The Merchant of Venice (Michael Radford, 2004) Wm. Shakespeare's most problematic play for modern audiences gets a sumptuous presentation (without PC-intended cuts) in this production, the first sound version of this oft-quoted play; problematic in that, taken merely by folio content, it has a vitriolic anti-semitic tone that runs counter to its classification as a "comedie." But, director Radford, with one stroke—and, indeed, one shot—manages to restore some semblance of perspective, if not judicious balance to the piece.
It is 14th century Venice and ardent Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) is in love. The object of his desire is fair Portia (Lynn Collins, replacing—very well—Cate Blanchett), an heiress in the village of Belmont. But, a fool with money, he can ill afford to make the trip, and so turns to his frequent benefactor Antonio (Jeremy Irons) to lend him three thousand ducats to make the trip. Antonio, a wealthy merchant, is a bit strapped for cash at the moment—he has three ships in transit on a business venture that will surely reap great profits.
So, the elder man agrees to guarantee a loan from whoever Bossanio can get one, and he does so from Shylock (Al Pacino), a money-lender in the Jewish ghetto of Venice. But, Shylock and Antonio have issues: the city is divided between Jew and Gentile with much tsuris and animosity between the two groups, the former frequent victims of abuse and scorn by the latter, and Shylock is miffed that Antonio undercuts his business by offering loans with no interest. So, the agreement comes with an odd rider—should Antonio default on the loan, Shylock will extract from him "a pound of flesh." Given the going rate of flesh in the meat and prostitution markets (both of which Radford sees fit to show), it seems like a pretty good rate, and with a deal in the works, Antonio, readily agrees to "the bond."
But, if there weren't complications, it wouldn't be Shakespeare: for Antonio, his ships go missing; for Shylock, his beloved daughter Jessica (Zuleikha Robinson) follows her heart, defying her father, running off with her suitor, a Gentile, and converts to Christianity. That news is devastating to Shylock, who, when the loan defaults, takes Antonio to court to get his due, and some measure of satisfaction for the wrongs that have been meted out upon his people.
It's extraordinarily well-done, with the context of Venician abuse of the Jewish community made explicit and evident, and the feelings displayed, especially during the hearing, angry and ugly. But, the players' interpretations are all-important here, especially Pacino's. His Shylock has hurt etched into his eyes, and the actor's power is never more evident as when he's displaying grief—Dustin Hoffman wanted this role, but one can't imagine Hoffman capable of the towering rage—especially when his voice reaches the upper registers—that Pacino can command. One never loses the context of past humiliations against Shylock here, and that, now, this time, he will exact his revenge. Pacino's Shylock is sympathetic, even, if, during the trial, he is cast in the role of "villain."
It is at the end, though, where Radford has his bond. While the citizens of Venice, wink and cajole and tease and wench, there is a single shot of Shylock, presumably in Temple, as his brethren leave him, and, in a cinematic move that seems to recall Pacino's Michael Corleone at the end of The Godfather, but more appropriately, John Wayne's racist Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, the doors of the Temple are shut on him, first one, then the other, isolating him. The message is clear. His own tribe is shunning him. The root of it is not that he is "The Jew," but that he is uniquely Shylock, and his own character, not his race, not his religion, not anything but himself is the cause of his implacability. And it is rejected by his community. The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars (or our God) but ourselves. The quality of mercy certainly is not strained. It can be given, but if it is not offered in kind, it can be taken back.
And that, my friends, is a true bond, that no court can recognize.
I would be far more sanguine if some similar fate awaited if the spitters and sneerers and anti-semites among the goyim revellers received a harsher fate than some humiliation by their women-folk, but the play's the thing. And one brushes up their Shakespeare at their peril.