My thoughts on: The Merchant of Venice (2004)

When you hear about Shakespeare being adapted to film, you generally think of three plays: Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and Macbeth. And to be fair, there have been several outstanding film adaptations of all three plays over the years. But allow me to draw your attention to one of Shakespeare’s comedies that was brought to the big screen in 2004: The Merchant of Venice.

The story is lesser known today compared to some of the other plays (this is the first time the play has ever been adapted specifically for film) but the story is no less powerful. Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) is an impoverished nobleman in love with the wealthy Portia (Lynn Collins). Portia is bound by her late father’s will to marry whoever chooses which of three caskets contains her picture. To get the money necessary to woo her, Bassanio uses the credit of his friend Antonio (Jeremy Irons) to borrow money from the Jewish moneylender Shylock (Al Pacino). Shylock is one of Shakespeare’s great villains and in this film he is played to perfection by Pacino as not only a villain, but also a tragic figure.

The two couples.jpg

The first part of the film revolves around Bassanio as he plans to woo Portia and several suitors who attempt to win the heiress for themselves only to choose the wrong casket. As this is a comedy, naturally when Bassanio arrives he chooses the correctly and Portia is his. It all seems too easy, but I think it’s meant to be that way to provide the audience with some happy, romantic moments before the drama unfolds. The latter part of the film deals with Antonio’s trial before the Duke of Venice. When Shylock lent the money to Bassanio, it was under the condition that, if Antonio could not pay it back, he would have to give up a pound of his flesh in recompense (hence the phrase “He took his pound of flesh.”) I don’t think Shylock actually intended to follow through…at first. But after his daughter Jessica (Zuleikha Robinson) runs away to elope with Lorenzo (Charlie Cox), the moneylender has turned very bitter and is determined to have revenge on Antonio no matter the cost.


Al Pacino really brings his acting skills to bear in the trial scene, where he (as Shylock) persists in demanding the letter of the law be fulfilled, even when Bassanio returns with twice the money necessary to repay the loan. Shylock firmly believes that the law is on his side (even if his actions are morally reprehensible). Underneath his bitterness however, you can see that Shylock is deeply hurt that his daughter has left him. Unable to accept that his daughter is happy with a Christian man, Shylock firmly sticks to his demand of a pound of flesh from Antonio (I have to point out that Jeremy Irons delivers an excellent performance in this scene as a man who is trying very hard to steel himself for the inevitable but who deep down is terrified of the painful manner in which he will die).


As this is a comedy, the story ends well for everyone except Shylock. Due to a careful reading of the law, not only does he not get his pound of flesh, but he also loses his wealth and his place in the Jewish community. Despite being the nominal villain of the story, you can’t help but feel bad for Shylock at the end. He pursued vengeance and lost everything in the process.

The film uses Shakespeare’s flowery language but please don’t let that put you off. The play contains two of the best monologues ever written (“The quality of mercy” during the trial scene and “Hath not a Jew eyes?”) and if you give the story a chance I believe you’ll fall in love with the story as I have. I also want to highlight the music of the film, there are several examples of late Renaissance music throughout the film, with lutes, guitars and singing. I really hope you give this film a try, you won’t regret it.

And those are my thoughts on The Merchant of Venice. If you’ve seen it, what did you think of the film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below and have a great day!

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