As a some what classically trained actor (two years of an academic theatre school) I have always had a thing for Shakespeare. I love his work and have never had the fear that so many people seem to have for the language. Sure some of the allusions and idioms are obscure or their meanings are only relevant to Elizabethan scholars, but a good actor lets the emotion of the words in context convey what is needed for the audience to comprehend the meaning of the words.
Underneath the glamour and the trappings that accompany most productions there are universal truths that speak to all of us. Remember Shakespeare was a popular writer who depended on pleasing his audiences for making a living. An audience who if anything were even less educated then today’s, made up of primarily illiterates who would need the stimuli of strong emotion to provide enjoyment. His plays are sexual, violent, full of bawdy humour and plots were dictated by the strong moral code of the time. The tragedies conformed to the tight rule of a hero whose tragic flaw brings about his downfall, the histories to extolling the virtues of the current head under the crown, and the romantic comedies all worked out right in the end.
What has always elevated Shakespeare head and shoulders above the rest was his ability to raise his content above the limitations of the style. Unlike today’s sit-com writers who work within a similar format and let stereotypes and manipulation stand in for genuine characters and emotion, his ear for poetry and truth combined to entertain and enlighten the masses whilst never stooping to a lowest common denominator. Royal to peasant were equally comfortable with his work.
Our tendency to view Shakespeare’s plays as museum pieces instead of living theatre is the thing that does them the most disservice. We suffered through a long period of staid costume dramas masquerading as performance with only a few notable exceptions. Not until Kenneth Branagh first began producing plays and filming did new life get blown back into Shakespeare for the first time since Peter Brooks interpretations in the early seventies. Aside from Mr. Branagh own productions we have seen a spurt of attempts at Shakespeare, some good, some bad, but at least people were attempting to use film and his plays for more then faithful reproductions of stage shows.
What this has all been leading up to is the recent production of Merchant of Venice starring Al Pachino, Jeremy Iron, Joseph Fiennes and Lynn Collins. The Merchant has moved in and out of fashion over the last forty years because of the potential for stirring up a pot that most people would rather leave alone. Anti Semitism. With the specter of Mel Gibson’s wildly anti Semitic Passion hanging over everyone’s heads it takes an especially brave group of people to mount a production of Merchant.
We as a society would like to pretend that anti semitism does not exist at the same level that it has in previous generations. But with the rise of fundamentalist Christians and the poverty of Eastern Europe we have seen an upswing in anti Jewish sentiment. Although neither Jew nor Muslim will appreciate this comment it must also be remembered that Arabs are Semitic as well so the Muslim world has become a legitimate outlet for most people’s anti- Semitic feelings. Jews and Muslims are particularly sensitive now to anything that is seen as promoting hatred towards their people, justifiably I believe since any promotion of hatred under what ever the guise is putrid.
In one of the interviews included with the D.V.D. of Merchant of Venice Al Pacino mentions that he had been approached many times before about playing the role of Shylock, and that he had always refused for that very reason. He never felt comfortable with the character’s depiction as a villain because of its perpetuating of a stereotype. There have been many apologists for this play, defending it on the grounds that it was just an accurate reflection of the time period of Shakespeare. While this may or may not be true, it did not necessitate some of the extremes taken in the depiction of Shylock’s villainy or the saintliness of Antonio and Bassino.
When one examines the structures that Shakespeare so rigerlously adhered to in the construction of his script, this interpretation makes no sense. Who is the tragic hero in this tragedy, whose downfall are we asked to witness. Not the two gentiles, but the Jew. In all of Shakespeare’s tragedy’s we are given motivation and plot for the actions of the flawed character, from Hamlet to Othello circumstances have combined with their character’s shortcomings to bring about their downfall. We invaribly are led to some sort of sympathy for these heroes no matter what they end up doing, or what results from their actions.
Why then has this never been the result of Merchant of Venice. Why have we always been led to the position of rejoicing at the downfall of Shylock, instead of commiserating with a person who has had his daughter, his possessions and his religion stripped from him? Like so many of us he had been pushed too far by circumstances and events until something finally snapped. Whose to say how you and I would react under the constant pressure of day in and day out persecution and assaults on our dignity.
I belief that until now no has wanted to perform the play as it was meant to be produced. Who would pay to see gentile society depicted as the villain of the piece and Shylock as the flawed hero driven by desperation into a place of madness; where reason has fled to be replaced by the all consuming need for vengeance against the people who “spit upon my Jewish Cavity”. It is far easier to dismiss the anti semitism as historically accurate then to put the mirror up our own society’s bigotry.
Michael Radford has finally provided us with a Merchant worth watching. He follows the path of most resistance by depicting Shylock as the tragic hero brought down by his flaws. Through establishing the anti semitism of the times and the characters he makes the ensuing actions of Shylock understandable and believable. It’s not because he’s a money grubbing Jew that he demands his pound of flesh, it’s because he is a man who has been pushed to his limit and beyond. He’s beyond reason to the point where he will not even accept twice the amount of money he is owed as replacement of his bond. That is not the behaviour of a man governed by greed, but one who is controlled by other forces.As we see and hear his plans collapsing around him, as we watch him deflate and hear the vindictive reveling of the gentiles our hearts can not help but go out to him, one more person destroyed by the moral majority for attempting to stand up for himself against overwhelming odds. The self righteous have again conquered and left the outsider lost.
It goes without saying that the performances in this movie are universally brilliant. The British cast of lesser parts are universally more comfortable with the language of Shakespeare then any production I have seen in many a year. The leads, well the leads are nothing short of magnificent. The performances of Jeremy Irons(Anotnio) and Joseph Fiennes(Bassino) are just what I would expect from them, perceptive, intelligent with never a wrong note sounded.
But in truth it is the two Americans who are the revelation. Pacino has never been this good before. It is if he has been waiting for this part his whole career and saving up bits of talent so that it could all be invested, he holds nothing back and presents what I think should be the Shylock that everyone remembers. On a par with Oliver’s Hamlet it will become a byword for performances for future actors to emulate. I have never seen or heard of Lynn Collins(Portia) before, but she is the real thing when it comes to Shakespeare. Her command of the language and its nuances was equal to that of her more renowned male co-stars, and her presence and poise enlivened and energies any scene she participated in.
But in the end it all comes down to Michael Radford’s direction and adaptation. It’s his eye that takes us through 16th century Venice. From the opulence of the gentile areas, to the gated and confining prison of the ghetto we are witness to the disparate worlds of the two people’s who make up the films population. Venice is a cesspool of hypocrisy: wearing the face of morality by day, but dallying with prostitutes by night, preaching tolerance, but only for those like us, asking Shylock to consider mercy for Antonio during the court scene, but then baying for his blood when events turn against him.
In this Venice if we are willing to look closely enough we can see ourselves and what our society has done to those on the outside. Shylock is every poor desperete person manipulated by events and his leaders into a place of no return, we are the ones who plead with him to desist, but when we get the chance we defile and spit on him with glee.
This is a wonderful movie that finally provides justice for a play that has too long been subject to the whims of fashion and bias. Definitely a Merchant worth seeing.