Gondola acting is difficult.
—Lynn Collins, commentary, William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice
As she watches Portia begin to speak in William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, the actor playing her laughs out loud. Introducing herself on the DVD commentary as “Lynn Collins, a girl from Texas!”, she discusses with director and co-commentator Michael Radford, the difficulty of shooting the early scenes in Portia’s palace. Radford explains: “It’s real expositional stuff, and somehow or another, you have to make it interesting. It’s the most theatrical part of it. And you have to make sure people understand what’s going on at the same time.” When Collins adds that she found most difficult Radford’s direction that she and Heather Goldenhersh (playing Portia’s maid Nerissa) not make eye contact throughout the scene. “Did I say that?” asks Radford, apparently genuinely startled, until he figures out what it was: “It’s ‘Don’t deliver your lines at each at each other all the time,’ because people don’t talk at each other.”
Aha. This sort of attention to actual rhythms of speech and interaction is precisely what makes this “Shakespeare” film so watchable, indeed, so contemporary. (Acknowledging this effect, the DVD’s distributor is clearly aiming it to classroom use as well as Al Pacino fans, including as extras a web-linked Teacher’s Guide and a making-of documentary focused less on production than on Radford and his performers’ interpretations of themes and characters.) Among the director’s means to “update” is his use of the long take (“They were so fun,” gushes Collins), though he admits here that had money and time not been so tight, he would have liked to “shoot more shots, get the camera moving a bit more… just a little less static.” But it’s okay, he says, because “the drama takes you through it.” Collins adds, pointedly, “And the language.”
Specifically, the drama and the language take you through a harrowing comedic (in the Shakespearean sense) muddle of desire and betrayal, some calculated, most accidental. Most obviously as these troubles are embodied by Venetian moneylender Shylock (Pacino, whom Radford describes as “trained in the Method, so he has to approach it in a very visceral way,” meaning, seven or eight takes, delivering 100% of himself every time) and his primary client here, the titular merchant Antonio (Jeremy Irons). Both want something they can never have, according to this interpretation—Antonio the love of the pretty boy Bassanio (Joe Fiennes) and Shylock the devotion of his daughter Jessica (Zuleikha Robinson).
These tragedies are framed by two comedic romances (briefly complicated by mistaken identities), between Portia and Bassanio, and Nerissa and Bassanio’s pal Gratiano (Kris Marshall). All lead back to Jessica, who closes the film with a gaze out on the city that can no longer be her home, for she betrays her father and her background in order to pursue her own romance, with Lorenzo (Charlie Cox). While other takes on Merchant leave Jessica to the emotional and even political sidelines, Radford’s film—which opens not with the play’s first lines, but on the ruckus of the city, depicting the difficulties of Jewish existence at the time—makes her a focus by this very point, that she is cast off, powerless, and frustrated. Her battles with her conservative father increase his own sense of outrage and resistance, such that his deal with Antonio leads to community and personal crisis.
When Jessica abandons Shylock, he is enraged and confirmed in his belief that the Gentiles mean to take away all—his sense of tradition, wealth, and family. And so he seeks vengeance on Antonio, demanding literal payment for his forfeit of his loan, the notorious “pound of flesh.” Shylock’s fury is here set against a Venice that fairly flickers in natural-seeming light, in shots beautifully composed and modulated by cinematographer Benoît Delhomme (as well as several that are CGI-ed, which Radford identifies throughout the commentary), the leads also embody the play’s driving contradictions—they tilt between ambitious and generous, frail and gritty. In the play’s more famous roles, the filmmaker sorts out compelling emotional details, including Bassanio’s carelessness, Antonio’s yearning, Portia’s cutting insight, Shylock’s loss and bitterness.
So you can’t miss Shylock’s sense of cause, the film begins with an epigraph explaining the abuses of Jews by Gentiles in 16th century Venice and the Jewish population’s relegation to a ghetto. In Shylock’s first appearance, he is spit on. Shylock appears hoary and stooped, and righteously incensed. Pacino contains Shylock’s temper as reaction, looking simultaneously vile and vulnerable, hardly a simple balance. That this debate continues to this day—partly filtered through readings of Shakespeare’s supposed perspective or intention, partly through readings of “his time”—only makes its pull seem more irresistible. How might its difficulties and derogations reflect a historical moment, or perhaps chart a future?
The film takes another potentially controversial tack, in revealing a nuanced erotic tension between Antonio and Bassanio. This is reflected first in the early scene, when Bassanio comes to Antonio to ask for money (they meet in Antonio’s bedroom, which serves, typically for the time, as his sitting room as well, and engage in a mutual kiss; “They’ve asked me to take the kiss out of this scene for the television version,” notes Radford, with some disdain in his voice). Also underlining this intimacy is Antonio’s considerable effort to borrow 3000 ducats in order that his dear friend might court the wealthy Portia. But it is also made visible in their deeply exchanged glances, in Antonio’s bedroom (where he hears of Bassanio’s new devotion to Portia and Irons’ face caves in on the news) and in the courtroom, where Shylock endeavors to argue his case, his right to Antonio’s frankly meager flesh. In a climactic moment, Antonio’s shirt is ripped open, to expose Irons’ thin chest, his body suddenly a map of his sorrow, his suffering, and his desire for the young man for whom he is about to sacrifice his very life.
Here, in the courtroom, Bassanio is left to his own sort of sideline, as his own brand new wife, Portia, takes over. Having disguised herself as a male lawyer, she enters this masculine forum to discover what disaster has drawn her husband from their first night’s bed. And here she sees it, as you do as well: this is the space for men’s business, the trading of ideas and possessions, the decision-making that puts value and cost on feelings (and, as Radford notes in his commentary, though Shylock speaks here of “my gold, my ducats,” he’s actually speaking of his daughter Jessica, now lost to him, “but he’s too emotionally stunted” to be able to articulate his love for her). Portia is a clever, educated woman, and so she has little trouble outthinking the men around her, but in so doing, she is also left to wonder at their presumed entitlement. And her reaction to Antonio’s bare bony chest is telling: she’s startled by the weakness of his flesh, even as she has previously understood him as a rival for her husband’s attention.
Typical of Shakespeare’s gender-switching plays, the conflicts throughout, like the eventual revelations, emerge in a mix of witty banter and metaphor, comedy that speaks to pain. As much as Portia-in-disguise pronounces the “mercy” that ideally governs Christian law, it’s clear also that she will have to educate Bassanio, whose cavalier attitude toward money and marriage has led to the central discords. According to Collins, the common reading of the play as “anti-Semitic” misses the power of Shylock’s role. “What happened here,” says Radford, is that Shakespeare “started off writing a comedy, with Shylock a figure of fun,” who then became the Bard’s “first great tragic character, who precedes Hamlet, Othello, Lear, Macbeth, and yet he’s a minor character in the story, he’s only in five scenes.”
In the end, it is Jessica’s silent, sad appearance that brings order and a sort of meaning to all the cacophony. A closeup reveals that she has in fact retained the family heirloom—a ring—that her father thinks she has given away. And in this instant, the film’s interests become exquisitely clear: her loss, Shylock’s defeat, and the wealthy folks’ willful ignorance are all part of the same social design.