The Merchant of Venice Essay - The Merchant of Venice (Vol. 66)

William Shakespeare

The Merchant of Venice (Vol. 66)


The Merchant of Venice

Among Shakespeare's most popular dramas, The Merchant of Venice remains a contentious piece to critics, who generally categorize it as a “problem play.” Its plot centers on the merchants Antonio and Shylock, a Jewish moneylender. Finding Antonio unable to repay his loan, Shylock demands a pound of the Christian's flesh, as stipulated in his contract. Portia, the drama's heroine, arrives disguised as a male law clerk at the ensuing trial, and overturns the agreement. While essentially a romantic comedy concerning Antonio, Portia and the Venetian gentleman Bassanio (whom Portia eventually marries), the drama nevertheless depicts a number of troubling aspects chiefly related to the harsh punishment of Shylock, including his forced conversion to Christianity. Additionally, the ambiguous qualities of the three major figures in the drama have led to numerous conflicting interpretations of the characters. Such varying interpretations tend to be born out by modern productions of The Merchant of Venice, as directors privilege either Portia's comic triumph or Shylock's tragic defeat. Furthermore, contemporary critics have continued to explore the play’s extensive themes, including conflicts of ethnicity, religion, and social exclusion, as well as the fundamental tensions it depicts between love, money, law, and mercy.

Over the course of its critical history, scholars have focused on the play's three principal figures—Antonio, Portia, and Shylock. Antonio, despite his status as the Venetian merchant of the work's title, has only infrequently been considered its most significant character. Cynthia Lewis confronts this exclusionary tradition in her 1997 study, which views Antonio as the locus of equivocation and contradiction in a play rife with ambivalence. More often, Antonio's character has been discussed in conjunction with Portia by commentators who emphasize the generic status of The Merchant of Venice as a romantic comedy. Characterizing Antonio and Portia as competitors for the love of Bassanio, Michael Zuckert (1996) sees this comic rivalry as providing the fundamental structure of the drama. Accordingly, Zuckert deems the bond between Antonio and Shylock as secondary to Portia's triumph. Such observations, however, are balanced by those of commentators who, captivated by the figure of Shylock, make an interpretation of the Jewish moneylender vitally important to the work. Robert Alter (1993) represents a number of critics who place Shylock at the center of The Merchant of Venice. Alter examines the range of interpretations elicited by his character: from comic villain to sympathetic and even tragic figure, vilified as an outsider for his religion and profession. Martin D. Yaffe (1997) offers an alternative to the traditional view that Shylock's depiction in The Merchant of Venice is anti-Semitic. Instead, Yaffe acknowledges perceptions of both positive and negative qualities in this complex character. Charles Edelman (1999) takes a somewhat revisionist position in regard to Shylock, contending that Elizabethan audiences would not necessarily have viewed his character as a stereotypical object of derision or a stock, comic stage villain.

The array of possible character interpretations offered by The Merchant of Venice has certainly contributed to the drama's continued theatrical popularity. In his review of Richard Olivier's 1998 staging of the play at the New Globe Theatre, John W. Mahon (1998) notes the centrality of Portia to the performance as well as its harsh portrayal of early modern anti-Semitism. Lois Potter's (1999) observations on the same Globe season include comments on Portia's asides to the audience and on the overall carnivalesque quality of the production. Director Trevor Nunn's interpretations of character for his 1999 staging of The Merchant of Venice at the Royal National Theatre, in contrast, were viewed as considerably less light-hearted than Olivier's. In his assessment, Hal Jensen (see Further Reading) remarks on Nunn's effective treatment of the darker elements of the play, including his nuanced exploration of character psychology and Shylock's Jewishness. Reviewer Matt Wolf observes the politicized quality of Nunn's staging in its depiction of the brutality inflicted on Shylock. For her 1998 Royal Shakespeare Company production, Barbara Gaines created an urban, American atmosphere evocative of the Roaring Twenties, a geographic and temporal location that reviewer Davi Napolean (1998) observes could be considered analogous to one Elizabethan audiences might have associated with Renaissance Venice.

Thematic criticism of The Merchant of Venice has touched on a wide range of subjects. Keith Geary's analysis (see Further Reading) treats the play's theme of love versus friendship, as Portia dons the clothing of a young man in order to both rescue Antonio and displace him as the principal object of Bassanio's affections. Seymour Kleinberg (1983) provides a similar, if somewhat more radical, interpretation of the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio, regarding the merchant as a homosexual whose love for his friend is again displaced, but in this reading by the social norms of heterosexual love and marriage. The dynamics of social exclusion figure prominently in a number of recent critical discussions of the drama. Susan Oldrieve (1993) notes the marginalization of Portia and Shylock as, respectively, a woman and a Jew, in a society dominated by patriarchal and Christian tradition. Alan Rosen (1997) presents a complementary analysis based on language, in which the Jewish Shylock and the Moorish Prince of Morocco are presented as outsiders in the play, both in terms of their ethnic differences and of their unique modes of expression, which vary sharply from standard Venetian discourse. Richard H. Wiesberg (1999) represents judicial appraisals of The Merchant of Venice by arguing for an ironic interpretation of the drama that eschews simple associations of Christianity with compassion and Judaism with strict or unfeeling legality. Updating critical interest in the setting of the play, Tony Tanner (1999) concentrates on tensions between the dramatic worlds of mercantile Venice, Shylock's Jewish ghetto, and the fairy-tale enchantment of Belmont.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Cary B. Graham (essay date 1953)

SOURCE: Graham, Cary B. “Standards of Value in The Merchant of Venice.Shakespeare Quarterly 4, no. 2 (April 1953): 145-51.

[In the following essay, Graham maintains that shifting standards of moral, economic, and social value in The Merchant of Venice provide a fundamental insight into the variety of interpretations and responses the drama has elicited.]

Recently Professor E. E. Stoll remarked, “… nearly everything certain in Shakespeare scholarship has in some quarters been disputed, as nearly everything uncertain has been affirmed.”1 Although the statement was not applied especially to The Merchant of Venice, it is obvious...

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Michael Zuckert (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Zuckert, Michael. “The New Medea: On Portia's Comic Triumph in The Merchant of Venice.” In Shakespeare's Political Pageant: Essays in Literature and Politics, edited by Joseph Alulis and Vickie Sullivan, pp. 3-36. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996.

[In the following essay, Zuckert views The Merchant of Venice as a highly unified work that depicts Antonio and Portia as rivals for the love of Bassanio, a competition in which Portia is victorious.]

Partly because of its clever plot, striking characterizations, and moments of beautiful poetry, The Merchant of Venice has remained one of Shakespeare's best known, most often performed,...

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Tony Tanner (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Tanner, Tony. “Which Is the Merchant Here? And Which the Jew?: The Venice of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice.” In Venetian Views, Venetian Blinds: English Fantasies of Venice, edited by Manfred Pfister and Barbara Schaff, pp. 45-62. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1999.

[In the following essay, Tanner analyzes the three crucial locations in The Merchant of Venice—Antonio's Rialto Venice, Shylock's Venetian ghetto, and harmonious Belmont—and discusses the troubling elements of this romantic comedy that arise through the juxtaposition of these settings.]

see how yond justice rails upon yond simple thief. Hark in thine ear: change...

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Criticism: Character Studies

Robert Alter (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Alter, Robert. “Who Is Shylock?” Commentary 96, no. 1 (1993): 29-34.

[In the following essay, Alter focuses on Shylock as the central figure of The Merchant of Venice, contending that the source of the play's enduring popularity can be found in the variety of theatrical interpretations of Shylock’s character.]

The Merchant of Venice has inspired a certain ambivalence through much of its four-century history, and that ambivalence is sharply inscribed in the changing interpretations of the play. What is more surprising is that it has been one of Shakespeare's two most popular plays (the second being Hamlet), as the English literary...

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Cynthia Lewis (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Lewis, Cynthia. “‘A Foolish Consistency’: Antonio and Alienation in The Merchant of Venice.” In Particular Saints: Shakespeare's Four Antonios, Their Contexts, and Their Plays, pp. 51-87. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1997.

[In the following excerpt, Lewis regards The Merchant of Venice as an ironic tragicomedy, concentrating on Antonio as the focus of the drama's ambiguities, contradictions, and equivocations, while also tracing developments in Shakespeare's characterization of Portia.]


Antonio opens the play by speaking three times in seven lines of how little he understands himself:


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Martin D. Yaffe (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Yaffe, Martin D. “The Mistreatment of Shakespeare's Shylock.” In Shylock and the Jewish Question, pp. 1-23. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

[In the following excerpt, Yaffe argues against the conventional view that the depiction of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice is anti-Jewish.]

The figure of Shylock is like some secondary figure in a Rembrandt painting. To look sometimes with absorption at the suffering, aging Jew alone is irresistible. But the more one is aware of what the play's whole design is expressing through Shylock, of the comedy's high seriousness in its concern for the grace of the community, the less...

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Charles Edelman (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Edelman, Charles. “Which Is the Jew that Shakespeare Knew?: Shylock on the Elizabethan Stage.” Shakespeare Survey 52 (1999): 99-106.

[In the following essay, Edelman reconstructs Elizabethan perceptions and expectations of Jewish theatrical characters, offering evidence that Shakespeare's Shylock was more likely a tragic figure than simply a comic villain.]

As John Gross remarks in Shylock: Four Hundred Years in the Life of a Legend, ‘everyone who writes about the stage history of The Merchant of Venice is doomed to quote, sooner or later’, the couplet supposedly spoken by Alexander Pope upon seeing Charles Macklin's portrayal in 1741:...

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Criticism: Production Reviews

Davi Napoleon (review date 1998)

SOURCE: Napoleon, Davi. “The Flapper of Venice.” Twentieth Century Interpretations 32, no. 1 (January 1998): 6-7.

[In the following review of Barbara Gaines's 1998 production of The Merchant of Venice, Napoleon concentrates exclusively on design elements that contributed to the project's evocation of urban America during the Roaring Twenties.]

Although Barbara Gaines decided to place the Shakespeare Repertory Theatre's The Merchant of Venice in a 1920s American city, she encouraged to adapt period and place to the play. Synthesizing authentic details that suggested the superficiality of the era with anachronistic elements that evoked the Roaring 20s,...

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John W. Mahon (review date 1998)

SOURCE: Mahon, John W. “Richard Olivier Directs The Merchant of Venice.Shakespeare Newsletter 48, no. 2 (summer 1998): 43.

[In the following review of Richard Olivier's 1998 production of The Merchant of Venice, Mahon comments on the director's “colorblind” casting, decision to make Portia the play's central figure, and efforts to recreate a historically authentic theater-going experience at the New Globe.]

The son of Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright, Richard Olivier has worked in the theatre for some years, both in England and in the United States. He directed Henry V at Shakespeare's Globe last summer. He has published several books,...

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Lois Potter (review date 1999)

SOURCE: Potter, Lois. “A Stage Where Every Man Must Play a Part?” Shakespeare Quarterly 50, no. 1 (spring 1999): 74-81.

[In the following excerpted review of the 1998 Globe season, featuring Richard Olivier's production of The Merchant of Venice, Potter comments on the overall carnivalesque quality of the production, and mentions the exceptional Shylock of Norbert Kentrup.]

Reviewers of the first two seasons at the Globe in Southwark, whether in the printed and electronic media or in formal and informal talks at the International Shakespeare Conference in Stratford-upon-Avon, focused more on the new theater's audience than on its productions. Advance...

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Matt Wolf (review date 1999)

SOURCE: Wolf, Matt. Review of The Merchant of Venice. Variety 375, no. 11 (2 August 1999): 40.

[In the following review of Trevor Nunn's 1999 production of The Merchant of Venice, Wolf surveys the effective performances of the major players and notes the centrality of anti-Semitism and its disturbing consequences in Nunn's handling of the drama.]

Among the many special relationships talked about in England, perhaps it's time to acknowledge the unique theatrical symbiosis between Shakespeare and Trevor Nunn. The Bard seems to breathe more easily when directed by Nunn, as evidenced over the better part of two decades at the Royal Shakespeare Co. and now at...

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Criticism: Themes

Seymour Kleinberg (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Kleinberg, Seymour. “The Merchant of Venice: The Homosexual as Anti-Semite in Nascent Capitalism.” In Literary Visions of Homosexuality, edited by Stuart Kellogg, pp. 113-26. New York: Haworth Press, 1983.

[In the following essay, Kleinberg claims that The Merchant of Venice dramatizes “the triumph of heterosexual marriage” over homoeroticism, the latter represented by Antonio and his love for Bassanio.]

When I first read The Merchant of Venice, I was dismayed by the anti-Semitism and the materialism of the Venetian world. The play held no charm for me, and I decided that it was simply not very available for someone like myself....

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Lawrence Normand (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Normand, Lawrence. “Reading the Body in The Merchant of Venice.Textual Practice 5, no. 1 (spring 1991): 55-73.

[In the following essay, Normand contends that the tensions and conflicts of The Merchant of Venice are depicted through references to the body and its association with language.]

When Morocco challenges a hypothetical fair-skinned suitor ‘to make incision for [Portia's] love, / To prove whose blood is reddest, his or mine’ (II.i.6-7),1 he invokes the human body as a place where certain disputed questions can be tested and decided: ‘What is Morocco's real nature?’, ‘What is Morocco's real value?’ The question...

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Susan Oldrieve (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Oldrieve, Susan. “Marginalized Voices in The Merchant of Venice.Cardozo Studies in Law and Literature 5, no. 1 (spring 1993): 87-105.

[In the following essay, Oldrieve reads both Shylock and Portia as social outcasts alienated from the Christian and patriarchal world of Venice/Belmont in The Merchant of Venice.]


In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock and Portia both represent marginalized groups, the one an ethnic and religious minority, and the other women. As Marianne Novy points out,

Women and Jews could be seen as symbolic of absolute otherness—alien, mysterious,...

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Samuel Ajzenstat (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Ajzenstat, Samuel. “Contract in The Merchant of Venice.Philosophy and Literature 21, no. 2 (October 1997): 262-78.

[In the following essay, Ajzenstat evaluates The Merchant of Venice as a romantic comedy featuring a number of significant oppositions, the most fundamental being that between “the conditional and the unconditional.”]

The Merchant of Venice is widely interpreted as a Christian parable about the power of selfless love to raise us above the loveless inflexibilities of the legal and commercial orders.1 The account I shall offer is the precise opposite of this interpretation: The Merchant makes more...

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Alan Rosen (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Rosen, Alan. “The Rhetoric of Exclusion: Jew, Moor, and the Boundaries of Discourse in The Merchant of Venice.” In Race, Ethnicity, and Power in the Renaissance, edited by Joyce Green MacDonald, pp. 67-79. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1997.

[In the following essay, Rosen remarks on the rhetorical strategies of The Merchant of Venice's racial outsiders, emphasizing Shylock's recursive and literal mode of speaking and the Prince of Morocco's eloquence as beyond “the borders of legitimate discourse” in the play.]

In the 1590s, both Jew and Moor remained for English Christians exotic infidels, whose obstinate unbelief and...

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Marc Berley (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Berley, Marc. “Jessica's Belmont Blues: Music and Merriment in The Merchant of Venice.” In Opening the Borders: Inclusivity in Early Modern Studies, edited by Peter C. Herman, pp. 185-205. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1999.

[In the following essay, Berley examines Lorenzo's statements concerning music and harmony alongside Jessica's dark response to “sweet music,” finding in this contradiction a thematic dissonance in The Merchant of Venice.]

With Lorenzo's famous lines about harmony in The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare offers, as he often does, his uncommon treatment of a Renaissance commonplace. Nevertheless, scholars...

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Richard H. Weisberg (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Weisberg, Richard H. “Antonio's Legalistic Cruelty: Interdisciplinarity and The Merchant of Venice.” In Un-Disciplining Literature: Literature, Law, and Culture, edited by Kostas Myrsiades and Linda Myrsiades, pp. 180-89. New York: Peter Lang, 1999.

[In the following essay, Weisberg appraises the legalistic elements of The Merchant of Venice, and finds “non-ironic” interpretations of the play's opposition between Christian mercy and rigid Judaic law to be reductive and misleading.]


The law and literature movement now involves hundreds of scholars across the disciplines.1 Among the movement's...

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Further Reading


Beiner, G. “The Merchant of Venice.” In Shakespeare's Agonistic Comedy: Poetics, Analysis, Criticism, pp. 168-202. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1993.

Evaluates The Merchant of Venice as an agonistic (or “punitive”) comedy, with critical attention principally focused on the bond between Shylock and Antonio, Antonio's apparent defeat, the reversal of fortunes, and Shylock's punishment.

Berkowitz, Joel. “‘A True Jewish Jew’: Three Yiddish Shylocks.” Theatre Survey 37, no. 1 (May 1996): 75-98.

Documents performances and interpretations of Shylock by...

(The entire section is 800 words.)