The Merchant of Venice
The Merchant of Venice (c. 1596-97) has been labeled a problem play by many critics due to its combination of comic, tragic, and romantic elements as well as its ambiguous treatment of racial and religious differences. In the play, the merchant Antonio borrows money from Jewish moneylender Shylock in order to assist his friend Bassanio. Bassanio, a Venetian gentleman, borrows the money from Antonio in order to finance his pursuit of Portia, the heiress of Belmont, whom he wishes to marry. Ostensibly a romantic comedy centering on Antonio, Portia, and Bassanio, The Merchant of Venice explores darker issues as well, such as the treatment of Shylock, who is portrayed as a stereotypically greedy Jew and a social outcast. For attempting to enforce his contract with Antonio, a contract stipulating that a pound of flesh be removed from Antonio for failure to repay his loan, Shylock is forced to convert to Christianity. Critics often observe that, unlike many modern viewers and readers, the play's original audiences were not offended by the characterization and fate of Shylock. However, Shylock and his punishment have been the source of major critical debate since the nineteenth century and continue to be today. His standing as both a racial and religious “other” figures prominently in critical analyses of the play's treatment of ethnicity, religion, and social exclusion. Just as Shylock serves as a springboard for investigations of racial and religious issues, Antonio—whose affection for Bassanio is often seen as homoerotic—serves the same function in critical studies of the play's depiction of homosexuality. In addition, critics are interested in the play's exploration of economic issues. One of Shakespeare's most frequently performed plays, modern productions of The Merchant of Venice are presented with the challenge of depicting the character of Shylock, who is often portrayed as either a villain or a victim, as well as balancing the play's tragic and comic elements.
Many contemporary character-based studies of The Merchant of Venice have focused on Antonio and Shylock. Gary Rosenshield (2002) argues that Antonio, the Christian merchant, is presented as an economic ideal within an emerging capitalist society. The critic maintains, however, that Shakespeare questioned the possibility of such an ideal through Antonio's association with Shylock and the corruption of the world of finance. Rosenshield demonstrates that while Antonio is a true Christian in terms of his friendship with and love for other Christians, his personal hatred of Shylock underscores his un-Christianlike nature, just as his experience in Belmont places his merchant standing in a less-than-noble context. In assessing Shylock's position in the play as a social pariah, Bruce Boehrer (1999) combines an analysis of the play's bestial language and imagery with a study of Elizabethan and Jacobean attitudes toward the possession of dogs as pets. Boehrer contends that Shylock is associated with the mongrel or cur, a beast excluded from the society of humans, whereas Shylock's daughter Jessica is presented as a lapdog, an animal welcomed as a companion to humans but without the duty, or right, to contribute in a meaningful way to society. Boehrer maintains that for Shylock, the position of lapdog is unacceptable. Richard Abrams (1996) examines Shakespeare's characterization of both Antonio and Shylock, suggesting that Antonio's sadness is partially an affectation and that Shylock seeks love and understanding from Antonio and Bassanio.
Despite the play's challenges, The Merchant of Venice remains one of Shakespeare's most frequently performed plays. Reviewers often focus on the treatment of Shylock's character. Peter Marks (1999) praises Andrei Serban's “daringly unapologetic” production of The Merchant of Venice for the American Repertory Theater, which broke from recent portrayals of Shylock as a victim and rendered the moneylender as a knife-wielding villain. Marks contends that Shylock's sinister characterization was the most compelling aspect of the production. Robert Smallwood (1999) reviews Gregory Doran's Stratford staging, and finds that it had no new insights into the play, but featured exceptional performances by the actors playing Antonio, Shylock, and Portia. Trevor Nunn's production of The Merchant of Venice for the National Theatre has won a great deal of positive criticism. Hal Jensen (1999) describes the way Nunn's direction emphasized the isolation of the main characters and notes that Henry Goodman's praiseworthy Shylock dominated the production. Matt Wolf (1999) applauds Nunn's ability to sustain the audience's interest to the end of the play. Robert Smallwood (2000) also notes Goodman's excellence in portraying Shylock, and finds Nunn's production as a whole “brilliant.” John Simon (2000) praises most of the acting in Nunn's production, but finds fault with some of the elements—particularly aspects of the court scene—which he finds to be too contrived. Alvin Klein (2000) assesses Richard Corley's production of The Merchant of Venice for the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival, contending that although it attempted to develop the play's romantic and comic features, it failed to offer an original take on Shakespeare's ambivalent treatment of Shylock.
Recent thematic criticism regarding The Merchant of Venice has focused on issues of race, religion, and sexuality, as well as economic issues. In his examination of The Merchant of Venice as a flawed romantic comedy, Walter Cohen (1982) suggests that the play may be viewed as a reflection of the socio-economic problems in late Elizabethan English society. Through the play, Cohen argues, Shakespeare criticized the worst elements of the emerging capitalist system. Cohen additionally stresses that while the play explores social and economic issues, it remains at its core a study of love, friendship, and religion. According to Martin Japtok and Winfried Schleiner (1999), the issues of race and religion are inextricably linked in The Merchant of Venice. The critics argue that play demonstrates that “racism was already fully operational” in the late Elizabethan era, despite the fact that “race” as a concept had not been fully developed. Both Shylock and the Prince of Morocco represent the “other” in the play, the critics show, and contend that Morocco is rejected by Portia as a suitor because of his racial difference. Thomas H. Luxon (1999) also assesses the play's treatment of racial and religious otherness, focusing on Shylock and his depiction as a greedy financier. Luxon notes that Elizabethan Protestants would have regarded Shylock, his greed, and his “misreading” of the Bible as typically Jewish. The critic also finds that the disguised Portia plays the role of the “true” Jew, or Christian Jew—one who recognizes Jesus as the Messiah. Steve Patterson (1999) centers his study on the early modern concept of homoerotic friendship, demonstrating that the play's depiction of Antonio's relationship with Bassanio reflects the shifting attitudes toward this type of relationship in Shakespeare's time. Patterson asserts that homoerotic friends, which Antonio appears to be an example of, found it increasingly unacceptable to voice or act on their desires.