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Wednesday
Jun222011

William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice  

I saw this with a friend who knows her Shakespeare and she believes that with ‘Merchant’ Shakespeare mixed his genres rather too much, as though he couldn’t decide whether he wanted a comedy or tragedy.   However, that’s a criticism of the play.   The question is: how does this film handle the text and the perennial question of whether ‘Merchant’ is _about_ anti-semitism or is itself anti-semitic?  

Admirably, the filmmakers haven’t soft-pedaled the theme of anti-semitism but instead meet it head on.   However, this approach necessitates a gravitas that makes the tonal shift to comedy somewhat disorienting.   By the time you get to the farcical business with the rings near the end, you don’t much feel like laughing.  

And how is Pacino as Shylock, the Jewish usurer who would famously exact his “pound of flesh” from the breast of his debtor, the indigent merchant Antonio (Jeremy Irons)?   Pacino disappears inside the character and gives us a Shylock with some subtlety.   His Shylock is a nasty villain but one whose behavior makes sense by his own logic.  

Lynn Collins makes a fetching Portia and late-Renaissance Venice is evoked in a painterly way by cinematographer Benoît Delhomme.   Plus it’s got MacKenzie Crook (a.k.a. Gareth from the great ‘The Office’) in a supporting role.

In short, with the above caveats I would recommend this to anyone interested in an intelligent, non-P.C. mounting of ‘Merchant’.  

Incidentally, the most interesting discussion of ‘Merchant’ I’ve seen recently is an interview from a few years back with theatre director Andrei Serban, who mounted   ‘Merchant’ for the American Repertory Theatre a few years ago.   I’ve reprinted excerpts below:

“Four hundred years ago, when Shakespeare wrote the play, it was a comedy. Shylock was a commedia dell'arte character with a red beard, red hair, and a huge nose - an allegorical representation of the devil. This didn't bother anyone, because it was recognized as a stage convention. At the time there was no ‘Jewish question.’”

“…Four hundred years later, at the end of the apocalyptic twentieth century, we are amazed that ‘Merchant’ could ever have been comedic; there's almost nothing funny about it. I thought at first I'd treat the play as a romance, a light comedy, but after Auschwitz this really is impossible.”

“[Shylock] at first acts to defend his honor but eventually becomes entirely rigid and inflexible, fanatically sticking to the law in the name of self-defense. He cannot bend to compassion and humanity, and of course he loses. But the Christians, too, are not always compassionate. Portia pleads for mercy but shows none towards Shylock.”

“….At the end of the production, I want us all to walk home knowing that there are no heroes, there are no perfect human beings, but that gentleness and compassion are essential if we are to live with each other. Shylock is deeply mistaken, but so are they all. They all strive to live up to the great image of perfect love and morality, to be true Christians, and of course they fail. Nobody is a true Christian; no one can easily practice forgiveness or love their neighbors as themselves. We all fail our own high standards, just as Shylock fails to be compassionate and Bassanio fails to be faithful. The play can help us understand our own situation in life. We need to find a way to live with each other despite our contradictions; we all must strive for wisdom and compassion.”

Of course ‘Merchant’ contains two of Shakespeare’s great speeches, which for enjoyment's sake I’ve deposited below.

Shylock (when asked of what use a pound of flesh could possibly be to him):

To bait fish withal. If it will feed nothing else, it will feed
my revenge. He hath disgraced me and hindered me half
a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains,
scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my
friends, heated mine enemies—and what’s his reason? 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 revenge? If we are like you in the
rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a
Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian
wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian
example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me I will
execute—and it shall go hard but I will better the
instruction.

Portia (in disguise as adviser to the court, lecturing Shylock):  

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:
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence 'gainst the merchant there.

 - Feb 18, 2005  

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