There may not be a play more misnamed in Shakespeare’s entire canon than The Merchant of Venice. Though he is certainly an important character, Antonio—the merchant in question—merits, at best, fourth billing. The main lovers in the play, Portia and Bassanio, command a great deal more attention, and, as most commentators suggest, Shylock is ultimately the main attraction. Although the Jewish moneylender “appears in only five of the play’s twenty scenes, and not at all in the fifth act, everyone agrees that the play belongs to Shylock” (Barnet 193-4). His dominance is such that, in certain productions (particularly in the nineteenth century), the last act has been “omitted entirely” (Myrick, “Introduction” xxii). Yet, despite his somewhat lesser role, Antonio proves crucial to both main plots of The Merchant of Venice. His agreement to serve as collateral for Shylock’s loan to Bassanio facilitates the latter’s courtship of Portia, and the risk to his life which results from this arrangement generates much of the plot’s complications. Shakespeare’s decision to make him the title character perhaps stems from an acknowledgment of Antonio’s structural importance to all the various story lines, as well as from an effort—perhaps unsuccessful—to balance the audience’s attention equally between Shylock’s thirst for revenge and the romance of Portia and Bassanio.
Antonio’s importance as the hinge between the play’s two main plots may reflect the fact that Shakespeare had no one particular inspiration for The Merchant, but rather drew primarily on two different sources. Both the story of the three caskets and the story of a usurer’s demand of a pound of human flesh apparently derive from Oriental folk-tales (Myrick, “Sources” 142-3; Barton 250), though it is likely that Shakespeare encountered them from Italian and Latin sources. A collection of Italian stories, Il Pecorone, is usually suggested as Shakespeare’s source for the pound of flesh, while Gesta Romanorum, a book of medieval Latin stories (first translated into English in 1577), was very likely his introduction to the three caskets (Myrick, “Sources” 142-3). As with most of Shakespeare’s plays, the exact date of composition is unknown, but contemporary references prove that it had been performed at least by 1598. “In 1598 and in 1600 the play was entered in the Stationers’ Register. It was first published in a quarto (Q1) in 1600" (Myrick, “Textual Note” 139).
The most prominent cultural issues in The Merchant, both embodied in the character of Shylock, are the Elizabethan attitudes toward Jews and usury (moneylending). Although “[e]laborate arguments have been mounted to demonstrate that The Merchant of Venice is not anti-Semitic”—presumably stemming from critics’ desire to defend the ethics of the man many consider to be the greatest poet of the English language—”it is no good to try to discard the hate that energizes the play” (Charney 47). “Jews had been officially banished from England for three centuries” by the time Shakespeare was writing, and there was a lingering hatred of the Jewish race and religion among Christian societies (Barton 250). Such a Christian grudge against Jews allegedly stemmed from the latter group’s rejection of Christ, and this sad mixture of racial and religious prejudice is by no means absent from the play. The anti-Semitic mood of England was further fueled by the trial and execution of Roderigo Lopez—a Portuguese Jew and physician to Queen Elizabeth—who was accused of attempting to poison his employer in 1594, a few years before Shakespeare’s play was written (Barton 250). The association of Jews with usury is a stereotype unfortunately still familiar to us today; apart from such racial animosity, however, the Elizabethans despised moneylending for interest in and of itself. The practice was technically illegal in England at the time, although there were various ways—some officially-sanctioned—around the law (Myrick, “Introduction” xxvii-iii). The possibility of Antonio’s death as a result of his financial dealings with Shylock no doubt reflects the contemporary fear about the exorbitant interest rates usurers sometimes charged.
The stage history of The Merchant of Venice has largely been the history of the interpretation of Shylock. How Shakespeare staged the play and the part is unknown; the absence of extensive reference to it throughout the 1600s suggests it wasn’t originally one of the author’s most popular works (Barnet 194). George Granville staged a notable adaptation of it in 1701, featuring a bumbling, comic Shylock, and this interpretation appears to have been the standard one until 1741, when Charles Macklin radically transformed the character into a terrifying, almost monstrous villain (Barnet 194-6). The next major revision in the acting of the role occurred in 1814, when Edmund Kean presented a Shylock who “evoked not simply terror but pity”; Shylock was seen as justified in his rage, due to his ill-treatment at the hands of the Christians (Barnet 196-7)....
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Venice. Major Italian port whose commercial activities are the play’s focus. William Shakespeare’s Venice is a busy mercantile center, in which businessmen are concerned about their cargoes at sea and who are often at the mercy of usurious moneylenders, such as Shylock. A wealthy Jew, Shylock has a deep-rooted animosity toward Christians, who chronically insult him and his religion. Although Venice is dominated by money, with its foundations resting on commerce, trade, and family inheritances, there is a society of exclusiveness under its busy mercantile surface—which is symbolized by the Rialto Bridge, a common meeting place for businessmen. Venice’s people include reviled Jews and anti-Semitic Christians, and Venetian law has the inveterate power to turn individuals into scapegoats.
*Belmont. Town near Venice in which the wealthy young Portia lives. In contrast with Venice, Belmont is a place of beautiful material luxury and pleasure. Portia’s beauty, wit, and grace distinguish her home, but it is actually a world of idleness, frivolity, music, and romance. Portia and her waiting-maid Nerissa seem to do little but gossip about Portia’s eager suitors and show much anxiety about Bassanio’s chances at winning her hand. A scene in which Portia’s suitors must choose among treasure caskets to win her hand in marriage is pregnant with the symbolism of wealth and moral implications.
Shylock’s house. Venetian home of Shylock the moneylender. Shylock’s daughter Jessica and his servant Launcelot Gobbo complain about the hellishness of the place, where thrift is practiced, where doors and windows are shut against the masked Christian revelers whom Shylock regards as threats to his religion and his property.
Shakespeare also uses generalized street scenes or scenes in front of Shylock’s to demonstrate the anti-Semitism of Solario, Salerio, and Gratiano, and to contrast the shallowness of these men and of Launcelot Gobbo with the wisdom of Portia and the considered judgment of Antonio, the rich and generous merchant of the play’s title.
Court. Venetian court of justice that is the setting for the all-important trial scene, in which the problem of Shylock’s bond is resolved by Portia’s ingenious cleverness and a bargain that Shylock is forced to make with Venetian law in a crystallization of opposite forces: lofty Jewish concept of right and Christian “mercy.”
Act I, Scenes 1-3: Questions and Answers
1. What causes do Salerio and Solanio suggest for Antonio’s melancholy?
2. What humorous advice does Gratiano offer Antonio?
3. Why does Bassanio want Antonio to loan him more money?
4. Why is Portia angry with her deceased father?
5. Why does Nerissa tell Portia she “need not fear” her unwelcome suitors?
6. What do Portia and Nerissa think of Bassanio?
7. According to Shylock, why does he hate Antonio?
8. Why is Shylock indignant over Antonio’s request?
9. What is Antonio’s response to Shylock’s accusation?
10. In exchange for what does Shylock agree to lend Antonio and Bassanio the...
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Act II, Scenes 1-9: Questions and Answers
1. Why does Morocco fear Portia will reject him at the outset?
2. What is Bassanio’s reservation about Gratiano accompanying him to Belmont?
3. What is Jessica’s dilemma concerning her father, Shylock?
4. How does Lorenzo plan to disguise Jessica in order for her to escape from her father?
5. Before going to dine with Antonio and Bassanio, what advice does Shylock give his daughter?
6. Why does Jessica not want Lorenzo to see her when he arrives at Shylock’s house?
7. What is Morocco’s rationale for choosing the gold casket?
8. What news has Salerio heard, making him anxious?
9. How does Solanio...
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Act III, Scenes 1-5: Questions and Answers
1. Why, since it won’t result in any financial gain, does Shylock insist on the terms of his bond with Antonio?
2. What news does Tubal bring Shylock?
3. Why does Portia want Bassanio to wait before facing the challenge of the three caskets?
4. Why does Bassanio select the lead casket?
5. What does the lead casket contain?
6. What does Portia claim will occur if Bassanio gives up the ring she gives him?
7. What does Gratiano reveal after Bassanio solves the riddle of the three caskets?
8. Why does Portia allow Bassanio to leave before they get married?
9. According to Antonio, why won’t the Duke be able...
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Act IV, Scenes 1-2: Questions and Answers
1. What does the Duke request of Shylock?
2. What reason does Shylock give for his wanting the pound of Antonio’s flesh?
3. Why does Antonio advise his friends to give up attempting to dissuade Shylock?
4. Why does Shylock believe the Duke must enforce the terms of the bond?
5. Why does Portia, disguised as the lawyer, initially conclude that Shylock’s bond must be adhered to?
6. Although she acknowledges Shylock’s right to a pound of Antonio’s flesh, how does Portia prevent the usurer from acting on it?
7. Why is Shylock stripped of his possessions?
8. Apart from the financial conditions, what does Antonio’s...
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Act V, Scene 1: Questions and Answers
1. What message does Stephano deliver to Lorenzo and Jessica?
2. What opinion does Lorenzo hold of men who don’t like music?
3. What does Portia order her household not to do?
4. To whom does Nerissa claim to believe Gratiano gave his ring?
5. What does Portia threaten when Bassanio admits he gave the ring away?
6. What does Portia claim she will do if she encounters the doctor to whom Bassanio gave the ring?
7. How does Antonio attempt to placate Portia?
8. What does Portia offer Bassanio to seal the new promise?
9. What secret does Portia reveal to the company?
10. What good news does Portia...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Sources for Further Study
Bulman, James. Shakespeare in Performance: The Merchant of Venice. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. Provides a survey of nineteenth century productions and a critique of several major twentieth century productions, including a comparison of Jonathan Miller’s stage version (featuring Laurence Olivier as Shylock) with the BBC-TV version he produced ten years later.
Danson, Lawrence. The Harmonies of “The Merchant of Venice.” New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1978. An excellent full-length study of the play that treats everything from “The Problem of Shylock” to law...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
*If available, books are linked to Amazon.com
Barnet, Sylvan. “The Merchant of Venice on the Stage.” Shakespeare 192-205.
Barton, Anne. “Introduction to The Merchant of Venice.” The Riverside Shakespeare. By William Shakespeare. Eds. G. Blakemore Evans, et al. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1974. 250-253.
Bradbrook, Muriel C. Shakespeare the Craftsman. London: Chatto & Windus, 1969.
Brown, John Russell. Discovering Shakespeare: A New Guide to the Plays. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.
Charney, Maurice. All of Shakespeare. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.
Compact Edition of the...
(The entire section is 324 words.)