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Photograph by Steve Braun

Survivor's Code: Al Pacino plays an outcast wronged in 'The Merchant of Venice.'

The Quality of Mercy

Al Pacino shows us the scorn of the scorned man in a magnificent 'Merchant of Venice'

By Richard von Busack

WE KNOW the essence of the story. Its tools are a knife and a pair of balance scales. And in the court, Shylock has stood his trial, arguing for his rights these 400 years.

"Is your name Shylock?"

"Shylock is my name."

But the drift of centuries has changed this play's intent. The Merchant of Venice is an everything-but-the-kitchen sink play. Seeking to create something for everyone, William Shakespeare mixed a fairy-tale romance with the outwitting of a revenger. And he added plenty of that malapropism-ridden comedy that's been taxing the ingenuity of actors—and the patience of audiences—for a long time.

The play's lasting importance is that it contains our literature's first important argument against Jew-hatred. It's a well-known speech:

I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases. ... If you prick us, do we not bleed? ... and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?

Shylock's speech turns up twice in Ernst Lubitsch's classic 1942 comedy To Be or Not to Be. An undersized actor named Felix Bressart plays Greenberg, a stagehand who wishes he could be cast as Shylock.

Later, after the Nazi invasion of Poland, he repeats Shylock's words. Greenberg's status as a Jew under the Nazis has forced him to understood what the words meant. It's an uneasy moment of pathos in the shrewd Lubitsch film—a meek victim pleading to us for his rights.

Survivor's Merciless Code

In Michael Radford's stunning new film adaptation of The Merchant of Venice, Shylock is acted by the old revenger, Al Pacino. Here is a man not in the market for mercy, for himself or anyone else. How many times have we seen Pacino do murder onscreen? But it's been more than a decade since Pacino has had a part as bravura as this devastating, bitterly comic anti-hero.

While Shylock's insistence on his human rights hasn't changed, the centuries have changed him. He was created in an era of Jew-hatred, during the last paranoid years of Queen Elizabeth 1's reign. In 1594, a Jewish physician named Rodrigo, or Ruy Lopez, was horribly executed for scheming to poison the queen. This "doctor's plot" became dramatized fast.

Shylock's contemporary Barabas, in Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta, is a more standard figure of Jewish libel. Onstage, Barabas is introduced to us by a guest-starring Machiavelli. This Jew of Malta is a deep-dyed bloody villain who gloats over gold. He turns poetic in his greed, rhapsodizing over a valuable gem as "infinite riches in a little room."

Certainly, Shakespeare gave his crowd the evil Jew they wanted to see. The venal bloodthirsty Shylock hates Christians, despising their refusal to lend money at interest. As historian Will Durant notes, in Shakespeare's time Shylock used to be acted "in slovenly dress, with a vast artificial nose."

But there's something different and troubling in Shylock that's grown more obvious over the years: his villainy is now clear as a survivor's merciless code.

Radford's production notes cite Auden's poem "1939": "Those who to whom evil is done, do evil in return." Auden was referring to Hitler, and the German people after World War I. In our day, against the background of the Holocaust, Shylock gains respect as an angry inconvenient man.

That Man Is Wronged!

Even by the Romantic era of the early 1800s, Shylock had evolved from villain into an anti-hero. The poet Heinrich Heine noted his surprise at seeing a female theatergoer in tears over the outcome of the trial scene in The Merchant of Venice. She wept, "That man is wronged!"

Pacino's Shylock draws tears even today. There's nothing in him that makes an easy appeal to brotherhood, as Bressart did in To Be or Not to Be.

In the marketplace of Venice, Shylock conceives of his terms of his loan: the pound of flesh he'll take if his debtor forfeits. Radford inserts a shot of a goat kid being butchered. There will be nothing speculative or poetic about the outcome of this story.

Shylock isn't the merchant of the title. The Merchant of Venice is Antonio, who signs his life away as payment for a friend's loan. Jeremy Irons plays Antonio, finding in Shakespeare lines worthy of the famous Ironic drawl.

Director Radford only hints at the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio. Ian McKellen, who angled for the role of Antonio, claimed that the gay subtext especially interested him. It's suggested now that the melancholy Antonio isn't depressed just because it was fashionable to look soulfully sad in Shakespeare's time.

Radford stages an intimate conversation between Antonio and his dear friend Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) as they sit on either side of a bed. The movie hints that it may not be the first time a bed has been between them.

Antonio's sorrowing face lengthens when he realizes what Bassanio wants to talk about. It isn't love, it's his debts. Bassanio is in the red and seeks a loan so he can court a likely heiress named Portia. With only a flicker of regret, Antonio agrees to the deal.

Even before he mortgages it to Shylock, it seems Antonio's heart has been cut out already.

For Love or Money

The things we do for love or money. Antonio literally pawns his heart as a favor for the man he loves. Shylock bankrupts himself trying to meet the price of revenge. And the proud royal suitors at Portia's estate, subject themselves to humiliation for her fortune. Money is the gravity that holds this strange story together.

Radford brings on the green limpid life—a rich villa, perfumed and caressed with lute music, on Portia's island of Belmont. In accordance with her father's will, her suitors have to solve a riddle. They must choose the right casket to win her hand. There are three: one gold, one silver and one lead. (Ask any nearby child which one is the right one to pick.)

Portia's first suitor is the Prince of Morocco (David Harewood, in a rolling comic role); the turbaned prince is a sultan so fierce that he gives Portia a gulping fright.

The prince is a blusterer, like Othello. He draws his sword, brandishing it, offering to show Portia his blood so she'll know he's as manly as any white man.

The redder the blood, the braver the soldier. That's what our ancestor's thought, and we still talk about red-blooded heroes today. In this play, that urges us to consider that "we all bleed the same," this comic scene is a prelude to Shylock's most famous speech.

We know Portia has a wicked tongue when she sizes up the suitors—they're nothing but drunks, fops and odd foreigners. But at this point, we haven't recognized her as one of Shakespeare's craftiest women. Early on, Radford directs Portia to be almost foolishly girlish. She gets a visible case of the shakes when Bassanio approaches the right casket. The approach may seem a little overvirginal, but it pays off later.

Lynn Collins' Portia is introduced to us by a voice-over, by Bassanio: "In Belmont is a lady richly left/ And she is fair and, fairer than that word." At first sight, you blink to see how this red-blonde Texan actress is presented. She's made up as a figure from Botticelli's Primavera, with tresses, rather than hair. Since The Merchant of Venice is like a bundle of plays, call her section "The Education of Portia."

In the past, The Merchant of Venice was played as a comedy. One actress who acted Portia in the 1700s indulged in parody dialects, imitating the famous judges of the English law court of her time.

The play has it that Shylock demands to collect his flesh from the bankrupt Antonio, and that the Venetian court must rule in his favor. Portia decides to use strategy to rescue Antonio from the knife. With a daubed-on mustache and beard, she turns up, pretending to be a youthful out of town lawyer.

In Radford's film, when Portia enters the court, the debtor Antonio is propped up in court. He's stupefied by a flask of some drug, and his mouth is gagged. And he's bound to a chair, ready to be carved.

The little joke is over fast. Despite her wit and loyalty, Collins' Portia is still a mocking rich girl from a pretty island. She has no idea whatsoever what a bloody world it is—how badly people suffer in it and what it's like to be spat upon. The well-meaning always get a nasty surprise when they stumble into ancient grudges. Let's say Portia's discovery is relevant to the tragedy of America in Iraq, among other things.

Fighting her own shock, Portia tries to counsel Shylock back from the brink, trying to reach him through his own just anger. He won't take the ministration of this androgynous angel.

As she tries to save the case, Collins' tones stay even and soft, motherly. Portia's famous lines—the speech that the pain of Shylock draws out of her—has no pride or triumph in it. In this always-novel film, Radford outdoes himself by making sure that the words sound fresh. The effect is actors musing over what they say, even as they say it.

The poet William Hazlitt wrote that Portia's soliloquy was nothing special: "The speech of Mercy is very well; but there are a thousand finer things in Shakespeare." Another commentator named professor Dover Wilson argues, "This is a hymn worthy to be set beside that of St. Paul in praise of Christian love."

"The quality of mercy is not strained" should have opened Shylock's heart. He doesn't hear the words—nobody ever hears them—and he's crushed utterly. Tragedy is all about the road not taken. Shylock is destroyed by an unjust quibble in the law. But if it had gone the other way, it would have been just as terrible.

Pacino vs. the Bard

The last time Pacino played Shakespeare, Shakespeare lost. The documentary Looking for Richard recorded how Pacino tried to approach a live performance of Richard III. First he consulted experts and teachers; then he airily disregarded them. Pacino's emotional approach to Richard ignored the subtleties, the sound of the language.

What didn't work for Richard certainly works for Shylock. This is the film where Pacino lets it all loose. That famous speech, bumping on every syllable, makes Shylock seem like an outcast by the way he talks. We get a sense that Venetian is his second language.

Shylock isn't a speechifier like Richard III; he's an arguer. There's a businessman's bark in his words. He's used to talking of hazards and enterprises. Pacino sometimes stresses a Yiddish accent. Despite the critical complaints you'll hear, this is historically accurate. As John Gross points out in his excellent book on Shylock, only the German Jews in the Venetian "geto" were allowed to lend money. Yiddish was the language of German Jews in the end of the 1500s.

Over the years, Pacino's become a cooled volcano. His sunken expressionist eyes flicker like a lizard's tongues, testifing to something burning inside, despite the outward signs of extinction. But what, among the contemporary movies, was there for him to wake up for? The possibility of Godfather 4?

Here Pacino sources every movie he's made—the bloody jests of Tony Montana, the snaky ominousness of Michael Corleone. This volcano erupts. His Shylock pushes his way through the crowded Rialto with an old man's deliberation, but with youthful doggedness. In his Shylock is the scorn of the well and truly scorned: the spitting of the spat-upon.

At night, shuttered in his cryptlike house, Shylock nurses his pain as a widower. His daughter, Jessica, flies this house of mourning for the shallow pleasures her father's money can bring. She's lured out by a Christian who is as much interested in her father's loot as the girl herself.

Jessica is played by a big solid square-faced girl, Zuleikha Robinson, who was last seen in Hidalgo. Jessica is a tad awkward—Radford adds a touch of comic relief when she almost drops a chest of Shylock's money through the bottom of a canal boat.

Shylock loses his daughter as he lost his wife. The moneylender's wife is mentioned once in the play. That's Shakespeare at work, giving us a rich detail in a sentence. When Shylock learns Jessica traded a keepsake ring for a pet monkey, he gasps, "It was my turquoise. I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor: I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys."

Tradition holds that such a gem healed a rift between a man and his wife; marriage to such a boiling man could not be easy. Pacino suggests this hard-heartedness with his own innovations—his Old World gloom and his ravenlike croak: "I will have my bond!"

Radford's Venice is stuffed with squanderers. Wealth swirls around the characters, like water spiraling down a drain. The Merchant of Venice is a well-appointed film; Radford shot some locations near the Place San Marco and finished in the medieval parts of Luxembourg.

But his city, even in the 1500s, is starting to look worn and syphilitic. Its business district is full of septic playboys and rouged-nippled whores. When Shylock attends a dinner party, he looks like the corpse at the christening; he's like a man of 20th century disgusted at the peasants.

What could such a wronged man do but stand on a point of honor, on his own status as a man? Pacino's Shylock demands his respect at the point of a knife. The finale is particularly a shock to that large part of the audience who can't remember the outcome of Shylock vs. Antonio. Shylock's certainly wrong, yet he's just as certainly wronged.

"Is your name Shylock?"

"Shylock is my name!"

Pacino puts an exclamation point in it. The unhappiest happy ending in Shakespeare brings merciless justice: this dangerous rebel is reduced to a crow-colored bundle of rags.

All we're left with as consolation is the echo of his pride, when answering Portia's first question, stating his name for the court. It's the first time the Venetians are made to take him seriously, and it took the threat of violence to make them understand.

The Merchant of Venice (Unrated; 138 min.), directed by Michael Radford, screenplay by Radford, based on the play by Shakespeare, photographed by Benoit Delhomme and starring Al Pacino and Lynn Collins, opens Friday (Jan. 14) at selected theaters.

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From the January 12-18, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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