The Merchant of Venice (Vol. 40)
The Merchant of Venice
See also The Merchant of Venice Criticism (Volume 66) and The Merchant of Venice Criticism (Volume 77).
The Merchant of Venice is often identified by modern critics as one of Shakespeare's "problem plays," in that it raises moral dilemmas it does not resolve. The major problematic areas that are frequently the focus of critical debate include the discrepancy between the values professed by Christians in the play and their own apparently contradictory actions, the conflict between male friendship and marriage, and the issue of Shakespeare's arguably anti-Semitic portrayal of Shylock. In addition to these unresolved issues, there is much criticism that focuses on other aspects of the play—such as the issue of gender identity and the language of economics and exchange that permeates the play.
By the end of the play, the Jewish money-lender Shylock has been stripped of his possessions and the right to practice his religion, while the Christian characters—Antonio, Bassanio, and Portia—have lost nothing, and have in fact gained money and love. Despite this favorable outcome for the Christians, they are often accused of failing to practice Christian mercy, among other professed beliefs. Many critics have suggested that the actions of the Christians—the way they speak about and to Shylock, and the way they treat him—speak self-condemingly for themselves. Other critics have argued that Christian virtues are emphasized in the play. Raymond B. Waddington (1977), for example, contrasted the actions of Portia and Bassanio on behalf of each other and Antonio with the actions of Jessica and Lorenzo to maintain that the Christian values of trust and faith are stressed in the play. Waddington also suggests ways in which Antonio's actions toward Shylock might be regarded as merciful. Similarly, Leo Kirschbaum (1962) has asserted that the Christian virtue of faith in Providence is demonstrated through the character of Antonio and the risks he takes.
Other critics have opted for another religious approach to the play, examining Shakespeare's stance on Judaism rather than Christianity. Like many scholars, Kirschbaum seeks to understand what the terms "Jew" and "Christian" meant to Elizabethan audiences. Kirschbaum and others have pointed out that there were no Jewish communities in England in Shakespeare's time, and that the playwright's attitude toward Jews was based on the stereotypical Jewish figure as portrayed in earlier works; this figure served primarily as an anti-Christian scapegoat. Kirschbaum further argues that Shakespeare's Shylock resembles the Elizabethan Puritan, in that the Puritan was often stereotyped as a sober, economically aggressive kill-joy—a projection of Anglican hatred for traits which were contradictory to conventional sensibilities. D. M. Cohen (1980) on the other hand, has argued that the play is indeed anti-Semitic, and not simply in the portrayal of Shylock. Cohen cites the number of times and ways in which the term "Jew" is used in the play and maintains that Jewishness is equated with wickedness. Furthermore, Cohen states, Jews are characterized as inhuman throughout the play until the end, where Shakespeare demonstrates Shylock's humanity. Cohen finds this particularly troubling, asking that if Shakespeare believed that Jews were humans with their own strengths and weakness, why then would he indulge the use of the stereotypical inhuman, evil Jew throughout the play? Finally, other critics have examined the character of Shylock from a different angle entirely. James Shapiro (1996) focused his analysis on Shylock's threat to remove a "pound of flesh" from Antonio. Shapiro suggests that Elizabethans understood this threat to be one of circumcision and examines the implications of this threat to a Christian audience in Elizabethan England.
Another area of interest to scholars is the play's language of exchange, economics, and finance. Lars Engle (1986) explored the use of such language and notes that all the relationships in the play are characterized in some way as economic or legal, not simply emotional or erotic. Engle argues that in discussing the plot in financial terms, the historical implications of the credit market and the marriage market are revealed and can help one to better understand the play. Similarly, Karen Newman (1987) stated that the exchange of goods—including both merchandise and women—colors the play's action. Newman examines the many exchanges of Portia's ring and demonstrates that despite the ring's symbolic nature of Portia's submission to Bassanio, Portia achieves power and prestige through her actions.
One way in which Portia attains power in the play is through her disguise as the doctor of law, Balthazar. Portia's use of male disguise is often the focus of critical discussions regarding the issues of gender identity and gender roles and relations in the play. Coppèlla Kahn (1985) has noted that the ring plot, which hinges on Portia's giving of her ring to Bassanio and her later acceptance of it as Balthazar, highlights the conflict between male friendship (between Bassanio and Antonio) and marriage (between Portia and Bassanio). Keith Geary (1984) has also analyzed Portia's disguise, however, he distinguishes her disguise from that of Shakespeare's other heroines. He notes that Portia's male transformation is complete and free of examinations of the psychological consequences of masquerading as a male. Her identity is wholly different and wholly masculine, further emphasized, Geary reminds, by the fact that in an Elizabethan production a male would be portraying Portia/Balthazar. Geary concludes that Shakespeare uses Portia's disguise to highlight the struggle between heterosexual love and homosexual love found within the love triangle consisting of Portia, Bassanio, and Antonio. This conflict between homosexual and heterosexual love, Geary also notes, is an adaptation of Shakespeare's "romantic love versus male friendship" theme. Michael Shapiro (1996) has also examined what he refers to as "cross-gender disguise." Shapiro argues that in contrast to Shakespeare's other disguised heroines, Portia chooses to take on a male disguise herself; she is not coerced to do so by her circumstances. Additionally, Shapiro contends, by adopting the role of Balthazar, Portia positions herself in a place of authority over men and that this authority is highlighted by the less powerful roles taken on by both Jessica and Nerissa. Finally, in another approach to the issue of gender roles and identity, Marianne Novy (1984) explored the differences between Antonio's self-denial throughout the play and Portia's self-assertion and her acceptance of sexuality. Novy argues that to Elizabethans, both women and Jews were symbols of "absolute otherness," and were associated with impulses related to the flesh rather than the spirit, including sexuality, aggression, and acquisitiveness. Claiming that The Merchant of Venice demonstrates the divided attitude of Elizabethans toward such qualities and toward women, Novy purports that Portia represents the favorable aspects of such traits, as Portia uses her aggressiveness to solidify her loving relationship with Bassanio, whereas Shylock is representative of the negative side of the traits, in that his ambition is self-directed.
D. J. Palmer (essay date 1972)
SOURCE: "The Merchant of Venice, or the Importance of Being Earnest," in Shakespearian Comedy, Crane, Russak & Company, Inc., 1972, pp. 97-120
[In this overview of the play, Palmer examines the "overt sententiousness " of the play and argues that the action of the play frequently contradicts the morals apparently being emphasized.]
'The Merchant of Venice is the simplest of plays,' wrote Harley Granville-Barker, 'so long as we do not bedevil it with sophistries.'1 And so it is, provided also that we do not take its moralizing too seriously, for the sophistries are already there. In the two climactic scenes of the play, for instance, Bassanio wins Portia by turning sententious rhetoric against itself,
So may the outward shows be least themselves;
The world is still deceiv'd with ornament.
In law, what plea so tainted and corrupt
But, being season'd with a gracious voice,
Obscures the show of evil? In religion,
What damned error but some sober brow
Will bless it, and approve it with a text,
Hiding the grossness with fair ornament?
(III. ii. 73-80)
while Portia succeeds in the trial scene by proving herself a better equivocator than...
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Gender Identity, Roles, And Relations
Marianne Novy (essay date 1984)
SOURCE: "Giving and Taking in The Merchant of Venice" in Love's Argument: Gender Relations in Shakespeare, The University of North Carolina Press, 1984, pp. 63-82.
[In the following essay, Novy argues that the play criticizes the self-denial Antonio demonstrates throughout the play in favor of Portia's self-assertion and her acceptance of sexuality.]
Many critics describe The Merchant of Venice as contrasting taking to giving. Shylock to Portia and Antonio.1 A few have begun to note that the play also contrasts two kinds of giving, and that neither Portia nor Antonio is uncritically portrayed as an ideal of perfect generosity. Antonio's attempt at total self-sacrifice is different from Portia's willingness to give and take while setting limits.2 Antonio's words in the trial scene suggest a rivalry between himself and Portia.3 I believe that the personal rivalry dramatizes a struggle between two types of giving which was a central issue in the historical, religious, and psychological conflicts of Renaissance Europe. As a further sign of the centrality of this conflict in The Merchant, not only is Bassanio at the pivot of the personal rivalry between Antonio and Portia, but he also mediates between them in his mode of giving and moves his closest alliance from Antonio to Portia during the play. If...
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SHAKESPEARE'S PORTRAYAL OF SHYLOCK & THE ISSUE OF ANTI-SEMITISM
SHAKESPEARE'S PORTRAYAL OF SHYLOCK & THE ISSUE OF ANTI-SEMITISM
Leo Kirschbaum (essay date 1962)
SOURCE: "Shylock in the City of God," in Character and Characterization in Shakespeare, Wayne State University Press, 1962, pp. 7-32.
[In the following essay, Kirschbaum analyzes what the words "Christian" and "Jew" meant to an Elizabethan audience and argues that Shylock is not meant to be Shakespeare's portrayal of a "real Jew " but rather resemble the Elizabethan Puritan, and is intended to symbolize the anti-social traits which threatened conventional, Anglican sensibilities.]
The Merchant of Venice is a fantasy—but it is, at bottom, a serious fantasy. Its characters are not deeply drawn; its plot is providential; its atmosphere is unrealistic—but the conflict of values it illustrates was important to Shakespeare's own time. Difficult as it may be, let us suspend our own values, our contemporary basic decencies, if you wish, and strive to become members of a 1596 audience. Let us, in short, see what Shakespeare meant by Jew and Christian in his play so that we may come to understand a fifth act which is a triumph of moonlight, music, friendship, love, and laughter—a fifth act which so many people today must regard as extraneous and, perhaps, nasty after the fall of poor, persecuted Shylock.
There were no Jewish...
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ECONOMICS & EXCHANGE
ECONOMICS & EXCHANGE
Lars Engle (essay date 1986)
SOURCE: "'Thrift is Blessing': Exchange and Explanation in The Merchant of Venice," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 37, No. 1, Spring, 1986, pp. 20-37.
[In the following essay, Engle contends that the relationships in the play transcend emotional boundaries and are all to some degree economic or legal in nature. Engle goes on to argue that a discussion of the play's plot in financial terms suggests avenues of historical interpretation and criticism which focus on credit and marriage as the primary means by which Elizabethan gentry and aristocracy raised money.]
"Those critics who idealize the Venetians," René Girard comments of The Merchant of Venice, "write as if the many textual clues that contradict their view were not planted by the author himself, as if their presence in the play were a purely fortuitous matter, like the arrival of a bill in the morning mail when one really expects a love letter."1 As I discuss balances and movements of cash, credit, and obligation in this essay, I shall suggest that in The Merchant of Venice bills and love letters are unusually difficult to distinguish.
The play offers an especially dense set of erotic, economic, and spiritual transactions. The erotic transactions, though unorthodox in ways I shall point out, link the...
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Berry, Ralph. "Discomfort in The Merchant of Venice." In Shakespeare and the Awareness of the Audience, pp. 46-26. London: Macmillan, 1985.
Analyzes the play's capacity to disturb and offend an audience and argues that the source of this discomfort is rooted in the depiction of the play's social transactions.
Bloom, Allan and Harry V. Jaffa. "On Christian and Jew: The Merchant of Venice" In Shakespeare's Politics, pp. 13-34. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1964.
States that Shakespeare presents Shylock and Antonio as representatives of Judaism and Christianity, respectively, and argues that Shylock's fate is due in part to his status as a foreigner within the Christian community of Venice.
Cohen, Walter. "The Merchant of Venice and the Possibilities of Historical Criticism." ELH 49 (1982): 765-89.
Offers an overview of the play which combines both historical and structural analysis.
Cooper, John R "Shylock's Humanity." Shakespeare Quarterly XXI, No. 2 (Spring 1970): 117-24.
Examines the various critical interpretations of Shylock from the standpoints of extreme sympathy to complete condemnation, and concludes that Shylock is not simply a comic villain, "but a character to be taken seriously."
Geary, Keith. "The Nature of Portia's Victory: Turning to Men in The...
(The entire section is 592 words.)