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Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
by Orson Welles!

William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, Deluxe Edition [UNABRIDGED]
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. "The Merchant of Venice"

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 the relevance?

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 depravity?

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 grand entourage.

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 30!"

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.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

The Soundtrack album


Opinion Section
Comments from readers:
This review will influence me to see this movie. Site rating: 6

I appreciated the comments on Antonio's character. I studied The Merchant in College and played Portia in our production -- so I'm keen to see the film.

                                                              ~~ Sylvia D.
Very well written - Insightful
This review will influence me to: Read more by this reviewer & recommend this reviewer
Site rating: 10

Outstanding review. First visit to the site, will be recommending and returning.

                                                              ~~ Brittain
You are obviously Jewish and I find your suggestion that "Antonio be portrayed as a villian due to todays cultural enlightnement" laughable. The day is coming when ordinary people both in this country and abroad will once remove the cultural enlightenments that are being forced down our throats and see the Jewish race both today and in the past for the true nature that it is.
                                                              ~~ Anonymous
[Ed. note: We don't ordinarily post messages from anonymous readers but this comment so well exemplifies the kinds of delusions that keep bigots in business that we thought it instructive in the context of the play and the points made in the review. I read this as coming from someone who can maintain a sense of superiority only by degrading the accomplishments of others. The anonymity of the comment speaks for itself.]

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Jeremy Irons and Joseph Fiennes
Actually, two merchants of Venice

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