“The Merchant of Venice” is simultaneously one of the best-known and least-performed of Shakespeare’s works. Very few educated people will be unacquainted with Shylock or Portia’s speech on the quality of mercy. But it’s possible that even fewer will have had the opportunity actually to have seen the whole play. In part, it’s an innocuous romantic comedy about the wooing of a wealthy heiress by an impecunious nobleman, but it’s also a potentially offensive tale of a Jewish money-lender whose rage against the Christians who have abused him leads to his own destruction; and while the latter portion of the plot might have been played for laughs in the sixteenth century, when crude caricatures of Jews were still perfectly acceptable in polite society, today it can’t help but seem an unhappy example of anti-Semitism from an undoubtedly great artist. It’s possible, of course, to make the argument that “The Merchant of Venice” is actually a condemnation of anti-Semitism rather than an expression of it. But from a historical perspective that strikes one more as a rationalization–a projection of a contemporary viewpoint we’d like Shakespeare to share with us–rather than a plausible reading of the text in Elizabethan terms. Like it or not, the play sprang from the same well of prejudice that spawned Marlowe’s “The Jew of Malta,” and though Shylock can be portrayed more sympathetically than farcically, that may not be what the author originally had in mind. It’s no wonder that in our more sensitive, post-Holocaust age, “The Merchant” has recently been kept hidden in the wings, so to speak.
That’s why there’s an element of courage in writer-director Michael Radford’s decision to do a film version. It doesn’t preserve the entire text–the excisions and added visual emphases (we see Antonio actually spitting on Shylock at the beginning, dramatizing the money-lender’s later speech about humiliation he suffered at the merchant’s hand, and there’s a kiss between Antonio and Bassanio that suggests that the former’s devotion isn’t entirely altruistic) no doubt explain Radford’s screenplay credit, which at first glance seems awfully presumptuous. But though the interpretation clearly presents Shylock as a tragic figure rather than a comic one, steering our sympathies definitely in his direction, while milking the suitors’ sequences for laughs in a very broad fashion, Radford’s approach is basically a faithful one, visually as well as textually. It’s also atmospheric, not only because it’s opulently appointed (by Bruno Rubeo) and costumed (by Sammy Sheldon) and elegantly shot (by Benoit Delhomme), but because a good deal of the exterior work was actually done in Venice, and the result is very effective.
Ultimately, however, the success of any Shakespearean performance depends more on the cast than any other element, and here the verdict is mixed. Al Pacino, more restrained than one might expect, makes a solid Shylock if not an outstanding one; it’s certainly a vast improvement over his earlier fling with The Bard on film in “Looking for Richard.” And Lynn Collins is a fine Portia, both beautiful and serene; she’s hardly convincing in the trousers role of the advocate in the penultimate scene, but that’s no surprise when cinematic closeups are involved. From here, unfortunately, things go downhill. One would expect more of Jeremy Irons’ Antonio; he projects the character’s curious moroseness (which, in this interpretation, may have a sexual component), but as a whole the reading seems oddly fussy and unfocused. And Joseph Fiennes is bland as Bassanio. Among the supporting cast, David Harewood and Antonio Gil-Martinez stand out as two of Portia’s suitors, the Moroccan and Spanish princes–but that’s because both are encouraged to play to the rafters. Zuleikha Robinson and Kris Marshall are entirely adequate as Jessica and Gratiano, but neither is a scene-stealer.
Anyone searching for a film version of “The Merchant of Venice” might instead want to consider the modernized one that was made of Trevor Nunn’s Royal National Theatre production, with Henry Goodman an unforgettable Shylock, that’s now available on DVD. But though Radford’s adaptation doesn’t solve all the problems the play holds for modern audiences, it’s a respectable attempt to deal with the issues the text raises in a way that minimizes the potential offensiveness without unduly diluting its power.