Al Pacino makes it safe to hate Shylock again in Merchant of Venice.

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July 21 2010 7:19 AM

What a Prick

Al Pacino makes it safe to hate Shylock again.

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Pacino grasps that this is the crucial point of the speech and delivers it in an angry cadence, without a drop of pathos. He shows admirable restraint here, refusing to pull on heartstrings, shout unnecessarily, or deploy excess charm. His Shylock is self-serious and righteous, a solemn prig surrounded by frivolous men. Unlike when he plays Richard III, Pacino does not make villainous deeds look like devilish fun. Instead of enjoying his bitterness, he is carried away by it. At one point, what he treated as a silly joke in the movie—a pun comparing "land rats" to "pi-rats"—becomes a distinctly bad joke here, accented with a old man's "Ha!"—he sounds for a moment like Chris Matthews—that browbeats his audience into appreciating his lame wordplay.

In the movie, when Jessica leaves home, Pacino fell to the ground in despair. In the Park, he stays upright and seems more upset that she took his money than that she departed. He thus sacrifices any sympathy he might have earned from audiences empathizing with the pain of losing a daughter, while at the same time risks playing into the stereotype of the Jew obsessed by money. But Pacino captures the spirit of the character without simplifying him. Shylock may have started as a simple archetype—based on Marlowe's prototypical Jewish villain—but Shakespeare couldn't help but make him more complex and compelling. Other productions that have set out to be faithful to the original play have gone further in portraying Shylock as a vile stick figure, but that too does the play a disservice. Pacino finds a way to humanize Shylock without making us feel sorry for him. For all his faults, his Shylock holds onto his dignity.    

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When Portia outfoxes Shylock in the courtroom scene, stripping him of his money and having him forcibly converted, men shove Pacino to his knees. Yet he does not look defeated. When he comes to the line that has baffled generations of actors—after losing his wealth and being forced into Christianity he strangely says, "I am content"—Pacino is defiant, even proud. The system is unjust, he knows it, and there is nothing he can do about it. But his stern countenance indicates that he has no intention of groveling.

At this point in the movie version, Pacino fell to the ground again; he is not pushed down. The last time we see him he is alone and melancholy in a courtyard, an outsider silenced. The production in the Park is more adventurous, adding a silent conversion scene in which a brutal man shoves Shylock's face into a pool of water—a baptism by force. But when Pacino gets up, he does not stumble. He picks up his yarmulke and puts it back on, suggesting that maybe he won't convert after all. He then walks off the stage into a column of smoke. He is not a likable hero, but no victim either. In the end, by not fighting the unpleasantness of the character, Pacino actually avoids making him a stereotype. This is a strong, unrepentant Shylock, like him or not.

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Jason Zinoman writes about theater for the New York Times. He is the author of Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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