The Merchant of Venice (7/10)

by Tony Medley

Legendary sportswriter Red Smith said that writing involves opening a vein and bleeding. Will Shakespeare has little competition in my mind as the greatest ever. One of the reasons I so respect old Will is that he was the Elizabethan era’s answer to our TV writers. He wasn’t writing for posterity. He was writing for the present, to make money, to entertain, and he wrote 2-3 plays a year, always under deadline. On top of that, he was acting every day, also! Instead of turning out “Seinfeld” or “Desperate Housewives,” he turned out “Hamlet,” and “Macbeth,” and “Julius Caesar,” and “Much Ado About Nothing, “ and “As You Like It,” and many, many more.

“The Merchant of Venice” is considered one of Shakespeare’s comedies. However, what you see in this Sony Classic production is hardly a comedy. It’s played much darker than you have probably seen it on the stage, and Shylock (Al Pacino) is presented far more sympathetically than seen previously. Oh, sure, Portia (Lynn Collins) toys with Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) and the ring she gave him, but, really not much of it is played for laughs. Even the choosing of the caskets, which is usually high farce, is relatively serious.

The acting is mixed. Jeremy Irons, as Antonio, the merchant of Venice, is very good, but, then, he generally is. Collins is an excellent Portia, and Pacino plays Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, much more sympathetically than normal. The only person in the cast with whom I was not impressed was Feinnes, who did such a wonderful job two years ago in the title role in “Luther” (2003).

The story is simple. Shylock loans Bassanio money with no interest. But if it’s not repaid, Shylock gets a pound of flesh from Antonio, who has publicly demeaned Shylock, and who is the guarantor of the loan. As one would guess, it’s not repaid.

But it’s not the story or the acting or the directing or the staging; it’s Shakespeare, stupid. Old Will and what he wrote steal the show. “The Merchant of Venice” contains two of Will’s best speeches. The first is when Shylock complains of the treatment of the Jews:

…I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die?...

Later, Portia gives her famous speech, beseeching Shylock to show mercy to Antonio:

The quality of mercy is not strain’d, 

 It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven 

Upon the place beneath:

it is twice bless’d; 

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes: 

’Tis mightiest in the mightiest;

it becomes The throned monarch better than his crown; 

His sceptre shows the force of temporal power, 

The attribute to awe and majesty, 

Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;

But mercy is above this sceptred sway, 

 It is enthroned in the hearts of kings, 

 It is an attribute to God himself,…

Just writing down these speeches brings tears of admiration to my eyes, so beautiful and profound are they. When I hear or read Will’s speeches like these, I wonder, did his quill fly over the parchment to keep up with his galloping brain as the words came flooding to him? Or did he, like Red Smith, have to sit and struggle as he bled them out?

It’s stunning to know how close we came to having all this work lost. After Shakespeare died, his plays would have died with him because they were not published. Four years after his death, four of his actor friends got together and published a folio of all his plays. But for them, Shakespeare’s work would have been forever lost.

Shakespeare is not for the intellectually lazy. The blank verse can be hard to comprehend and follow. But if you follow it you can be rewarded. My hat is off to Director Michael Radford (who, ironically, took the sole screenwriting credit without even a bow to the Bard of Avon; sure, Will’s name is in the title, but all Radford did was to edit the play; the words are Will’s and Will’s alone; shouldn’t he have a screenwriting credit?) and stars like Irons and Pacino and Fiennes for making a film that clearly will not be boffo box office. This is a well produced, unique, albeit too long, rendition of the bard’s work. Had Radford earned his sole screenwriting credit he would have made it come in at around 90 minutes instead of the advertised 142 minutes.

January 25, 2005

Tony Medley