The Merchant of Venice (Vol. 87)
The Merchant of Venice
For further information on the critical and stage history of The Merchant of Venice, see SC, Volumes 4, 12, 40, 53, 66, and 77.
Considered a “problem play” by many critics, The Merchant of Venice (c. 1596-97) technically meets the criteria for generic classification as a romantic comedy. The romance centers on Portia, a young heiress of Belmont, and Bassanio, a suitor from Venice. Bassanio finances his pursuit of Portia through a loan from his friend Antonio, a Venetian merchant, who in turn secures a loan from Shylock, a Jewish moneylender. The terms of the contract between Antonio and Shylock specify that the moneylender shall be entitled to a pound of Antonio's flesh if the loan is not repaid on time. Attempting to enforce the contract, Shylock appears in court opposite Portia, who disguises herself as a male lawyer acting on Antonio's behalf. The trial concludes with Antonio's acquittal and Shylock's forced conversion to Christianity. The play, however, ends on a more positive note, with a happy ending for the lovers. Nonetheless, critics and audiences have been disturbed for centuries by the anti-Semitic nature of the play and the tragedy of Shylock's defeat in the courtroom—where he loses everything, including his faith.
Perhaps no character in the Shakespearean canon has generated so much controversy as Shylock. Long considered an anti-Semitic stereotype, the negative characterization of the Jewish moneylender has resulted in the play's almost complete exclusion from secondary school reading lists. Some critics have suggested that Shylock is vilified as a usurer rather than as a Jew. However, M. M. Mahood (1987) argues that “the Elizabethans would have brought a whole heap of prejudices to a play about a ‘stubborn’ Jew who is also a moneylender,” since just as Jews served as scapegoats of Christianity, the usurer served as the scapegoat of an emerging capitalist system. Michael J. C. Echeruo (1971) compares Shakespeare's characterization of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice with Marlowe's rendering of Barabas in The Jew of Malta, examining the relationship of both to stereotypes of Jews. Echeruo notes that critics are divided on the interpretation of that comparison, with some considering Marlowe's play more anti-Semitic and others suggesting that Shakespeare's sympathetic representation of Christianity puts Shylock in an even worse light than Marlowe's Jewish character. In conclusion, Echeruo warns against a sentimental reading of The Merchant of Venice that considers Shylock's ill-treatment to be directed at his profession rather than his religion, noting that “Shylock was before everything else a non-Christian, a Jew.”
Critical attention has also centered on Venice as the play's setting and on Elizabethan England's perception of the culture associated with that city. In his Marxist reading of The Merchant of Venice, Burton Hatlen (1980) views Venice as “a quintessentially capitalist society,” as opposed to Belmont, which he believes “exemplifies the qualities of an aristocratic way of life.” Elizabeth S. Sklar (1976) considers Bassanio the perfect representative of Venice and contends that “an understanding of Bassanio may thus provide some insight into the moral climate of The Merchant of Venice.” Sklar suggests that the character traits exhibited by Bassanio, the romantic hero of the play, are similar to those of Shylock, the play's purported villain. Sklar notes that both characters are devoted to material goods and the acquisition of wealth, and both confuse monetary worth with higher moral or spiritual values. Russell Astley (1979) also compares Shylock with another character as a means of exploring the moral world of the play. Astley views the moneylender and Antonio as opposites: Antonio finances the courtship of Bassanio and Portia, while Shylock refuses his daughter a dowry, forcing her to steal it; Antonio's loan is motivated by love for Bassanio as opposed to the greed and hatred that motivates Shylock's loan; and lastly, Antonio offers mercy freely, whereas Shylock is compelled to be merciful by law.
Despite the controversial nature of the play, The Merchant of Venice has remained one the most popular Shakespearean plays on the stage, ranking with Hamlet as one of the most frequently performed plays in Shakespearean stage history. Over the last four hundred years, Shylock has been played as both a villain and a victim. According to Charles Edelman (2002), the most successful productions have been those in which Shylock has not been treated as a vindictive monster. One such sympathetic representation of Shylock, reviewed by Chris Jefferey (see Further Reading), was Helen Flax's 2001 production in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. According to Jefferey, “it was a strength of this production that it set in opposition to Shylock a gang of swaggering leather-jacketed bullies who made it easy to see why he, or any reasonable person, should detest Christians.” The reviewer notes, however, that the production as a whole was a surface-level interpretation that neglected the play's more complex levels of meaning. In his review of director Shepard Sobel's 2003 Pearl Theater Company production of The Merchant of Venice, D. J. R. Bruckner (2003) also suggests a similar sympathy for Shylock. Bruckner notes that Shylock's “defeat at the end of the play is pitiable,” particularly when Gratiano yanks the yarmulke from the moneylender's head as he leaves the courtroom a broken man.
Shakespeare's intentions regarding Shylock, in particular, and Jews, in general, can never be known with certainty. Critical speculation on the subject has been ongoing, particularly since the nineteenth century. Lester C. Crocker (see Further Reading), who has surveyed the history of scholarly commentary on the subject, maintains that the intensity of the debate is increasing as audiences, unable to enjoy the play because of the unsettling representation of Shylock, look to critics for answers. Scholars, meanwhile, are anxious to rehabilitate Shakespeare's reputation, but are reluctant to alter the characterization of the moneylender in a way that would constitute a transformation of the playwright's original text. Crocker concludes that Shakespeare's true intention—whether endorsing or refuting prejudice against Jews—is unknowable. He contends, however, that “the semiology of anti-Semitism, ‘the Christian disease,’ is to be found in The Merchant of Venice, embedded into its texture.” Jay L. Halio (1993) also addresses Shakespeare's attitude toward Jews and the controversy surrounding his representation of Shylock. The critic notes that “[i]f Shylock is another version of the villainous Jewish money-lender, and like Barabas a comic villain, he is also something more—the first stage Jew in English drama who is multi-dimensional and thus made to appear human.”
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: Mahood, M. M., ed. Introduction to The Merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare, pp. 1-53. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
[In the following excerpt, Mahood examines the date and sources of The Merchant of Venice and the critical assumptions governing the play's reception.]
DATE AND SOURCE
The magnificent sailing ships of the sixteenth century are an unseen presence throughout The Merchant of Venice. ‘Argosies with portly sail’ dominate the opening dialogue, and in the last scene our sense of an ending is satisfied by the news that three of Antonio's ships ‘are richly come to harbour’. So it is highly fitting that the clearest indication within the play of the date at which it was written should be an allusion to a real ship of the period.
In June 1596 an English expedition under the Earl of Essex made a surprise attack on Cadiz harbour. The first objective was four richly appointed and provisioned Spanish galleons; worsted in the fight, these cut adrift and ran aground. Two of them, the San Matias and the San Andrés, were captured before they could be fired, and were triumphantly taken into the English fleet as prize vessels.1 It is generally agreed that the San Andrés, renamed the Andrew, is the ship alluded to as a byword for maritime wealth at line 27 of the play's first scene:
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SOURCE: Halio, Jay L., ed. Introduction to The Merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare, pp. 1-84. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.
[In the following excerpt, Halio addresses Shakespeare's attitude toward Jews, a source of considerable controversy surrounding the representation of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice.]
Any approach to understanding Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice inevitably includes a discussion of the vexed question of its alleged anti-Semitism. This Introduction to the play therefore confronts the question directly, focusing on the background against which the play must be considered and a comparison with another play famous, or infamous, for its portrayal of a Jew, Marlowe's The Jew of Malta. From thence a discussion of the Merchant's [The Merchant of Venice] more immediate sources and its date continues, followed by a detailed analysis of the play itself, which emphasizes its ambiguities, inconsistencies, and internal contradictions. This discussion naturally leads into a survey of the play's performance history, particularly its representation of the dominant character, Shylock, and the major ways he has been portrayed. The Introduction concludes with a discussion of the text and the editorial procedures followed in this edition.
SHAKESPEARE AND SEMITISM
Shakespeare's attitude toward Jews, specifically in...
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SOURCE: Kawachi, Yoshiko, ed. “The Merchant of Venice and Japanese Culture.” In Japanese Studies in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries, pp. 46-69. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1998.
[In the following essay, Kawachi chronicles the reception of Shakespeare's play in Japanese translation.]
In the sixteenth century Venice became one of the most prosperous hubs of East-West trade. Trading and commercial activities in the city filled the city's coffers and stimulated a growth in moneylending. Consequently, a Shylock could find eager clients who needed to finance the cost of supplying and manning merchant ships. At that time, traders could reap huge fortunes or lose everything, and merchant ships commonly sailed from Venice to England, Lisbon, Mexico, the Barbary Coast, and India. Only a few ships sailed to Japan, perhaps because of the distance.
William Adams, a contemporary of Shakespeare's and a pilot of Dutch merchant ship, de Liefde, landed in Japan in 1600. Born in 1564, Adams was the first Englishman of note to arrive in Japan. He became a close adviser of Ieyasu Tokugawa, the lord who succeeded in pacifying the warring lords and establishing a close-knit, highly regulated feudal society. Adams provided Tokugawa with useful information about shipbuilding, European foreign and trade policies, and Western culture and civilization. In return, Tokugawa rewarded...
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SOURCE: Edelman, Charles, ed. Introduction to The Merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare, pp. 1-93. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
[In the following excerpt, Edelman documents the performance history of The Merchant of Venice, paying particular attention to the actors who have played Shylock.]
Mark Twain is thought to have said that Shakespeare was not really the author of the plays, ‘they were written by someone else of the same name’. Although the comment appears nowhere in Mark Twain's works, and has been attributed to others in relation to Homer, not Shakespeare, it still serves as the most sensible solution to the perennial authorship question. Similarly, this introduction, especially when looking at the play as it was first performed, is not about Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, but about another play, also by Shakespeare, of the same name.
In fact, it is very possible that our play was not originally known as The Merchant of Venice: on 22 July 1598, perhaps a year or two after the first performance, ‘a booke of the Merchaunt of Venyce otherwise called the Jewe of Venyce’ was entered for printing at the London Stationers' Register. This is both revealing and reassuring, since The Jew of Venice is a more appropriate title—when printed in 1600, The Merchant of Venice may have been preferred only to avoid confusion with...
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Criticism: Character Studies
SOURCE: Hapgood, Robert. “Portia and The Merchant of Venice: The Gentle Bond.” Modern Language Quarterly 28, no. 1 (March 1967): 19-32.
[In the following essay, Hapgood discusses Portia's devotion and loyalty to the letter of the law.]
In a passage which sums up the main point of his provocative article, “The Merchant of Venice: The Gentle Bond,” Sigurd Burckhardt writes:
the plot is circular: bound in such a way that the instrument of destruction, the bond, turns out to be the source of deliverance. Portia, won through the bond, wins Antonio's release from it; what is more, she wins it, not by breaking the bond, but by submitting to its rigor more rigorously than even the Jew had thought to do. So seen, one of Shakespeare's apparently most fanciful plots proves to be one of the most exactingly structured; it is what it should be: the play's controlling metaphor. As the subsidiary metaphors of the bond and the ring indicate, The Merchant [The Merchant of Venice] is a play about circularity and circulation; it asks how the vicious circle of the bond's law can be transformed into the ring of love. And it answers: through a literal and unreserved submission to the bond as absolutely binding.1
Thus boldly would Burckhardt put a new twist on the prevailing view of Portia, which sees in her...
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SOURCE: Echeruo, Michael J. C. “Shylock and the ‘Conditioned Imagination’: A Reinterpretation.” Shakespeare Quarterly 22, no. 1 (winter 1971): 3-15.
[In the following essay, Echeruo compares Shakespeare's characterization of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice with Marlowe's rendering of Barabas in The Jew of Malta, examining the relationship of both to stereotypes of Jews.]
Irving Ribner's recent comparison of Marlowe's Barabas and Shakespeare's Shylock1 suggests that the finer conclusions to be drawn from any such comparison need to be restated and made quite explicit. It is true, as Prof. Ribner says, that when comparisons are made between The Merchant of Venice and The Jew of Malta—“and it is perhaps inevitable that they should be—it is usually with the assumption that Shakespeare imitated Marlowe. … To some we have Shakespeare palliating the antisemitism of Marlowe with a more sympathetic portrait of a Jew; to others we have Shakespeare striving to outdo Marlowe in antisemitism by presenting a more sympathetic view of the Christian world than Marlowe's.” Ribner's view is that the “proposition” that The Jew of Malta “exerted much influence” upon The Merchant of Venice is “questionable” and “can be positively neither denied nor affirmed”. He feels, also, that the propositions that Shylock “owes much to Barabas”,...
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SOURCE: Sklar, Elizabeth S. “Bassanio's Golden Fleece.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 18, no. 3 (fall 1976): 500-09.
[In the following essay, Sklar highlights similarities between Bassanio and Shylock despite their apparent differences.]
Bassanio is probably the least prepossessing of the principal figures in The Merchant of Venice. Dwarfed by Shylock's monumental passions, Bassanio seems thin-blooded and ultimately rather trivial, and his stature is further diminished by the brilliance and panache of Portia. Yet in some respects Bassanio is as complex and ambiguous a figure as Shylock, if not as fully realized, for although he would seem superficially to be the complete antithesis of Shylock, Bassanio's values and ethic are often uncomfortably similar to those of the usurer. Bassanio shares Shylock's preoccupation with material goods, and is not always able to distinguish between worldly wealth and value of a higher order. He is affectionate, but is also something of an opportunist who uses the affection he inspires in others for material gain. Bassanio's first protestation of love to Antonio is revealing: “To you, Antonio, / I owe the most in money and in love” (I.i.130-31).1 He is capable of generosity, yet his largesse depends on the fortunes of his friends. Although Bassanio can be properly contemptuous of material wealth when the occasion warrants, he manifests...
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Criticism: Production Reviews
SOURCE: Rothwell, Kenneth S. Review of Silent Shakespeare: Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made On. … 1899-1911, released by Milestone Film and Video. Shakespeare Quarterly 52, no. 3 (fall 2001): 428-31.
[In the following excerpt, Rothwell praises the outdoor settings of the Film d'Arte Italiana silent film version of The Merchant of Venice, but regrets that the film's ending has been lost.]
To modernists, Shakespeare in silent movies may seem a laughable oxymoron, but this was not how the European and American filmmakers at the beginning of the twentieth century saw it. Quite the opposite. Putting the plays of William Shakespeare on screen fit their larger design of making a disreputable industry reputable by attracting “the better classes of persons,” who scorned the scruffy nickelodeons and penny gaffs. Seeking excellence, they drew for inspiration on the resources of contemporary theater, even as they strove for some kind of filmic identity. What may look today in an old movie like egregiously ostensive acting simply represents the transferral of theatrical practices to the screen, which involved actors' developing an “attitude” before going on stage, striking statuesque poses, or arranging scenes in static tableaux. If anything, the early filmmakers erred on the side of reverence for the Bard, just as today's postmodernists play ironic games with the canon.
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SOURCE: Fischer, Susan L. Review of The Merchant of Venice. Shakespeare Bulletin 20, no. 1 (winter 2002): 30-1.
[In the following review, Fischer calls Hansgünther Heyme's 2002 staging of The Merchant of Venice a “postmodern, transcultural production,” incorporating elements of Erwin Piscator's “Epic Theatre” as well as Noh theatre.]
Hansgünther Heyme's The Merchant of Venice, with its ideological stress on theatre as a form of “provocation” and its deployment of anti-illusionary techniques of “objective acting” and non-verbal gestures of “showing,” evinced an affinity with the “Epic Theatre” of his mentor, Erwin Piscator. It also alluded to Noh theatre. “Where does good end, and where does evil begin?” That was the question implicating all of the characters in this postmodern, transcultural production. According to the director, the only surety in the marshy terrain of Venice, as well as in the ideal world of Belmont, was money. Everything could be bought, and everything was for sale, including affection and love.
Cuts in Heyme's Merchant [The Merchant of Venice] were severe although they did not alter the core of the text, which was based on a faithful translation from The Oxford Shakespeare (1988). They were, however, sufficient to allow the text to be played without an interval and with only two blackouts (the...
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SOURCE: Bruckner, D. J. R. “In Shylock vs. Antonio, a Ray of Hope for a Pitiable Soul.” New York Times, no. 52674 (21 November 2003): E27.
[In the following review of the 2003 Pearl Theater Company production of The Merchant of Venice, Bruckner underscores the effects of director Shepard Sobel's emphasis on the relationship between Shylock and Antonio.]
In the Pearl Theater Company's Merchant of Venice, Shylock certainly makes the most of his day in court, and all the days before, and that makes this production a sometimes troubling experience. Shepard Sobel, the company's founder and the director here, accomplishes this transformation by focusing our attention more intently than usual on the confrontations between Shylock and Antonio, the merchant of the title.
Dominic Cuskern's Shylock is angry, bristly, too offended for too long to hide his resentment. This Shylock affects a slight Middle European accent, and he knows how to make the other characters, and the audience, feel the snap of his wit. (No other character can stand up to him in this respect.) He makes no big speeches. Those few that we expect to be appeals to the audience are spoken directly to other characters, naturally, and you can feel Shylock struggling to hold onto his temper. His defeat at the end of the play is pitiable.
As for Antonio, Dan Daily turns him into an easily...
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SOURCE: Astley, Russell. “Through a Looking Glass, Darkly: Judging Hazards in The Merchant of Venice.” Ariel 10, no. 2 (April 1979): 17-34.
[In the following essay, Astley explores issues of morality and ethical risk-taking in The Merchant of Venice.]
The Merchant of Venice bases its dramatic logic on the New Testament premise that you get what you give, and the play's consistent enactment of this looking-glass logic creates a world in which mirroring is a major internal principle of order. This makes for a rather peculiar play-world: a providential world where reversal (the last made first) and reflexiveness (the judge self-judged) rule; a world which offers at any moment to confound subject with object and appearance with reality; a world, that is to say, oddly akin to Alice's Looking-glass Garden, where you approach your goal by advancing in the opposite direction. The three main lines of action—the casket-, bond-, and ring-plots—form portions of this reflexive unity, each an analogue of the others, helping to clarify them and the meaning of the whole.
The play as moral mirror of a human nature external to it; the necessity of moral risk-taking: these two ideas are familiar enough to students of The Merchant of Venice. In this essay however I want to propose a more intimate and somewhat different connection between them and to show with what persistence...
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SOURCE: Hatlen, Burton. “Feudal and Bourgeois Concepts of Value in The Merchant of Venice.” Bucknell Review 25, no. 1 (1980): 91-105.
[In the following essay, Hatlen offers a Marxist reading of The Merchant of Venice, maintaining that the playwright questioned both feudal and bourgeois concepts of value.]
Twentieth-century historians such as R. H. Tawney and Christopher Hill have demonstrated that a profound economic, social, and cultural revolution was taking place in England during Shakespeare's lifetime.1 How did this revolution affect Shakespeare's art? Was he a “conservative” defender of the dying feudal order? Or was he perhaps a “progressive” spokesman of an emerging bourgeois civilization?
In the 1930s and 1940s scholars devoted a good deal of energy to debating such questions as these, and by the early 1950s a consensus on this matter had apparently emerged: Shakespeare was, such critics as Theodore Spencer and E. M. W. Tillyard persuasively argued, a “Christian humanist,” a defender of a traditional, hierarchical world view.2 This Conception of Shakespeare has been, in the last two decades, subjected to attack from many quarters; most contemporary Shakespeareans would, I suspect, agree that the Spencer-Tillyard description of Shakespeare's world view is at the very least simplistic.3 Yet rather that seek a more...
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SOURCE: Anderson, Douglas. “The Old Testament Presence in The Merchant of Venice.” ELH 52, no. 1 (spring 1985): 119-32.
[In the following essay, Anderson references Shakespeare's religious sensibility to explain the “sordid conflict between religions” in The Merchant of Venice.]
every something blent together Turns to a wild of nothing, save of joy Expressed and not expressed.
Norman Rabkin argues in the first chapter of his recent book, Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning, for a critical vision which embraces the whole of a play's “aesthetic experience.” Even the most fruitful interpretive scholarship runs the risk of being reductive so long as it neglects the “total and complex involvement” of all of an audience's considerable powers of appreciation, which the best literary art invariably calls into play. Meaning in literature, Rabkin suggests, is almost never simple, almost never internally consistent, almost always richer than any single line of argument can convey.2The Merchant of Venice provides him with an especially apt text for these observations in view of the diversity of response which the figure of Shylock has elicited over the play's history and which that character continues to elicit at different moments in any given performance and in the experience of any given...
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SOURCE: Hale, John K. “Does Source Criticism Illuminate the Problems of Interpreting The Merchant as a Soured Comedy?” In The Merchant of Venice: New Critical Essays, edited by John W. Mahon and Ellen Macleod Mahon, pp. 187-97. New York: Routledge, 2002.
[In the following essay, Hale discusses Shakespeare's use of Il Pecorone as a source for The Merchant of Venice.]
The value of source-criticism within Shakespeare is ancillary, negative, and indicative. It will help us think about a play or scene. It will tell us how not to think about them. And in the absence of other hard evidence as to the genesis or intention of a play, source-criticism—by showing where and how a play began—can indicate directions of imaginative change. In fact, the pattern of what Shakespeare leaves out, picks up, extends, and adds from elsewhere indicates a great deal.
These truisms apply with particular force to The Merchant of Venice, for two main reasons. First, the play's storyline keeps very close to its main source, the story of Giannetto from Il Pecorone—from the initial borrowing of capital for a wooing journey by the young protégé of the Venetian merchant, through the sex-disguising and trial scene, to the concluding practical joke of the wedding rings. Secondly, source-study has something to put alongside the play's theatre and critical history, in which...
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Barnet, Sylvan, ed. Introduction to Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Merchant of Venice: A Collection of Critical Essays, pp. 1-10. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1970.
Maintains that the overall comic structure of The Merchant of Venice should not be obscured by a sympathetic approach to the characterization of Shylock.
Colley, John Scott. “Launcelot, Jacob, and Esau: Old and New Law in The Merchant of Venice.” The Yearbook of English Studies 10 (1980): 181-89.
Explores elements of The Merchant of Venice that often trouble audiences, in both Shakespeare's time and today.
Cooper, John R. “Shylock's Humanity.” In Shakespeare Quarterly 21, no. 2 (spring 1970): 117-24.
Examines interpretations of Shylock's character from various perspectives, maintaining that he should be viewed neither as a grotesque villain nor as a sympathetic victim.
Crocker, Lester G. “The Merchant of Venice and Christian Conscience.” Diogenes, no. 118 (summer 1982): 77-102.
Investigates why the treatment of Shylock causes uneasiness and distress in the conscience of Christians.
Gross, John. “Where Does He Come From?” In Shylock: A Legend and Its Legacy, pp. 15-30. New York:...
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