The Merchant of Venice (Vol. 53)
The Merchant of Venice
See also The Merchant of Venice Criticism (Volume 66) and The Merchant of Venice Criticism Volume 77).
Sometimes listed among Shakespeare's “problem plays” because of its ambiguous treatment of issues such as religion, economics, and the role of women, The Merchant of Venice has also been a source of heated critical disagreement with regard to race. In this light, scholars have discussed not only Shakespeare's ambivalent depiction of the Jewish moneylender, Shylock, but also his derogatory presentation of minor, non-European characters such as the Prince of Morocco. Critics have debated whether this racial tension is evidence of Shakespeare's own opinions. Alternatively, some scholars have suggested that Shakespeare might have relied on his racially charged scenes to create an allegorical drama or to satirize and thereby condemn his own culture's prejudices.
Although Thomas Moisan (1987) and Stephen A. Cohen (1994) do not deal specifically with the issue of race, both critics see the character Shylock as a social outsider. Both also credit Shakespeare with using Shylock to subtly criticize his era and his fellow Europeans in their treatment of non-Europeans. Moisan, for example, argues that the play pokes fun at a European, Christian society that condemns the economics of usury even while it depends on its practice. Cohen, on the other hand, identifies Shylock as a lone and unsuccessful defender of equity and social freedoms against “royal authority”—an issue that would become increasingly important in England as the days of monarchical rule came to a close and the period of Cromwell's Commonwealth approached.
Marion D. Perret (1988) touches upon racial questions in The Merchant of Venice when he remarks that Shylock's race would have been irrelevant to Shakespeare's audience, who, he contends, would have been more concerned with the moneylender's business and religious practices. By contrast, John Picker (1994), Avraham Oz (1995), and James Shapiro (1995) all see race as a crucial issue in the play. Each stresses Europe's (and more specifically England's) fear of the outsider or non-European as a factor in the way in which Shylock is treated—first by Antonio, and later by Portia and the Duke of Venice in the trial scene. Oz observes that the treatment of Jews by European cities was, in fact, a means of enforcing power over all outsiders as well as over all Europeans who were subordinate to the local authority. Oz asserts that Shylock's bargain with Antonio represents an attempt to reverse the relationship between those who have power and those who do not. Shapiro looks at the play from a slightly different point of view: in his examination of British performances of The Merchant of Venice over the centuries, he observes that audiences and directors have struggled to accommodate Jews, whom they regard as a threatening, non-English race which is nevertheless of great economic importance. Mary Janell Metzger (1998) refers to color as a distinguishing factor for race in the play. Metzger notes the frequency with which Jessica is described as white-skinned and therefore noble in contrast to her father, Shylock, who is dark-skinned and untrustworthy. Jessica, Metzger argues, is white enough to be regarded by some of the characters as a “latent Christian”—thus “racializing” the conception of what it is to be Jewish. Kim F. Hall (1992) and B. J. Sokol (1998) discuss the treatment of other races in the play. Hall examines a brief reference in Act III to a “Moor,” or black, woman whom Lorenzo claims has been impregnated by Launcelot. These few lines, Hall asserts, highlight the English nation's preoccupation with preserving its identity and power as a race—an issue that was of much concern to Elizabethan England, deeply involved as it was at the time in colonization and commerce overseas. Sokol acknowledges the fact that such prejudice against other races and colors was legally condoned in England, but he also argues that Shakespeare employs language and characterization to reveal the Elizabethan public's actual contempt for the discriminatory laws of the land. Sokol contends, for example, that Launcelot's crude jokes about the Moorish woman and Portia's vocal relief at not having to marry the Moroccan prince are meant to reflect badly on the speakers rather than on the victims of their remarks.
The discussion of The Merchant of Venice as an allegorical statement focuses more on Shylock's religion than his race. Some early critics argued, for example, that the trial scene during which Shylock is out-maneuvered by Portia and is punished for his cruelty stands for the triumph of Christianity over Judaism. Recently, however, scholars have taken a more specific and measured view of the allegorical elements in the play. While both Susan McLean (1996) and Judith Rosenheim (1996) note that the play intentionally echoes the parable of the Prodigal Son, neither concludes that this allusion to the New Testament functions unequivocally as a condemnation of one religion over another. Instead, McLean asserts that the complex and sometimes ironic “enactments” of different parts of the parable between various characters—Launcelot and Old Gobbo, Antonio and Shylock, Jessica and Shylock, Bassanio and Antonio—indicate that there is no easy way to forgive nor any one particular road to salvation. Similarly, Rosenheim argues that the genuine father/son relationship between Old Gobbo and the prodigal Launcelot reflects a symbolic one between Shylock and Antonio, and that the power struggle that occurs between each pairing represents both the flaws and virtues of the moral values of our own time as well as of Shakespeare's. Finally, Matthew A. Fike (1994) suggests an allegorical reading of the play when he observes that unlike other comedies by Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice is filled with a sense of disappointment, be it in business dealings (Shylock and Antonio), friendship (Bassanio and Antonio), or love (the participants in the ring scene) and that in this highly complicated play, disappointment represents humanity's earthly condition as one in which flawed happiness is the only type possible.
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: “Responses, Sources, Contexts,” in Harvester New Critical Introductions to Shakespeare: ‘The Merchant of Venice,’ Harvester/Wheatsheaf, 1988, pp. 9-28.
[In the essay below, Lyon describes The Merchant of Venice as a “controversial play.” He demonstrates that literary critics have been widely divided concerning Shakespeare's views on anti-Semitism, and concludes that the play needs to be examined not only from the point of view of Shakespeare's era, but also within the context of his other plays.]
The safest place to begin with so controversial a play as The Merchant of Venice is with effects rather than causes. In a brilliantly economical survey of the play's criticism, Norman Rabkin recently identified the essential quality of The Merchant of Venice to be its capacity to provoke a welter of diverging and opposing responses. Consequently Rabkin lamented the play's critical history as a series of strategies of evasion, determined either to dismiss the play, or through partiality and evasion, to coerce it into a thematic and tonal unity. Rabkin's crisp diagnosis of this critical tradition merits quotation at length:
Such radical disagreements between obviously simplistic critics testify to a fact about their subject that ought to be the point of departure for criticism. Instead, critics both bad and good have constructed...
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SOURCE: “Shakespeare's Jew: Preconception and Performance,” in Shakespeare Studies, Vol. XX, 1988, pp. 261-68.
[In the essay below, Perret asserts that modern directors of The Merchant of Venice are wrong in worrying about Shakespeare's anti-Semitism, and claims that the playwright might in fact have been parodying his audience's views rather than pandering to them.]
Because Bernard Beckerman was so interested in the theater, for this panel on “The Merchant of Venice: Problems of Influence” I have chosen to consider some ways in which preconceptions about Jews in Shakespeare's time and ours have influenced performance. My hope is that approaching the play through the preconceptions of its audience can reveal something about how the play, if not the playwright, works and shed some light on the problem of Shakespeare's supposed anti-Semitism.
Underlying my consideration are two assumptions. The first is that Shakespeare, consciously or unconsciously, would have taken his audience's preconceptions into account in shaping both text and performance of The Merchant of Venice. The second is that most Elizabethan playgoers and many modern ones would equate the performance they see with Shakespeare's text. In the theater the play is, effectively, what the audience sees played; what they see played depends partly upon what they notice, and what they notice depends...
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SOURCE: “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Colonization and Miscegenation in The Merchant of Venice,” in Renaissance Drama, Vol. XXIII, n.s., 1992, pp. 87-111.
[In the essay below, Hall focuses on lines in Act Three of The Merchant of Venice which describe Launcelot's impregnation of a black woman. Hall argues that this brief passage underscores a major theme of the play: the fear of racial intermingling that occurs when a country such as Elizabethan England makes imperialistic inroads into other countries.]
Samuel Purchas introduces his popular collection of travel narratives, Purchas His Pilgrimes (the 1625 sequel to Richard Hakluyt's Principal Voyages), by recounting the virtues of trade. He equates the benefits of navigation with Christian charity and leads his reader into the collection proper by envisioning a world converted to Protestantism:
… and the chiefest charitie is that which is most common; nor is there any more common then this of Navigation, where one man is not good to another man, but so many Nations as so many persons hold commerce and intercourse of amity withall; … the West with the East, and the remotest parts of the world are joyned in one band of humanitie; and why not also of Christianitie? Sidon and Sion, Jew and Gentile, Christian and Ethnike, as in this typicall storie? that as there is one Lord, one...
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SOURCE: “Shylock and the Struggle for Closure,” in Judaism: A Quarterly Journal, Vol. 43, No. 2, 1994, pp. 173-89.
[In the essay below, Picker describes Elizabethan England's creation of and discrimination against the “other,” or outsider, in order to preserve its own sense of a closed society. Picker observes that this “ghettoizing” is reflected in The Merchant of Venice, where Shylock is consistently excluded from communal life simply because he is a Jew.]
1. “GO PRESENTLY INQUIRE, AND SO WILL I / WHERE MONEY IS”: THEORETICAL AND HISTORICAL CONSIDERATIONS
In his seminal work on Shakespearean festive comedy, C. L. Barber introduces a theory of comic form which attempts to account for the role of figures such as Shylock in the early plays. Emphasizing the connection between theatrical practices and social customs such as May Day and the Winter Revels, Barber argues that the early comedies celebrate natural vitality and social identity. He considers the underlying movement of Shakespearean comedy to be the passage “through release to clarification,” that is, from revel and celebration to the formation of a durable communal bond. According to Barber, Shakespearean comedy requires integration and closure such that any marginal figures, or “butts,” as Barber refers to them, must be restrained and expelled by society. By defeating such challenges, the...
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SOURCE: “‘Which is the merchant here? and which the Jew?’: Riddles of Identity,” in The Yoke of Love: Prophetic Riddles in The Merchant of Venice, University of Delaware Press, 1995, pp. 93-133.
[In the excerpt below, Oz remarks that the outsider status that Renaissance European cities imposed upon non-European inhabitants (and on Jews in particular) was an attempt to exert power over various members of society. Thus, in The Merchant of Venice,Shylock does his best to reverse this “master-slave” relationship through his pound of flesh arrangement with the European Antonio.]
The question whereby Portia, clad as a young male judge, launches the process of justice at the court of Venice has intrigued many readers of the play. “She can’t be serious,” we tend to ask, shifting our eyes from the figure of Venice's prince of merchants, who retains his posture of gloomy dignity even at court, to that of “old Shylock,” clad in his Jewish gaberdine. Thomas Moisan, who used the same question of Portia in the title of his illuminating discussion of The Merchant of Venice, concludes that seriousness is not at all what we must expect of this play; indeed it is the playfulness with which it treats the prevailing socioeconomic ideologies of the time, playfulness that produces something like Macherey's famous parodic distance toward them (Macherey 1978, esp. 61ff), which illuminates the...
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SOURCE: “‘Now by My Hood, a Gentle and No Jew’: Jessica, The Merchant of Venice, and the Discourse of Early Modern English Identity,” in PMLA, Vol. 113, No. 1, 1998, pp. 52-63.
[In the essay below, Metzger examines Elizabethan England's anxieties about racial and religious differences as symbolized by Shylock's daughter, Jessica, in The Merchant of Venice.Metzger contrasts the white-skinned, Christian-looking Jessica, who willingly and easily converts, with her dark-skinned father, who is forced by society to convert without ever, in fact, being accepted by society.]
Jessica, the other Jew in The Merchant of Venice, is doubly distinguished.1 Unlike her father, Shylock, she is said to be “gentle”: at once noble and gentile. Yet as the “now” quoted in my title signifies and as Jessica readily admits, she remains “a daughter to [Shylock's] blood” despite her conversion (2.6.51, 2.3.18). Distinguished from Portia and Nerissa, whose marriages work to secure the social standing of the men they love, she is more saved than saving in her marriage to Lorenzo. Indeed, representations of Jessica, unlike those of other characters in the play, turn on alternating characterizations of her as a latent Christian and as a racialized and thus unintegrable Jew.2
Until recently, discussions of race or Jewishness in The Merchant tended to...
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SOURCE: “Prejudice and Law in The Merchant of Venice,” in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespeare Studies and Production, Vol. 51, 1998, pp. 159-73.
[In the essay below, Sokol discusses the legally sanctioned forms of racial prejudice in Elizabethan England—against Jews and people of color, for example—but argues that through characterization, language, and imagery in The Merchant of Venice,Shakespeare intimates that Renaissance public opinion condemned these prejudicial laws.]
The legally institutionalized prejudice seen in The Merchant of Venice is repulsive from a modern perspective. I will argue that this play portrays deeply ironic images of social prejudice that offended Elizabethan standards of decency and fairness as well as ours. Paradoxically, these contemporary Elizabethan standards come into focus when the play is viewed from a perspective involving legal history, for they in fact trumped the prejudicial laws of Shakespeare's time.
In the updated approach to Shakespeare of his provocative book Kill All the Lawyers?, a practising American lawyer Daniel J. Kornstein advises Shylock to appeal against Portia's judgement.1 And he makes frequent reference to modern legal doctrines, often specifically American, to show how these have evolved or advanced since Shakespeare's time. Yet Kornstein...
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SOURCE: “Prodigal Sons and Daughters: Transgression and Forgiveness in The Merchant of Venice,” in Papers on Language & Literature, Vol. 32, No. 1, 1996, pp. 45-62.
[In the essay below, McLean identifies allegorical elements in The Merchant of Venice, arguing that the parable of the rebellious but repentant Prodigal Son is reenacted numerous times between different character pairings. Consequently, by the end of the play the audience is left to contemplate the virtue of forgiveness.]
The word “prodigal” appears more often in The Merchant of Venice than in any other play of Shakespeare's, yet the relevance to the play of the parable of the Prodigal Son has excited little critical attention.1 Not only is Bassanio called “prodigal” by himself and Shylock, but Shylock also calls Antonio “a prodigal,” and Gratiano alludes to the parable of the Prodigal Son just before Lorenzo elopes with Jessica. Bassanio and Antonio enact elements of the story of the Prodigal Son at a serious level, while Launcelot Gobbo and his father parody the same story. Jessica also rebels against paternal control, and Portia expresses her desire to do so, though she insists that she will never violate the conditions of her father's will.2 Instead, she uses the ring plot to create a scenario of disobedience, sin, repentance, and forgiveness that exorcizes the threat of her...
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SOURCE: “Allegorical Commentary in The Merchant of Venice,” in Shakespeare Studies, Vol. XXIV, 1996, pp. 156-210.
[In the essay below, Rosenheim argues that the themes of power, fatherhood, and blindness are developed through allegory in The Merchant of Venice. These themes are principally presented through the parable of the Prodigal Son as it applies to Launcelot versus his father, Old Gobbo, and, by extension, to the “father” Shylock versus the “son” Antonio.]
In Asserting the prevalence of “symmetry” or moral equivalence between Shylock and Antonio, René Girard is adding his voice to an enduring current in the criticism of The Merchant of Venice. It is much the same opinion that Hazlitt advances in suggesting that Shylock's “Jewish revenge is at least as good as Christian injuries;” that A. D. Moody holds in finding that Merchant is “about the essential likeness of Shylock and his judges”; or Harold Goddard in remarking that Antonio “catches his own reflection in [Shylock's] face”; or Kiernan Ryan in defining Shylock's “bloodthirsty cruelty” as the “mirror-image of [the Christians'] concealed real nature.”1 A factual basis for this parity can be identified in the observation of Walter Cohen and Michael Ferber that sixteenth century merchants like Antonio were themselves usurers like Shylock.2 Yet those who draw...
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SOURCE: “Disappointment in The Merchant of Venice,” in ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes, and Reviews, Vol. 7, No. 1, n.s., 1994, pp. 13-18.
[In the essay below, Fike analyzes disappointment as a central theme in The Merchant of Venice, concluding that the disappointment found in love, friendship, and aspirations in the play mirrors Shakespeare's belief that perfect harmony is to be found solely in the afterlife.]
While Jessica and Lorenzo's banter at the beginning of Act V of The Merchant of Venice has been viewed as out of character with the harmony one expects at this point in a comedy, it has not yet been analyzed in light of the theme of disappointment.1 As Gratiano expresses it, “All things that are / Are with more spirit chasèd than enjoyed,” a direct commentary on Lorenzo's tardiness for his liaison with Jessica (II.vi.12-13). Lorenzo, in other words, may derive more pleasure from striving for Jessica than he does from her permanent presence in his life. What may be true for him is definitely true for other characters: since it is more enjoyable to anticipate than to attain, disappointment is ascendant in the universe of the play. Thus the classical allusions in the “love duet” not only reflect disappointing circumstances earlier in the play but also contrast with what, ultimately, does satisfy.
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Criticism: Elizabethan Culture And Values
SOURCE: “‘Which is the merchant here? and which the Jew?’: Subversion and Recuperation in The Merchant of Venice,” in Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology, edited by Jean E. Howard and Marion F. O’Connor, Methuen, Inc., 1987, pp. 188-206.
[In the essay below, Moisan argues that while The Merchant of Venice appears to celebrate the Elizabethan values of Christian ethics and good business, the play instead subtly exposes a contradiction between the apparent belief in these values and whether or not they are actually practiced.]
As a locus in which to ponder the ideological function of the Shakespearean text, The Merchant of Venice is an obvious, and obviously problematic, choice. At a glance, the Merchant seems to inscribe and affirm an ideological calculus that fused the interests of the state and the assertions of a providentialist Christianity with the prerogatives of an increasingly capitalist marketplace. We can perceive this calculus allegorized in the central action of the play and ratified in the ultimate thwarting of the Jewish usurer Shylock, the redemption of the Christian merchant Antonio, and the triumphs—forensic and domestic—of the bountiful aristocrat Portia, and we can see it reflected and legitimated in the sundry polarities the play has often been said to be—to use Frank Kermode's rather equivocal quotation...
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Cohen, Stephen. “Is This the Law?: Legal Ambiguity and Its Effects in The Merchant of Venice and Measure for Measure.” In The Language of Power, the Power of Language: The Effects of Ambiguity on Sociopolitical Structures as Illustrated in Shakespeare's Plays, pp. 80-118. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987.
Discusses the fact that while these two “problem plays” end with marriage—the classic solution to Renaissance comedies—neither ends with complete social harmony.
Gross, John. Shylock: A Legend and Its Legacy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992, 386 p.
Examines the treatment of the character Shylock in Shakespeare's play, in performances throughout the history of the play, and in popular culture.
Holmer, Joan Ozark. “‘Pardon this fault’: Antonio and Shylock.” In The Merchant of Venice: Choice, Hazard and Consequence, pp. 142-82. London: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1995.
Looks at the complex relationship between Antonio and Shylock, noting their similarities and differences as well as their struggle for power over one another.
———. “‘Joy be the consequence’: Union and Reunion.” In The Merchant of Venice: Choice, Hazard and Consequence, pp. 246-84. London: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1995.
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