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The Merchant of Venice On Screen

Film and TV versions of Shakespeare's controversial tragicomedy

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One of Shakespeare's most powerful and yet profoundly problematic plays, The Merchant of Venice has been praised for its flawless dramatic construction and vivid language while damned for its alleged anti-Semitism, arising from its central character of an avaricious Jewish moneylender. But Shylock is far more than a simplistic caricature: although undoubtedly drawn from such images, Shakespeare makes him an authentically tragic figure, condemned, ghettoised and exploited by so-called Christians whose viciousness belies their professed faith. This ambiguity, and the dramatic force with which Shylock and Antonio's dilemmas are presented, have ensured the play's survival beyond the twentieth century, whose tragic history makes it impossible to view the play in a neutral light. Of all Shakespeare's comedies, this is the one that stretches the definition to its limits.

Befitting its stature, the play has been filmed numerous times for both the cinema and television, though it is presumably not insignificant that the vast majority of adaptations predate the Nazi era, and that postwar versions have been few and far between, the first major English-language sound feature not appearing until 2004.

There had already been numerous silent versions of the play (US, 1909/12/13/14; Italy, 1910; France, 1913) before the first British adaptation was released in 1916. Directed by Walter West for the Broadwest Film Company, it starred Matheson Lang (Shylock), Nellie Hutin Britton (Portia), J.R.Tozal (Bassanio) and George Skillan (Antonio) and ran 6,000 feet, or roughly 80-90 minutes at projection speeds of the time.

In 1922, the series Tense Moments from Famous Plays presented the court scene in a production directed by Challis N.Sanderson and starring Sybil Thorndike (Portia) and Ivan Berlyn (Shylock). A 1927 presentation of Act 3 Scene 1 (Shylock's famous "Hath not a Jew eyes?" speech) is of rather greater historical interest for being the world's first Shakespeare film with synchronised sound, though in every other respect Widgey R.Newman's production is primitive in the extreme. It starred Lewis Casson as Shylock.

There was then a big gap, eventually filled by two television productions in 1972 and 1974. The first, made for the BBC's Play of the Month slot and broadcast on 16 April 1972, was directed by Cedric Messina and starred Maggie Smith (Portia), Frank Finlay (Shylock), Charles Gray (Antonio) and Christopher Gable (Bassanio), while the second was adapted from Jonathan Miller's acclaimed National Theatre production. Broadcast by ITV on 10 February 1974, it starred Laurence Olivier (Shylock), Joan Plowright (Portia) and Jeremy Brett (Bassanio) and preserved Olivier's final stage Shakespeare role.

Six years later, Miller would produce the BBC Television Shakespeare adaptation. Broadcast on 17 December 1980, directed by Jack Gold and starring Warren Mitchell (Shylock), Gemma Jones (Portia), John Nettles (Bassanio) and John Franklyn-Robbins (Antonio), it was a vivid, highly stylised production set in a strikingly minimalist studio recreation of Venice. Two days earlier, a 25-minute Shakespeare in Perspective documentary presented by the writer Wolf Mankowitz analysed the play's responsibility for creating and perpetuating the traditional British image of the Jew.

The next two television productions were made in 1996 and 2001, the former adapting the play as a five-part serial for Channel Four's educational slot Middle English. Directed by Alan Horrox and starring Bob Peck (Shylock), Haydn Gwynne (Portia), Paul McGann (Bassanio) and Benjamin Whitrow (Antonio), it was shown on 15 December 1996. The later production was adapted from Trevor Nunn's National Theatre production, which restaged the play in the notoriously anti-Semitic 1930s. It starred Henry Goodman (Shylock), Derbhle Crotty (Portia) and David Bamber (Antonio) and was broadcast on BBC2 on 31 December 2001.

2004 saw the release of the first full-length English-language cinema adaptation in nearly 90 years, and at $23 million the most expensive by a very considerable margin. A multinational co-production (Britain, Luxembourg, Italy and the US), it was directed by Michael Radford and starred Al Pacino (Shylock), Jeremy Irons (Antonio), Joseph Fiennes (Bassanio) and Lynn Collins (Portia), and went out of its way to contextualise the Jewish experience in sixteenth-century Venice and to clarify Shylock's motives.

The play was not featured in the 1992/4 Shakespeare: The Animated Tales series, and the only animated adaptation, made by Anson Dyer in 1919, is now lost, though a short description makes it clear that it was another of his knockabout cartoon burlesques, in which Antonio is an ice-cream vendor and Portia a housemaid.

Michael Brooke

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Merchant of Venice, The (1927)

Merchant of Venice, The (1927)

The first Shakespeare film with synchronised sound

Thumbnail image of Merchant of Venice, The (1974)

Merchant of Venice, The (1974)

Jonathan Miller's production starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright

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