Michael Radford’s adaptation of The Merchant of Venice (2004) starring Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons returns feature film Shakespeare to period setting and costuming after roughly a decade of radicalized adaptative strategies such as those of Baz Luhrmann, Michael Almereyda, and Julie Taymor, strategies that threatened to overshadow the Kenneth Branagh approach to Shakespeare’s textual and cultural authority. Radford underscores this return to “authentic” Shakespeare with a heavy directorial hand that begins the film with superimposed text recounting the sixteenth-century Venetian context of the original play setting. The watery landscape of Venice, the brothels and courtesans that entertain the Christian inhabitants, and the gates that separate Jew from Christian lend a topographical specificity to the film’s meditation on racism. Through this attention to cultural and historical precision, the film legitimizes itself by pursuing the context named in the play title. Radford’s Merchant strives for correctness of locale, language, and ideology, and by its very aspiration returns viewers to the questions of authorship and its etymological cousin authority that have long informed Shakespeare studies and performance criticism. Radford’s deliberately “correct” approach raises questions about what exactly generates directorial authority in adaptations of Shakespeare and what “authentic” Shakespeare looks like on screen. The film’s initial efforts at historical contextualization pave the way for a more extensive reliance upon a liberal humanist conception of Shakespeare that dominates the majority of the narrative. In an earnestness to build artistic authority on the foundation of a humanitarian Shakespeare, the film contextualizes historically the anti-Semite question and motivates Shylock’s hostility so thoroughly that it ignores or fails to pursue the subtler discourse of racism articulated by the play and centered on Portia herself who constructs the world in racialized categories. The film testifies to the perpetually seductive siren call of absolute, intentional meaning that tempts undergraduate, critic, and film director alike.
Pittman, L. Monique. "Locating the Bard: Adaptation and Authority in Michael Radford's The Merchant of Venice." Shakespeare Bulletin 25 (2007): 13-33.