The Merchant of Venice may be Shakespeare's most explicitly Christian play. But for modern audiences, the play's portrayal of Jews overwhelms its intended themes. And the movie version now in theaters obscures the Christian themes even more.
Shylock is a Jewish moneylender to whom the merchant Antonio is in hock, borrowing money to finance his friend Bassanio's courtship of Portia. The terms of the loan were even worse than today's credit cards: If Antonio cannot pay, he has to give Shylock-who hates him for the way he treats Jews-a pound of his flesh. Antonio's ships sink and he cannot pay in time, so Shylock goes to court to demand his due.
For Shakespeare, Shylock with his Judaism stands for legalism. "I crave the law!" Shylock tells the judge, who is actually Portia in disguise. She pleads for Shylock to extend mercy, which is "an attribute to God Himself." Yes, the law is valid, but Portia focuses on the Christian gospel of forgiveness. "In the course of justice none of us/Should see salvation."
Portia then pushes the letter of the law to the point that Shylock himself stands condemned. He gets out of the punishment he deserves by accepting baptism and becoming a Christian-that is, accepting forgiveness-to which Shylock says, "I am content."
In today's terms, that is a tragic ending. The movie starts by showing a pogrom, with titles saying how terribly Jews were treated in those days. Shakespeare does undercut all prejudice by emphasizing Shylock's humanity-"If you prick us, do we not bleed?"-but the movie is about more than anti-Semitism.
Piling on more modern preoccupations, the movie gives Antonio a gay attraction for Bassanio, as if a homosexual would go to such lengths to help his lover get married! The film also goes for an R rating with nudity that is utterly pointless, showing topless prostitutes who do nothing but stand in the background.