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Given its preoccupation with financial ruin, oppression, racism, anti-Semitism, and a bloody pound of human flesh, Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice seems an unlikely comedy; in fact, today the play often receives the oxymoronic designation “tragicomedy” because it does not adhere to the conventions of either tragedy or comedy but instead includes two distinct plots. The tragic plot hinges on a legal bond between Antonio, a respected merchant who requires a large loan, and Shylock, a Jewish moneylender universally scorned (particularly by Antonio) for usury, the practice of charging excessively high interest rates on loans. In an attempt to entrap Antonio, Shylock offers to forego interest on the loan if Antonio will instead pledge a pound of his own flesh as collateral, forfeiting it should he fail to repay the hefty sum by the appointed time.
Antonio accepts these strange conditions in order to help his friend Bassanio pursue another type of bond—marriage to Portia, the beautiful heiress of Belmont. Bassanio believes he needs a small fortune to compete for the right to woo Portia. Having lived beyond his own means, he appeals to Antonio, to whom he already owes “the most in money and in love.” Bound to Bassanio by deep feelings of platonic love, Antonio binds himself to Shylock for the gold. As the play’s focus shifts from money to marriage, traditional comedic elements such as rebellious women, clever disguises, and mistaken identities lighten the mood and steer a course closer to Shakespeare’s other comedies. Nevertheless, the original bond between Antonio and Shylock soon enmeshes all the characters in Antonio and Shylock’s deadly serious rivalry.
As the play unfolds, Shakespeare reveals a plethora of bonds of a different nature—the bonds between friends, between lovers, and between parents and children. The resulting conflicts challenge the idea that two people can truly be bound to each other in marriage or in friendship when they are bound also to their social obligations, to professional distinction, to family duties, to religious piety, and to reputation. The bonds, betrayals, and divided loyalties make a comic conception of the play troublesome; moreover, the remarkably hostile climate in which these bonds are forged and broken truly sets The Merchant of Venice apart as Shakespeare’s most problematic comedy.
Antonio’s bond being central to the plot positions Shylock as the principal antagonist, a role that presupposes a degree of derision and exclusion. Cruelty and comedy are frequent bedfellows in Shakespeare; however, Shylock is unique as an alienated antagonist because he is a Jew. First published in 1600, The Merchant of Venice belongs to a period of widespread anti-Semitism in England and in continental Europe; the prejudice and malice that prevailed against Jews during this time were rooted in the Middle Ages, when Christians made scapegoats of Jews, blaming them for Christ’s crucifixion and spreading dark rumors that the tribes of Israel drank the blood of Christian children. Enduring social, legal, and economic exclusion defined Jews as a separate race, as well as a religious group, forbidding them from owning land, confining them to impoverished ghettos, and denying them the practice of most professions. Complicating an already malignant stereotype, many Jews turned to money lending, a despised profession, simply because prejudice closed so many other career paths to them. England had forcibly expelled most of its Jewish population four hundred years before Shakespeare’s time; sources estimate that fewer than two hundred Jews remained in England during the author’s life. Thus the character of Shylock was crafted from stereotype and sensationalism; Shakespeare often trafficked in exotic characters and settings to heighten the interest of the masses that flocked to view his dramas.
That prejudice and cruelty form the basis of so much of the play’s humor causes great consternation among critics. Because of its blatant, demeaning anti-Semitism, should the play not be performed for modern audiences, or does Shakespeare provide just enough sympathy for Shylock—and criticism of his antagonists—to redeem the work? Furthermore, Shylock is not the only character who is the target of bigotry, giving rise to the criticism that The Merchant of Venice evinces a broader racism. While the Venetian merchants spit on Shylock, the lady Portia spurns a parade of foreign suitors, one of whom is black. Her disparaging comments about Morocco’s “complexion” underscore the play’s endemic racism, confounding our expectations of a romantic heroine.
In Portia, three other major themes of this play come together: marriage, money, and bondage. An undeniably willful, intelligent woman, Portia is nevertheless bound by the will of her dead father; she must welcome any suitor willing to face a test of her father’s own devising in order to win her hand. Her suitors find Portia beautiful, but her wealth clearly constitutes a considerable part of her charm. Even Bassanio seems seduced more by the promise of money than by Portia herself, raising a troubling question: While the marriage plot promises the happy union of lovers, can a happy ending exist when the object of marriage is not love but wealth?
Racism, greed, betrayal, deceit, cruelty . . . and comedy? What is the reader to do with the problems posed by The Merchant of Venice? Shakespeare’s language always requires careful reading, but this play also demands an open mind. As scholar Alexander Leggatt observes in the Folger edition of the play, “Even a great writer can be bound by the prejudices of his time.” The reader must confront instances of exclusion and racism, question their causes, and look for those moments in which Shakespeare suggests sympathy for Shylock. Most importantly, the reader must turn a critical eye on the play’s heroes as well as on its villain. Given the lovers’ readiness to exclude Shylock (and Antonio), do they deserve a conventional happy ending? Shakespeare seems to invite this critique, as the play’s title directs us not to The Moneylender of Venice but to Antonio, the eponymous merchant. Antonio’s blatant prejudice and his determination to exclude Shylock mirror his own social isolation at the end of the play.
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eNotes lesson plans have been written, tested, and approved by working classroom teachers. The main components of each plan are the following:
- An in-depth introductory lecture
- Discussion questions
- Vocabulary lists
- Chapter-by-chapter study questions
- A multiple-choice test
- Essay questions
Each plan is divided into a teacher and a student edition. The teacher edition provides complete answer keys.