Interview with Michael Radford: THE MERCHANT OF VENICE

Interview with Michael Radford, the director and screenwriter of ‘The Merchant of Venice’ by Jan Lisa Huttner

January 6th, 2005

‘The Merchant of Venice’, Michael Radford’s new adaptation of one of William Shakespeare’s most controversial plays, has people talking once again about Shylock, the play’s most intriguing character. Jan Lisa Huttner talked to the director during the film’s Chicago publicity tour.

JLH: Tell me about your motivation, Michael, why you and why now?

Michael Radford: I didn’t make it specifically “now.” I have been quoted as saying I don’t care about the anti-Semitism, which is absolutely not true. My mother is Jewish and one half of my family members are refugees [from Vienna], so it’s not something I take very lightly. But what I actually feel about this play is that there’s a reason why so many great Jewish actors have played Shylock. There’s a reason why this play is constantly interesting to us, and the reason is because it’s actually about humanity.

Shylock is often seen as the greedy Jew wanting his “pound of flesh,” but I don’t see him that way. I see Shylock as a man of great dignity. He’s a rich, important merchant in his community. So you have to ask yourself: Where does Shylock get this idea of a “pound of flesh” from? In human, psychological terms, where does he get the idea from?

Antonio wants to borrow money from Shylock. When Shylock says to him [in Act 1, Scene 3, lines 139 to 144]:

“If you repay me not on such a day,

In such a place, such sum or sums as are

Expressed in the condition, let the forfeit

Be nominated for an equal pound

Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken

In what part of your body pleaseth me.”

he never thinks for a minute that this is going to happen. What’s good business about it?

JLH: When he calls Antonio a “good man,” he defines “good” in this context as a good risk, that is, Antonio is someone who can probably pay back a loan?

Michael Radford: Yes, but then what happens? Shylock’s daughter runs away, and the guy’s in a state of rage. It happens every day in England; a Hindu or a Muslim father murders his daughter because she has married a Christian. It happened, actually, while we were shooting this film. A guy got up two weeks ago at the end of a preview that we had in London and he said: “I’m a Muslim and I totally identify with Shylock in this picture.” That’s a Muslim identifying with a Jew.

JLH: As a father?

Michael Radford: As a father, and as a member of a minority, persecuted race. Let’s take it out of the Jewish-Christian thing. Let’s talk about racial persecution of minorities in general.

JLH: So it’s not about the money. The “pound of flesh” has come to represent the heart which Shylock feels they have ripped from his own body?

Michael Radford: Exactly that. And Shylock says it [in Act 4, Scene 1, lines 291 to 293]. The only time he loses his cool in the courtroom scene is when he says:

“These be the Christian husbands! I have a daughter:

Would any of the stock of Barabbas

Had been her husband, rather than a Christian!”

When Shylock comes into the courtroom, he’s implacable. I’m not interested in arguments about Old Testament “justice” versus New Testament “mercy.” What interests me is the psychology of what’s going to happen. Shylock’s in a rage. He’s on a one-man-mission to right the wrongs of a thousand years of history by himself. He’s determined to teach these people a lesson because they have stolen his daughter. He’s flailing out.

But nobody knows whether he would have killed Antonio! Watch Al Pacino [as Shylock], you will see two things happen [at the climactic moment]. One, his legs turn to water because he knows he’s doomed. In that moment, he knows that there’s something that he’s missed. There’s a second thing that happens to him, there’s a flicker of relief. He just shuts his eyes for a moment as though he’s been relieved of some burden. Then what happens to him? Again, watch his face: he’s not there [in the courtroom]. He’s waking up. He’s waking up and he’s saying [to himself]: “Oh my God, what have I done?”

JLH: So when he accepts his fate at the end of the courtroom scene, it’s with a certain relief?

Michael Radford: At that moment, Shylock wants to be dead. He really does. This is what I think makes the play worthwhile. It’s about a man, a real man, a true man, a man who is a leader in his community. But something happens to him which is such an affront to his dignity that he cannot go on. And he goes beyond, he steps beyond, one step beyond where he should go. We all know that feeling. We all know the feeling of having an injustice done to us.

 Any culture which is seeking to preserve itself as a minority feels very strongly the traditions of that culture, because that’s all you’ve got. At the end of the courtroom scene, when Antonio demands that Shylock become a Christian, he thinks he’s saving Shylock’s soul. That’s what he thinks. He knows nothing about Shylock’s community. Antonio thinks he knows this man intimately, but he knows nothing.

JLH: But then the door of the Synagogue closes too. The Jewish community has no empathy for Shylock?

Michael Radford: We shot it several ways. I shot it with them welcoming him in. But we all agreed that this was the true ending.

JLH: But you don’t know that from Shakespeare. Shakespeare doesn’t show the Jewish community locking Shylock out of the Synagogue.

Michael Radford: No, but I do. Listen, in the end, this play is controversial. Let me just tell you what I believe. It’s pure theory.

Christopher Marlowe wrote ‘The Jew of Malta’, and it was hugely successful. I believe Shakespeare thought: “Well, OK. This is what makes money, so I’m going to write one too.” So he’s writing, and something changes.

For some reason or another in this light comedy which he’s writing, Shakespeare creates his first great tragic figure. That’s what Shylock is. Shylock should die [at the end], as Hamlet and Lear and Macbeth and Othello die. He doesn’t because Shakespeare hasn’t quite got that yet.

But why does Shakespeare give Shylock those great speeches? Why is Shylock so fascinating when he’s supposed to be a minor figure in this thing? I think the answer is because there was a trial going on at that time, the trial of a man called Dr. Rodrigo Lopez, who was the Queen’s physician, and there was a huge bout of anti-Semitism. He was a Portuguese Marrano, a Christian convert, probably a Jew in secret, but it didn’t matter. He was hanged, drawn and quartered, and reviled on the gallows. A big theory now is that Shakespeare was so appalled at this that he went back and changed his play completely.

JLH: And made Shylock a character who could articulate Lopez’s feelings?

Michael Radford: Yes. Am I not a human being, like everybody else?

© Jan Lisa Huttner (1/6/05) – Special for Really Good Films (reposted with permission).

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Jan Lisa Huttner is a Brooklyn-based arts critic & feminist activist. She is the creative force behind the SWAN Movement—Support Women Artists Now—which has just begun its third phase as International SWANs® (aka iSWANs). In the Jewish world, Jan is best known as the author of two books on Fiddler on the Roof—Tevye’s Daughters and Diamond Fiddler—both of which flow from a strongly feminist POV. She also served as both story consultant and “talking head” on the award-winning documentary Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles.
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