On a day like this, I wish I could take a poll to find out which you'd like first: the literary analysis or the evaluation of the star. Since the latter is easier, we'll start there.
Dustin Hoffman has cleaned up his quirky Shylock somewhat since London, but it's still undeniable that if he were an unknown actor auditioning for the role, he wouldn't get it. Perhaps the problem will be clearer if we look at the play.
The American poet Marianne Moore once defined poetry as "imaginary gardens with real toads." There is certainly no better way to describe Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice."
At heart it is a fairy tale about an heiress whose hand can only be won by a guessing game. Portia dwells in a fairy-tale world, but her wealth is not imaginary, and that's where the real toad, Shylock, comes in: He is a Jewish moneylender who makes it possible for a handsome Venetian to go to Belmont to woo her. If her inheritance is "such stuff as dreams are made on," Shylock's loan becomes a source of nightmares.
In Peter Hall's production, the imaginary gardens are fairly overrun with toads.
Hall's is an unusually abrasive view, though an American must remember that the English see this play all the time and are always looking for new ways to understand it, listening for new harmonies in a familiar piece. (In this production, even the incidental music is harsh. While the characters speak of "sweet harmony," the musicians play something almost indistinguishable from the dimly heard sounds of car horns bleating on 46th St.)
A key to the tone of the production is the amount of spitting, which has been increased for New York. When I saw it in London last summer, there were two hearty gobs, one Antonio serves to Shylock in their first encounter and one Shylock lobs back at him in the courtroom scene.
Sensing what a rough town this is, Hall has added a few more, a particularly judicious one coming shortly before Shylock gives his "Hath not a Jew eyes?" speech. This makes Shylock considerably more sympathetic than anything Hoffman does.
Hall stresses the mercenary quality of the Venetians, who are as sharp in their dealings as Shylock. Shakespeare himself makes a point of this when he has Portia, who has never seen Shylock, ask, on entering the court, "Which is the merchant here and which the Jew?" The equation would have shocked the Elizabethans, for whom Jews were diabolical, mythological creatures. (Actual Jews had been banished from England centuries earlier.)
Shakespeare may have intended Shylock as a fairy-tale villain, a Rumpelstiltskin with theological underpinnings, but his genius got the better of him. He could not be satisfied with the stereotype that held the English stage for hundreds of years. He made the Jew a human being. Hoffman makes him a figure of low comedy.
To be fair, his on-the-job training as a Shakespearean actor seems to be proceeding nicely. He is able to mix a little more orotund English with his largely Brooklyn accent. He does less obnoxious grinning than he did in London. He strains for pathos, and achieves some in the scene lamenting his daughter's flight. But the contrast between this self-conscious emotional display and his largely belligerent behavior seems too clearly an actor working hard, not the responses of a believable human being.
What keeps the evening scintillating is the poised, elegant performance of Geraldine James, who finds all the hard-edged wit of Portia without sacrificing her femininity. She is ably assisted by the winsome Nerissa of Julia Swift. Leigh Lawson has a fierce pride as Antonio, a virile aggressiveness suitable for a Renaissance Italian. (If Shylock had a fraction of this dignity, perhaps the young people leaving the theater behind me would not have had the ludicrous impression that Shakespeare was anti-Semitic.)
Herb Downer and Michael Carter are funny as the luckless suitors. Basil Henson has great presence as the Duke. Even when the acting is standard British, as much is, it has an assurance, an understanding, a tautness, a resilience rarely encountered on these shores.
This morning the big news on the Rialto is that Dustin Hoffman triumphed - a deliberately modest triumph, but his own - in his Shakespearean debut on Broadway last night. He was playing Shylock at the 46th Street Theater in the Peter Hall Company's sparsely splendiferous and splendidly persuasive ensemble production of "The Merhcant of Venice."
Having thus put Hoffman's participation temporarily on hold, let's move on to ask what kind of play is this "Merchant of Venice"?
That wise old playwright and commentator Harley Granville-Barker said it first and said it best. "'The Merchant of Venice' is a fairy tale. There is no more reality in Shylock's bond and The Lord of Belmont's will than in 'Jack and the Beanstalk.'"
The old codger knew what he was saying, and although he justified his talk of fantasy pointing out the crazy implausibilities of the story, he also recognized full well the real dramatic life of the characters.
He suggests that "Shakespeare's practical business, once he had chosen these two stories for his play, was simply so to charge them with humanity that they did not betray belief in the human beings presenting them, yet not so uncompromisingly that the stories themselves become ridiculous."
What Granville-barker, writing 60 years ago, did not anticipate in his analysis of this "antiphony of high romance and rasping hate" was that the issue of the play's anti-Semitism, treated there as a side issue, has since the tragic sensitivity-raising of the fiendish Nazis, become virtually the play's major concern.
In this wonderfully clear and cool staging, Hall recognizes this, and sees Shylock as the understated tragic hero that Shakespeare clearly indicated, but just as clearly - he thought he was writing a comedy, poor man - did not stress.
This is presumably the justification for Shylock's sudden shafts of guileless and saintly smiles (a holdover from Hoffman's autistic "Rainman" movie portrayal) as well as the astonishing amount - noted by many of the production's critics when it started in London - of spittle expended.
It is one thing for Shylock to complain deprecatingly of people "spitting on my Jewish gabardine," but, as Hall shrewdly realizes, quite another thing for audiences to see it. Then it becomes an atrocity witnessed rather than an insult described.
And it pushes the balance in favor of this mild, but firmly vengeful Shylock who can give a weight of weariness and ethnic loss to a phrase such as "I would not have given it for a wildnerness of monkeys," and yet can also invest his final dignified departure from the scene with the simple "I am not well" that carries a wealth of tragedy in its chosen, leaden banality.
Hoffman is the perfect actor for this directorial concept - and which interpretation (Hall's or Hoffman's) came first is a question of chicken/egg complexity.
Let me say that I have never seen a more radiant Shylock, or a more complete outsider - but it is an outsider who forces us to regard the play through his eyes, from his viewpoint.
I remember so many Shylocks past, a few great, many not so great, such as Laurence Olivier's famous and exaggerated Hebraic caricature.
On a much-quoted occasion during the filming of "Marathon Man," when Hoffman was entering too enthusiastically into the mechanics of his role, Olivier is said to have remarked to his costar: "Dear boy, why don't you try acting?" As Shylock, Olivier did try acting and it didn't work. Hoffman here tries for something deeper - and it does work.
But most significantly, Hoffman's Shylock is only one note (albeit the most interesting) in an ensemble chorus, and the entire production, including the spare, almost spartanly ornate, scenery and costumes by Chris Dyer, moves as the dark tragi-comedy of manners that Hall has described in the play.
If Hall is at pains to stress the darkest side of this savage fantasy of Jewish revenge, the cruelty of Christian charity and the travesty of common justice, he is also content to contrast this ferociously dappled Venice with an altogether sunnier, funnier Belmont, where Cupid is a chance marksman, but his arrows hit targets.
Even here not all is bright and light - the Jewish Jessica ponders her Gentile match, and the seemingly gay Antonio hovers awkwardly in his closet having dared death for the man he loves.
The largely British cast - much the same as I saw last summer in London - now takes total command of the play. Leigh Lawson's Antonio - given an unstressed hint of homosexual regard for Nathaniel Parker's blithe fortune-hunter of a Bassanio - Michael Siberry's forthright Gratiano and Francesca Buller's troubled Jessica were all exceptionally well-judged portrayals.
But the performance that shines through like a better than good deed in a naughty world is Geraldine James' commanding Portia, the funniest, also the noblest and perhaps the loveliest I have ever seen. This is a quality certainly not strained, in a production on no account to be missed.
What is of particular value here is not especially Hoffman, or James or Hall - but Shakespeare. Hall, as he showed earlier with the final romance trilogy that marked his departure last year as director of Britain's National Theater - is a believer in giving Shakespeare back to Shakespeare.
After so many Shakespearean productions - on both sides of the Atlantic - where directors have walked a path so primrosed with gimmicks that the walk became their diversion rather than the audience's and a diversion that led away from Shakespeare, this "Merchant" strikes a clean and happy note.
Hall and his actors interpret Shakespeare, but interpret him in the pattern of his text and times although weaving him through the framework of our own contemporary viewpoint. It is a practice most refreshingly simple, and makes Shakespeare a pleasure rather than as so often, a director's self-serving freak show.
Contrary to Broadway gospel, Dustin Hoffman does not have star billing in the new ''Merchant of Venice'' at the 46th Street Theater. That honor is reserved instead for the Peter Hall Company - or, to put a finer point on it, for Peter Hall. Once you've seen the production, in many ways an unexpected one, you'll understand that Mr. Hall isn't being pretentious and that Mr. Hoffman hasn't suddenly been struck by false modesty. This really is the director's ''Merchant'' - at times Shakespeare's, too - and Mr. Hoffman plays a supporting role.
It's the modern practice that Shylock dominate any version of ''Merchant,'' whatever the interpretation, despite the fact that he appears in only 5 of 20 scenes. Mr. Hoffman's Shylock - meticulous, restlessly intelligent, emotionally and physically lightweight - does not. His performance is a character actor's polished gem rather than a tragedian's stab at the jugular; it is reminiscent of his fine work in ''Death of a Salesman,'' in which the outsize Willy Loman forged by Lee J. Cobb was whittled down to the humble proportions of a schlemiel. Whether Shakespeare's moneylender can weather the reduction of scale as well as Arthur Miller's salesman did is another question.
Wearing a beard, a ponytail, a long gaberdine, a yarmulke, and sometimes a hat emblazoned with a yellow star, Mr. Hoffman presents a proud but long-suffering Jew who has almost become inured to the commonplace bigotry of the Christians around him. When the Venetians spit in his face, as they literally and frequently do in Mr. Hall's staging, Mr. Hoffman thinly masks his rage with a fixed, stoic grin. Shylock knows his gentile antagonists are bullies, but like the brilliant student trying to protect himself in a classroom of hoodlums, he makes deals to survive and doesn't advertise his intelligence. Only when driven to revenge does he fully reveal the sharp wit and sharper knife with which he intends to extract his pound of flesh.
Although Mr. Hoffman has not lost the strange accent (a Bronxish rasp) that, like Vanessa Redgrave's in ''Orpheus Descending,'' is apparently de rigueur for stars in a Hall production, his performance is less tentative than it was early in his London run last summer. Mr. Hoffman is always working, always thinking, always interesting to observe.
Leave it to this actor to make neurotic hay of Shylock's clipped repetitions - the punctuating use of the word ''well'' through his early lines and the incantatory rhetorical obsession with the size and span of his loan to Antonio (3,000 ducats, three months). Mr. Hoffman's loving but suffocating farewell to Jessica, the daughter who will soon desert him, has the paternal possessiveness of a melancholy Tevye, and his rendition of the ''Hath not a Jew eyes?'' soliloquy is dignified and searching, more Talmud than Old Testament.
But one wants more, and the role's deep notes of blind, distorting rage and vengeance are never sounded. Like it or not, Shylock in the end becomes a man driven to collect a debt in blood - whether because he is an anti-Semitic caricature or because, as Mr. Hall properly chooses to stress, his revenge has been provoked by the vicious anti-Semites of Venice. Yet Mr. Hoffman does not rise to the occasion. In his one cheap touch, the actor nudges the audience to milk a laugh in the trial scene -with a Henny Youngman shrug on ''These be the Christian husbands!'' - and kills any chance that his Shylock will tap into the dark passions of one of the most dramatic scenes in the canon. Even without the lapse into stand-up shtick, Mr. Hoffman looks unprepared to take the dangerous leap of risking an audience's revulsion or condemnation.
The avoidance of risk is uncharacteristic of this imaginative actor; it's the rare Hoffman performance that fails to arouse violent debates pro and con, but this may be one of them. The same may be true of Mr. Hall's impeccable staging, which seems to have been conceived with his star's limited characterization in mind. What does a Shakespearean director do with a cautious Shylock? If he's smart, and few are as smart as Mr. Hall, he stages ''Merchant'' as the comedy it was once meant to be.
Or so Mr. Hall does up to a tasteful point - to go all the way, to mock Shylock along the lines of Malvolio in ''Twelfth Night,'' would be to give license to the textual anti-Semitism that he and Mr. Hoffman must and do avoid. What the director has done instead is devote full attention to the other elements of Shakespearean comedy in the play. With luminous casting and design (by Chris Dyer), the director gives the sky-crowned Belmont scenes more weight than those in mercantile, copper-hued Venice. The real star of the evening becomes Geraldine James's Portia -the only character to figure prominently in both realms - and her pursuit of pastoral romance is presented as vividly as her prosecution of the urban trial scene.
Miss James is well up to Mr. Hall's demands. Her Portia, who combines the tart intelligence of a Beatrice with the golden glow of a fairy-tale princess, is a delight who drives the production. Mr. Hall has cast her co-conspirators in love vibrantly, too -including Nathaniel Parker's unusually effervescent Bassanio, Richard Garnett's Lorenzo and Francesca Buller's Jessica. Michael Siberry, who previously visited New York as the hero in the Royal Shakespeare Company's return engagement of ''Nicholas Nickleby,'' is an exceptional Gratiano - both a merry jester and a lout. With these actors and others - most notably Leigh Lawson's excellent Antonio, who does not minimize the merchant's grave crush on Bassanio - Mr. Hall can stress the musical poetry of the various lovers' Act V reconciliations, so often trimmed in other productions.
Not all the comic aspects of ''Merchant'' reward Mr. Hall's tender care. Despite a game cockney turn by Peter-Hugo Daly, Lancelot Gobbo is a lesser buffoon, and the cruelty he inflicts on his pathetic father is not redeemed by dressing Old Gobbo (Leo Leyden) in the dark spectacles and moth-eaten coat of a Beckett clown. The pageantry that Mr. Hall has poured upon the casket scenes -those interludes in which Portia's suitors must play the Shakespearean equivalent of ''Let's Make a Deal'' -does not add to their thematic importance or humor, let alone accelerate them.
This ''Merchant'' is also likely to prove a big target for American theater people who routinely deplore British Shakespearean acting and staging. Though the production has gained some American actors since its London inception, its classical look and blander, if well-spoken, secondary performances are ripe for Anglophobic attack. But to criticize Mr. Hall's production as an exercise in fuddy-duddy Shakespeare is beside the point. The results may look conservative, but in this century it is almost a novel idea - even if born of necessity - to restore romance and comedy to ''The Merchant of Venice.'' Which isn't to say that Mr. Hall's novel idea is necessarily the whole idea. His solid, highly watchable production, like Mr. Hoffman's performance, leaves one thinking about this endlessly debated play without for a second being challenged or moved by it.