Freeze Frame #158 (a,b): The Merchant of Venice

How the fuheck does The Merchant of Venice get labeled a comedy? Sure, it gets a bit farcical at times, and mercy (apparently) triumphs over revenge in the end and what not, but seriously? Didn’t Shylock deserve the right to kick Antonio’s butt seven ways to Tuesday? The key moment, for me, is his wonderful monologue about the anti-semitism he faces. “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” he asks. Even earlier in the play, while you see Shylock mostly through the eyes of the people around him, their criticism is laced with pithy self-awareness. But this is the scene where he leaps off the page and becomes the only character worth remembering from the play. So when I heard a few years ago that Al Pacino was playing Shylock in a new adaptation of the play, I was obviously quite excited. If you had to pick an actor who could do justice to that impassioned rant, the man would be on top of a very short list. And his performance lives up to expectations. Out of curiosity, I looked up other versions of that scene and came upon Orson Welles’ take from his unfinished 1969 adaptation. While Pacino is energetic, physical and angry, Welles sounds more sad than anything else. And if one had to bear the cross of anti-semitism (pun absolutely intended) for so long, I suppose both reactions are equally plausible. For the most part, Welles is surprisingly unimpressive. But there is one moment where he scores. It comes when he puts in a little pause in the phrase “scorned… my nation”. For that one fleeting moment, you can see him being almost overwhelmed. Then he pulls himself together.


4 thoughts on “Freeze Frame #158 (a,b): The Merchant of Venice

  1. Bala says:

    Watched a video of a stage play with the one & only Laurence Olivier play Shylock once where Shylock’s monologue had the best vitriol aptly pump out. It was well worth forgetting that the set up looked like the 80’s stage tamil dramas that were shown on the only DD Tamil channel.

    • Bala, I need to find this adaptation. Laurence Olivier typically nails it when it comes to the Bard. He even played Katherine in an adaptation of Taming of the Shrew, leading one critic to comment, “I cannot imagine any actress who would’ve looked better in this part.”

  2. S says:

    I too thought Pacino was perfect as Shylock. Though that’s the only film adaptation of MoV I’ve seen (the one with Jeremy Irons as Antonio). The iconic “do we not bleed” line does solidify our sympathies in favor of Shylock (and as an aside, it’s argued in scholarly circles that Shakespeare intended for his play to turn on its head the anti-semitism perpetuated by the wildly popular Marlowe work ‘Jew of Malta’ that came just two years prior, in 1594. Its plot etc are completely different though setting is same (Italy) and central character, a Jew).

    PS. What truly piqued my “interest” here (pun intended) is the Olivier twist in your comment. Really? Laurence had a turn at playing Shrew? My oh my! A must watch indeed.

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