Besides the fact that Pacino delivers a fantastic performance, that the first-time-on-film Texan stage actress plays a woman possessed of “innocence and intelligence” pitch perfectly, and that the dialogue adapts Shakespeare’s prose to the needs of contemporary cinema just right, the subtext of this play/film is a fascinating contrast of two different economies: love and money.
The Merchant of Venice deals with debt and credit during the times of early mercantilism, when Italian city states first developed double-entry accounting, and thus created a means of reliably employing “investment capital” for the first time. Jews were the creditors, money lending being considered usury by Christians. (I’m banking on the film’s correct interpretation of historical facts! Too lazy right now to look up the dates…)
The money economy produces relations of equal value. The price of an object is secured by the stable mechanism of money, and with money an individual can take ownership of X without being personally indebted or liable.
Contrast this with the love economy, in which showing or giving love is precisely personal and individual. There is no loving with equanimity; love has no exchange value; it is not transferable or exchangable. For to love is to extend, in vulnerability, trust and commitment to another without the guarantee that it should come back around.
• Money creates value that stands as substance for the value of a thing exchanged, and permits that a thing’s value be cashed in at any time.
• Love creates value in the form of a commitment to future interactions, none of which shall exhaust the bond of love so long as it is shared by the two lovers.
• Money removes objects from the circulation of credit and debt, for money creates the allowance that a cycle be brought to closure.
• Love perpetuates the circulation of credit and debt, for it prevents closure (cashing out) in the interest of continued exchange and communication.
The Merchant of Venice contrasts these two economies beautifully, warning us (this in the 17th Century, when market capitalism is in its birth) not to lose the bonds of man to the bonds of money.
• the caskets containing the key to Portia’s hand in marriage are adorned as signifiers, with metal (gold, silver, and lead) that may deceive: the value of the casket’s material is not equivalent to the value of its substance, or of its signification. Shakespeare makes a point here on the money economy, even though the caskets hold the key to love’s possibility. “All that glistens is not gold.” Or, the value of a thing (money in particular) is not guaranteed by its substance.
• substance comes up again as the guarantee of Shylock’s bond with Antonio: a pound of flesh. Again, substance (a pound of flesh is worth the 3,000 ducats Shylock has loaned to Antonio) is not in equal proportion to the relation established by the bond. For the bond, in one of its manifestations, is the love between Antonio and XX: Antonio has taken Shylock’s loan and committed his flesh as guarantee in order to secure his lover’s love. But then the pound of flesh is for Shylock the value of revenge, and of fairness before the law. As a Jew, taking the pound of flesh is a means to realize equal treatment before the law, to be citizen among other citizens (where his ordinarily non-citizen, confined at night to his quarters in the ghetto).
• the ring by which Portia marries Basanio binds him in love, and is symbolic guarantor of his entitlement to half of her (her balcony soliloquy: half of me is yours, the other half, yours, …. in love i’m all yours), and her estate. But when he gives up the ring to the young doctor (played by Portia) in the courtroom scene, he gives up his entitlement. To demonstrate the ring’s association with a love commitement, Shakespeare has him take the ring from his lover rather than from his wife — true love being the necessary substance of such a bond.
• mercy is the only “economic” act that runs on neither credit nor debt. For it is with mercy that both the giver and the receiver gain. And it is only mercy that spares Shylock, Basanio, and Antonio, in the end. For mercy is given from the heart, and is an act that produces doubly. Shakespeare is here brilliant: money cancels, for money is bound by the law of equivalence; love creates, for when it gives it gives doubly: to the giver and the receiver.