Friday, February 04, 2005

The Shylock Dilemma

Here is the first paragraph of my review of Michael Radford's The Merchant of Venice starring Al Pacino as Shylock from the National Post a couple of weeks ago:
The latest film version of The Merchant of Venice begins with a lingering shot of a Torah burning, as the painstaking research that director Michael Radford has done into the treatment of Jews in 16th-century Italy scrolls across the screen. This prologue may not be particularly relevant to the comic drama about to unspool -- certainly Shakespeare didn't write the play as a ripped-from-the-headlines inquiry into Venetian anti-Semitism -- but it does act as an important audience advisory: Put your helmets on, ladies and gentlemen. You're about to get bludgeoned over the head repeatedly. [Read the whole thing.]
Here is The Globe and Mail's Rick Groen’s first two:
In a brilliant opening montage, before a word from the text is spoken, director Michael Radford puts his dark stamp all over The Merchant of Venice. A brief crawl fixes the date, 1596, and lays out the historic plight of the city's Jews: Systemically persecuted, locked in a ghetto each evening, forced to wear a red hat to identify themselves. The camera roams the canals and settles into a bustling marketplace, where a scowling Antonio — the merchant of the title — spits into the bearded face of the Jewish money-lender Shylock. Suddenly, at the sight of handsome young Bassanio alighting from a gondola, Antonio changes his expression to a lovelorn look of deep yearning. Cut back to the angered Jew leaving the synagogue with his daughter Jessica, a dusky beauty who is seen to excite the passion of a man lurking in the shadows.
So, in mere seconds, the essential themes are revealed — intolerance, revenge, love — but with a sombre, almost menacing overlay. The stage is set, and only then does the actual play start. In perfectly resonant silence, Radford has prepared us for, and even helped to explain, those famous first words, the most startling line that ever began a romance comedy: "In sooth, I know not why I am so sad." [Read the whole thing.]
Slightly different interpretation, no?

The thing with The Merchant of Venice is that you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't. As I wrote in my review, "The play is a convergence of two old folk tales that could, and perhaps should, be films of their own. First, there's the famous story of a Jewish moneylender named Shylock, who, having recently been cheated out of daughter and ducats, demands a pound of Christian flesh from his debtor Antonio when he defaults on a loan. (After adjusting for inflation and exchange, that's about 120 pounds in today's Christian flesh.) Then, contrasting with this dark tale of vengeance and out-of-control money markets, there's also the lighter fairy tale of a jet- setting (gondola-setting, maybe?) heiress named Portia, who is yours for the marrying if you just pick the right treasure chest. Striking the right balance between these two parallel narratives is a little bit like trying to cram a Schindler's List subplot into an episode of The Bachelorette."

Richard Ouzounian explained the Shylock dilemma in a recent article in the Star. Most directors of The Merchant of Venice in the past half century have "solved" the play by making Shylock into a tragic character (instead of the comic villian, he was likely intended to be) and by adding some twinge of regret or sadness to the last act (in which Shylock does not appear). "The trouble with such inventions," writes Ouzounian, "is that they not only fail to remove the rancid smell of hatred from the script, but they destroy any delight still available from the sweet perfume of its romance."

While I agree with Ouzounian for most of his article, I can't endorse his conclusion: "To produce The Merchant of Venice exactly as written is unthinkable in this post-Holocaust world, but to attempt any kind of whitewash is an act of artistic desecration. Perhaps the only solution is to leave the play on the shelf out of consideration for everyone's feelings. That may not seem just to some people but, in the words of Portia, 'earthly power doth then show likest God's when mercy seasons justice.'"

Yeah, but Portia's idea of mercy is converting Jews to Christianity, lest we forget.

I think shelving the play is a horrible idea, the worst whitewash of all... Personally, I'd love to see The Merchant of Venice put on as written just once. Such a production would force audiences to examine what they see on stage critically, even if it is written by Shakespeare.

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