Karin Roffman
The Merchant of Venice and the New Ruling Class, p.2

Given that love and money are the currency of mercantile Venice, it is no surprise that Antonio and Bassanio are lovers as well as fellow merchants. In the film version, Bassanio is clearly a kind of careless, prodigal son. He has spent his fortune, only recently tried to get out of debt, and plans to woo the lovely (and, we learn, wise) Portia in a grand manner through Antonio’s help. He is the impulsive, irresponsible one -- and Antonio has fallen for him. Portia guesses that Antonio and Bassanio are bound by more than mere friendship; she calls them “bosom lovers” before ever meeting Antonio. As in many contemporary productions, Shakespeare's subtle homoerotics here become inflated to pseudo-"edgy" queer sensationalism. As such, Antonio’s decision to accept Shylock’s bond to furnish Bassanio the means for travel is the rash act of the lover. He would do anything for Bassanio. And in this version, Shylock is completely conscious of Bassanio’s profligacy, Antonio’s love for Bassanio, and Antonio’s risky ventures (both his ships and his bond). They are all part of a world that Shylock wants to teach a lesson. Shylock here is not acting out of revenge; he abhors any excess—in love, adventure, or money. In this way, Shylock acts, perhaps, more the Puritan than the Jew, treating Antonio’s Christian world as immoral and excessive. Shylock’s religious dietary restrictions, and his apparent scorn for sexuality (homo and hetero), mean that he does not use the kinds of goods and services that Antonio—and Venice—are using to build their fortune. Far from the moneylending capitalist, this Shylock is like the crypto-Jew in Kafka's "The Hunger Artist:" an anticapitalist ascetic starving himself because he doesn't like the taste of food.

The film makes this bizarre, ahistorical distinction -- between Christian profligacy and Jewish asceticism -- clear by filming the Jewish ghetto in shadow and the rest of Venice in bright color. Whenever Shylock appears, everybody else must hide what they do and enjoy it less -- rather like the white people in the seminal Eddie Murphy sketch from "Saturday Night Live," who drink champagne when no black people are around, but revert to New York anomie whenever one appears.

Radford’s division of the play into two distinct worlds within Venice (the Jewish ghetto and the Christian Venice) has several consequences. First, Shylock does not realize how dangerous his world view is to Venice and how far the court will go to eliminate it. As the film unfolds, Radford uses the settings of the play to suggest Shylock’s innocent (and slow) recognition of the machinations that will eventually betray him. Second, the division lends a different shape to the depiction of that other world of the play—Belmont. Shakespeare’s plays are often divided between city and country, men and women, unlawful and lawful, the law of the state and the law of the family. But because Radford’s Venice is already clearly divided, Belmont becomes more closely allied to Antonio’s and Bassanio’s Venice. Once Bassanio goes to Belmont to woo Portia, all his debt goes with him. He may choose the right lead casket and distinguish himself from Portia’s other suitors (and drive them out), but he is not necessarily any better than they are. Joseph Fiennes as Bassanio has a wonderful way with a line, and it is not surprising that both Portia and Antonio are willing to do anything for him, but this adaptation struggles to make clear that Bassanio’s irresponsible ways are to blame for the brief tension that comes to the otherwise ideal Belmont.

It is in this struggle to blame Bassanio that the film’s interpretation of Shylock as a product of society begins to fall apart. As compelling an actor as Al Pacino is, and as lovingly as he is photographed looking like a favorite rabbi or Jewish uncle, the fact is that film does not belong to Shylock or Antonio at all, but rather to the next half-generation of young and beautiful Christians. This may simply be an attribute of the play, which begins and ends in the Christian worlds in which Shylock does not belong, but that sense of symmetry is lost due to Radford's historical setting of the piece. Consequently, though the film never loses its sympathy and intellectual respect for Shylock (even as he is undone in the courtroom), it still does lose Shylock, at least for the last act, and thus seems to lose its way. As Bassanio and Antonio return to Belmont and learn the secrets of Portia and Nerissa, Shylock’s losses and his forced conversion to Christianity are entirely forgotten, even though they had been the focus of Radford's film. Jessica is at Belmont as a reminder, but in this version her countenance is the most unreadable of all and what she feels and thinks is left entirely unknown.

This strange, distorted feeling is entirely a consequence of making Shylock the focus of the Merchant, which he was clearly never meant to be. Because of that choice, the film ends in an entirely different place from where it began: we started with history, but end in Belmont's fairyland. And, fittingly enough, what is emphasized in Belmont is Antonio’s and Bassanio’s love for one another. While Belmont is Portia’s space to rule, and though Portia seems to be rather a clever woman in the play, the film version undercuts her by emphasizing just how much men love men more than they love women. Though the women teach the men a lesson about keeping what they ought—the men give their rings away to two young men at court (their wives in disguise) despite vows not to take them off—the scene is staged so that there are lingering questions as to whether the men have actually learned any lessons at all. Portia gives Antonio the ring to place on Bassanio’s finger for her, and, in case we still haven't figured it out yet, the camera frames Antonio and Bassanio alone.

In a way, this scene ends the action of this liberal, capitalist, queer-friendly version of Merchant quite neatly. It reinforces what the courtroom scene also explained—that political power accrues when men trade with other men. But it certainly leaves Portia out in the cold. Maybe she understands what Shylock does not -- Shylock's tight-fisted, deed-bound justice is rejected in favor of Portia's quality of mercy -- but the film certainly doesn’t give her much credit. In this way, the film's over-earnest efforts to depict Jews and women as outsiders ultimately seems to sputter out. Shylock is offstage, rejected. Portia is center-stage, accepted only, it seems, as second best. And a celebration of male friendship and success is reestablished in Venice and Belmont both.

Given that Radford's Merchant is so squarely aimed at today's moral and entertainment values (pity the Jews because they aren't allowed to be happy Christian capitalists, accept gays so you can be titillated by them), it seems fitting that the easy spending, risky ventures of Christians that Shylock feared have now become the ruling class. After all, our culture too begins in history and ends, for the moment at least, in a kind of delusional fantasy. And, now as then, the new ruling class comprises beautiful, rich young Christian men, whatever their debts.

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Image: Joseph Fiennes as Bassanio (photo: Steve Braun, Sony Pictures)

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