The Merchant of Venice

"I am a'weary of this world."

When a merchant's ships are all lost and he forfeits a debt, his debtor Shylock demands exactly what the bond stipulates - a pound of his flesh...

The Merchant of Venice is a tricky play, because although popular and including some of Shakespeare's most famous lines, the themes of the play make it difficult to produce for modern audiences. As far as Shakespeare was concerned, the play was clearly a comedy. It ends in marriage, generally a marker of comedy in Shakespearean drama (it was written before the late 'Romance' plays). Most of the plot is clearly ridiculous; Portia's late father's method for choosing a husband for her is obviously ludicrous, there are women dressing up as men and tricking their new husbands, and even Shylock's demand for a pound of flesh has a comedic aspect (note that although in the court the bond is written to stipulate a pound of flesh from near the heart, when he first suggests it, Shylock says he'll take it from 'what part of your body pleaseth me' - and if I've learned anything about Shakespeare's sense of humour over the years, I can guess what that refers to). But we in the twenty-first century don't generally find anti-semitism, condoning slavery, implied homophobia, references to racism and forcing people on pain of death to change their religion terribly funny.

There are only really two solutions to this - play the romantic scenes for comedy and the Shylock scenes for drama, or play the whole thing for drama. Michael Radford's film goes all out for drama, and it mostly works very well. Unlike Hamlet, which I quite like modern dress versions of, The Merchant of Venice is a film set in a very specific time and place (here it's given it a date of 1596, when the play was probably written) and the film places it firmly within history by outlining the history of anti-semitism in early modern Venice in title cards at the beginning. This is pretty much essential to understanding the story, and the visualization of Antonio spitting on Shylock (referred to later in dialogue) also helps to set up the characters and the root of Shylock's anger effectively.

Shylock is a character much like Euripides' Medea - he has a wonderful speech outlining how badly he's treated and arguing passionately for better, but his actions later in the play suggest that the author did not intend him to be entirely sympathetic (rather under-cutting the suggestion that Shakespeare was making a plea for tolerance or Euripides a feminist). For modern audiences, though, he is a compellingly conflicted character, and here he is played brilliantly by Al Pacino. Pacino's performance is captivating and heart-breaking and the courtroom scene is absolutely gut-wrenching.

The decision to play the story completely straight (there are elements of humour, of course, but none of the really broad comedy or light atmosphere of, for example, the lighter scenes in Much Ado About Nothing) mostly works. Some of the romantic scenes come across as a bit overblown and melodramatic, but the conflict between working from a script written as comedy and making it a drama only really becomes an issue in the courtroom scene and especially in the final twenty minutes or so after it. It's great that Portia saves the day with her quick thinking, but the fact that she makes the least convincing man since Bob in Blackadder is a bit distracting, and there's just no way we can feel really invested in the lovers messing around with rings and easily broken promises after watching the absolute devastation of Shylock's defeat.

Still, these are pretty much unsolvable problems in this play, and it would be a terrible shame never to produce it because its attitudes are out of date (it's hardly alone there). I think this film really does the best possible job with this material. All of the cast, as well as Pacino, are fantastic, and the American actresses playing Portia and Nerissa are doing the best and most convincing fake English accents I've come across. It looks absolutely gorgeous and it has one of the most beautiful film scores I've ever heard. A combination of medieval-inspired music, Tudor-inspired music, a boy soprano and a song sun by Hayley Westernra, the score is utterly gorgeous and is matched by the incredible cinematography and beautiful costuming.

According to Wikipedia, both Jeremy Irons (playing Antonio) and director Michael Radford thought that they had portrayed Antonio and Bassanio's relationship as just platonic good friends. I'm not sure what film they were watching, because one of the first observations that came to me as I re-watched it was "this version really plays up the suggestion that Antonio is in love with Bassanio". Joseph Fiennes (as Bassanio) did deliberately play up the idea of a homoerotic attraction (possibly a history) between them. I am a person who will argue for hours that Frodo and Sam have an entirely platonic relationship, and I can see how you could play Antonio and Bassanio as just good friends, but I don't think that's what they've actually achieved here - and I think that's a good thing.

Because of the dramatic approach taken to the material, the film has a deliberately melancholy air, and rather than ending on everyone going off to finally get laid, as the script does, the film finishes on a shot of Jessica, who is revealed not to have given away her mother's ring for a monkey after all, looking sad and pensive. This melancholic atmosphere is enhanced by the shots of Antonio looking on wistfully as Bassanio and Portia embrace. The film has turned Shakespeare's bawdy comedy into a serious drama about love and pain and betrayal and acceptance, or lack thereof, so it seems entirely appropriate to interpret Antonio's love as another example of a character constrained and made to suffer for what he is, and every choice both director and actor make seems to reinforce that, from Antonio gazing out at Bassanio and denying that he's in love (methinks he doth protest too much) to his emphasis on his willingness to put his body on the line for Bassanio. You almost have to be trying not to see it to miss it. If that wasn't what Radford and Irons intended, they've gone wrong somewhere.

This is a difficult story, but this film does a fantastic job making it accessible, approachable and absolutely beautiful. I love me some Kenneth Branagh, as you know, but in terms of tackling something really difficult really well, this has got to be one of the best Shakespeare adaptations I've ever seen, and much as we might have come to expect it of him, it's worth saying again that Pacino completely blew me away. Beautiful in every way.

Notes and Quotes

The cast is absolutely full of familiar faces, some known before this film, some after; Joseph Fiennes, Kris Marshall from Love Actually/My Family, Charlie Cox from Stardust/Downton Abbey, Zuleikha Robinson from Rome, Mackenzie Crook, John Sessions, Jeremy Irons...

The quote at the top of the page is the version of Portia's opening line used in this film, but the full line is usually "my little body is a-weary of this great world". It's one of my Mum's favourite Shakespeare quotes, partly because of the 'little body' bit.

Prince of Morocco (reading from a scroll): All that glitters is not gold...

Shylock: 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

Portia: The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

Juliette Harrisson is a freelance writer, classicist and ancient historian who blogs about Greek and Roman Things in Stuff at Pop Classics.


mazephoenix said...

Agreed. Al Pacino makes the troublesome text play work. Well him and the director.
Hmm, Sam and Frodo certainly had a very close friendship, huh?
Agree about Antonio and Bassiano. A lot of subtext, ahem.
Great review, need to rewatch this.

Josie Kafka said...

Excellent review, Juliette.

My one contribution: the lyrics to the song that plays over the last scene and into the credits are taken from the last lines of Milton's Paradise Lost.

I mention that mostly because I feel really cool for noticing it. :-)