Theatre on Jan. 27. Armstrong portrays Tubal, a minor character in Merchant who uses Shylock as a touchstone for institutionalized anti-Semitism in Shakespeare and the wider world. Jews, explains Armstrong, "were despised because they were "Christ-killers,' and the only work was moneylenders, and nobody likes anyone they owe money to."
Armstrong's insight into an Elizabethan worldview and the imperishability of stereotype doesn't hinder his mandate to entertain as well as inform. As he researched the show, he was surprised at how early instances of anti-Semitism turn up in the historical record. Such practices date back to Pontius Pilate and were well established by the Bard's time. ""Children were captured by Jews and their blood used to make matzo bread' was a calumny that started in England in the 13th century," he says sadly. As Tubal, he can not only take on the character of Shylock but explain how the character's portrayal has been altered through four centuries.
Getting beneath the surface of Shylock was a welcome exercise for Armstrong, who has acted for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Armstrong has emoted iambic pentameter in more than 30 countries. He's been cast in a wide variety of roles, from the insouciant Puck to the neurotically ambitious Macbeth to, of course, Shylock. "He got under my skin," says Armstrong. "It's more interesting to play a character who people find unacceptable, in a way."