Shakespeare Plays Available in Video Format
Scholars Online Educational Resources


All’s Well That Ends Well
Antony and Cleopatra
As You Like It
The Comedy of Errors
Henry IV, part 1
Henry IV, part 2
Henry V
Henry VI, part 1
Henry VI, part 2
Henry VI, part 3
Henry VIII
Julius Caesar
King John
King Lear
Love’s Labour’s Lost
Measure for Measure
The Merchant of Venice
The Merry Wives of Windsor
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Much Ado About Nothing
Richard II
Richard III
Romeo and Juliet
The Taming of the Shrew
The Tempest
Timon of Athens
Titus Andronicus
Troilus and Cressida
Twelfth Night
Two Gentlemen of Verona
The Winter’s Tale

Available versions

1908: Stuart Blackton

1972: Cedric Messina

1973: John Sichel

1980: Jack Gold

2001: Chris Hunt, Trevor Nunn

2004: Michael Radford

2015: Polly Findlay

The Merchant of Venice
1973: John Sichel

As a piece of the Olivier Shakespeare oeuvre, this is worth seeing, and I am surprised that it’s so relatively difficult to find. I nevertheless think it has some conspicuous flaws.

The cast is fairly astounding: Olivier was widely regarded as the foremost Shakespearean of his day (though as sensibilities change, assessments of his performances have been moderated somewhat); Joan Plowright (married to Olivier) was still making movies in a more matronly mode till about 2010, but was quite imposing in her way at the time; still, perhaps she was too old for the newlywed Portia. Viewers may remember Jeremy Brett as either the vapid Freddy Eynsford-Hill from My Fair Lady, or as the diametrically opposed and acerbic Sherlock Holmes in the long-running BBC series. He also played Macbeth in the Seidelman version of 1981.

The setting is unaccountably Victorian — a kind of Dickensian version of Shakespeare. The blurb on one DVD package advises us that this nineteenth-century setting makes the story more relevant to us. I am not sure why or how it does so. It's probably trivially true that I would feel a little more at home in nineteenth-century England than in sixteenth-century Venice, but only by a little. All in all, it doesn’t seem to impede the flow of the story too badly, unless one thinks about the problem of seeing someone on the Rialto (a bridge in Venice) while in London.

For me the question is more about which setting highlights the underlying thematics of the play more successfully. I think putting Shylock in an age when Benjamin Disraeli could be the Prime Minister of England perhaps makes his alienation less credible than it is in its original context. In the seventeenth century in Venice, Jews were a people genuinely set apart, forced to live in a certain part of town, and so on. In nineteenth-century London, Jews were at least partly assimilated into the dominant society. That cultural boundary, as much as any underlying concern for actual belief, is a part of what creates Shylock's special status.

The chief issue I have with the film is its cutting or its editing, which tends to downplay or simply cut anything that could put Shylock into a bad light. As a result, he becomes more simply the victim here than the fusion of victim and villain Shakespeare has offered us in this complex and difficult play. Where Shakespeare offers ambiguity, it is, I would insist, something to be cultivated and highlighted, not excised or flattened. As written, the play is not about why Jews are bad or why Jews are good. It's about one particular Jew, who, in contrast to the others (including Tubal, another Jew) is vengeful and petty.

1st Waiter: Alan Crisp

2nd Waiter: George Howse

Antonio’s Servant: Philip York

Antonio: Anthony Nicholls

Balthasar: John Joyce

Barber: Robin Meredith

Bassanio: Jeremy Brett

Duke of Venice: Benjamin Whitrow

Footman: Mischa De La Motte

Gratiano: Michael Jayston

Jailer: Alan Helm

Jessica: Louise Purnell

Launcelot Gobbo: Denis Lawson

Lorenzo: Malcolm Reid

Nerissa: Anna Carteret

Portia’s Servant: Nicolette McKenzie

Portia: Joan Plowright

Prince of Aragon: Charles Kay

Prince of Morocco: Stephen Greif

Salerio: Barry James

Shylock’s Secretary: Andrew Johns

Shylock: Laurence Olivier

Singer: Clare Walmesley

Singer: Laura Sarti

Solanio: Michael Tudor Barnes

Stephano: Peter Anthony Rocca

Tubal: Kenneth MacKintosh