I took my book club to go see “William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice” last night. This movie is directed Michael Radford (who also “authored” the screenplay) and has an all star cast, including Al Pacino(as Shylock the Jew). I read numerous reviews and was excited about seeing a more complex Shylock rather than the anti-Semitic caricature that would have been portrayed in Elizabethan England.
I was thoroughly disappointed. I’ll admit that MoV is one of Shakespeare’s darker comedies but it is still a comedy. Much of the humor was surgically disected out of Shakespeare’s original script. The first couple scenes were bland without the humor that should have been present. This left us with the stereotypical boring Shakespeare that so many English students fear.
Gratiano lost any personality and was reduced to the simple role as Bassiano’s “wing man”. Portia & Nerissa are robbed of one of the most humorous scenes in the play, which is reduced to a skeleton of itself. This succeeds in making Portia look more like a stubborn elitist rather than allowing the inherent witty intelligence of the character to show through. In all fairness even Radford couldn’t suck out all of her personality and she later demonstrates some of her cleverness during a powerful courtroom scene. Old Gobo and his son Lancelot are kept as humorous relief but their characters are hardly intact. Their wit is removed and all that is left intact is their slapstick. Shakespeare writes the duo as having both and has worked in countless productions before Radford got his hands on it.
In addition to removing humor from the play Radford also succeeds in removing Shakespeare. Much of the intact dialogue has been rewritten into modern layman’s terms. While I acknowledge that the average person finds Shakespeare boring and the cinema fascinating, this could have been dealt with better by leaving the humor in rather than taking Shakespeare out. Most of Shakespeare’s plays are not original ideas. Romeo & Juliet is based on Pyrimus and Thisbe from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Midsummer’s Night Dream is rich with Greek mythology. All of the Histories are obviously based on real events. A majority of what makes Shakespeare so well loved is the poetry with which he revives old stories.
Despite all that he removed from the play Radford adds quite a bit too. Shakespeare is written without stage directions, which is one aspect that makes each performance unique. Many directors play with this and add elements to the plays that are implied but can be ignored (such as the Oedipus complex that is often revisited in Hamlet). In MoV Radford has added a homoerotic (if not homosexual) aspect to the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio. In fact it almost goes as far as to suggest that Antonio’s percieved willingness to allow Shylock his pound of flesh is part Christian Guilt for having such feelings and part desperate attempt to bring Bassianio to his side one last time. I have no problems with homosexuality and can definitely see homoerotic relationships implied in other works but I was surprised when I saw it in this context. It almost seems that Bassiano is marrying Portia to get out of debt rather than any genuine interest. While this is certainly part of his reasoning he talks a little to romantically about her beauty and grace for this to be his sole intention.
In my opinion this is one of the worst cinematic representations of Shakespeare that I have seen and doesn’t do justice to the work. Radford has succeeded in taking the Shakespeare out of it and instilling his own inferior work. The movie should be re-titled as “Michael Radford’s version of William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice”.
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