Michael Radford’s disturbing film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (2004), starring Al Pacino as Shylock, Jeremy Irons as Antonio, Joseph Fiennes as Bassanio and Lynn Collins as Portia, is a barometer of contemporary social attitudes: it ambiguously condemns anti-Semitism (while remaining oddly insulated from it), embraces gay relationships that aren’t in the source material, endorses entrepreneurial ambition, and sanctions social climbing. This accommodation to fashionable bourgeois attitudes does nothing to counteract the essential racism of the original.
I searched for the play among Shakespeare’s tragedies and was surprised to find it listed as a comedy. But, if there was anything funny about anti-Semitism between 1500 and 1935, it’s hard to imagine the play being staged for laughs today. As comedy, it misfires completely.
Shakespeare probably never met a Jew: King Edward I drove all Jews out of England in 1290. In popular culture they became an invisible, Godless threat, perpetually conspiring to gain unfair advantage (or worse) over innocent Christians. Using this caricature, Shakespeare attempts, with typical success, to humanize the play’s tragic central character, Shylock. But he’s still a disturbing stereotype, and consensus calls the play anti-Semitic. Consequently, some of Shakespeare’s champions try to banish this curse through the magic of interpretation.
Shylock is hated for rejecting the moral pretensions of Christian culture. In this context he’s a demon: at his trial, he torments the Venetians by pointing – with courage and clarity – to their practice of slavery, their vengefulness, and their rampant marital infidelity. He refuses to explain the motive for his infamous demand for Antonio’s pound of flesh, and insists on the protection of the law. But the law betrays him, strips him of his wealth and enforces his conversion to Christianity, precisely because he is a Jew.
The clarity of Shylock’s argument reveals genuine understanding of his predicament on Shakespeare’s part: trapped in a Christian theocracy, Shylock resembles a militant secularist, centuries ahead of his time. But Radford, as both screenwriter and director, fails to overcome the play’s conceptual problems and take advantage of its most provocative aspects.
Radford portrays a decadent world where Venetians, obsessed with money and upward social mobility, are blissfully content to live with their own hypocrisy. However, he cuts important scenes from the play (Lorenzo and Launcelot fatuously debate who’s naughtier – Lorenzo for raising “the price of hogs” by converting a Jew, or Launcelot for “getting up of the negro’s belly,” i.e., impregnating a Moor) which underline the racism and venality of the Venetians. Is his motive “political correctness” – a desire to cleanse the play of offensive elements – echoing the views of those who want to ban the novel Huckleberry Finn for using the word “nigger”? Or are his motives even more misguided?
At first, his intentions seem innocent enough. Non-Shakespeare factoids outline social conditions for Jews in 16th Century Venice: barred from owning land, forbidden craft guild membership and confined to “getos”, they are allowed by the state to engage in usury (Christians are barred from the profession of money-lending), thus reinforcing their “sinful” mercenary reputation. Then Antonio, the title’s Christian merchant, spits on Shylock the Jew, in the street. The director has made his sympathies clear – hasn’t he?
But following the outrage of Shylock’s trial, Radford switches to romantic comedy in the final act, in which entrepreneurs Antonio and Bessanio succeed in securing their futures through Bassanio’s marriage to the aristocratic Portia. Is it to foil the ugliness of the trial that Radford substitutes a gay (i.e. progressive) interpretation of the men’s friendship both in line readings and framing? Except for a single shot of the defeated Shylock standing outside his synagogue, the frothy, titillating world of these final scenes encourages us to forget the tragedy of Shylock and share the fun. It’s an alarmingly nasty shift in mood, and it raises the question of Shakespeare’s intention: is he hiding an expose of the ruling class behind a sour comedy that portrays their vicious indifference to human suffering? Or is he simply siding with the Venetians? It feels like the latter.
While the text of the play lies cold – and ambiguous – on the page, Radford’s interpretation of the story compounds the growing unease I felt while watching. It’s only Shylock’s actual words – in support of secular justice – that argue his case. Downplaying their racism and portraying the Venetians as fun-loving romantics – after what they have done to Shylock – amounts to tacit endorsement. What else are we to think?
Several theatrical productions have rightly set the play in Nazi Germany. It’s easy to imagine Antonio, Bassanio et al. as opportunistic young Nazis; the clever Portia works well as an aristocratic fascist, toying sadistically with her Jewish victim, while knowing beforehand that the legal cards are stacked against him. And the celebratory moments after the trial, literally paid for by Shylock’s victimization, would find no contradiction in Nazi practice. (There is a form of agreement on this point: Austria saw some 50 conventional presentations of The Merchant in 1939.)
Traditional staging of the play (and film) inevitably taps into still-vital anti-Semitic feelings among non-Jews: it’s embarrassing to people who don’t want to be seen as racist. Radford’s approach falls into this trap. In attempting to camouflage this failure by invoking a Lazy Susan of capitalist media-endorsed social attitudes, he seems to expect us to ignore the appalling chauvinism of the protagonists. With a triumph that might please Celebrity Apprentice’s Donald Trump, we watch Antonio’s and Bassanio’s ascendancy from entrepreneurial squalor to the aristocratic pleasures of Belmont. Are we to ignore that it’s entirely at Shylock’s expense?
Despite the gilded imagery and skilled performances, this fatal flaw makes the film – by any but the most corrupt standards – unwatchable. Box office need for a “feel-good” ending simply can’t be achieved with The Merchant of Venice. Attempting to do so makes for a bafflingly contradictory experience at best, and a thoroughly revolting one at worst.