In the shadow of the European Holocaust, Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” has at its center a troubling portrayal of a Jewish man, Shylock. Like Shakespeare’s romantic comedy, “The Taming of the Shrew,” social changes and historical events have altered the audience’s view and as result, societies alter the interpretation to their own current values.
The merchant in question, Antonio, is a bit of a gambler. All of his fortunes are in ships on the sea. Yet when his good friend, Bassanio, needs a loan to court a wealthy orphan, Portia, Antonio seeks out a man he has publicly reviled (talk about chutzpah) and now asks for a loan. Shylock first requests only Antonio’s friendship—offering the loan without interest, but when Antonio refuses that, Shylock then asks for a pound of flesh should Antonio default on the loan. As Bassanio leaves, so does Shylock’s daughter, eloping with Lorenzo and taking most of Shylock’s fortune on Bassanio’s ship as he sails to court Portia.
Portia is bound by her father’s will to marry the man who figures out the puzzle of three boxes. Bassanio unravels the mystery, but as the couple begins to celebrate he learns that Antonio, his ships lost at sea, has been unable to repay the loan. Although Antonio returns with more than enough to repay Shylock, Shylock demands the letter of the law. The case is brought before the Duke of Venice where Portia, disguised as a young lawyer, interprets the law, giving Shylock the opportunity to forgive the loan at a handsome profit. When Shylock insists on justice, Portia reveals he has actually lost everything according to other laws.
Historically, Shylock has been played as a dastardly character. Consider the laws that barred Jews like African Americans from being witnesses against white Caucasians and the anti-Semitic rhetoric that prevented more Jews from fleeing Europe under both the Russian oppression and the threat of Nazi Germany.
Director Michael Radford can’t entirely avoid accusations of anti-Semitism in his movie, but he has skillfully balanced the portrayal of Jews in a Christian society, informing the modern audience of oppressive circumstances under which Jews lived in Venice of that time period as well as showing a mournful parallelism between a pious Christian and a dogmatic Jew.
Before a word is uttered, subtitles tell how Jews were confined to a ghetto, locked in at night and forced to wear identifying red caps. Like the Japanese immigrants in California hundreds of years later, Jews in Venice were not allowed to own land and many turned to usury, loaning money with interest—an occupation forbidden to Christians.
In a world where loans with interest are accepted as a part of Judeo-Christian America, the title character’s act of loaning money without interest may seem peculiar. Yet Antonio (Jeremy Irons) is moved by generosity and his religious beliefs. Shakespeare doesn’t place Antonio amongst priests or in a church, but Radford does.
With his fortune’s tied up in his ships, Antonio’s decision to borrow money from Shylock to loan his good friend Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) may seem foolish. Bassanio has squandered his own fortune and seeks the money to win a wealthy, virtuous wife, Portia (Lynn Collins). Yet Bassanio isn’t an opportunistic gold digger in this movie. Marriage had both its romantic and pragmatic sides during Shakespeare’s time. And as part of his position in society, Bassanio would have been expected to keep up appearances as well as finding a suitable wife with a respectable dowry. Fiennes’ Bassanio clearly holds Portia in great affection. The age difference between Irons’ Antonio and Fiennes’ Bassanio suggests a pseudo father-son relationship, making this loan seem a natural consequence of an indulgent paternal love.
Yet the question always comes back to how Shakespeare meant to portray Jews and how audiences are to view Shylock. In the time of Queen Elizabeth, there were actually few if any Jews living in England and it’s doubtful that Shakespeare would have been personally acquainted with a practicing Jewish individual. Although according Jami Rogers, writing for PBS.org, Jews in England were not confined to ghettoes as they were in parts of the European continent, they were not citizens and were barred from artisan guilds. Usury wasn’t the only profession open to Jews, however, usurers were predominately Jews and the religion became associated with the profession and the bad feeling evoked.
Resentment led to two massacres of Jews in 1189 and 1190. By 1275, Jews were no longer allowed to lend money and expelled from England in 1290. Absence doesn’t always make the heart grow fonder. Instead, myths arose about ritual murder and this is clearly referenced in Shakespeare’s play with Shylock’s request for “a pound of flesh.”
Radford, however, makes this an idea springing of happenstance. Shylock has just purchased kosher meat when Antonio requests the loan and thus his request is more a jest and not a thought of a devious and blood lusting man.
Yet if we consider looking at the aspect of religion more generally, the Elizabethan period was a time of great religious oppression. The queen’s father, Henry VIII, had broken with the Catholic Church in order to divorce his first wife and marry a second, Anne Boleyn, who gave birth to Elizabeth. Henry’s many marriages were broken and made in pursuit of a male heir. The loyal subjects of Elizabeth were expected to convert from Catholicism to the new Anglican Church just as had been expected by her father, Henry VIII although Elizabeth’s elder sister, Mary had supported Catholicism. Shakespeare would have known and perhaps even been part of a family that converted from Catholicism. There is scholarly discussion about Shakespeare’s possible Catholicism or sympathies but it seems impossible to know for certain.
In any case, Shakespeare, during his time in London didn’t risk death by being openly Catholic. The people in Elizabeth’s court had been faced with the question of conversion and were, at least overtly converted to the Anglican Church. In this manner, the conversion from one religion to another was a matter of survival and had to have been faced by all those in the queen’s court.
Likewise, small groups of Conversos, or Jews converted to Christianity who, fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, had come to England and some even becoming musicians in the court of Henry VIII. A few years before the play, the queen’s physician, Rodrigo Lopez was accused of plotting with the King of Spain to murder the queen. Lopez was executed, proclaiming his innocence to the end. Rogers writes that although anti-Spanish sentiment was more widespread at the time, Lopez’s Jewish background brought on a spat of anti-Semitism. One could suggest that Shakespeare as playwright was taking advantage of this feeling. He does make one of Portia’s failed suitors Spanish. The Prince of Aragon is portrayed as a pompous fool and Radford chooses to show him as effete and vain, with a personality less virile than Portia’s.
Yet Shylock isn’t a one-dimensional villain. He has a family. He has loved a woman and shows anguish when he believes his daughter has given away his wife’s ring for a monkey. He is a man who calls on his religion, which at first seems to be Judaism, but in the courtroom scene, seems to be the letter of the law.
Al Pacino starred and directed “Looking for Richard,” a documentary that discussed both the historical Richard III and the theatrical men. It featured a raw and thunderous Pacino as Richard III, verbally bludgeoning the slight and trembling Winona Ryder as Lady Anne to marry her husband’s murderer if only for protection. There he was a tyrant. Here, Pacino’s Shylock is a lonely man, embittered by both his daughter’s elopement with a sizeable dowry to marry a Christian and the humiliation he receives from the Christian Venetians. His offer to loan Antonio money without interest in return for Antonio’s friendship is genuine, making Antonio’s refusal and his very loan request from a man whose face he spat on seem like a measure of Catholic Christian arrogance.
In that moment, Antonio, who doesn’t chide Bassanio for his waywardness or lecture his fellow Venetians for their lewd ways (in several scenes Radford shows bare-breasted whores displaying themselves for potential customers), has forsaken Christianity. Likewise, Pacino’s Shylock forsakes his own religion in request for revenge. Refusing repayment, he demands his pound of flesh but when Radford shows us Shylock’s fellow Jews in the court background, they look more horrified than pleased. This is perhaps a more modern interpretation of religion.
In Shakespeare’s time Venice was something of an exotic place and it was also Catholic. When reference is made to Christians, it would have been clear to Shakespeare’s audience that these were Catholics. Antonio is portrayed in the text as a good Christian but Radford adds a note of austerity and sobriety. This Antonio contrasts deeply the cheerful, light-hearted tone of Bassanio and his fellow (and less devotedly Christian) Venetians.
If Shylock ends up alone—without house, without family and without his fellow Jews, Antonio is also alone. In the last scene, he becomes an outsider in a playful courtship game and as three sets of lovers leave for their bedchambers, he is rich (his ships have returned well laden), without the lightness of love.
Perhaps the real message here, that Radford brings in this interpretation, is that love and laughter is more important than the austerity of religion—Jewish or Christian. Perhaps in Shakespeare’s time when religious affiliation could mean accusations of treason and a penalty of death, religious belief was less life affirming than a life devoted to true romantic love. If we are to look at this movie or this play with modern eyes, then both Antonio and Shylock have not been true to their faith and thus they are more alike than different and each, via different circumstances, is left utterly alone, melancholy outsiders to the three sets of young lovers. Further, Shakespeare’s moral seems to be that Portia, in training Bassanio how to properly love, shows him that his first allegiance is not to God or his best friend, but to his wife. In this way, perhaps Radford’s “Merchant of Venice” is not just anti-Semitic, but also anti-Catholic and anti-religious. In a country where devoted religious people are often spoken of in pejorative terms and parodied on stage and on screen, this interpretation by the India-born, British-educated Radford is thus an interpretation based on our current social values.
United States/Italy/Luxembourg/United Kingdom, 2004
U.S. Release Date: 12/29/04 (limited)
Running Length: 2:10
MPAA Classification: R (Nudity)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Cast: Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, Joseph Fiennes, Lynn Collins, Zuleikha Robinson, Kris Marshall, Charlie Cox, Heather Goldenhersh
Director: Michael Radford
Producers: Cary Brokaw, Michael Cowan, Barry Navidi, Jason Piette
Screenplay: Michael Radford, based on the play by William Shakespeare
Cinematography: Benoît Delhomme
Music: Jocelyn Pook
U.S. Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics