When one reads that this Shakespeare play is "timelessly relevant," as the
publicity for the film would have it, one wonders what part is being referred
to. Is it that a Jewish moneylender is the arch villain of the piece?
There's nothing obscure or subtle about how this play and this movie makes
this point. The Jew, who wants his "pound of flesh" instead of a double
repayment of gold ducats for a loan, is an evil villain, for sure. Is that
In a prologue, the screenwriter (writer-director Michael Radford) gives us
background and the historical characteristics of late 16th century Venice, a
vital trading port. But this opening sequence is more than mere background.
It furnishes what Shakespeare doesn't, a vivid depiction of the prevailing
contempt for Jews. Here, the majority population, the Christians, consider
Jews pagans. As though to ward off unexpected contact, these 2nd class
citizens are obliged to wear red hats when outside the quarters of the Geto
(later, "ghetto") a teeming area where much trade is carried on.
One day, in a crowd that seems busy taunting and insulting Jews, suggesting
such treatment as customary, Antonio (Jeremy Irons), a well-to-do
merchant, spits on Shylock (Al Pacino). This scene isn't part of the play by
Shakespeare but is drawn from references within the text.
The next thing you know (after some introductory scenes), Antonio's close
friend Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) discloses to Antonio that he has a desperate
need for money to finance his campaign for the fair hand of rich, noble and
gorgeous Portia, whose castle is on the island of Belmont. Since he has no
collateral for a loan, and Antonio is expecting a profitable shipment,
Antonio offers to be bound for the loan. In an almost mindless act of
contempt, he comes to Shylock, the man he has just spat on, for 3,000 ducats.
Is that a short memory or an expression of moral vacuum bordering on
When Shylock reminds Antonio of the disrespect he has shown him (as well he
should), Antonio denies none of it but argues with great arrogance that
Shylock will all the more enjoy exacting the penalties should he be unable to
repay the loan in 3 months. Small wonder, then, that Shylock demands an
unusually severe penalty: a pound of Antonio's flesh. Antonio, smug in the
belief that his shipment will arrive in ample time, readily agrees. Even
Bassanio's fear of it doesn't cause Antonio a moment of regret or a lost
second of sleep.
Bassanio takes the 3,000 ducats (a small fortune) and presses his courtship
at Portia's castle on the island of Belmont with a fine fleet of ships and a
It wouldn't be a drama if the loan had been repayed on time, so, inevitably,
Antonio fails to do so in the alloted time and Shylock fully expects his
pound of flesh--nothing less than Antonio's heart. Shakespeare's
anti-semitic formulation rises to condemnation of an entire people when, once
the case comes before the court of justice in Venice, Shylock refuses to
consider any degree of mercy but insists on the virtual death sentence with
the full force of Italian contract law backing him up. This hardened
position made his ultimate justice all the more satisfying to a like-minded
audience at the Globe Theatre in Shakespeare's day.
But, given Antonio's personal act of degradation against a man he knows only
by the culture he hates, my take is that he's one of the villains of the
piece and should, in today's atmosphere of cultural enlightenment, be
portrayed that way. He is far less the innocent victim than what Radford
represents here. In a modern interpretation Antonio should be seen, it
seems to me, for the self-righteous superior holding repressed citizens
in utter contempt. How low is one's character when spitting on and cursing a
man isn't even a matter for consideration? See Antonio for what he is and
Shylock's problem is more a dilemma than a condemnation.
The wooing of Portia is more than an excuse for the unusual and shocking form
of loan payment that focuses the drama. The process of winning her hand and
fortune is a prologue to her central role in the main issue of the play. Her
role in the drama proves vital.
As the fifth film showing up in Lynn Collin's filmography and her first
leading role, the Houston twenty-something distinguishes her Portia with the
excitement of delicacy, control and intelligence. Add that to a level of
beauty that fully justifies the textual references to her looks and we have
someone here who we probably will not have to wait long to see more of. The
lady is hot, and it's difficult to believe that her biggest role to date was
as Wendy in "13 Going On
She's not the only actor whose work is on a high level, however. Jeremy
Irons, Joseph Fiennes and Al Pacino acquit themselves so well they might
have been honored at the Globe theatre. A nomination or two might be
expected. But don't misunderstand me, here. I argue against Irons'
interpretation of the merchant, but not against his excellent performance.
The overall effect is one of enough fine staging and production value that
Radford's film should be well appreciated by students of the master
throughout the English speaking world. This director of the highly esteemed
"Il Postino" of 1994 and, more recently, "The Letters," has turned in a well
crafted rendition of "Merchant...," employing a full range of visual
art in taking the play's period reality well beyond stage constraints. Sir
Radford of Stratford, I'll call him.
And, for those who care about such details, Shakespeare's play begins on
a Venusian street (not in a room) with Antonio's line, "In sooth, I know not
why I am so sad..." More sadness will follow, interspersed with joy.
~~ Jules Brenner