Rogues Guide to Shakes on Film

#30. Michael Radford’s The Merchant of Venice (2004)

In the 1970s, Pacino could do little wrong, even when chewing up the scenery in a paint-by-numbers message film like And Justice for All. Film culture had changed by the 1990s, however. His triumph in Scent of a Woman was to offer an apologetic corrective to a complacent world of affluence, to assert that maybe virtue and decency could be valued almost as much as the privileges and prerogatives of masculine wealth. Scent of a Woman was considered a fine American film. Hooh-aww.

The characters, plot, and themes of Richard III bewildered him, and he decided to film his bewilderment in Looking for Richard around the same time that Ian McKellen and Richard Loncraine produced a masterful film of Richard III. Awkward.

Had Al Pacino just watched The Godfather and GF2, he wouldn’t have found the subject matter and themes so perplexing. There is a great gulf of difference between the rhetoric of theater that represents governance and the actual facts of governance itself.

Pacino would redeem himself perfectly, however, when he was given the chance to play one of Shakespeare’s most challenging and controversial characters, that of Shylock, in the 2004 film of The Merchant of Venice.

Merchant of Venice poster

The rest of the cast is wonderful, too: Jeremy Irons as the proud Antonio and Joseph Fiennes (who was Shakespeare in Shakespeare in Love) as the headstrong Bassanio. And some woman named Lynn Collins, all red curly hair, pouty lips, and a dulcet voice, makes the love plot seem both precocious and worth the bother.

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Sometimes The Merchant of Venice is deemed a problem play by scholars, since tragedies end in a stage full of corpses, comedies end in a stage full of weddings, and in this play, the weddings are followed by … an interminable trial scene in which one lender is owed a pound of his debtor’s flesh.

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Weird. Almost Titus Andronicus weird.

One thing making the play less weird is the masterful score by Jocelyn Pook, whose penetrating, sublime work on Eyes Wide Shut is one of the few things about that abomination of a film that my beloved Teege Braune and I agree upon.

Merchant of Venice soundtrack

In MoV, Pook modulates between the opulent wonders of Venice and Belmont (the latter where Portia lives), the spiritual uneasiness of justice as practiced, and the sense of Enlightenment spirituality.

The homo-social way Jeremy Irons and Joseph Fiennes play their parts, one wonders if this is meant to resemble Shakespeare’s relationship to the lad of some of his sonnets. Michael Radford’s portrait of Venice—often using the actual Venice—is permissive and licentious, with prostitutes walking, nipples exposed, in the streets.

In his day, Lord Byron loved Venice.

That Desdemona is from Venice is partly why Othello in another play will be so easily deceived.

The setting in The Merchant of Venice will set up an interesting contrast, since besides being filthy with sin, Venice happens to be also filthy with churches. Most of the citizens of Venice, sinners included, view themselves as good Christians, and like many Good Christians throughout history, they have an anti-Semitic streak. This Radford makes explicit in the opening of the film, with a captioned prologue, and a scene in which Jews are being harassed, the Torah burned, and a later reference, to Antonio spitting on Shylock, being enacted.

I have, at different times in my life, heard people ask if The Merchant of Venice is anti-Semitic. After all, Shylock becomes a larger than life villain by the last act, so keen to literally carve out his pound of flesh from Antonio. Shylock will not accept a largesse that multiplies Antonio’s debt price twenty times, because he wants vengeance, because he wants justice, according to the whims of Venice.

When making the deal, all Shylock asked was for Antonio to respect him, and treat him like a friend, and he would make the loan with no interest.

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But Antonio insisted on being enemy to Shylock. Because of Antonio’s inability to treat Shylock like a human being, Shylock willhold Antonio to those hard terms.

Before Bassanio’s departure for Belmont, Shylock reluctantly accepts an invitation to dinner with the men he has loaned money to, which would seem to diminish the hostility and condescension of the spirit in which the bond was signed.

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While this festive gathering happens, which Shylock has in essence paid for, Bassanio’s servant Lorenzo will rob him of both his wealth and his daughter, Jessica (Zuleikha Robinson).

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Lorenzo is played, incidentally, by Charlie Cox (who is now, you know, Netflix’s Daredevil).

By the end (spoiler alert) of this so-called comedy, Shylock will lose his wealth, his daughter, his right to justice, and even his right to practice his faith.

This is poetic justice only if you think that anti-Semitism is a virtue. This is what is brilliant about Shakespeare, in my opinion. To today’s audiences, the ending of this comedy is tragic, and some of the best lines given to any character in Shakespeare are given to Shylock. He is the most human character in The Merchant of Venice.

Shakespeare wrote this in 1596, six or seven years after Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta. Its Jew in question, Barabas, is sometimes close to being a Jewish caricature out of Borat.

The Jew of Malta

If audiences left and leave The Merchant of Venice thinking that Shylock’s fate was deserved for his monstrous appetite for justice, nevertheless, the articulation of his pain, of his experience as a Jew hated by Christians, of his basic claim for dignity, is so moving that the ending of the play gives almost anyone with a conscience pause.

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And this is certainly the case when you see Pacino perform as Shylock. He exudes such patience, and his despair is so human.

The love plot also makes justice seem … unjust. Portia is heir to her father’s fortune, but can only marry a suitor who must solve a riddle and choose the most appropriate miniature casket out of three made of gold, silver, or lead. We will happily watch the princes of Morocco and Aaragon fail this contest. Much of her role is to wait upon her fate, as dictated by the patriarchal wisdom of her father, and long for a vague happiness.

Ironically, Antonio needed to borrow a small fortune from Bassanio (who needed to borrow it dangerously from Shylock) in order to travel to Belmont to shrewdly choose “This third [casket], dull lead, with warning all as blunt, ‘Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.’” Odd that a poor or even a man of modest means could not attempt the game for this bride. This choice is predicated, of course, on what Bassanio is willing to give rather than what he is hoping to receive. But to choose this casket, he has risked his borrowed fortune and his friend’s life.

The absurdity of Portia’s being helpless in this patriarchal word is the only way to make the absurdity of the last act compelling.

One embarrassing oddity of this film is that Bassanio must sail away from Venice to Belmont, but when he leaves Belmont, it has moved to just across the Grand Canal to St. Mark’s Square, you know, in Venice.

Oops.

Radford’s interpretation of Shakespeare is masterful, and he has found space between the lines so that Jessica, a minor part, becomes the poetic fulcrum of the film’s finale.

Maybe it’s the gray that is in Al Pacino’s beard, or the red cap Jews were forced to wear in Venice, that makes his bloviating about Richard disappear.

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This movie will break your fucking heart.

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John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.

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