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Reviewed by Jon Michael Miller for Readers' Favorite
Vindicating Shakespeare: A Theater Director’s Study of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice by Stephen Byk is a brilliant comprehensive academic study worthy of the highest praise for its thoroughness and its success in meeting the author’s stated objective. But why does Shakespeare need vindication? Well, because due to this particular play, he has been accused by many of being anti-Semitic. Shylock, the play's antagonist, is a Jew and does not behave very well, exhibiting a number of stereotypes accepted by people who hate Jews. Was Shakespeare, like the preceding Christopher Marlowe, author of The Jew of Malta, likewise exploiting the anti-Semitic sentiments of Elizabethan theater-goers? Not according to author Byk, who has gone to extraordinary lengths to disprove the accusation in this dazzling and persuasive study not only of The Merchant of Venice but of the performance history of the play through the ages.
Author Byk begins with a contrast between literary criticism and theater arts theory, saying, among other differences, that the performance director must begin with a “believable, unambiguous, and unassailable interpretation” of the playwright’s purpose. In contrast, armchair literary critics have the luxury of presenting options. Mr. Byk’s absolute interpretation of The Merchant of Venice is that Shakespeare intended this play to dramatize his society’s anti-Semitism in order to criticize it, not to espouse it as Marlowe’s purpose was. To prove this point, Mr. Byk completes an act by act, scene by scene director’s interpretation that intends finally to settle the point. After reading Vindicating Shakespeare by Stephen Byk, we can dispense with any suggestion that as a person Shakespeare was anti-Semitic. Byk’s study is the perfection of academic proof.