Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees would just like to point out that the merchant of Venice is actually Antonio, not Shylock. There, now she feels better.
The quality of mercy is not strained.
The Merchant of Venice is a strange and troubling play to modern audiences. Although it's purportedly a comedy—a romantic comedy, even—its most memorable scene is a tense courtroom drama. Racism and anti-Semitism are built into the text, even though the play also contains some of the most eloquent and moving arguments against racism in Western literature. Love and money are inextricably mixed, so that every love relationship in the play seems to be a financial arrangement as much as a romantic one, which also sits uneasily with modern audiences. There's much here that makes a film adaptation a distinctly sticky proposition—yet in Shylock and Portia, the play contains two of Shakespeare's most memorable characters, and it's inevitable that today's actors would yearn to bring them to life.
Former documentarian Michael Radford (White Mischief) takes on the challenge of adapting the play for film, writing the screenplay and directing a talented cast. There are some dramatic changes from the play, and overall the result is mixed—but highly watchable nevertheless, and more accessible than many film adaptations of Shakespeare.
Facts of the Case
Venice toward the end of the 16th century is a bustling metropolis, home to successful businessmen like the merchant Antonio (Jeremy Irons, Lolita) and also a ghettoized Jewish population. Antonio has little use for Jewish moneylenders like Shylock (Al Pacino, Glengarry Glen Ross), but when his beloved young friend Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes, Shakespeare in Love) asks him for a loan to finance his wooing of the lovely—and wealthy—Portia (Lynn Collins, 13 Going on 30), he must resort to seeking a loan from Shylock. Antonio anticipates the prompt return of one of his ships, so he doesn't hesitate to meet the embittered Shylock's peculiar condition: the promise of a pound of Antonio's own flesh should he default on the loan.
Bassanio sets out for Belmont, the magnificent island home of Portia, where he must try to win Portia by passing the peculiar test set by her late father. At the same time that Bassanio is vying with suitors from all around the world for Portia, Shylock's own daughter Jessica (Zuleikha Robinson, Hidalgo) elopes with the young nobleman Lorenzo, casting Shylock into deep depression. Just when Bassanio is poised on the brink of a joyous future, a letter from Antonio arrives with the news that his ship has gone astray and he must pay Shylock his pound of flesh. Portia sends Bassanio after him with money to pay off the loan—then disguises herself as a young man and, accompanied by her handmaiden Nerissa (Heather Goldenhersh, Kinsey), sets off for Venice to try to persuade Shylock to show the mercy to others that they have never shown him.
I have a theory about film adaptations of literary works whose titles include the author's name. Whether it's Bram Stoker's Dracula, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, the inclusion of the author's name almost guarantees that the film is not going to be faithful to the work it's adapting. Sure, the basics of plot and character may be similar, but the interpretation is likely to be the product more of the director's vision than the original author's. William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice certainly bears out that theory. It features two fundamental interpretive choices that we can be pretty certain Shakespeare never intended: making the villain, Shylock, into a sympathetic character, and making Antonio and Bassanio lovers.
(Spoilers follow.) The first of these changes, of course, is practically a given in any modern production of The Merchant of Venice. The almost comically exaggerated anti-Semitic stereotype that Shylock embodies in Shakespeare's text is horrifying and unacceptable now, although it was entirely standard and acceptable at the time Shakespeare wrote the play. Since Shylock has one of the most stirring speeches in the play (and probably by far the most often quoted), the "Hath not a Jew eyes?" monologue, it's not a far stretch to read the character through the prism of that plea for humanism and equal treatment. From the very start of the film, in which text comes up to inform us of the persecution of Jews in 16th-century Venice (poorly proofread text, I might add) and we see violence erupt toward several Jewish men, it's clear that the film is going to be taking a revisionist approach to the character. In itself this is a strong dramatic choice; nevertheless, removing the villain of the play creates a void in the plot. If we can no longer accept our purported heroes' disdainful treatment of Shylock, the moral compass of the play shifts. How are we to care about the romantic troubles of Portia and Bassanio, or the broken heart of Antonio, in the face of their prejudice?
The fundamental disparity between the two prevalent moods of the play—comedy and pathos—is heightened by throwing so much of the film's sympathy to Shylock, and it's a problem that the film never quite resolves. After the climactic courtroom scene in which Shylock is stripped of his livelihood, his religion, even (almost) his life, the final sex-comedy scene in which the wives teach their husbands a lesson in fidelity seems terribly frivolous. Director Radford mitigates this by giving the scene a melancholy blue tint and some poignant undercurrents, made prominent by the presence of Antonio, but the film still seems a bit out of whack at this point. Audiences of Shakespeare's day might have found the tonal shift less jarring, especially if the courtroom scene was presented as a triumph of good over evil (as it probably was), but it's one of the reasons the play is difficult to adapt for modern audiences. The audio commentary offers some insight into the director's intentions, including his favorable interpretation of Portia (who comes off as being hypocritically harsh to Shylock after her defense of mercy), but these intentions don't always emerge in the film, resulting in some seeming inconsistencies in the film's theme of mercy and forgiveness.
To my surprise, the second change actually works quite well, even though it ignores one of the prominent beliefs of Shakespeare's day: that platonic friendships between men were nobler, more spiritual, than romantic heterosexual relationships precisely because they were free of fleshly taint. The homoerotic vibe between Antonio and Bassanio so prevalent in this film—from their first tete-a-tete in Antonio's bedroom—makes Jeremy Irons look disingenuous when he claims (correctly) in the making-of featurette that strong male friendships were standard in the era. At the same time, even though reading Antonio and Bassanio's love for each other as erotic rather than platonic goes against the playwright's probable intent, it immediately provides motivation for characters who otherwise seem to be acting capriciously. Portia in particular now has a very real reason to masquerade as a man to spy on her husband and his dear friend: She suspects she has a rival, even a predecessor, in Bassanio's affections. The byplay during and after the courtroom scene shows that she acts and speaks with half an eye toward sussing out the danger Antonio poses to her marriage, and likewise the taunting "ring" scenes have more purpose as well. We essentially get a love triangle, which is resolved when Bassanio gives up his previous attachment to become totally faithful to his wife. As resistant as I initially was to this modern reinterpretation of Antonio and Bassanio's relationship, I came to recognize that it enriched the film considerably.
Besides such interpretive decisions, another major issue when adapting Shakespeare to screen is the text. Since the genius of Shakespeare lies not in his plots—which were usually lifted or adapted from other works—but in his language and character insight, some critics cry out in horror when the text is cut for performance. As far as film productions are concerned, however, I'm of the other camp: Films that try to cram in all of Shakespeare's words often end up sounding like gibberish, and as Radford notes, the medium of film permits many shortcuts that make some of the plays' text redundant. Far more effective than trying to preserve the bulk of the text, in this case at least, is the decision to pare the text down to more natural-sounding morsels. This allows the actors to take their time to enunciate and express the meaning behind the words, making their dialogue much more comprehensible than in most Shakespeare adaptations, and also avoids that feeling of bloat that bedevils so many Shakespeare films.
Both the tone and the look of the film reflect the way the story is structured—like so many of Shakespeare's comedies—around two contrasting locations: in this case, Venice and Belmont, the luxurious island home of Portia. Venice is the more serious location, with money problems and religious discrimination abounding; the palette here is dominated by stormy colors with touches of red, and the photography has a hazy, storm-cloud-laden look. Even the comic characters in this realm, like Lancelot Gobbo (played by weasel-faced Mackenzie Crook of The Office), are restrained and made to be more melancholy than funny. In contrast, bright, clear colors dominate in Belmont, scenes are more brightly lit, and characters like Portia's foreign suitors bring some welcome comedy into the proceedings; Portia herself, and her handmaiden Nerissa, are lighthearted damsels until, with marriage and Antonio's letter, a more sober mood enters their realm. The haunting musical score by Jocelyn Pook (Eyes Wide Shut), which features remarkable counter tenor Andreas Scholl, enhances the period flavor and adds to the atmosphere of the film.
The performances range from good to excellent, although Pacino's Shylock is not the revelation that I was led to expect from the rhapsodies quoted on the DVD cover. He definitely has effective moments, and there were places where I was quite impressed; but I was rarely as moved as I knew I was supposed to be in Shylock's scenes of anguish, and Pacino's sometimes staccato line readings and lack of facial expression sometimes jar as well. The film actually belongs to Jeremy Irons and Lynn Collins. Irons, as the merchant of the title, is more consistently subtle than Pacino and has a marvelously expressive countenance; his haggard, quietly melancholy presence speaks volumes, and he handles the Shakespearean language as naturally as if he were born to it. His is the most poignant performance of the film. Lynn Collins is radiant as Portia, drawing a persuasive portrait of a high-spirited girl growing into maturity and greater wisdom over the course of the film. Joseph Fiennes is also very good as the boyish Bassanio, who likewise achieves greater understanding of life and love as the story unfolds.
The film comes with a respectable complement of extras, the most important of which are the making-of documentary and the audio commentary by Radford and Collins. The featurette is clip-laden in the tradition of these enterprises, but it does offer some insightful and sometimes surprising perspectives on the film and characters through the interview clips with the actors, director, and producers. The audio commentary is pretty entertaining, since there's enjoyable camaraderie between the two speakers; although Collins offers little besides valentines to all concerned, Radford provides a healthy amount of historical background, interpretive detail, and behind-the-scenes perspective on the shoot, which was apparently nightmarish due to the tight budget, tighter shooting schedule, and difficulties of shooting on location in one of the most tourist-clogged cities on Earth. He also points out with understandable exasperation all the bits of the film that will be cut, digitally changed, or replaced for American television broadcast—a running theme that offers insight in an unexpected area. (The film is rated R for nudity—specifically, the historically accurate bare breasts and rouged nipples of the Venetian courtesans; but network TV has far more squeamish standards than even I knew.)
Whatever one's individual feelings about the liberties this interpretation takes with the source material, this is probably one of the most accessible film adaptations of a Shakespeare play that I've seen. Radford avoids many of the pitfalls that usually beset such projects and gives us a lean, visually stimulating, emotionally affecting comedy-drama. Even though the story itself may still seem peculiar in many ways to modern audiences, and the tonal shifts are sometimes jarring, the cast and filmmakers should be commended for a fine job overall. This film may not convert you into a Shakespeare lover, but it's a fascinating and thought-provoking experience in its own right.
Even if the court were inclined to condemn the accused, the persuasive arguments of the fair Portia would sway us to be merciful. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Director Michael Radford and Actress Lynn Collins
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