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Raising the Bard

June 15, 2006

This review of The Merchant of Venice was first published in the January 2005 issue of the San Diego Jewish Journal. It was laid out with a rebuttal that was much more critical of the movie for distorting Shakespeare's play.

Michael Radford’s The Merchant of Venice is not a great film, but it is a responsible – and fascinating – one. He tackles the play’s anti-Semitism head-on, beginning the film with narration about the unfriendly situation for Jews in Renaissance-era Venice.

The first action in the film is found in no Folio. It is a milieu of anti-Jewish scenes, including moneylenders being thrown into the city’s canals. When Antonio (Jeremy Irons) first encounters Shylock (Al Pacino), he spits on him – a stage direction Shakespeare never imagined.

Director Michael Radford so drastically re-imagines the play that the screenplay credit is his, not Shakespeare’s. He removes any number of lines that would tend to make Shylock more villainous. Meanwhile, Pacino plays Shylock as a put-upon schlub who lives frugally while indebted gentiles live a life of frivolous luxury.

We are constantly shown scenes of foppish Venetians gorging themselves on food and women. In a traditional staging of the play, when a pair of Venetians recount Shylock’s speech about his missing daughter and his cries of “My daughter! My ducats!”, the audience is meant to believe Shylock is so penurious he doesn’t know which he misses more, his money or his daughter. But in Radford’s film, we are so skeptical of these decadent citizens that we simply assume they’re lying about the hated Jew.

But with this drastic rethinking of the play, is Radford guilty of not trusting the source material? Perhaps. But how much reverence should we show a play that vilifies and degrades Jews at every turn?

Rather, Radford sees “Merchant of Venice” for what it is: a play with much greatness in it, but a very flawed play nonetheless. He tackles those flaws by neutering the author’s anti-Semitism but not that of the Venetians’. Rather than being a justification for hating Jews, the play becomes a study of Jew-hatred.

It certainly becomes more difficult to sympathize with Shylock as the story progresses, when he insists on taking a pound of Antonio’s flesh to repay his defaulted loan. But who else is the viewer to identify with? Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes), with his lavish parties and his absurd quest to win the woman of his dreams by sticking his hand in a lead box? Portia (Lynn Collins), whose parallel comic plot is like a child’s puppet show compared to Shylock’s tragedy?

Ironically, the best candidate for our competing sympathies is Antonio himself, who despite his anti-Semitism is the only character in the play other than Shylock who appears to suffer. And Irons’ characterization of Antonio as a depressive who seems to care little whether he lives or dies is practically a statement of defiance against the corrupt, decadent Venice that surrounds him.

Even still, as I watched Shylock single-mindedly press the Duke of Venice for his pound of Antonio’s flesh, even as Shylock dismisses Bassanio’s offer to immediately repay twice the value of the debt, I could understand where Shylock was coming from. Seen from 21st-century eyes, a pound of one man’s flesh seems like a very modest bit of retribution for centuries of anti-Jewish oppression, expulsion and murder.

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