Michael Radford’s 2004 film adaptation of The Merchant of Venice begins with Antonio (Jeremy Irons) spitting in the face of the Jewish moneylender Shylock (Al Pacino). In case we weren’t prepared for this act of hatred, several rolling lines of text precede the scene dealing with the rampant anti-Semitism of the time (and of all times?). And Shylock really looks surprised and hurt. Yes, as he says in his “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech: “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”
Lest you get too teary-eyed about the pathos of this speech, listen to good Harold Bloom, who says “…what he is saying there is now of possible interest only to wavering skinheads and similar sociopaths. Perhaps it was a revelation for Shakespeare’s audience, but it had better not be such for any audience now.”
I’m not sure what Bloom’s take on this film would be, as this Merchant of Venice lends itself to Shylock’s point of view in a way that doesn’t come across in the original. Shylock’s dry, grief-stricken moans when he learns his daughter Jessica has run away (with a good deal of his fortune in tow) can’t help but touch the audience. Later, when Shylock learns news of his daughter, we see what is flashing through his mind–Jessica in the middle of an orgy (possibly every father’s nightmare). He slowly loses everything during the course of the play: his dignity, his daughter, his fortune and finally (and this is most cruel) his religion when he is forced to convert to Christianity.
But there is another loser in the play–Jeremy Irons’ Antonio, who begins the play exceedingly world-weary and ends it by himself as he watches his lover marry Portia. When young Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) enters the arena, he is a seedy carouser who has the nerve to ask Antonio to back him up on a loan from Shylock so that he will be rich enough to join the legions of Portia’s suitors. We are left with no illusions as to the love bond between the two men as they share a passionate kiss upon meeting. (This embrace was later to be erased from the television version of the film.)
When he thinks he is facing his death, Antonio says to Bassanio: “Commend me to your honorable wife:/Tell her the process of Antonio’s end;/Say how I loved you, speak to me fair in death;/And, when the tale is told, bid her be judge/Whether Bassanio had not once a love.” These words ring true, even though they are spoken from the mouth of a man who spits on Shylock at the start of the play. Jeremy Irons has a pinched, barren look on his face throughout the film as if he were shouldering a large burden.
When I first read this play as a teenager, I was wild about Portia who dresses up like a young man to have her say in court. However, it is Antonio I am left with now and his generosity towards Bassanio. Both Shylock and Antonio can do nothing but suffer in solitude at the end. This doesn’t make for much comedy.