Because my brain fixates sometimes?2001
Directed by Trevor Nunn, Henry Goodman as Shylock
Not always the most moving film, but a masterclass in how to not fuck up The Merchant of Venice
. Which is not the most surprising thing given that it's the only Merchant
film that actually cast a Jew as Shylock. (I'm not exactly blaming other directors for not casting Jews in the role- it's not a role a lot of Jewish actors would necessarily want to take, and it's hard to ask a Jew to play a walking talking stereotype. But Goodman brings a hell of a lot to the table.)
Goodman on the problem of playing Shylock: "I felt very strongly that we don't want to be too nice and sympathetic to him. We must believe that he could kill someone. He is actually not a nice guy. He is a scheming, dangerous man. And if you try and make him a nice guy because he is Jewish, and I am Jewish, then you throw away the play. You don't feel sorry for him. You become weary of him."
YES. FUCK YES. Henry Goodman gets it.
This is the thing about Shylock, this is why it is so hard to satisfy me when it comes to Merchant
: If you play Shylock as a walking, talking anti-semitic stereotype of greed and bloodlust, don't even bother talking to me. But if you try to make Shylock sympathetic, you ruin the play. He is the antagonist and the things he tries to do are inexcusable. And if you make excuses for him, "Oh, poor Shylock, his wife died, he has no legal rights, he is persecuted by all the Christians around him," you are trying to excuse the inexcusable. And that doesn't salvage Shylock. That just means you're not actually taking him seriously.
What you need to do to make Shylock work as a real character is treat him as the villain, but take him seriously as the villain with a meaningful character arc. There are many paths a director can take to this- Nunn and Goodman see Shylock as a conniving bastard, an Iago figure. He's the smartest person in the play, constantly playing people against each other, and he is always wearing a mask in public, always pretending to make friends with the Christians even as he seethes inside, because the dual consciousness is the only way for him to survive life in Venice. But the loss of his daughter knocks him off a step, takes him off his guard. He becomes blinded by his need for revenge, loses sight of the original purpose of the scheme, which was to take advantage of a rare opportunity to actually hurt Antonio, and ends up destroying only himself and his family.
Nunn also emphasizes Shylock's Judaism in his home life, by showing him marking Shabbos dinner with his daughter. But this is not the gentle, quiet, lovely Shabbos dinner of the Tresnjak production- Goodman's version is a complicated affair. Shylock is obsessive about making everything perfect, so obsessive that he yells at his daughter about the placement of dishes. She is sulky, resistant, but ultimately they find themselves on the same page with the recitation of Eishet Chayil, the traditional hymn in praise of good wives that is sung every Friday evening before Kiddush. Jessica and Shylock set aside their frustrations with each other to sing "Eishet Chayil" and remember the wife who had once bound them and now creates an invisible separation between them. In the finale, where Munby had Jessica sing "S'lach Lanu Avinu" from the Amidah, Nunn returns Jessica to "Eishet Chayil" as a remembrance that she has now lost both her mother and her father. It is heartbreaking.
Nunn makes the Shylock/Antonio dynamic even more complicated by giving Antonio other faults besides his anti-semitism. Most productions of Merchant
I've seen don't know what to do with Antonio's opening speech about his melancholy- they present it as a thing separate from the rest of the play, and otherwise show a friendly, warm, compassionate Antonio whose only fault is his hatred of the Jew. David Bamber's Antonio, though, is melancholy because he is a closeted gay man in 1930s Germany, who loves Bassanio with a powerful but unrequited love that Bassanio knowingly takes advantage of for his own benefit, again and again, even though Bassanio likes women. Antonio knows he is being taken advantage of, but he will do anything for Bassanio out of his devotion, even things Bassanio is unwilling to accept. This complicated psychosexual dynamic makes Antonio's choices seem less noble, and explains his vulnerability to Shylock's predations. It also makes it easier to appreciate Shylock- yes, he is a monster, but he's not the only monster in the play.
Nunn fabulously de-comedizes every joke in the play, while maintaining a clear awareness that they were written as jokes. He transposes Lancelot's devil on my shoulder monologue to a Weimar cabaret as a written comedy bit, where the (on-stage) audience, which includes Antonio and Bassanio, is laughing because they like laughing at Jews. Shylock walks in, invited to meet with Antonio and seal the deal, and the crowd goes briefly silent, only to resume laughing when Shylock departs. He plays the casket scenes as pure horror scenes, where if something goes wrong Portia will be forced to marry one of these horrible men. He dances over the 'complexion' line so fast you barely notice it. Nunn's Merchant
is not a comedy, but it's also not a tragedy- it's a work that was written as a comedy but which we no longer find funny. And that's ultimately why I said that it's not always the most moving film- for all the great character performances, it's often hard in Nunn's Merchant
to figure out who to root for. It's often hard to take any joy in any character's triumph, because everyone is so remarkably, indelibly flawed and broken.1980
Directed by Jack Gold, Warren Mitchell as Shylock
Just an absolute piece of shit from beginning to end. Played as a comedy, but not a funny one. The kind of comedy where the characters all have to laugh overly hard at their jokes to tell the audience that they are jokes. The kind of drama where all the characters have pinched looks from beginning to end to tell you that they're taking things seriously, rather than actually reacting to what's happening. The kind of overly stylized, formal diction that thankfully is being excised in more modern productions of Shakespeare. I don't have much to say about it. I quit twice partway through, and watched the ending with one eye while reading a book.
Shylock lisps like a scary foreigner and schemes aimlessly. "My daughter, my ducats" is played for laughs, which it doesn't earn, the absurdity of the Jew caring as much for his money as the loss of his daughter. Antonio is so melancholy he becomes absent, barely a meaningful character. Even Gratiano's pratfalls fall flat. The trial scene was scratched on my DVD, so I skipped it, and feel like I dodged a bullet.
As far as I can tell, the purpose of this production was to create a basic filmed unabridged reference production that high school teachers can screen for their students, a production that takes no stands and makes no waves and follows along exactly to the text the students were given, that any teacher can use to impose their own lesson plan on top of. Maybe it's effective on its own terms. As art, it is worthless and insulting.2003
Directed by Michael Radford, Al Pacino as Shylock
It opens with a dense textual title card explaining what life was like for Jews in 16th Century Venice, because everyone knows that Tell, Don't Show is the fundamental principle of great storytelling. Why prove the difficulty of life in Venice for Jews by showing Shylock's life and trusting the audience, when you can spell it out for them before the play starts? And because everyone watching The Merchant of Venice
doesn't know what anti-semitism is and needs it explained to them like they're two years old, right? The Radford Merchant
is much more egregious than the Munby in its obliviousness to the fact that actual Jews might actually watch his movie. From step one it assumes that Shylock needs defending, that if only you explained to the audience that Shylock's life was hard, they would sympathize with his victimhood rather than thinking of Jews as evil Christ-killing usurers. The prelude goes so far as to show pages of Talmud burning in the pogroms of the Venetians.
I first saw this film when it came out, in a theater, and I had a visceral negative reaction to it. I hated how Pacino played Shylock, the weakness in his character, the opacity in his mien, the lack of apparent intelligence. I hated the victimhood narrative that drives so much of the action, how the film tries to at times justify Shylock's actions, make the audience sympathize, by playing up the violence against Jews, as if that violence could ever justify demanding a pound of Christian flesh. We see Antonio spitting on Shylock, we see Venetians shoving and kicking and swearing at Shylock and his fellow Jews. Nothing can be left to the imagination, Shylock's suffering must be writ tediously large.
This time around, I felt more positively about the film, for several reasons. First, the cinematography and mise en scene is phenomenal. This is a beautiful movie that captures medieval Venice in its complicated glory, with its diverse crowds, its nautical merchant culture, its striking architecture. And all of that is worth praising, because it is a pleasure in its own right.
Second, in the title card there is one fascinating feature I hadn't picked up on the first (two) times around- the text notes that while Venice had laws oppressing Jews, it was comparatively liberal because for most 'sophisticated' Venetians, money and the value of lending with interest was more valuable than obeisance to Christian faith. However, says the title card, 'religious fanatics' hated the Jews for charging interest.
In other words, in Radford's vision of the play, Antonio is not a true Merchant of Venice, committed to winning his fortune at any cost- he's a religious fanatic. This is an amazing twist that Radford and Irons actually carry through from beginning- where Radford shows Antonio attending mass- to end- where Antonio's breast is bared and readied for Shylock's knife, revealing a massive silver cross on his chest. Antonio's hatred of Shylock is not personal, it emerges from his own deep faith in Christ and the Bible. This explains his willingness to lend without interest at obvious personal loss, it explains his willingness to, Christ-like, accept the execution of Shylock's bond. Antonio is not typical for Venice, he is an exceptional man whose personal character impels him to antagonize Jews.
I was talking to ghost_lingering
at Club Vivid about how the central tension in the best versions of Merchant
is on the idea of the power of promises. Portia believes in oaths so deeply that she will not violate the oath she swore to her father even if it mean she end up married to a hateful man. She believes in oaths so deeply that in the trial scene, she will not invalidate Shylock's bond because to do so would make contracts meaningless. She believes in oaths so deeply that she tests her husband's oath about the ring, and finds him disappointingly lacking. Shylock will have his bond, and the Duke will go along with it because do otherwise would destroy the Venetian commerce system.
In contrast to this principle of promises stands Balthazar's "quality of mercy", which transcends laws and which she urges upon Shylock in lieu of his legalism. What's fascinating about Radford's version of the play is that while it's very much concerned with promises and oaths and mercy, it flips some of the conventional elements of the tension- Pacino plays Shylock as far more apparently merciful than one is used to seeing: When Balthazar speaks of the quality of Mercy, Pacino does not look mocking or scornful- he looks troubled. Portia's message resonates with him, as a pleading for virtue, and he appears to be genuinely considering backing down from his cruel demand. Perhaps he is recalling the original loan, when he pled unsuccessfully for Antonio to be his friend, when he made the offer to lend without interest not as a cruel joke but as an offer of friendship. No matter- ultimately Shylock's heart hardens and he refuses to back down from his legalism. Perhaps he recalls that the religious fanatic Antonio never showed him any Christian mercy.
I also like that Joseph Fiennes' Bassanio is clearly marked as an unreformed spendthrift, with far more servants than I've ever seen a production of Merchant assign him before. That was a clever choice, I think, that calls into deeper question the power imbalance in the Portia/Bassanio relationship as well as the Antonio/Bassanio relationship.
I still think it is a weaker set of choices than Nunn's. I still think Pacino's Shylock is opaque and his actions not well justified by the performance or the staging, and Jessica is a vague whimperer rather than a fully realized character, but I appreciate this version more than I did previously.