Wednesday, January 04, 2006

A Director to Adapt Each of Shakespeare's Plays #18 -- THE MERCHANT OF VENICE directed by Spike Lee

The Plot:

Bassanio needs cash quick. Portia’s looking for suitors and he thinks he’s got what it takes, but he needs bus fare (gondola fare?) to get within courtin’ range. But like most young romantics, Bassanio’s got bad credit. So he gets assistance from Antonio in order to secure a loan from Shylock. Although Antonio is glad to help out a friend, he despises the practice of usury (charging interest for loans), so instead Shylock offers to give an interest-free loan with a fairly substantial catch – if the money is not returned, Antonio must provide a pound of flesh. When Antonio runs into a little cash-flow problem, Shylock is determined to collect, but Portia saves the day by dressing up like a man and clever outwitting him at trial. Indeed, Portia is such a skilled lawyer that Shylock is not only required to pay a fine, but also convert to Christianity!

Why Lee?

This choice is going to require quite a bit of explanation. Merchant of Venice is such a difficult play because of its matter-of-fact anti-Semitism. Initially, I thought about making a joke selection here (Mel Gibson? Woody Allen?), but instead tried to seriously think of a filmmaker who could actually pull this off. The character of Shylock as written by Shakespeare is both fascinating and troubling. The 'villainous Jew' was a stock character at the time, so for us, it would be like seeing a film with a Latino drug smuggler or an African-American gang member. There is no doubt that the character reinforces harmful stereotypes that are much more apparent to viewers today, but at the same time, it is hard to say that Shakespeare’s play is intended to be malicious. Shakespeare certainly gives his villain much more humanity than another author of the era might deem necessary – remember that it is Shylock who utters the famous "If you prick us, do we not bleed?" speech. Indeed, if we try really, really hard, we can imagine how someone living hundreds of years before the Holocaust may have found Shylock’s forced religious conversion funny and not necessarily appalling. Still, no matter what Shakespeare’s intent, modern viewers cannot change how they react to seeing such stereotypes enacted any more than Shakespeare could foresee the future. Particularly in the medium of film, which can more easily lapse into literalism than the theatre, such stereotypes placed in the wrong hands can have a powerful and lasting effect no matter what Shakespeare’s intent may have been. At the same time, I don’t think that it is right to whitewash Shakespeare’s play and pretend that Shylock was really supposed to be some kind of heroic martyr. We can simultaneously concede that Shakespeare’s sensitivity was well ahead of its time and yet, still not quite suited for ours. The fact remains that The Merchant of Venice is an extraordinary work that deserves to be produced today.

So what to do?

It seems to me that there’s no way to avoid the fact that the play is about race. You could have an adaptation about somebody who really doesn’t like moneylenders, but there’s no drama in that, no fire. Instead, what I think the play needs is somebody who is able to tackle racial stereotypes head-on, who is concerned with issues of injustice and yet also has a sense of humor. After running the play through several directors, Spike Lee seemed like the right fit. Would Lee want to adapt the play so that it was, for example, Italian-Americans borrowing money from a wealthy African-American? Perhaps. I don’t think that harms the essence of what the play is about. In fact, it may help significantly to provide some distance from our conventional view of Shylock. I think The Merchant of Venice is unavoidably about race and racial conflict; however, I don’t think it necessarily has to be about Judaism. Whatever controversial things Lee has said in interviews, I find that when it comes to his films, he generally tends to play fair. It’s an inflammatory play, but it’s also a very good play. It needs a director like Lee who isn’t afraid to play with fire.

Spike Lee Joints I have seen:

1. Do the Right Thing ****
2. Malcolm X ***1/2
3. Summer of Sam ***
4. Jungle Fever ***


Blogger Nikolus Ziegler said...


I actually get an inkling of Shakespeare's empathy and sympathy for Shylock. The man was brilliant, it's not far fetched to think he was progressive, but either way there's an injustice in the faux-celebration of the Christian's at the end of the play that is really interesting. Even if it is straight up antisemetic as many seem to think, time has enriched it so that it offers a good argument against itself from a modern perspective.

10:10 AM  

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