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Book: “Because I am a Jew, the Truth behind Shylock”

“Because I am a Jew – the Truth behind Shylock” is written by Alycia P. Oppenheim. This book features the experiences of seasoned actors and their portrayals of Shylock, Shakespeare’s controversial character.

This unique book features several topics, such as the history of Jews during the Renaissance and the history of the Merchant of Venice used as Propaganda. Portrayals of Shylock by Jewish actors such as Jacob Adler, Antony Sher and David Serero (on the cover) are discussed. Shylock, a villain or a misunderstood man? This book explores how being Jewish, living in different periods of history, influences the various actors’ portrayal of the character.

Throughout history Jews have been persecuted in different ways, in different countries and by different people. When starting to write her paper, Alycia Oppenheim contemplated how Jewish history and personal experience could affect the way that an actor portrayed a role as significant as Shylock.

To understand the influence of history on the performances, the author researched the history of the Jews during the Renaissance and was somewhat perplexed by the findings. Living in England during the time that she wrote this paper and, being Jewish herself, it was important for her to understand the life of the Jews during Shakespeare’s time. Researching the atrocities inflicted on the Jewish people during the Renaissance may have contributed to Shakespeare’s portrayal of his only Jewish character. Interesting to note, however, is that according to history, Jews were not permitted to live in England during Shakespeare’s time. In fact, Shakespeare may have never even met a Jewish person, which might explain the stereotypical representation of Shylock “the Jew”.

The purpose of the dissertation was to determine the effect of personal experiences and history on the Jewish actors’ portrayals of Shylock. It was interesting to consider that actors are supposed to get into character by forgetting their identities but, for these Jewish actors, they needed to take into consideration not only their own history and their own feelings but also the history of those who came before. In writing the paper, Alycia did experience some difficulty when attempting to find information regarding certain actors and performances from 1901- present day. For those actors for whom biographies and autobiographies were available, it was easier to find information regarding personal experiences that may have affected their performances. For example, the pogroms, that Jacob Adler had to endure, affected how he portrayed Shylock. For other actors such as Antony Sher, though biographies and autobiographies exist, it was how he viewed himself as a Jew and not just his experiences that helped in his portrayal of Shylock. Finding information on the Habima Theatre as well as Aaron Meskin and Shimon Finkel, involved translating press releases and articles from the archives of the Habima Theatre in Tel Aviv, Israel.

David Serero’s chapter brings many aspects of his portrayal of Shylock from his recent productions of 2015 and 2016, and how the anti-Semitism that he experienced in his native France made him create his new approach to Shylock.

About Alycia Oppenheim

Alycia Oppenheim is a graduate of the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. She received her Master’s Degree in Shakespeare Studies in 2016. Prior to pursuing her Master’s Degree, she received her Bachelor’s Degree in English Literature from the University of South Florida in Tampa, Florida.

Having a life-long passion for William Shakespeare and his works, Alycia worked as stage manager for several Shakespearean productions in England. Throughout her academic career she has studied Shakespeare and travelled abroad to further her Shakespearean studies including completion of two study abroad programs in 2010 and 2011, at Cambridge University in England. She also attended the prestigious Shylock Project in Venice, Italy, that was done in the summer of 2016. When not immersing herself in the works of the great Bard, Alycia enjoys the theatre, traveling, and writing.

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