The Merchant of Venice
1908: Stuart Blackton
Running a total of about twelve minutes, this is another early silent take on Shakespeare.
The end product is about what one might expect — there are of course no words, and so none of Shakespeare’s lyrical lines. The outlines of each of the several scenes is presented on a card before the scene, which is then mimed with extravagant gestures. The value of these pieces is less for their illumination of Shakespeare as such, and more as a piece of cinema history. They necessarily trivialize the plots and characters to the point that there’s not a lot to be garnered from them. They also do exhibit some of the turn-of-the-century popular impression of each story, however, along with some of the almost casual anti-Semitism it entails, and that may illuminate even some of the real scholarship of the period.
Here all the characters are reliably two-dimensional; Shylock is posturing and exuding Evil Intent at every possible turn. Most of the rest of the males of the piece are simply interchangeably bland. Portia appears to be a somewhat Wagnerian lady, dragging her august mass into court, and telling Shylock that he must not spill a drop of blood. That accomplished, the film ends, without any of the nuance or the sense of Shylock’s own loss. The Lorenzo-Jessica plot is maintained, but rendered trivial; the fanciful elaboration of the ring plot is simply dropped.
As currently available on DVD, this is part of the valuable Silent Shakespeare collection; the pieces are presented in reasonably clean format (especially for film so old); some of them are hand-tinted, but most are black and white; this one makes good use of the color tinting to help one keep characters straight when they might otherwise be harder to differentiate. The more recent musical sound-track is not particularly good, but it’s at least a bit more entertaining than that available on some of the other things to appear on this collection, being made up of cobbled-together scraps of Renaissance music.
Jessica: Florence Turner
Portia: Julia Swayne Gordon
Shylock: William V. Ranous