The Merchant of Venice
The Merchant of Venice is often identified by modern critics as one of Shakespeare's "problem plays," in that it raises moral dilemmas it does not resolve. The major problematic areas that are frequently the focus of critical debate include the discrepancy between the values professed by Christians in the play and their own apparently contradictory actions, the conflict between male friendship and marriage, and the issue of Shakespeare's arguably anti-Semitic portrayal of Shylock. In addition to these unresolved issues, there is much criticism that focuses on other aspects of the play—such as the issue of gender identity and the language of economics and exchange that permeates the play.
By the end of the play, the Jewish money-lender Shylock has been stripped of his possessions and the right to practice his religion, while the Christian characters—Antonio, Bassanio, and Portia—have lost nothing, and have in fact gained money and love. Despite this favorable outcome for the Christians, they are often accused of failing to practice Christian mercy, among other professed beliefs. Many critics have suggested that the actions of the Christians—the way they speak about and to Shylock, and the way they treat him—speak self-condemingly for themselves. Other critics have argued that Christian virtues are emphasized in the play. Raymond B. Waddington (1977), for example, contrasted the actions of Portia and Bassanio on behalf of each other and Antonio with the actions of Jessica and Lorenzo to maintain that the Christian values of trust and faith are stressed in the play. Waddington also suggests ways in which Antonio's actions toward Shylock might be regarded as merciful. Similarly, Leo Kirschbaum (1962) has asserted that the Christian virtue of faith in Providence is demonstrated through the character of Antonio and the risks he takes.
Other critics have opted for another religious approach to the play, examining Shakespeare's stance on Judaism rather than Christianity. Like many scholars, Kirschbaum seeks to understand what the terms "Jew" and "Christian" meant to Elizabethan audiences. Kirschbaum and others have pointed out that there were no Jewish communities in England in Shakespeare's time, and that the playwright's attitude toward Jews was based on the stereotypical Jewish figure as portrayed in earlier works; this figure served primarily as an anti-Christian scapegoat. Kirschbaum further argues that Shakespeare's Shylock resembles the Elizabethan Puritan, in that the Puritan was often stereotyped as a sober, economically aggressive kill-joy—a projection of Anglican hatred for traits which were contradictory to conventional sensibilities. D. M. Cohen (1980) on the other hand, has argued that the play is indeed anti-Semitic, and not simply in the portrayal of Shylock. Cohen cites the number of times and ways in which the term "Jew" is used in the play and maintains that Jewishness is equated with wickedness. Furthermore, Cohen states, Jews are characterized as inhuman throughout the play until the end, where Shakespeare demonstrates Shylock's humanity. Cohen finds this particularly troubling, asking that if Shakespeare believed that Jews were humans with their own strengths and weakness, why then would he indulge the use of the stereotypical inhuman, evil Jew throughout the play? Finally, other critics have examined the character of Shylock from a different angle entirely. James Shapiro (1996) focused his analysis on Shylock's threat to remove a "pound of flesh" from Antonio. Shapiro suggests that Elizabethans understood this threat to be one of circumcision and examines the implications of this threat to a Christian audience in Elizabethan England.
Another area of interest to scholars is the play's language of exchange, economics, and finance. Lars Engle (1986) explored the use of such language and notes that all the relationships in the play are characterized in some way as economic or legal, not simply emotional or erotic. Engle argues that in discussing the plot in financial terms, the historical implications of the credit market and the marriage market are revealed and can help one to better understand the play. Similarly, Karen Newman (1987) stated that the exchange of goods—including both merchandise and women—colors the play's action. Newman examines the many exchanges of Portia's ring and demonstrates that despite the ring's symbolic nature of Portia's submission to Bassanio, Portia achieves power and prestige through her actions.
One way in which Portia attains power in the play is through her disguise as the doctor of law, Balthazar. Portia's use of male disguise is often the focus of critical discussions regarding the issues of gender identity and gender roles and relations in the play. Coppèlla Kahn (1985) has noted that the ring plot, which hinges on Portia's giving of her ring to Bassanio and her later acceptance of it as Balthazar, highlights the conflict between male friendship (between Bassanio and Antonio) and marriage (between Portia and Bassanio). Keith Geary (1984) has also analyzed Portia's disguise, however, he distinguishes her disguise from that of Shakespeare's other heroines. He notes that Portia's male transformation is complete and free of examinations of the psychological consequences of masquerading as a male. Her identity is wholly different and wholly masculine, further emphasized, Geary reminds, by the fact that in an Elizabethan production a male would be portraying Portia/Balthazar. Geary concludes that Shakespeare uses Portia's disguise to highlight the struggle between heterosexual love and homosexual love found within the love triangle consisting of Portia, Bassanio, and Antonio. This conflict between homosexual and heterosexual love, Geary also notes, is an adaptation of Shakespeare's "romantic love versus male friendship" theme. Michael Shapiro (1996) has also examined what he refers to as "cross-gender disguise." Shapiro argues that in contrast to Shakespeare's other disguised heroines, Portia chooses to take on a male disguise herself; she is not coerced to do so by her circumstances. Additionally, Shapiro contends, by adopting the role of Balthazar, Portia positions herself in a place of authority over men and that this authority is highlighted by the less powerful roles taken on by both Jessica and Nerissa. Finally, in another approach to the issue of gender roles and identity, Marianne Novy (1984) explored the differences between Antonio's self-denial throughout the play and Portia's self-assertion and her acceptance of sexuality. Novy argues that to Elizabethans, both women and Jews were symbols of "absolute otherness," and were associated with impulses related to the flesh rather than the spirit, including sexuality, aggression, and acquisitiveness. Claiming that The Merchant of Venice demonstrates the divided attitude of Elizabethans toward such qualities and toward women, Novy purports that Portia represents the favorable aspects of such traits, as Portia uses her aggressiveness to solidify her loving relationship with Bassanio, whereas Shylock is representative of the negative side of the traits, in that his ambition is self-directed.