The Merchant of Venice (Vol. 66)
The Merchant of Venice
For further information on the critical and stage history of The Merchant of Venice, see SC, Volumes 4, 12, 40, and 53.
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
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 that this play is a fruitful source of disagreement. It may be called either comedy or tragedy. Shylock may be regarded as a villain, a comic figure, or a martyr. Bassanio may be either an idealized Renaissance lover or a wastrel who recoups a squandered fortune by risking the life of a dear friend who in turn may be either a good businessman or a fool. Jessica is a charming young Jewess who is justified in leaving an unhappy home to elope with a handsome Christian lover, or she is an ungrateful wench who robs a provident father and who proves a traitor to her own religion. Indeed, as the reader will be reminded in the pages which follow, all of these varied conclusions have been reached.2 But comparatively little attention has...
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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, and most discussed plays. It is also one of his most troubling plays. It is troubling in form because it presents a series of actions that are difficult to integrate into a coherent and unified whole.1 It is troubling in substance because it presents a Christian society in the ugliness of its anti-Semitism, and while Shakespeare clearly has a broader view than his Venetians, his presentation of the Jew nonetheless appears to draw from the same unsavory and stereotypical prejudices that move the Christian Venetians. Moreover, among the comic resolutions of the play, the “setting to rights” of all the disruptions that have impelled the play's action, are the forced conversion of Shylock to Christianity, and the desertion by...
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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 places, and handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief?
(King Lear IV.vi.151-4)
When Portia, disguised as Balthasar, “a young and learned doctor”, enters the Court of Justice in The Merchant of Venice, her first, business-like, question is “Which is the merchant here? And which the Jew?” (IV.i.173) It is an astonishing question. We know that Shylock would have been dressed in a “gaberdine”, because, we are told, Antonio habitually spits on it. This was a long garment of hard cloth habitually worn by Jews who, since 1412, had been obliged to wear a distinctive robe extending down to the feet. Shylock would have been, literally, a ‘marked’ man (in a...
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Criticism: Character Studies
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 critic John Gross shows through careful documentation in his highly instructive new study, Shylock: A Legend and Its Legacy. Why this should be so is something of a puzzle.
An account of the plan of John Gross's book might make it sound like one of those tedious chronological surveys of the “reception history” of a familiar literary work. In fact, Gross handles his subject with such urbane intelligence and wit, such fine alertness to the telling detail and anecdote, such a nice balance of both aesthetic and moral judgment, that his survey becomes a deeply interesting case-study of the ambiguous relations between literature and historical reality.
Shylock is divided into three roughly equal...
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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:
In sooth, I know not why I am so sad; It wearies me, you say it wearies you; But how I caught it, found it, or came by it, What stuff 'tis made of, whereof it is born, I am to learn; And such a want-wit sadness makes of me, That I have much ado to know myself.
(1.1.1-7; emphasis added)
Thus, he immediately establishes the play's keen interest, which runs throughout, in the inadequacy of human knowledge. As readers and audiences, our first impulse is to provide the reason for Antonio's sadness—in most cases (cases too numerous to mention individually), the cause advanced is Bassanio's imminent departure. To assume so, however, is to remain deaf to Antonio's emphasis and to the dynamic of the entire...
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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 one wants to lose the play Shakespeare wrote for one he merely suggested.
—C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy
In this book I analyze the figure of Shylock, the unfortunate Jewish villain in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice. My immediate aim is to challenge the widespread presumption that Shakespeare is, in the last analysis, unfriendly to Jews. In so doing, my larger hope is to rescue Shakespeare's play as a helpful guide for the self-understanding of the modern Jew.
What modern Jewish readers find most unpalatable and upsetting about the dramatic fate of Shylock is his forced conversion to Christianity. Shylock, a wealthy moneylender, is made...
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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:
This is the Jew That Shakespeare drew.(1)
Pope's comment shows that he considered Macklin's hard and bitterly malevolent interpretation to be a welcome corrective to the Shylock of Thomas Doggett and his successors in George Granville's adaptation, The Jew of Venice,2 a lurid burlesque of the role that had held the stage since 1701. It also shows a yearning, shared by all students of the play, to reconstruct somehow the first Shylock, about whom there is no reliable contemporary information whatsoever—the actor Thomas Jordan's doggerel description,
His beard was red … His habit was a Jewish gown, That would defend all weather; His chin turned up, his nose hung down, And...
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Criticism: Production Reviews
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, design stayed true to the feel of a period rather than the time itself.
Costume designer Nan Cibula-Jenkins says the design team brought pictorial research to the table early, and they knew why they deviated from historical accuracy in every instance. “Even though we were manipulating colors and styles, we wanted the audience to think they were watching people in the 20s. [Back then], all the bathing suits would have been navy or black,” she says; she used tropical colors to create a lighthearted ambiance for the Belmont scenes. “Navy would have given the piece a different feeling.”
Cibula-Jenkins, who built all the women's clothing and rented the majority of men's garments from the Royal...
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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, including the memoir Shadow of the Stone Heart: A Search for Manhood. During a conversation with me in his London home on 15 June, Olivier reflected on his approach to directing Merchant at the New Globe on Bankside this summer. His remote preparation for the assignment began much earlier and included a trip last winter to the University of Lecce, in the Italian province of Puglia, where he conducted a workshop on the play for drama students. The Italian students provided insight into the energy of Italian character and expressed satisfaction with a dramatic action that moved from carnival toward the “Passion”/Easter of the courtroom scene. Students in Lecce readily perceived Shylock as a villain.
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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 discussions of the project had suggested that this was likely to be the case. Paul Nelsen, in a well-informed report from one of the conferences of theater scholars which preceded the official opening, cited various speculations that were being floated there. Would Globe audiences act like fans at a sporting event? Should actors try “warming up the crowd before performances”? Perhaps, some feared, “a stadium-like atmosphere might provoke actors to adopt a fustian style.”1 Accurate predictions, self-fulfilling prophecies, or simply fantasies? The discussions I heard and read in the summer of 1998 were an uneasy mix of the anecdotal (“Well, it wasn't like that on the afternoon when I went”) and the abstract: a surprising...
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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 the National Theater. Also, as his present staging of The Merchant of Venice definably proves, Nunn has the effect on Shakespeare of wiping a time-honored canvas clean, revealing colors whose clarity is sometimes shocking: After all, when was the last time that Merchant—for all its abundant mournfulness—was packed so full of high spirits?
The larkiness of the gentile community is one of the unsettling masterstrokes of a production that has followed Olympia Dukakis in Martin Sherman's “Rose” as the second show in the Cottesloe studio to receive an ovation at a performance attended by this critic. True, there are moments when the casting doesn't deliver the textual insight felt throughout, and one...
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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. Twenty years later, in 1978, after a summer as an NEH fellow at Berkeley, researching the subject of sodomy in the Renaissance, I reread the play. I still found it to be about anti-Semitism under mercantile capitalism, but now just as clearly it was also about homosexual eroticism in conflict with heterosexual marriage, about the rivalry of romantic male friendship with the claims of conventional marriage. This paper explores the relationship of these themes—money, ethnic hatred, sexual rivalry—and argues that they are analogous to one another; they are the matter and the feelings that define the merchant of the title.
Literally, that merchant is Antonio, though in the popular mind the title always invokes Shylock. Part...
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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 who the better man is, the ‘fairest creature northward born’ (II.i.4) or the ‘tawny Moor’ (s.d. II.i), might be settled by cutting their bodies and comparing their blood: Morocco's redder blood will show his greater courage, and prove his personal value despite his devalued skin colour. His challenge is couched in the Petrarchan rhetoric he uses throughout this scene, and the ‘body’ is merely verbal; yet a fleeting threat to bring his real body into the scene is voiced. Morocco is challenging the prevailing racist depreciation of his ‘complexion’ by turning to another conventional corporeal sign, redness of blood. The call for incision invokes a figurative body as a means of asserting personal value, and is typical of...
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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, uncivilized, unredeemed. Although women could be praised for being as virtuous or intelligent as men, or Jews for converting to Christianity or behaving as Christians ought, nevertheless femaleness and Jewishness as qualities in themselves had negative meanings in this tradition—both were associated with the flesh, not the spirit, and therefore with impulses toward sexuality, aggression, and acquisitiveness. …1
Novy argues that these were “all qualities becoming more evident in Renaissance society” and that in rejecting the Jew and finally repressing the power of women, the play reflects a desire to contain its own movement toward individualism.2
While I do not...
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SOURCE: Abrams, Richard. “The Gaping Pig—and Worse: Shylock's Christian Ducats.” In Afterimages: A Festschrift in Honor of Irving Massey, edited by William Kumbier and Ann Colley, pp. 163-74. Buffalo, N.Y.: Shuffaloff, 1996.
[In the following essay, Abrams explores the theme of sadness in The Merchant of Venice, noting that disappointment is Shylock's most telling characteristic.]
My topic is sadness in The Merchant of Venice—Jewish sadness, ultimately, though it is with Antonio's sadness that the play begins.
In sooth I know not why I am so sad. It wearies me, you say it wearies you; But how I caught it, found it, or came by it, What stuff 'tis made of, whereof it is born, I am to learn. And such a want-wit sadness makes of me That I have much ado to know myself.
Of course there have been attempts at explanation. Antonio anticipates losing Bassanio; he has presentiments of disaster, or “some sort of rich man's melancholy”; he is assailed by conscience for failing to live up to his Christian code.2 All these explanations are suggestive and some work well in combination, but, to my mind, they give Antonio too much credit. Whether they attribute his sadness to neurotic suffering or to the operation of a higher instinct, they mark him as a man of sensibility, ratifying the character's own pretensions....
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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 sense as a play about love's inability to allow us to dispense with a loveless realm of hard necessity and, even more, about love's dependence on a loveless realm for its own survival. But the rejection of the idealistic account does not make The Merchant a cynical play. It remains a romantic comedy because it shows that love does not require the myth of its invulnerability and all-conquering power to remain meaningful both in the here-and-now and as a pointer to something beyond it.
The Merchant intertwines two distinct stories, a very pleasant and a very unpleasant one. The pleasant story takes place in the beautiful estate of Belmont where the young Venetian nobleman Bassanio wins Portia's hand by...
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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 cultural difference continued to challenge, boldly or surreptitiously, Christian hegemony in Europe.1 In Shylock the Jew and the Prince of Morocco the Moor, The Merchant of Venice presents these two kinds of infidels and thus brings together within this problem comedy two groups for whom Renaissance England felt a special fascination and repulsion. That the play forges and exploits a link between the two groups is not self-evident, for Shakespeare assigns Shylock and Morocco to separate realms—Venice and Belmont respectively—and thereby seems to place in the background any meaningful association between Jew and Moor. I wish, however, to foreground this association and argue that the distinctive rhetoric of each...
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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 have long agreed that Lorenzo's speech about harmony in the last scene of Merchant is a traditional praise of music that enacts dramatically the play's fully harmonious resolution. Long ago, C. L. Barber asserted that “No other comedy, until the late romances, ends with so full an expression of harmony as that which we get in the opening of the final scene of Merchant. And no other final scene is so completely without irony about the joys it celebrates.”1 This remains a standard reading of Lorenzo's speech and the final scene. In this essay, I mean to show that the play does not support such readings. A harmonious resolution “completely without irony” requires the harmonious assimilation of Jessica in...
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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 contributions to scholarship and teaching in literature has been its attention to several well-worked “legalistic” stories. Particular success has been achieved in the debates about Melville's Billy Budd, Sailor, where an established critical perspective on Captain Vere has been challenged by recourse to legal materials and closer readings of the story's legalistic passages.2
In recent years, a similar methodology has been applied to The Merchant of Venice.3 Abjuring the mainstream critical insistence on “non-ironic” readings of what is clearly one of Shakespeare's most complex and ironic plays, law and literature scholars have again simply noticed what the text affords in rich...
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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 Yiddish-speaking actors and directors in American theater during the first half of the twentieth century.
Boehrer, Bruce. “Shylock and the Rise of the Household Pet: Thinking Social Exclusion in The Merchant of Venice.” Shakespeare Quarterly 50, no. 2 (summer 1999): 152-70.
Traces parallels between Jessica's status in the society of The Merchant of Venice and that of pets (specifically dogs) in Elizabethan England.
Booth, Roy. “Shylock's Sober House.” Review of English Studies 50, no. 197 (February 1999): 22-31.
Observes the symbolic function of Shylock's (i.e. a Jew's) house in The Merchant of Venice with a view to early...
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