Any film director choosing to replicate the genius of Shakespeare faces a daunting task, from identifying a setting–whether from the time of the play or one more modern-adapting period costumes and apparel, and finally determining how to depict the iconic characters, many of whom are part of our lexicon today.
As a result, many directors embark with noble intent, but fail miserably. But some achieve both commercial and artistic success.
Case in point is Michael Radford’s 2004 rendition of the tragicomedy The Merchant of Venice. Superbly cast in a setting where the actual story transpires, Radford not only did Shakespeare proud– save for the time-necessitated deletions of dialogue–he may have made the author envious of how well the play could be produced outside the confines of the Globe Theatre. Capitalizing on star Al Pacino’s near deity status in Venice, Radford was able to gain access to parts of the city that gave the film unrivaled authenticity
Proving his abilities beyond Godfather movies, Pacino delivers a captivating performance as one of those aforementioned iconic characters. Shylock is a beleaguered Jewish moneylender who seeks a measure of vengeance for the derisive treatment he receives as a member of Venice’s lower class.
Compelled by desperation to seek a loan for his friend and a man for whom he feels strong affection, Antonio (Jeremy Irons) visits the Jew he so vehemently detests. Lending money is Shylock’s business, one practiced only by Jews at that time, but the agreement, or bond, is far from normal as the Jew demands a pound of Antonio’s flesh if the three-thousand ducats are not repaid within three months. Reluctantly, Antonio agrees to the terms, while confident his merchant ships at sea will provide him the capital. However, that doesn’t happen as the ships are lost at sea, forcing Antonio to repay the bond.
Meanwhile, Bassimero (Joseph Fiennes) falls for Portia (Lynn Collins), a beautiful heiress, and wins her love when he chooses the correct among three chests. Disguised as young law clerk, she later proves her astuteness in revealing a technicality that saves Antonio and humiliates Shylock.
Pacino’s Shylock exemplifies the ruthless nature of his character, particularly in the trial scene when he seeks to extract his revenge upon Antonio. But earlier when Antonio approaches an incredulous Shylock and the bond is agreed upon, the Jew’s demeanor is not typical someone savoring the possibility of revenge on one who had repeatedly derided and scorned him:
Fair sir, you spet on me Wednesday last,
You spurned me such a day, another time
You call’d me dog; and for these courtesies
I’ll lend you thus much moneys” (I,iii,126-129)
Shakespeare’s lines somewhat belie the character’s tone of angry sarcasm. That one scene notwithstanding, Pacino, gives the character a required complexity, particularly when he discovers his daughter has eloped with the Christian, Lorenzo, and stolen money and jewels from him. One begins to feel a sense of empathy for this man who has not only lost his daughter to a Gentile, but also discovers she has pilfered many valuables with him. As she says, “Our house is hell” (II.ii.2), Shylock initially expresses sorrow at her flight, but that quickly transforms into anger. The poignant intersection of abandonment and loss evokes at least some pity for Shylock, who is deteriorating into a man defeated when he states: Why, thou loss upon loss!” (III.i.92)
That is, until Tubal relates the misfortune involving Antonio’s ships. Sensing the possibility of vengeance, Shylock launches into a impassioned monologue, dredging up the many times Antonio and other Christians ridiculed him and taunted him just because of his faith:
Hath not a Jew hands, organs,
Dimensions, sense, affections, paasions; fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to
the same diseases, heal’d by the same means,
warm’d and cool’d by the same winter and summer,
as a Christian is? (III.i.59-64)
Pacino captures the Jew’s dual outrage at that moment: the discovery of his daughter’s treachery and his line, Thou stick a dagger in me (III.i.110), but just a few lines later exhibiting an almost sadistic glimmer at the new of Antonio’s potential loss: “I’ll plague him, I’ll torture him. I am glad of it.”(III.i.116-117).
Clearly Pacino steals the show, while so much has been stolen from his character: money, jewels, but above all, dignity. This fuels his quest for justice, a concept becomes juxtaposed opposite mercy in the court scene as “Balthazar” urges that “the Jew be merciful,” that Shylock accept Antonio’s offer of six thousand ducats (a bequest from Portia). but he refuses, seeking only the justice the bond requires. Just as Shylock is about to plunge a knife into Antonio’s chest and carve out that pound of flesh, Portia unveils the crucial loophole that does not allow for the spilling of any blood. This is the height of the drama, the climax of the play and movie.
Jeremy Irons’ Antonio accurately reflects the character’s terminal melancholy quite well, but he never appears the type of person who Shylock detests for the ridicule and vitriol to which he is subject. Perhaps that’s an inconsistency on Shakespeare’s part, given Antonio’s disposition and overall demeanor. Certainly, such spewing of hatred would be more plausible coming from the mouth of Bassimero and his friend, Gratiano than the more subdued and despondent Antonio. The only glimpse of his hated of Jews in general and Shylock in particular is when he requires the Jew to forsake his religion and convert to Christianity as part of his penance. But that, like most of his lines and disposition, stems more from resignation than conviction.
Portia possesses an accumulating beauty, in that she doesn’t appear totally ravishing at the outset, but her gorgeousness tends to increase or enhance itself. While her disguise as the young law clerk initially stretched the limits of believability, she carried the ruse with confidence and persuasion. Nevertheless, with only subtle change in voice quality seems strange that Bassermio didn’t suspect nothing. Or perhaps that could be attributed to his being caught up I the raw emotion of the proceedings. Either way, Ness disguise-or lack thereof-left her far too unveiled for Gratiano to not notice her, but he was likely too garrulous to notice.
Radford deserves much praise for his handling of anti-Semitism. Of course, Shakespeare’s words had much to do with it, particularly pointing the severe persecution and segregation of Jews long before the Holocaust. The crowd’s antagonism toward Shylock illustrated that hatred that Shylock so eloquently spoke.
This film brilliantly depicts the themes Shakespeare tried to express, among them justice over mercy, and equality regardless of religion. The combination of the time and place, and outstanding performances create a version of Shakespeare that will be revered and admired by audiences for many years.