The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.1890 Wednesday, 16 November 2005
Date: Tuesday, 15 Nov 2005 23:32:29 -0500
Subject: "Translated and Improved"
"TRANSLATED AND IMPROVED"
At last I have seen Michael Radford's film version of The Merchant of
Venice. It made me think of the legendary sign placed in front of a
production of this play done in a translated version. The sign, set up
by the translator, proudly declares, "Shakespeare: Translated and Improved."
As Radford himself acknowledges, his film is a translation of
Shakespeare's play, a translation from one medium to another, stage to
film. But is it improved? Hardly.
Much of Shakespeare's great play, too long for film, remained on the
cutting room floor. What the audience got was Radford's edited version
and its resemblance to Shakespeare's play only partial.
What is interesting about Radford's film is that the action is given a
very realistic setting, capturing all the color and scruffiness of real
life Venice. Unkempt hair and shaggy beards abound everywhere. The
dialogue has not only been cut but has been slowed down considerably so
that audiences can be helped to understand Shakespeare's words. Al
Pacino as Shylock gives a very good and realistic performance of this
Jewish Italian. He makes Shylock noble, bigger than life, and ultra
sympathetic. The problem for Radford is that some of the action in
Shakespeare's play works against the verisimilitude that Radford brings.
Radford shapes the material of the play to fit his own conception of the
play. To Radford, the story is about a sympathetic Jewish moneylender,
Shylock, who is asked for a loan by the merchant, Antonio. Antonio had
in the past shunned such transactions since, taking as absolute the
Bible's prohibition against lending on interest (actually only to
co-religionists), he regards it as immoral and has reviled Shylock for
this usury. Antonio now wants to make an exception to his rule because
he needs money to help his penniless friend, Bassanio, who, in turn,
urgently needs funds to woo Portia, a beautiful rich heiress. Antonio
had all his assets tied up in trade ventures on the high seas but
expects that his ships would soon richly return to pay off any borrowing.
Ostensibly to make peace with Antonio, Shylock agrees to give the loan,
a free loan at that. However, the transaction is clouded by the fact
that Shylock inserts into the bond agreement what he calls a "merry
sport," an unusual penalty clause of "a pound of [Antonio's] fair flesh"
if he defaults. While Bassanio bristles anxiously at this provision,
Antonio calmly accepts the free loan as kindness from the Jew and
expects to pay off the loan long before it is due. No explanation is
offered for why Shylock indulged in this "merry sport" (though there is
an explanation that is most benign but too long to explain).
Complicating the plot, Shylock has a daughter, Jessica, who robs her
father and runs away with young Lorenzo, a Christian. Shylock is
devastated and the screen is sympathetically filled with Shylock's
deranged weeping at the loss of his daughter, a mourning that is mixed
up with the loss of his robbed "ducats." Thanks to Radford, we catch a
glimpse of her spending spree in what looks like a casino.
At the elopement scene where Jessica robs her father, Lorenzo
rhapsodizes on his soon to be wife, saying to his friends that she is
"wise, fair, and true." Of course, Lorenzo meant "true" to him, but she
certainly had not been "true" to her father. Hence, Shakespeare's line
here insinuates that she is hardly a "true" person, though this insight
escapes Lorenzo, his friends, and probably the audience. Absent from the
scene are Shakespeare's words about Jessica placed in the mouth of
Gratiano, who helps the elopement and robbery: "By my hood, a Gentile
and no Jew." Is this what her conversion means? Here is Shakespeare
commenting off screen.
As the play proceeds, broken hearted Shylock thinks that Antonio helped
the couple elope and is furious. So when Shylock learns that all of
Antonio's ships have foundered in storms and that Antonio must default
on his loan, Shylock takes his case to court, determined to get his
penalty, his "pound of fair flesh."
While Shylock's rage is realistic, what is unrealistic is that Shylock
would go through with such a heinous act of mayhem. Would the
sympathetic Shylock played by Al Pacino be willing to cut human flesh
and kill Antonio?
I suppose that this is what audiences think Jews are capable of, as
though muggings by accountants are the daily stuff of newspapers. What
makes the situation plausible to some minds is that Shylock is a Jew and
that the great Shakespeare is thought to think that Shylock would be in
character in being so mad as to carve up and murder a helpless victim. I
presume also that Pacino was cast in this role because some audiences
would remember him as a killer and thereby give this role more credibility.
Here Shakespeare's play undercuts the action. In the court scene, both
Bassanio and his sidekick Gratiano offer to give their wives, Portia and
Nerissa, over to Shylock's mayhem in order to save Antonio. Since Portia
and Nerissa, disguised as judge and legal clerk, are in court to hear
the offer, they stare wide eyed, to the amusement of the audience. In
the play, Shakespeare has Nerissa say, "'Tis well you offer it behind
her back; if your wife would hear you, it would make an unquiet house,"
which is hilarious and would considerably cut the tension in the court.
Which is probably why Radford does not include the line in his film.
But Radford presents Shylock's reaction to this offer of wives. He
thinks it is a shameful display of Christian husbandry and would not
want any daughter of his to have truck with such husbands. But isn't
this a rather sensitive statement coming from a man that is supposedly
about to murder Antonio? Also, Shylock in explaining why he should be
allowed his dearly bought pound of flesh makes a plea for Venetian
slaves. He asks the Venetians whether they would give up their beds and
food to their slaves? (Actually, Talmudic law requires a slaveowner to
give up his bed to a slave if it is the only bed in the house.) The
point here is that such sensitivity to the plight of Venetian slaves is
really out of character for a guy about to murder a helpless victim. So
it seems really inconsistent that Shylock, who, when Portia asks that he
provide a physician to care for his victim's wounds, counters that this
is not in the bond and Shylock continues with sharpening his knife. What
is happening here is that Shylock is supposedly demonstrating the
villainy that he said that Christians have taught him by having been so
callously indifferent to his suffering over his daughter.
Radford and Pacino heighten this inconsistency by having brought forward
a noble, sympathetic Shylock. Pacino is so successful that it is hard to
picture Shylock as actually going through with such a grisly, unfeeling
killing, or that the court would permit him to do so with all the burly
Christians around. The realism of the scene that Radford creates argues
against this possibility even if Shakespeare supposedly set up the scene
for Shylock to to do.
I would note that the rabbis in the Talmud, in discussing the
application of the Biblical law of "an eye for an eye," asked whether
this included the taking of the "blood" that would inevitably be part of
removing an eye. Finding that such an excision would be impossible
without drawing blood and not being sure that the Biblical penalty
allowed the taking of blood along with the taking "of an eye," the
rabbis ruled that such a penalty must be indemnified, paid off by cash
instead of being carried out in flesh. Hence Portia's loophole is not at
all surprising to Jews educated in Talmudic law.
So what could Shakespeare have had in mind when he wrote that scene?
Could it be that he wrote it as a charade, with Shylock feigning to take
flesh but only wishing to throw a scare into Antonio to make him plead
in the court for mercy from a Jew that Antonio had despised? The Duke
even suggests this scenario at the beginning of the court scene. The
sympathetic way Shylock is portrayed and the humourous breaks in the
court scene make the charade thesis very plausible.
What is more, when the ruffian Gratiano asks Shylock in court, "Can no
prayers pierce thee?", Shylock responds, "No, none that thou hast wit
enough to make." As Yiddish actor Abraham Morevsky many years ago
observed of this line, this was actually an invitation for Antonio to
make a prayerful plea to Shylock for mercy, which would have been
granted. Otherwise, how could Shylock as a realistic matter actually be
expected to carry out this awful, bloody deed? What other banker or
accountant, which is what Shylock is, would do it? But that is what
Radford thinks Shakespeare intended and Radford precludes a noble
gesture from Shylock in response to a plea from Antonio for mercy since
he has Antonio tied and gagged, his own "improved" conception and
addition. The scene moves too fast for audiences to contemplate this, as
Portia stops this action by intervening.
There are a few other chinks in the Radford version. Radford actually
shows Jessica as a slanderer. We saw her robbing her father and we later
see her stating at Portia's home that Shylock and his Jewish friends,
Tubal and Chus, plotted against Antonio. But this is really implausible.
We saw such a sympathetic Shylock reasoning with Antonio about Antonio's
vicious treatment of him earlier in the play and wanting to make peace.
In fact, the anger between the two only happens after Jessica left
Shylock's house so how could she have heard about such a plot? This
would insinuate that the original penalty clause was part of this plot,
though Shylock did not know that Antonio would be asking for a loan.
What is more, how would Shylock plan that Antonio would default? Did he
control the storms? And if he could know such things, why would he not
know that his daughter would elope? It rather seems that Jessica is
craving attention from her new friends and slander of her father is the
way to get it.
Supporting the thesis of a slandering Jessica, the Radford film presents
Lorenzo later in the play answering Jessica when she tells that she is
never merry when she hears sweet music. Lorenzo notes that such persons
who are not moved by the concord of music are fit for stratagems and
should never be trusted. Touche! Jessica is pegged for what she is,
though Radford tries to rescue Jessica's character in the final
aftermath scene by showing her having her mother's ring, touchingly
valued by Shylock, which, as reported in the play, she traded away for a
monkey. That is Radford's version, not Shakespeare improved.
Another misconstrual in Radford's film is the way the black suitor is
portrayed as foolish and ridiculous. But if you read the words of the
play, Morroco is a valiant warrior, most soulful and serious, a real man
in love, with lines reminiscent of the Bible's Song of Songs. In the
play but absent in the film, Portia dismisses him with the line, "Close
the curtain go, Let all of his complexion woo me so." This is a black
man that offered to make an incision in his arm along with the fairest
blond suitor to show that all men have the same red blood, being
brothers under the skin, another touch of Shakespeare's universality.
Another universal touch that Radford actually leaves in his film is in
court when Portia asks, "Which is the Jew and which the Christian?" You
see, she doesn't know. Shylock and Jews don't have horns. But Radford in
his comments on his film denies the meaning of this event.
Finally, Radford subtly leaves in some evidence that Portia helped
Bassanio solve the riddle of the caskets and thereby helped him to win
her hand in marriage. The film shows Bassanio about to choose a casket
while, simultaneously, a song is sung by a minstrel. The words of the
song have a series of rhymes with lead, the material of the true casket
with Portia's portrait. As Bassanio is just about to select, the
minstrel intones, "reply, reply," drawing out the words. The
significance of this is that "reply" rhymes with "blei," the German (and
Yiddish) word for lead.
No doubt, it would be a rare chooser that could get those hints at that
very moment. Someone had to tell me about the lead rhymes and my late
brother revealed the meaning of "blei." But there are other signs, some
actually left in, that Bassanio was prepped for his choice, with Portia
a covenant breaker, breaking her father's covenant that she submit to
the test of the caskets for getting her husband.
This is important because it ties in with the fact that Bassanio and
Gratiano give away the rings their wives gave them, rings they had vowed
to keep forever. All of them are vow breakers, as Shakespeare wrote in
his play to reveal their hypocracy. This extends to their failure to
render mercy to Shylock when he is defeated, the same mercy that Portia
had demanded that Shylock show to Antonio in world famous lines.
To have touch with these aspects requires that audiences see the play
fully performed or as slimmed down and shaped like Radford did but with
Shakespeare's meaning. That is a project I have dreamed of doing. With a
bit more effort in this direction, Radford's film could have achieved
that. Some of this leaks through in his film, if not intentionally,
inadvertently since Shakespeare's lines kind of force this.
As director of an improved film, I would have no hesitation in hiring
Radford and Pacino to establish the same wonderful ambience and visual
communication that was so successful. But I would have left in enough of
the poet's touches that would have enabled a perceptive audience to
pierce the surface action to reveal the play's message of brotherhood,
to see the noble Shylock who misjudges how much room the court would
give him to play out his charade and the hypocrisy of his enemies that
will show no mercy to a Jew. Such a sympathetic portrayal of a Jew could
not have been openly presented to audiences during Shakespeare's time
but the poet's universality led him to introduce this as a hidden
subtext meant for future ages like our own.
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