Merchant of Venice (2001)

Reviewer: Shannon H.


William Shakespeare's writings, to paraphrase one of his contemporaries, are not solely limited to his generation but for all times. One can find a modern romantic comedy on the silver screen or in one of Shakespeare's plays. Even one of Shakespeare's controversial plays has a certain, prophetic side. The Merchant of Venice explores the anti-Semitism in one of the most liberal cities of the Renaissance period. During this time, Jews were segregated into different living quarters or ghettos (as they were known in Italian) and men had to wear red caps distinguishing them from their Christian counterparts. This anti-Jewish prejudice seems all too familiar with what occurred some 50 to 60 years ago.

Antonio (Jeremy Irons) is a rich sea merchant who has a strong dislike toward Jews, especially Shylock (Al Pacino), a wealthy man who makes his living as a moneylender or usurer (as Shakespeare calls it). Shylock tries to make an attempt to say "hello" to Antonio in a crowd but is received by being spat in the face. The two men are extremely distant, separated by misconceptions about their spiritual faiths. While Shylock is doing well for himself, Antonio is having financial troubles. Business isn't usual and when his friend, a nobleman named Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes), comes to ask him for money so he can woo the fair and beautiful Portia (Lynn Collins), he is forced to seek a lender to loan him 3,000 ducats. After all, Antonio could not turn down his best friend, especially if he's going to court the woman of his dreams.

The objectionable content in The Merchant of Venice is nudity.  Although there are no sex scenes, women bare their breasts on a few occasions at wild parties. "Humorous" sexual innuendoes are shared among friends. It's implied that "good Christian" Jessica partakes in these hedonistic, raunchy parties, spending money that she stole from her father, Shylock. It's implied that Portia, Bassanio, Nerissa, and Gratiano "go to bed" after Portia and Nerissa had played a "practical" joke on them. Bassanio slightly kisses Antonio on the lips as a sign of respect.  Two women are seen dressed as male lawyers trying to defend Antonio in court. Nerissa pulls out a ring hiding in her cleavage. There are also two acts of violence: a Jewish man is being thrown from a bridge into a water canal and a goat is seen being slaughtered (nothing graphic, though). The content just barely crosses the line between an R and a PG-13 rating. If the movie was offered through a filtering service, it would easily be a PG. While it was prominent for women to expose their cleavage at wild parties, it is not acceptable.

Priests in the film are seen preaching to the masses (their message is clearly directed at the Venetian Jews) about the Christian faith, but are portrayed in a slightly negative manner: they barely even flinch when people throw a Jew over a bridge and into one of the Venetian canals. "Christians" are seen partaking in sexual parties, especially Jessica, the "convert." Antonio, although having contempt for Shylock at first, is merciful to him by allowing him to keep half his property that was forfeited to Antonio by the state, but wants him to renounce his Judaism for Christianity. As a Christian, I found this to be slightly offensive. Christians were portrayed as anti-Semites, distrusting of Jews by the stereotype that all Jewish people are money-hungry and usurers, not to mention some of the anti-Semitic content. 


The film was well made and the costumes and cinematography were excellent. There were a couple of scenes where Al Pacino overdid his character of Shylock but everything else was superb, even the background music. British actor Jeremy Irons seemed quite natural portraying Shakespeare. Al Pacino had done theater work prior to acting on the silver screen and watching the film was like seeing Pacino in theater. He is perfect as the money-lending Shylock. The scenery and the shooting locations are realistic for the time period, unlike certain film adaptations of Shakespeare's films which take place in different eras. Also, Shylock's unforgiving attitude toward Antonio is concerning. Even after he was offered TWICE the money he lent, he still wanted a pound of Antonio's flesh. What also interested me about this movie was the "prophetic" content. I had previously read the play and wrote two essays on it back in my freshman year of college (as well as a paper on anti-Semitism in Europe) so I am very familiar with the story. The historical backdrop of The Merchant of Venice in regards to Jewish history seems all too familiar. Venetian Jews were seen wearing red caps to "distinguish" themselves from their Gentile counterparts and they were segregated in ghettos. 


In the late 1930s and the early 40s, Jews would still be segregated in ghettos but instead of wearing red caps, they would be wearing gold stars on their arm sleeves with the German word Juden written on them (prejudice against Jews during the Renaissance was "religious anti-Semitism; prejudice during the Holocaust was "racial anti-Semitism"). As Christians, we should condemn any kind of anti-Jewish sentiment. After all, Christ is a Jew and Jews are just as human as Christians. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.

Even though most Jews don't accept Christ as the Messiah, we are closely related to them through the Old Testament. "Conversion" by force never reaches people for Christ. To paraphrase my pastor, no one comes to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ through force. When a Jew accepts Christ, he or she is sometimes known as Messianic Jew (depending on whether or not they still keep the old Jewish customs), knowing Christ by the name, Yeshua. Negative Christian content does not permeate the movie, unlike Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven. Despite the R rating, it can be appropriate for mature teenagers. Christian Shakespeare fans will not be disappointed in this fine production, aside from the objectionable content. If put through a "filter," it would still make a great movie, but it is wise to read the play first before renting the film version.