In an era of super-villains who match wits with equally cardboard superheroes, the Roy Cohn of Angels in America stands out as a genuinely original and surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of intentional malice. At the end of the play, the audience understands Roy deeply and compassionately; perhaps they weep at his death, glimpsing the ferocious pain of his life and the secrets bottled up within. But Roy is not excused by his pathos for a minute. Kushner's depiction of Cohn is so successful because his human side is never decorated with sentimentality or nostalgia—at several uncomfortable moments he represents raw evil. The Roy who calls Belize a string of disgusting racial epithets, who delights in Ethel Rosenberg's execution and shamelessly bullies his protégé Joe cannot ever be obscured by the tough, damaged survivor with the gloriously schmaltzy death.

Kushner employs a stereotypical image of the Jew in drawing Roy as a comment on anti-Semitism and prevailing images of Jewish people. Stripped of his telephone and his New York moxie, Roy almost resembles Shylock of Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice—the heartless, greedy middleman who cares only for money and self-promotion. With his back-channel access and wheeler-dealer savvy, Roy also fits with more modern stereotypes of Jews as quietly influential overlords. Kushner does not try to obscure this linkage—he revels in it. The first scene in which Roy appears announces him as a grandly over-the-top villain for whom subtlety is less important than showmanship. By making Roy the cousin of these Jewish stereotypes, the play ironically highlights his own ill- concealed anti-Semitism and homophobia. Roy assumes he is persecuted for his Judaism in part because he does not like other Jews; part of what fuels his hatred of Ethel is her Jewishness (likewise, his attraction to Joe is indivisible from Joe's image as an all-American Gentile). But, the play suggests, what makes Roy a monster is not his Judaism but his prejudice, ironically targeted at his own. The traces of Judaism or homosexuality in Roy's persona (humorously hinted at in his first scene, for instance, by his affection for the musical La Cage Aux Folles) cannot be eradicated, and in death his link to his ancestral communities only grows stronger. But while he lives, Roy's isolation from his natural identity contributes to his twisted villainy and his unprofessed but profound loneliness.

Read more about Shylock from William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.