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Tubal or Not Tubal

Gareth Armstrong in Shylock.

The parade of classic characters from the pen of William Shakespeare is seemingly endless. During the relatively brief span of 24 years (roughly 1589 to 1613), he gave the world an entire universe of unforgettable creations. The list of well-loved characters includes the conflicted Prince of Denmark named Hamlet, the boisterous old fraud known as Sir John Falstaff, the comically vain manservant Malvolio, that mischievous sprite Robin Goodfellow and, most important, Tubal.

Tubal? How did he get on the list? You can be forgiven if the name doesn't quite ring a bell. This minor character from The Merchant of Venice is identified in the dramatis personae only as "a Jew, Shylock's friend." The play makes clear that he is, in fact, Shylock's only friend, and he appears only briefly in Act III, Scene 1. His entire part consists of eight lines, less than a hundred words. Shakespeare himself may have given poor Tubal short shrift, but Welsh-born British actor-writer Gareth Armstrong has brought the fellow front and center in his one-man show Shylock. Through his portrayal of Tubal, Armstrong makes this show into an exploration of the many interpretations of the character of Shylock through the years. Along the way he takes in Jewish history, the history of the theater and European history. Far from a dreary school lesson, the show is actually a wildly entertaining 90 minutes of expert storytelling.

Shylock stands alone among all of Shakespeare's creations as his most controversial character. Is he simply an anti-Semitic cartoon? Is he a one-dimensional villain out for a meaningless and cruel revenge? Does his obsessive focus on money over everything, even the love of his only daughter, represent the author's feelings toward all Jews? Are the modern interpretations of Shylock as the victim of the piece closer to the actual original intent? And what of the play's problematic dénouement? This is the comedy, after all, which features the infamous "happy ending" of the now ruined Shylock having to give over half of his property, renounce his religion and become a Christian. Were audiences intended to cheer and applaud at this "act of mercy"? The one man with the answers has been unfortunately unavailable for comment for several centuries now.

Old Will has been good to Gareth Armstrong. As a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, the actor has given acclaimed turns as Richard III, Oberon, Cassius, Shylock, Banquo and Macbeth. His career has taken him to more than 30 countries as actor, director, playwright and teacher. He also regularly appears on the BBC as Sean in The Archers. This English radio tradition is the world's longest-running radio serial, having aired for better than two decades now.


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