In an era when we lament the fact that the remake, the sequel, and the reboot have come to dominate the media landscape, it can be easy to forget that older forms of art (in particular, theatre) used to survive exclusively through their continual reinterpretation and re-presenetation. Since his death, William Shakespeare has arguably garnered more of such ‘remakes’ and ‘reboots’ than any other artist, yet there are still great, interesting, and even somehow new versions of his works every year, on the stage and on the screen.
It is worth pointing out, then, that a remake or reboot is only bad if it adds nothing new to the original work and does not present an interesting version of the original work. And if that seems like a tired point to you, then I would like to make that case in a new way (a remake of my own, as it were) by zeroing in on one of Al Pacino’s scenes from Michael Radford’s film version of The Merchant of Venice, and discussing why it works so well as a new presentation of older material.
The nature of this article is such that it requires spoiling basic plot details of The Merchant of Venice, so you should only continue reading after this paragraph if you either do not mind spoilers or have already seen the film (or read the play, or seen a staging, etc.).
The antagonistic character of Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice has been variously interpreted in the past four hundred years as a heartless monster, a victim of persecution and oppression, a despairing father, and any number of religiously or commercially minded contrivances.
Among these possibilities, the most prevalent have been presentations of one of the first two, a character either black or white, often a Shylock reviled for his evil and occasionally a Shylock downtrodden for his beliefs. In director Michael Radford’s 2004 film The Merchant of Venice, however, the viewer sees Al Pacino’s Shylock as neither an individual wholely bad nor necessarily good.
Rather, the complexity and depth of the character, the warring of a man’s humanity and faith with his desire to be revenged on his persecutors, is revealed. Nowhere in the movie is this more clearly presented than in the trial scene, where separation by blocking, the screenplay adaptation of Shakespeare’s words (also by Radford), and Pacino’s subtle expressions present a Shylock for whom justice is paramount, but who seeks justice gruesomely and so loses all.
For reference, the video below contains a portion of the scene in question. But I warn viewers, as it is the climax, the scene is both spoiler-ridden and rather lengthy. The trailer is at the bottom of this article, as usual.
Setting and Blocking in Radford’s Merchant of Venice:
One of the key features of the scene in the movie is the crowd gathered at the court. Unless the word others in the play’s direction of this scene is stretched widely, the assembly in the movie greatly outnumbers the group of people Shakespeare originally allotted the occasion. This crowd, as a decision of the director, functions on two levels.
The first is related to the verbal abuse they continually volunteer. With the exception of the red-capped few huddled silently in one section of the crowd, the entire ring’s voices grow from a mumbling dislike to a pronounced, vehement negativity through the scene. This clamor of a sample of the population over Shylock, of the many over the one, is a representation not only of the general distaste for Shylock, but of the entire population’s overwhelming distaste for the Jewish people. And those sympathetic to the plight of the persecuted, here represented by the Jews in the crowd, are silent. Shylock finds no assistance or justice in his contemporaries, even in his peers.
The second level is the visual presentation of the court proceeding which the crowd facilitates. Those present form a circle, and at the center of that circle of attention, removed from, studied by, and questioned by the rest, is Shylock. It is not Antonio, whose life is in question, who entered into a legal bond and failed to uphold his part, who is separated and interrogated.
Instead, the crowd’s jeers, the Duke’s questioning, and the wall of isolating space surround Shylock, the one who, if morally questionable, is legally and therefore societally in the right. In such aspects of the crowd it is clear that Shylock is despised beyond just reason, that is, persecuted. So, he intends to lash out against one of those who have wronged him.
Yet this course of action only drives a deeper wedge between the general populace and Shylock, which in turn makes Shylock more bitter and resolved. This vicious cycle guarantees, by Shylock’s own pride, an ongoing hate toward him and his faith. But the setting is not the only way that the movie shapes its multifarious Shylock.
The Screenplay of Radford’s Merchant of Venice:
The utilization of Shakespeare’s language, being quintessential to the work, is one of the strongest tools a moviemaker has in influencing the audience’s perception of the characters. As Pacino comes to Shylock’s monologue about not needing to fear judgment, he speaks a key change in the comment, “The pound of flesh which I demand of him/ Is dearly bought, is mine, and I will have it” (IV.i. 99-100). The phrase “is mine” is repeated three times in succession and the end of this speech marks the only time in the movie scene that Pacino breaks his even, slow speech to have Shylock grow loud and angry.
Throughout the proceeding, Shylock remains collected and speaks slowly until this moment. Here Shylock is shown in some fury, speaking the line, “If you deny me, fie upon your law!” (IV.i. 101). In both lines the emphasis is on justice. Until this time, the persecution Shylock has suffered as a Jew and as a usurer has been in accordance with the laws of Venice.
He recognizes, however, that if he is now denied, despite his legal right to the pound of flesh, that it is not under the law. Rather, to deny him now would be an open attack on him as a person by society. He is the rightful owner of the fateful pound (“is mine, is mine, is mine”) and to be kept from it is to say that for a Jew there is no justice.
And so here is the only point at which the anger within him is glimpsed. If this and the above were the only evidence, however, it could still be effectively argued that Shylock’s persecution is within his head or else entirely a result of his acting so coldly in this transaction. In that case, what Shylock perceives as persecution would instead be a dislike of him as a person, and not as a Jew; conversely, Radford (and the play) make it clear that it is not so.
The Acting in Radford’s Merchant of Venice:
Ultimately, the clear oppression of Shylock as the driving force in his seeking Antonio’s pain and flesh comes down to two moments in the trial scene. In these scenes the subtle emotion of Pacino is vitally important.
Earlier, when Shylock is voicing his concerns about lending to Antonio, he mentions that Antonio spat on him in public, a reminder which prompts Antonio to say that he would do the same again (I.iii. 109,114,123, 127-128). In the opening of the movie, Antonio is shown doing just this. In the trial scene, this is again evoked when a man in the crowd spits at Shylock as he enters.
The first of the two important moments comes shortly after this reminder, when he removes the scales from his bag to weigh the pound of flesh. At this moment in the movie Antonio faints. The camera is filled by Shylock’s face, and for that second, as he looks on the fainted Antonio, his ever-furrowed brow is relaxed toward concern. The humanity of the character is laid bare before the public.
Antonio is then revived by the pouring of water into his mouth. As he awakes, he coughs the water out into the air. The image is blatantly evocative of expectorating. The camera cuts back to Shylock, and he is whetting his knife. The message is clear. Shylock does not seek to kill a man; he seeks to kill an attitude. The attitude which would see him conducting business and spit upon him. This he hates and would take a pound of flesh from.
The second moment comes at the conclusion of the trial. Shylock is sentenced to convert to Christianity. Upon hearing this, he is reduced to a softly whimpering mass on the floor. At this jarring news, that his faith, which has so defined and structured his life, is to be removed from him, Pacino’s Shylock does not cry out animalistically, but slowly sinks to the floor, beaten, broken, finished.
Shylock is not a beast or a monster. As Radford and Pacino portray him, Shylock is a normal man, a man as capable of compassion as of hate, driven by a prejudiced society to venture all to achieve some barbaric modicum of justice, who in doing so loses all.
Justice, and in that justice a sort of dignity, is clearly the most important thing to Shylock. Indeed, the clause “I will have my bond” appears dozens of times in his dialogue throughout the play and movie. Unfortunately for Shylock, what he sees as fair revenge for a lifetime of wrongs all at once, others understandably interpret as murder.
And in pursuing that justice, even the faith which was the inception of the malice toward him, for which he fought, is taken. In this way, he is not an evil man or a good man, but a human, flawed, persecuted, dejected. Shakespeare presents a character whose many lines can be interpreted a number of diverse ways.
Radford sees this diversity in the text of The Merchant of Venice and recognizes that limiting Shylock to one personality trait is to flatten the richness of Shakespeare’s character. With this understanding, Radford is able to set in place visual augmentations of the nuance, and to use Pacino’s subtlety in playing a great range of emotion to convey the depth of the creation. All movie-makers—indeed, all interpreters of Shakespeare—should struggle to achieve as much. And knowing that remakes can be this good, all remakes should earnestly desire to be on this level.
Remakes are Not your Enemy: