Written sometime between 1596 and 1598, The Merchant of Venice is classified as both an early Shakespearean comedy (more specifically, as a "Christian comedy") and as one of the Bard's problem plays; it is a work in which good triumphs over evil, but serious themes are examined and some issues remain unresolved.
In Merchant, Shakespeare wove together two ancient folk tales, one involving a vengeful, greedy creditor trying to exact a pound of flesh, the other involving a marriage suitor's choice among three chests and thereby winning his (or her) mate. Shakespeare's treatment of the first standard plot scheme centers around the villain of Merchant, the Jewish moneylender Shylock, who seeks a literal pound of flesh from his Christian opposite, the generous, faithful Antonio. Shakespeare's version of the chest-choosing device revolves around the play's Christian heroine Portia, who steers her lover Bassanio toward the correct humble casket and then successfully defends his bosom friend Antonio from Shylock's horrid legal suit.
In the modern, post-Holocaust readings of Merchant, the problem of anti-Semitism in the play has loomed large. A close reading of the text must acknowledge that Shylock is a stereotypical caricature of a cruel, money-obsessed medieval Jew, but it also suggests that Shakespeare's intentions in Merchant were not primarily anti-Semitic. Indeed, the dominant thematic complex in The Merchant of Venice is much more universal than specific religious or racial hatred; it spins around the polarity between the surface attractiveness of gold and the Christian qualities of mercy and compassion that lie beneath the flesh.