Study Guide

The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare

The Merchant of Venice Essay - The Merchant of Venice (Vol. 53)

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 strategies to evade the problem posed by divergent responses. Some blame Shakespeare, suggesting that his confusion accounts for tension in the work and its audience. Others appeal to a narrow concept of cultural history which writes off our responses as anachronistic, unavailable to Shakespeare's contemporaries because of their attitudes towards usury or Jews or comedy. Still others suggest that, since the plays are fragile confections designed to display engaging if implausible characters, exegetical criticism is misplaced. Though all of these strategies attract modern practitioners, they have lost ground before the dominant evasion, the reduction of the play to a theme which, when we understand it, tells us which of our responses we must suppress. The ingenious thematic critic … is licensed to stipulate that ‘in terms of the structure of the play Shylock is a minor character’ and can be ignored, or that the action is only metaphorical and does not need to be examined as if its events literally happened, or that Shylock is only a Jew, or a banker, or a usurer, or a man spiritually dead, or a commentary on London life, never a combination of these; or that The Merchant of Venice is built on ‘four levels of existence’ corresponding to Dante's divisions—‘Hell (Shylock), Purgatory proper (Antonio) and the Garden of Eden (Portia-Bassanio), and Paradise’; or that the play is exclusively about love, or whatever, and, insofar as it doesn’t fit the critic's formulation, it is flawed.

(Rabkin 1981, pp. 7-8)

Only very recently have critics (Leggatt 1974; Rabkin himself; Nuttall 1983; Berry 1985) been prepared to display at length a perplexity which may perhaps account for the reticence of so many of our great Shakespearean critics on the subject of The Merchant of Venice. The critical response to the play proves less than directly rewarding. This can be ascribed in part, as Rabkin implies, to critics' obtuseness and interpretative aggression. But it also says something more interesting about the tenacity of the play's hold on the minds of its audiences and readers. The Merchant of Venice proves an extraordinarily difficult play from which to free oneself into an adequate degree of objectivity, and criticism tends to be symptomatic of the play rather than illuminating of it. Indeed, such criticism can often seem a reactive prolongation of that unfolding of postures, positions and habits of mind which both characters and audience assume, reject and reassume in the course of the play's performance. The oddities and embarrassments which surface in the course of these critical arguments are co-extensive with those occurring in the play and amount, in themselves, to something of a comedy.

There are two predominating and opposed ways of reading The Merchant of Venice. The basic division of opinion manifests itself in a variety of ways. Thus critics divide over Shylock. Some see in him the consistent villain of the piece, and consequently celebrate the Christian lovers' triumph over him. Against this, some see in Shylock victimised humanity and, accordingly, view the play's lovers with varying degrees of scepticism which, in extreme cases, can amount to hostility. More particularly, there are two focal points in such disagreements, two rich and complex scenes where, in Act 1 Scene 3, Shylock and Antonio first agree the terms of the bond, and, in Act 3 Scene 1, Shylock declares his intention to claim his rights in respect of it. Critical debate, though lively, is circumscribed, limited to discussion of character, and Shylock's character in particular. Prior to this century, the body of criticism of The Merchant of Venice has shown this emphasis on Shylock, but has proved less rich or rewarding than that which has accrued to many of Shakespeare's other plays; it has often been occasional, prompted by particular productions of the play and reveals, as the stage history does, the predictable shift, as we move from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century, in the characterisation of Shylock—from clown and villain to the figure of wronged humanity who merits our compassion. (See John Russell Brown, ‘The Realization of Shylock’, in Brown and Harris 1961, pp. 187-210.)

When we turn from critics who discuss character to those who discuss theme, we find the critical accounts broader, accommodating more of the play, but the critics remain similarly divided in their opinions and attitudes. Thus, for some critics the play secures and celebrates valued distinctions—between material and spiritual wealth; between venturing and usury; between generosity and possessiveness; between love and the law; between mercy and justice. For others the play works to quite the opposite effect, undermining such distinctions through dark and troubling ironies. And some such critics pursue what they see as the play's ironic mode to discover covert correspondences underlying the play's ostensible oppositions; hence, for example, the play's principal antagonists, Shylock and Antonio, are revealed to share the painful kinship of isolation and exclusion. These are larger discussions, not limited to a few of the play's great scenes, and exercised by questions of the relationship between the worlds of Belmont and Venice, and between the casket plot and the bond plot. As with considerations of character, however, the fundamental disagreement remains whether to regard the The Merchant of Venice as characterised by celebration or irony.

Frank Kermode is representative of those who emphasise celebration, and reveals incidentally the kind of oddity which typically accompanies the expression of such views:

The Merchant of Venice, then, is ‘about’ judgment, redemption and mercy; the supersession in human history of the grim four thousand years of unalleviated justice by the era of love and mercy. It begins with usury and corrupt love; it ends with harmony and perfect love. And all the time it tells its audience that this is its subject; only by a determined effort to avoid the obvious can one mistake the theme of The Merchant of Venice.

(Kermode, in Brown and Harris 1961, p.224)

The tone of this is reminiscent of that adopted by the overly brusque Antonio in his dealings with Shylock early in the play. With Kermode's earlier insistence on ‘the correct interpretation’ (ibid., p. 222), it is all the more surprising from a critic who is later to emerge as a champion of critical pluralism, and who has always emphasised the patience of Shakespeare before his interpreters. The tension between the claimed themes of harmony and love, and the impatience and intolerance with which they are urged is odd indeed. Kermode's method of argument is also interestingly representative in the way he appeals to analogies from nondramatic literary modes to ‘resolve’ the play's difficulties and thus stabilise, and perhaps falsify, the drama; in his case the appeals are to Spenser, Milton and the Bible. Barbara K. Lewalski pursues a similar interpretation of the play, with similar no-nonsense tone and similar appeals to nondramatic modes, here biblical allusion and allegory:

comprehension of the play's allegorical meanings leads to a recognition of its fundamental unity, discrediting the common critical view that is a hotch-potch which developed contrary to Shakespeare's conscious intention.

(Lewalski 1962, p.328)

But when the importing of an allegorical framework threatens to displace rather than illuminate the particularities of incident and character, might we not wonder whether drama should be subordinated to allegory in this way? We are getting remote from the experience of The Merchant of Venice.

Harley Granville-Barker has proved even more brusquely untroubled by the play in his insistence that the casket plot and the bond plot have all the unreality of fairy tales, unaware in that appeal that fairy tales and folklore rarely enjoy the psychological and sociological innocence he imputes to them (Granville-Barker 1958, Vol. 1, p.335). Concerned to assimilate The Merchant of Venice to the pattern of festivity and merriment which he discerns in Shakespearean comedy generally, C. L. Barber finds various embarrassments in pursuing this line of interpretation; Barber openly confesses his unease, but finds himself drawn into weak argument nevertheless:

The whole play dramatizes the conflict between the mechanisms of wealth and the masterful, social use of it. The happy ending, which abstractly considered as an event is hard to credit, and the treatment of Shylock, which abstractly considered as justice is hard to justify, work as we actually watch or read the play because these events express relief and triumph in the achievement of a distinction.

(Barber 1972, p. 170)

But a distinction which works only if we don’t think about it, is more likely to be a distinction undermined than a distinction made.

John Russell Brown also sees The Merchant of Venice as a play which secures distinctions—between material wealth and love's wealth. He finds the play's own sententiousness catching, but proves less than fully responsive to the drama's dynamic testing of such static aphorisms and can be led into such contortedly protective logic as the suggestion that ‘it is Shylock's fate to bring out the worst in those he tries to harm’ (Brown 1962, p. 74).

Of course, all of these critics, and many others who share the same interpretative emphasis on celebration, have valuable and substantial things to say about the play, but the oddities here suggest that their readings bear a tangential relation to The Merchant of Venice's essential nature.

Those critics who see The Merchant of Venice as an ironic play are also useful. Moreover, perhaps because they don’t pursue extraneous authorities to verify their interpretations, their readings often have the advantage that they focus more attentively and sustainedly on the drama before us. Even when overingenious or wrong-headed, the particularity of their arguments seems closer to the particularities of the play itself. But is also true that these critics are often no less biased nor odd than their opponents. Both A. D. Moody and Harold C. Goddard are aware that they are not offering interpretations from first principles, as it were, but their corrective readings often prove less surefooted than these critics might intend. Moody sees The Merchant of Venice as a play which ‘does not celebrate the Christian virtues so much as expose their absence’ (Moody 1964, p. 10), but comes repeatedly close, in his emphasising of the covert above the overt, to seeing the transparent evil of Shylock as no evil at all; Shylock's ‘villainy is almost naïve and innocent’ by comparison with the Christians' (ibid., p.29). At times Goddard loses his footing entirely and sinks into rhetoric and implausible metaphor:

Even Shylock, as we have seen, had in him at least a grain of spiritual gold, of genuine Christian spirit. Only a bit of it perhaps. Seeds do not need to be big. Suppose that Portia and Antonio, following the lead of the seemingly willing Duke, had watered this tiny seed with that quality that blesses him who gives as well as him who takes, had overwhelmed Shylock with the grace of forgiveness! What then? The miracle, it is true, might not have taken place. Yet it might have.

(Goddard 1960, p. 111)

If Professor Kermode sounded uncomfortably like Antonio, then Professor Goddard's pleading out-Shylocks Shylock, but without the villain's vengeance.

The Merchant of Venice's capacity to prompt these contradictory reactions has led critics to speculate about the circumstances of the play's composition and its creator's intentions. Initially, the focus of attention is the portrayal of Shylock. In H. B. Charlton's influential view, the anti-Semitic Shakespeare sets out to pander to prejudices common to himself and his audience but finds, in spite of himself, that his characteristic powers and intuitions lead to a humanised Shylock; ‘His Shylock is a composite production of Shakespeare the Jew-hater, and of Shakespeare the dramatist’ (Charlton 1949, p. 132). It is a powerful thesis, reiterated as recently as 1980 by D. M. Cohen, with but one alteration in its argument:

It is as though The Merchant Venice is an anti-Semitic play written by an author who is not an anti-Semite—but an author who has been willing to use the cruel stereotypes of that ideology for mercenary and artistic purposes.

(Cohen 1980, p. 63)

The limitation in such arguments lies in their often unintentionally diminishing image of Shakespeare as naïve and inspirational, a great artist almost in spite of himself. Shakespeare does not stumble on the fact of Shylock's humanity; a writer who habitually confers inner life on the characters he finds in his sources and who, as we shall see, characteristically compounds the complexities of these sources, is cultivating...

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Criticism: Race

Marion D. Perret (essay date 1988)

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...

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Kim F. Hall (essay date 1992)

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...

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John Picker (essay date 1994)

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.]


In his seminal work on Shakespearean festive comedy, C. L. Barber...

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Avraham Oz (essay date 1995)

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...

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Mary Janell Metzger (essay date 1998)

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...

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B. J. Sokol (essay date 1998)

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...

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