The Merchant of Venice
December 29, 2004
Movie of the Day for Wednesday, October 27, 2004
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Portia is a gorgeous woman of the court, with wealth galore and virtue true. She is the heiress of Belmont, and as such, it is only seeming that someone within her station would woo her. Therefore, Bassanio, who is hoping to win her affections, believes that he has literally no hope of succeeding without adequate money. Alas, he is penniless, and so he asks his friend Antonio to lend him 3,000 ducats. Though Antonio would like to help his friend, his money is all tied up in shipping. Thus, Antonio approaches the Jewish moneylender Shylock for a loan.
Nothing can be simple, of course. Shylock and Antonio hate each other, and Antonio cannot abide usury. He wants to assist Bassanio in his quest, though, and surprisingly Shylock agrees to make the loan without charging interest. Instead, he suggests that Antonio will sign a bond that will allow Shylock to cut a pound of flesh from Antonio's body if the loan is not repaid within three months. Antonio doesn't see this as a problem; he is certain that at least one of his ships will be returning in the near short-term. He signs the bond and gives the money to Bassanio, who immediately leaves for Belmont with his friend Gratiano.
When he arrives, Bassanio is informed about a test that Portia's late father left for any man who wished to court her. The suitors have to choose from a gold, silver or lead chest, and if they find Portia's portrait inside, she will become that man's bride. Portia is thrilled to see that Bassanio is successful, and she gives him a ring as a symbol of her love. He promises to wear it forever. Meanwhile, Portia's maid Nerissa has fallen for Bassanio's friend Gratiano, and she gives him a ring as a token of her esteem.
Gratiano isn't the only one of Bassanio's friends in Belmont. Lorenzo has also just arrived in the city with his new bride Jessica. Coincidentally, Jessica is the daughter of Shylock, and she has deserted her father and eloped with Lorenzo, who is not Jewish but Christian.
It's not long before our heroes receive word that none of Antonio's ships have arrived in time for him to repay his loan to Shylock, who is additionally furious about his daughter's betrayal. He has appealed to the justice of the Venetian court that he should receive his pound of flesh from Antonio. Bassanio and Gratiano leave with all haste to return to Venice and help their friend.
The resourceful Portia has her own clever scheme. She disguises herself as a lawyer and brings Nerissa along to pose as her clerk. She arrives at Antonio's trial just in the nick of time. Things aren't going well for Antonio, and she appeals to Shylock with a speech about mercy:
It is an attribute to God himself,
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice.
Though powerful, her words do nothing to sway Shylock, so Portia goes for a different approach. She awards Shylock the pound of flesh and commands Antonio to bare his chest. She stipulates, however, that Shylock must take exactly one pound of flesh - no more, no less. Furthermore, he must not spill one drop of blood. If he fails to collect his prize in accordance with these rules, he'll be put to death. Shylock gives up the fight.
It's not over yet, though. Portia points out the fact that Shylock is actually liable to have his property confiscated and that he is still eligible for execution by the Venetian state because he plotted the death of a Venetian citizen. In the end, it is agreed that Shylock will be allowed to live and that Venice will merely fine him for his crime. Antonio is awarded the use of half of Shylock's wealth, which he does not take. He instead stipulates that it should be awarded to Lorenzo in the event of Shylock's death. Antonio also demands that Shylock must become a Christian.
Before Portia and Nerissa return to Belmont, they demand that Bassanio and Gratiano give them their rings as tokens of gratitude. Reluctantly, the two young men agree. The ladies then rush back to Belmont to arrive ahead of their husbands. When Bassanio and Gratiano arrive, Portia and Nerissa deny their love to the men until they can prove the rings were not given to other women. The women stop teasing the men after a bit, and tell them the story of what happened. Word soon arrives that three of Antonio's rich cargo vessels have arrived, and everyone lives happily ever after…except Shylock.
Seeing this classic, flawed Shakespearian tale adapted for a modern audience should be fascinating. With Al Pacino as the villainous Shylock and former Shakespeare Joseph Fiennes as Bassanio, the cast is solid. Sony Pictures Classics has picked up the film for North American distribution, and looks to be considering the film as part of its award-contending slate for late 2004. (Kim Hollis/BOP)