Is the title of Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" an appropriate one?
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 Windsor—refer 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)
BASSANIO: . . . For the four winds blow in from every coast
Renowned suitors . . .
O, my Antonio! had I but the means
To 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...
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