Through the years, The Merchant of Venice has been one of William Shakespeare’s most popular and most frequently performed plays. The work has an interesting and fast-moving plot, and it evokes an idyllic, uncorrupted world reminiscent of folktale and romance. From the opening description of Antonio’s nameless sadness, the world is bathed in light and music. The insistently improbable plot is complicated only by the evil influence of Shylock, and he is disposed of by the end of act 4. However, Shakespeare uses this fragile vehicle to make significant points about justice, mercy, and friendship, three typical Renaissance virtues. Although some critics suggest that the play contains all of the elements of tragedy only to be rescued by a comic resolution, the tone of the whole play creates a benevolent world in which, despite some opposition, things will always work out for the best.
The story, based on ancient tales that could have been drawn from many sources, is actually two stories in one—the casket plot, involving the choice by the suitor and his reward with Portia, and the bond plot, involving the loan and the attempt to exact a pound of flesh. Shakespeare’s genius is revealed in the way he combines the two. Although they intersect from the start in the character of Bassanio, who occasions Antonio’s debt and is a suitor, they fully coalesce when Portia comes to Venice in disguise to make her plea and judgment for Antonio. At that point, the bond plot is unraveled by the casket heroine, after which the fifth act brings the celebratory conclusion and joy.
The most fascinating character to both audiences and critics always has been Shylock, the outsider, the anomaly in this felicitous world. Controversy rages over just what kind of villain Shylock is and just how villainous Shakespeare intended him to be. The matter is complicated by the desire to absolve Shakespeare of the common medieval and Renaissance vice of anti-Semitism. Some commentators argued that in Shylock Shakespeare takes the stock character of the Jew—as personified in Christopher Marlowe’s Barabas in his The Jew of Malta (1589)—and fleshes him out with complicating human characteristics. Some went so far as to argue that, even in his villainy, Shylock is presented as a victim of the Christian society, the grotesque product of hatred and ostracism. Regardless of Shakespeare’s personal views, the fact remains that, in...
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