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The presence and
degree of anti-Semitism in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice (1596) is debated
by literary scholars who cite, for example, the hanging in 1594 of Rodrigo Lopez, a Jew
executed for allegedly attempting to assassinate Queen Elizabeth, as an event that
accentuated an already anti-Semitic bent in English cultural mores. (In 1945 George Orwell
wrote, "Prejudice against Jews has always been pretty widespread in England.")
Marlowe's eponymous villain, the usurer in The
Jew of Malta preceded The Merchant by less than a decade; Shakespeare
surely saw Marlowe's play and the archetype was apparently well known at the time.
While Shakespeare's Shylock is fully drawn and not a flat stereotype, the unappealing aspects of the character ring more harshly to today's audiences than was likely the case in Elizabethan England. Still, there is such brilliant complexity and irony (not to speak of the poetry) in the play, that it continues to be produced regularly. Indeed the publicity for the new film suggests it is the most frequently staged of Shakespeare's works.
Michael Radford's screen interpretation attempts to bridge the gap in societal attitudes and create a context for the film with opening onscreen text that describes the historical position of Jews in 16th century Venice where the drama is placed. Forced to live in a ghetto that was locked after dark, required to wear a red hat when venturing out of the ghetto, and not allowed to own property, money-lending (which the Church forbade to Gentiles) became one of the few ways for a Jew to earn a living.
Enhanced by lushly filmed Venetian settings and costuming, Radford's film succeeds in sustaining the narrative momentum of Shakespeare's story while sacrificing none of the poetry and irony of the master, even though achieving some streamlining by cutting a fair amount of text.
The first of the two overlapping stories is that of Shylock's loan to young Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) which is guaranteed by Bassanio's friend, the merchant Antonio (Jeremy Irons). Shylock (Al Pacino) has been humiliated as a Jew by Antonio in the past; he will charge no interest for the loan, but will exact a pound of flesh if it is not repaid on time.
The lighter side of the play is the story of Portia (Lynn Collins), surviving daughter of a wealthy father who decreed that she marry only the man who chooses correctly in the riddle of three chests--one each of gold, silver, and lead. Bassanio borrowed the money in order to pursue the hand of Portia and their love story is pure romance.
When Antonio's ships fail to arrive, he defaults on the loan and the two stories come together in a scene that could be the prototype of generations of courtroom dramas to come. Portia, disguised as a man, defends Antonio and more than defeats Shylock's demands, to the point of stripping him of his property and requiring him to convert to Christianity.
Credit Radford for keeping his sterling cast in an admirably understated mode. The Merchant lends itself to playing as melodrama and all too easily performances can become exaggerated and hammy, but not here. Pacino notably keeps his character in tight check, internalizing Shylock's bitter anger and struggling to hold on to some shred of the dignity which Jews were hard-pressed to sustain. Even the homoerotic subtext of Antonio's friendship with Bassanio is subtly included. Radford's mode in the film is realism which he achieves both in the setting and in the flow of dialogue. - Arthur Lazere