Why did Shakespeare write the Merchant of Venice?
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This is a rather vague question, but I'm supposing you mean in a moral or philosophical sense (although you might just as well mean in a sociological sense). Though many may disagree, one hypothesis, based upon the context and text of the play, is that he wrote it to present a differing image of Jewish people from the socio-political image prevalent in his time, perhaps one inspired by the Protestant Reformation.
While Shylock does behave badly in his rage against his betraying daughter and by taking Antonio to court for a broken contract he boasted would not be broken, we are earlier given every reason to believe Antonio is a scoundrel who deserved what he got.
This is beguiling in the text because we expect the hero(s) to be beyond reproach (until Byron introduces the Romantic Byronic hero in Harold Childe), yet Antonio, one of the heroes, is not. He lies at the beginning of the play boasting that he has ready capital and that he wasn't foolish enough to tie all his capital up in one rash sea voyage seeking imported goods. Later, Shylock explictly describes Antonio's dastardly behavior.
So, even though we expect to admire Antonio because he is the hero and because he wins in court, while Shylock is severely punished, Shakespeare causes us to question Antonio's heroic stature. Thus it may be posited that Shakespeare wrote this play to expose the current wrong-headed mentality and to suggest a different understanding of Jewish financiers (representative of all Jewish people).
Shakespeare wrote all of his plays to entertain the masses. Unfortunately, there may have been some pandering to anti-Semitism in this case. Even Shakespeare was not above writing what was popular.
Regarding religion, the author seems to have had in mind the ending of THE ODYSSEY(see Fitzgerald's translation). One indication is the correspondence of "Odysseus, master of land ways and sea ways"(from the last page of THE ODYSSEY) to "But ships are but boards, sailors but men. There be land-rats and water-rats, water-thieves and land-thieves--I mean pirates--and then there is the peril of waters, winds and rocks"(MV1.3). "Though still she kept the form and voice of Mentor" plainly corresponds to Portia as Dr. Balthazar.
Another topic is genre. As Professor Garber put it: "Comedy or Tragedy?" The play was most likely written shortly after two of the author's most famous plays, A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM and ROMEO AND JULIET. One is comical and the other tragical. When reading MV, one finds, I think, that the author was interested in this topic.
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