The Merchant of Venice Shakespeare's most controversial play is also, according to the producers of the new film William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, the most commonly produced. Directed by Michael Radford, this Merchant is, in fact, a sumptuous production that treats us to lavish location work in Venice and lovingly lived-in costumes (including the slammerkins of the streetwalkers and other tarts, dresses that fail to cover the breasts). But it's also an anxious production, grappling as it must with the play's anti-Semitism.
The film opens with subtitles that explain the circumstances under which Jews in 16th-century Vienna lived: Forbidden to own property, they were forced to get by on usury, an occupation forbidden to Christians. Next is an opening montage of mob violence against Jews, and a scene in which Jeremy Irons' Antonio spits on Al Pacino's Shylock as they pass each other on the street.
With Shylock's daily humiliations firmly established, the business of the play gets underway. But the play itself is a comedy, and Radford's film, like so many stage productions, has trouble finding mirth in a play featuring a Jewish villain. Pacino, to be sure, grasps at all straws of sympathy, including Shylock's famous plea "if you tickle us, do we not laugh," but the film struggles nonetheless with the atavistic bigotry underneath the comedy.
The avaricious Jewish villain was a stock dramatic character dating to the Middle Ages, but Shakespeare clearly had no use for bigoted stereotyping. He invested his villain with an unusual complexity and sense of irony, but Shylock is the villainous Jew all the same. In Michael Radford's film, Lynn Collins' Portia is a lovely and diverting apparition, but there's not much enjoyment laughing at Merchant after Auschwitz, however strenuously it's contextualized.