(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. 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.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Cohen, Walter. “The Merchant of Venice and the Possibilities of Historical Criticism.” ELH 49, no. 4 (winter 1982): 765-89.

[In the following essay, Cohen views The Merchant of Venice as a flawed romantic comedy and suggests that the play may be viewed as a reflection of the socio-economic problems in late Elizabethan English society.]

Traditional historical scholarship has not fared well with many contemporary literary theorists. Jonathan Culler concludes: “The identification of historical sequences, while an inevitable and indispensable aspect of literary study, is not just open to oversimplification; it is itself an act of oversimplification.”1 What is rhetorically striking in this passage is the comfortable coexistence of the author's characteristic moderation with the extremity of the position. Under the influence of the work of Louis Althusser in particular and of structuralism and post-structuralism in general, similar doubts have penetrated Marxism, long a bastion of historical interpretation. Terry Eagleton argues that “Marx initiates a ‘genealogical’ break with any genetic-evolutionist conception of the historical materialist method, and, indeed, of its object—‘history’ itself.” For Eagleton, “history is not a classical narrative: for what kind of narrative is it that has always already begun, that has an infinitely deferred end, and, consequently, can hardly be spoken of as having a middle?”2 Fredric Jameson (although he begins with the injunction “Always historicize!”) is at pains to demonstrate that Marxism “is not a historical narrative.” And his own “historicizing operation” presupposes a fundamental bifurcation:

we are thus confronted with a choice between study of the nature of the “objective” structures of a given cultural text (the historicity of its forms and of its content, the historical moment of emergence of its linguistic possibilities, the situation-specific function of its aesthetic) and something rather different which would instead foreground the interpretive categories or codes through which we read and receive the text in question.3

In partial opposition to these claims, I hope to show that it is possible to have it both ways, to combine history with structure and to connect “the historical moment” with “the interpretive categories” through which that moment has been understood. Such innovative critical strategies as symptomatic reading, metacommentary, and the elucidation of the ideology of form acquire their full force only when explicitly located within the larger framework provided by the Marxist notion of the mode of production. Jameson, in fact, comes close to this position in asserting that “Marxism, … in the form of the dialectic, affirms a primacy of theory which is at one and the same time a recognition of the primacy of History itself.”4 The resulting procedure may also be viewed as a modified version of the approach recently proposed by Robert Weimann.5 More particularly, the present discussion proceeds from a detailed account of The Merchant of Venice to a brief look at broader issues. It concludes by reversing gears and summarily considering not the utility of contemporary theory for the study of Renaissance literature, but the implications of Renaissance literature for the development of theory.


The Merchant of Venice (1596) offers an embarrassment of socio-economic riches. It treats merchants and usurers, the nature of the law, and the interaction between country and city. But since it is also about the relationship between love and friendship, the meaning of Christianity, and a good deal more, a thematically minded critic, regardless of his or her persuasion, may be in for a bit of difficulty. In the most comprehensive and compelling study of the play yet produced, Lawrence Danson attempts to solve this problem by arguing that The Merchant of Venice dramatizes not the triumph of one set of values over another, but the transformation of conflicts into harmonies that incorporate what at the same time they transcend.6 Shakespeare's procedure thus resembles both medieval figural and Hegelian dialectics.7 Because the intellectual and structural design posited by Danson elegantly accommodates not only thematic diversity but also our ambivalent responses to both Shylock and the Christian characters, it is the appropriate object of a skeptical scrutiny of interpretation in The Merchant of Venice.

Shakespeare needs to be interpreted, it may be claimed, simply because of the antiquity and complexity of his art. Yet far from being ideologically neutral, such an enterprise, by juxtaposing an alternative and richer reality with our own, involves an implicit critique of the present. Even more, we may recall that Shakespeare's plays, despite their elaborateness, appealed to a broadly heterogeneous primary audience: an achievement that depended on a comparative social and cultural unity, long since lost, in the nation as well as the theater. This underlying coherence emerges in the logical and, it would seem, inherently meaningful unfolding of the dramatic plot,8 a strong example of which is provided by the rigorously interlocking, causal development of The Merchant of Venice. Presumably, then, the best criticism would deepen, rather than overturn, a sense of the play's meaning widely shared in space and in time.9

This is, however, precisely what we do not find in discussions of The Merchant of Venice. The play has been seen as the unambiguous triumph of good Christians over a bad Jew;10 as the deliberately ambiguous triumph of the Christians;11 as the unintentionally ambiguous, and hence artistically flawed, triumph of the Christians;12 as the tragedy of Shylock, the bourgeois hero;13 and as a sweeping attack on Christians and Jews alike.14 No other Shakespearean comedy before All's Well That Ends Well (1602) and Measure for Measure (1604), perhaps no other Shakespearean comedy at all, has excited comparable controversy. Probably the most promising way out of this dilemma is to see the play as a new departure for Shakespeare; as his earliest comedy drawn from the Italian novelle; as the first of several not quite successful attempts to introduce more powerful characters, more complex problems of conduct, more realistic representation, and a more serious vision of life into a traditionally light genre.15 Such a perspective is not without its drawbacks. Nonetheless, it has the virtue of suggesting that the play is by and large a romantic comedy; that it is partially flawed; that it calls for an unusual set of critical questions;16 and, most important, that it requires us not so much to interpret as to discover the sources of our difficulty in interpreting, to view the play as a symptom of a problem in the life of late sixteenth-century England.

Critics who have studied The Merchant of Venice against the background of English history have justifiably seen Shylock, and especially his lending habits, as the embodiment of capitalism.17 The last third of the sixteenth century witnessed a sequence of denunciations of the spread of usury. In The Specvlation of Vsurie, published during the year Shakespeare's play may first have been performed, Thomas Bell expresses a typical sense of outrage. “Now, now is nothing more frequent with the rich men of this world, than to writhe about the neckes of their poore neighbours, and to impouerish them with the filthie lucre of Usurie.”18 Behind this fear lay the transition to capitalism: the rise of banking; the increasing need for credit in industrial enterprises; and the growing threat of indebtedness facing both aristocratic landlords and, above all, small, independent producers, who could easily decline to working-class status.19 Although the lower classes were the main victims, it may be as inadequate to describe opposition to usury in Shakespeare or elsewhere as popular in character, as it is misleading to argue that “Elizabethan drama, even in its higher ranges, was not the expression of a ‘class’ culture at all.”20 Rather, we are confronted with the hegemonic position of the nobility, whose interests the ideology ultimately served. Artisans and peasant smallholders might fall into the proletariat, but once the majority of the traditional ruling class had adapted to capitalism, the issue of usury faded away.

This had not occurred by 1600, however, and The Merchant of Venice offers a number of specific parallels to the antiusury campaign,21 most notably in its contrasts between usury and assistance to the poor, and between usurers and merchants. Miles Mosse, for example, laments that “lending upon vsurie is growne so common and usuall among men, as that free lending to the needie is utterly overthrowne.”22 The distinction between merchants and usurers, also of medieval origin, could be drawn on the grounds that only the former operated for mutual benefit, as opposed to self-interest. Or it might be argued, in language recalling Shakespeare's high valuation of “venturing,” that the usurer does not, like “the merchant that crosse the seas, adventure,” receiving instead a guaranteed return on his money.23

A number of dubious consequences follow from concentrating too narrowly on the English background of The Merchant of Venice, however. From such a perspective, the play as a whole seems unproblematic, noneconomic issues unimportant, and related matters like Shylock's religion or the Italian setting irrelevant.24 Even explicitly economic concerns do not make adequate sense. An emphasis on the difference between trade and usury might imply that Antonio and his creator are resolutely medieval anticapitalists.25 But not only do Shakespeare's other plays of the 1590's show few signs of hostility to capitalism, The Merchant of Venice itself is quite obviously procapitalist, at least as far as commerce is concerned. It would be more accurate to say that Shakespeare is criticizing merely the worst aspects of an emerging economic system, rather than the system itself. In this respect, moreover, he deviates from the antiusury tracts and from English reality alike. Writers of the period register both the medieval ambivalence about merchants and the indisputable contemporary fact that merchants were the leading usurers: suspicion of Italian traders ran particularly high.26 It may be that Shakespeare intends a covert parallel between Shylock and Antonio. Yet no manipulation will convert a comedy in which there are no merchant-usurers and in which the only usurer is a Jew into a faithful representation of British economic life.

Similar trouble arises with Shylock, whom critics have at times allegorically Anglicized as a grasping Puritan.27 The identification is unconvincing, however, partly because it is just as easy to transform him into a Catholic28 and, more generally, because he is too complex and contradictory to fit neatly the stereotype of Puritan thrift. It is also unclear what kind of capitalist Shylock is. The crisis of the play arises not from his insistence on usury, but from his refusal of it. The contrast is between usury, which is immoral because it computes a charge above the principal from the moment of the loan, and interest, which is perfectly acceptable because it “is never due but from the appointed day of payment forward.”29 Antonio immediately recognizes that Shylock's proposal falls primarily into the latter category, and he responds appropriately, if naively: “Content in faith, I'll seal to such a bond, / And say there is much kindness in the Jew.”30

In addition, the penalty for default on the bond is closer to folklore than to capitalism: stipulation for a pound of flesh, after all, is hardly what one would expect from homo economicus. To be sure, Shakespeare is literalizing the traditional metaphorical view of usurers.31 Moreover, Shylock's desire for revenge is both motivated by economics and possessed of a large degree of economic logic (e.g., I.iii.39-40; and III.i.49, and 117-18). But when the grasping moneylender refuses to relent in return for any repayment—“No not for Venice”—he goes beyond the bounds of rationality and against the practices of a ruthless modern businessman (IV.i.226).32 In short, although it is proper to view The Merchant of Venice as a critique of early British capitalism, that approach fails even to account for all of the purely economic issues in the work. Can tolerable sense be made of the play's economics, or was Shakespeare merely being fanciful? To answer these questions, we need to take seriously the Venetian setting of the action.

To the English, and particularly to Londoners, Venice represented a more advanced stage of the commercial development they themselves were experiencing. G. K. Hunter's telling remark about the predilections of the Jacobean theater—“Italy became important to the English dramatists only when ‘Italy’ was revealed as an aspect of England”—already applies in part to The Merchant of Venice.33 Yet Venetian reality during Shakespeare's lifetime contradicted almost point for point its portrayal in the play. Not only did the government bar Jewish usurers from the city, it also forced the Jewish community to staff and finance low-interest, nonprofit lending institutions that served the Christian poor. Funding was primarily derived from the involuntary donations of Jewish merchants active in the Levantine trade. The Jews of Venice thus contributed to the early development of capitalism not as usurers but as merchants involved in an international, trans-European economic network. Ironically, elsewhere in the Veneto, the public Christian banks on which the Jewish loan-houses of Venice were modeled drew most of their assets from interest-bearing deposits by the late sixteenth century.34

From a longer historical view of Italy and Venice, however, The Merchant of Venice assumes a recognizable relationship to reality. Between the twelfth and the early fourteenth centuries in Italy, international merchant-usurers were often required by the church to make testamentary restitution of their profits from moneylending. Thereafter, this occupation decomposed into its constituent parts. Without changing their financial transactions, the merchants experienced a sharp rise in status, eventually evolving into the great philanthropical merchant princes of the Renaissance. The other descendants of the earlier merchant-usurers, the small, local usurer-pawnbrokers, suffered a corresponding decline in social position. This latter group, the main victim of ecclesiastical action against usury in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, increasingly consisted of immigrant Jews.35

Jewish moneylenders benefited the Venetian Republic in two principal ways. They provided a reliable, lucrative source of tax revenues and forced loans to finance the state's military preparations; and they also drove down interest rates for private citizens, rich and poor, underselling the Christian usurers, whom, consequently, they gradually replaced. The Christian banks referred to above, founded beginning in the late fifteenth century, were designed not only to assist the poor but also to eliminate Jewish moneylenders by providing cheaper credit. Although never established in Venice itself, the Monti di Pietà, as they were called, were soon widespread in the cities and towns of the Republican mainland. They rarely succeeded in completely replacing Jewish pawnbrokers, however.36

This, then, is the other, Italian historical background to The Merchant of Venice. None of Shakespeare's probable sources refers to any prior enmity between merchant and usurer, much less to a comparable motive for the antagonism. English discussions of Italy, on the other hand, regularly mention both Jewish usury and Venetian charity,37 while Bell, among others, speaks of the mons pietatis, a bank where the poor can “borrow money in their neede, and not bee oppressed with usury.”38 From this point of view, the hostility between Antonio, the open-handed Christian merchant, and Shylock, the tight-fisted Jewish usurer, represents not the conflict between declining feudalism and rising capitalism, but its opposite. It may be seen as a special instance of the struggle, widespread in Europe, between Jewish quasifeudal fiscalism and native bourgeois mercantilism, in which the indigenous forces usually prevailed.39 Both the characterization and the outcome of The Merchant of Venice mark Antonio as the harbinger of modern capitalism. By guaranteeing an honorable reputation as well as a secure and absolute title to private property, the exemption of the Italian merchant-financier from the stigma of usury provided a necessary spur to the expansion of the new system.40 Shylock, by contrast, is a figure from the past: marginal, diabolical, irrational, archaic, medieval. Shakespeare's Jacobean tragic villains—Iago, Edmund, Macbeth, and Augustus—are all younger men bent on destroying their elders. Shylock is almost the reverse, an old man with obsolete values trying to arrest the course of history.41

Obviously, however, the use of Italian materials in The Merchant of Venice, for all its historicity, remains deeply ideological in the bad sense, primarily because of the anti-Semitic distinction between vindictive Jewish usurer and charitable Christian merchant.42 Shylock's defense of usury is not so strong as it could have been,43 nor was Shakespeare's preference for an Italian merchant over a Jewish usurer universally shared at the time.44 Indeed, the very contrast between the two occupations may be seen as a false dichotomy, faithful to the Renaissance Italian merchant's understanding of himself but not to the reality that self-conception was designed to justify.

We can understand the apparently contradictory implications of British and Italian economic history for The Merchant of Venice as a response to the intractability of contemporary life. The form of the play results from an ideological reworking of reality designed to produce precisely the intellectual and structural pattern described at the beginning of this discussion. The duality we have observed, especially in Shylock, is absolutely necessary to this end. Briefly stated, in The Merchant of Venice English history evokes fears of capitalism, and Italian history allays those fears. One is the problem, the other the solution, the act of incorporation, of transcendence, toward which the play strives.

A similar, if less striking, process of reconciliation is at work with Antonio, whose social significance varies inversely to Shylock's. As a traditional and conservative figure, he nearly becomes a tragic victim of economic change; as the embodiment of progressive forces, he points toward the comic resolution. But Antonio cannot be too progressive, cannot represent a fundamental rupture with the past. Giovanni Botero attributed his country's urban preeminence partly to the fact that “the gentleman in Italy does dwell in Cities,”45 and indeed the fusion in the towns of nobility and bourgeoisie helped generate the Renaissance in Italy and, much later, in England as well. The concluding tripartite unity of Antonio, Bassanio, and Portia46 enacts precisely this interclass harmony between aristocratic landed wealth and mercantile capital, with the former dominant. A belief that some such relationship provided much of the social foundation of the English monarchy accounts for Shakespeare's essentially corporatist defense of absolutism in the 1590's.

A brief consideration of Marx's views on Jews, on usurers, on merchants, and on The Merchant of Venice will enable us to restate these conclusions with greater theoretical rigor and to point toward additional, related issues. In the “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right: Introduction,” Shylock is an exploiter of the lower classes. Characterizing the German historical school of law, Marx comments: “A Shylock, but a servile Shylock, it swears upon its bond, its historical, Christian-Germanic bond, for every pound of flesh cut from the heart of the people.” The Second part of “On the Jewish Question” basically equates Judaism with capitalism, a position that Volume One of Capital reasserts in a discussion of the efforts of nineteenth-century British manufacturers to force children to work long hours. “Workmen and factory inspectors protested on hygienic and moral grounds, but Capital answered: ‘My deeds upon my head! I crave the law, / The penalty and forfeit of my bond.’ This Shylock-clinging to the letter of the law …,” Marx adds, “was but to lead up to an open revolt against the same law.” But the extended discussion of usury in Volume Three of Capital implicitly reaches a very different conclusion. Usurer's capital, Marx claims, arises long before the capitalist system itself, its parasitic action weakening the precapitalist mode of production off which it lives. But unassisted it cannot generate a transition to capitalism. When that transition does occur, however, usury inevitably declines, partly as a result of the determined opposition of mercantile capital. Finally, commercial capital itself is, like usury, an early and primitive form of capital and, as such, ultimately compatible with precapitalist modes of production. Thus, Marx's comments in effect recapitulate our entire argument on the economics of The Merchant of Venice.47

In one instance, however, they lead beyond that argument. Up to now, we have been primarily concerned to show how dramatic form, as the product of an ideological reworking of history, functions to resolve those contradictions that prove irreconcilable in life. But, of course, many critics have been unable to feel a final coherence to The Merchant of Venice. In Volume One of Capital, after showing how industrial capital endangers the worker, “how it constantly threatens, by taking away the instruments of labour, to snatch from his hands his means of subsistence,” Marx quotes Shylock's reply to the Duke's pardon: “You take my life / When you do take the means whereby I live.”48 The passage implies exactly the opposite of what is suggested by the lines previously cited from the same volume. There, Shylock was identified with capital, the Christians with labor; here, the Christians represent capital, Shylock labor. Such a reversal cannot be assimilated to the dualisms we have already discussed: instead, Marx's use of selective quotation succeeds in capturing Shylock as both victimizer and victim.

As many critics have observed, the fact that Shylock is grand as well as pitiable does not in itself imply any structural flaw in The Merchant of Venice. Shakespeare needed an antagonist possessed of sufficient, though perhaps not “mythical,” stature to pose a credible threat.49 The sympathy elicited by the Jewish usurer, often a consequence of his mistreatment by Christian characters who resemble him more than they would admit, also serves a plausible formal purpose in the overall movement toward mercy and harmony. In fact, by the end of the trial scene most of the Christian characters have fairly settled accounts with Shylock.50 The trouble is that Christianity has not. Although the Christian characters in the play are better than Shylock, the Christian characters not in the play are not. In his famous “Jew” speech and in his declamation on slavery to the court, Shylock adopts the strategy of equating Christian with Jew to justify his own murderous intentions (III.ii.47-66, and IV.i.89-103). But by the end of Act IV, his analogies are strictly irrelevant to most of the Christian characters in the play. They have either given up the practices that Shylock attributes to them, or they have never been guilty of them at all: certainly, we meet no Christian slaveholders in The Merchant of Venice. Yet Shylock's universalizing accusations are never challenged in word by his Christian auditors, nor can they be sufficiently answered in deed by the individual charitable acts with which the trial concludes. The devastating judgments, particularly of the second speech, are allowed to stand; and they tell us that although Shylock is defeated and then incorporated in the world of the play, in the world beyond the play his values are pervasive.

This bifurcation is a consequence of the fundamental contradiction in Shakespeare's social material. English history requires that the threat embodied in Shylock be generalized; Italian history, that it remain localized. Yet if Shakespeare had fully responded to both imperatives, The Merchant of Venice would have lapsed into incoherence. If the play revealed that merchants were as exploitative as usurers, that they were in fact usurers, then its entire thrust toward harmonious reconciliation could only be understood as a fiendishly oblique instance of ironic demystification. But if instead Shakespeare intended the movement toward transcendent unity to be taken at least as seriously as the dangers of nascent capitalism, he needed to present the latter in a way that would not undermine the former. He needed to transform...

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Richard Abrams (essay date 1996)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Abrams, Richard. “The Gaping Pig—and Worse: Shylock's Christian Ducats.” In Afterimages: A Festschrift in Honor of Irving Massey, edited by William Kumbier and Ann Colley, pp. 163-74. Buffalo, N.Y.: Shuffaloff, 1996.

[In the following essay, Abrams examines Shakespeare's characterization of Antonio and Shylock, suggesting that Antonio's sadness is partially an affectation and that Shylock seeks love and understanding from Antonio and Bassanio. The following essay is a revision of the original published version, which was reprinted in Shakespearean Criticism, Volume 66.]

My topic is sadness in The Merchant of Venice—Jewish sadness, ultimately,...

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Bruce Boehrer (essay date summer 1999)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Boehrer, Bruce. “Shylock and the Rise of the Household Pet: Thinking Social Exclusion in The Merchant of Venice.Shakespeare Quarterly 50, no. 2 (summer 1999): 152-70.

[In the following essay, Boehrer studies the play's bestial language and imagery, contending that Shylock's association with a mongrel or cur informs an understanding of his role in The Merchant of Venice, including his position as an outcast and his attitude toward his social standing.]

In 1615, while visiting Cambridge University, King James I attended a public debate between John Preston and Matthew Wren on the question of “whether Dogs could make...

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Gary Rosenshield (essay date 2002)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Rosenshield, Gary. “Deconstructing the Christian Merchant: Antonio and The Merchant of Venice.Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies 20, no. 2 (2002): 28-51.

[In the following essay, Rosenshield examines Antonio's role as an economic ideal—a Christian merchant—in The Merchant of Venice.]

For several millennia conservative writers have seen their times as corrupted by a lust for material gain and thus inherently destructive of the moral, spiritual, and religious values of an idealized older order. This attitude frequently manifests itself in quixotic nostalgia, but just as often it elicits a rancorous response. One need only...

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Peter Marks (review date 13 January 1999)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Marks, Peter. “From Serban, the Shylock of Yesteryear, A Go-To Guy.” New York Times (13 January 1999): 1.

[In the following review of Andrei Serban's production of The Merchant of Venice for the American Repertory Theater, Marks finds Will LeBow's Shylock to be the most moving aspect of the production.]

Let Shylock be Shylock! is the unspoken motto of Andrei Serban's daringly unapologetic production of The Merchant of Venice.

Shed no tears for the Jewish moneylender of Mr. Serban's design. Shylock may be cruelly maligned by the Christian hypocrites in Shakespeare's difficult play, with its anti-Semitic overtones, but in this...

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Hal Jensen (review date 2 July 1999)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Jensen, Hal. “Merciless Qualities.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5022 (2 July 1999): 20.

[In the following review of Trevor Nunn's production of The Merchant of Venice for the National Theatre, Jensen describes the way Nunn's direction emphasized the isolation of the main characters and notes that Henry Goodman's praiseworthy Shylock dominated the production.]

It is difficult, from our historical vantage point, to regard The Merchant of Venice as a comedy. Hatred and cruelty, born of racial difference, are obviously not funny; but that should not exclude them from serious comic treatment. What disagrees with our present-day knowledge is the...

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Robert Smallwood (review date 1999)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Smallwood, Robert. “Shakespeare Performances in England, 1998.” Shakespeare Survey 52 (1999): 229-53.

[In the following excerpted review, Smallwood observes that Gregory Doran's Stratford production of The Merchant of Venice offered no new insights into the play.]

Gregory Doran's The Merchant of Venice started as it meant to go on, with a determination to fill the space, its opening dumb-show of merchants, Jewish and Gentile, congregating on the Venetian dockside in the half light of a February day, lasting several minutes before the play's first line. With a dark mist rising and black stone walls oozing damp, cargo was examined and...

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John Simon (review date 14 February 2000)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Simon, John. “Clever Merchandising.” New York 33, no. 6 (14 February 2000): 141, 172.

[In the following excerpted review, Simon contends that certain elements of Trevor Nunn's production of The Merchant of Venice for the National Theatre were bit contrived, but finds the play as a whole “mostly absorbing.”]

Trevor Nunn has been going from strength to strength at London's Royal National Theatre, where The Merchant of Venice is his latest success. Transposed to the thirties, its early scenes take place in a café or nightspot where “What news on the Rialto?” is aptly asked of a newspaper reader. Here, two bar girls entertain with a droll...

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Alvin Klein (review date 5 November 2000)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Klein, Alvin. “The Arguable Comedy in Merchant of Venice.New York Times (5 November 2000): NJ11.

[In the following review, Klein 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.]

No kidding, The Merchant of Venice is a comedy.

Categorically speaking, that's not news to Shakespearean mavens, but it's invariably a surprise. The play is not a comic read, and it is rarely played for laughs....

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Robert Smallwood (review date 2000)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Smallwood, Robert. “Shakespeare Performances in England, 1999.” Shakespeare Survey 53 (2000): 244-73.

[In the following excerpted review, Smallwood describes Trevor Nunn's production of The Merchant of Venice for the National Theatre as brilliant, and praises the principal actors, particularly Henry Goodman's Shylock.]

There was no such sense of a one-man show about the National Theatre ensemble's second Shakespeare of the year, a production, again directed by Trevor Nunn, of The Merchant of Venice at the Cottesloe Theatre, played in traverse mode. Hildegard Bechtler's design placed the Venetian scenes of the play in the middle of the traverse...

(The entire section is 1957 words.)

Caryn James (review date 8 October 2001)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: James, Caryn. “Shylock and Portia Speak to All Eras.” New York Times 151, no. 51900 (8 October 2001): E8.

[In the following review, James praises Trevor Nunn's adaptation of The Merchant of Venice for PBS, including Henry Goodman's “mesmerizing” Shylock and Derbhle Crotty's “commanding” Portia.]

Revenge, justice, mercy. Words that seem socially and politically charged today were already resonating through The Merchant of Venice, a play so deeply rooted in an enduring question—how should justice, mercy and vengeance be balanced?—that it speaks to any number of historical crises, including our own. Trevor Nunn's inspired idea was to...

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Toby Young (review date 10 November 2001)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Young, Toby. “Won Over.” Spectator 287, no. 9040 (10 November 2001): 88-9.

[In the following excerpted review of Loveday Ingram's feminist production of The Merchant of Venice, Young states that the male characters were too emasculated to be credibly seen as romantic figures.]

Jews are treated a good deal less sympathetically in the Royal Shakespeare Company's latest production of The Merchant of Venice. As directed by Loveday Ingram, Shylock is a villain of the first water and it takes all the ingenuity of Portia, played as a heroic mother-figure by Hermione Gulliford, to save Antonio and Bassanio from his clutches. This is an unashamedly...

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Thomas Luxon (essay date January 1999)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Luxon, Thomas H. “A Second Daniel: The Jew and the ‘True Jew’ in The Merchant of Venice.Early Modern Literary Studies 4, no. 3 (January 1999): 3.1-37.

[In the following essay, Luxon investigates the play's treatment of Jews within the context of late Elizabethan society's attitudes toward Jewishness as both race and religion.]

Two recent studies of Shakespeare and early modern attitudes towards Jews come to remarkably different conclusions on the question of whether or not The Merchant of Venice is an anti-Jewish play.1 James Shapiro's richly historical Shakespeare and the Jews offers fascinating evidence about the...

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Steve Patterson (essay date spring 1999)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Patterson, Steve. “The Bankruptcy of Homoerotic Amity in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice.Shakespeare Quarterly 50, no. 1 (spring 1999): 9-32.

[In the following essay, Patterson maintains that The Merchant of Venice analyzes the early modern tradition of male homoerotic friendship through Antonio's frustrated passion for Bassanio.]

Rather famously, The Merchant of Venice opens with a pitiful Antonio bemoaning his outcast state but unable to articulate just what has caused his disenchantment. His very identity seems to be at stake as he complains, “I have much ado to know myself” (1.1.7).1 Indeed, his worries over how...

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Martin Japtok and Winfried Schleiner (essay date 1999)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Japtok, Martin and Winfried Schleiner. “Genetics and ‘Race’ in The Merchant of Venice.Literature and Medicine 18, no. 2 (1999): 155-72.

[In the following essay, the critics argue that The Merchant of Venice 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.]

Can a cultural historian of Shakespeare's period speak about genetics and eugenics in relation to Jews and Moors? Not only did words like Jews, Moors, and race mean something different then from what they have meant since the nineteenth century, but a...

(The entire section is 7491 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


Anderson, Douglas. “The Old Testament Presence in The Merchant of Venice.ELH 52, no. 1 (spring 1985): 119-32.

Contends that Shakespeare's depiction and understanding of forgiveness in The Merchant of Venice is modeled on Shylock's faith.

Barthelemy, Anthony G. “Luxury, Sodomy and Miscegenation: English Perceptions of Venice in The Merchant of Venice.” In Shakespeare and Intertextuality: The Transition of Cultures Between Italy and England in the Early Modern Period, edited by Michele Marrapodi, pp. 165-77. Rome: Bulzoni, 2000.

Examines the ways in which The Merchant of...

(The entire section is 272 words.)