“The Merchant of Venice” has been the problem child among William Shakespeare’s plays for some time. It’s very hard for modern audiences to reconcile the virulent anti-semitism in the characterization of Shylock and the light-hearted comedy that was the main story of the play.
This modern version takes the importance of the two stories and inverts them. The romantic romp is now the “B” story and Antonio’s debt to Shylock moves center stage. By taking the secondary villain and making his conflict the main thrust of the film, the filmmakers are able to take an anti-Semitic caricature and make him a more full blooded if not quite sympathetic person.
Of course, casting Al Pacino as Shylock doesn’t hurt either. The tone of wounded pride that Pacino brings creates a fullness to the character that previous Shylocks have not always had. His money-lender is not just a Jew but also an embittered man who has had his fill of slights and contempt from the Christian-dominated world in which he lives. He fulfills a very necessary role, since Christians of the day were forbidden to lend money at interest, yet he is still treated as something less than human. This is something he can no longer forgive. His anger is intensified when his daughter Jessica leaves to marry a Christian man. Shylock’s villiany comes not from simply being a Jew but also from his rage against a world that has genuinely wronged him.
None of this was added to the text of the original play. Shakesphere’s Shylock was not a one-dimensional villian, either, but the shift in the focus of the story for the film brings his humanity to the fore.
The conflict between Antonio (Jeremy Irons) and Shylock is driven by the desire of Antonio’s young friend Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) to marry Portia (Lynn Collins). Antonio agrees to loan money to Bassanio for this purpose but, with all his ships at sea, he is a bit cash-poor at the moment. He decides to do what he has refused to do in the past: borrow money at interest from Shylock, whom he is shown spitting upon in the opening scene of the film. Shylock offers to loan the money to Antonio without interest, with the stipulation that he will be entitled to a literal “pound of flesh” should Antonio default on the loan.
It should be no surprise to anyone that Antonio’s ships are delayed and thought to be lost and he is forced to default on the loan. Shylock has him dragged before the local Duke to extract the penalty. Modern audiences will probably find the cross-dressing aspect of the resolution to this problem a little hard to swallow, but in Shakespeare’s days, when the female parts were played by men, it worked just fine.
The other story, of Bassanio’s quest to marry Portia, is an engaging, romantic bit of fluff. Nothing much is at stake other than a lifetime of bachelorhood for Bassanio and the logic of the resolution (choosing the lead casket over gold and silver) is not hard for the audience to figure out before the characters do. The lightness contrasts vividly against the darkness of the conflict between Shylock and Antonio.
And while Shakespeare’s audiences would have seen Shylock as getting his just reward at the end (and even seen his forced conversion to Christianity as a “happy” ending), the modern retelling presents his fate as just another injustice piled upon an already pitiable human being.