The debate is so old it should have its own place in the Shakespearean canon. Is Shylock, the Jewish moneylender who demands a "pound of flesh" from a debtor, a villain or a victim? Every time The Merchant of Venice is staged, the debate is restaged along with it. Does Shakespeare's play merely depict anti-semitism, or does it reek of it? Is the Bard describing, even condemning, the prevalent anti-Jewish attitudes of his time -- or gleefully giving them an outlet? The papers of a million students are marked forever with such questions.
Yet now they have a new force. Because the Merchant is playing in a new medium, making its debut as a full-length, big-budget feature film -- complete with a top-drawer Hollywood star, Al Pacino, in the de facto lead.
The film declares its own inten-tions early. The pre-credit sequence, complete with Star Wars-style scrolling text, seeks to contextualize. The opening image is of a crucifix, rapidly juxtaposed with the sight of Hebrew texts put to the flame. The words on the screen tell us that "intolerance of the Jews was a fact of 16th-century life." To prove it we see a mini-pogrom, with a Jew hurled from the Rialto Bridge.
It's clear that director Michael Radford does not want to make an anti-semitic film. But he has big two problems. The first is the play. The second is the medium.
Start with the play. We may want it to be a handy, high-school-friendly text exposing the horrors of racism, but Shakespeare refuses to play along. As the great critic Harold Bloom has declared, "One would have to be blind, deaf and dumb not to recognize that Shakespeare's grand, equivocal comedy The Merchant of Venice is nevertheless a profoundly anti-semitic work."
There is no getting away from it: Shylock is the villain, bent on disproportionate vengeance. Crucially, his villainy is not shown as a quirk of his own, individual personality, but is rooted overtly in his Jewishness.
Thus, he is shown as obsessed by money, a man who dreams of moneybags, whose very opening words are "three thousand ducats."
When his daughter betrays him and flees with a Christian lover, it is her theft of his money which is said to trouble him as much as the loss of a child. "As the dog Jew did utter in the streets/`My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!'"
Since the laws that barred Jews from almost all activity besides finance had led to the stereotype of the avaricious Jew, Shakespeare is dealing here not with a specific trait of Shylock the man but an anti-semitic caricature.
So it is with his demand for revenge, playing on the ancient notion of the Jews as a vengeful people ("An eye for an eye... ").
The same is true of the very forfeit Shylock demands from Antonio. A Jew seeking Christian flesh is surely meant to stir memories of the perennial anti-semitic charge, known as the blood libel, that Jews use Christian blood for religious ritual. Above all, it evokes the accusation that fuelled two millennia of European anti-semitism -- that the Jews killed Christ.
Radford can dress his film up as prettily as he likes -- and the costumes, Rembrandt lighting and Venetian locations certainly ensure that his Merchant is lovely to look at. But he can't dodge this hard, stubborn fact. Shylock's villainy is depicted as a specifically Jewish villainy. "And by our holy Sabbath have I sworn/To have the due and forfeit of my bond." Macbeth's murderousness is not a Scottish trait, nor is Hamlet's indecision a Danish one. But Shylock's wickedness is Jewish.