#449: Michael Radford’s The Merchant of Venice
Shakespeare’s most controversial work gets the big screen treatment, but are this problem play’s problems alleviated?
Initial release: 2004
Director: Michael Radford
History is a gaping hole. I sometimes say that history as we understand it does not exist except as a tool for the far right, but it’s more complicated than that. There is so much about the world of yesterday that we don’t know. We can see the edges of it and make informed guesses as to what’s in the abyssal depths of the past — but we will not and cannot ever see the bottom.
One of the things that lurk in the dark is what was going through William Shakespeare’s mind when he wrote The Merchant of Venice, easily his most controversial play (and next to Othello that’s saying something!) Typically classified as a comedy, the label seems absurd when viewed through the lens of its primary villain, and what happens to him. (Many of Shakespeare’s plays fall under this ambiguity of classification; these works are often referred to as “problem plays.”) For four hundred years we’ve never quite been able to figure out if the play was meant to be antisemitic, or a plea for tolerance in a virulently antisemitic 16th/17th century Europe.
If you haven’t read (or seen) the play, here’s a quick summary: In turn-of-the-17th-century Venice, Bassanio is in desperate need of money so he can woo the girl of his dreams, Portia. His friend Antonio, a vaguely-queer-coded, but antisemitic merchant, cuts him a check despite the fact that all his money is tied up in ships traveling to distant shores. Antonio borrows the money from Shylock, a vaguely unpleasant Jewish moneylender living in the Venetian ghetto who doesn’t like Antonio but is willing to do business. The price if Antonio forfeits on the loan is a pound of flesh. After news that Antonio’s ships were lost at sea, and Shylock discovering that his daughter had eloped with a Christian boy, Shylock demands his pound of flesh, making an enormous stink about how he’d been cheated; eventually the case winds up in the court of the Duke, during which Portia, who’d read up on Venetian law and snuck into the court in drag to pose as a lawyer, shuts Shylock down decisively, first lecturing him about mercy and then using the law to strip him of his wealth, the money that was owed him in the first place, and finally, his Jewish identity.
We can make some guesses on authorial intent based on the historical context. Europe, England included, was (and is) resolutely antisemitic. England had banished its Jewish population in 1290; they would not be allowed back until Oliver Cromwell overturned the edict three and a half centuries later (and lest you think he did it out of the goodness of his black heart, it was largely for the purpose of converting them to Christianity and using them as spies.) The play may have initially been called The Jew of Venice, in the line of Christopher Marlowe’s earlier play The Jew of Malta, in which a Jewish villain poisons a bunch of nuns. It’s highly unlikely that Shakespeare had even met any Jews — even being Catholic was enough to get your head separated from your body in Elizabethan England.
So in that context, one can see how Shylock’s ultimate fate and forced conversion might be seen as a “happy” ending, at least to Elizabethan audiences, who — like much of Christianity then as now — viewed conversion, forced or otherwise, as “saving souls.” But as the play often likes to emphasize, looks can be deceiving. On the one hand, Shylock is is every bit the stereotype: wealthy, greedy and cruel, obsessed with punishing Antonio for his own daughter’s indiscretion; but, on the other hand, he’s unquestionably the most sympathetic character, as Antonio is an antisemite who took on a wholly unnecessary lethal risk from a man he didn’t respect, Bassanio is a fuckboy who wouldn’t even be broke if he wasn’t spending his money so willy-nilly, and Portia is a racist, manipulative liar who dominates a courtroom she has no business being in and later tricks Bassanio into giving away a ring she threatened to end the relationship over if he ever lost it. It’s Shylock who gets the humanizing speech:
SALERIO: Why, I am sure, if he forfeit, thou wilt not take his flesh. What’s that good for?
SHYLOCK: To bait fish withal; if it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies — and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.
Still, though, it’s worth considering this: however much the play shows the hypocrisy of the Christians of Venice, it’s only ever seen in contrast to Shylock, the designated villain of the story. Portia’s speech on the “quality of mercy” exemplifies this: she presumes to lecture Shylock about mercy (as Christians are supposed to show mercy, the implication being that Jews do not) and then proceeds to show him none.
So with all that in mind, let’s look at The Merchant of Venice, Michael Radford’s flashy film adaptation of the play.
In a shot very obviously taken from Oliver Parker’s Othello adaptation nine years earlier, Radford’s Merchant opens with people crossing the watery canals of Venice by boat. And much like Othello, The Merchant of Venice is set in a city whose social divisions are as deep and cold as its physical ones (and it’s worth noting that Shakespeare liked to use Venice as an allegory for London.) Indeed, Radford is much more explicit about this symbolism as the people on the boat carry a cross and yell about Jewish people, before Antonio spits on Shylock and a young Jewish man is thrown off a bridge — all in between text crawls detailing the miserable conditions for Jews in 1590s Venice and a title and cast roll superimposed over a burning Torah.
Early on we’re introduced to the four principal cast members: Jeremy Irons as a not-even-coded-anymore queer-coded — and even more virulently antisemitic — Antonio, a Bassanio played by Joseph Fiennes who clearly never got the memo from his acting teachers to enunciate, relative unknown Lynn Collins as Portia, and big-name star Al Pacino as Shylock.
The Radford film is the first truly cinematic adaptation of the play; you get no prize for guessing why other filmmakers would balk at the idea of adapting it. But Radford has made some attempt at sanitizing the play: like several stage adaptations in recent decades, he tries to emphasize Shylock’s status as victim rather than victimizer; but short of completely rewriting the script, there simply isn’t any way to get around the fact that Shylock is an asshole at best, a raving antisemitic stereotype at worst, who balloons a grudge into an obsession; so some directors have chosen to instead allow their Shylocks to grow into the role of villainous stereotype rather than begin as such, as if to say that by treating someone like an evil monster for long enough, they’ll simply become one because it’s the only way to survive in a world dominated by hypocritical “good guys.”
Radford has attempted the same here; while Pacino’s Shylock is clearly a little twisted already after years of abuse from his fellow Venetians (you can actually see the last vestiges of him giving a fuck just exit his body after Antonio spits on him in the prologue) he is willing to do business with this man who hates him so; his demand for a pound of flesh should the loan be forfeited is largely a joke, as he’s confident that he will be repaid in time (thus showing more respect to Antonio as a businessman than Antonio ever affords him as a human being.) But as his daughter betrays him, and Antonio loses his ships, Pacino’s Shylock begins to grow ever more rabid and unreasonable, with Pacino’s trademark scenery-chewing making for a dynamic — and human —Shylock; and, what’s more, the film makes clear that he doesn’t descend into this until after his daughter leaves him, painting his obsession as a sort of psychotic break, a desire for Old Testament vengeance against a man who screwed him (even though Antonio had no intention of doing so, and only even took out the loan because he only wants to see Bassanio, the object of his affection, happy, even if that means playing wingman and financing Bassanio’s attempt to woo Portia.)
Does any of it work? Well, I don’t know. Like I said before, short of rewriting the script, there’s simply no way to dodge the antisemitic stereotypes that Shylock’s character operates on; the film tries to provide context, the Christian characters are all absurdly hypocritical, and in a subtle scene towards the end we see a sad, defeated Shylock, forced out of the ghetto for his conversion, but at the end of the day, I don’t think these changes will satisfy any charges of antisemitism.
I guess the best we can do is acknowledge that, whatever the Bard might have been thinking when he wrote this play, he was never going to let Shylock be a one-note villain like The Jew of Malta’s cartoon supervillain Barabas. Shylock may be a caricature, but he’s multifaceted and complex, and whether Shakespeare intended that Shylock be born a monster, and therefore an indictment upon his people, or turned into one, and therefore an indictment on society, he’s still as human as any Christian, which seems to be the ultimate point that Shakespeare was trying to make. And what’s more human than a desire for revenge?
Or, as Durandal once said in Bungie’s classic shooter Marathon: “Do you blame me for what I did before I was free?”