The Merchant of Venice | Downfall

The Merchant of Venice | Downfall

The Merchant of Venice is a fascinating headache of a play and didn’t Shakespeare intend it so? He clangs two worlds together, the Venice of early cutthroat capitalism and the fairy tale kingdom of Belmont. In the former the merchant Antonio pledges the moneylender Shylock a “pound of flesh” as surety to finance his friend Bassanio’s courtship of Portia, Belmont’s mistress. Belmont is a version of Elysium, and Antonio puts himself in (literally) flesh-and-blood peril to launch Bassanio into bliss. The two places should seem to be on different planets and it’s a directorial mistake to try to harmonize them.

This is a mistake Michael Radford commits in his film adaptation. He gives us an appropriately dank, shadowy, bustling Venice (the gondola traffic is nonstop), but Belmont here becomes not a higher stage of life but a mere suburb of Venice. Photographed in pearly tones, it seems handsomely lifeless and empty, like one of those stately English homes that have become tourist attractions. Is the sterility meant to indicate Portia’s need for true love? Perhaps, though the heiress, courtesy of Lynn Collins’s smug performance, comes across as much too self-satisfied to need a suitor. In any case, this pale Belmont undercuts the central contrast that the play needs: Renaissance splendor (Belmont) vs. Renaissance ruthlessness (Venice). The several shifts from one locale to the other should jar the viewer, but...

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About the Author

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.