Patrick Stewart, the British actor, is said to be in talks preparatory to adapting the Merchant of Venice to the screen. Richard Brunton, author of the Filmstalker site, and a man with his finger on the pulse of the movie business, reports that Stewart has not merely declared an interest but has also selected a writer for the enterprise- one John Logan who has written other memorable recent hits such as The Aviator and Gladiator.
This shouldn't surprise us. Despite a career in which Stewart latterly has become identified with two icons of popular culture- Jean Luc Picard the Startrek Captain and Dr Xavier in the X-Men series of films- he was originally a classical actor. Indeed part of the reason that this project is happening, is because its Stewart's attempt to convince Logan that there is something worth filming in the Merchant of Venice. But why did he have to convince Logan, haven't versions been done before and furthermore what type of film are these two trying to make?
The Merchant of Venice
The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare's more problematic plays- it contains its fair share of great speeches and phrases and one wonderful female character but it has many imposing defects. The first of which is its subject. The Merchant of Venice concerns a debt that a merchant, Antonio, takes out so that his young friend Bassanio can woe a beautiful and rich lady, Portia. Antonio borrows the money from Shylock a nearby Jew and the surety of the bond is that should Antonio not repay the money Shylock will take a pound of flesh from Antonio's breast. So far so simple- as usual with Shakespeare plays there are many complications- Bassanio has to pass a test of choosing caskets to get Portia, his friend Gratiano ends up with Portia's maid Nerrissa and Bassanio's other friend Lorenzo ends up stealing both Shylock's daughter and his servant. Despite the fact that Antonio is unable to pay the bond- the play superficially ends happily for everyone except for Shylock who is cast upon the streets of Venice.
The problem within the play has always been a perception that the play is exceptionally anti-semitic. Shylock is a grasping merchant who cries about his ducats more than his daughter when she leaves him. He is portrayed as a vengeful and frightening presence- there is no doubt that by the end of the play Shylock is unreasonable in his attitude to Antonio. Shakespeare was too great a dramatist not to include the fact that his heroes are unpleasant and rude to Shylock- but he creates a masterful villain- a prototype for later icons of the evil Jew like Dickens's Fagin- that's why many modern audiences and dramatists shy away from the play- and it would be foolish to think that Shakespeare didn't share many of the prejudices of his time against Jews and foolisher still to think that Shylock was in some way the hero of the play.
There is warrent in the text though for other interpretations- Shylock's unreasonableness at the end masks the fact that others have been unreasonable to him in the past- he talks about the way that Antonio has always cursed and upbraided him for usury (an Elizabethan Englishman would definitely have agreed with Antonio, we might find that less convincing as a reason to insult someone) and for his Jewishness. Bassanio is a feckless youth- definitely less intelligent than his bride- and the ending is ambiguous- Portia marries a man who feels more for his friend than for her for instance. Furthermore its noticable that Antonio is left at the end alone, as the three pairs of lovers go off to have sex together so there are ways that you can play the play to make it less egregious- but the problem as with Shakespeare's other most problematic play The Taming of the Shrew is definitely there- you can't escape the fact that this is an anti-semitic play and that Shylock is an anti-semitic type.
A Recent Attempt
The problem is of course not new- and many directors and actors have taken it on- I don't have the space and you probably don't have the patience to take on a whole number of interpretations- but the most recent cinematic interpretation with which Stewart's will naturally be contrasted was a recent effort in which Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons and Joseph Fiennes appeared. Lets just have a look at the way that the Pacino team performed in rendering the play and dealing with the major issues- and what the failings of that production were before moving on to what Stewart and Logan want to do.
Pacino's production was very faithful to the time- there was a real attempt to think about an imagined Shakespearian world transplanted to Italy. Music and costume were adjusted to an Elizabethan period and relocated to Italy. Perhaps most notably though Pacino and his team really sought to take on the Jewish issue and work out what to do with it- the first scenes of the film reinforce the idea of the persecution of the Jews carried out in 16th Century England and are meant to give us a context for Shylock's brutal request to Antonio and throughout the film we get little reminders every so often.
Its a bit unfair to do a whole review here- but the thing about Pacino's Merchant is that really it falls flat- we get the reminders but Pacino himself performs the role with a couple of traditional tics- he shuffles around the stage and at moments seems repulsive. But on the other hand, his force of personality really emerges as does the force of his accusations against the Christian characters- Pacino gives it his full energy and attention, blasting out his accusations and making you beleive them whilst he is talking.
The problem though is that its only whilst he is talking because the rest of the production eschews complexity. The 'good' characters in this merchant are shown as unambiguously good- that means that its difficult to beleive Shylock- its not difficult to sympathise with Antonio. Pacino's Shylock as he rants against Fiennes's Bassanio seems like a crazy beggar on the underground ranting against a nice boy who only wants to marry the girl he loves. There is another way of playing it- but it requires Bassanio to emerge more as a chancer, an opportunist who cares little for Portia but lots for her beauty and money. That kind of complexity though is beyond Fiennes- and the rest of the cast to produce- so that the production is left with a complex Shylock ranting against a world that we see as (with the exception of little inserts at the beggining and elsewhere) made up of good people.
In that sense Pacino's merchant fell a bit flat. The two parts of it seemed to contradict and didn't work together really- that's the danger that Stewart and Logan face- that you have to keep the vigour of the production going and to avoid making an anti-semitic play you have to be consistent in your interpretation throughout the characters- make Shylock to be a complicated man and not a cartoon villain means making his antagonists less virtuous and more villainous.
Will they meet the Challenge
Ok so what should we expect from Stewart and Logan- will they do any better? The obvious answer is that of course we have no idea. The play's repulsive side will have to be dealt with but there are indications about what they might try which seem to me to be interesting. They have talked about updating the play- a worthwhile idea- because doing it in a modern setting may maintain the energy that sometimes falls out of a production so worried about politics it ceases to be a production. It will place the play in a new light- the fact that Portia's father sets a test to her suitors looks even more absurd and interesting when placed in a modern setting than it does placed in a sixteenth century one. There is a further interesting issue- perhaps by moving it forwards they'll be able to play with the characters (how about making Shylock handsome- visually that would be an interesting move) and also with the dynamic- illustrating other issues- the film may become illustrative of racial prejudice rather than inciting it.
The simple answer is that we don't know- there are pitfuls- Logan seems definitely aware for instance of the danger of anti-semitism- but lets hope they also realise that the play is a whole and changing a part means changing your attitude towards the whole (what Pacino et co failed at), we'll see what happens but whatever does- a Merchant set in Los Vegas promises to be interesting social commentary as well as an interesting adaptation of Shakespeare.