Shylock in Germany – By W. Beatty-Kingston


[17] The sort of masterful snubbing, to which every British sojourner in Germany is systematically subjected as long as his temper will stand the pressure steadfastly exercised upon it by Teutons desirous of correcting his errors, and indefatigable in their amiable endeavours to open his eyes to their own surpassing merits, is, I am bound to confess, not infrequently administered ad nauseam in unnecessarily large and loathsome doses. But it is sometimes very wholesome medicine, and would be swallowed by the patient with gratitude as well as benefit, were it not forced down his throat in a violent and offensive manner. German rebukes to British ignorance and indifference, anent matters essentially and even especially interesting to Englishmen, are only too often well-founded and amply deserved. One of the standing reproaches most vehemently addressed to us by German critics and Professors of Literature, is that which inculpates us of wilful and unnatural neglect of Shakespeare’s dramatic works, as far as their production on the British stage is concerned. This reproach acquires additional poignancy from the circumstance, upon which German writers never fail to lay painful stress, that the great English poet’s plays are more frequently performed in the Fatherland than in England, and therefore are more familiar to the German than to the British public. Such is unquestionably the fact. There is not a subventioned theatre throughout the length and breadth of Germany in which Shakespeare’s principal tragedies and comedies, as well as his historical dramas, are not acted at least as frequently as the plays of Schiller and Lessing. Moreover, they draw crowded houses. Berlin possesses about twenty theatres, all told, as against London’s forty. It has been my good fortune, more than once during eight years’ sojourn in the German capital, to see Shakespeare’s plays announced for performance, on one and the same evening, in five different Berlin theatres.

The aforesaid critics and professors, however, do not confine their reproaches with respect to our negligence of the Shakespearian drama, to reasonable and veracious limits. They denounce us, as a nation, for ignorance of the master’s works, ignore the critical and analytical labours devoted by English authors to the consideration of his productions, and arrogate to Germany an almost exclusive acquaintance with the real meaning of every word he ever wrote. According to them no Shakespearian literature exists except that produced by erudite Germans. They claim to have discovered the origin of his plays, to have analysed their plots, interpreted their philosophy, accounted for their humour, and exhibited their characters in the only true light. It is fortunately needless that any Englishman should waste his time in refuting such absurd assumptions as these. Possibly the historical and critical treatises published in the English language upon Shakespeare’s plays may be less numerous than those printed in German. Admitting that they be so, it [18] by no means follows that they constitute a less valuable contribution to Shakespearian literature than the metaphysical vagaries, alias “criticisms from the objective standpoint” of Teufelsdreck, or the tedious straw-splitting, hight “criticism from the subjective standpoint” of Sauerteig. It is humiliating enough that we should be compelled to admit the greater popularity of Shakespeare’s plays in Germany than in England without confessing that we know very little about them and are incapable of appreciating them. Rather let us, with all imaginable humility, point out to our stern Teutonic rebukers that the great British public is as keenly alive to the beauties and charms of these unrivalled dramatic works as the most learned and ćsthetic German audiences can be – ay, and as eager to crowd theatres in order to revel in their performance – whenever an opportunity is afforded to them, as in the case of Mr. Henry Irving’s recent Shakespearian revivals, of witnessing worthy renderings of our national poet’s noblest inspirations.

The latest of these rivals has proved a theatrical event of such extraordinary moment and interest, that it has obtained copious and condescending mention in the columns of the German press. The London correspondents of leading German newspapers have dealt at considerable length with Mr. Irving’s interpretation of Shylock, and our dogmatical kinsmen’s faith in their monopoly of actors capable of performing that difficult part intelligently has been slightly shaken by the reports that have lately reached them from this metropolis. The “Merchant” has been an established favourite upon the German stage ever since its first performance at Berlin, nearly a century ago. All the great German tragedians, from the year 1788, down to the present day, have successively exhibited a strong predilection for the part of the much-injured Jew; all the leading Shakespearian critics and analysts of Germany have bestowed the utmost pains upon the exponence of their several views of Shylock’s character, so replete with startling contrasts and strange incongruities. It was a German book-worm, as perhaps may be remembered, who first disclosed the curious fact that Shakespeare had borrowed the incident which leads up to the chief “situation” of the play from a quaint chronicle written by one of his Italian contemporaries, Gregorio Leti, and intituled “The Life of Pope Sixtus V.,” in which that pontiff is stated to have pronounced sentence in a case of disputed wager between a wealthy Roman merchant, named Paolo Maria Secchi, and one Samson Ceneda, a “protected” Jew. Secchi had laid Ceneda a thousand scudi to a pound of the latter’s flesh, that the town of San Dominico, in the island of Hispaniola, had been captured by Francesco Drago, which turned out to be the case; and, the Christian demanding payment of his uncanny bet as soon as proof arrived that he had won it, the Jew appealed to the clemency of Sixtus for exemption from the exacted forfeiture. The astute pontiff sate in judgement upon the case, and awarded Secchi his pound of flesh from the Jew’s body, with the proviso that, should he cut off an inexact quantity, he should straightway be hanged; whereupon Secchi promptly forewent his right. Sextus, however, sentenced them both to death for the frivolity they had [19] manifested in contracting so unnatural a wager, and ultimately commuted their punishment to a fine of two thousand scudi apiece. Leti’s chronicle was published six years before the first production of Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” (with Burbage as Shylock), and the German authorities hold that the “Swan of Avon,” besides changing the scene of the action from Rome to Venice, and altering the character of the contract entered into by his two chief personages, transferred the objectionable part of the transaction from the Christian to the Jew, in deference to the prejudices of the age he lived in, and to the vulgar superstition which then stigmatised Jews as systematic assassinators of Christians for the purpose of devouring their flesh at certain inhuman religious ceremonies prescribed for Israelitish observance by the statutes of their fierce and revengeful Law.

Eminent German writers, who, at different times, have promulgated dogmas, each according to the dictates of his judgment or fancy, anent the moral and physical characteristics of Shakespeare’s leading personages, have propounded several theories with respect to Shylock no less startlingly various than their views of Hamlet and Iago. As German actors have, in some measure, derived their several readings of the part in question from the dicta of these “Shakespeare Revealers,” it may be well, before making any attempt to indicate the respective peculiarities of contemporary German Shylocks, to briefly summarise three or four of the solemn sentences passed upon the Jew by authors who enjoy the reputation throughout the Fatherland of being the chief authorities upon all the questions arising form Shakespearian research and controversy. Gervinus appraises Shylock as the very refuse of mankind, absorbed in petty considerations, watchfully preoccupied, systematically self-restrained; always ready to avail himself of the meanest expedient in order to achieve the most insignificant end; profoundly cunning and replete with penny-wisdom. He has succeeded not only in indurating his character, but in petrifying his soul. Arrived at the apogee of vileness, he falls into the trap which he has laid for another. In order not to sink him utterly beneath human interest, Shakespeare has endowed him with a keen consciousness of the degradations afflicting his race. Rümelin, again, is of the opinion that Shakespeare’s conception of Shylock had its origin in the profound contempt generally entertained for Jews in the “good old days.” He pronounces the Venetian Hebrew to be “a deceitful, dangerous creature – a wicked buffoon, bent upon robbing his fellow-man of goods and life, under the exterior seeming of probity, obligingness, and piety.” Some highly pertinent observations upon Shylock’s character and action in the play, evidently based upon a far more careful and introspective consideration of both than is embodied in the remarks of either Gervintus or Rümelin, occur in Professor Ihering’s “Fight for Justice.” The Professor says: “Shylock’s bond is intrinsically null and void by reason of its immorality. Its validity, however, having been acknowledged by the tribunal, Portia’s legal pronouncement upon it is simply a miserable quibble. The tragic element of the trial-scene lies in the circumstance that Shylock, a Jew of the Middle Ages, firmly [20] believing in abstract justice, which he conceives himself as much entitled to as any Christian, discovers, when the catastrophe bursts upon his head, that he is, after all, nothing but a medićval Jew, to whom society considers itself to be doing sufficient justice when it deliberately cheats him of his rights.”

Enough, for the present at least, of the subtle analysis and learned disquisition which, if I may venture to say so, after much patient wading through unnumbered tomes, are somewhat superabundant in German Shakespearian literature. No less painstaking and conscientious than the learned German essayists have proved themselves in their endeavours to render the perplexing character of Shylock intelligible to their readers, have been the efforts of great German tragedians in modern times to present to audiences of exceptional intelligence complete and ćsthetically satisfactory impersonations of the “many-sided” Jew. Adequately to describe even the differences between one and another of the interpretations to which the part has been subjected, within my own dramatic experiences in Germany, would occupy a far larger space than that actually at my disposal; wherefore I must restrict myself to a very few succinct word-sketches, which I will take leave to preface by the mention of two noteworthy circumstances, connected with German renderings of Shylock, and distinguishing these renderings, to the best of my belief, from the interpretations of that rôle which have achieved popularity during the present century in England, America, France, Italy and Scandinavia. It has hitherto been the custom of German Shylocks to speak the part with a strong Jewish accent, such as Polish Jews impart to their pronunciation of the German tongue. This modus loquendi is described in familiar German by the utterly untranslatable verb “mauscheln” – a combination of “mouthing” and “mumbling,” but with a sibilant significance of its own to boot. Again, the German tragedians, unacquainted with the noble Spanish type of Jew, of which the Venetian Jew was a scarcely deteriorated offshoot, have in their impersonations of Shylock copied the Polish Jew in his costume, bearing, and facial “make-up,” much to the degradation of Shakespeare’s probable idea. A third curious circumstance is that several of the most celebrated Shylocks who have ever trodden the German stage have been Israelites by birth.

[86] “The Merchant of Venice” was performed for the first time in Berlin on the 16th of August, 1788, the part of Shylock being sustained by Herr Fleck, the leading German tragedian of the Royal Theatre. In the “Theatrical Annals” of that year I find an elaborate criticism of Fleck’s impersonation; his rendering of Shylock’s character appears to have been at once dignified and passionate, mainly based upon a loftier conception of the rôle than that hitherto generally adopted by German Shakespearian students. Tubal, as a contrast to Fleck’s haughty and refined Hebrew, was played as a low-caste, peddling Jew; and the critic calls particular attention to a trait of subtle realism exhibited by Fleck [87] in vulgarising his tone and manner down to Tubal’s level during his scene with that abased and cringing broker.

Seydelmann, who played the part, before my time, in Germany, is stated by the chief critical authorities upon modern Shakespearian impersonations, to have been the greatest Shylock of the nineteenth century. His make-up was that of a vigorous man, between fifty and sixty years of age, of upright bearing, firm step, carrying his head high, and speaking his words in deep and sonorous tones. Shylock, as rendered by Seydelmann, was the incorporation of a persecuted nation’s accumulated wrath. Even in his outbursts of fiendish rejoicing over Antonio’s ruin, in his sanguinary yearnings to take the life of his arch-enemy, in his tremulous exaltation whilst anticipating his revenge, he compelled his audience to feel that there was some justification for all those manifestations of extravagant excitement. All the sorrows and angers of his oppressed race seemed to simmer in his breast until at last they moved him to unreasoning rage and blotted out all human sympathies from his overwrought nature. When his servant deserted him for a Christian master and his only daughter fled with a Christian lover, he turned like a wounded lion upon Antonio, grimly resolved to make that detested foe pay, in his own person, for all the wrongs inflicted upon Shylock by Christendom. Although he horrified the public by the malignant intensity with which he emphasised his savage lust for Antonio’s blood, he contrived to enlist their sympathies on his behalf when Portia’s sentence shattered all his hopes of vengeance. His physical collapse under the decree ordaining his conversion to Christianity is alleged to have been painfully realistic; and the dominant impression prevalent among his audience upon his final exit was that he had been hardly dealt with.

Bogumil Dawison, himself the scion of a distinguished Jewish family, represented Shylock as a religious martyr. Whilst playing the part as a shifty, thrifty Jew, he never allowed the public to waver from his own settled conviction that Shylock had suffered moral degradation through the vileness of the Christians with whom he had had to do, in one way or another. He made it only too clear, to crowded houses without number, that Shylock, in suffering a terrible penalty for an unfulfilled criminal project, the motive for which, however, grew out of the persecutions inflicted upon him by his Christian tormentors, was most unjustly punished. His Shylock, as well as Dessoir’s and Devrient’s (both of whom followed Dawison’s lines in almost every respect), was conspicuously Jewish, in gait, demeanour, accent and gesticulation. It was, on the whole, more Robsonian than Irvingite – extraordinarily powerful in the pathetic and tragical episodes, all but overstepping the frontier of the comic in the irate scenes with Antonio and Tubal. But Dawison – poor fellow, he died a lingering death some few years ago – was a remarkable and highly memorable Shylock, overflowing with a vigour of delineation that sometimes smacked of the burlesque, but always riveted your attention upon the deeply-exercised Jew, who, though encompassed round about by a host of merciless foes, fought one and all to the bitter end with indomitable courage. Dawison’s personal conceit was inordinate; [88] and, as he was a “star” of the first magnitude, before whom abashed managers hung their diminished heads, he used to clip and prune the pieces he played in, so that the interest of his audience might be concentrated exclusively upon himself. Whenever he consented, therefore, to act the part of Shylock, he insisted that the entire fifth act of the “Merchant” should be omitted from the performance, maintaining that the dramatic climax of the play was fully attained at the close of the trial-scene, and that when the curtain had dropped upon his final exit, there could be no reasonable occasion for raising it again. No other German actor of any eminence, so far as I am aware, has ever taken so outrageous a liberty with Shakespeare or the theatre-going public!

By far the most psychologically interesting impersonation of Shylock that I have ever witnessed in Germany was that of Theodore Doering, the enfant gâté of the Berlinesse, who died the other day at a ripe old age, only a few weeks after he had completed his fiftieth year of service to the Prussian King as a Koeniglicher Hofschauspieler, or Royal Court-Actor. On the celebration of his Jubilee, William I. Decorated him with the Order of the Red Eagle, a distinction never theretofore conferred by a Hohenzollern-Brandenburg upon a stage-player. Doering’s line was essentially comic; indeed, he was the first comedian in Germany for at least twenty-five years of his brilliant career – but having obtained permission upon I forget what occasion to play Shylock at the Schauspielhaus, he made such a tremendous hit with his entirely “new and original” rendering of the part, that no other actor was cast for it at the Royal Theatre during my eight years’ continuous residence in the Prussian capital. His Shylock was one of splendid contrasts and artistic blendings – neither distinctly tragical nor pronouncedly comical, but so deft a dovetailing of both “lines” that the intellectual joinery defied detection. He delineated the character as that of a man terribly in earnest about everything he says and does, and feverishly anxious that everybody, friend and foe alike, should take him au grand sérieux, but whose utterances and actions constantly assume a ludicrous aspect because his notions and views differ so essentially from those of mankind at large. He did not attempt to shine as the vindicator of Jewish wrongs or as the champion of an oppressed race, but took up an absolutely vacant stand amongst German Shylocks as a sort of moral hybrid – a cross between the heroic and the degraded. This marvellous by-play, and the electrifying effects he produced by certain grisly chuckles, heartrending cries, and ferocious gestures, entirely his own, are altogether indescribable. Nobody who has seen him in the part is likely to ever forget him. His exit from the judgment-chamber was the most masterly achievement in dumb-show recorded in the annals of the Schauspielhaus. After having exhibited so exuberant a vigour and vivacity all through the trial that he apparently experienced no small difficulty in keeping his sheer vis vitć under decent control, he broke down under the iniquitous sentence of the “wise young judge” into an utter helplessness and infirmity extremely painful to contemplate. Staggering feebly to the door, his eyes fixed in a glassy stare painfully suggestive of his having been stricken by blindness, he lurched [89] up against the frame of the doorway, and, after clinging convulsively to it for a few agonised seconds, dropped heavily to the ground in an inert heap, uttering a groan of infinite despair that thrilled every heart in the house. Strong men’s faces used to turn deadly white as that dreadful groan resounded through the theatre, hushed to an unnatural and almost oppressive stillness. Doering – peace to his manes! – was indeed a Shylock haud obliviscari. His mastery over his audience was unbroken from his first entrance to his final exit; and this, I may unhesitatingly assert, was the only dramatic characteristic common to himself and Henry Irving. Their conception and rendering of the part differed in almost every conceivable aspect; but I am bound to confess, having been a wanderer in many lands for more than two decades, during which I have heard “The Merchant of Venice” in well-nigh every European language, that their two Shylocks have impressed me more deeply and pleasurably than all the other impersonations of that character that have hitherto come under my personal cognizance.

Vienna has only produced two remarkable Shylocks within the last half century, La Roche and Lewinsky, both of whom invested the character with all the more repulsive features it is so eminently susceptible of assuming when interpreted in conformity with Rümelin’s definition. It would, perhaps, be more strictly correct to say that Lewinsky inherited La Roche’s rendering of Shylock from that truly great actor, when the latter retired, in 1852, from the Burg upon a pension, which he still lives to enjoy, after having played the Jew and several other leading Shakespearian parts on the imperial stage for sixteen consecutive years. Lewinsky, facilis princeps amongst contemporary Austrian tragedians, has sustained the part ever since La Roche’s retirement, unrelieved by any “double” or substitute until within the last two years or so. In the autumn of 1877 a young actor of good provincial repute, named Mittelwurzer, obtained an engagement for leading business at the Burg, under the special stipulation that he should alternate with Lewinsky in Shakespearian premiers rôles, such as Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, Lear and Shylock; and I remember seeing him in the last-named part just two years ago, as I passed through Vienna on my homeward route from the seat of war in the East. To my apprehensions he appeared to be a vulgar mouthing ranter; and I must do the cultivated audience of the Burg the justice to record the circumstance that he scarcely “got a hand” throughout the whole evening’s performance. “The Merchant of Venice,” however, has been but seldom played of late years in the Kaiserstadt. Shylock is neither a favourite with the Viennese public, nor with Lewinsky himself, whose special “line” is heroic tragedy; whilst Mittelwurzer’s blatant declamation and frenzied gesticulations in the part have drawn down upon him such severe reprehension from the dramatic critics of the Austrian Residenz, that he regards Shylock with the same aversion that is alleged to be entertained towards holy-water by His Satanic Majesty.

Before concluding this necessarily incomplete notice of the Latter-Day German Shylocks whose names are identified, throughout the length and breadth of Fatherland, with the immortal Shakespearian Jew, I will take [90] leave to set down a few facts and statistics connected with the performances of the “Merchant” in Germany, some of which may perhaps not prove altogether uninteresting to the professional readers of this magazine. The most eminent of the Berlin and Vienna Shylocks I have already enumerated; and I should be guilty of manifest injustice to several highly-gifted artists, were I to forego all mention of the excellent actors who have successfully played that part upon the boards of celebrated German theatres, now become provincial, but formerly – in the good old ante-imperial days, when literature and the arts flourished in a dozen little royal, princely, and grand-ducal German capitals – centres of attraction to which first-class talent, dramatic and musical, was remuneratively attracted. The great Shylocks of Munich, within the memory of man, have been Jost, Grunert, and Wohlbrueck. Leipsic still boasts of her “glorious Klaeger;” Hanover, of Carl Devrient; and Weimar, of Lehfeld. About half-a-dozen various adaptations of the “Merchant” have been performed at different times upon the German stage, Öhlenschlaeger’s being the version most generally adopted. At the Royal Theatre in Berlin, exactly one hundred and ninety-five representations of Shylock have been given between the 16th August, 1788, the date of Fleck’s first appearance in the part, and the 31st December, 1879.