The Merchant of Venice (2004), Michael Radford (director)

Andre Simoneau

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.

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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.

Andre Simoneau
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BB: Merchant of Venice, Act II

The Bard Brawlers go through Act II of the Merchant of Venice.

Listen to the podcast – here -. Download the podcast.

(and, yes, you do hear Daniel J. Rowe say “Bard Ball.” The play on words still works.)

A lot of scenes in this one, but most of them pretty short.

In scene one, the action returns to Belmont. While most of the suitors have left the estate, the Prince of Morocco has remained and intends to try his luck. The conditions of the game are made explicit for our (the audience’s) benefit: if he picks the box with her picture in it, he wins the girl, the estate and all of her father’s fortune. If he fails, he has to leave and can’t ever marry. This thread is continued in scene seven where he actually makes his choice.  It works out great for Portia, so poorly for him. In scene nine the second suitor, the Prince of Aragon, makes his choice and doesn’t fare any better. The way is now clear for Bassanio’s big move.

A common complaint about the Merchant of Venice concerns the contrived nature of the three casket test to win Portia. There’s a very simple reason for that. Shakespeare adapted that aspect of the story from a tale in a collection of medieval romances called the Gesta Romanorum. This was a long collection of stories originally compiled in Latin but eventually translated into most of the vernacular languages of Europe. These stories were supposed to serve (among other things) as exemplars of morality in Christian sermons. Therefore, they were not expected to be realistic. It is very likely that many people in Shakespeare’s audience would have understood the reference to the Tale of the Three Caskets as well.

In scene two, Lancelot – Shylock’s servant – debates to himself whether he should stay and serve a bad master, or break his promise to serve Shylock and flee to a new master. He plays a trick on his father and together they ask Bassanio to allow Lancelot to serve him. He embarks with Bassanio and Gratiano for Belmont on the evening tide. (I’m not sure what happens to Old Gobbo in the end. Hmm…)

Scene three is very short but introduces us to the character of Jessica for the first time as Lancelot says his goodbyes to her.

In scene four – one of the many ‘dude scenes’ – Lorenzo explains to his buddies how he intends to steal away with Jessica and enlists their help to sneak her away from her father and Venice.

Shylock takes his leave of Jessica in scene five when he leaves to meet Antonio and some of the others for a supper he has no desire to attend. Shylock instructs Jessica to lock the doors and windows and to ignore the masquers outside. He has no idea that she intends to run away.

In scene six Salerio, Solanio and Gratiano are waiting on Lorenzo who is late to meet them. When he finally arrives, they go together to steal Jessica away. She brings a bunch of Shylock’s money with her and they run off and eventually meet up with Bassanio and company at Belmont.

Scene eight has Solanio and Salerio discussing Shylock’s reaction to Jessica elopement with Lorenzo. They describe Shylock walking through the streets screaming and crying about his loss of his daughter and of his money. Antonio and his ships are mentioned, which recalls the bond he has agreed to for Bassanio’s sake.

Some characters appearing in this act for the first time:

  • Morocco and Aragon: Princes and suitors to Portia. (She’s not a big fan for either).
  • Lancelot Gobbo: He’s Shylock’s servant, though the nature of his duties is not entirely clear. He leaves Shylock’s service in order to serve Bassanio. The dramatis personae often describes him as a clown. I can’t imagine his name is an accident but I’m not sure what the connection might be.
  • Old Gobbo: This is Lancelot’s father. He’s mostly blind and deaf and he seems to be senile as well. I suppose we’re meant to laugh at him but I can’t help feeling sorry for him.
  • Jessica: Shylock’s daughter and Lorenzo’s wife to be. She converts to Christianity and abandons her father in order to follow Lorenzo.

We’ll talk about the relationship between Lorenzo and Jessica a little more as it develops in subsequent acts (particularly in acts 4 and 5). However, I would pay very close attention to the exchanges between Lorenzo and Jessica throughout the play. Even in the very first scene where we see them together, there are signs that their relationship is off to a potentially rocky start. What’s surprising about Jessica is not only does she give at least as good as she gets in these exchanges but she also seems to suspect Lorenzo’s motives and sincerity right from the get go. I think Shakespeare’s asking us to seriously consider the costs and risks of love and trust. After all, this relationship is an invention on Shakespeare’s part and he doesn’t tend to invent lightly. I think he intends us to compare Lorenzo and Jessica to Bassanio and Portia (and maybe Antonio and Bassanio as well). Think about what Jessica is risking in running off with Lorenzo: if he should leave her, she would be left with nothing. And notice how flippant Lorenzo seems to be about the whole thing (douche!). In this respect, Jessica’s plight (and Antonio’s too, for that matter) is similar to the test with the caskets: the inscription on the lead casket says: “‘Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.”

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BB: Merchant of Venice, Act I

Welcome to the Bard Brawl!

This week: our reading of the first act of Shakespeare’s ‘comedy,’ The Merchant of Venice.

Listen to or Download the podcast.

In this act, Shakespeare introduces us to the main characters and sets up the plot elements which will be central to the action of the play.

In the first scene, a young impoverished nobleman name Bassanio asks his melancholic merchant friend Antonio for a loan in order to pursue his courtship of Portia, the lady of Belmont. Antonio explains that his assets are invested in his ‘argosies’ (that is, his commercial shipping) but agrees to taking on a loan with interest on his friend’s behalf.

In the second scene, we learn that Portia has been forbidden by her late father to choose her husband. Instead, he has devised a sort of test in which potential suitors must choose from among three boxes the one containing her picture. The man who does so will win Portia’s hand in marriage. (More on that anon.) Portia and her lady-in-waiting Nerissa discuss the merits of the current batch of suitors and find them both lacking and unwilling to submit to the test.

In the third scene, Bassanio and Antonio meet with Shylock, a jewish moneylender, who agrees to lend out the 3000 ducats required. Instead of taking his usual fee in interest, Shylock proposes a different bargain: if the money is not repaid in full in three months’ time, he will cut off a pound of Antonio’s flesh. As Antonio is confident that at least some of his ships will make it to port before that time, he agrees to the exchange. This is the origin of the expression ‘a pound of flesh.’

Other characters appearing in this act:

  • Salerio (or sometimes Salarino) and Solanio are gentlemen of Venice who are friends of Antonio and Bassanio.
  • Gratiano is Bassanio’s right hand man and friend. He will accompany him to Belmont.
  • Lorenzo is a young nobleman acquaintance of the group who seeks to marry Shylock’s daughter Jessica.

Enjoy!

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