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William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice
A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that most teens will have trouble at first following Shakespeare's untouched and dense prose. Given that the anti-Semitism of the time is given explicit treatment with Christian characters spitting on, cursing, threatening, and "damning" Jewish citizens forced to live in a ghetto, parents should be aware that sensitive viewers of any age may be upset and that this plus other mature themes render it unsuitable for younger viewers. A character's life is threatened, a young woman runs away with a man against her father's wishes, a man's anger becomes madness, a young woman refers to being orphaned, characters manipulate and lie to one another, and otherwise "good" people show grave intolerance to others based upon their religion or nationality. There is social drinking. Bare-breasted prostitutes beckon to passing men, and one scene has two characters doing business in a brothel.
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What's the story?
In this adaptation of Shakespeare's play, young Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) wishes to woo the beautiful heiress, Portia (Lynn Collins), but needs money for this endeavor. Antonio (Jeremy Irons) is a successful Christian trader but is too extended to give Bassanio the loan himself so he turns to a Jewish money-lender, Shylock (Al Pacino), who asks for Antonio's friendship as interest on the loan. The forfeiture for not repaying the loan on time, however, will be a pound of Antonio's flesh, a result neither Shylock nor Antonio foresee due to Antonio's booming business interests. When Shylock's daughter, Jessica (Zuleikha Robinson) elopes with a friend of Bassanio's and Antonio's ships are delayed or destroyed, Shylock seeks retribution through the ultimate punishment of Antonio, by taking the Christian's heart as his pound of flesh.
Is it any good?
Parents who wish to share Shakespeare's appeal with their older kids should be aware that this is a thorny movie with mature themes but wonderfully sketched and acted characters. Unlike perennial favorites Romeo and Juliet and others, THE MERCHANT OF VENICE is not Hollywood's first choice for adaptations because of its explicit treatment of anti-Semitism. It is this play that gave rise to the term "Shylock" as a derogatory term for Jews and money-lenders. What is interesting to note is that the play boasts one of Shakespeare's most memorable heroines, the brave and intelligent Portia, who saves herself from disastrous marriages, rescues a man's life, and portions out punishment on the character who would not be merciful.
Venice is shot in rich colors and features contrasting views of simple lives -- particularly those of the devout Christian, Antonio, and the devout Jew, Shylock -- and the decadence of the world around them. Characters watch and discuss the debauchery that glides by on gondolas, the drinking and eating to excess, the prostitutes, and the masks people wear to cover their identities as they drink and romance.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the relationships between Antonio and Bassanio, Portia and her departed father, as well as the one between Shylock and Jessica. How are father-child type relationships at the heart of many of the dynamics of this play? The relationship between Antonio and Shylock becomes representative of other issues -- what are these, and why can they not be resolved more easily?
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