Last week in the FutureLearn "Shakespeare and His World" online course, we discussed "Money and the City", with "The Merchant of Venice" as the focus play. The public library had three productions on the shelf, so since I have long found this play intriguing, I brought home all of them. I decided to watch them chronologically, so began with the 1972 BBC Play of the Month production, with Maggie Smith and Frank Finlay. I like both of these actors, and so it may have been no fault of theirs, but this was a rather dull production. I kept getting distracted by various things, that Antonio looked laughably like Henry VIII, the absurd pumpkin breeches worn by the younger male leads, which were made out of cloth lattice-work, revealing all -- though, to their credit, the gentlemen wore them well -- and, really, how unlike a man Maggie Smith looks in drag.
Next I watched again, after many years, the 1980 BBC Shakespeare production with Warren Mitchell and John Franklyn-Robbins -- Gemma Jones is Portia. This held up pretty well. It's a difficult play, and this cast does it capably. I just feel that the "quality of mercy" speech shouldn't be a lecture, as so many actresses do it. It seems to me that, yes, Portia has prepared all of her arguments -- she knows that she has the ultimate one, a pound of flesh but no drop of blood -- but that Shylock's stubbornness should come as a bit of a shock to her. How can he really be demanding that a pound of flesh be cut from another man's living body? "Then must the Jew be merciful," she says, and Shylock replies, "On what compulsion must I? tell me that." If she looks at him in disbelief, then tries to reason with him -- because, because "the quality of mercy is not strain'd" -- I think it plays better, plus it would sound less like a set piece that we've all heard a thousand times before.
The third was the 2004 Pacino version, here also with Alan Corduner as Tubal. The cast is first-rate, and Pacino does a terrific job (I was going to say "for an American", but I don't always get Pacino). Visually stunning, with wonderful costumes and gorgeous photography, and the only production to actually be filmed in Venice, so there really are palaces and canals -- though of course, to be fair, the other two were television studio productions. I just wish this one hadn't cut so much.
By the time it came for this week's unit on "Witches and Doctors", the only "Macbeth" left on the library shelf was, alas, the 1982 BBC Shakespeare production with Nicol Williamson and Jane Lapotaire, which I didn't like much the first time around either. He was wooden, and she took up the slack and went in rather the opposite direction. This is one of my favorite plays, so I was hoping to see the 1972 one with Jon Finch and Francesca Annis again, after many years, or perhaps a new-to-me production -- McKellen and Dench, say, or Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood. Will definitely have to look for those. (Alan Cumming has done what looks like a stunningly bizarre yet effective one-man version set in a mental hospital -- this takes away all of the "reality" of the play, of course, since it's obviously all in his mind, but what a tour-de-force!)
Professor Bate accompanies each unit with a selection of objects from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust collection, a contemporary map, a hornbook, a ceremonial pike. I think the one I found most fascinating was this, which is a glazed money pot used for collecting the pennies from the audience at the theater. It has no bung like a modern piggy bank, so that the only way to get the takings out is to smash it -- obviously intact ones are therefore very rare, which is why he is holding it here so gingerly! Apparenly it was not unusual for the lesser members of the company, the wardrobe or props for instance, and thus often women, to be the ones to go round with the money pots. It's a very evocative picture.