The Merchant of Venice The Merchant of Venice (Vol. 77)
by William Shakespeare

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

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....

(The entire section is 77,139 words.)