Sympathy for Shylock

Al Pacino plays the original misunderstood godfather Shylock in Shakespear's Merchant of Venice.

It is hard to remember that the title The Merchant of Venice refers to Antonio, who ships merchandise to foreign ports, not Shylock, the Jewish usurer. Shakespeare's play traditionally was performed as comedy, in which order is restored when Christians crush the villainous infidel. The most infamous representation of anti-Semitism in English literature, the play has to queasy moderns seemed intolerably intolerant. The critic Harold Bloom noted, "The Holocaust made and makes The Merchant of Venice unplayable, at least in what appear to be its own terms."

The terms on which Michael Radford adapts this 16th-century text give no countenance to bigotry, though the film is still disturbing. It continues to tell the story of how Antonio (Irons), anxious to provide his beloved Bassanio (Fiennes) the cash he needs to woo beautiful Portia (Collins), secures a loan from Shylock. Forgoing interest, the Jew gives Antonio 3,000 ducats on condition that failure to repay within three months requires forfeiture of a pound of flesh. Misfortune forces Antonio to default, but, through a cunningly literal reading of the contract, Portia, disguised as a judge, outwits Shylock who is poised to carve a chunk from Antonio's breast. Compelled to renounce his religion, the Jew is bereft of everything, including his only child. The drama concludes with the weddings of Portia to Bassanio and of Shylock's wayward daughter, Jessica (Robinson), to the Gentile Lorenzo.

Radford's film inoculates itself against charges of anti-Semitism through claims of historical accuracy. Opening titles explain how, in 1596 in Venice (where the ghetto was invented), "Intolerance of Jews was a fact of life." In the initial sequence, Antonio spits in Shylock's face, a Hebrew text is burned, and a sheep's throat is slit. The film's concluding image, fishermen ensuring a catch by shooting arrows, closes the curtain on a world in which the quality of mercy is not sustained and strong prey on weak. Despised for practicing usury, one of the few professions open to Jews because it was deemed a Christian sin, Shylock is abused by the merchants with whom he must trade. "The villainy that you teach me I shall execute," he declares, in plausible explanation for his project of revenge. This Shylock's bitterness is not the "motiveless malignity" that Coleridge ascribed to Iago.

   The Merchant of Venice

Dir. & writ. Michael Radford, based on the play by William Shakespeare; feat. Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, Joseph Fiennes, Lynn Collins, Zuleikha Robinson (R)

As Shylock, Pacino commands the camera, turning even Irons and Fiennes into foils. When he delivers his famous plea for equity - "Hath not a Jew eyes?" - he does so assertively, not as sniveling victim. Shylock is unhinged by Jessica's defection (Testimony that he went about wailing: "O my ducats! O my daughter!," as though lucre were as precious as his child, is delivered by an unreliable anti-Semite). Despite the judgment against him, it is Shylock who dominates the trial scene, with a performance that ranges from vindictive exhilaration to recognition of utter defeat. After the Duke adds a gratuitous penalty, that the Jew convert, Shylock murmurs, "I am content." It is contentment that passes for despair.

"I stand for law," says Shylock. The others affirm mercy, yet, despite the lesson of the three caskets, that "There is no vice so simple but assumes / Some mark of virtue on his outward parts," they are superficial people absorbed in the simple vices of bottle, plate, and bed. In Radford's abridgment, Lorenzo, beside Jessica under a starry sky, does not utter one of Shakespeare's most lyrical effusions: "Here will we sit and let the sounds of music / Creep in our ears. Soft stillness and the night / Become the touches of sweet harmony." Disharmony dominates. Asked why he wants a pound of flesh, Shylock replies: "To bait fish withal." In the final frame, when fish are shot with arrows, all the world's a stage on which actors are predators and take a bow.


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