Register Monday | June 26 | 2017

Looking for Shylock

Al Pacino and the Problem Play

Critics have had trouble with The Merchant of Venice since at least the early 1700s, when it was observed by Nicholas Rowe that "tho' we have seen that Play Receiv'd and Acted as a Comedy and the part of the Jew perform'd by an Excellent Comedian, yet I cannot but think it was design'd Tragically by the Author."

That bone has been picked a lot over the centuries, and it's still not clean. And now, tho' I have seen the part of the Jew perform'd by a Formerly Excellent Dramadian Movie Star, yet I cannot but think he has botched it. In other words, if there is a wrong way to settle the debate about whether The Merchant of Venice is anti-Semitic, it's by casting Al Pacino as Shylock, as Michael Radford has done in his movie adaptation.

In time, Big Al hits his stride. It's all there: the rapacious bellicosity, the patented Pacino middle-distance stare, everything. Except the character.

In Shakespeare's play, Shylock, a Jewish usurer, lends money to Antonio, a Christian who has been known to spit in his face. When Antonio is bankrupted, Shylock mercilessly hauls him into court to claim his famous bond, a pound of Antonio's flesh. "The villany you teach me I will execute," says Shylock, savouring his chance to turn the sanctimony of Christian law against its abusers-and stooping, tragically, to their level.

For this he is censured by a legally clever reversal of fortune, stripped of his assets, ordered to renounce his religion and excluded from the play's last act, in which the Christians cheerfully resolve some romantic comedy complications and live happily ever after. No, the story doesn't say nice things about Christians either. Despite the unsettling ambiguity of his dramatization, though, Shakespeare is not ambivalent. Shylock the oppressed is as eloquent about the plight of Jews as Shylock the malicious money-grubber is cringe-inducing. Any English teacher will tell you those contradictions enrich the character and keep the text alive. Too bad Pacino's performance is so deadening.

He begins with a covert approximation of a Jackie Mason impression and gradually works through to something Billy Crystal might have improvised on the set of The Princess Bride. It's hard to know what's throwing him off, the metre or the "ethnic" inflection. "I'll not answer that," he offers, "but say, it is my humour." The last word is pronounced like Yuma, the city in Arizona-which is how my father used to say it. Of course, he grew up in New Jersey, not in Venice or London.

In time, Big Al hits his stride. It's all there: the rapacious bellicosity, the patented Pacino middle-distance stare, everything. Except the character. His fiery "If you prick us, do we not bleed?" speech notwithstanding-and, honestly, it's not withstanding: a little too one-note-Pacino's Shylock ultimately conveys little of what being Jewish really means to him. His climactic breakdown, when faced with the indignity of converting to Christianity, is dramatic but doesn't quite sell.

I wouldn't be at all surprised if someone somewhere has staged the play with Shylock as, say, a black transsexual lesbian Nazi. But if your film espouses realism enough to open with a backgrounder on European anti-Semitism, to set its scenes in the actual canals of Venice, to light them by candle and to frame them to resemble painted Renaissance masterworks, fidelity matters in a different way. If you're going to cast an Italian as a Jew, as movies tend to do for some reason, it certainly helps for the character to be an Italian Jew. So does that make Pacino only half right for the part?

I know it seems illiberal to imply that Pacino shouldn't play Shylock just because he's not Jewish. So to simplify matters, let me suggest that he just shouldn't play Shakespeare because he's Pacino.

It depends who else Radford had read for the role, and who else wanted to. I can't help but wonder whether Jewish actors consider a screen version of the Shylock role untouchable and unsafe. That would be a shame. Can you think of a better, braver way for Richard Dreyfuss to leave his comfort zone? Wouldn't Seymour Cassel find some astonishing human surprise for us in it? Wouldn't the part be deepened by Martin Landau, sharpened by Alan Arkin? For Radford, maybe the bankability of sheer star power was the issue. Fine, so how about James Caan or Dustin Hoffman?

I know it seems illiberal to imply that Pacino shouldn't play Shylock just because he's not Jewish. So to simplify matters, let me suggest that he just shouldn't play Shakespeare because he's Pacino. Remember Looking for Richard? Probably not, which is as it should be. You don't have to be Jewish to know that the words "ado" and "adieu" should sound different and mean different things. If these fine points hang you up, how can you hope to make Shylock's claim that "sufferance is the badge of all our tribe" with the correct, complicated authority, the correct proportions of self-pity and righteous indignation? How can you be trusted to supply your audience with enough information to decide how much Shylock deserves that final humiliation?

Film critics have gone too easy on this performance, in part because conventional wisdom holds that wrong line-readings of Shakespeare are okay as long as they sound actorly enough. It's as if when you're hearing Elizabethan English in iambic pentameter, there's no such thing as over the top. Pacino, with sudden distension so prominent in his bag of tricks, is part of the problem. And here he's surrounded by unwitting enablers. Jeremy Irons, as Antonio, nimbly mutes himself, relaxing on his laurels as usual and enjoying the ride just enough to make Pacino seem comparatively constipated. Did Irons figure he was simply obeying the intentions of the text? Similarly, Lynn Collins' Portia rebukes Shylock's demand for comeuppance with a touch so light you wonder if she even cares. And Joseph Fiennes, who plays Bassanio, summed things up in an interview with this pronouncement: "Just the word 'Pacino' should be enough." It shouldn't, really. This is a character whose name alone has been a bigoted epithet for four hundred years.

So who, if anyone, can do him justice? Welles tried. Olivier tried. Patrick Stewart, who has played Shylock off and on since 1965 and even based a one-man show on him, has a Merchant film in the works. I'll try to see that with an open mind. But it still leaves Pacino's version as the most current, and authoritative, in movies. That seems tragic, but not in ways design'd by the Author.

Maisonneuve contributing editor Jonathan Kiefer writes about the arts for various publications in San Francisco, where he lives. One of his cats is named after Preston Sturges. Film Flâneur appears every second Friday.