Director: Michael Radford
Writer: Michael Radford, based on William Shakespeare
Cinematography: Benoit Delhomme
by Tory Maddox
I had begun taking a look of Shakespearean film adaptations while reading the Norton volume, mostly in order to better grasp some incredibly difficult works. It was by the time I arrived at the famous court scene in Merchant of Venice that I realized how little I understood while reading the material. Shakespeare offers extremely limited scene and action descriptions. People come on stage, people exit. We might know where we are, but if not careful it's extremely easy to breeze over significant details, become lost, or at least fail to fully grasp what's going on.
There’s an ongoing debate as to whether the story is anti-semitic. On the one hand there’s Shylock’s classic monologue - one of those all too frequent instances where I go, “Oh that’s where this if from!” - If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? And if you wrong us, do we not revenge? It is this last line, in particular, which I think really helps to sum of the argument. Shylock is just like any man, and just like any man experiencing injustices, he is willing to take revenge. He is not better than Protestant or Catholics, he’s an equal and will behave equally, including less than honorable behavior. If only this continued today. I recall common criticisms from Queer and Race Theory about The Cosby Show or Philadelphia ('93), in which the central characters, while being black and gay respectively, are near flawless in character; essentially living up to what their white and straight counterparts often play. The Merchant of Venice's greatness is that Shylock has just as much evil as the next person and he’s fully aware of it. To chalk this up to anti-semitism is asking for an unrealistic portrayal.
During its time, and prefaced on the title card, we learn that during the era, Jews were locked into a specific area of town, having to honor a curfew, and wear a red hat when wandering about. Given the classic Shylock monologue, I’m very much center-not-anti-semitic in this picture; that is, Shakespeare was writing a realistic story that was historically accurate (which was very much anti-semitic); especially given that Shakespeare was a Catholic whose own father dealt with Protestant Bigotry. In fact, one of his teachers growing had been publicly tortured to death for being a Catholic teacher, having his intestines pulled out of his body and burned while the man was still breathing. While I don’t think this guarantees tolerance, I’m sure Shakespeare of all people would have a significant amount of empathy.
The classic court scene is a moment in the film which is definitely one of the greatest of all time. Truly up there with A Few Good Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, Miracle on 34th Street (‘94). At it’s simplest for those who don’t know, Shylock was willing to lend a man Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) a thousand ducats. If Bassanio failed to repay the sum Shylock will take a pound of his flesh. Usury in those days was considered deplorable and sinful - which I think is another element that warrants discussion. The process of lending money and receiving interest off that sum was forbidden in the 1600s amongst Christians, but not Jews (and thus contributing to the rise of anti-semitism, but that's another story; see Hanna Ardent).Bassino, of course, can’t repay the man after his gay misadventures with a young man and Shylock demands to get what he is owed.
Thus begins a classic transgender motif of Shakespeare where a crossdressing woman dressed as a lawyer comes in, unnoticed by anyone, and saves the day by stating that Shylock can only take the pound of flesh if he doesn’t spill a drop of blood since blood was nowhere within the agreement. Shylock capitulates and eventually ends up with nothing and so ends a strange tale.
Shylocks’ demand for the flesh goes back to his monologue. He is getting revenge for all the anti-semitism he’s ever dealt with. In the end he learns the hard truth that hate and bitterness are no qualities that any man should aspire toward. Shylock is indeed human in his spectrum of emotions and ideals. He ends up taking the position too far in this instance and faces the consequences.
In terms of production value, the movie itself is not that great. I enjoyed being able to learn what the story was about. It just felt cheap and I suppose that given the film’s divisiveness that’s all you can ask for. Al Pacino’s pretty cool, though. Still, it makes you want to see the stage production.
BELOW: The famous court room scene
Thoughts on films, old and new
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