A rich merchant, Antonio is depressed for no good reason, until his good friend Bassanio comes to tell him how he's in love with Portia. Portia's father has died and left a very strange ... See full summary »
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A rich merchant, Antonio is depressed for no good reason, until his good friend Bassanio comes to tell him how he's in love with Portia. Portia's father has died and left a very strange will: only the man that picks the correct casket out of three (silver, gold, and lead) can marry her. Bassanio, unfortunately, is strapped for cash with which to go wooing, and Antonio wants to help, so Antonio borrows the money from Shylock, the money-lender. But Shylock has been nursing a grudge against Antonio's insults, and makes unusual terms to the loan. And when Antonio's business fails, those terms threaten his life, and it's up to Bassanio and Portia to save him. Written by
If you're looking for The Merchant of Venice on video or DVD, it comes down to two versions: Jonathan Miller's National Theatre production with Laurence Olivier, Joan Plowright, and Jeremy Brett, taped in 1973, and this BBC effort, recorded seven years later.
This one can hardly match the star power of that earlier performance.
In particular, Olivier's Shylock was simply *non pareil*. Better than his Henry V, better than his Hamlet, better than his Lear. Unforgettable--but also tendentious. Olivier simply omitted any lines that might have compromised his sympathetic portrayal of the old usurer.
Warren Mitchell's performance for the BBC Shakespeare is both more textually complete and more ambiguous. His Shylock is not just a monster--but neither is he just a victim. He is both sinned against and sinning. This creates a context in which it's easier to sympathize with Antonio, Portia and the other Christians, even when they are played less compellingly than in the rival version.
As always with the BBC Shakespeare series, it's fun to spot actors and actresses you've seen elsewhere. Gemma Jones is too old for Portia, but if you've enjoyed her as Louisa in *The Duchess of Duke Street* or as Mrs. Dashwood in *Sense and Sensibility*, you won't mind seeing her in a more challenging role. And if you liked John Rhys-Davies as Gimli in *The Lord of the Rings, or as Macro in *I, Claudius*, watch for him here in the small role of Salerio.
All in all, this production probably won't convert anyone with doubts to the cause of Shakespeare. But for those who already know and love this particular play, it's more than worthwhile.
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