A New Take on Old Prejudices

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Review of 'The Merchant of Venice', director Michael Radford

For modern audiences, there are many advantages to seeing Shakespeare on film as opposed to the theatre. The use of close-ups for key speeches or visual symbols to represent emotions in the medium of film can take a viewer into the psychology of character or place in a way that helps overcome the very real barrier that the highly figurative language can often present.

Michael Radford's new version of The Merchant of Venice uses location shooting to great effect. Venice is a place of both breathtaking beauty and dark corners - the blossoming of new love and the destructiveness of ugly discrimination against Jews. Its importance as a centre of trade and empire is created by its many scenes of feasting and bartering. The squalor of drunken orgies and brutality of business are painted vividly - reflecting both Shakespeare's Elizabethan ambiguity about the dawn of capitalism and our own disgust at its obscene wastefulness in a world that could so readily be different.

This production's contemporary feel is most evident in its plea for tolerance and mercy in relations with those of different religious or cultural backgrounds. It frames its telling of the story with the theme of anti-Semitism. The opening shots of Jeremy Irons's Antonio spitting vehemently on Al Pacino's Shylock in full view of Venice's traders and merchants is made even more shocking because it is preceded by titles outlining the discriminatory practices against Jews in different parts of Europe at the time of the play. It ends with a wistful Jessica, ostensibly happily united with the Christian Lorenzo, looking longingly towards Venice, unhappy that the intolerance between religions has brought her to an unbridgeable separation with her father.

Antonio's bargain with Shylock - an interest-free 3,000 ducats for his friend Bassanio to woo Portia - is seen as an act of mercy on the part of Shylock; the 'pound of flesh' he asks for as Antonio's bond is not a serious threat to the merchant's life at this stage. Shylock's exclusion from society, symbolised by the nightly curfew on Jews and his lifeless home, feeds his growing bitterness and despair. When he pleads with Antonio to see their common humanity - 'If you prick me, do I not bleed?' - the coldness of the merchant's response draws our sympathy more than our dislike for Shylock's unbending nature. It is his anguish and grief at the loss of Jessica that pushes him into the intolerance he has suffered so much of.

Our sympathy for Shylock is certainly diminished by the lack of mercy he shows Antonio when he tries to claim his bond, yet the film has created the potential for us to understand his desire for revenge on a world and an individual that have so systematically denied and ridiculed his core beliefs because of his role as a moneylender. The hypocrisy of Antonio and those around him is brought out well in the courtroom scenes; his followers join the braying crowds who take delight in the law's brutal retribution on Shylock. The mercy they pleaded for only moments earlier has been banished.

That we are clearly appalled at the forced conversion of Shylock - traditionally a cause of debate among scholars as to whether the play is anti-Semitic - is a tribute to the fine performance of Pacino, but also a product of the struggle for racial and religious tolerance that has shaped British society. The wonderful shot of a bare-headed Shylock locked out of a synagogue chilled me at the thought of those who would deny the right of women to choose whether or not to wear a hijab in modern France.

This film succeeds in locating the play in both its time and ours.