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Mr. William Shakespeare

Formerly of Stratford-upon-Avon, England(Please forward)

Dear Will:

Hope you don't mind my being so familiar as to call you by your first name. But, you know, I've read your plays and watched productions of them for so many years I feel I know you, a little bit anyway.

So I want to tell you about a showing of one of your plays - "The Merchant of Venice." That's the one about this Jewish guy, Shylock, who gets raked over the coals by mean-spirited Christians? The one that's really a romantic comedy with this subplot about Shylock and his pound of flesh thrown in?

Anyway, it opened Dec. 19 at a theater on Broadway in New York in the United States. You've never heard of those places but, believe me, these days they are big deals, even if they've gone downhill recently.

This "Merchant," Will, is really good. It's funny and sweet and real strong about that Jewish-Christian subplot.

But the reason I think you'd really like it is that it has a gimmick - maybe you called it a hook in your day. The hook is that this particular "Merchant" has got a big star playing Shylock.

His name is Dustin Hoffman and he's known by everybody today for his roles in the movies. (Movies, Will, are pictures that move and you can hear the actor's voices, too.)

The gimmick comes from the fact that - sorry, sir - not many people are going to pay the high prices at this Broadway place just to see one of your plays. So the producers - the main guy is named Sir Peter Hall - have gotten this Hoffman fellow so that people will pay.

It's kind of like what you did in the play. After all, Will, you always had an eye on the box office. You knew when you wrote this play that a romantic comedy about a woman called Portia who fools her husband-to-be into believing she's a man and a lawyer wouldn't sell so well.

So you put in the subplot about this really nasty Jewish guy because - let's face it, Will - in your day most everybody believed that Jewish people were just plain bad. And you knew that they'd love to hate Shylock and be overjoyed to see him get it in the end.

Well, Will, that's the way they played it for centuries. But in the last 100 years or so, things have changed. When actors do Shylock now, they make him sympathetic. They show a man who's been so put down by Christians that he can't help being hateful and mean-spirited.

Believe it or not, Will, Shylock is seen as more sinned against than sinning nowadays.

And that's how this Hoffman guy plays him. When you watch him on stage, you can almost literally see the bile rising up and choking him. He's a guy so hated that he can't help but hate.

Hoffman gives the role some nice touches, too. With his daughter, Jessica, he displays a great deal of love, hugging her a lot. He's hard on her, too; keeps her locked up when he's not around. But, as Hoffman shows, he does it because he believes it's in her best interest. He's trying to save her from Christians.

Jessica, by the way, is played by a young actress named Francesca Buller and she's terrific - sweet, but with a mind of her own, you know?

Hoffman builds his role slowly, Will. At first he seems a little down. When he gives that terrific speech of yours about a Jew being like anybody else ("Hath not a Jew eyes . . . ") he seems not to have enough guts.

But by that great courtroom scene of yours, where he demands a literal pound of the merchant Antonio's flesh, Hoffman's really got it.

He stands there with a big knife in his hand as Antonio kneels naked to the waist, and Will, I tell you, you can see the hatred rise up in him. His face gets red, his neck and cheeks puff out. You think he's going to throw up.

By then he's really let you know why Shylock is so nasty. He's taught you something about how hatred makes for more hatred, Will. He's kind of given a lesson in how things can pile up until they just can't be fixed.

It's not the way you wrote it, I know. But I think you'd like this interpretation. This Hoffman fella is really the only big movie star these days willing to take a chance on doing a hard role on the stage.

The rest of them - guys with names like Redford, Newman and Nicholson - never leave the movies, where they can be safe. Hoffman should be congratulated for doing one of your plays and for doing well at it, too.

The rest of the production is terrific. This guy Hall, I guess you'd call him Sir Peter, founded a place called The Royal Shakespeare Company almost 30 years ago. It's where they

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