Like The Passion of the Christ released a year before, Michael Radford’s film of The Merchant of Venice is doomed to pre-viewing judgment. Is the play anti-Semitic? This question resurfaces anytime and anywhere the play is produced. Renowned lit critic Harold Bloom offered these memorable words, “One would have to be blind, deaf, and dumb not to recognize that Shakespeare’s grand, equivocal comedy is nevertheless a profoundly anti-Semitic work.”
I wonder, then, if this play is so vehemently and inescapably anti-Semitic, why so many powerhouse actors have jumped at the chance to play Shylock, a supporting character and Jewish caricature? Luminaries like Laurence Olivier, George C. Scott, and Dustin Hoffman have all tackled the part in the past, and now we have Al Pacino’s take.
Shakespeare was of his time, no question, but his genius transcended time. It’s almost as though Shylock was originally conceived as a one-dimensional villain bellowing blood-thirstily for his bond, only to become something more in the process of writing. I can picture Shakespeare scribbling away with his feathered quill, the ghost of Marlowe’s Jew of Malta over his shoulder, and happening upon the line, “Hath not a Jew eyes?” and Eureka! One of the most breathtaking, heartbreaking, and humane passages in the canon of world literature emerges…but maybe that’s romanticizing the old Bard just a bit.
However it happened, we’re left with a play listed as one of Shakespeare’s “comedies,” but which is hardly a light-hearted romp. It’s a haunting piece of work and this most recent production is, significantly, the first cinematic adaptation since the silent era (excluding TV versions). Why the dearth when Shakespeare has consistently been one of Hollywood’s most popular screenwriters?