In 16th century Venice, when a merchant must default on a large loan from an abused Jewish moneylender for a friend with romantic ambitions, the bitterly vengeful creditor demands a gruesome payment instead.
Venice, 1596. Melancholy Antonio loves the youthful Bassanio, so when Bassanio asks for 3000 ducats, Antonio says yes before knowing it's to sue for the hand of Portia. His capital tied up in merchant ships at sea, Antonio must go to Shylock, a Jewish moneylender he reviles. Shylock wraps his grudge in kindness, offering a three-month loan at no interest, but if not repaid, Antonio will owe a pound of flesh. The Jew's daughter elopes with a Christian, whetting Shylock's hatred. While Bassanio's away wooing Portia, Antonio's ships founder, and Shylock demands his pound of flesh. With court assembled and a judgment due, Portia swings into action to save Bassanio's friend.Written by
It is stated in the film that Jews in Venice had to wear a red hat out of doors. However lots of Christians are shown wearing red hats, so the distinction is pointless. See more »
Intolerance of the Jews was a fact of 16th Century life even in Venice, the most powerful and liberal city state in Europe.
By law the Jews were forced to live in the old walled foundry or 'Geto' area of the city. After sundown the gate was locked and guarded by Christians
In the daytime any man leaving the ghetto had to wear a red hat to mark him as a Jew.
Man in Crowd:
The Jews were forbidden to own property. So they practised usury, the lending of money at interest. This was ...
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Shakespeare's method was to conceive a large construction for each work, then work on language to weave it into being. Between this sky and ground, all sorts of characters, plot lines and situations appear. But they are there in the service of the words and the words are structured around the large notions that form the cosmology of the play.
The situations and characters that result are extremely rich, and those are the things we notice and remember. They are rich because of the massive talent in how the small turns of phrase support the larger containing notions.
When the plays were performed in the form Shakespeare understood, there were essentially no sets or props and the actors' priorities were to convey the language. He knew nothing of the modern notion of acting where actors create characters, characters drive situations and situations define or illuminate a larger context. That's all backwards from his magical tradition.
So putting on a Shakespearian play today is a challenge of high order, at least doing it in such a way that the genius of the thing shines through. Otherwise, you have something of which we have hundreds of thousands of examples from lesser talents. It is made ever harder because actors believe Shakespeare was created for them, and actors together with other trades who appreciate their perspective control many creative decisions today.
Matters are much worse when conveying Shakespeare to film. The "language" is different bigger including a growing vocabulary of visual language. And the actors are even more unavoidable.
In "Merchant," Shakespeare's big notions had to do with deviation from law in as many forms as he could fit into the play. Foremost among these was the "law" of the dramatic form; this play famously mixes tragedy and comedy. In tragedy, the characters accidentally fall into the machinery of the universe and get ground up, often accelerated by what they "must" do. (In film that would be "noir.")
In Shakespeare's comedies, the characters understand the rules and are able to play with them without hazard for their amusement. (A film equivalent would be screwball.) So one large notion of dealing with law is the very construction of the play: two different notions of law, one within and the other without. Lynch in "Blue Velvet" would similarly have two genres as conflicting characters.
Shakespeare of course piles dozens of other problems with laws, rules and norms into his story: the Venetian legal system, religious prescriptions, and on and on, even down to the duties of a daughter in carrying out her father's eccentric will.
The magic isn't in any of this, impressive as it is. The magic comes in how he constructs the language and metaphors that dart in and out of the various issues and perspectives. Sometimes a metaphor is captured by itself. Sometimes it stands outside itself. Sometimes it even mocks or annotates itself. Its as if he created molecules that have the same lives as the galaxies and then let all the stuff in the middle (people, cities, religions) just emerge but with rich commentary on the laws of emergence.
We do have very good film adaptations of Shakespeare. "Prospero's Books" is a terrifically deep understanding of the spoken and cinematic languages and the self-reference of explicitly portraying the playwright. Branaugh's "Hamlet" appropriately subordinated images and actors (both excellent in his case) to the narrative in the language. Godard's "Lear" is also good, completely translating and discarding the language. Luhrmann's "Romeo and Juliet" takes the kinds of risks with cinematic poetry and magic the source does with language.
Now this. Much has been made of the anti-Semitism, and some about the overt homosexuality. Both are social constructions much younger than this play. For London audiences, no people they knew could be more cartoonish than Italians: foppish, superficial and lacking introspection. This play is anchored on two characters: the aging gay merchant of the title and a rich, ripe orphan virgin. Both end up in differing intrigues over love for the same pretty boy. Both intrigues involve rules, law and money and the writer has them interact.
The Jew and his daughter are secondary, no more important than the contents of the boxes and portrayed no more ruthlessly than the Italians around him. His engagement is more a device to introduce religious law outside that known to the audience. We add the anti-Semitism here, something the adapter decided to accentuate.
This is a nice movie. Everything about it is pretty. Even the modern constructions of characters by Pacino and Irons have a prettiness to them, As an ordinary movie (like say, "Amadeus") it is a reasonable filler of time if your life is lacking in prettiness.
But the source has something far richer to feed us with, the ability to be in a story and think about that story: to break our narrative eye into dozens of fairies, some of which dance outside the engagement and some that are swept along. None of that conveys here. We are instead locked into a single narrative thread, despite many cinematic techniques from others that would have allowed otherwise.
Radford chooses the gold box. We have the sex, not the love. Our ships are lost.
Ted's Evaluation -- 2 of 3: Has some interesting elements.
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