The Merchant of Venice

2006-03-30 13:13


William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice is set in 16th Century, when Christians were forbidden by religious law from lending money, and Jewish people were kept in gated ghettos and barely tolerated - unless, of course, the Christians needed to borrow money. When angst-ridden Christian trader Antonio (Jeremy Irons), stands surety for his young, carefree best friend Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) to help him raise the funds he needs to win the hand of the woman he loves (Portia, played by Lynn Collins), he approaches a Jewish moneylender named Shylock for a loan of three thousand gold coins. The penalty for not paying on time (called a "bond") is one pound of Antonio's flesh. When Shylock's daughter runs away with a Christian and most of his fortune, Shylock demands payment. When it can't be made immediately, he demands his bond.


The Merchant of Venice was originally intended to be played as a comedy. I'm sure that to an anti-Semitic audience way back in Shakespeare's time, it was hilarious watching "dirty Jew" Shylock try to take his mean revenge, and instead get his comeuppance when a mere woman disguised as a boy tricked him.

The problem is that bad humour (and this includes humour based on racism or any other unnatural prejudice) dates more noticeably than anything else. If you doubt this, watch an old episode of Cheers - a programme that shut down restaurants one night a week in its heyday, but now barely raises a chuckle. If you don't finish the episode curled up in a corner of your couch, cringing with embarrassment, either call your shrink for an emergency session or hop in a time travel machine and head for the 80s.

Director Michael Radford's The Merchant of Venice, however, is not dated, because he has not directed it as comedy but instead treated it largely as a human drama. It has become, thanks to historical perspective and to Radford's complex and powerful interpretation, one of Shakespeare's most shocking and serious plays.

It explores prejudice and stereotypes. Though Shylock's defeat is of his own making, his fatal flaws are shown to be a result of prejudice, which shaped him into what the bigots expected him to be. Al Pacino's furious but empathetic portrayal shows how stereotypes not only result in the mistreatment of people, but also how those who are discriminated against often begin to fulfil the stereotype initially foisted on them by society. His Shylock is merciless, angry, and cruel, just as others have been to him.

Jeremy Irons plays his usual (some might say tired) role as the tortured older man, losing what might be his lover to a woman and bearing his suffering bare-chested and with agonised eyes.

People have frequently argued that Shakespeare's original play is not anti-Semitic. Which is as silly as saying Heart of Darkness isn't racist. The Merchant of Venice is clearly anti-Semitic. But it was probably ahead of its time in its portrayal of the mechanisms of prejudice. It gave Shylock (and the women in the story) a voice, characters, and the right to sympathy. Despite its overtones of bigotry, it remains a believable story because the characters are still real, and because the prejudice is portrays is still so prevalent.

But it needs updating, and in this film, it's given a fresh treatment. Radford's screen adaptation uses the medium of film to add to the story told by Shakespeare's play. In glances, long yearning gazes and other intimate close up visual clues that wouldn't work in stage interpretations, Radford adds to the story - showing the supposed Christians spitting on Shylock, outlining the historical circumstances of the time, picturing the ghetto conditions in which Jewish people lived even in a "liberal" city like Venice, capturing a moment of intense spiritual pain at being forced to deny a chosen faith, and showing how "bad karma" is often created by cruelty to others.

Attention to historical detail, solid art direction, attractive actors and the exclusion of a few longer "funny" filler scenes in the original stage play make it good viewing. But it's not feel good fun. The Merchant of Venice is as provocative as it should be - something worth picking apart over a drink afterwards.

- Jean Barker

Shakespeare's controversial anti-Semitic comedy has been transformed into a complex and powerful drama.

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