Shylock has provided a challenge for the world's greatest actors for four centuries, though the role hardly seems like a star vehicle on paper. Shakespeare put the Jewish moneylender in only five scenes of "The Merchant of Venice," introducing him when the play's title character, the Christian merchant Antonio, needs money to help a friend woo an heiress. Shylock demands a pound of flesh as his bond, then disappears until it's time for him to suffer a personal blow -- his daughter runs off with a young Christian -- and to learn that the merchant will not be able to repay the loan. Shylock gets his comeuppance at the play's climactic trial, when the heiress, Portia -- disguised as a male legal scholar -- declares that while he is entitled to carve out his pound of flesh, he is not entitled to a drop of the Christian's blood. Facing the death penalty if he makes the merchant bleed, Shylock has to back down, relinquish his assets and agree to convert to Christianity, after which the play continues without him for another act, much of that light-hearted coupling among Portia and three other youths of good fortune.
No one knows whether Shakespeare meant the moneylender to be an object of scorn or a tragic figure worthy of the audience's sympathy or some combination of those. The steep price "The Jew" demanded for the defaulted loan could be seen as the fiendish act of a devil or a response to years of indignities heaped upon him.
By the 20th century, other than in Nazi Germany, few producers would dream of having a hand-wringing, hook-nosed Shylock, the bloodthirsty boogieman. But even sympathetic takes on Shylock can generate controversy. In 1962, impresario Joseph Papp had to back out of a plan for a national telecast of his Shakespeare in the Park production, featuring George C. Scott, following protests by the New York Board of Rabbis, which was not impressed with his explanation that "Merchant" was "a revelation of human conduct under certain pressures."
Such reactions may help explain why, for all the films of Shakespeare's plays, none had been done of "Merchant" since the silent-movie era until writer-director Michael Radford, of "Il Postino" fame, set out to adapt the play for the screen.
One of the producers on the project, Barry Navidi, said recently that no less than Marlon Brando had suggested whom they should cast as Shylock. Another producer, Cary Brokaw, happened to be working with Pacino on Mike Nichol's adaptation of another play for HBO, Tony Kushner's "Angels in America," in which the eight-time Academy Award nominee, and one-time winner, was playing Roy Cohn, the scheming and haunted powerbroker dying of AIDS.
Pacino had seen Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman play Shylock, but the part had never resonated with him. Only when he read Radford's script did he see what he could do with the role. "You pick a thing and you go with it," Pacino explains. "My impulse said, 'Go for being lonely.' "
Capturing that has been his specialty from the performance that made him a star, as Michael Corleone. That character evolved from happy-go-lucky college kid to steely mob boss before earning a Shakespearean fate at the end of "Godfather II" -- having murdered his brother and driven off his wife, he's alone in his fortress by the lake.
Whereas Michael Corleone's isolation was written into the "Godfather" scripts, Pacino brought the same quality to a series of loner cops, such as Frank Serpico and the blind ex-soldier of "Scent of a Woman," and a slew of bad guys, up to his recent Roy Cohn. In the best Method tradition, he tries to, as he puts it colloquially, "feel their pain," and get the audience to do the same.
In making his version of "Merchant," Radford set out to make that easier with Shylock by taking liberties with Shakespeare's play, cutting chunks of dialogue and adding what film can bring to the table: powerful images.
In the play, Shylock's first words are "Three thousand ducats." He's talking money from the get-go. He only later mentions how he's regularly spat on by Antonio and other Christians.
Radford shows this happening first, in an opening sequence designed to illustrate what life was like for some in 16th century Venice. We see books being burned and a mob throwing a Jew off a bridge, the onlookers including the characters who will become the story's central antagonists, Shylock and Antonio, the merchant played by another intense Oscar winner, Jeremy Irons. As the crowd pushes them together, Shylock is given a new first word, "Antonio," and they lock eyes, suggesting a connection between the two sad men from different worlds. But that's just a beat. The merchant spits down in contempt, or resentment -- or who knows what -- and Pacino's Shylock is left to wipe off the spittle with the cuff of his gabardine coat.