Our Muddy Vesture

Frank Kermode

  • William Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’ directed by Michael Radford
    December 2004

This movie version of the play will just about do. It has most of the virtues and most of the faults endemic to such ventures, but it exposes the latter less grossly than some. As Shylock Pacino succeeds as any good, experienced actor should, and Jeremy Irons is appallingly sad as Antonio, just as he promises to be in the opening line of the play. He cannot understand why he is so sad but the film all too insistently offers a complete explanation. Joseph Fiennes as Bassanio shows us why the Christians in this play are, on the whole, such an unlikeable lot. Lynn Collins as Portia looks as good as she ought to, and redeems some tiresome moments in the early scenes by being startlingly good and grave in the trial scene. Since the piece is set in Venice there is a lot of photography, and some of the results are indeed beautiful. The movie runs for 131 minutes and feels longer, partly no doubt because quite often nothing strictly relevant is actually happening – and certainly not because it includes boring quantities of Shakespeare’s text.

Many would agree with the general proposition that the best Shakespeare movies are not in English but in Japanese or Russian, the reason being that these works are treatments of the stories of Macbeth or Lear: the stories behind or inferred from the plays, rather than the plays themselves, so there is no direct debt to the English texts. Shakespeare of course depended on language to do the work of exposition, characterisation and scene setting. He could not offer a plywood Rialto or stage the starlit night at Belmont, or do close-ups of Jeremy Irons’s love-battered face; or show Antonio arriving in his gondola, Shylock dining wretchedly with Bassanio, or Jessica sitting excitedly in the women’s section of the synagogue. Moments inaccessible to language have to be left out: the film makers put them in because for them pictures do the work of language, which is an intruder in film, attacked by the camera when it threatens to settle in.

The story is based on two folk-tales, the one about choosing the right casket and the one about a clever wench frustrating a wicked Jew. The first story admits of a little frivolity, as we see in the conversation of the girls and the bawdy chat of Gratiano. But the second story overshadows the first; nobody thinks of The Merchant of Venice as a light-hearted play. Like Antonio, it does not know why it is so sad. It was said that not to know its cause was a symptom of melancholia. Antonio’s friends suggest that he’s worried about his argosies, which he denies. He also dismisses the notion that he is in love. He’s just down. Shakespeare doesn’t waste opening scenes, and here he gets in some information about the argosies, whose apparent loss is important to the later action; but he also goes on at surprising length about melancholy, which seems at this stage irrelevant to the business of the play.

Years ago it used to be suggested with due modesty that it is his feeling for Bassanio that saddens Antonio, and this conjecture would be qualified with talk of Renaissance styles of male bonding: now the homoerotic connection is taken as a given, and the movie is far from having any doubt about it. But the play remains melancholy without explanation: the picture is from the outset darker than it need be. Its second scene, echoing the first, opens with Portia saying, ‘my little body is a-weary of this great world,’ and she is politely scolded by Nerissa for being melancholy without cause. Her reason is not that she has been made the prize in an absurd lottery; nor that she is poor or ugly; she is sad without cause.

The famous lyrical duet (‘On such a night as this’) between Lorenzo and Jessica at the beginning of the final act of the play (not of the film, which cuts most of it and displaces the rest) mentions Cressida, Dido, Thisbe and Medea, famous women noted for infidelity, inflicted or suffered, for bad luck in love, for witchcraft and infanticide. Lorenzo doesn’t feel guilty about abducting Jessica, and she seems at ease with the idea that she has apostasised and stolen her father’s money and jewels; nor does she hear a word of reproach or criticism from her new gentle/gentile friends. Yet even on such a night as this, in Belmont, two lovers who have got away with everything are thinking of these melancholy stories. The whole passage is a beautiful example of Shakespearean excess; why should shady Lorenzo be given this formal laus musicae, this condemnation of ‘treasons, stratagems and spoils’, this hint of the unheard universal order as reflected in the concord of sweet sounds? He explains that we cannot hear the music of the spheres because of our muddy vesture of decay, but we may sense that order in starlit Belmont, at least until Portia and Nerissa arrive to tease their new husbands and allow slightly dirty jokes about their rings. The whole splendid act is still inexplicably sad, and, from the point of view of the basic story, close to superfluous. What it does calls for large, linguistic resources and is not sufficiently camera-friendly or in other respects relevant to be given at length in the film.

Meanwhile the most intelligible behaviour and the most understandable melancholy are Shylock’s, though even his story is not as simple as it might be. One thing is clear: the play’s interest in the legality of usury. Shakespeare gives this matter a strong claim on the attention of the audience with the static early conversation between Shylock and Antonio (cut in the film, as often on the stage) concerning Jacob’s tricking of Laban in Chapter 30 of Genesis. Was Jacob cheating when he ensured that he got most of the lambs? The conventional answer was no: after all, Laban owed him at least as much as he got by the trick. But he took more than was due under their specific agreement. Shylock thinks this fair dealing and a good return on Jacob’s ingenuity. Antonio denies that the passage was ‘inserted’ to justify interest. On his view what Jacob did was something not within his own power; his success was ‘fashioned by the hand of heaven’. The breeding of gold is not analogous to that of sheep; Jacob’s profit came not from interest but a legitimate venture.

Usury had always been condemned, but in a capitalist age business could not manage without it, and an early act of Elizabeth’s reign allowed the charging of interest up to ten per cent. As an old-style gentile gentleman Antonio won’t lend money at interest; he ventures his wealth in the import trade, entrusting it to the hand of God. But if he is to finance Bassanio’s venture to Belmont he must borrow money at interest. Enter Shylock.

The Laban debate sets the terms of the basic argument of the play. Shylock reverses the moral law as observed by virtuous gentiles and calls Antonio a sinner for not charging interest. In the famous speech arguing that there is no substantive difference between Jew and Christian he omits the important consideration that the gentiles are gentle (well-born, baptised) and he, a Jew, is not gentile/gentle; so that he, not they (in principle, anyway), commits an offence traditionally akin to sodomy. We really need the Laban debate.

Here is one clear reason Jews hate Christians and Christians despise Jews. There are others. Radford’s movie begins with an anti-Jewish riot, foregrounding the topic of a more general anti-semitism, not so expressed in the play, rather than usury. In fact it is quite a time before anything happens that originates in the play itself. Shakespeare talks, and nobody listens; Venice is more important and prettier than he is. Occasionally it was his way to introduce a theme by having his characters discuss it at some length, as here and in Troilus and Cressida. But the Laban debate, though appropriate to the discussion of anti-semitism in its commercial aspect, has no place in a movie.

It is only at the climax, the trial scene, that Shakespeare’s words will do very well. While Shylock sharpens his knife and Antonio prepares to suffer, Portia is pragmatically settling a problem of justice: Shylock is entitled to the protection of the state (‘strangers’ were commercially important) and his bond must be honoured; nevertheless the state’s duty to protect its citizens makes it impossible for him to be paid according to the bond. Portia’s trick is to uphold the law by allowing the validity of the bond but preventing its execution.

It is in its demonstration that Shylock is the sort of dealer to make such a ‘merry bond’ that a more general anti-semitism prevails. He is a man who cannot tell whether the loss of a daughter is as painful as the loss of ducats; who is miserly and vindictive, and so on. But his speech has power and even dignity, emphasised by its relation to that of the Psalmist: ‘I would my daughter were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear! Would she were hearsed at my foot and the ducats in her coffin!’ Like Othello a stranger in Venice, he has to speak a nobler language than its natives.

Anti-semitism has always had ample mythical resources, but Shakespeare does not draw heavily on them. There were not many Jews in the city, but there were many ‘strangers’, resented for their alien ways and commercial successes. Riots against strangers were not unusual; a quite serious one occurred only a year before The Merchant was written. The aliens concerned were French and Dutch refugees, but Jews were certainly strangers, often well-to-do and with known alien habits. They might be tolerated but at times suspected and resented. And then the myths might surface. As a business rival the Jew might be accused of taking too much interest, but the sight of a Jew sharpening a knife to mutilate a Christian might revive the whole body of myth. He might circumcise or even castrate the Christian – there were various fantasies about circumcision, which was not practised in England – or even drink his blood. According to James Shapiro in his excellent Shakespeare and the Jews (1990) it was even thought that Jewish men menstruated and might need an occasional supplement of gentile blood. Then there were the stories about Jewish abuse of the Host.

If any of this got into Shakespeare’s play it did so subliminally. Shylock is despised and hated but even when most intransigent not credible as a monster, and to give Pacino his due, he plays him as a human being, increasingly vicious as his wrongs accumulate, totally lacking the sentiment of mercy, but always true to his culture and its eloquent exponent. On the other side we notice that no one, not even Jessica, thinks that he has been unfairly treated. Like a great many other Jews of the period he is forced to convert, but this is treated as a punishment, not an occasion for rejoicing, despite the prevalent belief that the Jews must be converted before there could be a second coming. This gentile callousness is as hard to condone as the inherited monstrosities of their anti-semitic mythology.

Prejudice is powerful on both sides, but the Christians are shown to have God on their side when Antonio’s venture succeeds and the ships, mysteriously saved, come in loaded, while Shylock, for seeking an illegal form of interest, is ruined. Yet he is the greater performer, his part so well written that even the cinema cannot seriously reduce or explain it. What neither the cinema nor the stage explains is why the play is so shadowed by unease and unhappiness, even though all seems to go right: the villain is punished and the dissolute boy gets the rich girl and they all meet again at Belmont – such a blissful place, especially in the movie – only to celebrate their happiness by discussing infidelity and experiencing, like the play itself, a nameless sadness under the inaudible harmonies of the stars.