There were few (if any) Jews in the late 16th-century London inhabited by William Shakespeare when he wrote The Merchant of Venice, his serio-comic play that some believe to be an anti-Semitic screed. But the Italy of Shakespeare's day was lousy with Jews, who were considered to be "foreigners" even if native-born.
And so naturally, Italian law made sure they knew their place: They lived in gated compounds, couldn't own land, and had to lend money for a living (a vile profession in the minds of Christians -- until they needed to borrow some). Venetians of good breeding graciously looked the other way when it came to these unsavory people, but "religious fanatics" gladly derided them when they could.
You won't learn much of this in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, but you learn it right away, from a series of opening titles, in writer/director Michael Radford's adaptation, which nobly tries to contextualize and interpret the play for a more enlightened age, and which finds (or imagines) an unrequited homosexual subtext that's about as enlightened as an adaptation gets.
To face his challenge, Radford (Il Postino) frames his Merchant in a way that blames anti-Semitism on the Venetians rather than the Elizabethans. This shows a certain quality of mercy toward Shakespeare, who was enough of a dramatist to strive for balance and enough of an Elizabethan to fail at achieving it. Try as he does, Radford can't salvage the play's climax, where Shylock demands his pound of flesh -- and finally finds himself on his knees under the weight of a most punishing comeuppance.
In Shylock, some scholars have noted, the virtues of a humane ancient religion become palpable vices: not reverence for the law, but a literal-minded legalism; not pride in heritage, but a hatred of Christianity; not a passion for justice, but a hunger for revenge. And let's not forget that "shylock" has since found a place in the OED: "an extortionate usurer; to force a person to repay a debt, esp. at an exorbitant rate of interest." Who can argue with the dictionary?
Radford attributes Shylock's behavior -- somewhat muted by a condensed text -- to his acute awareness of the ongoing persecution of the Jews, and on the bitterness that such treatment naturally breeds. But what was Shakespeare's view? Scholars don't seem terribly able to redeem him, except to say that he was human, and thus prone to the sentiments of his time.
Which brings us, gentle readers, to Radford's Merchant, in which Al Pacino's Shylock has a very slight "Jewish" accent, while everyone else around him speaks British. Pacino has messed with Shakespeare before (Richard III a few years back), and he plays Shylock's downfall in stunned whispers. When he collapses in humiliation and defeat, you sense a great actor at work. Finally, though, it's too distracting to have one icon playing another, and most of the time his Method is more a distraction than a thrill.
The plot of Radford's film is lean and generally easy to follow. Antonio (Jeremy Irons), a Venice merchant, needs money to send his three ships to far-flung places with their cargo. He approaches the moneylender Shylock, who reminds him that Antonio had earlier called him a dog and spat on him. But yes, says Shylock, he'll lend Antonio 3,000 ducats for three months, and if Antonio can't pay it back, Shylock will take as his repayment a pound of Antonio's own Christian flesh.
Meanwhile, Antonio's beloved young friend Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) is in debt from his prodigal days. Bassanio has eyes for Portia (Lynn Collins), a wealthy young woman (and a redhead, so a de facto hottie) who's interviewing husbands by making each suitor -- from lusty Moors to foppish bores -- choose from among three chests to find the one that holds her picture. It takes Bassanio little time to figure out her game and win her hand (and her money).
Then, when Antonio's ships go awry, Shylock goes to court to get his pound of flesh. But Portia, disguised as a man, interrupts the proceeding with an argument that saves Antonio, her new husband's mentor-cum-very-good-friend. (Antonio kisses Bassanio, gives him a wedding ring, and looks away when Bassanio declares love for his wife.)
Radford mounts his Merchant with exquisite visuals, from the shimmering canals and old stone passageways of Venice to marketplaces packed with just-slaughtered goats and bare-breasted whores. It's a pleasure to watch, and it's easy to follow because Radford strips down the language and has his actors speak at a slower, more modern pace.
But one doesn't take too much away from this adaptation, in part because Radford has chosen not to challenge us with a more Shakespearean (and hence troubling) point of view. Shylock does what he does because he just can't take it any more, although you'll have to keep Radford's initial history lesson in mind to get the message. In the climax, a steely Shylock seems certain that he's owed his contractual debt for all the degradation heaped upon him by an anti-Semitic culture. But when the law finally turns against him, not even Radford can mitigate the notion that Shylock deserves what he gets simply for being -- as Shakespeare identifies him in the cast of characters -- "a Jew."