The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare

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Do you think that the title of the play The Merchant of Venice is an appropriate one?

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Even though Antonio has a significant role and the play's title alludes to his character, The Merchant of Venice primarily concerns the actions of Shylock, the Jewish moneylender. Shylock is one of Shakespeare's most dynamic characters, and his decision to ask for a pound of Antonio's flesh creates conflict throughout the play. Shylock's duality is illuminated as the audience judges whether he is simply an oppressed minority in Venice, or a truly greedy usurer. Being a Jew in a predominantly Christian city is difficult for Shylock, who is continually discriminated against. Shakespeare creates sympathy for Shylock's character by revealing his emotions. One of the play's most famous speeches comes from Shylock, when he asks,

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. (3.1.50-60)

Despite Shylock's defense of his actions, there are other scenes in the play where he is depicted as a greedy, malevolent individual. Shylock's complex personality and significant role as antagonist are both entertaining and vital to the plot of the play. Perhaps, the title of the play should allude to Shylock and not Antonio.

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Antonio is generally recognized as the merchant in The Merchant of Venice. He is a Christian who stands as the opposite of the money lender, Shylock who is a Jew. In European culture, when in the 1500s and 1600s Christianity was virtually universal, Antonio is also the symbol of Christianity. When Antonio is dealing with Bassanio, he does act like a Christian showing generosity, love, devotion, kindness. Later the same day, when he is talking with Shylock. Antonio shows not one shred of Christian qualities: he is hateful, mean, cruel, insulting. This is also part of the representation Christianity of the era because it was viewed as right to suspend Christian precepts when dealing with Jews.

Antonio is the pivotal character. On one side, it is his display of Christian values that lets Bassanio win Portia's hand. On the other side, it is his dearth of Christian values that incites an enraged Shylock to exact an absurd bond--the pound of flesh--for the lending of the three thousand ducats. Furthermore, the climax of the play centers around Antonio. When Antonio's pivotal and contradictory role is considered, it seems safe to say that yes, the title The Merchant of Venice is an appropriate one because it is through the merchant Antonio that Shakespeare explores the assumptions about Christian behavior and values.

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Is the title of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice an appropriate one?

The title of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice refers to Antonio, the protagonist in the play, who...

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is a well-regarded Venetian merchant.

Interestingly, unlike the titles of Shakespeare's tragedies and histories, which are all named after the protagonist(s), of the fourteen comedies that Shakespeare wrote, only four titles—The Merchant of Venice, Taming of the Shrew, Two Gentlemen of Verona, and The Merry Wives of Windsorrefer directly to characters in the plays.

However, no one refers directly to Antonio as a merchant from Venice until well past the midpoint of the play:

GRATIANO: . . . What's the news from Venice?How doth that royal merchant, good Antonio? (3.2.244–245)

We learn in the very first scene of the play that Antonio is a well-respected merchant, and that he has many ships at sea:

SALERIO: Your mind is tossing on the ocean;There, where your argosies, with portly sail,—Like signiors and rich burghers on the flood,Or, as it were, the pageants of the sea,—Do overpeer the petty traffickers,That curt'sy to them, do them reverence,As they fly by them with their woven wings. (1.1.8–14)

Since Antonio has all of his money invested in his ships and merchandise, he's unable to lend his friend, Bassanio, the money he needs to hold his place with other suitors and respectably woo Portia.

BASSANIO: . . . For the four winds blow in from every coastRenowned suitors . . .O, my Antonio! had I but the meansTo hold a rival place with one of them,I have a mind presages me such thrift,That I should questionless be fortunate. (1.1.173–181)

Antonio agrees to let Bassanio borrow money in his name from Shylock, the money-lender and a hated adversary of Antonio, and the main plot of the play begins.

Present-day misperceptions about to whom the title of the play actually refers arise from the prominence of the Shylock character in the play. Shylock is a much more flamboyant and engaging character than Antonio, and, as in a number of Shakespeare's plays (and many other plays), the villains are much more interesting and memorable than the stalwart heroes.

In Shakespeare's time, the confusion about the title arose from two sources: a notation about the play in the Stationer's Register (where records of plays approved for publication were made), and the title of the first printed version of the play.

The entry in the Stationer's Register in 1598 reads: "a book of the Merchant of Venice, otherwise called the Jew of Venice." Although no existing published version of the play carries the title The Jew of Venice, the title The Merchant of Venice was thought to refer to Shylock, not to Antonio, even though Shylock is definitely not a merchant, but a money-lender, and not the protagonist in the play.

Adding to the confusion, Christopher Marlowe wrote a play in about 1589 entitled The Jew of Malta, in which the Jew of the title, Barabas, a villainous character (but considerably more villainous than Shylock), poisons his own daughter and nearly everyone else in sight, arranges for Turkish galley slaves and soldiers to be blown up by gunpowder, and devises a trap for the Turkish prince and his men to be boiled alive.

Given that a large number of playgoers in Shakespeare's time were anti-Semitic, even though many of them would never have met or even known a Jew in their entire lives, they would have cast Shylock and Barabas in much the same villainous mold and thought of the characters as interchangeable.

The first printed edition of the play in 1600 is titled The most excellent Historie of the Merchant of Venice. With the extreame crueltie of Shylocke the Jewe towards the sayd Merchant, in cutting a just pound of his flesh; and the obtaining of Portia by the choyce of three chests—which pretty much gives away the entire plot of the play.

Although the title clearly states that the play is about the "Merchant of Venice," the prominent and somewhat sensational reference to the "extreame cueltie of Shylocke the Jewe towards the sayd Merchant" might have led some to believe that the play was more about "Shylocke" than about the unnamed "Merchant."

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Is the title of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice an appropriate one?

Yes, the title is appropriate for a number of reasons. Firstly, the protagonist in the play, Antonio, is a merchant and he plies his trade from the city of Venice. Here is where he spends most of his time and where he manages his business. When one starts reading the text, there is no doubt who exactly the title refers to. The fact that he is a sea merchant is evident from the following extract from Act 1, Scene 1, in which Antonio states:

My ventures are not in one bottom trusted,Nor to one place; nor is my whole estateUpon the fortune of this present year:Therefore my merchandise makes me not sad. 

Secondly, Venice forms the backdrop for most of the action featured in the play. It is here where Antonio undertakes to help his friend Bassanio to obtain a loan from Shylock, the money lender, and where he signs a bond to that effect.

Venice is also the setting for probably the most important scenes in the play - for example, the court hearing in which Shylock seeks restitution from Antonio for not having met the terms of their agreement. It is also here where Portia proves how deeply she loves Bassanio by intervening as a lawyer in disguise and, in effect, saving the life of Antonio, her love's closest friend and confidante.

In addition, Shylock, the antagonist, is also from Venice and runs his money lending operation in the city. He is also a merchant, for he trades in capital. In this sense, therefore, the title encapsulates both the protagonist and his arch enemy and is thus more than appropriate.

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Is the title of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice an appropriate one?

One of the interesting things about “The Merchant of Venice” is its title. Antonio is the title character, and in many ways he’s an odd one: although he takes on the bond that the plot hinges on, and is in that sense at the center of the action, he actually speaks very seldom and his presence is often overshadowed by Portia, Shylock, even Bassanio and Gratiano steal focus from him sometimes. His role in the play is the linchpin of the plot, but both Portia and Shylock dominate the action much more. Yet the play isn’t called “The Jew of Venice”, even though Shylock is often the most memorable character, and it isn’t called “The Heiress of Belmont” even though Portia has the longest role. Why is that?

One possible reason is that by calling it “The Merchant of Venice”, Shakespeare not only focuses the play on Antonio and the bond that almost costs him his life, but also emphasizes the role of money in the play. Antonio is a merchant and by putting his job in the title Shakespeare has pointed up how much the play is concerned with money, finance, investments and the transactional nature of the characters’ relationships (almost everybody in the play has a certain financial interest in each of the others, no matter how they may feel about them). The title foregrounds the world of finance and investment that pervades the play.

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