The Merchant of Venice is a tragicomic tale of hypocrisy, pride and revenge, and Michael Radford’s beautiful production is a subtle and faithful interpretation of Shakespeare’s ambiguous and highly controversial play.
Though ultimately it serves as a compelling case for mercy and the value of love, The Merchant of Venice has, over the centuries, come to be seen as one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays, thanks in no small part to the cruel and complex depiction of the Jew Shylock, portrayed by Al Pacino.
While he acknowledges the inherent judeophobia of the time, Radford (1984, Il Postino) takes great care in bookending the piece with scenes that help impart a deeper context than may have been evident to modern audiences in the original text.
In a written prologue added by Radford, we are told of the pitiful conditions in which the Jewish community lived in 16th century Venice, confined to guarded ‘gettos’ and forbidden from owning land. Shylock himself describes in detail the pains which he has suffered at the hands – and feet – of the Christian bourgeoisie. In fact, there are several passages in the play which point to the hypocrisies of the ruling class and which highlight the humanity of the oppressed. All this only serves to amplify the ambiguity of Shakespeare’s villain and to further the case for Shylock as a tragic figure.
The infamous debt at the heart of the story involves Antonio, a nobleman who has agreed to take out a loan from Shylock on behalf of his bankrupt young friend Bassanio, to help him in the pursuit of the beautiful Portia. Though highly sought after, Portia may only select a suitor by means set out to her by her late father, and Bassanio wants to make a worthy impression. Meanwhile, Shylock’s daughter Jessica runs off with one of Bassanio’s men, never to return, and they all sail to Portia’s court. As Bassanio wins Portia’s hand in marriage, Shylock slips into a depression. When Antonio is unable to repay his debt, Shylock vows to avenge the injury dealt to him by exacting the horrific – though lawful – execution of his bond.
In his portrayal of Shylock, Pacino is at the top of his game, delivering the famous ‘hath not a jew eyes?’ speech with empathy and his trademark unrestrained passion. He is aptly matched by, the sexually ambiguous Jeremy Irons as frail Antonio, the title merchant who is sworn by bond to deliver a pound of flesh to his creditor. The cast is rounded out by the excellent Lynn Collins as Portia, who delivers an equally well-known speech on the ‘quality of mercy’, and Joseph Fiennes as her suitor Bassanio (Antonio’s lover?). There is also a number of highly skilled comic actors who step in to fill the play’s many clown parts.
Add to that an exquisite production design by the late Bruno Robeo and costume design by Sammy Sheldon to imbue the story with texture and atmosphere. Venice’s inimitable canals and unique architecture are on full display here, and lend an authenticity to the film which enhances the moral and historical undertones of the source material.
The Merchant of Venice is a problematic play for a variety of reasons, and poses many challenges to would-be performers. Little wonder then that it had never been filmed (with sound) before this. With his production, Radford and co. succeed in delivering a nuanced and intelligent reading of Shakespeare’s text, while managing to create a detailed visual palette to serve as its backdrop.
Andre Simoneau is a first line bard brawler and regularly reads for the Bard Brawl podcasts.