Academic journal article Mythlore

Rethinking Shylock's Tragedy: Radford's Critique of Anti-Semitism in the Merchant of Venice

Academic journal article Mythlore

Rethinking Shylock's Tragedy: Radford's Critique of Anti-Semitism in the Merchant of Venice

Article excerpt

ALTHOUGH THE MERCHANT OF VENICE HAS BEEN one of Shakespeare's most performed plays, until 2004, it had never been made into a major film feature during the sound era. In fact, as late as 2002, Charles Edelman could assert, "given the sensitivity of the play's subject matter, it is very unlikely that one will ever be made" (Shakespeare, Merchant 86). So the film directed by Michael Radford, in dealing with "the sensitivity of the play's subject matter," was faced with a number of difficulties for both director and actors. Radford resolves these difficulties by assimilating into his film a number of separate features that have appeared during the play's social and performance history. The strength of Radford's film, and thus of its director, is the joining of these separate features into a coherent, satisfying whole. In order to achieve this unity, however, he had both to amplify and to modify what came before.

The most contentious problem of the play, and the key issue of Radford's film, is the perception of its anti-Semitism. Harold Bloom has put the case forcibly and unambiguously: "One would have to be blind, deaf, and dumb not to recognize that Shakespeare's grand, equivocal comedy The Merchant of Venice is nevertheless a profoundly anti-Semitic work" (171). Radford has responded to this perception of the play by making a critical exploration of anti-Semitism central to his interpretation. Anti-Semitism, as Radford demonstrates, pervades the social fabric of Renaissance Venice, and thus of the lives of all of the characters. He establishes his critical approach at the opening of the film by creating a back story, developed in a montage of intercut film images and explanatory text. He is thus able to reveal how anti-Semitism damages both victims and victimizers, thereby undermining the likelihood of a comic resolution to the play's conflicts.

By undermining a comic resolution, Radford's film disposes of another of the play's difficulties, the ambiguity of its genre, i.e. is it a comedy, as its placement in the First Folio would insist, or is it tragic, as the situation of Shylock could indicate? The problem of genre is clearly illustrated in a quotation from a common Shakespearean source book, Russ McDonald's The Bedford Companion to Shakespeare:

   The Merchant of Venice is probably the most illustrative example of
   the high cost of comic resolution. The lovers' gathering at Belmont
   in act 5, musical and joyous though it may be, is overshadowed by
   their intolerable treatment of Shylock in the trial scene (4.1).
   The movement toward assimilation that normally unites the cast in
   the last moments is not strong enough to include Shylock, who is
   stripped of his wealth, his daughter, and his religion and who
   leaves the stage for the last time in act 4. Although the merchant
   Antonio is present for the festivities in the last act, he has no
   partner and must go home alone. (97)

The "high cost of comic resolution" is made more problematic by the emergence of a sympathetic Shylock early in the 19th century, since his fate has been connected closely to the question of genre. The film, then, has had to reconcile the dire fate of the best-known character, Shylock, and the romantic conclusion of the other characters, and especially that of the other well-known character, Portia. The difficulty of achieving this unity, as Harold Bloom points out, is "that Portia would cease to be sympathetic if Shylock were allowed to be a figure of overwhelming pathos" (171).

Both of these questions, anti-Semitism and genre, have been addressed in the play's performance history, and several of these historic developments have parallels in Radford's film. (1) The first, and most obvious, is the shaping of Shylock as a sympathetic, and finally, as a tragic figure. The second is the apparently harmless development of spectacle, i.e. the increasing interest and insistence on an authentic Venetian setting, true to the 16th century historic period. …

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