86. John Sichel’s The Merchant of Venice, 1973.
This isn’t the first made-for-television version of The Merchant of Venice I have reviewed, dear readers. I found it for free in its entirety on Youtube.
I gave this televised antique a chance because this was, I think, Olivier’s only recorded go at Shylock. That this was based on Jonathan Miller’s National Theatre’s theatrical production also whetted my stunted curiosity.
While I wouldn’t recommend this version as someone’s first foray into Shakespeare or even this play, if you are familiar with the play, this version is a gem despite the washed out nature of this 1973 TV version.
The blocking and cinematography of this modest production are outstanding! Often with television productions, you have actors yelling in wide shots as they stand around uncomfortably. That sort of an experience is like an inoculation against Shakespeare. Not so here. Peter Roden designed the sets, and they form a close, tight setting. The occasional bridge reminds us that this is Venice, but for the most part, the feeling is intimate. John Sichel was the television director, and I don’t know if credit for the superior cinematography should go to him (the IMDB page and end credits are unhelpful, dear readers). What I can say is that the camera moves a lot to frame the actors in these intimate shots that serve the story so well without drawing attention to itself. Maybe the filmmakers had no choice, playing Tetris with bodies and the camera because there was no room, but that choice is charming.
The setting is the 1880s, which means, blissfully, no codpieces. The costumes make the story feel much more contemporary.
As a Shakespeare junkie, I am often ambivalent about the performances of Laurence Olivier. His Hamlet is somewhat dull. His Henry V begins brilliantly—until he gets to the part that Shakespeare wrote. But his Richard III is an epiphany. And so is his Shylock. This is one of Olivier’s best performances on film, despite almost no one seeming to be aware of its existence.
What is driven home from Olivier’s Shylock is how many chances Shylock gives to Antonio to be treated like a human being. When brokering the mockery of a loan, Olivier takes off his glove to shake Antonio’s hand, but Antonio rejects that offer—and when we next see Shylock, Olivier’s glove is already back on, as if he knew that his goodwill would be summarily rejected.
Shakespeare leans heavily on poetic justice in his comedies, and some plays include apologies for suggesting disruptions of the public order. The Merchant of Venice is no different. Shylock is contractually allowed to remove a pound of flesh from Antonio after Antonio defaulted upon the loan he so contemptuously made with Shylock. The Jew is punished for his hubris, his inhumanity, and his seeming contentment with his outsider status as a Venetian. But what we see before this ending leads us to believe that Shylock, whose house is robbed of his property—a chunk of his wealth and his daughter—is justified in his rage. If he were allowed to carve out his pound of flesh, would the grotesquery of this unnerve him? Shylock’s goal is to show the Venetian order its own logical absurdity—but he fails, tricked out of justice by a willful interpretation of his bond.
This version of justice will feel poetic to anti-Semitic Christians in the audience, but not to those capable of listening to Shylock throughout the play. When Shylock hears the report of his daughter Jessica’s misconduct overseas, he then—listening to the tolling of the church bell—makes the connection that he can revenge himself upon Antonio using the bond. Antonio funded Bassanio’s courtship, and Bassanio is close friends with Lorenzo, who eloped with Jessica.
By the end of the play, Shylock is left with nothing—not even his religion. And Olivier’s chilling performance of this erasure of humanity works every bit as well as Al Pacino’s.
And the play ends with Jessica feeling uneasy about her betrayal of her father—despite her father’s being no fun to be with. She doesn’t feel like she completely belongs with these Christians. And she hears the Kaddish.
There’s the love plot, which is done adequately enough. Joan Plowright plays Portia, who must marry whichever suitor solves the riddle of which of three boxes represents marriage with her best. (One scene has an operatic duet that can render one homicidal. Why is it there? Nothing operatic should ever sound out in fucking English!) There are a few scenes outdoors—and the magic of the cinematography dies. Joan Plowright was more interesting in drag as Balthazar the law scholar.
So the colors are washed out—like an impressionist painting, perhaps—and a few scenes drag, but even Homer nods. Anthony Nichols as Antonio plays a racist cypher remarkably well, and the acting is generally strong. This might be Laurence Olivier’s best Shakespearean performance on film. This retro find is a strong Merchant of Venice.
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.