Friday, May 11, 2007

The Tragedy of Shylock, the Merchant of Venice

Team Shakespeare Awesome,

Ernst credits me with e-mails I haven't written yet. Either he's got a time machine, or he wishes I were writing about Shylock instead of Antonio. So do I. So …

One last foray into the world of Merchant of Venice productions. I've mentioned the Michael Radford film, which stars Jeremy Irons (Antonio), Joseph Fiennes (Bassanio), Al Pacino (Shylock), and Lynn Collins (Portia). I saw it on the big screen when it first ran in 2004, and didn't like it. At the time I thought Radford fell into the common trap of putting Shakespeare on a pedestal – too much reverence and solemnity – putting together the kind of thing that might be made if Merchant-Ivory decided to do Shakespeare. Coming out of the theater I remember complaining that Radford had removed anything from the text that might have been considered remotely funny. In the opening scene, for example, Gratiano's lines are drastically reduced, and emphasis is placed on Antonio's melancholy throughout. Later Lancelet Gobbo is reduced to a transient character. And Morocco and Arragon are but brief amuses bouches to the heavy meal to follow between Portia and Shylock.

Albeit beautifully shot and acted, the movie felt, as I remember it, leaden and slow and self-consciously portentous. Isn't Merchant of Venice supposed to be a "comedy"?

Seeing it again this month (we showed it at my school as a Film Club screening to benefit the ninth graders who were reading it – seven showed up), I came away with an entirely different impression. Radford opens the film with the hurlyburly of the Rialto – large crowd, red-hatted Jews mixed with jeering Christians, bare-breasted prostitutes, religious zealots declaiming from a boat below the bridge. An altercation. A Jewish man is thrown off the bridge. Shylock acknowledges Antonio. Antonio spits on him. So from the get-go we have Shylock the mistreated, caught in an anti-semitic, unjust community. Later, when Bassanio comes to ask for money, you can see Pacino's Shylock almost amused at the irony. His little spate of forgetfulness about the terms of the bond – "I had forgot … three months … you told me so" – is his way of forcing Antonio to consider his ironic/hypocritical request, but not much more than that. Gone is the brief aside: "I hate him for he is a Christian." The anger, when it comes, is personal, not cultural. Pacino's Shylock is a man of great pride and self-assurance. His choices, like the "merry bond," are his assertion of that pride, but one does not get the sense that either man takes it seriously on a legal level.

So how do we get to that awful moment in the court scene where Shylock is going to hack off a chunk of Antonio? For Radford it comes, as I'm sure it does for many directors, with the loss of Jessica. Radford creates a scene, somewhere between Act 2, scene 6 and Act 3, scene 1, where Shylock returns home to an empty house. He realizes she's gone, moans "Jessica" and slumps into a corner, weeping. When next we see him, it's the "What news from the Rialto" scene, in an establishment of public dalliance which features Salarino with his face buried between some prostitute's ample breasts. It's not like Sal and Sol happened to cross paths with Shylock. Pacino's Shylock has clearly sought them out, and his first words to them, as they are in the text, are:

"You knew, none so well, none so well as you, of my daughter's flight."

I learned something about the play at this point. It doesn't take an enlightened director, cutting and pasting, to create a complex, heart-rending Shylock with whom the audience can sympathize and side. It's in the lines. If Shakespeare was an anti-semite, then he couldn't help himself when it came to writing real characters. Biases evaporate. Ernst suggests that he's taking a cue from Marlowe. I don't see it. I reread The Jew of Malta when we did Titus Andronicus, and Barabas, even at the beginning, pales in comparison to Shylock. Barabas is eloquent in defense of his Jewishness, but it's still a stereotype. Compare:

What more may Heaven do for earthly man
Than thus to pour out plenty in their laps,
Ripping the bowels of the earth for them,
Making the seas their servants, and the winds
To drive their substance with successful blasts?
Who hateth me but for my happiness?
Or who is honoured now but for his wealth?
Rather had I a Jew be hated thus,
Than pitied in a Christian poverty:
For I can see no fruits in all their faith,
But malice, falsehood, and excessive pride,
Which methinks fits not their profession.
Haply some hapless man hath conscience,
And for his conscience lives in beggary.
They say we are a scattered nation:
I cannot tell, but we have scrambled up
More wealth by far than those that brag of faith. (Act 1, sc. 1)

I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affectations, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? 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? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. (Act 3, scene 1)

Marlowe's Jew is defending Jewishness by separating himself and holding himself above the "malice, falsehood, and excessive pride" of Christians. Shylock, on the other hand, establishes his argument on common human ground, not what makes him different but what makes him the same. I will commit a sin of assumption here, and wonder what effect the two speeches might have had on a Renaissance play-goer. Eloquence in the mouth of one who says he's better than you may elicit animosity, perhaps boos commensurate with the joy of rejecting the proud villain. But how to react, if you live in a country that has expelled Jews, if maybe you attended Marlowe's play a few years ago, if you're a groundling and likely to believe the worst (don't they use human blood in their strange sacrifices?) of the Jews? Even then, Shakespeare's lines must give one pause. One may not, in the end, sympathize with the Jew, but one must acknowledge that if he is treated badly, he may respond in kind. Thus, even without sympathy, Shakespeare establishes the interconnectedness and responsibility one group has for another, even disrespected group, and he establishes it by appealing to each character's common humanity.

I had thought of Shylock in more stereotypical terms, and I worried about having to defend Shakespeare, to explain away anti-semitism. You know, the "my daughter, my ducats" kind of thing. Ah, that Shylock. Can't tell his money from his daughter. But here again, Shakespeare has us fooled. The "my daughter, my ducats" line does not come from Shylock. It's Solanio, not the most trustworthy reporter, mocking Shylock. Notice how many times he uses "ducats" in the speech (2.8.12-23). Six! This is caricature. And when Shylock catches up with Solanio and Salarino in Radford's vision, it's all about Jessica. That's his real pain.

Yes, when Tubal shows up they talk money, specifically Jessica's expenditures. Shylock talks of wishing Jessica dead. Pacino does it with a weariness, so that the coffin is less about revenge than burying the pain. The key moment is Tubal's account of Jessica's unloading the cherished ring for a monkey. Radford cuts away, depicting the moment. Cute monkey. (But he's setting you up for a later moment.)

This gets us to the court scene. Pacino's Shylock here is not mad, not histrionic, just determined that in this world where he is spit upon, where Christians steal the only family he has left, where he is mocked in the streets by hypocrites, he will have a moment of justice -- his bond. He has taken refuge in the letter of the law, the only effective weapon against a double-dealing community. I like the moment when Portia asks him if he has brought a physician to attend to Antonio. Pacino just shrugs and says quietly "is it so nominated in the bond?" For Pacino the bond is not his revenge, it is merely a weapon with which he can hold Christians accountable for their own actions.

And it is his downfall. Live by the letter of the law, die by the letter of the law. Pacino's Shylock is a smart man and knows immediately that he has overstepped when Portia notes "there is something else." And then it is all crumbling, backpedaling, retreat through "I am content" to "I am not well." In the Radford this is a powerful scene, played to its tragic fullness by Pacino. What we are asked to realize is that Shylock's struggle against injustice and hypocrisy is heroic, but that he succumbs to the flaw of not knowing when to quit, of mistaking the value of the ends for the value of the means. Antonio dead is vengeance, not justice. And thus, Radford and Pacino's Shylock is a tragic hero. The Merchant of Venice, in their hands, is not comedy but tragedy, which explains the absence of the play's more persistent levity, and the relative flatness of Act 5's return to Belmont.

Maybe this is how, after WWII, you have to play it, but I very much liked the impact the play had on me when I saw it in this light. What's more, it's far more amazing to me how easy it is to find this tragedy beneath the surface of the comedy. It's in the lines, and more specifically, it's in Shylock's lines.

Radford gives us one more sign that we are watching tragedy. The modern viewer seems most aware of tragedy when it is accompanied by irony. I would argue that his explains some of the ongoing popularity of Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet with high school students, as well as Luhrmann's version with its ironic volume turned further up by having Romeo actually still alive, but fatally poisoned, when Juliet wakes up. Radford's ironic touch is far more lyrical. After the last line of the play, the director closes with a gorgeous shot of robed men standing in boats with bows and arrows, shooting fish in the glassy waters around Belmont. The camera pulls back to reveal Jessica, watching them, then tilts down to her hands. On her finger is the ring that Radford showed us traded for the monkey. That scene, then, becomes an imagined event, a figment of Shylock's tortured imagination. Jessica never gave up the ring, never traded it for an animal (another report that's unreliable). What's more, her caress of it suggests that she cherishes it, and the parents that it stands for. The ring, then, becomes a symbol of Shylock's overstepping, of the flaw in his search for justice. Jessica's love, which drove him to attempt to punish Antonio, was and is still available to him, but now, like Oedipus, he is cast out.


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