The Merchant of Venice (2004)
Michael’s Radford’s 2004 adaptation of The Merchant of Venice aims to present the viewer a fresh take on William Shakespeare’s comedy of the same name, but when given the problematic history of the play, how much can it really succeed? With a 30 million dollar budget, the set, costumes, and quality of actors are all superb. Though tragic and unsettling, visually the film is beautiful. It seems to bring a late sixteenth-century painting to life. Its shots of Venice, and Portia’s Belmont are beautiful and cinematic, romanticizing Italian life at the turn of the sixteenth century.
It is clear from the beginning what this film adaptation wants to achieve: to emphasize the humanity of the character of Shylock and highlight Jewish discrimination. The adaptation, however, relies heavily on the traditional aspects of the original play that lend the movie an unsettling feeling as the comedic scenes are followed with tragic ones. By sticking to the original plot and characters, the comedic and lighthearted scenes (featuring Christians and a romantic subplot) are juxtaposed with anti-Semitism and discrimination against Shylock. Radford tries to highlight scenes of Christian hypocrisy, with their over-indulgent feasting and visiting prostitutes, but with 30 minutes of falling action, the film maintains the audience’s focus on the Christian characters well after Shylock is persecuted. At the end, the audience is aware of the anti-Semitism against Shylock, but the film does not actively discredit the stereotypes set up by the original play against him.
Herein lies the issue: Shylock is indeed painted as a three-dimensional villain, just as Shakespeare wrote him to be. Al Pacino’s moving performance of the famous monologue “Hath not a Jew eyes?” exhibits this three dimensionality. True, Shylock is a villain. He demands a pound of flesh from a man who had the ability to pay his loan three times over. When considering this play had been performed throughout history in grossly anti-Semitic ways, including large-scale productions during the Nazi regime, can we expect Radford’s adaptation to be wholly successful? The main reason for Shylock’s villainy is his Jewishness—it is brought up several times in the court scene alone. Today’s filmmakers have artistic license, especially when taking inspiration from literature. Radford had cut out several integral lines from Shakespeare’s original work. Perhaps Radford needed to cut back on the “comedic” scenes to allow for a clearer emphasis on Shylock and the hypocrisy of the Christians in the play. The motivation for Shylock’s villainy stems from resentment, which is justified by the Jewish discrimination that is present in the film but not in the play: the burning of Hebrew texts, the Jews’ confinement to Ghettos, the clothing they must wear that identifies them, and a even a scene involving a Jewish man being thrown off a bridge by a mob. This anti-Jewish world is established before even a line of dialogue is spoken, but I believe the rest of the film, which adheres to the original play, undermines the context it established.
Ultimately, the problem here remains the continued glorification of Shakespeare’s works. Some scholars have tried to prove Shakespeare’s intention of creating Shylock as a type of double agent for anti-antisemitism, but one that Elizabethan audiences could still mock. This does not, however, mitigate the implications a character like Shylock has on today’s culture, especially in the wake of religious intolerance that still persists. One cannot prove or disprove Shakespeare’s original intentions when he created Shylock; we can only analyze the long-term effects such a character has on literature and film. It is interesting to note that this adaptation came out the same year of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, which perpetuated the false notion that the Jews were to blame for the killing of Jesus. I won’t say much more except that Mel Gibson, with his well-known views on the topic, proves that anti-Semitic stereotypes of Jews still infiltrate popular media. Not to mention that medieval passion plays, which the Passion of the Christemulated to a certain degree, also have a horrible history to blaming Jews for Christ’s crucifixion, which is the basis for stereotypes that led to violence against Jews, who as a community could be accused of the blood libel.
True, Shylock is as three-dimensional as a villain can get. He is a character with his own motives for revenge against the discrimination he faces. Yet he embodies harmful stereotypes and we must be aware and critical of these depictions, as they are still relevant today. All this being said, The Merchant of Venice does succeed in some parts in depicting Jewish discrimination sixteenth-century in Venice.
Early Modern Era (c. 1500-1750)
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