Rather like John Gross’s magnificent book of the same title, Gareth Armstrong’s text is a guide to Shylock through history and performance traditions, but slyly recounted by Shylock’s only friend, and the only other Jew in Shakespeare, Tubal, “a wealthy Hebrew of my tribe.”
Tubal has eight lines in The Merchant of Venice, whereas Shylock, Masterson reminds us, is as big a Jewish deal as Moses or Barbra Streisand. Standing in the shadows of this character – variously seen as a monster, a religious victim, villain and devoted father, and one of the great tragic roles – Tubal/Masterson can put him in context, discuss the challenges and rewards of playing him.
On the way, we have a pocket digest of the play itself, its most famous speeches, as well as the trial scene and the dying fall in Belmont. The Jews were expelled from England long before Shakespeare wrote the play, so it’s fascinating to see how he melds the bogeyman status of the mercantile Jew (though of course the title refers to Antonio) with his own humaneness.
Masterson discharges it all with trademark flair and bullishness, and the audience responds with as much appreciation as long held affection.