Oscar winner revives The Merchant of Venice at the Cutler

by Hayden Wright / Beacon Staff • March 24, 2011


You might recognize F. Murray Abraham as "that British guy who was great in Amadeus." Abraham is not in fact British, just quite...actorly. His illustrious career spans more than five decades of performances on screen, stage, and television—from Hamlet to Muppets in Space. At 71, the Academy Award winner hasn't lost any of his enthusiasm or bravado: "It's a privilege for a playwright to have me do his work," he said.

That makes William Shakespeare one privileged playwright—ArtsEmerson will present Darko Tresnjak's production of The Merchant of Venice from March 29 to April 10, with Abraham starring as Shylock, the tragic Jewish moneylender. The traveling production, recognized as one of Shakespeare's "comedies," garnered rave reviews for its tenure in New York and at the Royal Shakespeare Company in London. The New York Times said Tresjnak’s interpretation is “firmly rooted in modern times,” and that Murray delivers a performance “as daring as it is powerful.”

On the tenth floor of the Walker Building, the lively Abraham sat down for an interview with the Beacon to discuss his

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career, getting older, and Shakespeare's rendering of Jews in The Merchant of Venice.

Berkeley Beacon: Historically, you've taken roles—

F. Murray Abraham: Historically? You make me sound like a f***ing dinosaur. No, no, it's fine--keep going. That's fine, that's fine, "historically."

Beacon: Historically, you've taken roles in productions as classical as Shakespeare and as quintessentially modern as Samuel Beckett.

FMH: Don't forget commercials!

Beacon: Yes, I think I read something about Fruit of the Loom. But is there an end of that spectrum that you typically prefer?

FMH: No, I don't think so. Tell me, how long have you been writing? What are you studying?

Beacon: I'm a Writing, Literature and Publishing Major.

FMH: I have a friend who teaches English and just recently had success with her very first novel. What a remarkable thing, you know? I believe she has one of the best agents in the country. And she just can't seem to write that second piece. And I told her, she should try to write crap, some silly little short story or maybe a commercial. To break that thing that you are very aware of, after your first success. I don't believe there's a such thing as doing bad work; I think that working is important. I don't believe you should immerse yourself in writing commercials, or bad poetry. But when you're stuck, when you think that you are better, or are worthy of writing great classical literature, so much so that you're blocked—I think that's the mistake that I made.

Beacon: So is that advice you'd give to all artists?

FMH: That's not advice I want to give to anyone, but perhaps advice I want to share. I thought that because my work was so good at a certain point that I refused a lot of movies that I really should have taken. But they were supporting roles, or silly movies. I didn't realize that if I'd done those things, it would've not only established a reputation of first rate movies, but it also would've put some money in my bank.

Beacon: Does playing some of the most challenging and well-written roles ever created—Salieri, Othello and Richard III—spoil you, and make you more selective as an actor?

FMH: Interestingly enough, what it has done, because of my new-found humility (and I hope it lasts forever) is that it has allowed me to do anything. If I can accomplish a great role, I'm privileged, I'm then allowed to do second-rate stuff. It won't hurt my talent. That's something to consider.

Beacon: Do you think that's universal, or specific to acting?

FMH: I do think it’s universal. There are many who would disagree, but that's their business. I'm being pragmatic. I also support several people in my family who are not able to support themselves. That's my responsibility that I take. My mother's 96 and she needs help.

Beacon: For hundreds of years, much ado has been made about Semitism and anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice. How strongly does that cultural dynamic inform the way you approach Shylock?

FMH: No, not at all. I think that the thing that makes the play work is that it's a universal search for justice. If you have trouble with it being a so-called "anti-Semitic play," which many great scholars, Bloom included, agree with—substitute it for someone else. How about Native Americans. How about blacks? How about Palestinians? How about sects of Muslims whom other Muslims detest. How about women?

Beacon: So you don't approach it more sensitively?

FMH: I think if I consider this role in the universal aspect, which is what I do, I think that's the appeal that I have. I want justice! I do—that's what I want. It's very childish--childlike--too. Children demand justice, and I have never grown up.

Beacon: The Merchant of Venice is a comedy. But Shylock is an incredibly tragic character.

FMH: Isn't that interesting? Why do they call it a comedy?

Beacon: There are comedic elements to the play, of course, but portraying Shylock, can you as an actor be fully aware of them?

FMH: I can't do anything without considering the comedic elements. That's why Macbeth was such a difficult part. I absolutely insist on it, because what that does is humanize us; it gives it texture and depth. Aristophanes is charming; Macbeth's not charming. I think if you think of any character in that one-dimensional fashion, you miss the humanization of it.

Beacon: One similarity between Salieri, your character in Amadeus, and Shylock, is that they're both simultaneously devious and sympathetic.

FMH: Do you think that Shylock is devious?

Beacon: Well, to demand a pound of Antonio’s flesh—

FMH: He demanded a pound of flesh, but Antonio accepted it. It takes two to tango. I think he was very up front about it and I think that it was his right and privilege. He did something that each of us would like to do to someone who has treated us like shit, and that's what he was treated like. The first Jewish ghetto was in Venice, and they were confined to their ghetto, which is still there, by sundown. And if they were in the streets, in broad daylight, people would spit on them, kick them and hit them—there was no justice...In other words, it was like being a black in the South some years ago. And now, the governor of Alabama—the governor of a state—is coming out and saying, "If you're not Christian, you're not my brother or sister." What does that mean if you're Jewish, or Muslim?

Beacon: Yes, I think Bill Maher said something the other night—

FMH: Oh, God bless Bill Maher. What did he say?

Beacon: He was talking about false niceties in the political dialogue, the way people say "my good friend from the great state of Alabama." How that is entirely false because nobody believes the two are good friends and nobody outside of Alabama believes it's a great state.

FMH: [laughter] …So when you narrow this play, and try to make it into an example of anti-Semitism, I think that people are missing the point. There's a reason that this play has lasted for 450 years, and why it's provocative. But also, what people don't understand is that this was the first play that humanized Jews, for the first time—and Shakespeare did it—that gave them human qualities.

Beacon: But as it was performed initially, do you think that the Elizabethan caricature of Jews onstage necessarily allowed humanity to shine through, the way your modern interpretation does?

FMH: To play that role with a red wig, and a big, big, super-long nose, and to still say those words, "hath not a Jew eyes?" I think is an extraordinary accomplishment. And it's a comedy. I mean, I can do that thing as a comedy. I can, I've done it with Bob Brustein. We've done a certain speech in a slapstick, silly, Jewish accents. And it's funny, as horrible as it sounds. We can make things funny. But as far as humanizing people like Salieri and Shylock--I think I should take the credit for it. I will take credit for it. 

Beacon: So do you feel that as a modern, you have an advantage—not to be confined to that caricature?

FMH: As far as I'm concerned, I have a terrific sense of myself as an actor. I have great pride in being an actor. And any role that I do, I try to insist that it will be done better than it's ever been done. It doesn't always work, but that's how I feel. And it's a privilege. And it's a privilege for a playwright to have me do his work.

Beacon: At this stage of your career, do you have a sense of what you'd like to do next? Are roles becoming available to you that weren't when you were younger, that you'd like to do?

FMH: What the Academy Award has done is allowed me to do most of the great roles ever written. And that's what it means to be. There's not that much money involved in doing classical roles, but it's what I want. Now, if I had the choice, it would always be a new play. There's nothing like a new play.

Beacon: To originate a role.

FMH: Creating something that has never been before—there's nothing like it.

The Merchant of Venice will be presented from March 29 to April 10 at the Cutler Majestic Theater. Tickets are available at artsemerson.org. More of this interview can be found at