The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare

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M. M. Mahood (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12931

SOURCE: Mahood, M. M., ed. Introduction to The Merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare, pp. 1-53. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

[In the following excerpt, Mahood examines the date and sources of The Merchant of Venice and the critical assumptions governing the play's reception.]


The magnificent sailing ships of the sixteenth century are an unseen presence throughout The Merchant of Venice. ‘Argosies with portly sail’ dominate the opening dialogue, and in the last scene our sense of an ending is satisfied by the news that three of Antonio's ships ‘are richly come to harbour’. So it is highly fitting that the clearest indication within the play of the date at which it was written should be an allusion to a real ship of the period.

In June 1596 an English expedition under the Earl of Essex made a surprise attack on Cadiz harbour. The first objective was four richly appointed and provisioned Spanish galleons; worsted in the fight, these cut adrift and ran aground. Two of them, the San Matias and the San Andrés, were captured before they could be fired, and were triumphantly taken into the English fleet as prize vessels.1 It is generally agreed that the San Andrés, renamed the Andrew, is the ship alluded to as a byword for maritime wealth at line 27 of the play's first scene:

I should not see the sandy hourglass run
But I should think of shallows and of flats,
And see my wealthy Andrew docked in sand,
Vailing her high top lower than her ribs
To kiss her burial.


The phrase ‘my wealthy Andrew’ is small but significant evidence that The Merchant of Venice was written not earlier than the late summer of 1596.2

The latest possible date for the play is only two years after this. As the first step towards publication, its title was entered in the Stationers' Register on 22 July 1598. Some six weeks later, on 7 September, Francis Meres's Palladis Tamia was entered in the same Register; a compact account of the state of English literature, it lists six comedies by Shakespeare, of which The Merchant of Venice is the last. Between them, these entries make clear both that the play was in the repertory of Shakespeare's company, and that a manuscript of it had been sold for publication, by the late summer of 1598.

So the play could have been a new one in either the 1596-7 or the 1597-8 acting season. The ‘wealthy Andrew’ allusion does not clearly favour one date rather than the other, since, as John Russell Brown has shown, the Andrew was several times in the news and several times in danger of ‘shallows and of flats’ between July 1596 and October 1597.3 The fact that she was ‘docked in sand’ at Cadiz and that she nearly ran aground subsequently in the Thames estuary would make an allusion apposite enough in 1596. She was, however, rather more likely to have become a household name in the next year, when, after weathering the terrible storms of August which disabled her sister galleon, she served as a troop carrier in the Islands voyage. On her return in the storm-ridden month of October, Essex was unwilling to let her sail past the Goodwin Sands where, Shakespeare's play reminds us, ‘the carcases of many a tall ship lie buried’ (3.1.4-5; compare 2.8.28-31). Essex had good cause to be apprehensive; the weather was such that it scattered and damaged a whole Spanish armada. Men's minds were a good deal occupied with ‘peril of waters, winds, and...

(This entire section contains 12931 words.)

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rocks’ in the autumn of 1597. And as the shareholders in the Islands voyage began to realise what a fiasco it had been, a play about failed maritime ventures would have taken on a sombre contemporaneity.

The strongest indication that the play originated in the theatrical season of 1597-8 comes, however, not from any internal allusion but from a proviso in the Stationers' Register that it should not be printed without the consent of the Lord Chamberlain—by which we may understand the agreement of Shakespeare's company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men. The most reasonable explanation of this safeguard is that the actors did not want the play to appear in print while it was still enjoying the success of a theatrical novelty.4 Even if we had no objective evidence such as this of the play's date, 1597 would strike most readers of The Merchant of Venice as about right. The play's skilful blending of several plots, its enterprising and emancipated heroine and its supple, pellucid style all serve to link it to the group of mature comedies, Much Ado about Nothing (1598), As You Like It (1599), and Twelfth Night (1601-2). It has a strong affinity also, despite the difference in genre, with the King Henry IV plays (1597 and 1598): we recognise in the first words of Shylock and Falstaff the same new-found and boldly grasped power to individualise a character dramatically through the sounds, rhythms, idioms and images of prose speech.

The same confidence shows itself in Shakespeare's handling of his main source. Like several other of his romantic comedies, the mood and atmosphere of which it presages, The Merchant of Venice is based on an Italian novella or short story; in this case the tale of Giannetto of Venice and the Lady of Belmont, which forms part of the collection called Il Pecorone (‘the big sheep’, or simpleton—the English equivalent would be ‘the dumb ox’) written in the late fourteenth century by Ser Giovanni of Florence and published at Milan in 1558. No Elizabethan translation is known, but as several modern ones are available only a brief synopsis is attempted here.5

A rich merchant of Venice called Ansaldo adopts his orphaned godson Giannetto. When the young man wants to join in a trading expedition, Ansaldo provides him with a splendid ship and rich cargo. On the voyage out, Giannetto is diverted to the port of Belmont, whose Lady has let it be known that she will marry none but the man who is able to spend a successful night with her; those who fail this test must be prepared to lose all they possess. She for her part makes sure of her suitors' failure by giving them drugged wine. Giannetto falls for the trick and duly loses his ship to the Lady. He returns to Venice where he hides in shame; but Ansaldo seeks him out and, on being told the ship has been lost at sea, equips his godson for a second voyage. Everything, not surprisingly, happens exactly as it did the first time. To finance a third voyage, Ansaldo now has to borrow beyond his means, so he pledges a pound of his flesh to a Jew in return for a loan of ten thousand ducats. This time, a ‘damsel’ warns Giannetto not to drink the proffered wine, and he is able to win the Lady. He lives happily as the Lord of Belmont, and does not think about the bond until the day of reckoning comes round. Then he tells the Lady of Ansaldo's plight and she sends him off to Venice with a hundred thousand ducats. The Jew, however, is not to be deflected from his murderous intentions. The Lady herself now arrives in Venice, disguised as a lawyer, and having failed to persuade the Jew to accept ten times the sum lent, takes the case to the open court. There she tells the Jew that he is entitled to his forfeiture, but that if he takes more or less than the exact pound, or sheds a single drop of blood, his head will be struck off. Unable to recoup even the original loan, the Jew in rage tears up the bond. The grateful Giannetto offers payment to the lawyer, who asks instead for his ring, which he yields after much protestation of his love and loyalty for the Lady who gave it him. In company with Ansaldo, Giannetto now returns to Belmont, where he gets a very cool reception. Only when the Lady has reduced him to tears by her reproaches does she tell him who the lawyer was. Finally Giannetto bestows the obliging ‘damsel’ on Ansaldo in marriage.

This synopsis highlights the differences as well as the similarities between Ser Giovanni's story and Shakespeare's play. Clearly the flesh-bond plot is virtually the same in both. So is the affair of the ring, though Shakespeare handles this with a lighter touch, omitting the sentimental reflections with which Giannetto relinquishes the keepsake, and doubling the entertainment of the ending by involving Gratiano and Nerissa in its contretemps. That Shakespeare read Ser Giovanni's story, either in the original or in a very faithful translation, is put beyond doubt in any close comparison of the two works. Shakespeare seizes upon all the vivid details of the Lady's intervention to save Ansaldo—her taking the bond and reading it, her conceding its validity so firmly that the Jew approaches the merchant with his razor bared, her dramatic last-minute halt to the proceedings. Generations of actors who have never read Il Pecorone have instinctively felt it right for the thwarted Shylock to tear up his bond. One puzzling feature of the play, the discrepancy between Bassanio's long sea voyage to Belmont and Portia's headlong coach ride to the Venetian ferry, is cleared up in the Italian source: ‘Take a horse at once, and go by land, for it is quicker than by sea.’6

Even more important than these details is the emotional cast of the tale. Much is made of Ansaldo's generosity and long-suffering, and of his readiness to risk his life for his godson, whose shiftiness forebodes the difficulties that faced Shakespeare when he sought to make Bassanio an attractive hero. Ansaldo's behaviour after Giannetto's first two mishaps is described in language which recalls the Prodigal Son's father, and these resonances may have given rise to Gratiano's image of the ‘scarfed bark’ (all Giannetto's ships are gay with banners) setting forth ‘like a younger or a prodigal’ but returning ‘lean, rent, and beggared by the strumpet wind’ (2.6.15-20). The Jew in the Italian tale is a less realised character than the merchant, but as in the play his obduracy has a clear religious and commercial motivation: ‘he wished to commit this homicide in order to be able to say that he had put to death the greatest of the Christian merchants’.7 Finally, there are enough close verbal parallels to prove conclusively that Shakespeare knew and made use of Ser Giovanni's story.8

Not everything in the tale of Giannetto was to Shakespeare's purpose. He forestalled the absurd match of the merchant and the damsel by having Nerissa marry Gratiano in Act 3. More importantly, the ribald story of the bed test, which makes nonsense of all the talk of the Lady's generosity, is replaced by the highly moral tale of the three caskets, which has survived in a number of versions from the ninth century onwards.9 The medieval collection known as the Gesta Romanorum includes the story of a choice between vessels of gold, silver and lead which is made a test of marriage-worthiness—though of a woman, not a man. In translation, this forms part of a selection from the Gesta Romanorum published in London in 1577 and, with revisions, in 1595. We can be reasonably sure this last was the edition used by Shakespeare, because in its translation of the casket story there occurs the unusual word ‘insculpt’ which is also used by Morocco when he is making his choice of casket (2.7.57).10 Shakespeare handles the tale very freely, making the caskets the test for a whole series of suitors; this was a common romance pattern, which needed no specific model.

So far we have been assuming that Shakespeare was the first to substitute the story of the caskets for Ser Giovanni's tale of the drugged wine. This assumption grows into a near certainty when, on subjecting the play to close scrutiny, we discover residual traces of the story that Shakespeare cut out. Among the loose ends is Bassanio's impecunious state at the beginning of the play, which leads the audience to suspect him of wooing Portia in an attempt to mend his fortunes; in the novella it is the Lady herself who is responsible for Giannetto being penniless, as she has already seized the ships and cargoes from his first two ventures. Indeed Bassanio's argument that the best way to find a lost arrow is to send another after it, which is almost too much for Antonio's patience, would be nearly valid in the context of Giannetto's triple attempt. In Antonio's expression ‘secret pilgrimage’ (1.1.119) there is a vestige of the secrecy with which Giannetto hid his quest from his trading companions; and Bassanio's costly gifts are likewise a reminder of the high price Giannetto paid for his first two voyages. Perhaps too it was the recollection of the risk run by the Lady's suitors that caused Shakespeare to invent such hard conditions for those who woo Portia, and, in his adaptation of the Gesta Romanorum tale, to change the inscription on the leaden casket from ‘Whoso chooseth me shall find that God hath disposed’ to ‘Who chooseth me, must give and hazard all he hath’ (2.7.16).11

These traces of the story in its original form imply that Shakespeare made his own adaptation of the story direct from the novella and did not, as was long supposed, rework a play in which the flesh-bond plot and the casket plot had already been welded together. Lost source plays are, however, persistent ghosts in Shakespearean scholarship, and the one that haunts discussions of The Merchant of Venice has proved particularly hard to lay. It even has a name. The sometime actor Stephen Gosson, in his attack on the immorality of the stage which was published in 1579, exempted from his censure two plays which had been acted at the Red Bull. One of these, The Jew, he describes as representing ‘the greediness of worldly choosers, and bloody minds of usurers’.12 This has been taken as proof that a play combining the casket story with that of the pound of flesh already existed in the 1570s, so that Shakespeare had only to re-write it for a new generation of playgoers twenty years later. But it is difficult to see how a play containing the casket story could be said never, in Gosson's phrase, to wound the eye with amorous gesture. Moreover the art of interweaving two or more stories in the manner of Italian intrigue comedy was still unknown to the English stage of the 1570s. Nor is there any need for Gosson's words to refer to a double plot: they can simply mean ‘the greediness of those who choose the worldly way of life, such as bloody-minded usurers’; Morocco and Arragon, whatever their short-comings as suitors, hardly deserve to be called ‘worldly’.13 In short, while a play about a Jewish moneylender existed some twenty years before Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice, we have no proof whatever of the two plays being connected, whereas the text of Shakespeare's comedy offers ample evidence that he himself inserted the casket tale into the story of Giannetto.

The flesh-bond story has a long ancestry as a folk tale,14 and Shakespeare is likely to have known other versions beside Ser Giovanni's. The ballad of Gernutus, a very basic version which involves only the Jew, his merchant victim from whom he obtains the bond as ‘a merry jest’, and a judge who, at the moment the Jew is ready ‘with whetted blade in hand’ to claim his due, intervenes to tell him the pound of flesh must be exact and bloodless, is undated; the phrases quoted are just as likely to have derived from Shakespeare's play as to have contributed to it.15 Another version could have been read by Shakespeare shortly before he wrote The Merchant of Venice: this is the English translation of Alexandre Silvayn's The Orator (1596), in which a brief narrative ‘Of a Jew, who would for his debt have a pound of the flesh of a Christian’ is followed by the Jew's appeal against the ‘just pound’ judgement, and the Christian's speech in reply. One of the Jew's arguments is that there are worse cruelties than exacting a pound of flesh—for example, keeping one's victim in ‘an intolerable slavery’. Shakespeare perhaps picked up the idea and put it to better use in Shylock's ‘You have among you many a purchased slave …’ (4.1.90-8). Certainly the tone of Shylock's retorts at the trial is sometimes very close to that of Silvayn's Jew. ‘A man may ask why I would not rather take silver of this man, than his flesh …’ could well have prompted ‘You'll ask me why I rather choose to have / A weight of carrion flesh than to receive / Three thousand ducats …’ (4.1.40-2).16

The ballad of Gernutus and Silvayn's orations are more in the nature of passing influences than sources. A work which could have been of wider use to Shakespeare, in that it may have given him a lead-in to his elaboration of the flesh-bond plot by means of the duplication of lovers and the added story of Jessica's elopement, is a tale inset into the third book of Antony Munday's romance Zelauto, or the Fountain of Fame (1580). The dramatic liveliness of this tale has led to the suggestion that a play by Munday himself, based on an Italian original, lies behind it;17 not necessarily a complete play, since the reason Munday was described by Meres as ‘our best plotter’ could be that he wrote play outlines, or scenari, which would have been sold to acting companies and worked up into full-dress dramas by their regular playwrights.18 The basic situation in the story is that Strabino loves Cornelia, the sister of his friend Rudolfo, who for his part falls in love with Brisana, the daughter of the rich old usurer whom Cornelia is in danger of being forced to marry. The two friends pledge their right eyes as a means of getting a large loan from the usurer, and buy a rich jewel by which they win the consent of Cornelia's father to her marrying Strabino. When the usurer, who has meanwhile agreed to Brisana marrying Rudolfo, discovers that he has been outbid as a suitor by his own money, he summons the young men before a judge and claims the forfeiture. Using the same religious argument as Portia, the judge urges him to show mercy. But he is deaf to entreaty: ‘I crave justice to be uprightly used, and I crave no more, wherefore I will have it.’19 The friends call on their attorneys to speak for them, and Brisana and Cornelia, dressed in scholars' gowns, step forward. Brisana's arguments, which have to do with the failure to repay by a certain date, might be heard in any court; it is Cornelia who clinches the matter by stipulating that the usurer, in taking his due, must spill no blood. Realising that he is not going to get his money back, the usurer capitulates, accepts Rudolfo as a son-in-law, and declares him his heir.

Any influence Munday's tale may have had is secondary to Shakespeare's use of Ser Giovanni's story; Portia's plea is here, but no merchant and no Jew. What is interesting in Munday's story, apart from its tone (to which we shall return), is its reduplication of lovers, by which the usurer is given a son-in-law to inherit his wealth and the heroine a companion to help bring the trial to a happy end. If Shakespeare did, as is probable, encounter Munday's romance, these two characters underwent a second binary fission in his imagination, Rudolfo differentiating into Lorenzo and Gratiano, and Brisana into Jessica and Nerissa. In this way, the love interest was trebled. Furthermore, the addition to Shakespeare's play of the moneylender's daughter increased a strong theatrical influence to which we must now turn, that of Marlowe's Jew of Malta.

Until the allusion to the Andrew was identified, The Merchant of Venice was usually dated 1594. It was known that anti-Jewish feeling was rife in that year because of the trial and execution of Ruy Lopez, a Portuguese Jew by birth and physician to Queen Elizabeth, who was convicted of attempting to poison both the Queen and an eminent Spanish refugee called Antonio Pérez.20 Marlowe's Jew of Malta enjoyed a revival during Lopez's trial, and it has been suggested that Shakespeare wrote his play about a Jew to emulate the success of Marlowe's piece. The fact that The Merchant of Venice is now generally dated two or three years later does not of itself dissociate the play from the Lopez affair. But Shylock, unlike Marlowe's Jew, bears very little resemblance to Lopez. He is neither a poisoner nor, before his final exit, a convert, and though the choice of the name Antonio could be a faint reverberation of the trial, it was a common Italian name which Shakespeare used for several more characters.21

But if Ruy Lopez did not linger in Shakespeare's memory, Marlowe's Barabas certainly did. Shylock has learnt from Barabas how to respond to Christian contempt: Barabas finds it politic to ‘Heave up my shoulders when they call me dog’ (Jew of Malta 2.3.24)22 and Shylock submits with a ‘patient shrug’ to being called ‘misbeliever, cut-throat dog’ (1.3.101, 103). In both, this obsequiousness masks a fierce racial pride: Shylock recalls (1.3.81) the prosperity of Jacob with as much satisfaction as Barabas does the ‘blessings promised to the Jews’ (Jew of Malta 1.1.103). Like Barabas, he believes that without the divine seal of material prosperity, life is not worth living. To those who take away his wealth Barabas cries:

Why, I esteem the injury far less,
To take the lives of miserable men,
Than be the causers of their misery;
You have my wealth, the labor of my life,
The comfort of mine age, my children's hope;
And therefore ne'er distinguish of the wrong

(Jew of Malta 1.2.146-51)

—a passion heard again from Shylock:

Nay, take my life and all, pardon not that:
You take my house when you do take the prop
That doth sustain my house; you take my life
When you do take the means whereby I live.


Despite such echoes of The Jew of Malta, The Merchant of Venice is a different kind of play and the product of a different kind of imagination. Marlowe's powerful and grotesque tragedy was so vivid in the memories of Shakespeare's audience that it must have presented itself to him as a challenge rather than a source. When he seems most dependent on it, closer examination often reveals that he is holding it at bay: that is, in the manner of painters—Francis Bacon, for example, ‘quoting’ Velázquez—he recalls the older work in order to show how far from it his own concerns lie. Marlowe's opening scene exuberantly celebrates the Jew's wealth of gold and silks and spices, in preparation for the portrayal of a world of materialist relationships. In Shakespeare's first scene, argosies with their cargoes of silk and spices are powerfully evoked, but they are made to appear an irrelevance to the world of feeling revealed in Antonio's sadness and his affection for Bassanio; they are the means by which Antonio may serve Bassanio's ends, whereas Barabas's wealth is an end in itself. This fruitful and creative resistance to Marlowe's play is most evident in the contrast between Jessica and Barabas's daughter Abigail. The scene in which the runaway Jessica throws down a casket of her father's jewels to her waiting lover deliberately recalls the night scene in The Jew of Malta in which the loyal Abigail extracts the sequestered treasure from her father's house and throws it down to him. Profound differences of character, tone, and circumstance in the two episodes are to make Shylock's ‘My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!’ (2.8.15) as ironic an echo of Barabas's triumphant ‘O girl, O gold, O beauty, O my bliss!’ (Jew of Malta 2.1.54) as is Marlowe's own use of the happy Ovidian lover's Lente, lente, currite noctis equi at the dire climax of Doctor Faustus. The Jew of Malta is not, in the conventional sense, a source of The Merchant of Venice. It is a persistent presence, which Shakespeare manipulates with confident skill.23


The Kenyan writer Karen Blixen once told the story of The Merchant of Venice to her Somali butler, Farah Aden, who was deeply disappointed by Shylock's defeat. He was sure the Jew could have succeeded, if only he had used a red-hot knife. As an African listener, he had expected a tale about a clever trickster in the Brer Rabbit tradition; Shylock let him down.24 We can be as far off-course as Farah in our reading of the play if we do not pay some heed to the attitudes of its first audience: their range of expectations about comedy as a genre, and the assumptions they brought to a play set in Venice, to its portrayal of the law, of Jews, and of usury, and to its handling of the theme of love and friendship. Yet in our attempts to understand these background matters we need also to hold fast to the fact that Shakespeare's eminence makes him stand out from his background. The play is not made up of average Elizabethan preconceptions. It is made out of the life experience of a highly individual artist, and our sense of that individuality as we gather it from Shakespeare's work as a whole is an important part of our response.


First and foremost The Merchant of Venice is a romantic play. The triumph of love and friendship over malice and cruelty is the theme of most medieval romances, of countless short stories of the Italian Renaissance, and, from the 1570s onward, of many English plays.25 In comedies such as those of Robert Greene, love is an ennobling experience, far removed from the absurdities of courtship displayed in Love's Labour's Lost and A Midsummer Night's Dream. Unlike these earlier Shakespearean works which have the flavour of Lyly's court comedies, The Merchant of Venice has the feel of a popularly romantic play intended primarily for the public stage. Only occasionally witty, it abounds in proverbial wisdom—‘good sentences, and well pronounced’ (1.2.9). And whereas court entertainments were made up of ‘happenings’ that the dramatist could invent at will, plays in the popular romance tradition had a well-defined story line, and existed rather as narrations than presentations. Disguise, a very important element in such stories, is used to bring home to the audience the heroine's devotion and worth. Far-fetched as such devices may seem, popular stage romance was not experienced as fantasy, and to call The Merchant of Venice a fairy tale is to induce a dangerous condescension in the reader and a dangerous whimsy in the director. Romantic comedies could be set in real places, even (like Greene's James IV) portray historical figures. Although the Belmont of Ser Giovanni is the conventional court of medieval romance, complete with jousting and damsels, his Jew lives on the mainland at Mestre as most Venetian Jews did in the fourteenth century. Two hundred years later, a public theatre audience took Antonio's perils seriously as befitted members of a rival trading nation. Argosies did not only belong in story books: they sailed into Southampton Water.

Another kind of reality, that provided by the miracle play and the morality, gave further substance to much Elizabethan romantic comedy. Portia intervenes to save Antonio as providentially as the Virgin Mary, in continental miracle plays of the sixteenth century, came to the help of hero or heroine. The notion, traceable to the Golden Legend, that souls could be saved even when they were being weighed in the balance and found wanting persisted in several forms: didactically, in the fourteenth-century Processus Belial, in which the devil claims that in justice man is forfeit to him and confidently produces scales in which to weigh human sins, but is routed when the Virgin appears as an advocate calling on God to exercise his other great attribute of mercy;26 visually, in many wall paintings, like the one in illustration 1, of the Weighing of Souls; dramatically, as when Mercy and Peace, in The Castle of Perseverance, plead successfully for man's soul before the judgement seat.27 This strain of underlying seriousness which The Merchant of Venice may owe to the miracle tradition was deepened when Shakespeare substituted the caskets for the bed test. Despite talk of Jason and Hercules, Bassanio's venture has more in common with the Grail story than with the pursuit of the Golden Fleece: it is a test of moral worth, not of prowess or cunning. Moreover we are given a secure feeling, characteristic of romance, that the outcome is under the direction of benign powers; Portia's dead father acts much as the divinely directed Fortune of romance, exercising a protective role over his daughter such as she in her turn is to exercise over Antonio.

Elsewhere, the play relies on a very different set of theatrical expectations, those brought to Italian comedy as it had been naturalised by Gascoigne, Munday, Shakespeare himself in The Taming of the Shrew, and possibly several of the writers of comedy named by Meres. Munday's Zelauto has the spirit of this Italian comedy; even if it does not have a theatrical source, it represents another aspect of Renaissance fiction which is close in temper to the imbroglios of comedy, the ‘merry tale’. Like such stories, Italian Renaissance comedies and their derivatives in France and England tend to be brisk and unsentimental. The setting is urban, often a city at Carnival time. Its heroines are resourceful and adventurous. Double and treble plots give the young ample opportunity to triumph over the old by means of trickery and disguise. And the trickster is fully in control of his fate and not presented to us as the protégé of Fortune.28 The inset episode of Jessica's elopement in Shakespeare's second act could well form part of such a comedy of intrigue, though in point of fact no dramatic source for it has been identified. To match its mood we have to turn to the fourteenth story in the Novellino of Masuccio of Salerno, which is about a miser's daughter who runs away with her lover after extracting from her father's store ‘a much greater sum than anyone could have reckoned sufficient for her dowry’.29 No sympathy is shown for the miser, who weeps at home day after day and is ready to hang himself in grief for the double loss of his money and his daughter.

The Merchant of Venice thus rouses and satisfies two very different kinds of expectation in its audience, who appear to have had no difficulty, here or elsewhere in Shakespeare's comedies, in shifting their perspective from scene to scene.30 Those critics who stress the affinity between festivity and comedy point to a comparable coexistence, in the festive season of the year, of affection and charity on the one hand and a zest for brutal practical jokes on the other.31 Ser Giovanni's story had provided this mixture in some degree by making a trickster of the Lady. When Shakespeare instead made her the prize in a moral contest, he had to turn elsewhere—to his recollection of Munday's tale or some similar work—for a cheerfully amoral love intrigue such as Jessica's flight affords. He also introduced a little levity into the more serious parts of his plot by drawing at moments on his own prior mastery of the comedy of wit. Like Angelina in Greene's Orlando Furioso, Portia is courted by the princes of the earth. But whereas Greene starts his play with high-flown declarations of love from all the princes, Shakespeare first gives us Portia's mocking review of her suitors, saving the pomp and rhetoric till 2.1 when they can be undercut by our knowledge of her private thoughts. Later on, when the tension of the trial scene is most strained, Portia is no less sharp-tongued in her reaction to Bassanio's romantic declaration that he would give his wife to save Antonio; here, by exploiting for a moment the use of disguise for a skirmish in the sex war, Shakespeare awakens responses proper to the courtly comedy of love and wit to keep in check other responses that have more to do with melodrama.

This flexibility of response on the part of the audience is one means by which Shakespeare can give his characters substance. A personality is defined in life by an intricate net of relationships, but in a play the audience's extraneous, single-angled relationship to a character makes this multifaceted nature of personality one of the most elusive of dramatic goals. A possible path to its attainment is the use of the audience's prior experience of varied dramatic and literary traditions. Portia may at times in the courtroom be the advocatus dei of medieval drama, but elsewhere she is the heroine of a quest romance, as good as she is rich as she is beautiful, and elsewhere again a clever schemer from intrigue comedy, with a scathing wit. Shylock too meets several different expectations. At one moment he is the ogre of medieval romance, at another the devil of the morality play, at another the usurer of citizen comedy; from time to time also the proud, even awesome, remnant of the House of Jacob from the Book of Genesis. He may even appear to us fleetingly as the Pantaloon of the commedia dell' arte, who was an avaricious Venetian householder with a large knife at his side, plagued by a greedy servant and an errant daughter.32 But this last image would arise from a closer and more immediate knowledge of Italian culture with its distinctive dramatic modes than we can safely attribute to Shakespeare and his audience.


The Merchant of Venice was a title that ensured its audience came to the theatre with well-defined expectations about the setting of the play. Shakespeare met these expectations with a fair amount of what would now be called local colour. The Verona, Messina, or Florence of his other plays might be anywhere, but his Venice is particularised by gondolas and traghetti and double ducats, the Rialto and the synagogues, magnifichi and figures from the famous civil law school at nearby Padua. Speculations have arisen that Shakespeare visited Venice when plague closed the London theatres in 1592-4. But if he did make the journey, it is scarcely conceivable that the ghetto, the first in Europe, could have escaped his notice.33 Shylock however appears to live in a Christian quarter and employs a non-Jewish servant, much as a Christianised Jew would have done in Elizabethan London.

Shakespeare did not have to travel to Venice to learn about its more picturesque aspects. He could have gathered all he needed from travellers and the guidebooks and histories they brought home with them; and the Italian community in London, though small, included people he was likely to meet.34 The Queen's Musick included no fewer than eight members of a Venetian family called Bassani: the name as it appears in court records, ‘Bassanye’, could have given rise to the form ‘Bassanio’ in the play.35 Although the community of Venetian merchants in London had dwindled, their factor was sufficiently involved in London life to be one of Essex's spies; his contact in Venice was his merchant brother Antonio.36 The name ‘Gobbo’, heard rather than read since Shakespeare appears at first uncertain how to spell it,37 could have been picked up from talk with those who knew Venice well. It means ‘hunchback’, but there is nothing to suggest Lancelot or his father is deformed. Shakespeare could have been told about il gobbo di Rialto, the crouching stone figure … supporting the platform from which laws were promulgated, which was credited with innumerable jokes and satires much as was the statue of Pasquino at Rome.38 Though we cannot be sure that this is the origin of the name, Shakespeare could have hit on no better one for his Venetian clown. Another memorable detail, and one Shakespeare could have found pictured in books about Venice, was the drawing of lots, in the process of election to state offices, by taking gold and silver balls out of three large receptacles.39 The custom may well have set Shakespeare's thoughts moving in the direction of a ‘lottery’ involving metals and so brought him to the Gesta Romanorum story of the caskets.

Of much greater importance to the play as a whole than any touch of local colour is the underlying set of ideas which Shakespeare and his audience shared about ‘the most serene city’. The myth of Venice, as historians now call it, can be watched in steady growth through half a century of publications, from the grudging admiration of William Thomas, an Englishman on the run (1549), to Sir Lewis Lewkenor's ecstatic praise prefixed to his translation of Contarini's La repubblica e i magistrati di Venezia in 1599.40 The sonnets by Spenser and others published with Lewkenor's essay show how strongly established the myth was by the 1590s. At the time The Merchant of Venice was written, the Republic was a legend for her independence, wealth, art, and political stability, her respect for law, and her toleration of foreigners.

After the battle of Lepanto (1571), Venice suffered a marked decline in her fortunes as a trading nation. But the traveller could still be dazzled by Venetian opulence, because this maritime decline was masked by the switch of capital to mainland agriculture and industry.41 Shakespeare, when he lists Antonio's ventures, pays no heed to the loss of the spice trade (1.1.33) nor to the exclusion of Venetian shipping from the new oceanic trade. Antonio's argosies not only ply between Levantine Tripoli, the ports of ‘Barbary’, Lisbon, and England, but they venture also to India and to Mexico—from both of which they would in real life have been debarred by Iberian interests.42 Antonio's social standing, too, reflects the heyday of mercantile power, when the city's nobility were also its trading magnates; by the 1590s, there were few who could still be called ‘royal merchants’.

For Spenser, Venice's highest claim to fame was her ‘policy of right’. Two particular aspects of Venetian law were highly praised by authors of the time. One was its inviolability, stressed when Portia is urged to wrest the law to her authority and replies that ‘no power in Venice / Can alter a decree establishèd’ (4.1.214-15). The tyrannical acts of the Council of Ten and its habit of judicial murder were still unknown in England. The other was the law's availability to all; ‘equality’ is the term repeatedly used. Othello shows that Shakespeare believed that in Venice ‘a private suit would obtain a fair hearing in the middle of an emergency council of war’,43 and the plot of The Merchant of Venice rests on the two facts, widely reported at the period, that Venice recognised bonds to foreigners entered into by its own citizens, and that it gave foreigners full access to its courts.44 This ‘freedom of the state’, as it is called at 3.2.277, an intellectual as well as commercial traffic between the men of many countries who comprised the communities known as ‘nations’, was a source of pride to the Venetians and of admiration to all strangers.

A further feature of the myth of Venice was the belief that the Republic's colony of Jews was a privileged community. Not only had they the same rights of redress in the courts as had other foreigners, but they were allowed openly to practise their religion, and were entitled to lend money at interest—‘by means whereof’, says William Thomas, ‘the Jews are out of measure wealthy in those parts’.45 This belief, gained from glimpses of pictureque Levantine figures on the Rialto and reinforced by claims such as that of Sansovino that the Jews enjoyed life in Venice as much as if it had been their Promised Land,46 was one of the more unreliable aspects of the Venetian myth. Jews were tolerated in Venice, not out of humanitarian feelings, but because their moneylending was an essential service to the poor and saved the authorities the trouble of setting up the state loan banks which, by the end of the century, had largely taken over the function of the Jewish moneylenders on the mainland.47 In William Thomas's day they had had some chance to grow rich through usury, despite harsh discriminatory taxation, but by the end of the century they were allowed interest of only five per cent.48 Even this much toleration had its price in an enforced apartheid which walled Jews up in the ghetto and set them apart by a yellow badge or by distinctively coloured headgear. The right of choice that Shylock exercises when he first refuses to dine with Bassanio but later goes to his feast could not have been enjoyed by a real Jew of the period.

In these and other respects the myth of Venice can be shown to have been sometimes a long way from the reality. But this disparity would be important to our understanding of The Merchant of Venice only if Shakespeare, with or without some portion of his audience, could be seen to be questioning the myth. In fact he and his audience appear to be in perfect accord in admiration for Venice's mercantile power and what Lewkenor called its pure and uncorrupted justice. Only when he encountered the complacency of such Venetians as Sansovino on the subject of the Jews did Shakespeare, perhaps with Marlowe's attacks on Christian hypocrisy fresh in his mind, react with an irony to which we shall return.


Audience expectations of 1597 or so, based on the prevailing romantic mode of comedy and on the myth of Venice, were well served by the trial scene. The Duke's curiously ineffectual role is in accord with Venetian custom: the Doge could not act as sole judge in any court, though he could add his voice to those of the appointed judges.49 Appeals were also addressed to him and this enabled Shakespeare to combine supposedly Venetian procedures with the traditional design of romantic comedy in which a king or governor, exercising clemency, brought everything to a satisfactory conclusion. The fact that Venice was known to have many unique laws may have helped the more informed spectators to swallow the improbability of Shylock being entitled only to an exact and bloodless pound of flesh. But most of the audience would simply have revelled in what is a version of the Wise Judge story: a tale in which the tables are turned on the accuser, just as happens to the Elders in the biblical tale of Susanna so unsuspectingly recalled by Shylock in ‘A Daniel come to judgement!’

A pleasure in things as they might have happened long ago and might still happen far away can, however, by no means explain the effect of the trial scene. Primarily, Shakespeare was satisfying his audience's fervent interest in the law as it was practised in sixteenth-century London. His ‘gentle’ hearers had for the most part studied, or were still studying, at the Inns of Court, and many of the citizens in the theatre would, like Shakespeare's own family, have had frequent recourse to the courts. All were connoisseurs of trial scenes which in one form or another occur in one third of all Elizabethan plays.50 So however romantic and exotic the events leading to the trial, it had to be conducted in a way that would guarantee the spectators' imaginative involvement. That Shakespeare succeeded in doing this and knew himself to have succeeded is suggested by some lines towards the end of the scene. Judgement has been given and both plaintiff and defendant have declared themselves content. Gratiano throws a last contemptuous remark at Shylock:

In christening shalt thou have two godfathers:
Had I been judge, thou shouldst have had ten more,
To bring thee to the gallows, not the font.


The English-sounding joke about trial by jury deliberately snaps the theatrical illusion as Gratiano, who likes to ‘play the Fool’ (1.1.79), makes use of a Fool's liberty to step out of a play and ally himself with its audience. For a dramatist thus to switch off one of his most brilliant illusions is an act of bravado, a way of celebrating the success with which he has compelled the audience to suspend all disbelief in what it has witnessed. Gratiano's remark indicates that the trial is both totally impossible—and totally plausible. Nothing of the kind could have taken place in the Court of the Queen's Bench—and yet legal minds of the present have readily engaged with the play's handling of fundamental questions of law, much as Shakespeare's legally well-informed audience must have done.

In recent years, legal historians have tended to see the trial as a reflection of the sixteenth-century concern with equity and its relation to common law. They stress that in Shakespeare's day there were in effect two legal systems: a civil case could be settled either in one of the common law courts by a judgement based on statute or precedent, or in Chancery by a decree based upon equity and conscience—in effect, that is, upon the Lord Chancellor's sense of natural justice. Among the pleaders who sought the redress of grievances in Chancery were Shakespeare's parents, who tried in 1597 to recover an estate they had lost in the Queen's Bench ten years previously.51 In the play, some aspects of the trial, notably Antonio's proposal that he put Shylock's property to ‘use’, or as we would now say, that he hold it in trust, recall Chancery proceedings; and it has even been claimed that from the moment Portia says ‘Tarry a little’ (4.1.301), the principles, procedures, and maxims of a court of Chancery are exclusively used.52 This historical reading of the trial scene has been made much use of by critics who view the play in thematic terms as a confrontation of the principles of mercy and justice. But the equation of common law with strict legalism and Chancery with mercy is an oversimplification of Elizabethan legal thinking.

The concept of equity, so powerfully developed by sixteenth-century writers such as Bodin and Hooker,53 does indeed lie at the heart of the scene, but it is improbable that Shakespeare's audience, in the midst of so much dramatic excitement, thought of the trial as a vindication of Chancery—the decrees of which were in any case not notably humane. Equity, like its criminal law equivalent, mercy, could be displayed in other legal contexts. It could even be viewed as the basis of justice in Venice; pondering the Venetian custom of arriving at a verdict by means of a judges' ballot, William Thomas concluded (without enthusiasm: he had been imprisoned in Venice) that ‘all matters are decided by the judges' consciences and not by the civil nor yet by their own laws’.54 Nearer home, the Staple Court, set up early in Tudor times to ‘give courage’ (that is, encouragement) ‘to merchant strangers’, had as its object the equitable settlement of trade disputes. It was also empowered to turn itself into a criminal court to try anyone accused of committing a felony in its precincts—which is what Portia does when she finds Shylock guilty of an attack on Antonio's life.55 Above all, a judge had ample scope to uphold the principle of equity within the framework of common law, and equity in this context constitutes the legal interest of The Merchant of Venice.

If Shakespeare had been concerned with the supposed incompatibility between equity and statutory law, he could very reasonably have had Portia rule that, in equity, a bond whose forfeiture resulted in mutilation was inadmissible. But what he was pursuing was not legal theory but dramatic effect. A judgement that combined a meticulous attention to the letter of the law with a no less meticulous concern for the principle of equity would unite all parts of the house in a common satisfaction. Those spectators who read chapbooks rather than works of jurisprudence would rejoice at Portia's conditions: the magical inviolability of legal words was being upheld, as was right and proper,56 but for once this mysterious literalism was being handled in a way which ensured the wicked did not prosper. And the ‘judicious’ spectators, who had been taught at the Inns of Court to apply the principle of equity to the interpretation of statutes, would have been no less delighted. Portia's restriction of the forfeiture to a just pound without blood, while in no way undermining the statutory protection of aliens in Venetian law, is ‘an equitable diminishment of the letter of the law according to the reason and intent of true justice’.57

The flesh-bond story ends here in many of its versions. But this will not do in the theatre, where we have just witnessed the ‘manifest proceeding’ of Shylock preparing to kill Antonio in cold blood. Whatever our relief and satisfaction at the legal expertise that has saved Antonio, we are still painfully aware that Shylock has attempted murder, and it would be a deep affront to our sense of justice if he now said, ‘I'll stay no longer question’ (4.1.342), gave a characteristic shrug and walked out of the courtroom. So Portia declares that the law has another hold on him:

There is a law in Venice, she urges, in virtue of which anyone attempting the life of a citizen forfeits both life and property. There was also a similar law in England, as the audience very well knew. Shylock had attempted ‘grievous bodily harm’ on Antonio.58

Our normal human reaction here is again satisfaction. Shylock has got what was coming to him. Yet there swiftly follows a no less spontaneous misgiving. Like Angelo in Measure for Measure, Shylock has willed more evil than he has performed. Because our sense of right decrees that he ought not to die, the equivalent of equity, the mercy of the Duke, in the end overrules statutory law.

But there are conditions to the Duke's pardon, and here a modern audience's responses are likely to differ widely from those of an Elizabethan one. Shylock must cease to be a Jew and a usurer. Those in the original audience, if they reflected on the matter, may have felt that these conditions completed the Duke's god-like act of mercy because they made it possible that Shylock ‘should see salvation’. But for us the conditions imply that Shylock is being judged not so much on what he has done as on what he is: his very being as a Jew, and his social role as usurer of which we have seen nothing in the play. The assumptions of the Elizabethans about law and equity are ones that we basically share; their preconceptions about Jews and usury are a good deal more likely to elude us.


Though practising Jews had been excluded from England for three centuries, Elizabethan London had its colony of nominally Christianised Jews from Spain and Portugal. There are indications that attitudes to these Marranos varied between different sections of society. The London populace was xenophobic, and the English apprentices of Marranos seem to have been prepared to spy on their employers and report on the rituals of Jewish family life which they kept up within doors.59 At Court, however, the Queen not only had a Marrano doctor but even, for a time, a Jewish lady-in-waiting.60 But these divergences of attitude between classes are likely to have been superficial; as much virulence against the ‘vile Jew’ Lopez was displayed by the prosecutor at his trial as by the mob at his execution. And it is a hanger-on of the Court, Thomas Coryate, who defines for us the colloquial use of ‘Jew’: ‘sometimes a weather beaten warp-faced fellow, sometimes a frenetic and lunatic person, sometimes one discontented’.61

Coryate, who had first-hand acquaintance with Venetian Jews, goes on to declare these preconceptions untrue. The sight in a synagogue of many ‘goodly and proper men’ and beautiful women moved him to reflect that ‘it is a most lamentable case for a Christian to consider the damnable estate of these miserable Jews’.62 Though Coryate's subsequent attempt to convert a Rabbi now strikes us as appallingly arrogant, his attitude is one we must take into account in our reading of The Merchant of Venice. A twentieth-century audience sometimes catches its breath at Shylock's shotgun conversion. It is as if the Jew was to be allowed to win back life and sustenance only at the price of his soul. Sixteenth-century spectators, however, would have regarded his soul as already forfeit in so far as he, like his forebears, refused to acknowledge the Christian Messiah. Baptism alone, it was believed, could put a Jew in the way of salvation.

The genuine concern of many that the ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’ should be brought into the fold had its ugly obverse. Jews who resisted proselytisation were thought of as under God's curse for their part in killing his Son. The older members of Shakespeare's audience could in their childhood have watched plays about the Crucifixion in which the mocking Jews were played with horrifying realism. Shakespeare even exploits the association: Shylock's ‘My deeds upon my head!’ (4.1.202) is clearly an echo of the cry with which the Jerusalem crowd elected to free Barabbas rather than Jesus: ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’ (Matt. 27.25). Friars in Venice and clergymen in London fulminated from their pulpits against the Jews as deicides; outrageous as this idea now seems, it was until very recently the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic and some reformed Churches. A deicide was by definition capable of every iniquity, so the Jews became established as the arch-villains of medieval literature. It is significant that the villain of the flesh-bond story, not a Jew in the earliest versions, became one only when the story was linked to the medieval legend about the finding of the Cross.63 The old stories about sacrilege, well-poisoning, and ritual murder were familiar in Shakespeare's day in the form of ballads for the illiterate and, for those who could read, romances such as Chaucer's Prioress's Tale. Such horror stories were also given striking dramatic currency in The Jew of Malta.

Charges of heresy and deicide may also be seen as the rationalisation of a simple and primitive emotion, envy of the skill and speed with which Jews were able to amass wealth. From early medieval times, Jews had been usurers; not, as was generally believed, because their Law allowed them to take interest from strangers—in fact both the Talmud and the Midrash condemn usury—but because moneylending was one of the few ways they were permitted to earn a living. Temporal rulers, for their part, were content for it to be a good living, since from time to time they mulcted the Jews of their capital under the pretext that their gains were ill-gotten. Nothing reveals more sharply the economic basis for the ill-tempered toleration of orthodox Jews in Venice than the fact that any Jew who became a Christian had to hand all his possessions over to the Church. The result, Coryate noted, was that ‘there are fewer Jews converted to Christianity in Italy, than in any country of Christendom’.64 Unconverted Jews were of much greater use than converts in the Venetian economy.

Though there were in theory no unconverted Jews in England, economic resentment such as was widely expressed against settlers from the Low Countries may have been behind the cry raised against the prosperous Marrano, Lopez: ‘Hang him for he is a Jew!’ A folk memory of Jews as moneylenders could have lingered through centuries, to be reinforced by medieval ballads and romances and, later, by Italian stories and plays. Moreover, by Shakespeare's day, English usurers were in their own right a familiar element in the London social scene.

Usury, the Elizabethans were repeatedly told, was contrary to the law of nations, the law of nature, and the law of God. The guidance of the Gospels was clear: the command ‘Lend, looking for nothing again’ (Luke 6.35) was glossed ‘not only not hoping for profit, but to lose the stock and principle’.65 In addition, popular assent was still given to Aristotle's idea that to make money breed was against the course of nature; while the medieval distinction between making a well-secured loan and courageously casting one's bread upon the waters had been heard as recently as 1594 from a preacher who insisted that usurers do not, unlike ‘the merchants that cross the sea, adventure’.66 With all this obloquy as well as The Merchant of Venice behind him, Shakespeare presumably did not ask for interest when a fellow townsman sought to borrow thirty pounds from him in 1598. We do not know if he lent the money, though the association progressed in the manner of comedy, Shakespeare's daughter in due course marrying the son of the would-be borrower.

There is something Canute-like about the many sermons preached against usury in the 1590s. The tide had turned towards capitalism with the 1571 Act which, though it did not openly countenance usury, relaxed the prohibition against it.67 The Elizabethans could no more live without usury than could the Venetians; their multitudinous enterprises had to be floated on borrowed capital, and the more the usurer was needed the more he was hated for his profits. His services were most in demand among the aristocracy,68 and since the players were under lordly patronage the drama was a ready medium for making the usurer a scapegoat for the economic ills of the age. By the time the theatres closed in 1642, some sixty usurers had been hissed from their stages.69

The Jew then was the scapegoat of Christendom and the usurer the scapegoat of a nascent capitalism. But while there is no doubt that the Elizabethans would have brought a whole heap of prejudices to a play about a ‘stubborn’ Jew who is also a moneylender,70 the scapegoating of Shylock is (to make use of René Girard's distinction) both structure and theme in The Merchant of Venice. Because the realisation that Shakespeare is less concerned with creating a scapegoat than in suggesting how scapegoats are created comes, as Girard says, in intermittent flashes of complicity with the playwright,71 discussion of it must be left till we take a closer look at the play in action. … Two general points about Shakespeare's manipulation of the wicked Jewish moneylender stereotype can be made here. The first is that the playwright seems to have gone to the Book of Genesis for what we would now call background information about Judaism,72 and like every other reader he found his imagination stirred by the way the patriarchs are there presented as a chosen people. Shylock is rare among villains in that he claims a holy ancestry. It does not make him any better in our eyes—Lucifer too can recall a God-directed past—but it enables his mean and cringing figure to cast a nobler shadow. The second point is that Shakespeare's play can be seen as the culmination of a series of extant plays about grasping Jews which are all in one way or another critical towards the assumed moral superiority of Christians.

Three such plays preceded The Merchant of Venice. The Croxton Play of the Sacrament is a miracle drama dealing with the misdeeds of two wicked merchants, one Jewish and the other Christian.73 Both in the end repent, confess, and are forgiven; but on the Christian, who should have known better, is imposed the penance of never trading again. A sharper contrast is drawn in a morality play of the 1580s, Robert Wilson's Three Ladies of London.74 When Mercadore, the merchant suitor to Lady Lucre, is brought before a Turkish court at the suit of his Jewish creditor Gerontus, he seeks to extricate himself by turning up in Turkish dress and announcing he has reneged his faith. He knows, and this is an oblique comment on the treatment of Jewish converts to Christianity, that converts to Islam are freed from their debts. But Gerontus is horrified at the thought that he has caused a man to repudiate the faith to which he was born. He withdraws his claim, causing the judge to remark ‘Jews seek to excel in Christianity and Christians in Jewishness.’ In passing it should be noted that Gerontus has no truck with Lady Lucre's servant, Usury—who hails from Venice. The third play, and the one closest to Shakespeare's in time and in the villainy of its Jew, is Marlowe's tragedy. When Shakespeare made use of his audience's memories of the monstrous Barabas and his convertite daughter he was also inviting them to recall the way Barabas likens his guile and hypocrisy to the same traits in the Maltese Christians:

This is the life we Jews are used to lead,
And reason too, for Christians do the like.

(Jew of Malta 5.2.115-16)

It is easy to fit The Merchant of Venice into this sequence: ‘The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction’ (3.1.56-7). Shakespeare had good precedent for his modification of the simple equation, ‘Jewishness plus usury equals villainy.’ His chosen genre of romantic comedy demanded, however, that the modification should be more oblique than Wilson's moralisings or Marlowe's satire. And in one respect, his portrayal of the merchant, Shakespeare would seem to have some difficulty in sustaining his objectivity about the Christians of Venice.


The Merchant of Venice, according to the Stationers' Register, was ‘otherwise called The Jew of Venice’. The alternative suggests where the play's interest lay for the majority; for every spectator who could identify with the merchant's exalted love of his friend, there would have been many whose chief pleasure was in seeing the tables turned upon the usurer. Idealised friendship was a favourite theme of Renaissance literature, but it was a cult only of the educated minority: those who, even if they had not read Plato's Phaedrus, would have been familiar with the celebration of Platonic love in a more recent dialogue, in the fourth book of Castiglione's The Courtier. These readers were accustomed to the impassioned language of friendship which took for its model the love of David and Jonathan—‘passing the love of women’. They did not assume either a sexual origin or an actively sexual outcome for such emotion, and they believed it could coexist harmoniously with love between the sexes. The conquest of the ‘lower’ love by the ‘higher’ friendship, a cerebral and unconvincing theme in the early Two Gentlemen of Verona, is replaced here by an unbroken concord. Portia accepts Bassanio's absence because she has ‘a noble and a true conceit / Of god-like amity’ (3.4.2-3), while Antonio is no less self-effacing in his concern that his own risks should not enter Bassanio's ‘mind of love’ (2.8.43).

This reconciliation of love and friendship is matched in the first seventeen of Shakespeare's Sonnets, in which he urges his friend to marry. But though marriage is there no impediment to the friends' ‘marriage of true minds’, other inimical forces are at work. One divisive force is social difference: Shakespeare's friend, a younger man than the poet, is apparently of much higher rank. An even greater danger lies in the friend's character. His past unkindnesses are ungrudgingly forgiven, but there always remains in the poet's mind the dread that one day his friend will repudiate him. These thoughts, and the characteristic group of images which express them, have parallels in the plays of Shakespeare's middle period which, taken together with external evidence, have led some scholars to date the Sonnets as late as 1597 or 1598.75 If they are right, the experiences that underlie the Sonnets could have been painfully fresh in Shakespeare's memory when he came to write The Merchant of Venice. There would have been an immediate relevance in Ser Giovanni's tale76 about an older man prepared to give and forgive with unstinted affection and a younger man prone to forget his friend's generosity. The story also provided satisfactions lacking in real life. Ansaldo and Giannetto were social equals, and Ansaldo was the material benefactor of Giannetto, whereas in the Sonnets the poet can bestow only devotion and praise on his friend. Best of all, the Il Pecorone story offered a happy ending, in which the older man, after the marriage which he had successfully furthered, was taken into his friend's brilliant social circle.

Despite this happy ending, the anxiety which appears to have hampered the real-life relationship is present as an undertone in the play. It is heard in Bassanio's reflections on appearance and reality before his choice of the right casket; these have very close verbal parallels in Sonnet 68, one of a group of particularly ambiguous sonnets which praise the friend for an integrity the poet wants him to have but knows he lacks.77 It is heard too in Antonio's melancholy, which was to E. K. Chambers ‘an echo of those disturbed relations in Shakespeare's private life of which the fuller but enigmatic record is to be found in the Sonnets’.78 As in the Sonnets, this melancholy takes the form of a deep self-deprecation. When Antonio sees himself as ‘a tainted wether of the flock’ (4.1.114), he is close to the poet who writes in Sonnet 88:

With mine own weakness being best acquainted,
Upon thy part I can set down a story
Of faults concealed, wherein I am attainted,
That thou in losing me shall win much glory.

This rationalisation of the fear of rejection persists in the play even though Bassanio is presented in a favourable light. Indeed, the very strength and authenticity of Antonio's feelings may be at the root of the uneasiness that many critics express about Bassanio.

The story of Giannetto, then, could have appealed to Shakespeare first and foremost as the portrayal of a friendship and only secondarily as the story of Ansaldo's escape from the Jew. Here perhaps lies the source of our dissatisfaction with the relationship between Shylock and Antonio. When Antonio, accused by Shylock of having abused him, spat at him, and kicked him, replies that he is likely to do all these things again, we feel that even when allowances have been made for Elizabethan prejudices, something has gone badly wrong. Shakespeare's emotional involvement with one relationship of the character has left him insensitive to the character's other relationships—a point which could arguably be made about Hamlet also.

There is a structural difficulty here as well. In the bond scene, Shakespeare needed to give Shylock strong motives for his hatred if he was to get the story moving. The difficulty was already there in the old tale. One of its first tellers even makes the moneylender, a former serf, hate the knight to whom he lends money because the knight once, ‘in a fit of wrath’, cut off the moneylender's foot.79 Though Shakespeare's inventions are less unhappy, they have the effect of transforming Antonio, to whom most people take a liking in the play's first scene, into a self-righteous figure storming defiance at his business rival. The actor of Antonio has his work cut out to give coherence to a role that Shakespeare has left in some confusion. If Shakespeare can be accused of anti-semitism this can be found not so much in his depiction of Shylock as in an involvement with Antonio that results in his letting the merchant's contempt for the Jew go unchallenged, whereas other Christian failings in the play do not go unchallenged. In Shakespeare's imaginative prospect, Antonio perhaps stands too close to his creator to be in perfect focus. …


  1. Sir William Slingsby, ‘A Relation of the Voyage to Cadiz’, The Naval Miscellany I, ed. J. K. Laughton, 1902, pp. 25-92.

  2. The allusion was identified by Ernest Kuhl in a letter to the TLS [Times Literary Supplement] 27 December 1928, p. 1025.

  3. [John Russell] Brown [ed.], [The Merchant of Venice, 1955; reprinted with corrections and additions, 1961 (Arden)] pp. xxvi-vii.

  4. See Textual Analysis, p. 168. …

  5. Translations are given in Brown, pp. 140-53; [Geoffrey] Bullough, [Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, 1, 1957] pp. 463-76; T. J. B. Spencer, Elizabethan Love Stories, 1968, pp. 177-96.

  6. Bullough, p. 471.

  7. Ibid., p. 472.

  8. Bernard Grebanier, The Truth about Shylock, 1962, pp. 136-45, gives a full list. Some particularly interesting ones are noted in the Commentary.

  9. Bullough gives examples, p. 458.

  10. Brown gives the 1595 translation, pp. 172-4. Bullough prints an extract from an earlier version of the complete Gesta Romanorum.

  11. See also Milton A. Levy, ‘Did Shakespeare join the … plots in The Merchant of Venice?’, SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly] 11 (1960), 388-91.

  12. Stephen Gosson, The School of Abuse (1579), ed. E. Arber, 1906, p. 40.

  13. The case against The Jew as a source has been forcefully put by E. A. J. Honigmann, ‘Shakespeare's “lost source-plays”’, MLR [Modern Language Review] 49 (1954), 293-307.

  14. L. Toulmin Smith, ‘On the bond-story in The Merchant of Venice and a version of it in Cursor Mundi’, New Shakespeare Society (1875), 181-9; J. Lopez Cardozo, ‘The background of Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice’, English Studies 14 (1932), 177-86; M. J. Landa, The Shylock Myth, 1942, pp. 18-31; Grebanier, Truth, pp. 97-145.

  15. Brown gives Gernutus, pp. 153-6.

  16. The relevant extract is in Brown, pp. 168-72, and Bullough, pp. 482-6. Winifred Nowottny has found traces of The Orator in other plays by Shakespeare, especially in trial scenes; see ‘Shakespeare and The Orator’, Bulletin de la Faculté des Lettres de Strasbourg 43 (1965), 813-33.

  17. Janet Spens, An Essay on Shakespeare's Relation to Tradition, 1916, pp. 23-4; Geoffrey Creigh, ‘Zelauto and Italian comedy: a study in sources’, MLQ [Modern Language Quarterly] 29 (1968), 161-7. Zelauto has been edited by Jack Stillinger, 1963; Brown gives an abridgement, pp. 156-68.

  18. I. A. Shapiro, ‘Shakespeare and Mundy’, S.Sur. [Shakespeare Survey] 14 (1961), 30-3.

  19. Zelauto, ed. Stillinger, p. 176.

  20. The possible connection between Lopez and Shylock was suggested by Frederick Hawkins, ‘Shylock and other stage Jews’, The Theatre 1 November 1879, and discussed by Sidney Lee, ‘The original of Shylock’, Gentleman's Magazine 246 (1880), 185-220. Lee mistook Antonio Pérez for Dom Antonio, pretender to the Portuguese throne. For Pérez see Gustav Ungerer, Anglo-Spanish Relations in Tudor England, 1956, pp. 81-174. Ungerer corrects Lopez's first name, usually given as Roderigo, to Ruy.

  21. See also R. P. Corballis, ‘The name Antonio in English Renaissance drama’, Cahiers Élizabéthains 25 (1984), 61-72.

  22. Quotations are from Richard Van Fossen's edition, 1965.

  23. In ‘Marlowe and Shakespeare’, SQ (1964), 41-53, Irving Ribner argues strongly against The Jew of Malta being treated as a source. His characterisation, though, of the two plays as ‘a tragedy of defeat and negation’ and ‘a comedy of affirmation’ oversimplifies both plays.

  24. B. E. Obumselu, ‘The background of modern African literature’, Ibadan 22 (1966), 46.

  25. See Leo Salingar, Shakespeare and the Traditions of Comedy, 1974, pp. 28-59.

  26. J. D. Rea, ‘Shylock and the Processus Belial’, PQ [Philological Quarterly] 8 (1929), 311-15.

  27. A. Caiger Smith, English Medieval Mural Paintings, 1963, pp. 58-63; Hope Traver, The Four Daughters of God, 1907. The part of an actor playing God in a morality about the debate of Justice and Mercy has survived in an Elizabethan MS. See Malone Society Collections 2, ed. W. W. Greg, 1931, pp. 239-50.

  28. See also Salingar, Traditions, pp. 175-242.

  29. Bullough, p. 503. I do not include Il Novellino among the sources of the play, as the resemblances are very slight.

  30. Twelfth Night, for example, in which the romantic main story and the heartless plot against Malvolio both originate in a single collection of stories.

  31. See C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy, 1959.

  32. John Robert Moore, ‘Pantaloon as Shylock’, Boston Public Library Quarterly 1 (1949), 33-42.

  33. The ghetto, founded in 1516, is described by Fynes Moryson, who saw it in 1594, and Thomas Coryate who travelled to Venice in 1608. Jews were allowed at that time to employ Christian servants, provided they did not eat, drink, or sleep in the ghetto.

  34. S. Schoenbaum, William Shakespeare, a Documentary Life, 1975, p. 127; G. K. Hunter, ‘Elizabethans and foreigners’, S.Sur. 17 (1964), 37-52.

  35. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 1980, sv Bassani; Walter L. Woodfill, Musicians in English Society from Elizabeth to Charles I, 1953, Appendix E.

  36. Gustav Ungerer, A Spaniard in Elizabethan England: The Correspondence of Antonio Pérez's Exile, 1976, II, 174-8. J. W. Draper believes Antonio to be a portrait of the Genoese-born financier, Orazio Palavicino (‘Shakespeare's Antonio and the Queen's finance’, Neophilogus 51 (1967), 178-85).

  37. See collation and Commentary for 2.2.3, 4, 6.

  38. Giulio Lorenzetti, Venice and its Lagoon, trans. Guthrie, 1975, p. 471. The association was first made by Carl Elze (Essays, 1874, p. 281). Lancelot's part, translated literally into Italian, has struck a recent translator, according to Giorgio Melchiori, as ‘genuinely Venetian in sentence structure and in the very spirit of the jokes in it’.

  39. Described by Contarini (see next note) and also by Thomas Coryate, Crudities (1611), p. 282.

  40. Donato Giannotti, Libro della repubblica dei veneziani (1540); Gasparo Contarini, La repubblica e i magistrati di Venezia (1543); William Thomas, History of Italy (1549); Francesco Sansovino, Venetia, città nobilissima (1581); Girolamo Bardi, Delle cose notabili della città di Venetia (1592). Shakespeare could have read Giannotti and Contarini together in one edition of 1591. Christopher Whitfield thinks he also had a preview of Lewkenor's translation (‘Sir Lewis Lewkenor and The Merchant of Venice: a suggested connection’, NQ [Notes and Queries] ns 11 (1964), 123-33).

  41. J. H. Elliott, Europe Divided, 1968, pp. 58-9.

  42. 3.2.267-8. A casual Venetian presence before 1530 in Brazil is indicated by Pierre Chaunu, Conquête et exploitations des nouveaux mondes, 1969, p. 221.

  43. J. R. Hale, England and the Italian Renaissance, 1954, p. 30.

  44. The French jurist Jean Bodin, in stating that in Venice ‘it is lawful to bind a citizen to a stranger’, draws a contrast with English custom (The Six Books of a Commonweal, trans. Richard Knolles, ed. K. D. McRae, 1962, p. 66).

  45. Thomas, History, p. 77.

  46. Sansovino, Venetia, p. 137.

  47. Brian Pullen, Rich and Poor in Renaissance Venice, 1971, pp. 429-578. See especially the summary, pp. 576-8.

  48. Coryate, in 1608, noted the apparent wealth of many Jews, but not all of it would have been acquired by usury. The only authorised moneylenders among them, the transalpine Jews, were also permitted to trade in second-hand goods, which included costly furniture and hangings.

  49. Comments on the Doge's position range from Thomas's ‘an honourable slave’ (p. 77), quoted from the Venetians, to Lewkenor's ‘strange and unusual form of a most excellent monarchy’ (A2v).

  50. This estimate from an unpublished thesis by D. Smith is quoted by O. Hood Phillips, Shakespeare and the Lawyers, 1972, p. 84.

  51. The fullest account of this is in W. Nicholas Knight, ‘Equity, The Merchant of Venice and William Lambarde’, S.Sur. 27 (1974), 93-104. The Shakespeares were to get no more joy out of Chancery than did the characters in Bleak House.

  52. Besides Knight, Maxime MacKay (‘The Merchant of Venice: a reflection of the early conflict between courts of law and courts of equity’, SQ 15 (1964), 371-6), Mark Edwin Andrews (Law versus Equity inThe Merchant of Venice’, 1965) and W. Gordon Zeefeld (The Temper of Shakespeare's Thought, 1974, pp. 141-84) all argue that Shakespeare is concerned with Chancery in Act 4.

  53. Philip Brockbank discusses equity as a theme in the work of Hooker and Bodin in ‘Shakespeare and the fashion of these times’, S.Sur. 16 (1963), 30-41.

  54. Thomas, History, p. 81.

  55. Henry Saunders, ‘Staple Courts in The Merchant of Venice’, NQ ns 31 (1984), 190-1.

  56. Lawrence Danson, The Harmonies ofThe Merchant of Venice’, 1978, pp. 86-9.

  57. E. P. J. Tucker, ‘The letter of the law in The Merchant of Venice’, S.Sur. 29 (1976), 93-101—the most persuasive refutation of the idea that Shakespeare is concerned with Chancery in Act 4.

  58. George W. Keeton, Shakespeare's Legal and Political Background, 1967, p. 145.

  59. C. J. Sisson, ‘A colony of Jews in Shakespeare's London’, Essays and Studies 23 (1937), 38-51.

  60. Sidney L. Lee, ‘Elizabethan England and the Jews’, New Shakespeare Society (1888), 143-66.

  61. Crudities, p. 232. As Coryate was writing early in the new century, a memory of Shylock could have contributed to his definition. But the popular notion that Jews easily became impassioned could have contributed to the occasional ‘frenetic’ behaviour of Barabas and Shylock.

  62. Crudities, p. 233.

  63. In the Cursor Mundi, about 1290, a Jew who has tried to take a pound of his debtor's flesh and has consequently been condemned to death is reprieved when he offers to reveal the place where the Cross is buried.

  64. Crudities, p. 234.

  65. The gloss is in the Geneva Bible, the version most used by Elizabethans for their private reading.

  66. Quoted by Walter Cohen, ‘The Merchant of Venice and the possibilities of historical criticism’, ELH 49 (1982), 765-89.

  67. See the full discussion by R. H. Tawney in the introduction to his edition of Thomas Wilson's Discourse upon Usury (1572), 1925.

  68. Lawrence Stone, The Crisis of the Aristocracy 1558-1641, 1965, pp. 543-4.

  69. Arthur Bivins Stonex, ‘The usurer in Elizabethan drama’, PMLA 31 (1916), 190-210.

  70. He also perhaps has some traits of the puritan. Thomas Wilson associates puritans and usurers, and the puritans' predilection for the Old Testament led in the popular mind to a conflation of Jews and puritans as parsimonious killjoys. See Paul N. Siegel, ‘Shylock and the puritan usurers’, Studies in Shakespeare, ed. A. D. Matthews and Clark M. Emery, 1953, pp. 129-38.

  71. René Girard, ‘“To entrap the wisest”: a reading of The Merchant of Venice’, in Literature and Society, Selected Papers from the English Institute ed. E. Said, 1980, pp. 100-19.

  72. See Appendix, ‘Shakespeare's use of the Bible in The Merchant of Venice’, p. 184. …

  73. The Non-Cycle Mystery Plays, ed. O. Waterhouse, 1909.

  74. Ed. J. S. Farmer, 1911 (Tudor Facsimile Reprints).

  75. For example, H. C. Beeching's edition of the Sonnets, 1904, pp. xxiv-xxvii, and J. Dover Wilson's edition (NS), 1966, pp. lxxiv-lxxxii.

  76. See the summary and discussion, pp. 2-4 above.

  77. See Commentary on 3.2.95.

  78. Shakespeare: A Survey, 1925, p. 117.

  79. Grebanier, Truth, p. 103.

All quotations from Shakespeare, except those from The Merchant of Venice, use the text and lineation of The Riverside Shakespeare, under the general editorship of G. Blakemore Evans.

Russell Astley (essay date April 1979)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6497

SOURCE: Astley, Russell. “Through a Looking Glass, Darkly: Judging Hazards in The Merchant of Venice.Ariel 10, no. 2 (April 1979): 17-34.

[In the following essay, Astley explores issues of morality and ethical risk-taking in The Merchant of Venice.]

The Merchant of Venice bases its dramatic logic on the New Testament premise that you get what you give, and the play's consistent enactment of this looking-glass logic creates a world in which mirroring is a major internal principle of order. This makes for a rather peculiar play-world: a providential world where reversal (the last made first) and reflexiveness (the judge self-judged) rule; a world which offers at any moment to confound subject with object and appearance with reality; a world, that is to say, oddly akin to Alice's Looking-glass Garden, where you approach your goal by advancing in the opposite direction. The three main lines of action—the casket-, bond-, and ring-plots—form portions of this reflexive unity, each an analogue of the others, helping to clarify them and the meaning of the whole.

The play as moral mirror of a human nature external to it; the necessity of moral risk-taking: these two ideas are familiar enough to students of The Merchant of Venice. In this essay however I want to propose a more intimate and somewhat different connection between them and to show with what persistence both are implicated in the internal mirroring just mentioned. I will suggest also that Shakespeare in this play confronts not only his dramatis personae but perhaps his audience as well with the moral risk of self-judgment through judging the other and, further, that this dramatic (or supradramatic) situation could be achieved only by a playwright self-consciously willing to put his own craft at hazard. Portia's arts too, mirroring her creator's, will be seen to exploit the shifts of self-reflexiveness for moral ends. And the end of my argument should be to rediscover under a new light the familiar truth that in such a world of fearful Christian symmetries—a world which I think meant to embrace playwright and audience as well as the play's internal characters—the choice between real and apparent goods is always consequential and inescapably hazardous.


Shylock's tale of Jacob and Laban and Antonio's response to it turn on thoughts of hazard and consequence. The standard argument against usury had it that legitimate wealth could be generated only by risk of wealth or by physical labor. Since the usurer avoided both (his loans were guaranteed), his profits were plainly illegitimate. Yet according to Shylock Jacob's profit is just such a riskless consequence not of labor but of magical know-how, and he nevertheless “was blest”. So Shylock the usurer—to put this in a way that should seem more relevant as the present essay unfolds—sees in this patriarchal exemplar only his own reflection. Antonio on the other hand reads there only the pattern of a Christian merchant. His Jacob is no more a laborer than Shylock's but he is no sorcerer either and deserves no personal credit for his good fortune, which is rather the result of a risk, a “venture” much like Antonio's own: Jacob's luck is to Antonio's mind a thing “swayed and fashioned by the hand of heaven” (I. iii. 88-90).1 For Antonio, following Christian tradition, recognizes in Fortune, who seems to shuffle the world's goods blindly and randomly, a mere persona of omniscient providence, an agent of the divine will. I think the play supports only Antonio's interpretation.

The casket choice willed by Portia's father also is spoken of as an affair of “fortune,” a “venture,” but often in a sense opposed to Antonio's. Morocco, for example, frets about being led by “blind fortune” and complains that even Hercules might be beaten at a game of chance. Yet the happy outcome of the contest makes it dramatically clear that old Belmont's quaint device was very providently designed. “Who chooses his meaning chooses” Portia, and she is in fact won by the only suitor whose love transcends narcissism. For Belmont's law, like the Christian God's, is fulfilled only by such love. Risk is indeed part of what must be chosen. But risk in this context is not reliance on accident, on pagan and arbitrary Chance (Sors), but again the gamble of faith understood by Antonio. The leaden demand to “give and hazard all” expresses a kind of wisdom, the reversal of worldly values, which is folly to pagans (and to Roman Catholics in the Reformers' view) and a stone of stumbling to the Jews.

Belmont's caskets are the mirrors which first expose the reflexive hazards of judging. Each chooser chooses his own self-image; what he gets (win or lose) is a glimpse of a truer self, of character as personal destiny. Aragon wishes to see himself unironically as a worldly wiseman but, like his name and nation, his zeal to get what he deserves reflects only obtuse arrogance. “There be fools alive iwis, / Silvered o'er, and so was this” jibes his scroll (II. ix. 67-8) and the point is sharpened if Aragon himself displays the silver thatch of age without its wisdom. Morocco is described in the original stage direction as a “tawny”—golden rather than black—Moor, and he proclaims part of his self-image in rejecting base lead: “A golden mind stoops not to shows of dross” (II. vii. 20). Launcelot's later punning on the noun “Moor” and the comparative adjective “more” (III. v. 41-3) may further help interpret this emulous chooser of desire: because “enough / May not extend so far as to the lady,” the Moor wants more (II. vii. 27-8). He is sensual, ambitious, aggressive; but from Belmont's Christian perspective physical potency wins only physical death.

Whereas the choosers of externals mirror both physically and spiritually the images they approve, the richly-attired Bassanio, who chooses “not by the view,” is physically no “lead casket.”2 Yet he unmistakeably does choose a reflection of his own values when he chooses to “give and hazard all.” This is his motto from the first to the last scene of the play. To Antonio he is frank about the element of hazard in his plan to win Portia, and he gives to the Gobbos and right after to Gratiano as readily as Antonio and later Portia give to him (II. ii. 142, 173). If he never needs squarely to face the ultimate generosity, forgiving an enemy (as Shylock and Antonio must), he nevertheless lives by the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount that enjoins Christians to “Give to him that asketh.”3 But this strength, unconscious of its limits, turns to weakness, as Portia in Act Five leads him to understand. Bassanio's glimpse of his essential self, his soul's destiny, is the lead casket's picture of Portia.4

The casket contest is at least as consequential and hazardous for Portia as for any of her suitors. Her predicament at first glance may seem just the converse of theirs. They must choose, she must not; bad luck for them means they must not marry no matter how much they want to, for her that she must no matter how much she wants not to. But Shakespeare uses most of her introductory scene to establish that Portia too makes a choice. From her witty scourging of the first parcel of wooers and her embarrassed delight when Nerissa trips her into blurting Bassanio's name we gather that Portia is far from indifferent to the contest's outcome. She is no fairy-tale automaton: submission to her father's will means curbing a strong will of her own (I. ii. 23-4). She is after all herself “lord” of Belmont now (III. ii. 167-9) and could, as Nerissa incidentally reminds her, “refuse to perform [her] father's will” (I. ii. 90-92). And Jessica's example reminds us of the same possibility. When instead Portia chooses obedience she too chooses a version of the lead casket. She accepts self-renunciation and the risk of faith: faith in her father's love and wisdom and, as inevitable consequence of this, faith that if the man she loves loves her, he too will make the right choice (III. ii. 41).

The hazardous necessity of consequential choice is the play's recurring moral predicament. It reflects an irony of the human condition mediated for Shakespeare's culture by the myth of Adam's choice and its consequences. The inevitability of hamartia was one of these consequences, from which it followed that all human decisions, no matter how resolute or thoroughly calculated, ought to preserve some margin of faith in a providential grace.5 Or otherwise put: all our choices are risks.


When the Prince of Aragon chooses desert he discovers himself a fool; for in the words of a wiser prince, “treat every man after his desert and who shall scape whipping?”6 Desert is mere justice, as Portia warns Shylock at the trial.

Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation.

(IV. i. 196-9)

The issue raised by the silver casket, in other words, is assimilated here as elsewhere in Shakespeare to the Reformation antithesis of justification by human merit and justification by divine grace.7

Shylock, we have seen, judges Jacob's profit in lambs riskless and deserved, rejecting Antonio's interpretation of it as a gift of providence. Likewise in court, sensing no risk and feeling no need of grace, Shylock stands secure on his own righteousness under law: “What judgment shall I dread, doing no wrong?” St. Paul identifies this attitude as an aspect of what he sees as a kind of fundamental “Jewish heresy,” the confidence that one has no need of Christ's purchase of grace if one is already performing to the letter the law of Moses. But Shylock's bond condemns Shylock himself to death, and if he had been merciful the life saved would also have been his own. Obviously, like Belmont's caskets, the law too is something of a mirror in this play.

If we disregard motivation, Shylock's behavior appears not very different from Antonio's. Among other things both are law-abiding money-lenders and rather sober and solitary wifeless men. Antonio seems really close only to Bassanio, who leaves him (financed by Antonio's money) to go off and win himself a bride; Shylock is close only to Jessica, who leaves him (financed by his money) also to marry. If Antonio lends Bassanio money without interest, Shylock first lends it (the identical ducats in fact) to Antonio also without interest and in the end even forgoes the principal. When Antonio is awarded half Shylock's estate he arranges to pass it at Shylock's death to Lorenzo and Jessica; and our last intelligence of Shylock is that he is about to turn Christian, having already willed his remaining worldly goods to his Christian son-in-law and convert daughter. Obviously the contrast between Shylock and Antonio leans less on deeds than on motives: the play distinguishes them for us rather by what they would like to do than by what they end up being responsible for. Antonio voluntarily finances Bassanio's marriage venture; Jessica must steal her dowry. Antonio lends without interest out of love, Shylock out of hate. Shylock forgives Antonio's principal, turns Christian, and bequeaths his goods to his only child solely because the law compels him to act in these ways; Antonio's mercy at the trial is free and uncompelled.

What we see in action here is the New Testament dialectic of love and the law, which are presented there not only as antagonistic opposites but as also in a certain sense two forms of one reality. If law is external motivation to do good, love as caritas is internal motivation toward the same end. Thus in a sense the law is simply Christian love objectified. If you act out of love you are no longer “under the law” because your acts though lawful are autonomous: the law is merely “what you will.” But if your actions express motives contrary to love you find yourself facing a law which appears as a menacing external enemy. Thus conceived, the law has power only over criminals who, though they break it, are not therefore free of it: instead violation wakes forces of coercion otherwise dormant. Jesus and Paul usually distinguish God's law from Caesar's, but Paul in his homily on the duty of obedience to civil authorities extends the dialectic of law and love to the secular order (Rom. 13), and the Reformers took this more general interpretation as also the fundamental one.8 In The Merchant of Venice Shakespeare too assimilates his civil and criminal law to this theological model.

At the opening of the trial scene Shylock equates the law with his own lust for revenge, and the more responsible Venetians reluctantly agree with him. To disarm and unmask this perversion of law, Portia must at last turn the Mosaic tables on Shylock and produce her anti-Judaic “quibble”. The bitter point of this serious joke is that Antonio is not kosher: his flesh is bloody and blood is forbidden Shylock by the letter of his own “law”, his bond, metonymic here for the law of Moses.9 And despite his clamor that everything not expressly spelled out in it is invalid, Shylock evidently has not read his bond with sufficient care. But the letter of the law turns out to be even harder to fulfill than to interpret; in fact in Shylock's case fulfillment is impossible. As soon as this lesson sinks home Portia follows it with a more important one. Even if Shylock could live up to it in other respects, the law is anyway incapable of sanctioning private revenge, which contradicts its nature as objectified love. It can only reflect the offense back onto the would-be perpetrator's head: for having sought another man's life Shylock must forfeit his own. Thus the law Shylock had thought one with his own murderous will is revealed as instead an antagonist, which meets him in the magnified image of his own violence.

But although The Merchant of Venice intends to be anti-Judaic, it does not mean to be anti-Semitic.10 In fact in so far as the rationale for its attitudes is Pauline it is also fundamentally anti-racist: Jessica's “race” is no bar to her salvation. For to Paul the old covenant of the flesh (both in its racial sense of descent from common ancestors and in its insistence on material signs of holiness: physical circumcision, dietary laws, etc.) is superseded by the new covenant of the spirit, with its belief in inheritance through faith and its “circumcision of the heart.” Paul, writing to the Romans, worries that recent converts from Judaism will slide back into their old habit of confusing physical symbols, external appearances, with spiritual realities. Literalism in its whole range of meanings is thus another aspect of Paul's “Jewish heresy.”

Literalism is the presiding mechanism of Shylock's style of mind. Even his speech patterns are shackled by a trick of literal repetition very like the broken-record rhythms of old Justice Shallow, the sterile inversion of Renaissance rhetorical ideals of “copia” or generous variation. His style compulsively explains away its own figures of speech: a perfect verbal tic for a miser who, Midas-like, has a hard time distinguishing money as symbol from the real wealth it only represents. When other characters in the play speak of people as “dear” and “worthy” or even as “dear bought,” they understand these terms figuratively, after the “spiritual sense”; only Shylock tries to take such expressions according to the “letter”. And if “the Spirit giveth life” Shylock's despiritualized “letter” threatens to snatch it away. Thus in III. i. Shylock bewails to Solanio-Salerio the rebellion of his “flesh and blood” (meaning, as he immediately explains, his daughter) and complains that Tubal's gossip of Jessica's honeymoon junket “sticks a dagger” in him. Here passion constrains him to seize the figurative word; but in the subsequent trial scene that word is almost made flesh in a demonic triple parody of circumcision, crucifixion, and communion as Shylock does his utmost to stick a literal dagger into Antonio's gentle side and scatter abroad some of his literal flesh and blood. The lex talionis itself seems the fitting condemnation of this literalist caricature of reciprocity.

Shylock's sharply reductive cast of mind shows itself too in his treating people as things to be owned and used, as well as in his crafty confounding of mineral with animal breeding. It is partly to forestall the perennial objection to usura as contra naturam, which bases itself on this last confusion, that Shylock produces the witness of Jacob's practice on Laban. But here as everywhere Shylock's defense serves only to convict him out of his own mouth. He doesn't answer the objection at all; instead he reminds his audience of it. The moral of the whole Jacob-Laban story, as Shylock reads it, is that the letter, not the spirit, is all that need concern a man: “Thrift is blessing if men steal it not.” Anything goes, that is to say, short of literal theft. It is against this notion of theft, a notion that lets Shylock prosecute a bond whose burden approximates the outlaw challenge: “Your money or your life!”—it is against this interpretation of what the law allows and disallows that Jessica's theft of love is to be measured and judged.

Jessica's choice appears to be between love and the commandment of filial obedience. But we have already observed that from the Christian viewpoint her father's conception of law is perverse. He sees it as an objectification of the wrong kind of love, of cupiditas not caritas. For Jessica to continue obeying his commandments would be to acquiesce in his warped and heretical values. Eros is not caritas either, but as romantic love leads to the sacred institution of marriage it accords with law and is essential to society.11 In Shakespeare, as we know, to be anti-marriage is to be anti-social, and heavy fathers in both tragedies and comedies are typically petty tyrants and their eloping daughters sympathetic heroines. But Shylock's sense of Jessica is anti-human as well as anti-social. He is aware of her as of an item of inventory, to be locked away with his precious stones, an item of great sentimental value, like Leah's ring, as precious to him as his own flesh and blood but with no more right to independent life than a ducat or one of his own limbs.

That Shylock has finally to be forced by law to leave his goods to his daughter and son-in-law should remind us of the foreseeable consequences Jessica faces as she makes her choice. When she elects to throw down the casket of jewels to Lorenzo she also elects to throw down her right to inherit old Shylock's ample fortune. So that when she “steals from the wealthy Jew” she is not just a thief but equally an heiress renouncing a secure claim to wealth to risk an uncertain life with an impecunious lover. This must I think be reckoned a version of choosing the lead casket. Nevertheless Jessica does disobey her father and she is at least literally a thief. We are not to perceive her as a paragon of daughterly conduct: that is Portia's role. But she ought to draw more sympathy than censure as a well-meaning character caught up in a moral dilemma, who chooses to do a wrong to do a right, a choice which, as we shall see, is made also by Bassanio.


Portia, like other heroines of the early comedies, shows a strong histrionic bent. She loves to hold the mirror up to human nature just as her father did in the casket contest. She seems unable, in fact, to resist gilding even his lily. The casket scenes designed by him are surely theatrical enough, with their parting curtain and glittering symbolic props, their built-in reversals and recognitions. Yet when Bassanio comes to choose, Portia's excited imagination cannot refrain from casting the scene and its characters against a musical backdrop, into the allegorical postures of a court masque of Hercules and Hesione (III. i. 53-62). The dressing-up is only verbal here but at the trial Portia puts on the actual appearance of the law and, as we have seen, aims its mirror at the violence of Shylock's will; in the ring scene she again shows a character the image of his vice so that in passing judgment on another he may judge and so amend himself.

We recall that in the casket and trial scenes, all more or less stage-managed by Portia, we have observed characters first self-deceived by distorted self-images, then abruptly confronted by reflections of truer selves. But to understand how an analogous double-take informs the ring scene we must first review the trial from a slightly different angle.

When Portia tells Shylock he may have his pound of flesh but no jot of “Christian blood,” he asks: “Is that the law?” “Thyself shalt see the act” is her repy—which seems to indicate that she has already “seen the act” herself, since she knows its content and location. And if we grant that Portia enters the scene knowing at least this way to block Shylock's attempt at legalized murder, there is really no reason to resist the companion assumption that Bellario has “furnished her with [his] opinion” on the other two laws as well. Why then doesn't she just tell Shylock at once the truth of his legal position? If we could ask Portia, who quotes Shylock the Lord's Prayer, she might respond by quoting us Christ's explanation that he employs parables because in this way “is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which prophecy saith, By hearing, ye shall hear, and shall not perceive.”12 But the dramatic reason seems to be like father like daughter: she wants to give Shylock the chance to make his free choice and to set him up a mirror to show him the inmost parts of whatever self he chooses. If she were to explain to him at once how his bond could become his own death warrant, he would tear it up and both he and Antonio would be physically safe. But his chance to choose the lead casket, caritas rather than cupiditas, would be utterly lost. The only choice left him that would not further his self-interest would be the insane decision to execute his bond, carve out Antonio's heart, and knowingly thereby sentence himself to death. He is finally offered this choice, but not until he has been given every chance to give and thus to receive absolute forgiveness: the giving and the receiving being complementary interpretations of the same judgment.

But this free moral choice Portia insists on offering everyone is always depicted by Shakespeare as consequential and as based on partial ignorance, hence as risky. Shylock, ignorant of his own ignorance, thinks he can judge others without risk to himself: he is made to see how hazardous judgment is and that it is always reflexive: “For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged.” “To offend and judge are distinct offices” as Portia says; but Shakespeare habitually contrives to have them performed by the same agent so that the judge may unknowingly judge and sentence himself. Othello and Angelo and Lear are conspicuous victims of this moral boomerang; but the process is ingrained in Shakespeare's imagination and some example of it gets into almost every play. The principle is the complement of the golden rule: do not unto others as you would not have them do unto you.13 Shylock does not want to give up his own life (he finally prefers humiliation), yet he demands Antonio's. On the other side, Antonio does not sentence Shylock to anything he would not want for himself, including the conversion. To a twentieth-century audience Antonio may seem to be demanding that Shylock merely shed—or worse, betray—one religion for another, where both are equally valid. These are surely things Antonio would refuse to do himself. But Shakespeare would have expected his contemporaries to perceive a different situation. He would have expected them to see Antonio as requiring Shylock to adopt the unique sure means to his soul's salvation—which is something Antonio indeed would do—has done—himself.

If Shylock had chosen mercy when Portia begged him to he could have walked out of the courtroom with his life, his goods, and his religion all apparently intact. But this choice, if genuine, would actually have amounted to a de facto conversion to the play's vision of primary Christianity. Shylock of course remains true to himself in his self-destructive fashion. And forced conversion thus becomes inevitable, the reflexive reductio ad absurdum of the major pattern in the play which shows Shylock never doing anyone a good turn unless he is made to. For though Shylock's conversion is part of the consequences of his originally free choice and therefore cannot itself be free in the same sense, it does hold its own kind of freedom. As Marsilio Ficino explains the principle, the evil man “converts blessings into evil for himself” whereas the good man “converts evils into good for himself.”14 Thus Antonio profits spiritually from facing up to imminent death; and Shylock has the option of truly embracing his new religion and its gift of eternal salvation. But we feel sure he will characteristically convert what could have been his greatest blessing, his baptism, into a means of self-damnation. Attempts to interpret this as the planned result of some kind of hypocritical Christian entrapment would seem to be misguided: a faked conversion would be seen by Shakespeare's neighbors as endangering Shylock's soul no more than his simply remaining a Jew (Acts 4:11-12). Antonio's stipulation seems rather to offer Shylock an opportunity he probably will not accept and at the same time to demand an outward conformity that will make it at least less easy for him to go on openly taking advantage of what was thought of as his Jewish license to commit usury (Deut. 23).

It was Mrs. Jameson, followed in this century by E. M. W. Tillyard and others, who first noted that Portia in her “quality of mercy” speech is actually pleading for Shylock not Antonio. Antonio is already safe when Portia starts her pleading: only Shylock can profit from the destruction of his bond. It is not Antonio's flesh that needs saving but Shylock's soul. Both Mrs. Jameson and Tillyard however assume that Shakespeare requires his audience to be aware of this actual situation.15 I want to suggest instead that the scene may well be arranged to provoke a more complex response than this. For Shakespeare has apparently rigged the trial so that it can be construed in two mutually exclusive ways. It seems, in fact, to have been made easy to misunderstand, hard to see truly. A word from Portia could have prevented all possibility of audience misunderstanding. But Shakespeare withholds the word. On the first acquaintance then, when we do not know what Portia knows, we are invited to accept as our own the Venetian view, seeing the danger as Antonio's, fearing Shylock's fury and the privilege of his knife, cheering the sudden rescue of Antonio by Portia and her equally sudden defeat of Shylock. We are thus drawn into a vicarious participation in the Venetians' anxiety for their neighbor's life and encouraged to share with them the melodramatic thrill of Portia's long-delayed “Tarry, Jew,” which overturns the situation, hands Antonio Shylock's opportunity for vengeance or mercy, and makes Shylock taste Antonio's bankruptcy and sentence of death. But with hindsight and after considering the total pattern of the play's evidence, we find ourselves instead looking through this surface melodrama and realizing that the danger is always actually to and from Shylock, who defeats, judges, and sentences himself. And once we penetrate to this inner meaning, our former view can remain appropriate only to Shylock and the Venetians: we cannot ourselves return to it. Thus, on this interpretation, the trial may be thought of as like one of Belmont's caskets, with a deceptive outside whose apparent significance is reversed by what is concealed within. So conceived, it offers a hazardous mirror to audiences: for whoever with Gratiano judges this complex structure a melodrama simultaneously judges the depth of his own understanding of it. It is the author of the play who now seems to be saying of the Gratianos in his audience: “in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias. …” I am suggesting then that in the trial scene Shakespeare constructed a dramatic event that would offer his audience a first-hand experience of the kind of double-take they had thought they were merely observing. And like the “good” characters in his play Shakespeare as artist would also be committing himself to the same gamble of faith. The hazard of his enterprise (to use the mercantile metaphor) would be that his audience, even the most perceptive, might fail to catch on, in which case his ingenious dramatic structure along with its moral point would be lost. But this is the ordinary risk of the parabolist, and Renaissance poets, with Portia, were disposed to accept it as proper to serious mimesis.16

But what is concealed in the trial scene (however we interpret it) is revealed in the ring scene. Here we share with Portia and Nerissa the information—that they were the lawyer and clerk—necessary to see all points of view and spot the limits of each. The trial scene repeats the lesson of the caskets that judgment is a mirror and shows too that the only escape from the destructive circuit of retributive justice is through forgiveness: not a forgiveness that negates the law's necessary consequences but a forgiveness that fulfills the law's spirit, which is essentially educational: the law being, according to Paul, our school-master to Christ. This is the kind of mercy Antonio extends to Shylock in act four and it is the kind Portia extends to Bassanio in act five.

The ring test catches Bassanio in a double-bind. He ought to give and hazard everything he has for love (give the ring—his claim to Belmont and Portia—for love of Antonio) yet he ought also to keep faith with his bride whom he also loves. Bassanio meets here for the first time the sort of ordeal that Portia and Jessica have already undergone: the psychic tug-of-war between equal and apparently mutually exclusive loves, with their divergent obligations. His conflict is closer to Portia's than to Jessica's in its balanced intensity: there is no Shylock on either hand to obscure the delicacy of his predicament. But his solution is more like Jessica's. Portia alone is able to resolve the dilemma through obedience to a father whose will is in perfect unison with her own. Jessica and Bassanio do wrong to do right. Jessica breaks faith with her father and steals a ring given him by his wife which she prodigally spends for a love trifle. Bassanio spends his wife's ring for a far worthier purpose, to repay his debt of love to Antonio; but he nevertheless thus gives away his claim to his new fortunes at Belmont and takes a very great risk on his bride's reaction when she learns he has been false to his word.

Bassanio has failed to realize that even giving has a limit, that holding on—constancy—is also among love's values. And he has also failed to understand the dialectic of justice and mercy, as we learn during the trial when he asks Portia-Balthasar to “wrest the law” and do wrong to do a right. The answer he receives then is that this “must not be.” Yet this is the principle that governs his decision after the trial to forswear himself and surrender his wedding ring. In act five he must learn by personal experience what Shylock's example might more comfortably have taught him: a wrong, even a small one, is always a wrong and calls forth its own punishment automatically. for, as we have seen, the law sleeps only until offended, when it reacts by reflecting the offense in kind. The law has no power to make anyone choose to do right; it can only punish those who do wrong. As with Adam so with Everyman: the original choice or judgment is free, its consequences are not. The consequences are what the law-breaker deserves, mere justice (dike). And though one's freely-chosen attitude toward unavoidable consequences can transform them, making virtue of necessity, the only transcendence of the mechanical rigor of desert itself is by way of giving, forgiving, mercy.

Portia responds to Bassanio's decision in what we may recognize as typical Belmont family style: she offers him a little dramatic lesson, using highly-polished equivocation as her mirror. First she uses her art to tell him the plain truth: “I'll die for't, but some woman had the ring” (V. i. 208), that hearing he may hear and not understand. Next she produces the ring, flashing him an image of his own indiscretion in her verbal portrait of herself as adultress, thus apparently trading places with him, hoisting him suddenly to the seat of judgment and casting herself into the role of guilty suppliant: “Pardon me Bassanio, / For by this ring the doctor lay with me” (ll. 258-9). Bassanio's understandable “amazement” achieves no verbal expression, but Portia's expectation in showing him a magnified double of his fault is quite conventional: his conscience, fundamentally sound, will be soundly wrung and will return his judgment onto himself so that he may amend his own smaller infidelity.17

But just at this brink of moral gravity Portia redeems the comic mood and rends her veil of illusion. Her adequate response to the violation of her bond avoids Shylock's empty literalism, distinguishing nicely between the symbol (the ring) and what it represents (herself and her wealth). Bassanio's offense in yielding the ring remained symbolic, so must its chastisement. Moreover the very offense was simultaneously a gesture of generosity and renunciation of self in recognition of which his punishment is now revealed to be also his reward. With the sudden flourish of the stage magician Portia flips the leaden casket of adultery inside out and shows that it has all along concealed a forgiving and faithful wife, this time the thing itself and not a painter's iconic symbol. The case of Shylock's bond is played back in reverse. The same words that a moment ago had guaranteed Portia's infidelity now, echoed by Bassanio, guarantee her constancy:

Sweet doctor, you shall be my bedfellow.
When I am absent, then lie with my wife.

(V. i. 284-85)

This whole elaborate joke is possible only because the law, the “doctor” who “saved” Antonio, was in reality only an outward disguise of love. And like her other feats of Christian magic Portia's last illusion is created and dispelled by the mainly verbal looking-glass of her entertaining and instructive art.


  1. Citations of Shakespeare's plays are from Sylvan Barnet (ed.), The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare (New York: Harcourt Brace 1972).

  2. Bassanio's name seems not to be the same kind of vernacular pun as the names of the other suitors. Nevertheless, as Northrop Frye pointed out in Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957), p. 166, it is fitting that the name of the only suitor to judge truly among the symbolic metals should resemble a Greek word for touchstones (basanoi). And it may even be intentional that the first syllable of Bassanio's name should in Shakespeare's pronunciation have the sound of English base—as in the key phrase “base lead”—with its appropriately conflicting meanings of “worthless,” “foundation,” and “humble.”

  3. Matt. 5:42. Bible citations are from the Geneva version, spelling modernized. For an account of Antonio's progress from a self-righteous piety that cannot love its enemy to a closer approximation of true Christian charity, see Barbara K. Lewalski's “Biblical Allusion and Allegory in The Merchant of Venice,” SQ, [Shakespeare Quarterly] 13 (1962), 330-1.

  4. Portia explains to Lorenzo the Neoplatonic principle of the like souls of true lovers at III. iv. 11-21.

  5. I mean hamartia here to include both Aristotelian “error” and Pauline “sin.”

  6. Ham. II. ii. 536-7. Hamlet of course was educated at Wittenberg; Aragon is a Spanish Catholic.

  7. See also Isabella to Angelo in MM [Measure for Measure] II. ii. 74-8.

  8. See Krister Stendahl, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” Harvard Theological Review, 56 (1963), 205-6.

  9. Geoffrey Bullough (ed.), Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957), I, 448, n. 1. On the imagery of cannibalism that accompanies Shylock through the play see Leslie Fiedler, The Stranger in Shakespeare (New York: Stein and Day, 1972), pp. 110-11.

  10. Perhaps it always ought to be mentioned that the “Judaism” portrayed in The Merchant of Venice expresses an inaccurate idea of historical Judaism, especially as contrasted with historical Christianity. Shakespeare's conception of “Judaism” is derived mainly from Paul's propagandist distortions. There is no room here to rehearse the inaccuracies of that view, but its limits may perhaps be sufficiently indicated by recalling that the New Testament's “‘Vengeance is mine,’ saith the Lord” is a quotation from the Torah and that the golden rule was taught in its complementary form … by Rabbi Hillel Hanasi, elder contemporaty of Philo, before the birth of Christ (see The Talmud of Jerusalem [New York: Wisdom Library, 1956], pp. 26-7).

  11. “For charity itself fulfils the law, / And who can sever love from charity?” (LLL [Love's Labor's Lost] IV. iii. 361-2): in its Renaissance context Berowne's coup de grace to the court's oath of abstinence is not altogether fool.

  12. Matt. 13:14. A somewhat different application of this text to The Merchant of Venice was made by Neville Coghill, “The Basis of Shakespearean Comedy,” in Essays and Studies of the English Association (1950), p. 23. The idea of course is a commonplace of Renaissance defenses of poetry. Cf., e.g., Sir Philip Sidney, An Apologie for Poetrie, in Elizabethan Critical Essays, ed. G. Gregory Smith (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1904), I, 166 and Sir John Harington, A Preface, or rather a Briefe Apologie of Poetrie, prefixed to the edition of Orlando Furioso 1591, also in Smith, II, 205-6.

  13. Sir Walter Ralegh calls this “the law of Nature incorrupt” in The History of The World, ed. C. A. Patrides (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1971), p. 193.

  14. Paul Oskar Kristeller, The Philosophy of Marsilio Ficino (Gloucester, Mass.: P. Smith, 1964), p. 365.

  15. Mrs. Jameson, Characteristics of Women: Moral, Poetical, and Historical (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1888), p. 64; E. M. W. Tillyard, “The Trial Scene in The Merchant of Venice,” REL, 2 (1961), 54-56; Bertrand Evans, Shakespeare's Comedies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967), pp. 63-64.

  16. Sidney's Apologie in Smith, I, 206. For the doctrine of poem as parable with several layers of intelligibility suited to the various capacities of its audience see Harington's Preface in Smith, II, 203-6.

  17. The Renaissance mirror of art normally has a moral as well as mimetic function. Hamlet is explicit on both points: Ham. II. ii. 596-9, III. i. 20-24. See also Lily B. Campbell, Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes: Slaves of Passion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1930), pp. 25-38.


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Last Updated on July 28, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1036

The Merchant of Venice

Considered a “problem play” by many critics, The Merchant of Venice (c. 1596-97) technically meets the criteria for generic classification as a romantic comedy. The romance centers on Portia, a young heiress of Belmont, and Bassanio, a suitor from Venice. Bassanio finances his pursuit of Portia through a loan from his friend Antonio, a Venetian merchant, who in turn secures a loan from Shylock, a Jewish moneylender. The terms of the contract between Antonio and Shylock specify that the moneylender shall be entitled to a pound of Antonio's flesh if the loan is not repaid on time. Attempting to enforce the contract, Shylock appears in court opposite Portia, who disguises herself as a male lawyer acting on Antonio's behalf. The trial concludes with Antonio's acquittal and Shylock's forced conversion to Christianity. The play, however, ends on a more positive note, with a happy ending for the lovers. Nonetheless, critics and audiences have been disturbed for centuries by the anti-Semitic nature of the play and the tragedy of Shylock's defeat in the courtroom—where he loses everything, including his faith.

Perhaps no character in the Shakespearean canon has generated so much controversy as Shylock. Long considered an anti-Semitic stereotype, the negative characterization of the Jewish moneylender has resulted in the play's almost complete exclusion from secondary school reading lists. Some critics have suggested that Shylock is vilified as a usurer rather than as a Jew. However, M. M. Mahood (1987) argues that “the Elizabethans would have brought a whole heap of prejudices to a play about a ‘stubborn’ Jew who is also a moneylender,” since just as Jews served as scapegoats of Christianity, the usurer served as the scapegoat of an emerging capitalist system. Michael J. C. Echeruo (1971) compares Shakespeare's characterization of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice with Marlowe's rendering of Barabas in The Jew of Malta, examining the relationship of both to stereotypes of Jews. Echeruo notes that critics are divided on the interpretation of that comparison, with some considering Marlowe's play more anti-Semitic and others suggesting that Shakespeare's sympathetic representation of Christianity puts Shylock in an even worse light than Marlowe's Jewish character. In conclusion, Echeruo warns against a sentimental reading of The Merchant of Venice that considers Shylock's ill-treatment to be directed at his profession rather than his religion, noting that “Shylock was before everything else a non-Christian, a Jew.”

Critical attention has also centered on Venice as the play's setting and on Elizabethan England's perception of the culture associated with that city. In his Marxist reading of The Merchant of Venice, Burton Hatlen (1980) views Venice as “a quintessentially capitalist society,” as opposed to Belmont, which he believes “exemplifies the qualities of an aristocratic way of life.” Elizabeth S. Sklar (1976) considers Bassanio the perfect representative of Venice and contends that “an understanding of Bassanio may thus provide some insight into the moral climate of The Merchant of Venice.” Sklar suggests that the character traits exhibited by Bassanio, the romantic hero of the play, are similar to those of Shylock, the play's purported villain. Sklar notes that both characters are devoted to material goods and the acquisition of wealth, and both confuse monetary worth with higher moral or spiritual values. Russell Astley (1979) also compares Shylock with another character as a means of exploring the moral world of the play. Astley views the moneylender and Antonio as opposites: Antonio finances the courtship of Bassanio and Portia, while Shylock refuses his daughter a dowry, forcing her to steal it; Antonio's loan is motivated by love for Bassanio as opposed to the greed and hatred that motivates Shylock's loan; and lastly, Antonio offers mercy freely, whereas Shylock is compelled to be merciful by law.

Despite the controversial nature of the play, The Merchant of Venice has remained one the most popular Shakespearean plays on the stage, ranking with Hamlet as one of the most frequently performed plays in Shakespearean stage history. Over the last four hundred years, Shylock has been played as both a villain and a victim. According to Charles Edelman (2002), the most successful productions have been those in which Shylock has not been treated as a vindictive monster. One such sympathetic representation of Shylock, reviewed by Chris Jefferey (see Further Reading), was Helen Flax's 2001 production in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. According to Jefferey, “it was a strength of this production that it set in opposition to Shylock a gang of swaggering leather-jacketed bullies who made it easy to see why he, or any reasonable person, should detest Christians.” The reviewer notes, however, that the production as a whole was a surface-level interpretation that neglected the play's more complex levels of meaning. In his review of director Shepard Sobel's 2003 Pearl Theater Company production of The Merchant of Venice, D. J. R. Bruckner (2003) also suggests a similar sympathy for Shylock. Bruckner notes that Shylock's “defeat at the end of the play is pitiable,” particularly when Gratiano yanks the yarmulke from the moneylender's head as he leaves the courtroom a broken man.

Shakespeare's intentions regarding Shylock, in particular, and Jews, in general, can never be known with certainty. Critical speculation on the subject has been ongoing, particularly since the nineteenth century. Lester C. Crocker (see Further Reading), who has surveyed the history of scholarly commentary on the subject, maintains that the intensity of the debate is increasing as audiences, unable to enjoy the play because of the unsettling representation of Shylock, look to critics for answers. Scholars, meanwhile, are anxious to rehabilitate Shakespeare's reputation, but are reluctant to alter the characterization of the moneylender in a way that would constitute a transformation of the playwright's original text. Crocker concludes that Shakespeare's true intention—whether endorsing or refuting prejudice against Jews—is unknowable. He contends, however, that “the semiology of anti-Semitism, ‘the Christian disease,’ is to be found in The Merchant of Venice, embedded into its texture.” Jay L. Halio (1993) also addresses Shakespeare's attitude toward Jews and the controversy surrounding his representation of Shylock. The critic notes that “[i]f Shylock is another version of the villainous Jewish money-lender, and like Barabas a comic villain, he is also something more—the first stage Jew in English drama who is multi-dimensional and thus made to appear human.”

Robert Hapgood (essay date March 1967)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4773

SOURCE: Hapgood, Robert. “Portia and The Merchant of Venice: The Gentle Bond.” Modern Language Quarterly 28, no. 1 (March 1967): 19-32.

[In the following essay, Hapgood discusses Portia's devotion and loyalty to the letter of the law.]

In a passage which sums up the main point of his provocative article, “The Merchant of Venice: The Gentle Bond,” Sigurd Burckhardt writes:

the plot is circular: bound in such a way that the instrument of destruction, the bond, turns out to be the source of deliverance. Portia, won through the bond, wins Antonio's release from it; what is more, she wins it, not by breaking the bond, but by submitting to its rigor more rigorously than even the Jew had thought to do. So seen, one of Shakespeare's apparently most fanciful plots proves to be one of the most exactingly structured; it is what it should be: the play's controlling metaphor. As the subsidiary metaphors of the bond and the ring indicate, The Merchant [The Merchant of Venice] is a play about circularity and circulation; it asks how the vicious circle of the bond's law can be transformed into the ring of love. And it answers: through a literal and unreserved submission to the bond as absolutely binding.1

Thus boldly would Burckhardt put a new twist on the prevailing view of Portia, which sees in her a direct exponent of liberality in love as in law. To Burckhardt, hers is “the way to freedom,” but, paradoxically, that entails “a radical and literal acceptance of bondage.” To me, neither of these views of Portia seems quite right: the prevailing view mistakes the exceptions for the rule; Burckhardt discerns the general rule, but misses the exceptions that fundamentally qualify it. As I understand Portia in each of the three main sequences in which she figures—the casket-choice, the pound-of-flesh trial, and the ring-trick—her ultimate loyalties are to the law, including its most legalistic forms. Yet in each she also reveals her most appealing trait, a gift for making enlightened exceptions. These exceptions are in the service of a large-minded sense of law, one that includes its spirit as well as its letter; and it is through them, not through out-Shylocking Shylock, that she makes the bond gentle.


In each of the three sequences, Portia must cope with “rigorously positive laws,” as Burckhardt well puts it, “which threaten to frustrate the very purposes they are meant to serve, but which must nevertheless be obeyed” (pp. 246-47). Portia's approach is basically the same in all, but it is perhaps most clearly seen in the trial, where her enlightened exceptions derive explicitly from contemporary ideas about equity.

The loan-bond between Shylock and Antonio, though legal, is obviously not serving its intended purpose. Shylock is perverting its letter to commit legalized murder. Bassanio's remedy would be to break the law: he begs Portia to “Wrest once the law to your authority,—/ To do a great right, do a little wrong” (IV.i.211-12).2 Portia, however, is firm:

It must not be, there is no power in Venice
Can alter a decree established:
'Twill be recorded for a precedent,
And many an error by the same example
Will rush into the state,—it cannot be.


Her remedy is equity—not simply justice or simply mercy, but justice tempered by mercy. That is what in her “quality of mercy” speech she advocates to Shylock instead of the rigor of the law. And that is what she advocates for Shylock when the tables are turned: the Venetian law she finally invokes leaves the decision of life or death for the offender “in the mercy / Of the Duke only,” and she urges Shylock to “beg mercy of the duke” (351-52, 359). Since this much equity was built into the law, Burckhardt might well maintain that Portia was thus doing no more than fulfilling its letter. But Portia goes further, to urge: “What mercy can you render him Antonio?” (374).

Yet does Portia herself practice the equity she preaches? Is it equitable for Portia to encourage Shylock to think that his case is legally unassailable? She repeatedly assures him that “the Venetian law / Cannot impugn you as you do proceed” (IV.i.174-75). Furthermore, once Shylock has officially invoked the bond and thus decisively broken the law forbidding aliens to contrive against the lives of citizens, should not Portia have applied that law immediately? Instead, she repeatedly seems to offer Shylock the option of insisting, fatally, on the bond and suffering the consequences.

Undoubtedly, Portia's methods in the trial scene (as elsewhere) are highhanded. Yet they seem to me defensible, not as those of a judge administering the law but as those of a teacher presenting a series of lessons in it. For Portia is a born and incorrigible teacher. When we first meet her, for instance, she is trying to mock Nerissa out of her sententiousness: “Good sentences, and well pronounc'd,” she laughs, and goes on to pronounce a string of good sentences which proclaim the insufficiency of good sentences: “I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done, than be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching” (I.ii.15-17). Nerissa of course remains as sententious as ever, the grand comic irony of Portia's pedagogy being that this master teacher finds herself surrounded by twenty who are virtually unteachable.

For the sake of her teaching, Portia is as ready to take enlightened liberties with strict equity as with strict legality. She at first represents the legality of Shylock's claim as secure in order to make graphic to him the distinction between mere justice and equity. Thus, too, she can allow him a purely equitable option when she brings her teaching to the test:

                                                                      Why this bond is forfeit,
And lawfully by this the Jew may claim
A pound of flesh, to be by him cut off
Nearest the merchant's heart: be merciful,
Take thrice thy money, bid me tear the bond.


At this point, Shylock fails to respond at all to her instruction, ignoring her equitable alternative and formally charging her by the law to “Proceed to judgment” (236).

It is then that Portia comes closest to the “literal and unreserved submission to the bond as absolutely binding” that Burckhardt finds to be her liberating principle. Certainly, she here invokes the letter of the bond “more rigorously than even the Jew had thought to do”:

The words expressly are “a pound of flesh”:
Take then thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh,
But in the cutting it, if thou dost shed
One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods
Are (by the law of Venice) confiscate. …


But she does not “submit” to it. Although we do not yet know about the law against aliens that she finally applies, Portia of course does, and she can employ it whenever necessary. Her repeated offer that Shylock take his bond is not, then, a real risk; nor does it seem like one. The effect is rather that Portia has successfully foiled Shylock's threat by presenting him with an unacceptable alternative, as Gratiano underlines by jubilantly mocking: “O upright judge!—/ Mark Jew,—O learned judge!” (308-309). There is perhaps more of a threat that Shylock will take Portia's dare after she has refused him thrice the bond and promised “nothing but the penalty” (318). But if Shylock's “pause” seems menacing, Portia seems easily equal to it, adding now the further deterrent that, if he takes more or less than a just pound, “Thou diest” (328). The effect—while Gratiano crows in triumph—is that Shylock has again been faced down by an unacceptable alternative.

To Burckhardt, it is “the apostate rather than the bond that is brought into contempt” (p. 260) by Shylock's refusal to become “a blood witness” to the letter of the law. To me, just the opposite seems true: Shylock's refusal appears to be one of Portia's more successful pieces of instruction, partial as her success may be. It is true that Shylock is extremely reluctant to face the whole truth of what it means to insist upon his bond and nothing but the bond and that he keeps seeking ways out of the confrontation, ways which Portia (all the while silencing Bassanio, who has totally missed her point) must block one by one. But she does repeatedly bring him face to face with the self-destructiveness of “all justice” in a manner that causes him to back away from this ultimate extreme of his self-deadening legalism. If this is largely expediency on his part, still his “Is that the law?” (IV.i.309) seems to register disenchantment as well as disbelief.

It remains for Portia to bring home to Shylock the enormity of the legalized murder he thought to perform, and at last she applies the Venetian law that supersedes the bond. In tempering its punishments, moreover, Portia sees the chance to let the other Christians demonstrate to Shylock the equity that she had earlier advocated. If the final results seem less than equitable, that is because—once again—her instruction is only partially successful.

The Duke comes nearest to rising to Portia's level. Even before she came to the trial, he had recommended, albeit threateningly, an equitable settlement to Shylock; and here he pardons Shylock his life before he asks it (“That thou shalt see the difference of our spirit” [IV.i. 364]) and promises that humbleness may reduce the state's half of his estate to a fine. One can only guess at Portia's reactions, but I see her beam approvingly. She is not at all pleased by Gratiano's vindictiveness, however, and not altogether happy with Antonio's doubly provisional kind of mercy. She is not happy either with the Duke's threat to “recant / The pardon that I late pronounced here” (387-88). My Portia, however, shrugs ruefully, gives Shylock a chance to appeal, and, when he says, “I am content,” backs up the more generous part of Antonio's response, settling for such equity as she has been able to get.

Not that Portia emerges as a paragon. As indulgent as Shakespeare is toward her didacticism, he does not conceal its high price. Part of our sympathy for Shylock comes from our sense that he alone has to pay for Portia's failure to lift him and the others to her own level of enlightenment.


In the casket sequence, Portia adheres in general to the letter of her father's will. It is true that in her first scene she repines to Nerissa at this limit on her choice: “I may neither choose who I would, nor refuse who I dislike, so is the will of a living daughter curb'd by the will of a dead father …” (I.ii.22-25). And she is not so bound by her father's rules that she cannot play with the idea of misleading the drunken German suitor by setting “a deep glass of Rhenish wine on the contrary casket …” (91-92). Still, she affirms at the end of the scene that “If I live to be as old as Sibylla, I will die as chaste as Diana, unless I be obtained by the manner of my father's will …” (102-104). Accordingly, she runs the risk of being chosen by Morocco or Arragon.

Outlandish as it seems, there is something to be said for her father's device. Its risks frighten off the overly “reasonable”; and those who are so foolhardy (Morocco) or foolish (Arragon) as to try it, fail it. Like most of Shakespeare's fathers, however, Portia's father made the great error of leaving his daughter's wishes out of account. If he had been as wise as she, he would have known, as she puts it, that “the brain may devise laws for the blood, but a hot temper leaps o'er a cold decree” (17-19), and have provided for the claims of her blood. Since he did not, when Bassanio arrives, she does it for him.

Her choice is precisely the kind of man her father most wanted to eliminate. As is borne out by the verses in each of the caskets, what he wanted above all for his daughter was a husband who was not taken in by appearances. And, from the first scene, Bassanio reveals himself to be preoccupied with false show, reminding Antonio of

How much I have disabled mine estate,
By something showing a more swelling port
Than my faint means would grant continuance. …


A little later we see him, with his borrowed money, ordering the “rare new liveries” that attract to his service the fool Launcelot, who appropriately receives “a livery / More guarded than his fellows' …” (II.ii.147-48). And in the same scene, Bassanio instructs Gratiano to restrain his wild behavior lest it “show / Something too liberal” in Belmont (175-76). His arrival there is preceded by an “ambassador,” of whom Portia's servant reports:

A day in April never came so sweet
To show how costly summer was at hand,
As this fore-spurrer comes before his lord.


Such false shows would hardly seem to promise true love. Yet Portia sees in Bassanio the potential for such love and hence makes exceptions to her father's will. She does not go so far as to tell Bassanio the answer to the puzzle; nor (unlike the lady's maid in Il Pecorone) does Nerissa do so. The precise temptation that Portia fears will make her forsworn is more subtle: as she tells Bassanio, “I could teach you / How to choose right …” (III.ii.10-11). And to that temptation, I believe—although she denies it—she succumbs.

Bassanio's privileges stand out by contrast with the pattern established by Morocco and Arragon, who were inspired neither by a confession of the lady's love beforehand nor by music while they made their choice. I find, too, in Portia's lines to Bassanio (before he chooses) a host of subliminal suggestions, of the sort by which a skillful teacher leads a responsive student to make his own “discoveries.” Bassanio is thus made aware that the correct answer is not obvious but needs to be taught; he is brought by Portia's example to think in paradoxes (“O happy torment” [III.ii.37]); and he is prompted to think of success as involving difficulty and hazard (like an exploit of Hercules).

His chief privilege is the song, “Tell me where is Fancy bred.” I do not mean its rhymes with “lead”; they belong at most to the realm of subliminal suggestion. What the singer must convey is the song's warning against trusting the eyes—precisely the trait Portia's father designed the casket-puzzle to test. For in the lines immediately after the song, Bassanio responds directly to this warning (“So may the outward shows be least themselves,—/ The world is still deceiv'd with ornament” [73-74]) and follows it through a series of “so” and “thus” clauses to the decisive “Therefore” that precedes his rejection of the gold and silver caskets.

Thus Portia makes gentle her father's bond. He had intended to provide for a marriage founded on right love, an intention she remains true to, while adjusting his method. For the man she rightly loves, she in effect alters the casket-choice from an “achievement” to an “aptitude” test, one designed to select a husband who can be taught to love rightly. Bassanio of course passes this test brilliantly. That he is truly learning her lesson is shown immediately: although—in his old way—he spends a dozen lines admiring “Fair Portia's counterfeit” (115-26), he then catches himself up to declare how “far this shadow / Doth limp behind the substance” (128-29). Apt pupil that he is, however, he is still in need of further instruction in right love—as Portia shortly learns.


Bassanio still must learn to put the laws of their love before those of his friendship with Antonio. That is the upshot of Portia's final lesson, as presented in the ring-sequence. Yet she knows how to make an enlightened exception to her own laws, as well as to those of her father and the state. And it is through her willingness to forgive Bassanio's breach of their love-bond that the “ring of love” at the end is achieved.

The terms of their love-bond are very clear. When Portia first gives Bassanio her ring, she declares:

This house, these servants, and this same myself
Are yours,—my lord's!—I give them with this ring,
Which when you part from, lose, or give away,
Let it presage the ruin of your love,
And be my vantage to exclaim on you.


Bassanio responds with a vow:

                                                                                when this ring
Parts from this finger, then parts life from hence,—
O then be bold to say Bassanio's dead!


Bassanio's breach of this bond is just as clear. When he gives the ring to the “lawyer” who has saved his friend, it signifies the precedence Bassanio gives his friendship for Antonio over his love for Portia, a precedence which has by then been indicated in many ways. Although Antonio is resigned to the proposed marriage of his friend, he clings to first place in his affection. That is surely part of the reason for his mysterious melancholy and his being moved to tears by Bassanio's departure. If, according to Renaissance orthodoxy, friendship should ideally thus take priority over love, still the friendship of Antonio and Bassanio is plainly much too one-sided to be ideal. Antonio is at once too generous and too possessive. His claim on the love of his “dearest friend” interrupts the consummation of Bassanio's marriage, not because Bassanio might help to save his life but because he wants Bassanio to see him die for his sake, a last request that Antonio makes a test of love: “if your love do not persuade you to come, let not my letter” (III.ii.319-20). At the trial, Antonio bids his friend a last farewell:

Commend me to your honourable wife …
Say how I lov'd you, speak me fair in death:
And when the tale is told, bid her be judge
Whether Bassanio had not once a love. …


Ever impressionable, Bassanio responds to the implied (and invidious) comparison with the declaration that

                    life itself, my wife, and all the world,
Are not with me esteem'd above thy life.
I would lose all, ay sacrifice them all
Here to this devil, to deliver you.


In Il Pecorone it is the hero himself who decides to let the lawyer have the ring; in The Merchant Bassanio at first refuses to do so and complies only at Antonio's urging:

                                                            let him have the ring,
Let his deservings and my love withal
Be valued 'gainst your wife's commandement.


The issue, and Bassanio's choice, could not be more sharply drawn.

Portia is never unduly concerned about Antonio's claims for precedence. At the very first, in fact, she seems ready to make a threesome. After sending Bassanio hence on their wedding day, she tells Lorenzo:

                                                                                                    this Antonio
Being the bosom lover of my lord,
Must needs be like my lord. If it be so,
How little is the cost I have bestowed
In purchasing the semblance of my soul,
From out the state of hellish cruelty!—
This comes too near the praising of myself,
Therefore no more of it. …


Yet even then she is concerned not only that Bassanio prove a good friend, but also that he prove a good husband: “For never shall you lie by Portia's side / With an unquiet soul” (III.ii.304-305). J. A. Bryant puts it too strongly when he remarks that Portia's “whole objective in coming to the trial, as her trick about the ring at the close of that scene shows, is to snare Bassanio. …”3 But there is a sense of husband-hunting as well as friend-saving about Portia's quest to Venice. She is true kin to the much less fortunate Helena, who in All's Well That Ends Well must resort to a bed-trick, as well as a ring-trick, in order to consummate her marriage.

Of course, Portia never approaches such extremes. Her rivalry with Antonio never becomes an open, direct issue at all—even through Bassanio; for when poor Bassanio is with Portia, he submits to her will, and when he is with Antonio, he submits to his. So lighthearted and tactful is Portia in dealing with Antonio's claims on her husband that one may well question whether she is concerned about them at all. The reaction of Portia-the-judge to Bassanio's grandiose exaltation of his friend over “life, wife, and all the world” is jocular: “Your wife would give you little thanks for that / If she were by to hear you make the offer” (IV.i.284-85). Yet she does not merely let it pass either. And her jocularity need not indicate a total lack of concern with the issue. It seems to me, rather, to come from a supreme (and thoroughly warranted) confidence in her ability to deal with the male world, as in her prediction to Nerissa:

                                                                                          we shall have old swearing
That they did give the rings away to men;
But we'll outface them, and outswear them too. …


In the last act, she fulfills her prediction and firmly reclaims her precedence with Bassanio. As playful as her ring-trickery is, Portia does not let up until her husband has fully acknowledged his fault and guaranteed, with his friend's backing, that it will not happen again. Not until his third plea is he pardoned. His first plea had been full of self-defense (as well as dramatic irony):

                                                                                                              pardon me good lady,
For by these blessed candles of the night,
Had you been there, I think you would have begg'd
The ring of me to give the worthy doctor.


His second plea was more abject yet still self-justifying: “Portia, forgive me this enforced wrong …” (240). His final plea makes no qualification upon his offense, simply: “Pardon this fault, and by my soul I swear / I never more will break an oath with thee” (247-48). Antonio chimes in:

I once did lend my body for his wealth,
Which but for him that had your husband's ring
Had quite miscarried. I dare be bound again,
My soul upon the forfeit, that your lord
Will never more break faith advisedly.


Only then does Portia relent.

Thus Antonio enters into another “merry bond.” Friendship's martyr, he here finally gives all, renouncing out of friendship first place in his friend's affections. Once he has done so, Portia is quick to assure him of second place, making him the intermediary of their reconciliation—“Then you shall be his surety: give him this, / And bid him keep it better than the other” (254-55)—and a little later rewarding him with news of his three recovered argosies.

Bassanio's acceptance of the ring constitutes a new marriage, one more firmly safeguarded than the first. Before she is through, Portia has made her ring represent the marriage-bond in all its aspects, teaching Bassanio the rewards (including material ones, and sexual) of fidelity to it, the punishments for violating it. Although Portia is prepared to give much, she will not—unlike Antonio—give all. Just this once, however, she is prepared to make an exception and forgive Bassanio's breach of their marriage-bond, as long as it does not happen again.


In the summary passage quoted at the beginning of this paper, Burckhardt goes on to draw an analogy between Portia's supposed sense of bondage and Shakespeare's own:

It is as though Shakespeare, finding himself bound to a story already drawn up for him in his source, had taken it as the test of his creative freedom and had discovered that this freedom lay … in a Portia-like acceptance and penetration of these exigencies to the point where they must yield their liberating truth.

(p. 243)

Burckhardt accordingly sets out to show that Shakespeare followed “his source religiously.” I do not feel his urgency to draw a biographical parallel since I do not see Shakespeare's use of his source materials in The Merchant of Venice as a “discovery”: his practice seems very much like what it was before and was to be after. If there is a parallel to be drawn between Portia and Shakespeare, however, it is that both know how to take poetic license.

Since Burckhardt, following prevailing opinion, regards The Jew as Shakespeare's source, and since The Jew is no longer extant, it is extremely difficult to dispute whether Shakespeare followed it religiously or not. Burckhardt does grant, however, that Shakespeare made two departures from his presumed source: he changed the inscription on the lead casket from “Whoso chooseth me shall find that God hath disposed for him” (as it appears in Gesta Romanorum) to “Who chooseth me, must give and hazard all he hath”; and he added the Jessica-story. Burckhardt denies, however, that these liberties contradict his view of Shakespeare's Portia-like sense of bondage to his source; instead, paradoxically, they confirm it. I maintain that these two instances are more consonant with my understanding of Portia than with his.

He makes my case for me in his discussion of the inscriptions, arguing eloquently that, in making the change, Shakespeare

did not alter the story but restored it to itself by freeing it from a pious falsification. For its meaning was that it sprang from a series of ventures, of hazards; it was propelled by the risks Antonio, Bassanio, Portia and, up to a point, Shylock were willing to take.

(p. 258)

I need only point out that such “restoration” is scarcely following the letter of the story's law; it illustrates instead exactly the same ability to make an exception to its letter for the sake of its spirit that I have been claiming for Portia.

Burckhardt sees the Jessica-Lorenzo affair as an inversion of true bonded love: in contrast to that of Portia and Bassanio, “Their love is lawless, financed by theft and engineered through a gross breach of trust” (p. 253). As I understand the contrast between the pairs of lovers, its function is more precise: it serves to distinguish Portia's poetic license from Jessica's simple license. Jessica defies her father's will and, as Burckhardt finely observes (p. 253), literally throws her father's casket to Lorenzo. Their love is subjected to no test. Portia tests Bassanio, makes him choose, but—as already discussed—redefines the test in a more enlightened way. She transcends her father's will.

Yet even the license of Jessica and Lorenzo is more sympathetically treated by Shakespeare than is Shylock's legalism. They are shown to be like the

                                                                                youthful and unhandled colts
Fetching mad bounds, bellowing and neighing loud,
Which is the hot condition of their blood,—
If they but hear perchance a trumpet sound,
Or any air of music touch their ears,
You shall perceive them make a mutual stand. …


If Shakespeare were really as devoted to the bond as Burckhardt takes him to be, he would seem to be unaccountably indulgent toward these two. The same is true of Launcelot, who feels it is devilishly against his conscience to break his bond to his master and run away; yet this alteration of the bond, comically, receives the blessing of all concerned—his former master, his new one, and his father.

Thus the two alterations that Burckhardt grants need not be taken as confirming Shakespeare's general bondage to the letter of The Jew. And it is not at all certain that Shakespeare used The Jew at all. As John Russell Brown writes in the introduction to the Arden edition:

Clearly there is insufficient evidence to claim that a lost Jew play was the direct source of The Merchant of Venice, and it remains at least a strong probability that Shakespeare himself adapted the story as found in Il Pecorone. Shakespeare often used more than one source for a single play, and there is no reason why he should not have done so for The Merchant [The Merchant of Venice].

(p. xxx)

If Brown's “strong probability” is right, then Shakespeare's self-allowed latitude would be even larger. In any case, it seems to me clear that Shakespeare makes the bondage of his source gentle neither through total freedom (like Jessica and Lorenzo) nor “through a literal and unreserved submission to the bond as absolutely binding” (like Shylock) but by allowing himself the liberty to make the enlightened exceptions that will bring out its own best possibilities (like Portia).


  1. ELH, XXIX (1962), 242-43.

  2. The Merchant of Venice, ed. John Russell Brown, Arden Shakespeare (London, 1955); all quotations are from this edition.

  3. Hippolyta's View (Lexington, 1961), p. 41.

Kenneth S. Rothwell (review date fall 2001)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 582

SOURCE: Rothwell, Kenneth S. Review of Silent Shakespeare: Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made On. … 1899-1911, released by Milestone Film and Video. Shakespeare Quarterly 52, no. 3 (fall 2001): 428-31.

[In the following excerpt, Rothwell praises the outdoor settings of the Film d'Arte Italiana silent film version of The Merchant of Venice, but regrets that the film's ending has been lost.]

To modernists, Shakespeare in silent movies may seem a laughable oxymoron, but this was not how the European and American filmmakers at the beginning of the twentieth century saw it. Quite the opposite. Putting the plays of William Shakespeare on screen fit their larger design of making a disreputable industry reputable by attracting “the better classes of persons,” who scorned the scruffy nickelodeons and penny gaffs. Seeking excellence, they drew for inspiration on the resources of contemporary theater, even as they strove for some kind of filmic identity. What may look today in an old movie like egregiously ostensive acting simply represents the transferral of theatrical practices to the screen, which involved actors' developing an “attitude” before going on stage, striking statuesque poses, or arranging scenes in static tableaux. If anything, the early filmmakers erred on the side of reverence for the Bard, just as today's postmodernists play ironic games with the canon.

This new Milestone Films videocassette happily makes six of these once-inaccessible silent Shakespeare movies now accessible. Researchers will no longer need to undertake epic journeys to remote archives when, for a mere $29.95, they can screen on their own VCRs King John (UK, 1899), the Percy Stow Tempest (UK, 1908), the Vitagraph Midsummer Night's Dream (USA, 1909), the Film d'Arte Italiana King Lear (Italy, 1910), the Vitagraph Twelfth Night (USA, 1910), the Film d'Arte Italiana Merchant of Venice (Italy, 1910), and the F. R. Benson Richard III (UK, 1911). Doubtless this new propinquity will encourage a deluge of commentary about these ghosts from the past that have often been sneered at, scorned, mocked, and reviled. The challenge will be to reimagine the genuine excitement felt by the pioneers at the dawn of the Shakespeare movie.


The colorful and exciting Lo Savio Merchant of Venice abandons stuffy indoor sets for the streets and waterways of Venice and follows the Italian practice of cutting the plot down to manageable size, this time by deleting the casket and ring subplots. This print, perhaps only because of lost footage, begins in medias res with Jessica, played by a svelte Francesca Bertini, eloping with Lorenzo. Antonio, Bassanio, and Shylock remain central to the film, the Jewish moneylender wearing a gaudy costume of gold, blue, and dark red, perhaps in sign of an outward frivolity that, like Portia's gold casket, conceals an inner darkness. Shylock's obsession with the inhuman bond is underscored by showing in closeup a holograph copy of the contract; while counterbalancing it, Portia's discovery of the law that forbids the shedding of Christian blood gets equal billing during the trial scene. Even as a plump Portia (Olga Novelli) enters the courtroom and Shylock is shown sharpening the knife, the print suddenly ends, so that we may never find out what was on the missing three hundred feet. …

These old silents should be judged not by today's cinematic standards but in the context of the cinema art of their own day. In approaching them, we should perhaps recollect Duke Theseus's advice to the condescending Philostrate: “never any thing can be amiss, / When simpleness and duty tender it.” Otherwise we may be in peril of behaving like grownups feeling superior to a stumbling toddler.

Susan L. Fischer (review date winter 2002)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1697

SOURCE: Fischer, Susan L. Review of The Merchant of Venice.Shakespeare Bulletin 20, no. 1 (winter 2002): 30-1.

[In the following review, Fischer calls Hansgünther Heyme's 2002 staging of The Merchant of Venice a “postmodern, transcultural production,” incorporating elements of Erwin Piscator's “Epic Theatre” as well as Noh theatre.]

Hansgünther Heyme's The Merchant of Venice, with its ideological stress on theatre as a form of “provocation” and its deployment of anti-illusionary techniques of “objective acting” and non-verbal gestures of “showing,” evinced an affinity with the “Epic Theatre” of his mentor, Erwin Piscator. It also alluded to Noh theatre. “Where does good end, and where does evil begin?” That was the question implicating all of the characters in this postmodern, transcultural production. According to the director, the only surety in the marshy terrain of Venice, as well as in the ideal world of Belmont, was money. Everything could be bought, and everything was for sale, including affection and love.

Cuts in Heyme's Merchant [The Merchant of Venice] were severe although they did not alter the core of the text, which was based on a faithful translation from The Oxford Shakespeare (1988). They were, however, sufficient to allow the text to be played without an interval and with only two blackouts (the first, at the end of 3.1, just after Shylock decides upon his revenge and Tubal runs off in utter horror; and the second following the jail scene in 3.3).

Design and interpretation were indistinguishable. A water system composed of silver piping three units deep ran the length of the curtain line and framed the set for both Venice and Belmont. The play opened in a bathhouse where the men were effetely dressed in long silky skirt-like garments or “sarongs” of varying tonalities. Salerio and Solanio wore black and white or brown and gold. Bassanio sported a pink top and a lavender wrap-around, a burnt-orange coat with a touch of red, and a fluffed white scarf that would emerge when he metamorphosed visibly into Morocco onstage. Antonio appeared with his head covered with a red cloth, a leitmotif that would come to connect him, however perversely, with Portia in the final scene. There was a clear homoerotic association between the merchant and his Bassanio from the start. The reflection of the sun's rays on the canals was suggested by lighting effects on a plastic curtain hanging in front of the upstage water system, which consisted of a green tiled tub adorned with ten or so golden taps attached to transverse piping, in addition to dual shower fixtures.

The production's depersonalized and crippled Portia, with her red wig and red silk garb, evoked for the director timeless Old World figures such as Elizabeth, Maria Teresa, Katherine of Russia, Marlene Dietrich. She used a cane and propped herself up on Nerissa; her handicap, which had erotic undertones, was intended to resonate with the dubious moral authority she exercised over men. Nerissa moved as though she were walking a tight rope in a balancing act; her black and white silky jumpsuit opened into a fan-shaped skirt. The automaton-like Balthasar resembled an androgynous Japanese “doll” clad in a jean-suit; she wore a bandage over the eyes to hide red under-coloring, which became visible when the eyepiece was removed for the metamorphosis into Launcelot Gobbo. A Christ-image emblazoned on the back of the jean-jacket signified the servant's shift from one master to the other, and there were similar sorts of emblematic costume changes for the other parts she played (i.e., Stefano, Jailer, Officer, Messenger). In this postmodern production, then, personality was a matter of temporary identities and multiple selves, revealed as the combination of fantasies, stylizations, and adopted stances.

Shylock, fastidiously clothed in a silky, white double-breasted suit, wore a rubbery yellow nasal prosthesis attached by black straps. If it resembled a feline-like mask, it evoked the yellow emblem worn by holocaust Jews, for Jessica displayed the same nasal contraption. Once she stole from her father's house, however, only the black straps remained to provide a marked reminder of her ethnic past. Shylock's speech was slow and ponderous, like that of an automaton; he would lose control only once in the company of Tubal. His proffering of the bond “in a merry sport” (1.3.138) was first missed by Antonio, but, after Shylock extended his hand as a sign of Christian “kindness,” the lovesick merchant discerned the calculated joke.

Just as Shylock had expressed revulsion at the smell of pork, so Antonio felt compelled to cleanse and disinfect the hand that had touched the Jew. He washed it under one of those multifarious tub taps that would be doubly associated with the font and the gas chambers in the trial scene. This was a symbolic action that heightened Shylock's tragic dimension as a victim of social ostracism, discriminatory law, and racial prejudice. The relatively sympathetic portrayal was enhanced by the omission of the lines—“I hate him for he is a Christian … / If I can catch him once upon the hip” (2.3.37-41). Spanish critics read this production in philo-semitic terms as a protest against the racism latent in multicultural societies, which is quick to erupt into intolerance and hatred. They connected it to recent events of Spanish history, like a new law of immigration that was being transacted with respect to aliens.

Certain details regarding the casket scenes deserve attention. The fact that the same actor trebled in the roles of Bassanio, Morocco, and Aragon left the impression that it was Bassanio's illicit game to try and sniff out beforehand which casket to elect. Morocco wrapped everyone in the ribbons hanging from the scrims embellished with Bosch drawings that represented the caskets. Portia's sexual attraction was apparent as she went for this Prince's groin; when he threw her off, she was at once visibly upset, so that when he departed she wished him “a gentle riddance” (2.7.78). Aragon actually chose the correct casket, but Nerissa quickly switched the ribbons, indicating that the lottery was in fact a setup in Bassanio's favor. The Spanish Prince was so tottering that he struggled to find the best light in which to read the schedule, whose content Nerissa mouthed, since she had clearly been there before. When Bassanio appeared as himself, he wore a red shirt, pink “sarong,” and fleecy maroon robe. A telltale ribbon was left as a marker near the lead casket. Unable to hide her physical attraction once the lottery had been won, Portia let go of her phallic cane. She fell strategically on top of Bassanio, and the two of them sucked erotically on each other's fingers. There was no doubt that Belmont was tainted by what money and sex could buy.

The trial scene was presided over by a poof of a Duke propped up on stilts in front of the prophetic shower piping. He was clad in a fan-shaped white garment that enveloped his upper body, and he wore long ornamental earrings. Shylock was so composed, and so intent on “justice” in the form of the bond, that he failed to see the perverse potential in his seemingly logical assertion that there would be no force in Venetian law if he were denied his judgment. His initial aplomb in the courtroom stood out in sharp contrast to the whimpering of Bassanio, who, in alternately burying his head in Antonio's groin, affecting a Buddhistic pose, and adopting a foetal position, seemed more the “tainted wether of the flock” (4.1.113) than Antonio. Portia, already physically unsteady in the courtroom sans walking stick, was patently undone by her husband's pathetic antics. Antonio, sporting a leopard fur jacket and that suggestive red cloth on his head, knelt in a sacrificial posture of prayer, resigned to the worst. Shylock's white suit gave him an air of surgical precision as he prepared, in depersonalized and automatous fashion, to cut into the merchant's flesh with a small paring knife.

If Shylock was the epitome of self-restraint even when the scales tipped in the opposite direction, Portia's displaced anger at Bassanio's histrionics made her lose control. Her husband, in fact, was so blinded by his love for Antonio that he did not even apprehend the turning point. The courtroom changed metaphorically into a baptismal font, a slaughterhouse, and a gas chamber. As Gratiano stood upstage behind the tub taps and Antonio opened them, Shylock lifted himself mechanically into the polysemous receptacle, emerged dripping in water, turned the shower on himself, and, in an expressionless tone, spoke the words “I pray you give me leave to go from hence. / I am not well” (4.1.391-92). Stripped of his soul, he removed both his nasal mask and yarmulke; his drenched white suit made him look at once naked and lifeless in the lighting. He dangled the yellow nose—the only vestige of his former identity—from the piping above the tub, then exited, emitting an extended OOOOOHHHHH. There was presumably little difference for the Jew between the font and the gas chamber.

Antonio, for his part, sauntered away ostensibly more distressed over the loss of Bassanio than contented at his own reprieve. His freedom seemed a fate almost worse than death. Portia appeared no less disturbed at the virtual mariage à trois, especially when she was given her husband's ring. In Belmont, Jessica was hardly at ease, as she stood beside the generic green tub with all its connotations, puffing on a cigarette as though it were her last before being baptized into Christian society. Lorenzo, in a gesture of pious hypocrisy, threw water on her face as he recited the words “In such a night / Did pretty Jessica, like a little shrew, / Slander her love, and he forgave her” (5.1.20-22). Shylock's daughter symbolically grabbed hold of her father's detached nose, still suspended from the faucet piping. Although her own nasal sign was gone, its strap marks were a poignant reminder of her former, or rather other, self.

The final Belmont scene revealed not so much connection as division. The last moments were performed to the offstage sound of shattered glass, and Launcelot entered holding a cracked hand mirror (presumably Jessica's). In quasi-Piscatorian and postmodern fashion, then, the spectators were presented with a fragmented mirror in which they could see themselves.

Jay L. Halio (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: Halio, Jay L., ed. Introduction to The Merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare, pp. 1-84. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.

[In the following excerpt, Halio addresses Shakespeare's attitude toward Jews, a source of considerable controversy surrounding the representation of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice.]

Any approach to understanding Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice inevitably includes a discussion of the vexed question of its alleged anti-Semitism. This Introduction to the play therefore confronts the question directly, focusing on the background against which the play must be considered and a comparison with another play famous, or infamous, for its portrayal of a Jew, Marlowe's The Jew of Malta. From thence a discussion of the Merchant's [The Merchant of Venice] more immediate sources and its date continues, followed by a detailed analysis of the play itself, which emphasizes its ambiguities, inconsistencies, and internal contradictions. This discussion naturally leads into a survey of the play's performance history, particularly its representation of the dominant character, Shylock, and the major ways he has been portrayed. The Introduction concludes with a discussion of the text and the editorial procedures followed in this edition.


Shakespeare's attitude toward Jews, specifically in The Merchant of Venice, has been the cause of unending controversy. Recognizing the problem, in the Stratford-upon-Avon season of 1987 the Royal Shakespeare Company performed The Merchant of Venice back-to-back with a production of Marlowe's The Jew of Malta.1The Jew of Malta, played as a very broad heroic comedy, was evidently intended to contrast with Shakespeare's play and disarm criticism, such as the RSC had experienced earlier, in 1983, with a less successful production of The Merchant. To reinforce the new strategy, Antony Sher, a South African Jew, was cast as Shylock.2 It almost worked, but not quite. Sher was largely a sympathetic Shylock, with swastikas and other anti-Semitic slurs used to underscore the money-lender as victim; however, the trial scene portrayed Shylock as extremely bloodthirsty. Interpolating some extra-Shakespearian stage business, borrowed from the Passover Haggadah, the RSC and Sher indicated that cutting Antonio's pound of flesh was tantamount to a religious ritual of human sacrifice. Of course, nothing could be further from Jewish religious practice or principles, the aborted sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22 being the archetype of Jewish opposition to human sacrifice.3 In the event, Antony Sher's Shylock was not far removed from Alun Armstrong's Barabas.

Looking closely at both Marlowe's play and Shakespeare's will clarify the attitudes towards Semitism in those dramas, but the background against which both were conceived is also important. Jews had been officially banished from England since the Expulsion of 1290 by King Edward I, but the eviction was not quite so thoroughgoing as was hoped. A few Jews, whether converts or not, remained in England in the intervening period before Oliver Cromwell invited them to return in the seventeenth century. There is sufficient evidence for this assertion, but whether Shakespeare or Marlowe actually knew any Jews may be irrelevant.4 In their plays they wrote not from personal experience but from a tradition that had evolved both in England and on the Continent of the Jew as alien, usurer, member of a race maudite.5 In Marlowe's case, the tradition of the amoral machiavel was even more important than that of the money-lender.

In these post-Holocaust days, it may be difficult for us to conceive how Jews were regarded and treated in Europe, including England, during the Middle Ages. They had few rights and could not claim inalienable citizenship in any country. Typically, they depended upon rulers of the realm for protection and such rights as they might enjoy. In the thirteenth century in England, for example, under Henry III and Edward I, they were tantamount to the king's chattel. The king could—and did—dispose of them and their possessions entirely as he chose. Heavy talladges, or taxes, were imposed upon Jews—individually and collectively—to support the sovereign's financial needs, and when the moneys were not forthcoming, imprisonment and/or confiscation usually followed. At the same time, the Church vigorously opposed the existence of Jews in the country, but as they were under the king's protection the Church was powerless to do more than excite popular feeling against them.

Contrary to common belief, not all Jews were money-lenders, although usury was one of the few means to accumulate such wealth as they had. Many Jews were poor and served in humble, even menial capacities.6 But as non-believers in Christ, they were a despised people, however useful, financially and otherwise (as doctors, for instance). Near the end of the thirteenth century, when Edward had practically bankrupted his Jews, who found it impossible to meet his increasingly exorbitant demands for payments, the king decided to play his last card—expulsion. This act was not only satisfying to the Church, but it provided the king with the last bit of income from that once profitable source. Since everything the Jews owned belonged to the king, including the debts owed them as money-lenders or pawnbrokers, the king became the beneficiary of those debts as well as everything else of value. Although Edward relieved the debtors of the interest on their loans and made some other concessions, he hoped to realize a sizeable amount of money eventually, however much he might later regret the termination—forever?—of this once lucrative source of income.7

Doubtless, some Jews preferred conversion to expulsion in England, as later in Spain under the Inquisition, and they took shelter in the Domus conversorum, the House of Converts. This institution dates from the early thirteenth century and was an effort by the Dominicans, assisted by the king, to convert Jews to Christianity. The Domus conversorum in what is now Chancery Lane in London lasted well into the eighteenth century. Although at times few if any converts of Jewish birth lived there, in the centuries following 1290 it sheltered several from Exeter, Oxford, Woodstock, Northampton, Bury St Edmunds, Norwich, Bristol, as well as London and elsewhere where Jews had lived before being expelled.8 After the Expulsion, some Jews entered the realm for one reason or another, either as travellers and merchants, as refugees from Spain and Portugal, or as invited professionals, such as the physicians who treated Henry IV in his illness and the engineer, Joachim Gaunse, who helped found the mining industry in Wales in the sixteenth century.9 Small settlements of Marranos, or crypto-Jews, can be traced in London and Bristol during the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.10

But if Jews were scarce and those few who remained were forbidden to practise their religion openly, they were not forgotten, either in history or legend, and certainly not in the popular imagination, as ballads and other literature indicate.11 As mystery plays grew and flourished, Old and New Testament stories were dramatized, with Jews occupying a prominent place in both. One recent scholar has suggested that the contrast between the biblical Jews of the Old Testament and those of the New Testament, particularly in plays dealing with the Crucifixion and events leading up to it, resulted in a ‘dual image’ of the Jew. On the one hand, ‘he excites horror, fear, hatred; but he also excites wonder, awe, and love’.12 The examples of Judas and the Pharisees in the Corpus Christi plays must have supported common belief in the Jew as an incarnation of the devil;13 on the other hand, the patriarchs, Moses, Daniel, the prophets, and other figures appear as heroes, symbols or presentiments of patience, constancy, and other Christian virtues.14 Moreover, Christian theology, as represented in the epistles of St Paul, as in Romans 11 for example, argues for the redemption of Israel through conversion to Christianity. The Jews of post-biblical history, therefore, must be present not only ‘as witness to the final consummation of the Christian promise of salvation’, but as a participant in it.15 If Jews were shunned as a pariah race, they also had to be preserved for the ultimate Christian fulfilment; hence, the ‘dual image’, and the dialectic of Christian thought and feeling regarding them.

The significance of this twofold attitude, and of historical actions against Jews in England and elsewhere, is apparent in The Merchant of Venice. Earlier, it appears in such works as the Croxton Play of the Sacrament, written in the latter half of the fifteenth century. Its principal character is Aristorius, a Sicilian merchant with connections all over the known world, from Antioch to Holland, and from the Brabant to Turkey. Jonathas, a wealthy Jew, approaches him intent on testing the efficacy of the Holy Sacrament, in which he utterly disbelieves. Only the riches he has acquired—gold and precious gems—mean anything to him. Jonathas bribes Aristorius with a hundred pounds to steal the holy wafer from the church and give it to him, whereupon miraculous events occur. When he and his four compatriots strike the Host with their daggers (a re-enactment of the Crucifixion), it begins to bleed. Jonathas picks it up and tries to put it in a cauldron of boiling oil, but it sticks to his hand and he is unable to get free of it. In the succeeding comic turmoil, Jonathas loses his hand; the water in the cauldron turns to blood after the Host and his hand are thrown into it; and when the Host is finally removed and thrown into a hot oven, the oven bursts, bleeding from its cracks, and an image of the crucified Christ emerges. A dialogue, in English and Latin, ensues between the image, Jonathas, and the others, in which Jesus sorrowfully asks why they torment him still and refuse to believe in what he has taught:

Why blaspheme yow me? Why do ye thus?
Why put yow me to a newe tormentry?
And I dyed for yow on the crosse!(16)

The Jews are contrite and repent, converting to Christianity; whereupon Jonathas's hand is restored and Aristorius, abjectly penitent, is absolved from his sin.

The representation of the Jew in this fifteenth-century miracle play combines the attributes of physical mutilation (blood sacrifice) and commercial malpractice, as Edgar Rosenberg remarks.17 But beneath its obviously broad comedy, it also shows a strong impulse on the part of the unknown playwright to encourage regeneration through conversion. Later, in Robert Wilson's play, The Three Ladies of London (1584), the Jew Gerontus appears as the hero and Mercadore, an Italian merchant, is the comic villain who speaks in broken English and is willing to embrace Islam rather than pay Gerontus the debt he owes him. In the event, Gerontus prefers to surrender the debt obligation so that Mercadore will not be driven to apostasy, but even so Mercadore is unrepentant, and both are finally brought before an upright judge, who passes appropriate sentence.

Generous Gerontus, however, is hardly typical of the Jewish stereotype in Elizabethan literature. The scoundrels Zadoch and Zachary in Thomas Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller (1594) are much more like what we might expect, or the Jewish apothecary who poisons Bajazeth and Aga in The Tragical Reign of Selimus (1594). These and other comic villains may owe something to the notoriety caused by the trial and execution in 1594 of Roderigo Lopez, the Portuguese convert, who had been Queen Elizabeth's physician.18 They may also owe a good deal to Marlowe's Barabas, the protagonist of The Jew of Malta (c.1589), a direct descendant of the vice figure in the morality plays19 as well as the villainous Jews of the mystery and miracle plays. By a stroke of genius, Marlowe combined these elements with the popular conception of the Italian machiavel to produce the comic and heroic villainy of Barabas, a major dramatic figure and an extraordinarily powerful one.

While all three aspects of his character are important, Barabas as a comic machiavel emerges as the dominant one, suggested from the start when Barabas's opening soliloquy immediately follows Machiavel's prologue. Usury, so often associated with Jews, is not nearly as significant as Barabas's evident delight in his multifarious scheming. Owing loyalty to no one—not even, finally, his daughter Abigail—he proceeds despite setbacks to confound his enemies, until he ultimately and comically overreaches himself; or rather, until his enemies, Ferneze, the governor of Malta, and his knights surpass his treachery. For neither the Christians nor the Jews nor the Turks who threaten Malta emerge as the moral centre of this play, which instead substitutes wit and the ability to implement ‘policy’ as the controlling force. ‘Marlowe is not finally interested, as Shakespeare is’, Rosenberg says, ‘in questions which touch deeply on the nature of justice, is even less interested in legalistic quibbles; he enjoys the spectacle of these depraved noblemen of passion trying to cut each other's throats’ (pp. 20-1).

But what of Barabas's Jewishness and its role in the drama? As an alien figure, an outsider, the Jew might be associated with the amoral machiavel, except that Jews, as representative of the Old Testament, had a strict moral code of their own. In his references to the patriarchs and biblical story, Barabas confirms his Jewish heritage, but in the process he comically perverts it. For example, he equates the riches he has acquired with the blessings promised to the Jews (1.1.101-4).20 When threatened with a tax needed to pay the Turkish tribute—a tax reminiscent of Edward I's ‘talladges’—Barabas does not seek refuge in conversion to Christianity; but his hesitation results in confiscation of his wealth. Only his craftiness in hiding the better part of his fortune prevents complete destitution. His revenge later is to have the governor's son killed in a duel with his daughter's rival suitor, Mathias—the start of a series of murders and atrocities accomplished through duplicity and deception that characterize the hero-villain.

Duplicity and deception provide the link between Barabas's Jewishness and Machiavellism, at least in the popular imagination to which Marlowe appealed. Barabas implies the connection in his soliloquy brooding upon Ferneze's unjust confiscation of his property:

I am not of the tribe of Levi, I,
That can so soon forget an injury.
We Jews can fawn like spaniels when we please,
And when we grin, we bite; yet are our looks
As innocent and harmless as a lamb's.
I learned in Florence how to kiss my hand,
Heave up my shoulders when they call me dog,
And duck as low as any barefoot friar,
Hoping to see them starve upon a stall. …


Florence, of course, was Machiavelli's city. Unlike Venice, it was not known for harbouring many Jews. The soliloquy occurs shortly before Barabas purchases the slave Ithamore, a Turk who rivals him in treachery, especially directed against Christians (see 2.3.171-212). Since Marlowe includes Christian treachery as well in his play, most prominently at the end, it is clear that he enjoys attacking hypocritical professors of all three major religions, not solely the Jewish machiavel.

Shakespeare also attacks Christian hypocrisy, as modern commentators have frequently noted, specifically in Shylock's speech on Christian slave-holding (4.1.89-99).21 But the conception of Shylock is altogether different from Marlowe's Barabas, notwithstanding the fact that both authors drew upon the same historical and literary backgrounds. Whereas Marlowe seems intent on a virtuoso display of comic villainy, with little regard for serious or deep character motives after Acts 1 and 2, Shakespeare concentrates upon Shylock's complex nature and the relationships of justice and mercy that lie at the heart of his play. If Shylock is another version of the villainous Jewish money-lender, and like Barabas a comic villain, he is also something more—the first stage Jew in English drama who is multi-dimensional and thus made to appear human.

Scholars, including myself, have looked elsewhere in Shakespeare's work for references to Jews and from them to discover more about his attitude. The references, such as those in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, 1 Henry IV, and Macbeth, are hardly complimentary, though usually offhandedly remarked and consistent with the dramatic character. The references in Love's Labour's Lost, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Much Ado About Nothing, on the other hand, are clearly humorous ones, depending in part on word-play to gain effect.22 No allusions at all appear in the poems or sonnets. Anti-Semitic slurs thus do not appear to be important in Shakespeare's vocabulary or his thinking, with the outstanding exception of The Merchant of Venice. There, in the view of some critics, Shakespeare unleashed a venomous attack upon Jews—not only money-lenders and usurers, but all Jews.23 To cite only one piece of evidence, Shylock is rarely referred to by name; instead, he is typically referred to or addressed as ‘Jew’, a term then as now (in some quarters) of considerable contempt.24

Despite this fact, or rather in addition to it, complicating Shakespeare's attitude and our understanding of it, are other aspects of Shylock's character. These have enabled some actors, notably Henry Irving and Laurence Olivier, to portray Shylock as sympathetic, someone more sinned against than sinning, in short a tragic figure. A certain amount of textual adaptation, such as cutting Shylock's long aside, ‘How like a fawning publican he looks. / I hate him for he is a Christian’, etc. (1.3.38-49), is of course essential for this interpretation, although the dramatist otherwise endowed his comic villain with sufficient depth to permit the tragic emphasis. But it needs to be stressed that despite Shylock's depths, his very human traits,25 Shakespeare's initial conception of him was essentially as a comic villain, most likely adorned with a red wig and beard and a bottle nose, but not a middle-European accent.26

The evidence for Shylock as a comic villain is partly in the literary and dramatic traditions, which Shakespeare followed, that lie behind the character, and partly in certain generic and other considerations.27 Romantic comedy, as Shakespeare developed the genre, is not without its darker elements, as Hero's denunciation and assumed death in Much Ado About Nothing clearly demonstrate and as, in a play closer to the Merchant, some aspects of A Midsummer Night's Dream also reveal.28 Into this side of romantic comedy falls Shylock's design against Antonio's life. But the comic element also includes Antonio's hairbreadth escape. Legalistic quibbling over the validity of the bond, or Portia's arguments opposing, is not of paramount concern: Shylock's defeat is another in a long series going back beyond Barabas's descent into the cauldron—an example of ‘the biter bit’, a joke Elizabethans loved almost as much as jokes about cuckoldry. As for Shylock's conversion, we need only note that it was accepted as the alternative to something that, sinfully, Shylock thought would be worse. It could have been regarded by Elizabethan audiences (unlike those since then) as evidence of Antonio's Christian charity to Shylock—a mercy, combined with his request that Shylock be spared from destitution, entirely consonant with Portia's exhortations to Shylock earlier in the trial scene. In this way, the shallowness of Shylock's Judaism contrasts strikingly with the depth of Antonio's magnanimity and, before his, the Duke's spontaneous charity.29

But is Shylock worth saving? Apart from the consideration that every human soul is precious, does Shylock earn any serious sympathy that may lead us to rejoice in his salvation—such as it is? In spurning Shylock, Antonio and others, particularly Graziano, simultaneously spurn both his business and his religion; for in their minds—as in most Elizabethans'—usury and Jewishness were interlocked.30 They thus provide Shylock with his deep resentment and the motivation for his revenge. Heaping injury upon insult, Jessica's elopement with Lorenzo, accompanied by bags of ducats and jewels, further exacerbates Shylock's bitter resentment. When news that Antonio's ships have miscarried reaches him at the moment of his agony over Jessica's actions, Shylock is more than ever prepared for a vicious counter-attack. His intention to hold Antonio to his bond and its penalty comes precisely when Salerio and Solanio taunt him unmercifully (3.1.21-49). True, Jessica later claims that Shylock always meant to undo Antonio if he could (3.2.282-8), but in the dramatic structure of the play, the impulse to revenge comes just here, where it is most powerfully motivated.31 And it is through this motivation and the circumstances immediately surrounding it as much as anything else that Shylock's essential human quality emerges, just as Hamlet's action in the prayer scene—his lust for vengeance against Claudius—makes him not nobler but more human.32

Our response to Shylock, then, must be measured accordingly. Norman Rabkin is among the few critics who remind us that the scene with Salerio and Solanio involves the audience in a congeries of emotions so complex and contradictory that it is impossible to maintain a simple, single response to Shylock's behaviour. At once humorous, pathetic, antagonizing, Shylock's reaction to the news of his daughter's elopement, her theft, Antonio's misfortune, Jessica's squandering of his prized possessions parallels the similar situation in the Boar's Head scene in 1 Henry IV where Falstaff makes his apologia pro vita sua (2.5.421-86).33 If we are true to our experience of character and events, then no simplistic, reductivist description can appear accurate. Moreover, in subsequent scenes, our response to Shylock will be affected, or it ought to be, by an understanding not only of his position, but of his frame of mind, including the kinds of emotion his experience generates. That Shylock is hell-bent, literally, upon his revenge against Antonio should then hardly surprise us. Everything considered, his attitude and actions appear those of a man seriously deranged by what he, rightly or wrongly, regards as an enormous injustice against him personally and, through him, the people he represents.34 Is it any wonder, then, that Shylock remains intransigent, impervious to Portia's appeals to mercy in the trial scene?

In this and other ways …, Shakespeare reveals his attitude toward Shylock. It is ambivalent, far more than Marlowe's attitude toward Barabas. But in neither author can we confidently proclaim an anti-Semitic bias that is more than abstract and traditional. For Marlowe, the machiavel was more significant than Barabas's Judaism, which merged with it. By contrast, in developing Shylock's character in depth, and endowing it with vivid attitudes and emotions, Shakespeare succeeded in creating a dramatic figure who arouses far deeper feelings than Barabas can. Whereas the one remains, first and last, a comic stage villain, however brilliant and quick-witted, the other transcends the type, shatters the conventional image with his appeal to our common humanity, and leaves us unsettled in our prejudices, disturbed in our emotions, and by no means sure of our convictions. …


  1. The Merchant was performed on the main stage, with The Jew at the Swan Theatre.

  2. Sher was not the first Jewish actor recently to essay the role on the British stage. David Suchet, for example, had played Shylock at the RSC in 1981.

  3. Cf. Hermann Sinsheimer, Shylock: The History of a Character (1947; repr. New York, 1964), 133-4.

  4. See Danson, 60. A Jewish merchant from Venice, Alonzo Nuñez de Herrera (Abraham Cohen de Herrera), was captured in Essex's raid on Cadiz and brought to London as one of forty hostages in 1596, where he remained until 1600. It is unlikely, however, that he bears any resemblance to Shakespeare's Shylock or (though born in Florence) to Marlowe's Barabas. See Richard H. Popkin, ‘A Jewish Merchant of Venice’, SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly] 40 (1989), 329-31.

  5. See Leo Kirschbaum, ‘Shylock and the City of God’, Character and Characterization in Shakespeare (Detroit, 1962), 7-8.

  6. Cecil Roth, ‘A Day in the Life of a Medieval English Jew’, Essays and Portraits in Anglo-Jewish History (Philadelphia, 1962), 36.

  7. See H. G. Richardson, ‘The Expulsion’, The English Jewry under Angevin Kings (1960), 213-33.

  8. A. M. Hyamson, A History of the Jews in England (1908), 125-33.

  9. See Cecil Roth, A History of the Jews in England, 3rd edn. (Oxford, 1964), 132-48; E. N. Calisch, The Jew in English Literature (1909; repr. Port Washington, NY, 1969), 41-2; Hyamson, History of the Jews in England, 135-6.

  10. Lucien Wolf, ‘Jews in Tudor England’, in C. Roth (ed.), Essays in Jewish History (1934), 73-90; ‘Jews in Elizabethan England’, Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society, 11 (1924-27), 1-33; C. J. Sisson, ‘A Colony of Jews in Shakespeare's London’, Essays and Studies, 23 (1937), 38-51. Far from being oppressed, the Marranos in Shakespeare's London, Sisson says, reaped the rewards of compromise and submission to law, carrying on trade or entering professions, so long as they did not flaunt their real nonconformity.

  11. See Calisch, The Jew in English Literature, 51-4, and Warren D. Smith, ‘Shakespeare's Shylock’, SQ 15 (1964), 193-4.

  12. Harold Fisch, The Dual Image: The Figure of the Jew in English and American Literature (New York, 1971), 13. Cf. Calisch, The Jew in English Literature, 54-6.

  13. Cf. Merchant 2.2.25, where Lancelot Gobbo says, ‘Certainly the Jew is the very devil incarnation’.

  14. Fisch, Dual Image, 16-18.

  15. Ibid. 14. Compare Danson, who cites Fisch, Dual Image, 165-9.

  16. The Play of the Sacrament, in Chief Pre-Shakespearean Dramas, ed. Joseph Quincy Adams (Cambridge, Mass., 1924), 257, ll. 651-3.

  17. ‘The Jew in Western Drama: An Essay and A Checklist’, Bulletin of the New York Public Library, 72 (1968), 442-91; repr. in Edward Coleman, The Jew in English Drama: An Annotated Bibliography (New York, 1970), 1-50. The reference is to the reprint, p. 7.

  18. See Hyamson, History of the Jews in England, 136-40, for an account of this episode, and compare Sinsheimer, Shylock, 62-8, who notes the crowd's derision as Lopez was executed.

  19. See David Bevington, From ‘Mankind’ to Marlowe (Cambridge, Mass., 1962), 218-33.

  20. References are to The Complete Plays of Christopher Marlowe, ed. I. Ribner (New York, 1963). For the Deity's promises to Abram, see Gen. 12: 1-3, 7; 15: 5; 17: 4-8, 16.

  21. See e.g. John R. Cooper, ‘Shylock's Humanity’, SQ 21 (1970), 122.

  22. M. J. Landa, The Jew in Drama (1926; repr. Port Washington, NY, 1968), 70-1. N. Nathan, ‘Three Notes on The Merchant of Venice’, Shakespeare Association Bulletin, 23 (1948), 158, 161-2 n. 9, adds seven references to ‘Jewry’, but says none are abusive. But allusions to the treachery of Judas, as in As You Like It 3.4.7-11, and Richard II 4.1.170, must also be included in any complete list.

  23. See e.g. D. M. Cohen, ‘The Jew and Shylock’, SQ 31 (1980), 53-63, esp. 54-5; also Nathan, ‘Three Notes’, 157-60, and Hyam Maccoby, ‘The Figure of Shylock’, Midstream, 16 (Feb. 1970), 56-69.

  24. See also Christopher Spencer, The Genesis of Shakespeare's ‘The Merchant of Venice’ (Lewiston, NY, 1988), 88-92.

  25. On the famous speech that begins ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’ (3.1.55) see ‘The Play’. …

  26. Since medieval mystery and miracle plays portrayed Judas with red beard and hair and a large nose, later stage-Jews followed suit: see Landa, The Jew in Drama, 11; Calisch, The Jew in English Literature, 73; and Edgar Rosenberg, From Shylock to Svengali: Jewish Stereotypes in English Fiction (Stanford, Calif., 1960), 22. A ballad published in 1664 by an old actor, Thomas Jordan, indicates that Shakespeare's Shylock continued this tradition: see E. E. Stoll, ‘Shylock’, in Shakespeare Studies (New York, 1927), 255, 271, and Toby Lelyveld, Shylock on the Stage (Cleveland, 1960), 11. The large nose was also characteristic of Pantaloon's make-up in the commedia dell'arte, a secondary source for Shylock: see ‘Sources’ … and John R. Moore, ‘Pantaloon as Shylock’, Boston Public Library Quarterly, 1 (1949), 33-42 (cited by Spencer, Genesis, 97). Had he intended to give Shylock an identifiable accent, Shakespeare could have done so, as he does, for example, Doctor Caius in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Nevertheless, many actors persist in using a comic—usually middle-European—accent when portraying Shylock, even though Spanish—the language of Sephardic Jews—was the lingua franca of European Jews in Shakespeare's time.

  27. See Marion D. Perret, ‘Shakespeare's Jew: Preconception and Performance’, SStud [Shakespeare Studies] 20 (1988), 261-8.

  28. See Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary, trans. Boleslaw Taborski (Garden City, NY, 1964), 212-19, and Jay L. Halio, ‘Nightingales That Roar: The Language of A Midsummer Night's Dream’, in D. G. Allen and R. A. White (eds.), Traditions and Innovations (Newark, Del. 1990), 137-49.

  29. Cf. Bernard Grebanier, The Truth about Shylock (New York, 1962), 291; Cooper, ‘Shylock's Humanity’, 121; and Alan C. Dessen, ‘The Elizabethan Stage Jew and Christian Example’, Modern Language Quarterly, 35 (1974), 242-3.

  30. Stage-usurers were not necessarily Jews, but stage-Jews were invariably associated with usury. See Rosenberg, From Shylock to Svengali, 27. Kirschbaum, ‘Shylock and the City of God’, 25, and Warren D. Smith, ‘Shakespeare's Shylock’, SQ 15 (1964), 193-9, try (I think unsuccessfully) to distinguish between ethnic and ethic in Antonio's attitude toward Shylock.

  31. In Comic Transformations in Shakespeare (London, 1980), 130-1, Ruth Nevo develops this point.

  32. See Jay L. Halio, ‘Hamlet's Alternatives’, Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 8 (1966), 169-88.

  33. Norman Rabkin, ‘Meaning and The Merchant of Venice’, in Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning (Chicago, 1981), 7; cf. also pp. 22-3. Danson makes a similar point without citing the Falstaff passage, pp. 135-6.

  34. Cf. Shylock's complaint to Tubal, ‘The curse never fell upon our nation till now; I never felt it till now’ (3.1.80-2).

Abbreviations and References

The following abbreviations are used in the introduction, collations, and commentary. The place of publication is, unless otherwise specified, London.

Editions of Shakespeare

Q: The most excellent Historie of the Merchant of Venice. Written by William Shakespeare. 1600

Q2: The Excellent History of the Merchant of Venice. Written by W. Shakespeare. 1600 [for 1619]

F: The First Folio, 1623

F2: The Second Folio, 1632

F3: The Third Folio, 1663

F4: The Fourth Folio, 1685

Bevington: David Bevington, The Merchant of Venice, Bantam Shakespeare (New York, 1988)

Brown: John Russell Brown, The Merchant of Venice, The Arden Shakespeare (1955)

Cambridge: W. G. Clark and W. A. Wright, Works, The Cambridge Shakespeare, 9 vols. (Cambridge, 1863-6), vol. ii

Capell: Edward Capell, Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies, 10 vols. (1767-8), vol. iii

Collier: John Payne Collier, Works, 8 vols. (1842-4), vol. ii

Delius: N. Delius, Complete Works of William Shakespeare, 3rd edn. (1872)

Dyce: Alexander Dyce, Works, 6 vols. (1857), vol. ii

Eccles: The Comedy of The Merchant of Venice (1805)

Furness: Horace Howard Furness, The Merchant of Venice, A New Variorum Edition (Philadelphia, 1888)

Halliwell: James O. Halliwell, Works, 16 vols. (1856), vol. v

Hanmer: Thomas Hanmer, Works, 6 vols. (Oxford, 1743-4), vol. ii

Johnson: Samuel Johnson, Plays, 8 vols. (1765), vol. i

Keightley: Thomas Keightley, Plays, 6 vols. (1864)

Kittredge: George Lyman Kittredge, Works, revised by Irving Ribner (Boston, 1972)

Malone: Edmond Malone, Plays and Poems, 10 vols. (1790), vol. v

Merchant: W. Moelwyn Merchant, The Merchant of Venice, The New Penguin Shakespeare (Harmondsworth, 1967)

NCS: M. M. Mahood, The Merchant of Venice, New Cambridge Shakespeare (Cambridge, 1987)

Neilson and Hill: A. Neilson and C. J. Hill, Complete Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare (Boston, Mass., 1942)

NS: Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and John Dover Wilson, The Merchant of Venice, The New Shakespeare (Cambridge, 1953)

Oxford: Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, Works (Oxford, 1986)

Pooler: The Merchant of Venice, ed. C. K. Pooler (1905)

Pope: Alexander Pope, Works, 6 vols. (1723-5)

Riverside: G. B. Evans (textual editor), The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston, 1974)

Rowe: Nicholas Rowe, Works, 6 vols. (1709), vol. ii

Rowe 1714: Nicholas Rowe, Works, 8 vols. (1714), vol. ii

Staunton: Howard Staunton, Plays, 3 vols. (1858-60), vol. i

Steevens: Samuel Johnson and George Steevens, Plays, 10 vols. (1773), vol. iii

Theobald: Lewis Theobald, Works, 7 vols. (1733), vol. ii

Thirlby: (unpublished conjectures in marginal notes of his copies of Shakespeare)

Warburton: William Warburton, Works, 8 vols. (1747)

Var. 1785: Samuel Johnson and George Steevens, revised by Isaac Reed, Plays, 3rd edn., 10 vols. (1785)

Var. 1793: Samuel Johnson and George Steevens, Plays, 15 vols. (1793)

Var. 1803: Samuel Johnson and George Steevens, revised by Isaac Reed, Plays, 5th edn. (1803)

Other Works

Abbott: E. A. Abbott, A Shakespearian Grammar, 2nd edn. (1870)

Barber: C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Princeton, NJ, 1959)

Barton: John Barton, Playing Shakespeare (1984)

Brown, ‘Realization’: John Russell Brown, ‘The Realization of Shylock’, in Brown and Bernard Harris (eds.), Early Shakespeare (1961), 186-209

Bullough: Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, 8 vols. (1957-75)

Bulman: James C. Bulman, Shakespeare in Performance: ‘The Merchant of Venice’ (Manchester, 1991)

Cercignani: Fausto Cercignani, Shakespeare's Works and Elizabethan Pronunciation (Oxford, 1981)

Colman: E. A. M. Colman, The Dramatic Use of Bawdy in Shakespeare (1974)

Danson: Lawrence Danson, The Harmonies ofThe Merchant of Venice’ (1978)

Dent: R. W. Dent, Shakespeare's Proverbial Language: An Index (1981)

Granville-Barker: Harley Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare, Second Series (1939)

Greg, SFF: W. W. Greg, The Shakespeare First Folio (Oxford, 1955)

Fischer: Sandra K. Fischer, Econolingua (Newark, Del., 1985)

Holland: Norman Holland, Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare (New York, 1966)

Jonson: Ben Jonson, ed. C. H. Herford and Percy and Evelyn Simpson, 11 vols. (Oxford, 1925-52)

Kökeritz: Helge Kökertiz, Shakespeare's Pronunciation (New Haven, Conn., 1953)

Leggatt: Alexander Leggatt, Shakespeare's Comedy of Love (1974)

Lewalski: Barbara K. Lewalski, ‘Biblical Allusion and Allegory in The Merchant of Venice’, SQ 13 (1962), 327-43

Marlowe: Christopher Marlowe, Complete Plays, ed. Irving Ribner (New York, 1963)

McPherson: David C. McPherson, Shakespeare, Jonson, and the Myth of Venice (Newark, Del., 1990)

Noble: Richmond Noble, Shakespeare's Biblical Knowledge (1935)

Onions: C. T. Onions, Shakespeare Glossary, enlarged and revised by Robert D. Eagleson (1986)

Overton: Bill Overton, Text & Performance: ‘The Merchant of Venice’ (Atlantic Highlands, NJ, 1987)

Oz: Avraham Oz, ‘The Egall Yoke of Love: Prophetic Unions in The Merchant of Venice’, Assaph, Section C, No. 3 (1986), 75-108

Rubinstein: Frankie Rubinstein, A Dictionary of Shakespeare's Sexual Puns and their Significance (1984)

SAB: Shakespeare Association Bulletin

SB: Studies in Bibliography

Schmidt: Alexander Schmidt, A Shakespeare Lexicon, 4th edn. (revised by G. Sarrazin), 2 vols. (Berlin and Leipzig, 1923)

Shaheen: Naheeb Shaheen, Biblical References in Shakespeare's Comedies (Newark, Del., 1992)

Sisson: C. J. Sisson, New Readings in Shakespeare, 2 vols. (Cambridge, 1956)

SQ: Shakespeare Quarterly

SStud: Shakespeare Studies

SSur: Shakespeare Survey

TC: Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, with John Jowett and William Montgomery, William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion (Oxford, 1987)

Tilley: Morris Palmer Tilley, A Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1950)

Walker: W. S. Walker, A Critical Examination of Shakespeare's Text (1860)

Wright: George T. Wright, Shakespeare's Metrical Art (Berkeley, Calif., 1988)

Burton Hatlen (essay date 1980)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6579

SOURCE: Hatlen, Burton. “Feudal and Bourgeois Concepts of Value in The Merchant of Venice.Bucknell Review 25, no. 1 (1980): 91-105.

[In the following essay, Hatlen offers a Marxist reading of The Merchant of Venice, maintaining that the playwright questioned both feudal and bourgeois concepts of value.]

Twentieth-century historians such as R. H. Tawney and Christopher Hill have demonstrated that a profound economic, social, and cultural revolution was taking place in England during Shakespeare's lifetime.1 How did this revolution affect Shakespeare's art? Was he a “conservative” defender of the dying feudal order? Or was he perhaps a “progressive” spokesman of an emerging bourgeois civilization?

In the 1930s and 1940s scholars devoted a good deal of energy to debating such questions as these, and by the early 1950s a consensus on this matter had apparently emerged: Shakespeare was, such critics as Theodore Spencer and E. M. W. Tillyard persuasively argued, a “Christian humanist,” a defender of a traditional, hierarchical world view.2 This Conception of Shakespeare has been, in the last two decades, subjected to attack from many quarters; most contemporary Shakespeareans would, I suspect, agree that the Spencer-Tillyard description of Shakespeare's world view is at the very least simplistic.3 Yet rather that seek a more accurate view of Shakespearean scholarship has in the last two decades largely busied itself with smaller, more easily resolvable questions of language, form, and theme. The one significant exception to this general tendency is Marxist literary scholarship, and the insistence of such critics as Robert Weimann, Paul N. Siegel, and Arnol Kettle that we must see Shakespeare within the context of his moment in history has made Marxist criticism, in my judgment, the most vigorous and fruitful of the various current tendencies in Shakespearean studies.4 However, it must also be recognized that Marxist scholarship has not yet achieved a consensus of its own on the question of Shakespeare's relationship to his epoch. Some Marxists, including Siegel, have continued to accept the Spencer-Tillyard conception of Shakespere as a “Christian humanist”5; others, such as Annette Rubenstein, have seen him rather as a “progressive” spokesman for all the bourgeoisie;6 and still others have regarded him as a representative of (in some phrases of Zdanek Anikst quoted by Siegel) “a cross-section of the nation's progressive elements,” and have argued that he does not “express the interests of any one particular Estate over and above any other.”7 My own (equally Marxist, I believe) approach to Shakespeare differs from all of these, for I see Shakespeare not as a spokesman for any one ideology but rather as an acute critic of all the ideologies current in his time. In this essay I shall seek to develop this conception of Shakespeare by focusing on his treatment of one central question, the nature of value, in one particular play, The Merchant of Venice in the attempt to show that the play, rather than inviting us to accept one or another of these ideas of value as “true,” dramatizes the consequences of the two modes of thought here at issue—and thus, by implication at least, brings into focus both the virtues and the limitations of the feudal and the bourgeois ways of life themselves.

In Shakespeare's time the official agents of church and state diligently promulgated the idea that value is a quality that is intrinsic in certain objects, acts, or persons. The legitimacy of both the aristocracy and the monarchy rested primarily upon the willingness of Englishmen in general to believe that some human beings are, by virture of their birth into certain families, inherently “better” than others. Indeed, some members of the English aristocracy continue even today to believe that their blood contains certain attributes absent from the blood of ordinary human beings, and until recently most working-class English children were trained in childhood to show respect for their “betters.” Exactly what makes aristocrats different from ordinary human beings was always unclear, but the feudal system confidently assumed that aristocrats possessed from birth a quality variously denoted as “honor,” “grace” (significantly, both these words were traditionally employed as terms of address toward certain members of the aristocracy) or “courtesy.” No less than the medieval feudal system, the medieval church was also committed to the principle that value is an objective phenomenon. As Frederick Copleston notes, God is, for Thomas Aquinas, “the supreme value and the source and measure of all value: values depend on Him … in the sense that they are participations or finite reflections of God.”8 Thus, to Thomas, and to medieval Catholicism in general, value is an objective phenomenon and our duty as humans is to discover the relative degree of value inherent in an object, act, or person. From this mode of thinking issued medieval moral theology, with its conception of sin as “inordinate love”—i.e., love that ascribes either too much or too little value to some object of desire. From this absolutist habit of thought there also issued medieval economic theory, with its concept of the just price (which assumes that the market price of a commodity should be determined by its presumed intrinsic value, a value established by God himself) and with its blanket condemnaton of usury (on the grounds that usury permits money to function, not merely as the medium of exchange, but as a creator of wealth and so of value—at which point money threatens to usurp God's role as the fons et origo of value). Such an economic theory, I might add, is both natural to and reasonably adequate to the needs of an agrarian society. For in such a society use-value (both the obvious physical usefulness of the foods and fibers that sustain life, and the supposed usefulness of those spiritual “goods” that claim to offer a means of access to supernatural powers) is an immediate and obvious phenomenon, whereas exchange-value seems to be an “unnatural” form of value superimposed upon the use-values “naturally” inherent in things. A conception of value as an objective phenomenon is thus the characteristic ideology of an agrarian society. Such a concept of value embodied itself in the hierarchical structure of European society during the Middle Ages and percolated through all areas of medieval thought, and both this hierarchically structured society and this absolutist habit of thought survived, although not without some modifications, into Shakespeare's time.

Beginning in the sixteenth century, however, the traditional conception of value as an objective quality was challenged by a new mode of thought, which tended to see value as an ascribed rather than inherent quality. The challenge took many forms. In politics, the authority of the feudal aristocracy was disputed by wave after wave of new aspirants to power (the new aristocrats created by Henry VII, the country gentry, the urban merchants), all of whom were impatient with the old aristocracy's claim to be intrinsically “better” than ordinary (“common”) human beings. (Ironically, however, these new claimants to power generally soon decided that their own blood was superior to ordinary blood, so the challenge to aristocratic pretensions was, perforce, repeated over and over.) At the same time, Protestant thinkers, as Tawney has shown, generally either ignored or even explicitly repudiated both the doctrine of the just price and the traditional ban on usury. In this way, Protestantism (followed shortly by post-Tridentine Catholicism) began to chart out an area of human conduct—specifically, those activities that we now call “business”—in which value was to be determined less by the will of God than by the operations of the market. Concurrently, philosophers such as Hobbes began to argue that the source of value lies not in the object itself but in the mind of the beholder:

But whatsoever is the object of any man's appetite or desire, that is it which he for his part calleth good: and the object of his hate or aversion, evil: and of his contempt, vile and inconsiderable. For these words of good, evil, and contemptible are ever used with relation to the person that useth them: there being nothing simply or absolutely so; nor any common rule of good and evil, to be taken from the nature of the objects themselves. …9

Hobbes applied this mode of thinking not only to objects but to persons as well:

The value or WORTH of a man, is as of all other things, his price; that is to say, so much as would be given for the use of his power: and therefore is not absolute; but a thing dependent on the need and judgement of another.

(Leviathan, p. 57)

Hobbes's political absolutism is, passages such as these make clear, in no sense “conservative.” Rather he is an absolutist because, having rejected all claims to authority grounded upon a supposed intrinsic merit, he can imagine no form of political order except one created by force. These passages from Hobbes also suggest the ways in which the new, subjectivist concept of value was appropriate to a capitalist society. For capitalism, as Marx argued, seeks to reduce all things to commodities, and all modes of value to exchange-value. Under capitalism, the value of anything—even, as Hobbes suggests, of a human being—is the price that people will pay. To reduce all value to exchange-value, capitalism must first destroy any lingering notions that the value of a thing might be determined either by its relative usefulness or by the amount of labor required to produce it. The reduction of all value to exchange-value is the “impossible dream” of capitalism. (This dream is “impossible” simply because even under capitalism people have real needs, which can be satisfied only by use-values.) But before capitalism could set off in pursuit of its impossible dream, it was first necessary to persuade people that value is determined not by the relative usefulness of things but by the relative intensity of people's desire for things, and in this respect the shift from objective to subjective conceptions of value that occurred in the seventeenth century is of major historical significance.10

In The Merchant of Venice the concept of value as an objective quality is associated primarily with the world of Belmont. This association is appropriate enough, since Belmont represents a feudal way of life which, within the dialectical structure of the play, stands in sharp contrast to the bourgeois ethos of Venice. That Belmont represents the feudal way of life has, however, been recognized by relatively few commentators on the play, perhaps because Portia, who presides over Belmont, is never addressed by any of the honorific titles traditionally applied to members of the aristocracy. Nevertheless, Portia is regularly referred to as a “lady,” a term applied to women of a wide range of social ranks, from the gentry through the upper aristocracy, and she herself has at least one lady-in-waiting. More important, all of her suitors are members of the aristocracy. These suitors include a Prince of Naples (the King of Naples was a powerful monarch in the early seventeenth century); the County Palatine (in this period, the County Palatine ruled a large area of Germany); lords of Scotland, France, and England; the nephew of the Duke of Saxony (another powerful German ruler); and the Princes of Morocco and of Aragon. Belmont is, furthermore, clearly a “great house,” a country estate surrounded by pastoral gardens, and in this respect Belmont represents the agrarian mode of life of the landed aristocracy, which stands in contrast to the urban milieu of the Venetian bourgeoisie.11 Belmont is also a thoroughly absolutist society. Portia's father has decreed that only the man who chooses the right casket can marry her. Portia's father is dead and she thinks that the rule he has establishesd is absurd. Nevertheless, she feels she must abide by his wishes: in Belmont, the dead hand of the past determines the behavior of the living. Of course, the three caskets story, as many critics have noted, seems to derive from a fairy tale12 and therefore my socioeconomic interpretation of Belmont may seem, at best, a little humorless. However, the fairy-tale aura that surrounds Belmont actually offers additional evidence in support of my argument. For if we read the caskets story as a fairy tale, then the requirement that the successful suitor must choose the right casket becomes analogous to those various trials (for example, killing the dragon, or climbing the glass mountain) that fairy-tale kings are wont to impose upon the suitors of their daughters. Thus Portia's dead father assumes, when we interpret the play in this way, the attributes of a king, and Portia herself becomes not merely a lady but a royal princess—a fit wife for a Neapolitan prince, or for a County Palatine, or for an impoverished but charming aristocrat like Bassanio.

The concept that value is an intrinsic quality is introduced into the Belmont plot primarily through the symbolism of the three caskets themselves. Portia's portrait, as we all learned in high school, is in the lead casket. The suitors who choose the apparently more valuable caskets, the gold or silver, are rewarded with, respectively, a death's head and a fool's cap. What is the point of this elaborate iconography? On this matter Harold C. Goddard sums up what seems to be the consensus view of Shakespearean critics: “The casket story obviously stresses the contrast between what is within and what is without.”13 While I would not quarrel with this interpretation of the casket story, it seems to me important that the realm of “appearance” here is also the realm of money. The two “deceiving” metals, gold and silver, were commonly employed in the Renaissance in the making of coins, whereas the idea of lead money seems grotesque.14 Thus the casket story appears to suggest that we must reject external monetary values if we are to perceive “true” value. And what represents, in the terms of the play, “true” value? Nothing less than the infinite treasure of Portia herself. She is, Bassanio has told us earlier, the “golden fleece,” the object of all quests: and the sign on the lead casket demands that the suitor must “give and hazard all he hath”—with the implied promise that he will receive in return the summum bonum. As John Russell Brown has argued, Portia is the supreme embodiment of “love's wealth”—an unquantifiable, spiritual mode of value that stands in contrast to the quantifiable modes of value represented by Shylock.15 The casket symbolism suggests that this mode of value should be defined in Christian terms. The lowly lead casket proves more valuabale than the outwardly precious gold and silver caskets, thus exemplifying a basic Christian principle: “Blessed are the humble, for they shall inherit the earth.” Yet the “inner” values emphasized by Christianity are no less “intrinsic” than the more “worldly” forms of value embodied in feudal society. Furthermore, the Belmont plot implies that the “spiritual” values that Christianity affirms and the hierarchical structure of the feudal state are not incompatible but mutually complementary. Why, we may ask, is Portia (rather than the lady-in-waiting Nerissa, or the Jewess Jessica) the supreme incarnation of “love's wealth”? Is it not because her social rank is “higher” than Nerissa's or Jessica's? This play (unlike, for example, All's Well That Ends Well, which clearly seeks to dissociate intrinsic worth from social position) offers us no specific evidence for ascribing Portia's value to qualities of character or conduct that are independent of her social position. We must therefore conclude that her intrinsic merit, although not to be confused with her external appearance or her wealth, is a “natural” manifestation of her aristocratic birth, and when Bassanio “sees through” ignoble appearances, he merely displays his ability to perceive what might be called the “princess within.” We have a comparable state of affairs in A Winter's Tale, when Prince Florizel falls in love with a humble shepherdess, only to learn that she is in fact a princess. The implication seems clear: Florizel's noble heart intuitively detected the princess hidden within the shepherdess Perdita. As shepherdess, Perdita embodies the “natural” values of simplicity and innocence that pastoral celebrates; as princess, she embodies the aristocratic values associated with the court. She is thus “precious” in two ways—both outwardly (as shepherdess) and inwardly (as princess). Portia, too, is “precious” in both ways, even though her external circumstances are quite different from Perdita's. The casket symbolism suggests her “inner,” “spiritual” value; her lavish estate suggests her “external,” social value. But I would reiterate that both modes of value here at issue are intrinsic. Portia's value is inherent in Portia herself; it is not created by Bassanio's (or Morocco's, or the County Palatine's) desire for her.

But if Belmont exemplifies the qualities of an aristocratic way of life, Venice is no less clearly a quintessentially capitalist society.16 In its detailed portrait of a society given over chiefly to getting and spending, The Merchant of Venice differs markedly from most of Shakespeare's other comedies, and the very title underscores this difference for us. First, the title reminds us that one of the major characters in this play is, not an aristocrat, but a merchant—a businessman. (In such plays as Love's Labor's Lost, Twelfth Night, As You Like It, and Much Ado About Nothing, all the principal characters except the farce characters or clowns are aristocrats.) Second, much of the play is set, neither in the idyllic world of the “great house” (compare the king's palace in Love's Labor's Lost, or Leonato's palace in Much Ado About Nothing, or Countess Olivia's palace in Twelfth Night) nor in the overtly pastoral world of Arden Forest (As You Like It) or of the woods outside Athens (A Midsummer Night's Dream), but rather in the streets of a busy city. In its use of an urban setting, The Merchant of Venice looks back to The Comedy of Errors and The Taming of the Shrew, and it looks forward to Measure for Measure. But unlike these other urban comedies, The Merchant of Venice sets up a deliberate contrast between the city and an alternative world: Belmont, a setting which, as we have already seen, has both “great house” and pastoral overtones. Just as A Midsummer Night's Dream and As You Like It turn upon a court/country opposition, so The Merchant of Venice turns upon a city/great house opposition, and much of the unique flavor of this play results from this pattern of contrast. Moreover, if, as I have here argued, the great house represents the feudal way of life and the feudal concept of value, so the city represents the bourgeois way of life and the bourgeois concept of value. The specific city Shakespeare chose as his setting—Venice—represented what may well have been the highest development of mercantile capitalism, just as today the United States represents the highest development of monopoly capitalism. By Shakespeare's time, however, the mercantile capitalism of Venice was already being challenged by new forms of capitalism (primarily Spanish and English) that integrated production and distribution systems more effectively than sea-girt Venice was able to do. Thus Venice represented a social form that had, by the end of the sixteenth century, completed its historic function, and was lapsing into decadence.17 But in his treatment of Venice, Shakespeare displays an acute understanding of the city's historical significance. The first scene of the play sets the tone: here we learn that the primary concern of all Venetians is the making and the spending of money, that the most respected citizens of Venice are those individuals who (like Antonio) have become wealthy through trade, and that in the fiercely competitive economic atmosphere of Venice even a glamorous young aristocrat like Bassanio can find himself deeply in debt. In this scene, too, we also sense, in the languid melancholy of Antonio, the incipient decadence of Venice. Two scenes later we meet the eminence grise of this capitalist society and the concrete embodiment of its decadence: the banker, Shylock. All the gentile Venetians we meet share an intense dislike of Shylock. But the primary reason they dislike him so much is that they need him so much: merchant and banker, gentile and Jew are bound together in a symbiotic relationship. The lending of money at interest was, in the sixteenth century, still regarded as a morally dubious enterprise, yet the rapid development of capitalism had, by Shakespeare's time, made the moneylender an essential figure within society.18 Few entrepreneurs of the period could finance their ventures out of their own pockets and so even Bassanio must turn to the moneylender for the capital to finance his quest for the golden fleece. As we read or watch the play, we are likely to forget that without Shylock's money Bassanio could not have wooed and won Portia. Yet if we forget this fact, we will miss one of the essential points made by the play: in a capitalist society, as Shakespeare has acutely observed, the man who controls the flow of capital holds the reins of power. In this play, the merchants and the aristocrats finally unite to defeat the banker, but not before the latter has revealed his enormous potential power, and not before we have perceived how dependent both merchant and aristocrat have become upon the banker. In Belmont “Lord Love” may, as Nerissa suggests, rule over human affairs.19 But in Venice capital is the absolute lord, and Shylock is its priest.

Since Shylock is the kingpin of Venice's capitalist economy, it is fitting that he should be the primary—though by no means is he the only—spokesman for what I have described as the bourgeois concept of value. Shylock has difficulty conceiving of any form of value except monetary value. This point is graphically underlined for us by Solanio's description of Shylock staggering about the street shouting, “My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter / … my ducats, and my daughter!” (2.8.15-16). In Shylock's mind, money and human life are interchangeable. Jessica, who should be priceless to her father, is stamped with a price: to Shylock, she is “worth” no more (but no less) than the ducats she has taken. Shakespeare's portrait of Shylock also suggests that once we begin to define human relations in monetary terms, we end by reducing all that exists merely to so much dead, meaningless matter, devoid of any form of value except the monetary value momentarily ascribed to it by the market. The symbolism of the “pound of flesh” makes this point memorably and concisely. The bond between Antonio and Shylock is purely monetary. They hate each other, but they are united by a financial “deal”: a purer example of the “cash nexus” would be hard to imagine. The cash nexus reduces the worker to the status of a “hand,” and it reduces human beings in general to mere “meat on the hoof”—commodities to be bought and sold. Thus Antonio, who had heretofore thought of himself as a free and responsible creature, possessed of dignity and delicate feelings, finds himself suddenly become merely so many pounds of meat; he also discovers that another human being has a legally valid claim to one pound of this meat. To add insult to injury, Shylock even suggests at one point that this particular piece of meat is significantly overpriced: “A pound of man's flesh taken from a man / Is not so estimable, profitable neither / As flesh of muttons, beefs, or goats” (1.3.161-63). Shylock's determination to see Antonio as nothing more than “meat on the hoof” also lends a disturbing implication to the references to dogs scattered through the play. “If you will call me a dog,” Shylock seems to say, “then I will act like a dog—but remember that the dog is a carnivorous animal.” But the dog references also remind us that the inhumanity of Shylock finds its mirror image in the inhumanity that the gentile Venetians display toward Shylock himself. Here again Shylock and the men whose flesh he would devour (and who in the end devour his wealth) are united in a symbiotic relationship. Shylock does not choose to be a dog, but having been labeled a “Jewish dog” by his society, he accepts this identity. The crimes of Shylock are monstrous, but Shakespeare seems to imply that the society that transformed him into a “dog” must share in the guilt for those crimes. Furthermore, the cruelty of the gentile Venetians, no less than Shylock's cruelty, seems to result from a tendency to confuse monetary values with human values, for everyone in the city is obsessed with money. Even the aristocratic Bassanio sounds, while in Venice, like a mercenary adventurer, as he proposes to wed Portia for her money. Jessica too seems to have difficulty distinguishing monetary values from human values: “I will … gild myself / with some more ducats.” (2.7.49-50) she says as she prepares to offer herself to her lover. The accents in which Bassanio and Jessica speak change markedly once they arrive in Belmont, and we are mistaken if we see their mercenary statements as signs of character defects. Rather they speak, while in Venice, as Venetians, and the ethos of Venice is the ethos of capitalism, which rejects all modes of value except monetary value. Within the play Shylock is the supreme exemplar of the capitalist mode of thought, but all the Venetians display, in lesser degree, an inclination to see all human life in monetary terms.

Can we, on the basis of the evidence provided by The Merchant of Venice, draw any conclusions about Shakespeare's attitudes toward the feudal and the bourgeois concepts of value, and toward the feudal and the bourgeois ways of life? At first glance, the line between “good guys” and “bad guys” would seem to be sharp: Shylock, the supreme exemplar of the capitalist mentality, is the villain, while the aristocratic Portia not only embodies the summum bonum but also devises a clever legal maneuver that permits good to triumph over evil. Yet the more we reflect on the play, the less adequate this neat, good-guys-versus-bad-guys interpretation seems to be. On the one hand, the villain of this piece seems at several moments a man more sinned against than sinning. The notion that Shylock is a partly sympathetic character is not simply an invention of liberal sentimentalists: the “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech was (so far as we can tell) written by Shakespeare himself, and its defiant assertion of Shylock's humanity brings sharply into focus the inhumanity of Solario and of the other Venetians. On the other hand, many of the aristocratic “good guys” in the play show, as I have already argued, some traces of that obsession with money which, when we see it in Shylock, we are asked to condemn as the quintessence of evil. But even if we cannot neatly categorize the characters in the play as wholly good or wholly evil, can we not at least conclude that Shakespeare here indicates a marked preference for the traditional feudal conception of value over the new bourgeois conception of value? Here the evidence seems a little more conclusive, for undoubtedly the play does assume a strongly negative stance toward Shylock's inclination to reduce all forms of value to monetary value. Yet I would argue that there is something to be said of Shylock's view of the world. Shylock's repeated appeals to the protection of the law, together with the Duke of Venice's insistence that the law must not be abrogated in any way, should remind us that in one respect at least the bourgeois state represented a major advance over the feudal state: for hereditary privilege and rule by fiat, the bourgeois state early sought to establish the principle of equality before the law. It is worth remembering that Jews could live in bourgeois Venice and could claim the protection of Venetian law, whereas in the sixteenth century Jews were still forbidden to live in such nations as England and Spain, which still paid at least lip service to the aristocratic ideal. In practice, I suspect that most of us would prefer life in bourgeois Venice to life in feudal Belmont, for life in the “great house” was an idyll only for the privileged few. I also suspect that Shakespeare wants us to recognize the ways in which rule by law is preferable to aristocratic privilege, for the fairy-tale atmosphere that he creates around Belmont undercuts any inclination we may have to see the “great house” way of life as a practicable alternative to the bourgeois way of life.20 For these reasons, I must reject the notion that Shakespeare's critique of the bourgeois concept of value necessarily implies that he believes in and wants us to adopt the feudal concept of value. My unwillingness to see Shakespeare as a spokesman for the feudal concept of value is reinforced by the fact that in other plays, notably All's Well That Ends Well, he seems strongly skeptical of the notion that some people are intrinsically better than others, and in at least one play, Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare assumes a distinctly critical viewpoint toward the concept of intrinsic value itself. Any assertion that Shakespeare “believed in” the intrinsic concept of value must thus be made in the teeth of considerable evidence to the contrary.

Rather than seeing The Merchant of Venice as an attempt to persuade us to reject the bourgeois concept of value and to accept the feudal concept of value, I would suggest that we see the play as a dialectical exploration of the relationship between these two modes of thought. I believe that Shakespeare invokes the concept of value as an intrinsic phenomenon less to offer it to us as an object of credence than to establish for himself a point d'appui from which he can subject the bourgeois concept of value to a critique. This conception of the role ideas play in The Merchant of Venice owes a good deal to Norman Rabkin, who has suggested that generally Shakespeare is less concerned with advocating one set of ideas than with dramatizing the interplay between various ways of explaining human existence.21 For Rabkin, the distinctive quality of Shakespeare's art is “complementarity,” the capacity to hold simultaneously in mind two contrasting sets of ideas about the world. Following Rabkin on this point, I would contend that The Merchant of Venice holds in solution (without any “irritable straining after fact or reason”) two “complementary” ways of thinking about the nature of value. Rabkin is, however, essentially a formalist: he sees Shakespeare's dialectical dance as occurring in a vacuum. In contrast, I believe (and I have here sought to show) that Shakespeare was deeply engaged with the great historical issues of his time. In this respect my approach to The Merchant of Venice is Marxist rather than formalist, even though I depart from most other Marxist critics in my belief that Shakespeare here engages these issues, not dogmatically, but rather critically. Shakespeare is not, I would suggest, much interested in telling us what we should think about the world. Rather than regarding The Merchant of Venice as a piece of propaganda for the virtues of feudalism, therefore, I think we should see it as primarily a critique of capitalism; the play's appeal to feudal ideals seems to me more a dialectical ploy than a serious statement of ideological commitment, whereas the play's critical examination of capitalism seems both profound and seriously intended.

Such a conception of the play seems to me both intellectually and aesthetically satisfying. It has another virtue as well: when the play is so viewed, its message is as cogent today as it was in the sixteenth century. If Shakespeare lived in the dawn of capitalism, we live in its twilight, and we see all around us the destructive effects of the capitalist mentality. For us, an emergent socialism offers an alternative to capitalism, and an awareness of this alternative permits us to understand the limits of capitalism. Shakespeare, of course, knew nothing of socialism, but a dying feudalism offered him the model of an “organic” society that contrasted sharply with the “mechanical” society of capitalism, and a comparison of these two societies enabled him to perceive and to dramatize for us the ways in which capitalism distorts our humanity. Shakespeare's critique of capitalism seems to me at least as cogent as the critiques of capitalism developed by modern socialists—although, of course, Shakespeare's critique of capitalism is less “scientific” than Marx's. If Shakespeare is not, as Jan Kott proposed, “our contemporary,” he is at least our comrade in our struggle to discover our humanity. Humanists working in the Marxist tradition should welcome him as such.


  1. See especially R. H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (New York: New American Library, 1947), and Christopher Hill, The Century of Revolution: 1603-1714 (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1966).

  2. See especially Theodore Spencer, Shakespeare and the Nature of Man (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1949), and E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1944).

  3. See, for example, Herbert Howarth, “Put Away the World-Picture,” in The Tiger's Heart (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), pp. 165-91.

  4. See, for example, Robert Weimann, “The Soul of the Age: Towards a Historical Approach to Shakespeare,” in Shakespeare in a Changing World, ed. Arnold Kettle (1964; reprint ed., Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1974), pp. 17-42; Robert Weimann, Structure and Society in Literary History: Studies in the History and Theory of Historical Criticism (Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1976), esp. pp. 18-56 and 188-233; Paul N. Siegel, Shakespearean Tragedy and the Elizabethan Compromise (New York: New York University Press, 1957); Paul N. Siegel, Shakespeare in His Time and Ours (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968); and Arnold Kettle, “From Hamlet to Lear,” in Shakespeare in a Changing World, pp. 146-71.

  5. See, for example, Siegel, Shakespeare in His Time and Ours, p. 23.

  6. Annette Rubinstein, “Bourgeois Equality in Shakespeare,” Science and Society 41 (1977): 25-35.

  7. Paul N. Siegel, “Marxism and Shakespearean Criticism,” The Shakespeare Newsletter 24 (1974): 37.

  8. Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, vol. 2, pt. 2 (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1963), p. 130.

  9. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Michael Oakeshott (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, n.d.), p. 32.

  10. The shift from feudal to bourgeois concepts of value is a complex phenomenon that historians of economics, philosophy, and literature have only begun to explore. On Hobbes, specifically, I have found useful two important works by C. B. Macpherson: The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962) and “Hobbes's Bourgeois Man,” in Hobbes Studies, ed. K. C. Brown (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965), pp. 169-83. Of broad relevance to this subject is J. G. A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975). On the role of value theory in Shakespeare's works, I have found useful John F. Danby, Shakespeare's Doctrine of Nature (London: Faber & Faber, 1948). I am also indebted to W. R. Elton, “Shakespeare's Ulysses and the Problem of Value,” Shakespeare Studies 2 (1967): 95-111. Elton's essay first suggested to me the importance of the two passages from Hobbes that I here discuss.

  11. On the significance of the “great house” in Elizabethan literature, see John F. Danby, Elizabethan and Jacobean Poets (London: Faber & Faber, 1952). That The Merchant of Venice revolves around the contrast between Venice and Belmont has been recognized by a good many critics. Sigurd Burckhardt, for example, sees the “world of The Merchant” as consisting of “two separate and mostly discontiguous realms: Venice and Belmont, the realm of law and the realm of love, the public sphere and the private.” See “The Gentle Bond,” in Shakespearean Meanings (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1968), p. 211. Other interpretations of the Venice/Belmont polarity are summarized in John Russell Brown's introduction to the Arden edition of the play (London: Methuen, 1955), p. liii. However, I know of only one critic who has described this opposition in the same terms I have used, that is, as an opposition between a bourgeois and a feudal way of life. The critic is Paul N. Siegel, who has outlined such a view of the play in a recent essay, “Marx, Engels, and the Historical Criticism of Shakespeare,” Shakespeare-Jahrbuch (Weimar) 113 (1977): 130.

  12. See, for example, C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (1959; reprint ed., Cleveland, Ohio: Meridian Books, 1963), p. 169; W. H. Auden, “Brothers and Others,” in The Dyer's Hand (New York: Random House, 1962) p. 221; and Harold C. Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare (1951; reprint ed., Chicago: Phoenix Books, 1960), 1:86.

  13. Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare, 1:82.

  14. On the role of money in The Merchant of Venice, see Max Plowman, “Money and the Merchant,” Adelphi 2 (1931): 508-13, reprinted in The Merchant of Venice: A Casebook, ed. John Wilders (London: Macmillan, 1969), pp. 77-80.

  15. John Russell Brown, Shakespeare and His Comedies, 2d ed. (London: Methuen, 1962), pp. 45-81.

  16. On Venice as a capitalist society, see Brown, Shakespeare and His Comedies; Marvin Felheim, “The Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare Studies 4 (1968): 94-108; Ralph Berry, Shakespeare's Comedies: Explorations in Form (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1972), pp. 111-45; Sidney Finkelstein, Who Needs Shakespeare? (New York: International Publishers, 1973), pp. 57-73; and (most useful of all, in my judgment) Auden, “Brothers and Others.”

  17. On the historical significance of Venice, I have found useful Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment; William H. MacNeill, Venice: The Hinge of Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974); Frederic C. Lane, Venice: A Maritime Republic (Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973); and Richard Tilden Rapp, Industry and Economic Decline in Seventeenth-Century Venice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976).

  18. Obviously, I find Shylock's economic role as banker more significant than his religious role as Jew. For a similar judgment see Siegel, Shakespeare in His Time and Ours, p. 249. For some useful information on changing attitudes toward usury in Shakespeare's time, see John W. Draper, “Usury in The Merchant of Venice,Modern Philology 33 (August 1935): 37-47; and E. C. Pettet, “The Merchant of Venice and the Problem of Usury,” Essays and Studies by Members of the English Association 31 (1945): 19-33 (reprinted with revisions in The Merchant of Venice: A Casebook, ed. Wilders, pp. 100-113).

  19. The Merchant of Venice 2.9.101. All subsequent references to the play will be from the Arden edition and will be cited in the text.

  20. A good many recent critics have offered judgments on this point that are similar to mine. See, for example, Berry, Shakespeare's Comedies, pp. 111-48; Auden, “Brothers and Others,” esp. pp. 221 and 234; and R. Chris Hassel, Jr., “Antonio and the Ironic Festivity of The Merchant of Venice,Shakespeare Studies 6 (1970): 67-74. One recent critic has even suggested that the commentators on this play “split into warring camps” on this issue, with one group of critics seeing the Christian characters of the play in largely “positive and approving terms,” while another group, “noticing that commerce, wealth, and financial speculation as thoroughly preoccupy the Venetians as they do Shylock, see the play ironically exposing the failure of the Christians to practice the beliefs which they profess.” See Raymond B. Waddington, “Blind Gods: Fortune, Justice, and Cupid in The Merchant of Venice,Journal of English Literary History 44 (1977): 458. On this point I am obviously in essential agreement with the spokesmen for the second of these two positions.

  21. Norman Rabkin, Shakespeare and the Common Understanding (New York: The Free Press, 1967), esp. pp. 1-29. Rabkin has commented at length on The Merchant of Venice in an important (and too little heeded) essay on the limits of interpretive criticism: “Meaning and Shakespeare,” in Shakespeare 1971: Proceedings of the World Shakespeare Congress, ed. Clifford Leech and J. M. R. Margeson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972), pp. 89-106. This essay makes clear both Rabkin's sensitivity to the “multivalent” quality of Shakespearean drama and his formalist inclination to “de-historicize” these plays.

Michael J. C. Echeruo (essay date winter 1971)

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SOURCE: Echeruo, Michael J. C. “Shylock and the ‘Conditioned Imagination’: A Reinterpretation.” Shakespeare Quarterly 22, no. 1 (winter 1971): 3-15.

[In the following essay, Echeruo compares Shakespeare's characterization of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice with Marlowe's rendering of Barabas in The Jew of Malta, examining the relationship of both to stereotypes of Jews.]

Irving Ribner's recent comparison of Marlowe's Barabas and Shakespeare's Shylock1 suggests that the finer conclusions to be drawn from any such comparison need to be restated and made quite explicit. It is true, as Prof. Ribner says, that when comparisons are made between The Merchant of Venice and The Jew of Malta—“and it is perhaps inevitable that they should be—it is usually with the assumption that Shakespeare imitated Marlowe. … To some we have Shakespeare palliating the antisemitism of Marlowe with a more sympathetic portrait of a Jew; to others we have Shakespeare striving to outdo Marlowe in antisemitism by presenting a more sympathetic view of the Christian world than Marlowe's.” Ribner's view is that the “proposition” that The Jew of Malta “exerted much influence” upon The Merchant of Venice is “questionable” and “can be positively neither denied nor affirmed”. He feels, also, that the propositions that Shylock “owes much to Barabas”, and that “Shakespeare is indebted to Marlowe for ‘much of the atmosphere of his Jewish theme’” are “dubious propositions at best.” If these two plays are to be compared, he concludes, “it must not be for what we learn about the influence of one dramatist upon the other, but for the insight such comparison may afford into the vast gulf which divides the two major Elizabethan dramatists” (p. 45).

But surely the gulf is not that vast, and the aim of such comparisons should not merely be to defeat the argument for Marlowe's influence on Shakespeare but to appreciate the (perhaps independent) effect of an antecedent tradition on two contemporary dramatists, to lead us to an awareness of the scope of that tradition and, finally, to enable us to understand whatever else each of them may have wanted to do with or to that tradition. In which case the specific influence of Marlowe (or of Il Pecorone) on Shakespeare is not really that crucial to the understanding of any parallel situations in Shakespeare and Marlowe. More specifically, even if they do not establish an influence, the parallels in plot and emphasis between their two plays would at least suggest that certain plot-situations and emphases were quite susceptible in Elizabethan times to the specific treatment accorded them by the two major dramatists.

Even then, another issue needs to be resolved. It is the problem of the Jew as stereotype and the place it has in the criticism of Elizabethan drama. The problem arises whenever we try to understand a comment such as Duthie's—that “in the Il Pecorone story the Jew is a conventional figure. Shakespeare vitalizes the character.”2 The point is that Ser Giovanni's story is not about a Jew as such, but about the many trials of Giannetto. The story devotes very little time, anyway, to the Jew and could therefore not be expected to give the same ample illustration of the Jew's personality as Shakespeare does. Moreover, Ser Giovanni manages to give us the background of Venetian law against which to see the Jew's otherwise incredible obstinacy. “The question [of the Jew's demands] was much debated, and every one said that the Jew was in the wrong, but since Venice had a reputation as a place of strict justice, and the Jew's case was legal and formally made out, nobody dared to deny him, but only to plead with him.”3 Hence, in keeping with this tradition of strict justice, the Jew, on his defeat, is not even allowed the ten thousand ducats he was now willing to accept: “‘If you want your pound of flesh, take it. If not, I shall declare your bond null and void.’ … Everyone present was delighted and they all mocked at the Jew, saying, ‘He who lays snares for others is caught himself.’ The Jew, seeing that he could not do what he had wished, took his bond and tore it in pieces in a rage” (p. 474). This is the Jew of Il Pecorone. What we are at a loss to know is how this Jew is “conventional” whereas Shakespeare's is not.

Perhaps this question is related to another. Prof. Ribner has drawn our attention to two opposed statements by C. J. Sisson and H. B. Charlton. “The Jews in London”, Sisson declared, “had the immense comfort of communal life, undisturbed, with full freedom to carry on their trades and professions, and even the further solace of the regular practice of religious rites in the home, even if in secret. The Jewish problem was, in truth, no problem in the reign of Elizabeth.”4 That is to say, The Merchant of Venice has nothing to do with the Jewish question. Charlton, for his part, claims that “about 1594, public sentiment in England was roused to an outbreak of traditional Jew-baiting; and for good and evil, Shakespeare the man was like his fellows. He planned a Merchant of Venice to let the Jew dog have it, and thereby to gratify his own patriotic pride of race.”5 In other words, the play is Shakespeare's contribution to the contemporary anti-Semitism movement. Both declarations are quite relevant to the problem in hand—namely the attempt to reconstruct the forces acting on the audience and the dramatist in their appreciation of the play. But the thing to seek is not the local or topical momentum that gave immediacy to the plays but, possibly, the latent folk memory which could be induced by a dramatist to a suspension of its own belief or disbelief in Jewish cruelty and blasphemy.

When we fail to take this folk or archetypal conditioning into account, we become liable to possibly sentimental readings of The Merchant of Venice. We are likely then to resort to the kind of over-statement we find in Prof. Grebanier's study of the play and (now) in Ribner's essay. Shylock, Grebanier says, “is not only a Jew; he is also a prototype of the banker, and what Shakespeare has to say on that head applies equally to Christian, Jew or Moslem.”6 Ribner says of Shylock and Jessica that they are “saved by the reality of love”. The “highest reflection in terms of human love of God's divine love for man is the kind of love reflected in … Jessica's readiness to leave her father and his gold for Christian salvation”! These interpretations are misleading. In The Jew of Malta, Marlowe was un-Christian enough (as Ribner points out in another context7) to expose the money-minded logic behind the Christian gesture of love through conversion. Prof. Ribner makes very much of this gesture. “The punishment which Shylock at the end receives is his reception into the Christian community. … Shakespeare's Jew comes at last to generate love in spite of himself and in this is some victory” (p. 48). But even a brief consideration of the Proclamation in The Jew of Malta will reveal the base motivation behind some such offers of salvation.

First, the tribute-money of the Turks shall be levied against the Jews, and each of them to pay one-half of his estate.

Secondly, he that denies to pay, shall straight become a Christian.

The third clause of the Proclamation suggests the calculating and cynical wickedness of the entire procedure: “he that denies this, shall absolutely lose all.”8 When in The Merchant of Venice IV. i the defeated Shylock “accepts” the conditions imposed upon him by the court—“Send the deed after me, / And I will sign it”—he is recognizing the weight of Christian authority and submitting to it. The process is not a “reception into the Christian community.”

The reference to a “reception into the Christian community” does, in fact, draw our attention to what may be considered the central pattern in Shakespeare's handling of his subject, namely, the Christian-Jew dichotomy. Or more specifically the conflict between Christian Europe and a Jew who was thought to be not only an usurer but also (by definition) a hater of Christ and of Christians.9

To understand this conflict, it is necessary to appreciate the fact that from the start European “prejudice” against Jews was Christian and theological rather than racial in origin. The Church did have its early struggles with Judaism, but it was not till the ascendancy of Christianity as a state religion under the Emperor Constantine that the Christians had an opportunity to legislate effectively against Jews and Judaism. The destruction of Jerusalem had scattered the Jews all over the Roman Empire, where they were initially granted some protection. This toleration—of which the Constitution of Caracalla (198-217 a.d.) was an example—was repudiated through Christian pressure in the Theodosian Code. Among other things, this Code designated Jews as “inferiores” and “perversi”, and regarded Judaism as a godless and dangerous sect (“secta nefaria”, “feralis”). It also declared the meetings of Jews “sacrilegi coetus”.10 Under Canon XV of the Council of Illiberis (305 a.d.), marriages of Christians to Jews, pagans, or heretics were regarded as akin to adultery.11 By a further Edict of 423 a.d., marriages between Jews and Christians were made punishable by death.12

It is important that we insist on the religious foundation for this prejudice. Thus, though the Bishop of Caesarea objected to the Jewish rite of circumcision because he considered it a disgrace, he condemned it principally because he thought it was a heresy.13 Naturally there was difficulty in distinguishing between the social characteristics which differentiated Jews from Europeans and the doctrinal or ritual ones which separated Jews from Christians. Ephraem Syrus, for example, called the Jews “circumcised vagabonds”, and Ambrose, Bishop of Milan (340-397 a.d.), called the Synagogue in Mesopotamia “a house of depravity in which Christ is daily blasphemed”. Pope Gregory the Great declared the Jewish religion “a superstition, depravity and faithlessness”. And Thomas Aquinas was able to assert that the Jews were “doomed to perpetual servitude and the lords of the earth may use their goods as their own.”14 The enthusiasm of these Bishops in their hostility to Jews did not come from personal prejudice, but from strong religious attitudes deriving from theological convictions. St. Isidore, for example, believed that the Jews were responsible for their suffering. In his De Fidei Catholica ex veteri et novo Testamento contra Judaeis, he declared that the Jews who killed Christ brought damnation on their posterity: “Judaei posteritatem suam damnaverunt”.15 St. Isidore depended for his justifying text on Matt. xxvi: 25: “His blood be upon us and upon our children”. He quotes this passage several times through his writings, even linking it with the curse of Noah on Cham. Just as Cham, through his derision of his father's nakedness, had brought about the curse on his children, “sicut et plebs Judaei, quae Dominum crucifixit etiam in filiis poenam damnationis suae transmisit” (LXXXVII, 237). In his Allegoriae Quaedam Sacre Scripturae, he elaborates further on this comparison. Cham, he claims, stands for the Jews, “quo Christum incarnatum atque mortuum derident.” He continues:

Chanaan, filius ejus, qui pro patrio delicto maledictione damnatur (Genes. ix), posteritatem indicat Judaeorum, qui in passione Domini damnationis sententiam exceperunt, clamantibus Judaeis: Sanguis ejus super nos, et super filios nostros.16

In all his attacks on the Jews, it would thus appear, St. Isidore was motivated by the blasphemy of the Jews on Christ, from which the analogies with the Cham-episode gain considerable force.17

It is essentially this tradition of the hatred and irreverence of the Jews towards Christ which was carried over through the early Church into the Renaissance. The Jew was thus identified as a reject, as an inveterate hater of Christ and Christians. In medieval drama, the Jew is shown consistently in this role. Though the New Testament made it clear that Christ was scourged and tormented by Roman soldiers,18 the Play of Corpus Christi (1415) has four Jews accusing Christ, four persecuting him, and others compelling him to bear the cross.19

Along with this tradition of the Jew as a hater of Christ was another of him as the usurer. This tradition can be traced back to the Biblical stories of the publican and of Christ's cleansing of the Temple. Especially, it was associated with Judas' betrayal of Christ for thirty pieces of silver. The cycle of mystery plays acted at York on Corpus Christi Day during the 14th and 15th centuries gives numerous examples of this. “Judas, like the bargaining usurer, asks for thirty pence saying that he would like to ‘make a merchandise’; he grumbles when the Romans fail to hand the money over at once. He is also described as Christ's Treasurer in which office he had shown his ‘Jewish’ instincts by converting ten percent of the money to his own use, a fact which receives special emphasis in the play.”20 Money-lending for interest was of course considered immoral and unnatural in the old Testament21 and even in classical antiquity,22 though, for obvious reasons, many people engaged in it.

The early Church condemned lending at a profit and claimed that the ruling of the Mosaic Law against what was called “usury among brothers” amounted to a universal interdiction against the taking of any interest under any circumstances. St. Ambrose made an allowance for Christians dealing with Jews and Mohammedans, arguing that it was no crime to take interest from a religious enemy: “From him exact usury whom it would be no crime to kill.”23 By the end of the 12th century, however, Christian money-lenders were so numerous that the Church had to reaffirm its stand. The Second Lateran Council (1139 a.d.) declared the unrepentant usurer condemned by the Old and New Law alike and therefore “unworthy” of “Christian burial”.24 The Quod Super nonnullis bull of 1258 by Pope Alexander IV went so far as to make the taking of interest an act of heresy.25

These restrictions on banking, which many Christians found onerous,26 made the Jews (who were not subject to these laws but were resident within the Christian community)27 the one group of people who could engage in the necessary and lucrative trade without the force of the Inquisition being brought to bear on them.28 The Christians who did engage in the business were regarded as lost souls, as Dante specifically states in the Inferno (Cantos XI and XVII). The result was naturally a despised minority made rich and powerful by the religious decisions of a Christian Europe. Hence, for example, Barabas' boast in The Jew of Malta:

Rather had I, a Jew, to be hated thus,
Than pitied in a Christian poverty.

This boast was, of course, Marlowe's way of projecting into his drama the sentiment which a disgruntled Christian audience would imagine to be most natural to a Jew. As Marlowe makes Barabas assert, the riches of the Jewish merchant “are the blessings promised to the Jews, And herein was old Abraham's happiness.”29

This ambivalent response to Jewish prosperity is also to be found in Shakespeare's play, particularly in Shylock's retelling of the story of Jacob and Laban's sheep in which Shylock claims to be emulating Jacob's practice. Laban's story became well-known especially after the Reformation, when the emphasis on Old Testament stories became general. In the dramatizations of the story, Esau is the villain, Jacob the hero. Shylock appears to be defending his usury by ironically recalling the fact that in medieval plays Jacob's otherwise dishonest scheming was justified and praised.30

Also connected with the tradition of Jewish usury is the Lorenzo-Jessica subplot in the play. The abduction of the Jewish maiden (her father's heir) and the robbery of her father (with or without her connivance) were stock Renaissance exempla.31 Shakespeare creates his characters within that tradition.32 In V. i. 14-17 Lorenzo repeats the seduction motif, leaving Antonio to supply the robbery motif by forcing Shylock to endow the couple with half his fortune.33

When we speak of “stereotypes” in a play such as The Merchant of Venice or The Jew of Malta, we should really be thinking of that complex product of an imagination conditioned by the expectations of its audience, that product of an imagination which may modify or even reject the implications of its characterizations but cannot escape addressing itself to those implications. To such a “conditioned imagination”, the fact that Shylock and Barabas are Jews becomes more important than the fact that they are men. In the sense that they are men, their actions are, of course, capable of being explained by the same reasons as the actions of other people with whom (we might say) the writer is “in resonance”. To the extent, however, that they are “Jews”, they are supposed to have a psychology which allows them the right to modes of behavior for which there would otherwise have been no explanation. These characters, in other words, have a mode of being determined principally by the imaginative expectations and assumptions of the members of the culture in which they are being presented. In the usual representation of motive in literature, the detailed exploration of a character is at the same time an exploration of the psychology of the audience watching the operation. In the case of a stereotype such as the Jew, a difference arises between the experience of the character and that of the audience. Hence, such a character can only function within a frame of attitudes created by a tradition outside his own person. In one kind of literature, the author thus seeks to understand the man, the individual. In the other kind, he tries at the same time to understand the race, the group.34 It is in this sense that we speak of Shylock as the product of a “conditioned imagination”.

Shylock is introduced in the play specifically as a Jew stereotype. His conversation with Bassanio (I. iii. 1-34) is dominated by the overriding interest in money (“Three thousand ducats, well”) and his intense hatred for Christians: “Yes, to smell pork, to eat of the habitation which your prophet the Nazarite conjured the devil into: I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you and so following: but I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you”. The blasphemous reference to Christ could not have gone unnoticed and unappreciated in Christian Elizabethan England. The effect of this blasphemy and this usuriousness is further heightened by Shylock's self-confessed reasons for hating Antonio. They are reasons, in fact, which place Shylock irrevocably in the tradition of the anti-Christ and the inveterate usurer.

I hate him for he is a Christian:
But more(35) for that in low simplicity
He lends out money gratis, and brings down
The rate of usance here with us in Venice.

(I. iii. 37-40)

The fact that this hatred and this usuriousness are “self-confessed” suddenly gives a certain plausibility to what was, all along, a conventional assumption. Shylock does not become an “individual” because he gives expression to this confession, but because of our disposition to believe the dramatic convention of a confession as affirming our experience of that kind of character. If, for example, Shylock had denied these characteristics, he would have then seemed to us an idealized and “unrealistic” characterization.36

In III. i, Shakespeare allows Shylock his spirited and persuasive speech complaining of the inhuman treatment he has received at the hands of the Christians, and, in effect, asserting that he, too, is as mortal a man as the Christian. The speech has been used frequently to justify a reading of the play as representing Shakespeare's plea for a humane treatment of Jews. It is a speech, according to Dover Wilson, which makes Shylock “entirely more human than the conventional Jew of Il Pecorone or than the magniloquent monster created by Marlowe.”37 On the other hand, Allan Bloom, who describes Shylock's speech as “an appeal to the universality of humanity”, finds that Shylock “includes only things which belong to the body” in his list of characteristics on which he bases his claim to equality with his Christian tormentors. “What he finds in common between Christian and Jew is essentially what all animals have in common. The only spiritual element in the list is revenge.”38

To be properly understood, the speech has to be seen first as the culmination of the Jew-Christian contrast begun by Salerio a few lines earlier. Shylock had called Jessica his “own flesh and blood. … I say my daughter is my flesh and my blood.” Salerio's retort is definite: “There is more difference between thy flesh and hers than between jet and ivory” (III. i. 31, 33, 34-35). This contrast between Shylock and Jessica, the true Jew and the convertite, is pressed further in Shylock's speech. Shylock is thus not really pleading for compassion; he is justifying his determination to revenge. Antonio, he argues, had no other reason for scorning and mocking him than that he is a Jew. From this premise, Shylock derives the major thrust of his argument:

Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is?—if you prick us do we not bleed? if you tickle us do we not laugh? if you poison us do we not die? and if you wrong us shall we not revenge?—if we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? revenge! If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example?—why revenge! The villainy you teach me I will execute and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.

(III. i. 52-66)

Thus Shylock works himself into commitment to revenge by establishing both the irrational and the hypocritical nature of Christian humility and sufferance.39 It is this argument that Shylock has devised to answer Salerio's anti-Jewish jibe.

Why I am sure if [Antonio] forfeit, thou wilt not take his flesh,—what's that good for?(40)
To bait fish withal,—if it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge; he hath disgrac'd me. …

(III. i. 45-49)

Having thus understood Shylock's argument, we have to recognize a second point, namely that the meaning of “Jew” in Shylock's speech is unspecified. Shylock takes “Jew” here in its most non-pejorative or neutral sense. Elsewhere in the play, however, the name is consistently used in a disparaging sense. In most cases, it is actually used to represent usuriousness, blasphemousness, and unkindness.41 In such circumstances “to hate a Jew” would, by definition, mean to hate a covetous and uncharitable anti-Christ. Sigurd Burckhardt was quite right in claiming that the rhetorical thrust of Shylock's quarrel with Antonio forces our sympathies to go to the Jew at that point: “Shylock gets more than his share of good lines. … Shylock is powerful in his vindictiveness. … Antonio is grandiloquent.”42 But this is not the complete story. The speech is in no way a denial of the grounds on which hatred of the Jew was established in the first place—his self-confessed hatred of Christ (and Christians) and his unbridled usury. For as long, therefore, as “Jew” meant “anti-Christ and usurer”, Shylock's speech (like that of Edmund in King Lear or Caliban in The Tempest) will not carry any justification in itself.43 European persecution of the Jews was not based on the belief that Jews were not capable of feeling pain. The pathos of Shylock's statement would in all certainty, then, be absorbed as a genuine but irrelevant protest, an evasion of the major issues in dispute. For the major conflict arises from the very fact of Shylock's Jewishness which made it all too certain that he would be the “stony adversary, an inhuman wretch, Uncapable of pity, void, and empty From any dram of mercy”, as the Duke himself describes Shylock (IV. i. 4-6).

The Trial Scene (IV. i) is an incomparable dramatization of these stock attitudes. The setting is “Venice. A Court of Justice.” But the Duke is apparently there to plead for mercy rather than give judgment in Justice. “I have heard”, Antonio tells the Duke, “Your grace hath ta'en great pains to qualify His rigorous course” (IV. i. 6-8). In his principal address to Shylock, the Duke reinforces the case for mercy in a peculiarly “Christian” manner. The world, he says, expects mercy from “this fashion of thy malice”, and “thy strange apparent cruelty”. Such a gesture of mercy would be expected even from the “brassy bosoms and rough hearts of flint” of “stubborn Turks and Tartars never trained To offices of tender courtesy.” In a deliberately malicious pun, the Duke in effect, asks from Shylock an un-Jewish virtue: mercy. “We all expect a gentle answer, Jew” (IV. i. 31-34).

That Shakespeare and his audience could not have expected mercy from Shylock we can surmise not only from the Duke's pun on a “gentle” (meaning a “gentile”) answer, but from the consistency of Shylock's own reply. Not only has he sworn by “our Holy Sabbath” against mercy, he would rather “let the danger light Upon your charter and your city's freedom”, than yield. Shylock then reverts to the argument of his speech in III. i, and follows what he had judged to be the irrational nature of traditional Jew-Christian hostility. This time, however, he is willing to attribute his harshness to a whim. “But say it is my humour,—is it answered?” (IV. i. 36, 38-39, 43.)44 Or more specifically, a Jewish anti-Christian whim, as Shylock himself relates (“a lodg'd hate, and a certain loathing I bear Antonio”) and as Antonio confirms: “than which what's harder?—His Jewish heart!”

The harshness of these remarks should not, however, lead us to forget that The Merchant of Venice is a comedy and that, therefore, the trial scene is also, in essence, comic. It is a kind of comedy (Ben Jonson's Volpone is another example) where the high seriousness of the legal charge is reduced by the relative inconsequence of the punishment imposed. In The Merchant of Venice, moreover, the comedy of Portia's strategy in the Court Scene is of the same kind as the comedy of the Casket Scenes. In both cases, Portia has a rigged court which oddly enough is also a “just” court. The essence of the comedy in both instances is in the double surprise—first, in the fear that the deserving party will lose his cause through the meticulous justice of Portia's judgment, and, secondly, in the happy defeat of the worldly or un-Christian antagonist. In the Trial Scene, Portia is the defender of her love and her faith. The disguise hides this fact from both Shylock and Antonio and thereby enhances the suspense. She grants Shylock's legal right to exact his bond; she demands and gets a confession from Antonio of his liability. But she uses all this to impose on Shylock an obligation of Mercy: “Then must the Jew be merciful.”

Portia's speech on the quality of mercy is a set speech designed to win Antonio back from the clutches of a “heartless” Jew.45 Shakespeare prepares for this speech by establishing the pathos of Antonio's Christian resignation to his “un-Christian” enemy: “I do oppose my patience to his fury, and am arm'd To suffer with a quietness of spirit, The very tyranry and rage of his” (IV.i.10-13). By introducing Portia and her speech on Mercy, and by insuring that Shylock rejects her appeal, Shakespeare, as it were, makes a conventional dramatization of a European stock-attitude seem very human indeed. The conflict between Shylock and Antonio accordingly becomes one between a Christian merchant—forgiving and godly—and a Jewish merchant—unforgiving and brutish. A Christian merchant was expected to yield to Portia's appeal. Shylock was not—as is borne out by the pattern of such Jew-Christian confrontations since the Middle Ages.

Ainsi nous voyons, que le rapport entre le Juif et le Chrétien, est celui du Mal et du Bien, du temporel et du spirituel. Le Chrétien est doué de toutes les qualités, le Juif—de tous les defauts. … Le Chrétien est altruiste, généreux; le Juif—égoiste, cupide. Le bourgeois Chrétien n'est guidé que par l'amour de Dieu, le Juif—par l'amour de l'or.46

Portia adds another dimension to this stock dramatization. She links the plea for Mercy with the threat of damnation. Shylock's willingness to forgive would, in other words, also secure salvation for the Jew.

                                                                                                    therefore, Jew
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation. …

(IV. i. 193-196)

Thus Shylock's “Daniel come to judgement” is also (perhaps, primarily) a partisan on the side of authority, the “protector of the King”, as her assumed name of Balthazar implies. The consequent outwitting of Shylock at his own game (“I crave the law”) accordingly becomes a double victory for Portia: it enables her to achieve her personal objective of freeing her husband's friend and allows her to establish a clear superiority of Christian over Jew, love and mercy over hatred and justice. The entire suspense depends on the audience being disturbed at the possibility of Christian Antonio being made over to the ruthless Jew. The comedy is in the disappointment of this possibility, in the victory of Christian over Jew.

It is interesting, from this point of view, to note the emphasis placed on Shylock's Jewishness after his rejection of Portia's plea. In the rest of the trial, scene, Shylock is addressed by his name on only three occasions, but fifteen times as “the Jew”. The five references to “Christian” in this part of the scene are intended as contrasts to “Jew”.47

This particular contrasting of Shylock and Antonio is itself part of a larger statement concerning the false and the true religion. For Antonio represents the true Christian blend of Justice and Mercy. As the “just” man, he asks Shylock to bestow the income of half his fortune on Jessica and Lorenzo. As the “merciful” man, he demands that Shylock become a Christian. This demand, in fact, is both punishment48 and (to the Christian conscience) kindness.49 For conversion—the acceptance of Christ—had implications which were closely associated with the very basis of anti-Jewishness. Conversion, then, was the only kind of assurance of future goodwill which a Jew could give or which would have been completely acceptable to the Christian imagination. In other words, conversion was not required of Shylock because he was a “wicked” man but because he was a Jew. For a “good” Jew also needed conversion, as one of Boccaccio's stories shows. Jehannot, the Christian,

had particular friendship for a very rich Jew called Abraham, who was also a merchant and a very honest man and trusty man, and seeing the latter's worth and loyalty, it began to irk him some that the soul of so worthy and discreet and good a man should go to perdition for default of faith; wherefore he fell to beseeching him on friendly wise leave errors of the Jewish faith and turn to the Christian verity. …

… [He] raised him from the sacred fount and named him Giovanni … and thenceforth was a good man and a worthy and one of a devout life.50

The offer of conversion to Shylock was partly based on this tradition and on the other tradition of hypocrisy which we saw manifested in the Proclamation in The Jew of Malta. Shylock does not accept the offer, he merely succumbs to the pressure:

I am not well,—send the deed after me,
And I will sign it.

(IV. i. 392-393)

The distinction comes out quite clearly in Jessica, who combines the examples of Boccaccio's Giovanni and Marlowe's Abigail and ceases to be a Jew. “I shall be sav'd by my husband,—he hath made me a Christian” (III. v. 17-18). It is the holy nature of her rejection of father and faith, symbolized in the marriage with Lorenzo, that makes her so endearing to the Christian imagination and so endowed with all the tenderness of a lady of Romance.51

The revival of the Shylock-debate in the Quatercentenary issue of Shakespeare Quarterly is a reminder to us that the theoretical resolution of the interpretation of a kind of character like Shylock has not yet been attempted. Some critics who want to be anti-Jewish will read the play as if the fact of Shylock's usury and mercilessness is proof of Jewish unkindness. Others, who think Shakespeare was above prejudice, see the play as a kind of defence of the man. Both groups of critics tend to a conclusion for which there is no justification: that powerful literature is not possible to an author who shares the strong positive prejudices of his civilization. The problem of Shylock's characterization is one peculiar to a character-type which develops such great permanence in alien culture that it is no longer possible to differentiate the individual from the stereotype in him. Today, Shylock is not seen in the light of the Christian European imagination which originally celebrated him, but rather in terms of recent concepts of race-prejudice and of the problems of a minority. Shakespeare's Shylock was addressed to a specific English audience. The creation of a Jew who did not have the characteristics of either Marlowe's Barabas or Shakespeare's Shylock, a Jew who did not serve as a comment on the accumulated religious pre-judgments of the Christian conscience, would have required the reconditioning of the total experience of the contemporary culture. Thus, however human Shylock may seem—in the sense that he is subject to pain, humiliation and revenge—he remains a “Jew”, usurious and bitterly anti-Christian.

It is certainly not an accident that there are not unconverted good Jews in Elizabethan drama. Jew-baiting in such a community was not a mark of prejudice, if by the word we mean a response which is private, whimsical, malicious in intent, and resented by the community. Indeed, such baiting was often thought honorable and high-minded. Quoting Cyrillus and agreeing with him, Sir Walter Raleigh maintained that “Cain and Abel were figures of Christ, and of the Jewes; … as Cain after that he had slaine Abel uniustly, he had thence-forth not certaine abiding in the World: so the Jewes, after they had crucified the Sonne of God, became Runnegates: and it is true, that the Jewes had neuer since any certaine Estate, Commonweale, or Prince of their owne vpon the Earth.”52 So also in the Epistle Dedicatory to the English translation of Mornay's The Trewnesse of the Christian Religion (1587), Golding contends that

if any atheist Infidel or Jew having read this his work with aduisement, shall yet denye the Christian Religion to be the true and only pathway to eternal felicitie, and all other Religions to bee mere vanitie, and wickedness; must needes show himself vtterly voyd of humaine sense, or els obstinatly and wilfully bent to impugne the manifest truth against the continuall testimonie of his own conscience.53

Such was the sense of conviction and the temper of the Christian mind for which Shakespeare wrote. To understand the Jew in Elizabethan drama, we have to seek to recreate that attitude to what must have seemed “a very terrible and powerful alien, endowed with all the resources of wealth and unencumbered by any Christian scruples”.54

Shylock was before everything else a non-Christian, a Jew. The Merchant of Venice is a comedy written for an Elizabethan audience about a Jew. All the terms count.


  1. Irving Ribner, “Marlowe and Shakespeare”, SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly], XV (Spring, 1964), 44-49.

  2. George I. Duthie, Shakespeare (Hutchinson's University Library). London, 1951, p. 37.

  3. In Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, I (London, 1957), 472.

  4. Quoted in Ribner, pp. 44-45, n. 7.

  5. Shakespearean Comedy (London, 1949), p. 127.

  6. Bernard Grebanier, The Truth About Shylock (New York, 1959), p. x.

  7. He points this out (p. 47) in connection with Abigail's “conversion” where the Friar “laments above all else the death of a seducible virgin.”

  8. The Jew of Malta, ed. H. S. Bennett (London, 1930), I. ii. 68ff.

  9. See the interesting observation in Il Pecorone (Bullough, p. 472) on the Jew's reason for insisting on a pound of flesh: “many merchants joined together in offering to pay the money, but the Jew would not have it, for he wished to commit this homicide in order to be able to say that he put to death the greatest of the Christian merchants.”

  10. See Grebanier, p. 19. Grebanier's book contains a wealth of relevant historical and related data on the Jew in European history.

  11. W. M. Foley, “Marriage”, Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, ed. James Hastings, I (New York, 1908), 133.

  12. Grebanier, p. 19.

  13. See Grebanier, p. 20.

  14. Grebanier, p. 20.

  15. In Patrologia Cursus Completus, ed. J. Migne (Paris, 1850), LXXXVII, 481.

  16. Ibid., p. 103. Cf. Shylock's reply in IV.i, to Portia's speech, on Mercy: “My deeds upon my head.”

  17. See also Patrologia Cursus Completus, LXXXVII, 235: “Quam Noah nuditatem, id est, passionem Christi, videns Cham, derisit, et Judaei Christi mortem videntes subsannaverunt.”

  18. E.g. Matt. xxvii: 26-31; Mark xv: 15-20 and John xix: 1-3.

  19. A. W. Pollard, English Miracle Plays (Oxford, 1909), p. xxxiii. The Catholic Liturgy still has traces of this interpretation of Good Friday. “Oremus et pro perfidis Judaeis: ut Deus et Dominus noster auferat velamen de cordibus eorum; ut et ipsi agnoscant Jesum Christum Dominum nostrum.” At other points in this sequence, the priest says “Flectamus genua” after the “Oremus”. The Missal specifically states that after the prayer for the Jews, the “Flectamus is omitted, and the clergy and people do not kneel down.” After a few more prayers, there follows the Reproaches in which the Priest (representing God) speaks of his rejection by the Jews. “Quia eduxi te de terra Aegypti: parasti crucem Salvatori tuo.” “Popule meus, quid feci tibi? aut in quo contristavi te? responde mihi”, etc.

  20. H. Fisch, The Dual Image: A Study of the Figure of the Jew in English Literature (London, 1959), pp. 13-14.

  21. Deut. xxiii: 19-20 “You shall not lend upon interest to your brother, interest on money, interest on victuals, interest on anything that is lent for interest. To a foreigner you may lend upon interest, but to your brother you shall not lend upon interest.” See also Grebanier, p. 78.

  22. See J. L. E. Ortolan, The History of Roman Law (London, 1871), pp. 105-106.

  23. Quoted in Grebanier, p. 79.

  24. G. Friedlander, Shakespeare and the Jew (London, 1921), pp. 26-27.

  25. Grebanier (p. 80) notes that this position was not changed till 1830 when “moderate interest” was made permissible.

  26. William of Auxerre is said to have found the prohibition “even more rigorous than the commandment against murder: there is no exception to the law of usury, whereas it is on occasion even meritorious to kill.” See B. N. Nelson, The Ideas of Usury (Princeton, 1949), p. 13.

  27. Allan Bloom points out in his Shakespeare's Politics (New York, 1964), p. 16, that the Jews in Venice were “well off and enjoyed the full protection of the law. … Shylock's claim against Antonio rests entirely on that law.” Antonio himself takes pride in this fact in Merchant III. iii. 26-31. All references are to J. Russell Brown's Arden edition (London, 1955).

  28. See John Webster's The White Devil (1612) III. ii. 45-46: “… If there were Jews enough, so many Christian would not turn usurers.”

  29. The Jew of Malta I. i. 112-113; 103-104.

  30. See Leah W. Wilkins, “Shylock's Pound of Flesh and Laban's sheep”, MLN [Modern Language Notes], LVII (1947), 28-30, and Norman Nathan's “Shylock, Jacob and God's Judgment”, SQ, I (October 1950), 255-259. They disagree with each other's conclusion. The explanation offered here differs from theirs.

  31. See Beatrice D. Brown, “Medieval Prototypes of Lorenzo and Jessica”, MLN, XLIV (1929), 227-232.

  32. Ribner misses this point completely. Jessica, he says (p. 48), “is an agent of her father's redemption”, forgetting apparently that Jessica and his gold were together all his life. E.g. III. i. 33. On the marriage of Jewish daughters and the laws of inheritance, see the Old Testament ruling in Numbers xxxvi: 6-12.

  33. Compare The Jew of Malta I. ii. 68ff. and Merch. IV. i. 376-386. Marlowe is rebel enough to make Barabas call this Christian offer a sheer sin of theft against the 7th Commandment and worse than his sin against the 8th Commandment, “covetousness”.

  34. See my M.A. Thesis (Cornell, 1963), “Some Negro Stereotypes in English Literature”, especially chapter I.

  35. There is no reason to place much emphasis on this phrase since, technically, Antonio—being a Christian—was expected not to lend money at interest. If anything the phrase shows how interrelated the two aspects of Shylock's case against Antonio were. See J. Russell Brown's edition, pp. xlii-xlv.

  36. Cf. Hazlitt's comment on Kean's rendering of Shylock. Kean had substituted a sardonic intellect and fiery spirit for the malevolence of earlier actors; in the process, Hazlitt observed, Shylock became “more than half a Christian. Certainly, our sympathies are much oftener with him than with his enemies. He is honest in his vices; they are hypocrites in their virtues.” Quoted by John Russell Brown, “The Realization of Shylock: A Theatrical Criticism”, Early Shakespeare (Stratford-Upon-Avon Studies, no. 3). London, 1961, pp. 193-194.

  37. J. Dover Wilson, ed., The Merchant of Venice (Cambridge, 1953), p. xviii.

  38. Shakespeare's Politics, p. 23. It is not really correct to say that “revenge” is the only spiritual element in the list. Shylock does mention “affections, passions”. In any case, as I point out later, the subject of his speech is Revenge.

  39. See also Merchant I. iii. 156-158.

  40. Shylock could not eat Antonio's flesh for it is neither the “fish” nor the “flesh” approved of in the Kashruth. Shylock appreciates the implied insult in his reply: “To bait fish withal.” Launcelot jokes in a similarly coarse vein in his conversation with Jessica in III. v: “this making of Christians will raise the price of hogs,—if we grow all to be pork-eaters, we shall not shortly have a rasher on the coals for money.”

  41. E.g. Merchant I. iii. 173-175; II. ii. 106-108; II. iv. 34; II. vii. 51.

  42. “The Merchant of Venice: The Gentle Bond”, ELH, XXIX (September 1962), 240-241.

  43. See the description of this rhetorical tradition in E. Auerebach, Mimesis (New York, 1953), p. 34.

  44. A racial, not merely a personal, whim, as it is taken to be in the case of Aaron in Titus Andronicus. See Eldred D. Jones, “Aaron and Melancholy in Titus Adronicus”, SQ, XIV (Spring 1963), 178-179. It is interesting, in any case, considering the argument of this paper, that Dr. Johnson felt the answer was given gratuitously “to aggravate the pain” of Shylock's adversaries.

  45. Allan Bloom (p. 27) puts this bluntly: “Portia goes off to Venice to save Antonio, not out of any principle of universal humanity, but because he is her husband's friend, and Bassanio is involved in the responsibility for his plight.”

  46. Manya Lifschitz-Holden, Les Juifs dans la littérature Française du moyen âge (New York, 1935), pp. 130-131.

  47. E.g. “If thou dost shed One drop of Christian blood” (ll. 305-306); or “pay the bond thrice And let the Christian go” (ll. 314-315). It should be noticed that Il Pecorone merely states: “If you shed one drop of blood”, etc. (Bullough, p. 473); and that Shylock himself (in the second example) sees Antonio as “the Christian” rather than as “rival” or “debtor”.

  48. In several medieval Miracle Plays, the conversion of Jewish merchants was effected by some divine intervention, and for good reason. “Le Juif converti sait faire un noble usage de sa fortune mal accumulée. ‘Qui'il out pris e muscie uilment. Il partage ses biens et pratique pieusement la charité que la religion chrétienne prescrit, car il aime Marie.’” In another example of a blaspheming Jewish merchant, the Saviour appears and says to him: “Ne m'insulte pas ainsi, o juif! Je ne peux avoir d'obligation ni abandonner non serviteur dans la souffrance; prends ce qui t'appartient”. Following this “le juif se fit baptiser avec sa femme et tous les siens.” Lifshitz-Golden, pp. 129-130; 131.

  49. But see Grebanier, p. 29: the demand was “simply an act of extraordinary kindness to bring the nonbeliever into the true faith”.

  50. The Decameron of Giovanni Boccaccio, tr. John Payne (London, 1931), pp. 25, 28.

  51. Merchant V. i. 54-63; see J. Russell Brown, ed., The Merchant of Venice, “Introduction”, p. xli, for a brief account of the interpretation of the character and tradition of Jessica.

  52. The Historie of the World (London, 1614), p. 61.

  53. Quoted in R. W. Battenhouse, Marlowe's Tamburlaine (Nashville, 1941), p. 33.

  54. The Jew of Malta, ed. H. S. Bennett (London, 1930), p. 19.

Elizabeth S. Sklar (essay date fall 1976)

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SOURCE: Sklar, Elizabeth S. “Bassanio's Golden Fleece.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 18, no. 3 (fall 1976): 500-09.

[In the following essay, Sklar highlights similarities between Bassanio and Shylock despite their apparent differences.]

Bassanio is probably the least prepossessing of the principal figures in The Merchant of Venice. Dwarfed by Shylock's monumental passions, Bassanio seems thin-blooded and ultimately rather trivial, and his stature is further diminished by the brilliance and panache of Portia. Yet in some respects Bassanio is as complex and ambiguous a figure as Shylock, if not as fully realized, for although he would seem superficially to be the complete antithesis of Shylock, Bassanio's values and ethic are often uncomfortably similar to those of the usurer. Bassanio shares Shylock's preoccupation with material goods, and is not always able to distinguish between worldly wealth and value of a higher order. He is affectionate, but is also something of an opportunist who uses the affection he inspires in others for material gain. Bassanio's first protestation of love to Antonio is revealing: “To you, Antonio, / I owe the most in money and in love” (I.i.130-31).1 He is capable of generosity, yet his largesse depends on the fortunes of his friends. Although Bassanio can be properly contemptuous of material wealth when the occasion warrants, he manifests a purely Shylockian ethic when he employs Antonio's loan to marry “a lady richly left.” Surely he is using money to breed money. And if Shylock's monomaniacal obsession with his bond nearly results in Antonio's death, we cannot forget that it is Bassanio's unabashed prodigality that has led Antonio to the courtroom in the first place. Thus Bassanio's virtues are diluted by a distorted sense of values and a puerile disregard for the consequences of his actions.

The ambiguity of Bassanio lies in the fact that he is not a villain but the romantic hero of The Merchant of Venice, charming, well liked by his peers, and capable of inspiring love in the shrewd Antonio and the witty Portia. The problem is, then, can one explain the disjunction between Bassanio's rather serious moral flaws and his overtly romantic role? In general, commentators have either viewed Bassanio as incompletely conceived and thus given him short shrift, or they have attempted to plead his cause, to make him out to be a proper romantic hero, worthy of Antonio's loyalty and Portia's devotion.2 But to overlook Bassanio's flaws is to ignore his real contribution to the play. For in his love of money, in his desire for wealth and a rich marriage, Bassanio is a paradigmatic inhabitant of Venice, typical of that society in a way that Portia, a woman, and Shylock, a Jew, cannot be. An understanding of Bassanio may thus provide some insight into the moral climate of The Merchant of Venice; and I should like to suggest here that an important clue as to Bassanio's function in the play—and one that accounts for both his typicality as a Venetian and the apparent clash between his romantic role and the less appealing side of his character—is the metaphorical association of Bassanio with Jason and his quest for the golden fleece.

When Bassanio first introduces the name of Portia into the play (I.i.161-67), it is her “value,” in the material sense, that really captivates him; his diction betrays his motives. He describes Portia as “a lady richly left … nothing undervalued / To Cato's daughter,” and he claims that the whole world is cognizant of her “worth.” He likens her home to Colchos and her person to the golden fleece, implying that he is the Jason who will win her:

                              … her sunny locks
Hang on her temples like a golden fleece,
Which makes her seat of Belmont Colchos strand,
And many Jasons come in quest of her.


This image, significantly, is picked up again after Bassanio's success with the caskets when Gratiano fairly crows: “We are the Jasons, we have won the fleece” (III.ii.244).

That those allusions hold some special interest is suggested by the fact that no other Shakespearean play alludes to Jason or his quest.3 In a play that is largely concerned with the right uses of and attitudes towards wealth, it cannot be fortuitous that Portia is compared to the golden fleece, always a symbol of desirable and sometimes ill-gained wealth, and Bassanio's quest likened to Jason's. Moreover, these references to Jason are supported by several secondary allusions to the legend of the quest for the golden fleece. Four times, in the course of the play, Antonio's ships are referred to as “argosies” (I.i.9, I.iii.18, III.i.105, V.i.276), and in the love duet that introduces Act V, Jessica is compared with Medea.

On the broadest level of interpretation, Jason is a singularly apt prototype for Bassanio in both achievement and moral character. Although he was traditionally admired for his valor, Jason was also criticized for his opportunism. Thus Jason, who, as Dante has it, gained his reputation “by courage and by guile,”4 is characterized by the same moral ambiguity as we find in Bassanio. Both are tainted heroes. More important, Jason, like Bassanio, exercised his talents for the winning of wealth, and it is tempting to regard Bassanio's quest as a parody of Jason's. For as Jason crosses the sea to Colchos in search of the golden fleece, Bassanio sails to Belmont in quest of wealth, the “golden fleece” of Portia and her dowry. Both heroes must undergo a testing process before achieving their respective quests, and as Medea helps Jason by providing enchanted herbs and magical advice, so Portia—according to some readings, at least—aids Bassanio by giving him clues before he selects the lead casket.5 Both heroes marry the women who provide them with wealth, swearing oaths of eternal fidelity, oaths that are subsequently broken: Jason deserts Medea for another woman, and Bassanio soon parts with the ring he had sworn to keep until death.

The difference between Bassanio and Jason is essentially the difference between comedy and tragedy: Jason plays for higher stakes. His sea journey is long and arduous, where Bassanio is whisked off almost magically to Belmont. Jason's testing takes the form of dangerous physical combat, while Bassanio's test is merely a guessing game in which he stands to lose no more than high hopes should he fail, and neither his own life nor his reputation is at stake.6 Jason's marriage is miserable, and his broken oath gives rise to murderous violence, where Bassanio has won a better wife than he deserves, and his broken oath results in another elaborate game of which he is the ultimate winner. The parodic contrast between Bassanio and his mythological prototype, which is the contrast between courage and charm, heroism and gamesmanship, provides on one level a commentary on the fate of heroism in a modern, commercially oriented society. Bassanio's heroism, if we can call it that, is vicarious; he is passive and highly dependent on others. Typically he risks someone else's life for his own profit, and it is Portia whose wit and courage finally defeat the “wolfish” Shylock. Bassanio is not entirely to blame, of course, since he is the product of a society which, dedicated to the very concrete goal of making money, apparently has no place for abstract heroic concepts.

I believe, however, that the analogy between Bassanio and Jason goes beyond the merely parodic, and in order to understand fully Bassanio's significance as a Jason, it may be useful to examine briefly the interpretations given to the legend of Jason and his quest in the medieval mythographic tradition inherited by the Renaissance. In the course of this discussion, I shall suggest that Bassanio, although not a “figure” in the allegorical sense, is modeled in part on the Jason of Book V of Gower's Confessio Amantis.7

While it is perhaps simplistic to suggest that there existed any one interpretation of Jason's history, since both mythographers and poets were apt to use ancient legend as it best suited their immediate purposes, there is a clearly unified body of interpretation in the moralist mythographic tradition in which Jason becomes a figure of “untrouthe.” Dante had already assigned Jason, with his “fair pledges and words of gold,”8 to the eighth circle of Hell, when the Ovide Moralisé, in its rather farfetched exegesis, glossed Jason as a figure of the man who has forgotten Christ and thus betrayed Him, and it is as a betrayer that Jason appears in subsequent moral interpretations of the legend. In the Middle English translation of Christine de Pisan's Epistle of Othea to Hector, for example, Jason is a villain “whoose untrouthe and doublenes al knyghtes dispyse,”9 and in Chaucer's Legend of Good Women he is described as a “devourer and dragoun” of love who, after swearing to Medea that “he for lef or loth / Ne sholde nevere hire false” (ll. 1639-40), abandons her for another woman, “evere in love a chef traytour.”10 Likewise, Lydgate remarks in his Troy Book that “[Jason] was false and eke unkynde” to Medea (l. 3603) whom he “hath for-sake ful unkyndely” (l. 3694).11

Gower's treatment of the Jason legend in Book V of Confessio Amantis is worth examining in some detail, since the themes of Book V bear a striking similarity to thematic material in The Merchant of Venice. We know that Shakespeare was familiar with Gower's work, having drawn upon it for material in The Comedy of Errors and Pericles.12 Book V, moreover, contains two versions of the casket motif which, while they differ in detail from Shakespeare's treatment, evince striking thematic and verbal parallels with MV [The Merchant of Venice], notably in the use of the casket motif as an illustration of the precept that “every man mot take his chance” (l. 2260). We may recall Portia's laconic “You must take your chance” (II.i.44) to Morocco as he dithers before the caskets. As a corollary, Gower's Confessor shows, through the casket stories, that the determining factor in an individual's success is often not effort or desire but a lucky toss of the dice: “So mai it schew in sondri wise / Betwen fortune and covoitise / The chance is cast upon a Dee” (ll. 2434-36). Morocco echoes this theme himself: “If Hercules and Lichas play at dice / Which is the better man, the greater throw / May turn by fortune from the weaker hand” (II.i.32-34), although he lacks the wisdom to follow his own teaching. Finally, Gower uses the casket motif to demonstrate that the concept of “just deserts” is unsound: “For ofte a man mai se this yit, / That who best doth, lest thank schal have” (ll. 2264-65). This applies equally well to Antonio, who for his generosity is almost rewarded with destitution and death, and to Bassanio, whose mere existence seems to bring him good fortune.13

Because of its treatment of the casket motif, Confessio Amantis has sometimes been cited as an analogue for The Merchant of Venice. Of more significance, I think, is Gower's treatment of the Jason legend and the larger themes of Book V. The principal theme of this book is covetousness in love, which is characterized by a confusion in the mind of the lover between true emotion and love of money. A man is guilty of covetousness in love if he desires a woman because of her wealth:

Riht only for the covoitise
Of that thei sen a womman riche
Ther wol thei al hire love affiche;
Noght for the beaute of hire face.

(ll. 2518-21)

Gower's Confessor uses the legend of Jason and his quest to illustrate one aspect of covetousness in love, namely the untruth that inevitably follows from a vow of love that is only half sincere. Jason, in the hands of moral Gower, becomes specifically a figure of Perjury, which “spareth nought to swere an oth / Thogh it be fals” (ll. 2867-68):

Anon he wole his hand doun lien
Upon a bok, and swere and sein
That he wole feith and trouthe bere,
To serven evere til he die.

(ll. 2889-92)

Thus we find Jason swearing to Medea that “Thei scholde nevere parte atwinne, / Bot evere whil him lasteth lif / He wolde hire holde for his wif” (ll. 3490-92). The Confessor's recounting of the remainder of the legend is a lesson in the potentially disastrous effects of Perjury in love.

The Merchant of Venice is hardly a morality play, and no character, however minor, is merely a “figure,” but the relationship between Gower's interpretation of the legend of Jason and Bassanio's role and character in MV is highly suggestive. In the first place, The Merchant of Venice is largely a play about covetousness in its various manifestations, and if Shylock represents greed in its purest form, Bassanio is clearly guilty of the lesser sin of covetousness in love as it is defined by Gower's Confessor. We need only recall Bassanio's first words about Portia: he immediately observes that she is a lady “richly left” whom he describes in terms of her “worth,” identifying her “sunny locks” with the golden fleece. In deference to Bassanio's nicer side, one must acknowledge that he loves Portia for the “beaute of hire face” as well, but one doubts if he would have wooed her with such enthusiasm had she not been wealthy since, by his own admission, he is in desperate need of money. There is—initially, at least—a confusion of wealth with love in Bassanio's mind.

As Gower's exemplum of Jason illustrates “what sorwe it doth / To swere an oth which is noght soth, / In loves cause namely” (ll. 4223-25), so does Bassanio's story, in the form of the ring plot. Like Gower's Perjury and his Jason, Bassanio swears “to serven evere til he die” when he receives the ring from Portia:

But when this ring
Parts from this finger, then parts life from hence:
O, then be bold to say Bassanio's dead!


Bassanio is inevitably perjured. It is worth observing here that although Bassanio, unlike his mythical prototype, is not sexually unfaithful to Portia, adulterous overtones are present throughout the latter portions of Act V: “I'll die for't,” says Portia, “but some woman had the ring” (V.i.208). Bassanio is certainly “untrewe” for he relinquishes the ring to the “young doctor” within a matter of hours after his vow is made. Shakespeare eschews Gower's harsh moralism, of course, and converts a potentially tragic situation into comic confusion; but the perjury Bassanio commits concerning the ring is significant enough to require an entire act to mend the wrong that he has done. And while it must be noted that Bassanio, the victim of a cunningly laid trap, cannot be held morally responsible for his perjury, his “untrouthe,” like his covetousness, reflects a theme of central importance in the play.

It is through his Jasonian character that Bassanio's relationship to the world of The Merchant of Venice and to the other characters may best be explained. For Bassanio's Jasonian traits are reflected by other figures in the play, and his moral weaknesses—covetousness and perjury—are the principal flaws bred by the Venetian world of commerce and merchandise.

The confusion of money and love (Gower's covetousness in love) is expressed by a number of characters. Gratiano, for example, always Bassanio's rather unsavory double, includes himself in Bassanio's quest when he exclaims “We are the Jasons, we have won the fleece” (III.ii.244; emphasis mine). Although Antonio is the exemplar of loyal friendship, he, like Bassanio, sometimes speaks of friendship in monetary terms, as if on some level he were willing to purchase the love that Bassanio would sell: “Your worth is very dear in my regard” (I.i.60) he assures Salerio, and to Bassanio he vows “my purse, my person, my extremest means / Lie all unlocked to your occasions” (I.i.138-39). Shylock's “My daughter! My ducats!” is perhaps only an exaggerated form of the confusion of values expressed in a more subtle manner by Bassanio and Antonio. Antonio is further implicated in the Jasonian analogy in that he sails the seas in his “argosies”14 in perpetual quest of wealth, and the disastrous failure of his mercantile ventures is specifically equated with the loss of the golden fleece: Salerio retorts to Gratiano's boasting, “I would you had won the fleece that [Antonio] hath lost” (III.ii.245).

At a further remove from the central plot, the relationship between Jessica and Lorenzo reflects the legend of Jason and Medea in small. Lorenzo, like Bassanio and Gratiano, is marrying wealth. He is fully aware before his elopement with Jessica “what gold and jewels she is furnished with” (II.iv.32), and once again the lover succeeds in a tricky venture through the cleverness of his mistress: the escape and elopement are orchestrated entirely by Jessica, and all Lorenzo has to do is to follow instructions. It can hardly be coincidental that Jessica compares herself with Medea, although she misses the fine irony in the comparison: “In such a night / Medea gathered the enchanted herbs / That did renew old Æson” (V.i.13-15). Lorenzo's cynical riposte is more to the point: “In such a night / Did Jessica steal from the wealthy Jew / And with an unthrift love did run from Venice” (V.i.16-18). For like Medea, Jessica abandoned her father and her race, absconding with Shylock's carefully hoarded wealth and leaving emotional devastation in her wake.

The Merchant of Venice is as much a play about oaths as it is about love and the right uses of wealth, and Bassanio's “untrouthe,” his inability to fulfill his oath to Portia, is as thematically central as is his confusion of love and money. The play abounds in oaths: we have Shylock's “oath in heaven,” Portia's oath not to reveal the right coffer even to the man she loves, Bassanio's oath to Portia, and Antonio's double bond to Shylock. And every oath, with the possible exception of Portia's, is broken, usually against the desires of the oath-taker: Shylock cannot fulfill his unholy oath because he is outwitted by Portia; because his ships are lost at sea, Antonio cannot repay Shylock's loan, and even his willingness to pay the grim collateral is thwarted by Portia's legal sophism; and Bassanio, forced to choose between Portia's apparent whim and a compelling debt of gratitude, hands over the precious ring. The consequences of perjury, as it is defined in MV, range from Bassanio's discomfort to the near-death of Antonio and the emotional and financial destitution of Shylock. While Shakespeare is less stern than Gower—he does not overtly condemn his characters for breaking their oaths—he does suggest, through the action of the play, that “untrouthe” is inherent in the very act of taking an oath, and that unpleasant consequences attend on the inevitable perjury that follows oath-taking.

The analogy between Bassanio and Jason is admittedly limited, in that it is metaphorical rather than figural. Nonetheless, Bassanio's association with Jason and his quest for the golden fleece helps to explain his double nature, to reconcile his role with his character, and the reflection of Bassanio's Jasonian traits by other figures in The Merchant of Venice suggests his thematic function and tells us something about the values of Venice and about societies in general which “have too much respect upon the world.” Most obviously, a society dedicated to monetary profit is possessed of a perverted value system, so that affection is often measured by, or even confused with, money and property, a confusion exhibited in varying degrees by Bassanio, Antonio, Gratiano, Lorenzo, and Shylock. Nor can vows be kept, regardless of the determination or sincerity with which they are made. In the world of Venice, such ideals as unselfish love and fidelity to truth cannot exist in unadulterated form because they are incompatible with the human weaknesses fostered by such a society.

Bassanio is the product of that world and a mirror of its values, the “perfect” representative of an imperfect society. And perhaps in their Jasonian guise, Bassanio and the other Venetians comment indirectly upon Shakespeare's world as well. The Argo of classical legend has been said to represent “a single embodiment of all the pioneers who went out to seek a distant treasure, who followed a road that led past Colchis to the riches of a vast continent; and the Golden Fleece becomes a type of all these riches.”15 Elizabethan England, too, had her Argonauts.


  1. Quotations from The Merchant of Venice (MV) are taken from The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. Hardin Craig (Chicago: Scott, Foresman and Co., 1951).

  2. See, for example, Helen Pettigrew, “Bassanio, the Elizabethan Lover,” PQ, [Philological Quarterly] 16 (1937), 296-306; J. M. Ariall, “In Defence of Bassanio,” Shak. Assoc. Bul., 16 (1941), 25-28; and Charles Read Baskervill, “Bassanio as an Ideal Lover,” in The Manly Anniversary Studies (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1923), pp. 90-103.

  3. John Bartlett's A Complete Concordance or Verbal Index to Words, Phrases and Passages in the Dramatic Works of Shakespeare (London: Macmillan, 1894), lists a number of allusions to Medea, but none outside MV to Jason. It is possible that Shakespeare drew the idea for his comparison of Bassanio with Jason from Marlowe's The Jew of Malta, where, in Act IV, scene ii, Ithamore says to Bellamira “I'll be thy Jason, thou my golden fleece.” However, this is the sole allusion to the legend in Marlowe's play, and he does not turn it to any thematic use, except, perhaps, to underscore Ithamore's pagan nature.

  4. Laurence Binyon's translation of The Divine Comedy in The Portable Dante, rev. ed. (New York: Viking Press, 1959), Canto XVIII of The Inferno, 86 (p. 97).

  5. Although Portia happily lacks Medea's penchant for hysteria and violence, she is, like Medea, an enchantress of sorts, who is willing to take courageous and unconventional action to ensure the success of the man she wishes to marry. As Medea magically protects Jason from the dragon, Portia secretly manages to extricate Bassanio from the moral dangers posed by Shylock's threat to Antonio's life. I am grateful to Professor John Velz, who suggested that there are further similarities between Portia and Medea, noting that “witchlike, [Portia] brings magical good news at the end, ‘you shall not know’ by what means she found it; and it might even be said that like Medea she brings success out of disaster, ‘renewing’ Antonio as Medea did ‘old Æson.’”

  6. This assertion requires some qualification, perhaps, since apparently Portia's suitors are required to swear, should they select the wrong casket, “Never to speak to lady afterward / In way of marriage” (II.i.41-42). It is worth noting, however, that the interchange between Portia and Bassanio before he makes his selection contains no reference to the oath to which Morocco is sworn.

  7. Shakespeare was undoubtedly familiar with contemporary readings of the Jason legend, such as those found in the dictionaries of Cooper and Stephanus, and, of course, with Golding's translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses. Interestingly, however, Renaissance mythographers apparently found Medea more compelling than Jason; Cooper's Thesaurus, for example, contains no entry under “Iason,” although a sizable paragraph is devoted to Medea, and Book Seven of the Metamorphoses relates the legend primarily from Medea's point of view.

  8. The Portable Dante, p. 98.

  9. Middle English translation attributed to Anthony Babyngton, ed. James D. Gordon (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1942); quoted from Legend LIV.

  10. The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. F. N. Robinson, 2d ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957).

  11. Lydgate's Troy Book, ed. Henry Bergen, EETS [Early English Text Society] es, vol. 97.

  12. See Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1957), vol. 1, for discussion of Shakespeare's use of Gower.

  13. All quotations from Confessio Amantis are taken from the edition of G. C. Macaulay, EETS es LXXXII (1901). An additional thematic parallel between MV and Gower may be the latter's discourse on usury in Book V, shortly following his tale of Jason and Medea.

  14. There is some debate as to whether “argosie” in sixteenth-century usage bore any reference to Jason's ship. The editors of the NED argue that there is no connection. However, the commonest form of the word in the passages they cite is some variant of raguze, and taken in conjunction with the other allusions to the Jason legend in MV, I would argue that the use of “argosie” in this play retains its classical connotations.

  15. J. R. Bacon, The Voyage of the Argonauts (London: Methuen, 1925), p. 163.

D. J. R. Bruckner (review date 21 November 2003)

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SOURCE: Bruckner, D. J. R. “In Shylock vs. Antonio, a Ray of Hope for a Pitiable Soul.” New York Times, no. 52674 (21 November 2003): E27.

[In the following review of the 2003 Pearl Theater Company production of The Merchant of Venice, Bruckner underscores the effects of director Shepard Sobel's emphasis on the relationship between Shylock and Antonio.]

In the Pearl Theater Company's Merchant of Venice, Shylock certainly makes the most of his day in court, and all the days before, and that makes this production a sometimes troubling experience. Shepard Sobel, the company's founder and the director here, accomplishes this transformation by focusing our attention more intently than usual on the confrontations between Shylock and Antonio, the merchant of the title.

Dominic Cuskern's Shylock is angry, bristly, too offended for too long to hide his resentment. This Shylock affects a slight Middle European accent, and he knows how to make the other characters, and the audience, feel the snap of his wit. (No other character can stand up to him in this respect.) He makes no big speeches. Those few that we expect to be appeals to the audience are spoken directly to other characters, naturally, and you can feel Shylock struggling to hold onto his temper. His defeat at the end of the play is pitiable.

As for Antonio, Dan Daily turns him into an easily recognizable commercial tycoon, a bit standoffish, bragging about his diversified investments in shipping, easily commanding his younger colleagues, silencing them with declarations that his status gives him higher obligations. When Shylock first accuses Antonio of spitting on him, you can almost see this Antonio craning over the lip of his skybox to get a better aim.

There is a dramatic spark between these two characters that puts everyone else in the background, and that makes the final court scene viscerally upsetting but, in an odd way, hopeful. There is a feeling that Shylock will somehow escape the legal manacles placed on him by the duke and the law, and then all these people will learn what an irresistibly smart opponent he can be.

In the background the play remains a comedy, as Shakespeare meant it to be, and there is plenty of laughter at the complicated maneuvers and misunderstandings of the three pairs of lovers and the clown. The discovery by Portia and Nerissa that their new husbands have given away their wedding rings is as funny as any version I can recall.

But there are a number of distracting lapses of attention.

Portia seems to like putting her hands on everyone she fancies. This woman is sought after in marriage by kings and gladly spurns them. So why is she acting like Fergie? Launcelot Gobbo, plotting Jessica's jewel heist and escape, fondles her knee. Bassanio, denouncing Shylock for demanding his pound of flesh, grabs his neck and appears to choke him. When Shylock leaves the court grieving and broken, Gratiano snatches his yarmulke off his head.

Nowadays we tolerate coarser behavior in our betters than people did in the past. But in the context of this elegantly contrived and written play, little vulgarities of this kind can easily seem to yank an actor out of character—a risk no director should be willing to tolerate.

Yoshiko Kawachi (essay date 1998)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9070

SOURCE: Kawachi, Yoshiko, ed. “The Merchant of Venice and Japanese Culture.” In Japanese Studies in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries, pp. 46-69. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Kawachi chronicles the reception of Shakespeare's play in Japanese translation.]

In the sixteenth century Venice became one of the most prosperous hubs of East-West trade. Trading and commercial activities in the city filled the city's coffers and stimulated a growth in moneylending. Consequently, a Shylock could find eager clients who needed to finance the cost of supplying and manning merchant ships. At that time, traders could reap huge fortunes or lose everything, and merchant ships commonly sailed from Venice to England, Lisbon, Mexico, the Barbary Coast, and India. Only a few ships sailed to Japan, perhaps because of the distance.

William Adams, a contemporary of Shakespeare's and a pilot of Dutch merchant ship, de Liefde, landed in Japan in 1600. Born in 1564, Adams was the first Englishman of note to arrive in Japan. He became a close adviser of Ieyasu Tokugawa, the lord who succeeded in pacifying the warring lords and establishing a close-knit, highly regulated feudal society. Adams provided Tokugawa with useful information about shipbuilding, European foreign and trade policies, and Western culture and civilization. In return, Tokugawa rewarded Adams by bestowing upon him the rank of a minor feudal lord.

Had trade continued between Japan and England, Shakespeare and his plays might have been introduced to the Japanese during the Tokugawa period (1603-1867). Iemitsu Tokugawa, however, had closed Japan to other countries, except Holland and China, and forbidden Japanese from trading with the “hairy barbarians.”

During the Meiji period (1868-1912), Japan shook off the feudal system of the Tokugawa period and adopted vital aspects of Western culture and civilization. Significantly, Shakespeare and his plays gained currency among the literati of Japan during this period.

Mention of Shakespeare came as early as 1841 in a translation into Japanese of Lindley Murray's English Grammar. In 1871, a short biography of Shakespeare and the famous quotation from Hamlet, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be” (1.3.75), were introduced in the translation of Samuel Smiles' Self-Help. And in 1874, Charles Wirgman, an English correspondent who established the Japan Punch magazine in Yokohama, translated the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy into broken Japanese. This is regarded as the first translation of Shakespeare into the Japanese language.

As early as 1864, English language newspapers made their appearance in Yokohama. Soon after, Japanese language newspapers appeared and became part of the ongoing modernization process. Newspapers and periodicals helped spread the stories of Shakespeare to a reading public hungry for Western culture. In 1875, Hamlet was published in a newspaper. The first Japanese production of Hamlet took place in 1886 under the title of Hamlet Yamato Nishikie (The Japanese Color Print of “Hamlet”). In 1877, Kyoniku no Kisho (A Strange Litigation about Flesh of the Chest), an adaptation of The Merchant of Venice, was published in two installments in the Minken Zasshi (Popular Rights Magazine), by Keio Gijuku, a school founded by Yukichi Fukuzawa. The anonymous writer explained that the story was an adaptation of a novel written by Shakespeare of England. In those days, most translations were either loose adaptations of Shakespearean plots, or constructed from Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb.

Kyoniku no Kisho, the first of Shakespeare's plays printed in book form, takes place in Sakai, a seaport near Osaka. The translator renamed the characters, giving them Japanese names for easier comprehension by Japanese readers. Portia, for example, became Kiyoka, meaning the Odor of Purity, and Shylock became Yokubari Ganpachi, or Stubborn Close-Fisted. Below is a summary of the plot.

Once upon a time there lived near the seaport of Sakai a rich man named Setsunosuke Matsugae. He possessed a chivalrous spirit and was always willing to provide assistance to those less fortunate. His friend Umejiro Murano, whose father died while Umejiro was still a young boy, became the pupil of Gaunsai Shirane, an expert in military science. Umejiro studied hard and Gaunsai was pleased. He placed his future hopes on young Umejiro. Then misfortune struck. Umejiro's mother became seriously ill and in need of medicine. Umejiro, penniless, went to Setsunosuke to borrow money.

Setsunosuke was sympathetic to Umejiro's request and decided to lend him the money. However, until his ship returned after having finished a trading expedition in the northern provinces, Setsunosuke himself had to borrow money. He went to Yokubari Ganpachi, a man of great wealth, to seek a loan. Ganpachi agreed upon the condition that Setsunosuke repay with one kin of flesh cut from his heart should Setsunosuke fail to repay the debt on the date agreed.

The date for repaying came, but Setsunosuke learned that his ship would be delayed one day. He asked Ganpachi for a day's grace; Ganpachi refused. “The court will decide which of us has right on our side,” Ganpachi said.

In the meantime Gaunsai heard about the situation. Known also for his civic wisdom, the Governor of Sakai often consulted him. The governor sent for him in order to discuss Setsunosuke's predicament. Now among Gaunsai's students was an intelligent woman named Kiyoka, the daughter of wealthy parents. She had recently become betrothed to Umejiro and was surprised at the painful situation Umejiro and Setsunosuke were in.

Gaunsai, feigning illness, sent Kiyoka to the governor instead. Kiyoka, disguised as a lawyer, pleaded the case for Setsunosuke, citing appropriate Buddhist teachings. Ganpachi argued that he cared for nothing but the law of the state. Then she offered to repay Ganpachi three times the amount borrowed. Ganpachi refused. Then Kiyoka said she was ready for a judgment. She asked Ganpachi if he brought with him scales to weigh the kin of flesh and a surgeon. Ganpachi had brought the scales but did not bring a surgeon, since it was not required by the contract. Kiyoka then told him that the kin of flesh was his by law, but that no drop of blood must be spilled. “If a drop of blood is spilled, you shall be put to death without mercy,” Kiyoka said. Ganpachi became nervous and backed away from the contract. The governor then said: “I spare your life in mercy, but your wealth is forfeit by law.”

Because the story shows both the swift turning of the heavenly wheel of retribution and the upholding of poetical justice, it appealed to large numbers of the reading public who were familiar with similar themes in Kabuki plays.

In 1883 Tsutomu Inoue translated The Merchant of Venice into Japanese and gave it a Japanese title, Seiyo Chinsetsu Jinniku Shichiire Saiban (A Western Strange Story of the Trial of Pawned Flesh). This adaptation condensed and Japanized Lamb and was popular enough to warrant several reprintings after it was first published by Kinkodo. A brief outline of Inoue's translation follows. He used a Japanese name only for Shylock.

There was a moneylender named Sairoku (Shylock) in Venice. People hated him because he was a cruel and unmerciful Jew, a person likened to the hated eta-hinin, the humble people of the lowest class in Japan who lived in a limited area. Antonio was a rich merchant who had many steamships. He was kind enough to help Bassanio marry Portia, he borrowed 300 dollars from Sairoku, and he gave it to Bassanio. Sairoku wanted to take a kin of Antonio's flesh as security for the loan.

Portia was a rich and beautiful lady who had black hair and red lips. She lived in Belmont together with her maid Nerissa. Bassanio took a train to Belmont together with Gratiano to propose to Portia. When Portia met Bassanio, she gave him a diamond ring, and they married. Gratiano and Nerissa also got married.

They received Antonio's letter saying that he was imprisoned because he could not pay back the borrowed money to Sairoku. Portia advised Bassanio to hurry to Venice, and she disguised herself as a lawyer and went to the court. Portia tried to persuade Sairoku, telling him the importance of mercy, but he refused to listen to her. Therefore, Portia ordered Sairoku not to shed blood while cutting Antonio's flesh. Thus Sairoku, a plaintiff, lost the suit and signed the bond in which his possessions should be given to his daughter after his death. Antonio's life was saved. Bassanio was very pleased and thanked Portia. She coaxed him to give her his diamond ring which she had given to him before. Unwillingly, he agreed to her request. Then Portia went back to Belmont by train. Antonio and Bassanio came to Belmont later, and the truth was revealed. After the quarrel between the couple, the ring was returned.

The translator, Inoue, concludes, “This is a moving story of Europe where virtue and goodness are admired.”1 In this translation, Inoue stressed the court scene and used three of his six chapters to describe the details of the trial. The translator omitted the casket scene, the story of Shylock's conversion to Christianity, and the plot of Jessica's elopement with Lorenzo, her Christian boyfriend. In other words, he made no mention of the religious opposition between Jews and Italian Christians.

Possibly Inoue omitted the story of Jessica's elopement because Japanese women were forbidden from marrying anyone their families did not approve. Cecil Roth writes that the Renaissance period in Italy was, from certain points of view, an age of feminine emancipation in life, if not in law.2 If so, Jessica's elopement may be evaluated from the viewpoint of feminism. Therefore, the translator may have deleted this sub-plot because elopement was regarded as immoral in Japan due to the strong influence of Confucianism. Moreover, the translator describes Portia as an obedient and uneducated Japanese woman.

It is also interesting that Inoue's characters took a train—an invention which Shakespeare had never even imagined—from Venice Station to the fictitious town of Belmont.3 In Inoue's translation, the characters travel this way because it was in keeping with the process of modernization then occurring. In 1872 Japan's first train line between Shinbashi and Yokohama opened. Two more lines were built: between Osaka and Kobe in 1874, and between Kyoto and Osaka in 1877. The opening of these train lines excited the Japanese imagination.

The translator's use of eta-hinin, or outcasts, to make comparisons with the Jews of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, reflects in part Inoue's cultural and social milieu. During the Tokugawa period, the Japanese social order was divided into four classes: the samurai class, the peasants, the artisans, and the merchants. At the very bottom were the outcasts.

Forced to live in restricted areas, they engaged in the leather industry and were hired to perform tasks looked down upon by the other classes, such as executing criminals. In 1871, the Meiji government passed a law emancipating these people. However, they remained de facto outcasts.

Perhaps another reason Inoue makes the comparison between the Jews in Venice and the outcasts in Japan comes from his interpretation of Shylock's words: “He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies, and what's his reason?—I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? …” (3.1.50-4)

As minorities both the Jews and the outcasts in Japan suffered the sting of discrimination. We know that the Jews were ordered to live in Ghetto Nuovo in Venice in 1516. As Roth writes: “In the Venice of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which became one of the luxury cities of Europe, Jews intermingled freely with non-Jews.”4 In addition, the Jews engaged in business activities and professions that the outcasts of Japan were forbidden from entering. Thus the comparison breaks down. Outcasts were considered unclean and unworthy of living in general society and were restricted to performing jobs and tasks considered unclean in a predominantly Buddhist society. Jews, though forced to live in ghettos, could work among gentiles as moneylenders, doctors, and scholars. Undoubtedly, Inoue did not know these details of Jewish life.

In 1885 Bunkai Udagawa, a journalist, adapted The Merchant of Venice for a newspaper entitled Osaka Asahi Shinbun, and Genzo Katsu dramatized it for the Nakamura Sojuro Kabuki Company. The title of this adaptation, performed at the Ebisu-za Theater in Osaka on May 16, 1885, was Sakuradoki Zeni no Yononaka (The Season of Cherry Blossoms: The World of Money). It was also performed under the same title at two other theaters in Osaka in June 1885 and November 1893.

This adaptation, set in the Osaka of the Tokugawa period, was the first performance of Shakespeare in Japan. In fact, until the end of World War II it was the most frequently performed play of all of Shakespeare's plays; and sometimes the trial scene alone was performed as an independent production. (Since 1945, Hamlet has become the most frequently performed play of Shakespearean plays.)

Why was The Merchant of Venice chosen as the first staging of Shakespearean plays in Japan? Why was its adaptation so successful in Osaka? The summary below indicates the reasons.

In Osaka there was a woman whose name was Ume. Her father, a rich peasant, asked Denjiro Kinokuniya, a wealthy ship merchant, to take care of her when he died. After her father's sudden death, Ume came into a rich inheritance. Her uncle, Gohei, was a usurer like Shylock. He intended to rob her of her property. After the funeral he went to the crematorium to steal money and goods from her father's coffin. Then an old traveler came, and Gohei, robbing him of his money, put the old traveler into the fire.

Shotaro Aoki, a middle-class samurai and scholar, happened to come to the crematorium. He thought that the dead traveler must be his teacher, Dr. Kansai Nakagawa, a famous scholar of Japanese, Chinese, and Dutch studies, who was going to Nagasaki, the mecca of Dutch studies.

One year later, Gohei forced Ume into an apprenticeship at a geisha house. But Tamaei, Dr. Nakagawa's only daughter, saved Ume, and Ume became Tamaei's maid. Tamaei had been proposed to by two students of her father, Aoki and Ichinojo Kawashima. Aoki did not have money to buy the right to be adopted into the Nakagawa family and to succeed Tamaei's father as head of the family. Therefore, Aoki prepared himself for death, but his friend Kinokuniya offered his help, borrowed money from Gohei, using his own flesh as collateral, and gave it to Aoki.

Going on a trip to Nagasaki, Dr. Nakagawa willed his property to his daughter and ordered her to marry the man who would find his will in one of three caskets—the first made of gold, the second of silver and the third of iron. Tamaei and Aoki had loved each other. Aoki who had already gotten the money to defeat his rival chose the iron casket. Luckily, it was the right casket and he was able to marry Tamaei, while his rival Kawashima chose the gold one and was expelled. At night, just before the couple consummated their marriage, they received the news that Kinokuniya's ships had been wrecked. Aoki said to Tamaei, “Please pay back the money to Kinokuniya later,” and left her immediately. Tamaei asked Ume to carry money to Kinokuniya, but on the way Ume was robbed of the money and was cast into the river.

In the trial scene, Kawashima, a judge, became angry when he learned that the money in question was the key money for the marriage of Aoki and Tamaei, and ordered Gohei to cut the flesh of Kinokuniya's chest according to the bond. Just as Gohei was going to cut it, a public servant named Heijiro Mizuki told him not to shed the defendant's blood. Gohei resigned himself to receiving the money, and he was subsequently arrested. He repented his misconduct. Aoki and Tamaei had a happy life because Dr. Nakagawa returned home safely from Nagasaki, and Kinokuniya married Ume.

As noted earlier, Sakuradoki Zeni no Yononaka was originally a novel published in serial form in an Osaka newspaper from April 10 to May 20, 1885. The novel was dramatized and performed on May 16, 1885, even before it was completed. In both the novel and the stagescript, Kinokuniya is equivalent to Antonio, Aoki to Bassanio, Tamaei to Portia, and Gohei to Shylock. Ume plays the role of Nerissa, though she is a typical old-fashioned woman in feudal Japan.

The full text of Sakuradoki Zeni no Yononaka, published by Bunpodo in 1886, consists of 190 pages and contains a series of illustrations. The title page says, “The idea is from Shakespeare's ‘Flesh of the Chest’ and the style is that of Kabuki script written by Tanehiko Ryutei, a dramatist of the Edo period. …”5

In the Preface, the young literary scholars meet by chance in the center of Osaka where the cherry blossoms are in full bloom. One has a Kabuki script by Ryutei while the other has the translation of The Merchant of Venice by Inoue. The latter young man says,

“I hear that recently the pupils of the primary schools learn the English language. English studies have become more and more popular, and there is a tendency for people to read English books. This is a shortcut to our Westernization, I think. By the way, the book you have now is, as you know, written by Shakespeare, a famous English dramatist. Its original title is ‘Flesh of the Chest’ and it is a novel written to let the people know the relationship between morality and law. It is a very good book for the public, but its idea is a little strange.”6

The first young man says, “The spirit of European novel is noble, but the idea of Japanese and Chinese novels is much better.” The second replies, “European novels appear to be simpler than Japanese novels because the Westerners, who are more scientific and intelligent, do not want to speak about strange or complicated things.” Thus the two young men are remarkably influenced by European literature. Then the third boy says,

“I have overheard your conversation. At a bookstore near here, I bought an old manuscript, a collection of the trial records of the Edo period, one of which is very interesting. I will be very grateful to you if you lend me your books tonight. I want to write a story and mix the spirit of European novels with the idea of Japanese novels, by referring to this trial record. I will follow the Kabuki style. I wish to ask you to criticize my story when it is completed.”7

This is, in effect, how this adaptation was written. At the same time Japan was at the peak of Europeanization. We find in this adaptation the reflection of Japanese cultural and social development of that time. For instance, the adapter changed the gold, silver, and lead caskets of Shakespeare's original to gold, silver, and iron. Why? The reason may be explained by the following words in the adaptation:

Iron is very important because it is used for guns, swords, spears, spades, hoes, scythes, axes, hammers, saws, pots and pans which the people of the four social ranks of Japanese feudal society (warriors, farmers, craftsmen and merchants) use everyday. Without iron, we Japanese can neither defend our country nor make our living. Iron is the most valuable treasure for us. We hear that the railroad has been built of iron recently in Europe and that they have made iron ships for wars.8

In this passage, the adapter stated the practical importance of iron for Japan's industrial development and showed the people's concern for technology. Thinking that iron was more important than lead in Japan's policy for enhancing wealth and military strength, he changed the casket from lead to iron. However, if the choice of the lead casket symbolizes wisdom and also allegorically represents the choice of Christ as Wisdom, as Joan Ozark Holmer suggests,9 the Japanese adapter who changed the lead casket into an iron casket ignored the Christian background of the scene.

This adaptation gained in general popularity mainly because of the trial scene. The people of those days were very interested in law; they studied European law as a model for modernizing the legal system. In Japan, the criminal codes were promulgated in 1880, the constitution was established in 1889, and the civil codes were completed in 1896. The amazing frequency of the performances of the trial scene in this comedy indicated the Japanese people's growing interest in and awareness of their legal system.

The shocking episode depicting Gohei's attempt to cut Kinokuniya's flesh must have both horrified and thrilled audiences. When Gohei demands Kinokuniya's flesh, Tamaei—in the disguise of a boy, Yoneda—says to him, “Gohei, you were born in Japan, a country of gods. I'm sure that you believe in gods. The gods always tell us to have mercy. You know that a human being should show mercy to the poor and the weak.”10 The gods mentioned here refer to the gods of Shintoism and Buddhism. Shintoism and Buddhism were mixed in those days, and people prayed to both at home. In addition, the cruel episode must have reminded audiences of the Kabuki play, Shakanyorai Tanjoe (The Picture of the Birth of Buddha) written by Monzaemon Chikamatsu in 1695. In act 3, a foolish man named Handoku kills a dove, and the servant of Davedatta, a disciple of Buddha, is going to cut the flesh of Handoku.11 This episode found in Buddhist scripture seems to have been based on an historical event. Audiences were probably accustomed to this kind of story and were surprised to find a similar episode in a different cultural context.

The second reason this adaptation gained in popularity may be found in the title, Zeni no Yononaka (The World of Money). People of the Meiji era believed that Western civilization had a close relationship with economics and that finance was most important for Japanese modernization. Therefore, this Japanese title must have appealed to audiences who were gradually becoming aware of capitalism.

Shylock performs the function of a banker in a capitalist society: he lends money and charges interest. That explains in part why Shylock dislikes Antonio: Antonio “lends out money gratis” (1.3.42). Many Christians considered usuary to be sinful. They cited Deuteronomy, where it is written: “Thou shalt not lend upon usury to thy brother. … Unto a stranger thou mayest lend upon usury” (23:19-20). For Christians, lending freely is a way to show wise love, but lending at interest violates the love of friendship.12 But Shylock, a Jew, is an alien in Venice. Therefore, he lends money at high interest to Christians without feeling any guilt.13

Note that the adapter changed the setting from Venice to Osaka, an old commercial city. Many wealthy merchants lived there, and the citizens had a strong sense of financial matters. Moreover, Osaka's topography resembles that of Venice. Because of the many canals, people often refer to it as “the city built on water.”

In the year following the performance of this adaptation, the Society for Dramatic Improvement was organized. Prominent people who took part in the society included Kenji Yasui, a member of the municipal assembly; Bunkai Udagawa, a journalist and writer of this adaptation for the newspaper; Sojuro Nakamura, a Kabuki actor who played the leading role in the stage production of the adaptation; and Genzo Katsu, who adapted the newspaper story for the stage. We do not know whether their efforts to make improvements to Japanese drama by introducing Western elements were completely successful. However, I think it was not entirely accidental that these people, who wanted to improve Japanese drama by introducing the influence of Westernization, chose The Merchant of Venice for their first performance in Osaka. Perhaps they thought that it was the easiest to understand of Shakespeare's plays; perhaps they also thought it held the most appeal for audiences in Osaka where the people were deeply interested in earning money and improving Japanese drama.

The third reason this adaptation gained in popularity can be attributed to the women in the play. Portia, a woman of intellect, feelings, and will power, was introduced into Japan as an ideal of European women in the days of Westernization. The differences in the images of Eastern and Western women are significant. I think that to discover in Tamaei the reflection of Portia or to compare Tamaei with Portia is useful for clarifying the status of Japanese women of the Meiji era.

In The Merchant of Venice, there are three kinds of social groups: the Jewish community, the Christian male society, and the female group in Belmont. Portia is the queen of Belmont. Anna Brownell Jameson, a pioneer of feminism in the nineteenth century, described the character of Portia as follows:

She treads as though her footsteps had been among marble palaces, beneath roofs of fretted gold, o'er cedar floors and pavements of jasper and porphyry; amid gardens full of statues, and flowers, and fountains, and haunting music. She is full of penetrative wisdom, and genuine tenderness, and lively wit; but as she has never known want, or grief, or fear, or disappointment, her wisdom is without a touch of the sombre or the sad; her affections are all mixed up with faith, hope, and joy; and her wit has not a particle of malevolence or causticity.14

This is a romantic interpretation of Portia; Jameson described Portia as though she were a goddess living in a mythic world. She also stressed Portia's intellect, and mentioned Portia as the first of Shakespeare's intellectual women. She wrote, “The wit of Portia is like attar of roses, rich and concentrated.”15 According to Jameson, “Intellect is of no sex … [but] in men, the intellectual faculties exist more self-poised and self-directed … than we ever find them in women, with whom talent … is in a much greater degree modified by the sympathies and moral qualities.”16 In short, she appraises Portia's intellect and morality as well as her beautiful and graceful figure.

Bassanio says that Portia “is a lady richly left, / And she is fair, and, fairer than that word, / Of wondrous virtues” (1.1.161-63). Indeed, Portia is a fair lady such as those painted by Titian and Giorgione of the Venetian School. Her golden hair attracts the suitors' attention just like “a golden fleece,” the most valuable and expensive commodity for the Argonauts.

In contrast, Bassanio is a scholar, soldier, and poor gentleman. Gentleman is the key term in the stratification of classes. To be a gentleman placed one within the 4 to 5 percent of the population that exercised power in Shakespeare's time. A gentleman did not work with his hands; he could live off his income.17 However, Bassanio went bankrupt and wanted to borrow money from Antonio, a merchant, in order to marry the fair, rich Portia. In a word, Portia symbolizes wealth. J. R. Brown says, “Shakespeare wrote of love as a kind of wealth in which men and women traffic. Of all the comedies, The Merchant of Venice is the most completely informed by Shakespeare's ideal of love's wealth.”18 We find the dynamics of erotic and economic desires at play in this romantic comedy.

Bassanio must choose the casket which contains Portia's portrait, if he is to win her hand in marriage. Portia is a wise woman and an obedient daughter when she says, “I will die as chaste as Diana unless I be obtained by the manner of my father's will” (1.2.103-5). According to Freud, “Caskets are also women, symbols of the essential thing in woman, and therefore of a woman herself, like boxes, large or small, baskets, and so on.”19 If so, in the casket scene, a man selects not only a casket but also a woman. Here a woman is regarded as the object of man's desire, and the casket has a sexual meaning just like Nerrisa's ring.

In the patriarchal society of the English Renaissance, Portia is both an obedient wife and an obedient daughter when she says to Bassanio:

You see me, Lord Bassanio, where I stand,
Such as I am. Though for myself alone
I would not be ambitious in my wish
To wish myself much better, yet for you
I would be trebled twenty times myself,
A thousand times more fair, ten thousand times more rich,
That only to stand high in your account
I might in virtues, beauties, livings, friends,
Exceed account. But the full sum of me
Is sum of something which, to term in gross,
Is an unlessoned girl, unschooled, unpractisèd,
.....This house, these servants, and this same myself
Are yours, my lord's.


In this speech, where Portia confesses her love through the imagery of wealth, we also see the relationship between marriage and property. As Lawrence Stone pointed out, one of the objectives of family planning in pre-Reformation England was the acquisition through marriage of further property.20 Moreover, we see that a woman's body is regarded as a man's possession or a commodity in this male-dominated society, though Portia herself is an intellectual. I think that one of the themes of this comedy, the exchange of goods at both the erotic level and the economic level, is illustrated in this passage.

In Sakuradoki Zeni no Yononaka, Aoki comments, “Tamaei is different from ordinary women because she is educated at home. … Although she is not twenty years old yet, she manages her father's property, uses servants and maids, and leads her life admirably.”21 Tamaei is as beautiful as Portia, but she seems to be more independent and more highly educated than Portia. She says to her first suitor Kawashima, “I do not know who will succeed to the head position in my family, but I will never rely on my future husband. I will make my way skillfully in life by means of the lessons that my father has taught me. I think a wife should have the spirit of independence.”22

Kawashima asks, “Why?” and she answers,

“My father always says that men and women are physically different but that they have the same mind given by the creator, and that the European people advance the equal rights for men and women. In our country, however, men regard women as slaves, and women believe that they should obey their father, husband, and son. In addition, women are satisfied with learning only the three R's, sewing and dancing. They live meaninglessly, relying on their husbands and sons. This is not good. I am Dr. Nakagawa's daughter. I am quite different from the common women. I have studied Japanese, Chinese, and Dutch, and I will live independently.”23

From her speech, we discover the progressive thinking of Tamaei's father. As a pioneer of Westernization, he educated his daughter according to equality of the sexes. However, Tamaei is a special woman educated in a family of intellectuals. Her family background and upbringing must have been unfamiliar to audiences living under male hegemony and patriarchal power. In short, she is a model of the “new woman” in the Meiji era. Perhaps the adapter wanted to show what women's education should be in the period of modernization. As a result, Tamaei was described as a fresh but rather radical woman.

Ume, her maid, is a contrast to Tamaei. Representing one type of traditional Japanese woman, Ume reveals how some women living in a feudal society often had to sell themselves for money. When Gohei was going to sell her to the geisha house, he regarded her body as a commodity. There were really such women in the Meiji era, so the audiences must have been sympathetic with Ume. In this adaptation, she plays the role of Nerissa, but she is quite different in personality. Nerissa is shrewd enough to test how deeply her husband loves her by using her ring just as Portia does. Ume is also different from Jessica, who is “wise, fair, and true” (2.6.56) and strong enough to deprive her father of his money and jewels and elope with Lorenzo.

The contrasting personalities of Ume and Tamaei show us the two different types of women, old and new. The traditional image of a Japanese woman evolved in response to the influences of Buddhism, Confucianism, and the samurai ethic. Ekiken Kaibara (1630-1714), the Neo-Confucian scholar, was the most influential in defining the role of women. He wrote Onna Daigaku (Great Learning for Women), which became the primary text for women because it reinforced the feudal aim of perfecting the family system. In this book published in 1790, he wrote that a woman must look to her husband as her lord and that the great lifelong duty of a woman was obedience.

A woman's legal status during the Tokugawa period was completely dependent first on her father, then on her husband and eventually on her son, as Tamaei points out in the adaptation. If a couple gave birth only to daughters, a son was frequently adopted and married to the oldest daughter. Therefore, Aoki would take the family name of Nakagawa. However, when feudalism finally collapsed in the Meiji era, there were some champions of women's rights. Tsutomu Inoue, the above-mentioned translator of The Merchant of Venice, wrote Joken Shinron (A True View of Women's Rights) in 1881. While the Confucian concept of the feminine role continued to keep women out of school for a long time, Arinori Mori, the Minister for Education in 1885, supported education for women. Yukichi Fukuzawa, also an educator, championed equality of opportunity for women. He believed that a change of attitude toward women should accompany their education, and he published two critiques of Onna Daigaku in 1899. Thus Meiji leaders, realizing that education was essential to modernization, gave it a high priority.

It seems to me that the contrasting images of Ume and Tamaei reflect these confusing social conditions in which people wanted to introduce culture from abroad into Japan without abandoning traditional Japanese culture.

An informative book, Things Japanese, written by the Englishman, Basil Hall Chamberlain, introduced Japan to the West. Chamberlain, who arrived in 1873 as a professor of Japanese and philology at Tokyo University, had this to say about the status of Japanese women:

Japanese women are most womanly,—kind, gentle, faithful, pretty. But the way in which they are treated by the men has hitherto been such as might cause a pang to any generous European heart. No wonder that some of them are at last endeavouring to emancipate themselves. … Two grotesquely different influences are now at work to undermine this state of slavery—one, European theories concerning the relation of the sexes, the other, European clothes! … But many resident foreigners—male foreigners, of course—think differently, and the question forms a favourite subject of debate. The only point on which both parties agree is in their praise of Japanese woman. Says one side, “She is so charming that she deserves better treatment,”—to which the other side retorts that it is just because she is “kept in her place” that she is charming. The following quotation is from a letter to the present writer by a well-known author, who, like others, has fallen under the spell. “How sweet,” says he, “Japanese woman is! All the possibilities of the race for goodness seem to be concentrated in her. It shakes one's faith in some Occidental doctrines. If this be the result of suppression and oppression, then these are not altogether bad. On the other hand, how diamond-hard the character of the American woman becomes under the idolatry of which she is the object. …”24

The “well-known author” of the above-mentioned letter is Lafcadio Hearn who came to Japan in 1890 and married a Japanese woman.

When Sakuradoki Zeni no Yononaka was performed, the ring episode and Tamaei's disguise were omitted. In the newspaper, the adapter made Tamaei say to Aoki, “I hear there is a custom of exchanging rings for marriage in European countries. You and I studied Dutch culture, so we had better keep this habit.”25 However, there was no scene where Tamaei gave her ring to Aoki on the stage. I suspect this omission occurred because the Japanese of those days were not familiar with this custom, and because Tamaei did not disguise herself as a lawyer. Consequently, there was no chance for the ring to be used in a love test.

Next, I wish to consider the omission of the dramatic ploy of making use of disguises. In The Merchant of Venice, Jessica, a Jewish girl, disguises herself as a boy when she escapes from oppressive patriarchy and elopes with Lorenzo, an Italian Christian. She says, “I am much ashamed of my exchange” (2.6.35), but Lorenzo says, “So are you, sweet, / Even in the lovely garnish of a boy” (2.6.44-5). Her festive cross-dressing helps her break down racial prejudice and cross the boundary between the Jewish community and Christian society.

When Portia and Nerissa go to Venice, they disguise themselves as a young lawyer and his clerk. Portia says:

… they shall think we are accomplishèd
With that we lack. I'll hold thee any wager,
When we are both accountered like young men
I'll prove the prettier fellow of the two,
And wear my dagger with the braver grace,
And speak between the change of man and boy
With a reed voice, and turn two mincing steps
Into a manly stride, and speak of frays
Like a fine bragging youth, …


Belmont is a static space where people are given love and wealth; Venice is a dynamic world where people must fight for money and love. Venice is a city full of competition between races, as well as in economy and religion. Venice is a topos of a homosocial bond, “a continuum of male relations which the exchange of women entails,”26 while Belmont is a place of marriage. Venice is, so to speak, a masculine society while Belmont is a feminine society. Therefore, women, who wish to compete in Venice, have to wear male clothes. Portia knows well that cross-dressing potentially involves both inversion and displacement of gender binaries.27

Portia is never ashamed of her transformation, indeed she uses her exchange effectively. In Belmont she conforms to the Renaissance ideal of womanhood: chaste, obedient, and silent. In the trial scene, however, Portia as the upright judge is strong, decisive, and wise. The Portia who speaks about mercy and monarchy in the Venetian court bears some resemblance to Queen Elizabeth who called herself “a prince” in the English Court.28 In the trial scene, Portia is not only an androgynous justice-figure but also a person of “the supernumerary gender” or “the superior sex.”

Portia is also a predecessor of the female pages of Shakespeare's romantic comedies. Rosalind in As You Like It wears a skirt for a few minutes. In the Forest of Arden, however, she enjoys the opportunity to play a man. But she has, in truth, no doublet and hose in her disposition. Viola's cross-dressing in Twelfth Night makes her feel uncomfortable because she cannot confess her love to Orsino. Portia's disguise, however, is unlike those of Rosalind and Viola. Portia does not choose a disguise for protection. Instead she disguises herself in order to play at being a man. Keith Geary says, “What is most striking about Portia's disguise as Balthazar is the absence of the psychological and sexual ambiguity that informs the disguises of the other heroines.”29 In The Merchant of Venice, the complex feelings of female pages are found more clearly in Jessica's speech than in Portia's speech, both of which are quoted above.

The female pages are sometimes discussed from the viewpoint of feminism.30 Moll Cutpurse, in The Roaring Girl by Middleton and Dekker, is a case in point. However, in English Renaissance theaters the female pages were played by boy actors. They were the “little eyases” (Hamlet, 2.2.339) who were “not yet old enough for a man, nor young enough for a boy.” (Twelfth Night, 1.5.151-52). Consequently, the eroticism of the Elizabethan stage was probably different from that of the present-day stage where an actress plays the role of a female page. For example, in Rome, at a performance of Goldoni's La Locandiera, Goethe was surprised to see men acting women's parts, and he experienced the unique aesthetic pleasure which Elizabethan playgoers must have felt.31 Transvestism has such a dramatic effect. In addition, the transvestite stage gives men and women an opportunity to reconsider both the sex-gender system in their society and the ideological meaning of the semiotics of dress.

In Japan, boys played the female roles in the seventeenth century. People called this troupe “Wakashu Kabuki” (Lad Kabuki). They danced, mimicked, and performed a skit or acrobatics. They were effeminate enough to be the partners in homosexual relationships. As a result, the government prohibited their performances in 1652. Now Kabuki actors called onnagata play female roles on the stage. The word onnagata means “a woman's form” or “the woman side.” An onnagata is not a boy but a male actor who plays the role of a young woman very skillfully and gracefully in a Kabuki play. Even an older actor would play these roles. Japanese audiences, who are accustomed to this dramatic convention, suspend their belief and forget that the onnagata is actually a male actor.

Of the trial scene where Tamaei disguises herself as a lawyer, Bunkai Udagawa writes, “Tamaei Nakagawa makes up like a woman and has her hair dressed like a young man. But nobody knows whether she is a male or a female.”32 Tamaei herself says, “I am disguised as a young man, taking the name of Kosaburo Yoneda. As an official spy, I will go to the court. I encourage myself in order to imitate a man just like a Kabuki actor imitates a woman.”33

It is noteworthy that Tamaei is conscious of the onnagata when she disguises herself as a young lawyer. In the stagescript, however, there is no cross-dressing. Instead of Tamaei, a young lawyer named Mizuki appears on the stage. This name reminds Japanese audiences of a famous onnagata named Tatsunosuke Mizuki (1673-1745). Why did the dramatizer, Genzo Katsu, omit Tamaei's disguise? I think the main reason was that he thought of the audiences' response: the audiences of those days were more familiar with a man in woman's disguise than a woman in man's disguise.

Clearly there are many major differences between Shakespeare's play and the Japanese adaptation. The following are minor differences between them. First, Bassanio borrows money to marry Portia and get her property, while Aoki borrows money not only to marry Tamaei but also to succeed to the family name and scholarship of Dr. Nakagawa. This change may have occurred because the adapter was profoundly conscious of Japanese feudalism. Second, Shylock holds strong principles as a Jew who places more importance on justice than on mercy or on Old Law than New Law, while Gohei has neither prejudice nor religious theory. Third, while Gohei is a villain, he does not have the same overwhelming desire for revenge that Shylock has. Consequently there is little serious opposition between Kinokuniya and Gohei, while there is much between Antonio and Shylock. Shakespeare's Antonio says that Shylock is “a stony adversary, an inhuman wretch / Uncapable of pity, void and empty / From any dram of mercy” (4.1.3-5). But Heinrich Heine recalls, “A British beauty wept passionately to see the end of act 4 behind me in the box of Drury Lane.”34 It is unlikely that anyone wept upon seeing Gohei in the Japanese theater. This adaptation resembles a morality play in the style of Kabuki, while Shakespeare's original dramatizes the religious opposition between Judaism and Christianity.

I think these differences between Shakespeare's original play and its adaptation reflect Japan's hasty introduction of European culture during the Meiji era. The Japanese people of those days did not understand Renaissance ideas, English dramaturgy and the Western mode of living as well as Japanese do today. They had no time to value substance above form. They wanted to adapt European culture to the Japanese lifestyle as soon as possible.

We may, therefore, reasonably conclude that The Merchant of Venice was introduced into Japan to enlighten the public and improve the standard of culture. In other words, Shakespeare was used as one means of improving Japanese culture. While Udagawa and Katsu did not know European dramaturgy and conventions, they were strongly aware of Kabuki plays when they adapted Shakespeare's comedy to the Japanese stage. Later, Shoyo Tsubouchi, the first translator of Shakespearean works, compared Shakespeare with Monzaemon Chikamatsu, a great Kabuki playwright, and enumerated eighteen similarities between the two great dramatists.35 Tsubouchi was the first to give serious consideration to what the Japanese people should learn from Shakespeare and how Japanese drama should be improved by a study of Shakespeare's dramaturgy.

A sketch of the stage history of The Merchant of Venice in Japan shows a great variety and innovations. Sakuradoki Zeni no Yononaka performed by the Kabuki actors acquired great popularity. In this adaptation, Sojuro Nakamura played the part of Kinokuniya, while Jusaburo Bando, an onnagata, played the role of Tamaei. Thus the first performance of The Merchant of Venice in Japan was an all-male production. However, when Otojiro Kawakami, a star of shinpa (New School of Theater), produced the trial scene of this comedy in 1903, Sadayakko, his wife, performed the part of Portia. Kawakami and his wife, who had seen The Merchant of Venice in Boston, tried to produce this comedy in the European style for Japanese audiences. Kawakami imitated Henry Irving's Shylock, and Sadayakko copied Ellen Terry's Portia. This production was criticized by Tsubouchi, but it is noteworthy that Kawakami took the lead in staging the translated drama of Shakespeare in Japan for the first time.

The Bungei Kyokai (The Association of Literature and Arts), established by Tsubouchi in 1906, performed only the trial scene at the Kabuki Theater. This was an all-male production, and Shunsho Doi, who had seen Shakespearean plays in America with Kawakami, played the role of Portia. His performance was well received. In 1913 Kabuki actors also performed the trial scene. Sadanji Ichikawa played the part of Shylock, and Shocho Ichikawa, an onnagata, played the role of Portia. In an essay about this performance, Tsubouchi wrote that Portia disguised as a lawyer was not so manly and that Shylock did not look so cruel.36

In 1903, the actress Sadayakko was the first woman to play Portia; in 1915, Ritsuko Mori was the second. In those days actresses were not recognized as professionals by the public. However, Mori was the first student to enter a drama school for women and to become an actress. Since then, the female characters of The Merchant of Venice have been acted by women.

In 1926 The Merchant of Venice directed by Yoshi Hijikata was performed by the actors and the actresses of the Shingeki (New Drama) troupe. This dramatic group was founded in 1924 and performed mainly modern and realistic dramas such as those by Ibsen, Chekhov, and Gorki at the Tsukiji Small Playhouse in Tokyo.

Modern dramatic interpretations of Shylock have varied between sympathetic portrayals and critical portrayals. In 1968 Keita Asari directed The Merchant of Venice, using Tsuneari Fukuda's translation. Osamu Takizawa, a leading actor of the Mingei troupe, played the role of Shylock and expressed his deep sympathy with Shylock. When Asari directed the comedy for the Shiki troupe in 1977, however, Takeshi Kusaka, who played the part of Shylock, was critical of the racial discrimination in the play.

During the 1970's and 1980's, the Shakespeare Theater group displayed considerable activity. They played all of the Shakespearean plays translated by Yushi Odashima at a small underground playhouse called “Jan Jan.” Norio Deguchi directed The Merchant of Venice in 1976, 1977, and 1978. These performances—given by the players dressed in T-shirts and jeans on a simple stage—were very popular among younger Japanese.

In 1973 Fukuda directed The Merchant of Venice for the Keyaki troupe, using his own translation. In 1982 Toshikiyo Masumi directed the same comedy for the Haiyu-za dramatic company, and players in Victorian costumes performed on the modern stage. This performance was moderate; Shylock did not appear at all villainous.

In 1983 the Subaru troupe performed The Merchant of Venice directed by Toshifumi Sueki and Asao Koike, who played Shylock. Koike thought that the story of this comedy was the nightmarish experience of Antonio, and he expressed this idea on stage. Five years later, in 1988, the Globe Tokyo, a new arena playhouse, opened. Here Tetsuo Anzai directed the En troupe in The Merchant of Venice and The Jew of Malta in 1990. He wanted the Japanese audience to compare Shakespeare's Shylock with Marlowe's Barabas.

In 1993 Gerard Murphy, an associate artist of the Royal Shakespeare Company, was invited by the Globe Tokyo to direct a group of Japanese actors in The Merchant of Venice. He thought that this comedy had a strong modern aspect because its themes were racial and sexual discrimination and the gap between the rich and the poor. In addition, he was very interested in both the Japanese way of thinking and the Japanese style of acting, and he wished to express both British and Japanese cultures on stage.37

Over the years, The Merchant of Venice has maintained the attention of Japanese audiences. Since the Meiji era, there have been various productions of this play, and Sakuradoki Zeni no Yononaka became a model for adapting Shakespeare's plays to the Japanese stage. In this sense, it is of historical importance. I think that Sakuradoki Zeni no Yononaka is the fountainhead of Japanized Shakespeare, such as Kumonosujo (Throne of Blood), NINAGAWA Macbeth, and Ran. In Ran, a film adaptation of King Lear, Akira Kurosawa successfully reproduced the atmosphere of feudal society in Japan. He described the life of a feudal samurai lord by combining Shakespeare's plot with the style of the Noh play. NINAGAWA Macbeth, which received favorable reviews in Edinburgh and Amsterdam in 1985, revealed Yukio Ninagawa's consciousness of the dramatic technique of Kabuki plays. Moreover, his production of The Tempest, which also earned high praise in Edinburgh in 1988, represented his boldest experiment in combining Shakespeare's plot with elements of traditional Japanese culture.

Thus the fusion of Shakespeare with Noh or Kabuki plays represents a current trend in today's Japanese Shakespearean theater. I think that adaptation means that many people of different languages and cultures can enjoy the limitless “performability” of Shakespeare's play-texts while searching for their own images of Shakespeare on the stage or in the film. These film or stage adaptations have allowed audiences all over the world to consider a new interpretation of Shakespeare.

While there are obvious gaps in time and space between Renaissance England and modern Japan, Shakespeare is “not of an age, but for all time,” as Ben Jonson remarked, and Shakespeare's language is cross-cultural and universal. We should recognize that Shakespeare is accepted in different cultural and social contexts and that Shakespeare is a criterion by which to determine the cultural standards of the world. From this standpoint, how to produce Shakespeare and what to receive from Shakespeare are important and ongoing problems.


  1. Tsutomu Inoue, Seiyo Chinsetsu Jinniku Shichiire Saiban (Tokyo: Kinkodo, 1883), 330.

  2. Cecil Roth, The Jews in the Renaissance, 2nd ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 49.

  3. There is a railway station named “Montebello” near Venice. This is a reversal of “Belmont,” which means “a beautiful mountain.” As the name suggests, “Montebello” is located in a hilly country.

  4. Roth, Jews in the Renaissance, 13.

  5. Bunkai Udagawa, Sakuradoki Zeni no Yononaka (Osaka: Bunpodo, 1886), title page. (Hereafter cited as Sakuradoki.)

  6. Ibid., 2.

  7. Ibid., 3-4.

  8. Ibid., 104-5.

  9. Joan Ozark Holmer, “Loving Wisely and the Casket Test: Symbolic and Structual Unity in The Merchant of Venice,” in Shakespeare's Christian Dimension: An Anthology of Commentary, ed. Roy Battenhouse (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 85.

  10. Sakuradoki, 163-66.

  11. Monzaemon Chikamatsu, Shakanyorai Tanjoe, vol. 4 of The Complete Works (Osaka: 1906), 61-63.

  12. Joan Ozark Holmer, “The Merchant of Venice”: Choice, Hazard and Consequence (London: Macmillan, 1995), 33.

  13. See Francis Bacon, The Essayes or Counsels, Civill and Morall, ed. Michael Kiernan (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), 124-29. Here Bacon wrote that usury was necessary. Furthermore, in England, moneylending became a legitimate commercial activity, and merchants, tradesmen, scriveners, and others involved in trade and business became moneylenders, provided they had the money to lend. Compare E. C. Pettet, “The Merchant of Venice and the Problem of Usury,” in Shakespeare: “The Merchant of Venice”: A Casebook, ed. John Wilders, 2nd ed. (London: Macmillan, 1977), 102. (Hereafter cited as A Casebook.) Also see Joan Ozark Holmer, “Miles Mosse's The Arraignment and Conviction of Vsurie (1595): A New Source for The Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare Studies, 21, eds. Leeds Barroll and Barry Gaines (London: Associated University Presses, 1993), 11-54. Holmer regards The Arraignment and Conviction of Vsurie (1595) as the most likely source for Shakespeare's decision to stage a debate between Shylock and Antonio in order to present the case for and against usury. A contrasting view may be seen in Ralph Berry, Shakespeare and Social Class (Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press International, 1988), 44. Berry asserts that Antonio and Shylock dramatize the tension between collecting interest and collecting excessive interest.

  14. Anna Brownell Jameson, Shakespeare's Heroines: Characteristics of Women Moral, Poetical, and Historical (London: G. Bell & Sons, 1916), 35-36.

  15. Ibid., 33.

  16. Ibid., 31.

  17. Berry, Shakespeare and Social Class, xii.

  18. John Russell Brown, “Love's Wealth and the Judgement of The Merchant of Venice,” in A Casebook, 163.

  19. Sigmund Freud, “The Theme of the Three Caskets,” in A Casebook, 60.

  20. Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800, 6th ed. (London: Penguin Group, 1988), 37.

  21. Sakuradoki, 54.

  22. Ibid., 61-63.

  23. Ibid., 63-64.

  24. Basil Hall Chamberlain, Japanese Things: Being Notes on Various Subjects Connected with Japan (originally entitled Things Japanese and published in 1890), 17th ed. (Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle, 1987), 500-1.

  25. Sakuradoki, 113-14.

  26. Karen Newman, “Portia's Ring: Unruly Women and Structures of Exchange in The Merchant of Venice,Shakespeare Quarterly 38: 1 (Spring 1987): 22.

  27. Jonathan Dollimore, Sexual Dissidence: Augustine to Wilde, Freud to Foucault, 4th ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 288.

  28. J. E. Neale, Elizabeth I and Her Parliaments 1559-1581 (1953; reprint, London: Jonathan Cape, 1971), 127, 147-50.

  29. Keith Geary, “The Nature of Portia's Victory: Turning to Men in The Merchant of Venice,Shakespeare Survey 37 (1984): 55.

  30. Juliet Dusinberre, Shakespeare and the Nature of Women, 3rd ed. (London: Macmillan, 1985), 231-34.

  31. A. M. Nagler, A Source Book in Theatrical History (New York: Dover Publications, 1952), 433-35.

  32. Sakuradoki, 183-86.

  33. Ibid., 188.

  34. Heinrich Heine, “Shakespeare's Mädchen und Frauen,” in A Casebook, 29.

  35. Shoyo Tsubouchi, “Chikamatsu vs. Shakespeare vs. Ibsen,” vol. 10 of The Selected Works (Tokyo: 1977), 769-96.

  36. Shoyo Tsubouchi, “Staging Shakespeare's Plays Translated into Japanese,” Sao Fukko (Shakespeare Revival), 4 (1933; reprint, Tokyo: Meicho Fukyukai, 1990): 4-6.

  37. Gerard Murphy, “Gerard Murphy Talks about Himself and His Production,” The Globe 21 (1993): 5.

All quotations from Shakespeare's works are cited from William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, eds. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986).

Douglas Anderson (essay date spring 1985)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5415

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

[In the following essay, Anderson references Shakespeare's religious sensibility to explain the “sordid conflict between religions” in The Merchant of Venice.]

                    every something blent together
Turns to a wild of nothing, save of joy
Expressed and not expressed.


Norman Rabkin argues in the first chapter of his recent book, Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning, for a critical vision which embraces the whole of a play's “aesthetic experience.” Even the most fruitful interpretive scholarship runs the risk of being reductive so long as it neglects the “total and complex involvement” of all of an audience's considerable powers of appreciation, which the best literary art invariably calls into play. Meaning in literature, Rabkin suggests, is almost never simple, almost never internally consistent, almost always richer than any single line of argument can convey.2The Merchant of Venice provides him with an especially apt text for these observations in view of the diversity of response which the figure of Shylock has elicited over the play's history and which that character continues to elicit at different moments in any given performance and in the experience of any given reader. That diversity has ranged from the broadly humanitarian view of the play espoused by John R. Cooper to the more recent, and more emphatic, judgments of D. M. Cohen. Cooper has argued that the “fundamental opposition” in the play is not between religions but between sets of value: an “uncalculating generosity and forgiveness” on the one hand and a remorseless assertion of self on the other. Ethics, and not racism, is the dramatic issue. Cohen's assessment could not be more different; The Merchant of Venice, in his view, is “crudely anti-Semitic.”3 My intention here is to show that neither of these opposed views fully appreciates the extent to which Shakespeare brought a deeply religious perception to bear upon the sordid conflict between religions. Uncalculating forgiveness is certainly the indispensable human capacity upon which that perception rests. But Shakespeare's understanding of forgiveness is, in key ways, rooted in Shylock's faith.


Of course, playwrights make plays; they do not construct academic arguments. The indebtedness of The Merchant of Venice to the Old Testament is not simply a matter of textual allusion and verbal echo. But allusion and echo do play a part in summoning up a sense of the play's religious background at two crucial points in the action, as well as at other, more frivolous moments. I am not thinking primarily of direct biblical references—Shylock's consideration of Jacob, Laban, and the eanling lambs, for example—though those too are important. More interesting for my purposes here are those moments when Shakespeare works the biblical source directly into his dramatic fabric. A comic instance of this treatment occurs in the curiously layered scene where Launcelot Gobbo tries “confusions” with his old, “high-gravel blind” father. Launcelot makes his first appearance in the play deeply engaged in a debate between his conscience and the “fiend” over the question of whether or not he should abandon Shylock's service. Conscience appeals to his honesty and advises him to stay; the fiend, of course, is enthusiastically in favor of flight. Reasoning at last that though the fiend is evil, “the Jew is the very devil incarnation,” Launcelot decides to run. Just as the long controversy ends on this wonderfully resonant malaproprism—the idea of “incarnation,” after all, is bound to remind us of a very different Jew from Shylock, and of a vastly different vision of Jewishness from the one Launcelot entertains—Old Gobbo enters and Launcelot proceeds to tease the blind old man. In the course of this teasing, Shakespeare makes it clear to any member of his audience who is even casually acquainted with Genesis that Launcelot is unwittingly reenacting two popular stories from Jewish legend: Jacob's deception of his own blind father, Isaac, when he steals a blessing meant for Esau, and the deception carried out by Joseph's brothers when they, in turn, tell Jacob that Joseph is dead. It is difficult to make this pattern of allusion clear without quoting prohibitively large portions of text, but even the brief comic exchange on Launcelot's beard has its biblical analogue in the fleece that Jacob uses to simulate his proverbially hairy brother:

Pray you, sir, stand up. I am sure you are not Launcelot my boy.
Pray you let's have no more fooling about it, but give me your blessing. I am Launcelot—your boy that was, your son that is, your child that shall be.
I cannot think you are my son.
I know not what I shall think of that; but I am Launcelot, the Jew's man, and I am sure Margery your wife is my mother.
Her name is Margery indeed! I'll be sworn, if thou be Launcelot thou art mine own flesh and blood. Lord worshipped might he be, what a beard hast thou got! Thou hast got more hair on thy chin than Dobbin my fill-horse has on his tail.


Part of the charm in this scene derives from Old Gobbo's delighted rediscovery of his wife's name, but part surely stems from more complex sources. Launcelot's simple-minded “confusions” lead immediately to the sort of innocent burlesque of scripture characteristic of the Second Shepherd's Play, in which sheep-stealing and rough-housing blend harmoniously and beautifully with the birth of Jesus. That harmony between humble and exalted subjects works its magic in this short exchange too. Launcelot and Old Gobbo, like the Towneley shepherds, give human simplicity and warmth to the remote and momentous biblical record. The subject of celebration here, however, is Genesis and not Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

An instance of far more potent dramatic allusiveness involves the casket scenes, particularly Bassanio's moment of choice, for by then the audience has already learned which casket is the right one and what the wrong caskets contain. Morocco chose gold and received a skull, with a scroll pronouncing his dismissal stuck in its empty eye. Aragon chose silver and earned “the portrait of a blinking idiot” and a dismissal similar to Morocco's. The unprepossessing leaden casket, as we all learn when Bassanio astutely chooses it, contains a portrait of Portia so lifelike that, to the enraptured Bassanio, the eyes seem to move and the lips seem “parted with sugar breath.” Barbara Lewalski noted some years ago that Shakespeare's source for the caskets, the Gesta Romanorum, leads directly to Deuteronomy 30, in which Moses offers his people a choice between life and death, between obedience and disobedience to God's commandments.4 The death's head and the portrait of Portia are Shakespeare's dramatic reminders of the Mosaic choice. But what Lewalski does not notice, or neglects sufficiently to emphasize, is precisely that this is a Mosaic choice, from a critical text in the Old Testament, the beauty and pertinence of which assert themselves not only here but again and again in Shakespeare's work where the choice between life and death, good and evil, becomes a central feature of his imagination.

Indeed, Shakespeare's interest in this portion of Deuteronomy is even more dramatically evident in The Merchant of Venice as Portia makes her appeal for mercy in act 4. The speech is justly famous and it is no exaggeration to observe that it is a crucial moment in the play for those readers who see Shylock and Portia as emissaries of the Old Law and the New, of covenant and grace respectively:

The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The thronèd monarch better than his crown.
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this scept'red sway;
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings;
It is an attribute to God himself,
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice.


The scene as it develops after this appeal does, in fact, sustain the view that Portia's New Testament morality supersedes Shylock's Old Testament legalism. Antonio himself suggests a parallel with Christ's sacrifice when he describes the contentment with which he will pay Bassanio's “debt” with his life (4.1.277). Shylock appears to underline these sacrificial associations by alluding to Barabbas (4.1.294). Gratiano even adds a gruesome reminder of Judas' suicide as he exults over Shylock's discomfiture: “Beg that thou mayst have leave to hang thyself!” (4.1.362). The language clearly asserts New Testament themes, but once again the imaginative core of the scene is deeply indebted to the very religion which its Christian participants appear to scorn. Not only does Portia repeatedly offer Shylock the same choice between life and death which we noted above in the casket scenes, but she offers that choice very nearly in Moses' own words, taken from the song Moses sings at the close of Deuteronomy in which he summarizes the themes of virtually the entire Pentateuch and foretells the repeated patterns of anger and forgiveness which will characterize God's relations with Israel. The entire song takes up forty-three verses, but it is the opening passages which are most interesting here:

Hearken, ye heavens, and I will speak, and let the earth heare the wordes of my mouth.

My doctrine shall drop as the raine, and my speech shal stil as doeth the dewe, as the showre upon the herbes, and as the great raine upon the grasse.

For I will publish the Name of the Lord: give ye glorie unto our God.

(Deut. 32:1-4)5

The image of falling rain does not play an extended role in the rest of Moses' song, anymore than it does in the remainder of Portia's speech. In both cases, the metaphor is a lyric precursor to more complex, detailed discourse. Indeed, this structural parallel between the two passages underscores the similarity in language. Moses' reference to the rain and dew is calculated to remind his recalcitrant followers both of the Lord's capacity to punish and of his capacity to nourish. The floods of Genesis (“great raine”) and the manna that fell with the dew in Exodus are equally present in this balanced peroration and in the song that follows. Portia's speech develops the elements of mercy and nourishment more exclusively than Moses does, but the same linkage of mercy with power so startling in the biblical passage continues to make itself felt in Shakespeare. Surely all careful readers of the play have observed that Portia's advice is pointed every bit as sharply at the Duke and his Venetian “magnificoes” as it is at Shylock. The Christians represent “earthly power” and “scept'red sway” in Shakespeare's scene. The moral vision brought into play as a check on that power is Jewish.

Students of theology and history will immediately reply that Elizabethans had long been accustomed to reading the Bible typologically, interpreting Old Testament events and figures as metaphorical anticipations of events and figures in the New Testament. Moses, in such a context, becomes a “type” of Christ and not a distinctly Judaic hero and prophet; his words become, in effect, hints of the forthcoming “new” law of grace. More than one collection of English mystery plays, for example, has exploited this typological connection by staging the Israelite escape from Egypt and then moving immediately to the first of the New Testament themes, the Annunciation. Indeed, in the Towneley plays, Moses himself not only draws on the same passage from Deuteronomy that gives rise to Portia's speech, but in the process of doing so he further confuses the distinction between Judaism and Christianity by acknowledging himself to be a good trinitarian:

Heven, thou attend, I say in syght,
And erthe my wordys; here what I telle,
As rayn or dew on erthe doys lyght
And waters herbys and trees full well,
Gyf lovying to Goddes mageste.
Hys dedes ar done, hys ways ar trew,
Honowred be he in trynyte,
To hym be honowre and vertu. Amen.(6)

It is probably impossible to know how familiar Shakespeare was with a typological understanding of the Bible. One of the tremendous advantages students of Shakespeare enjoy over those who study nearly any other major English or American poet is that our nearly complete ignorance in matters of biography constantly sends us back to the plays themselves as works of art rather than as objects of clinical speculation or as footnotes to late-sixteenth-century culture. Even the three short passages we have examined so far make it clear that Judaism exercises a dramatically rich and wide-ranging influence in The Merchant of Venice that is by no means wholly, or even significantly, confined to the presence of Shylock.

Shylock himself, of course, is less than exemplary as a man of faith, even if we discount the ferocity of his resentment against Antonio. He appears to honor dietary laws, but he has at the same time an odd predilection (which he shares with Marlowe's unsavory Barabas) for using the pre-covenant name for Abraham—Abram—in his conversations with Bassanio and Antonio. The difference between the two names is easily audible and an actor might well make an issue of the name with his audience by exaggerating the pronunciation. Perhaps more significantly, Shylock is clumsy in his use of scripture to defend the practice of usury. Antonio's knowing caution to Bassanio that the devil can quote the Bible in a bad cause is off the mark. Shylock's malice is not so clearly evident at this early stage in the play as is his prolixity:

I had forgot—three months, you told me so.
Well then, your bond. And let me see—but hear you,
Methoughts you said you neither lend nor borrow
Upon advantage.
I do never use it.
When Jacob grazed his uncle Laban's sheep—
This Jacob from our holy Abram was,
As his wise mother wrought in his behalf,
The third possessor; ay, he was the third—
And what of him? Did he take interest?
No, not take interest—not as you would say
Directly int'rest. Mark what Jacob did:
When Laban and himself were compromised
That all the eanlings which were streaked and pied
Should fall as Jacob's hire, the ewes being rank
In end of autumn turnèd to the rams;
And when the work of generation was
Between these woolly breeders in the act,
The skillful shepherd peeled me certain wands,
And in the doing of the deed of kind
He stuck them up before the fulsome ewes,
Who then conceiving, did in eaning time
Fall parti-colored lambs, and those were Jacob's.
This was a way to thrive, and he was blest;
And thrift is blessing if men steal it not.


This speech is devious and garrulous at the same time. Shylock is coyly warning an oblivious Antonio to be wary of the bargains he makes; “the doing of the deed of kind” can refer not only to the procreation of sheep but to an act that reciprocates “in kind” the public scorn which Antonio has heaped upon Jews. At the same time, Shylock has rather politicly strayed from the subject at hand. Antonio quickly and quite rightly challenges the application of the story of Jacob and Laban to usury. Indeed, if Shylock had wanted only a biblical justification for his lending practices, he might have quoted two brief verses in Deuteronomy which countenance the lending of money at interest to strangers, though not to one's “brothers” in Israel. That Shylock does not avail himself of this direct and easy defense against at least one Christian accusation may well reflect Shakespeare's awareness of the level of biblical sophistication in his audience. The verse in Deuteronomy which permits the charging of interest is a notable exception in Old Testament commentary on the subject. Both Exodus and Leviticus explicitly prohibit all usury, without exception. And Proverbs provides a simple, beautiful verse which could well have served as an epigraph to the fourth act in Shakespeare's play: “He that increaseth his riches by usurie and interest, gathereth them for him that will be merciful unto the poore” (Prov. 28:8). Shylock's riches do indeed become the means of a mercy that is practiced by third parties. So close is the application of the verse in Proverbs to the action of the play that it is difficult to believe that Shakespeare did not consciously invite the comparison.

In any event, it is clear that Shylock himself is something less than a pattern for his people. In this much, he is a perfect complement to Antonio, whose brand of Christianity is every bit as repellent as Shylock's blood lust. Shylock far exceeds his Christian counterpart, however, in dramatic grandeur. Antonio's passionate outbursts against Jews in general and against Shylock in particular make only a second-hand appearance in the play itself. Shylock reports them to us. Shakespeare chooses to give full and direct expression exclusively to Shylock's memorable counterattacks against Venetian racism. The only Christian character who in any sense “answers” Shylock is Gratiano, whose name is a grotesque commentary on his jackal-like gloating in act 4. Antonio himself half acknowledges this supreme dignity in his enemy, even as he gives frightening expression to the depths of his own bigotry. In the trial scene, after Bassanio and the Duke have exhausted themselves trying to shake Shylock's resolve, Antonio himself resignedly urges the court to proceed:

I pray you think you question with the Jew.
You may as well go stand upon the beach
And bid the main flood bate his usual height;
You may as well use question with the wolf,
Why he hath made the ewe bleat for the lamb;
You may as well forbid the mountain pines
To wag their high tops and to make no noise
When they are fretten with the gusts of heaven;
You may as well do any thing most hard
As seek to soften that—than which what's harder?—
His Jewish heart.


Here we are quite beyond matters of a more or less scholarly sort—biblical references, typology, mystery plays and so forth. In this speech Shakespeare succeeds in an act of dramatic concentration that requires, I think, some critical description to make its power fully apparent. Elements of Antonio's speech are clearly invidious: the implied comparison of his antagonist to a wolf, the embittered racism behind his reference to the “Jewish heart.” But these elements clash with others which are substantial and striking: the comparison of Shylock's force of character with the force of the tides, the suggestion that his passion has some of the grandeur and beauty of mountain pines tossed by the wind. Half of this passage, if you will, chooses life and half chooses death. Half of Antonio's intelligence is locked in bigotry and half is illuminated by a sympathy richer and more compelling, perhaps, than any other human sympathy in the play. In his joy at discovering Portia's portrait in the leaden casket—and filled with a sense of “confusion in my powers”—Bassanio burst forth with the lines which I quoted at the beginning of this piece: “every something blent together / Turns to a wild of nothing, save of joy / Expressed and not expressed.” A confusing blend of “powers” is indeed the signature of this play, but its distinctive quality is not necessarily the ecstatic joy of a successful suitor. Equally potent is this frightening (and saddening) blend of powers, for hatred and for sympathy, in Antonio and in the entire action of the play's fifth act. I hope it is clear that we have not at all abandoned the question of Shakespeare's indebtedness to the Old Testament. The choice between life and death, as Moses offers it, is simple. Despite the casket business, Bassanio's choice is comparatively easy too (even without Portia's clever musical hints) when we once consider that gold and silver are the true base metals where something as unworldly as love is in question. But life and death are not so readily separable when we encounter them painfully intermingled in the heart and mind, as Antonio's speech suggests they are in his. The Merchant of Venice is in many ways a lesson in the profound difficulty of Moses' choice.


The closing moments of The Merchant of Venice seem calculated to bring together both the narrowest and the broadest aspects of Shakespeare's biblical indebtedness. His imagination clings to the simplest details and at the same time explores the most far-reaching implications of those final chapters of Deuteronomy which I hope to add to Il Pecorone and the Gesta Romanorum in the list of the play's primary sources. In the area of simple details, the word “deuteronomy” itself signifies “second law,” according to the indefatigable Geneva editors. Moses restores, in this last book of the Pentateuch, the binding covenant between God and Israel, which the idolatrous Israelites had previously forfeited. He gives the commandments a second time. One of the functions of Portia's tricksiness with the rings is that it gives Shakespeare a chance to include his own second “covenant” of sorts:

                                                                                                    Nay, but hear me.
Pardon this fault, and by my soul I swear
I never more will break an oath with thee.
I once did lend my body for his wealth,
Which but for him that had your husband's ring
Had quite miscarried. I dare be bound again,
My soul upon the forfeit, that your lord
Will never more break faith advisedly.
Then you shall be his surety. Give him this,
And bid him keep it better than the other.


A broader, and more suggestive, biblical influence involves the treatment of human generations in the play—“the work of generation,” Shylock might call it. Many readers have noted in one connection or another the number of variations upon the father-child relationship which The Merchant of Venice explores: Jessica and Shylock, Portia and her father's will, Launcelot and Old Gobbo. Antonio and Bassanio are, for all dramatic purposes, father and son. The prototypes for these two characters in Il Pecorone are godfather and godson. Moreover, the cast as a whole appears to divide rather neatly into an older and a younger generation. Antonio, Shylock, Morocco, Aragon, the Duke, Old Gobbo, and Tubal all fit into the generation of the fathers; Portia, Bassanio, Gratiano, Lorenzo, Jessica, Nerissa, Salerio, Solanio, Launcelot, the generation of children.

The very first scene in the play gracefully and enjoyably insists on this division. Salerio and Solanio make an animated and, I think, affectionate attempt to lift Antonio's spirits. In the process, to be sure, they reveal themselves as ingenuous. All the worries in the world to them must certainly be attributable to merchandise. A man like Antonio, they fancy, can't even eat his soup without worrying about storms at sea, profit and loss. Or if not merchandise, then the crux of life must certainly be love. “Fie, fie!” Antonio swiftly replies to their nonsense, and the audience would no doubt see immediately from this man's gravity of manner how silly their suggestions are. After Solario and Solanio depart, Gratiano elaborates upon the theme by continuing to tease Antonio:

                              Let me play the fool!
With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come,
And let my liver rather heat with wine
Than my heart cool with mortifying groans.
Why should a man whose blood is warm within
Sit like his grandsire cut in alabaster?
Sleep when he wakes? and creep into the jaundice
By being peevish?


The scene immediately establishes a lasting contrast between the exuberance of youth—a kind of verbal prodigality in Gratiano's case—and the quietly mournful demeanor of age and experience.

The contrast between generations is equally critical to Numbers and Deuteronomy. The “numberings” that give Numbers its name involve a complete census of Israel in order to be certain that none of the tainted, older generation who had known slavery (and Egyptian religious abominations) would enter the Promised Land. Moses himself is excluded. Very nearly this same sharp division in age and geography marks The Merchant of Venice. For all practical purposes only the generation of the children will reside in Belmont. Antonio may even invite the biblical parallel in his bleak self-assessment as the trial scene opens: “I am a tainted wether of the flock, / Meetest for death. The weakest kind of fruit / Drops earliest to the ground, and so let me” (4.1.114-17). His presence in Belmont in the final act is surely temporary, for his newly-arrived ships must soon draw him back to Venice. Already he is absorbed in the letter which brings word of his unexpected good fortune. In light of this division of fathers and children, it is important, too, that Antonio is chiefly responsible for imposing the sentence of religious conversion upon Shylock. In the audience's mind these are the two characters most thoroughly saturated with the history of racial hatred between Christian and Jew. The forced conversion is only a final and quintessentially offensive expression of that historical antagonism. All the exchanges between Antonio and Shylock are marked by the sense of a long and bitter past. Together they fittingly constitute the Venetian abominations that must not be permitted to corrupt Paradise.

Belmont, however, is not Paradise—at least, it is not an untroubled Paradise—nor are its residents free from the kind of spiritual limitations that cripple Antonio and Shylock. The wonderfully simple contrast between gold and leaden caskets, between death and life, loses all its simplicity in act 5. Shakespeare reaches far beyond his biblical analogues to attain the psychological and dramatic poignancy we associate with great art. In the opening lines of the final scene, as Jessica and Lorenzo idly make love in the moonlight, they announce this greater reach by recalling instances of tragically (or notoriously) thwarted love. These two are, presumably, on a blissful honeymoon, but their talk is of Troilus and Cressida, Pyramus and Thisbe, Dido and Aeneas. Lorenzo teasingly reminds Jessica that their marriage began in theft. Jessica teasingly replies that all Lorenzo's vows of love are faithless. Their fondness for one another is unmistakable, but Shakespeare has found a way to blend that fondness with equally unmistakable reminders of the tenuousness of its foundations and of its sheer human vulnerability. Death and life are tangled in their speech, as they are a bit later when Lorenzo's admiration for the stars reminds him of “this muddy vesture of decay,” the flesh, that prevents him from hearing their celestial music, or when praise for the soothing power of music reminds him that much in the human spirit is savage, full of rage, “dark as Erebus” (5.1.51-87). “I am never merry when I hear sweet music,” Jessica wistfully observes. Sweetness and sadness season one another here, as mercy and justice do in Portia's courtroom plea. Indeed, the vision of this play insists that all of human life is a seasoning, a mingling. So Portia would suggest as she and Nerissa wend their way home to Belmont:

That light we see is burning in my hall;
How far that little candle throws his beams!
So shines a good deed in a naughty world.
When the moon shone we did not see the candle.
So doth the greater glory dim the less.
A substitute shines brightly as a king
Until a king be by, and then his state
Empties itself, as doth an inland brook
Into the main of waters. Music! hark!
It is your music, madam, of the house.
Nothing is good, I see, without respect;
Methinks it sounds much sweeter than by day.
Silence bestows that virtue on it, madam.
The crow doth sing as sweetly as the lark
When neither is attended; and I think
The nightingale, if she should sing by day
When every goose is cackling, would be thought
No better a musician than the wren.
How many things by season seasoned are
To their right praise and true perfection!


This last speech is delivered to the sound of the music which Lorenzo has just called for from Belmont's musicians. As Portia and Nerissa draw near the sleeping couple, Portia gazes down at Lorenzo and Jessica and breaks off her reflections on the relativity of all beauty with an observation which makes the preceding lines seem idle: “How the Moon sleeps with Endymion, / And would not be awaked” (5.1.109). To some degree these words are no less than “right praise” for a true, romantic perfection. That Portia delivers the line with considerable affection is evident in the light-heartedness with which she immediately greets the awakening Lorenzo a moment or two later: “He knows me as the blind man knows the cuckoo—/ By the bad voice.” But the mythological lovers to whom Portia has briefly alluded represent a mixture of romantic promise with hopeless limitation. They are close kin to the equivocal partners that Jessica and Lorenzo mentioned earlier, for the Moon could only visit the shepherd Endymion in his sleep. Their passion has all the perfection and all the insubstantiality of dreams.7 Life and death—the choice facing us in so much of this play—face us once again in the guise of love and sleep, and here too the antagonistic forces are hopelessly interfused. No human possibility, and no character, in The Merchant of Venice is free from the kind of entanglement with death that Portia's words so beautifully express. “Fair ladies,” Lorenzo exclaims to Portia and Nerissa in one final Old Testament allusion, “you drop manna in the way / Of starvèd people” (5.1.294). But there are no true saviors here; that fact roots the play firmly in drama and not in scripture or fable. Portia herself is tainted with the very bigotry she so memorably restrains. Human beings are blessed with the power to see the choice between life and death, to feel its urgency, and now and then to choose wisely, but not with the power wholly to embody life. Clarity of vision and incapacity of spirit are the constituent elements of Shakespeare's art in The Merchant of Venice, as they must be in a play that spends so much of its time on the borders of tragedy.


  1. All citations to the play by act, scene, and line refer to the Pelican text of The Merchant of Venice in William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, ed. Alfred Harbage (rpt. New York: Viking Press, 1977), 211-42.

  2. Norman Rabkin, Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1981), 1-32.

  3. Cooper's article, “Shylock's Humanity,” may be found in Shakespeare Quarterly 21 (1970): 117-24, but Rabkin provides an able summary both of Cooper's work and that of others who share Cooper's general view. D. M. Cohen's article, “The Jew and Shylock,” is also in Shakespeare Quarterly 31 (Spring, 1980): 53-63.

  4. See Barbara Lewalski, “Biblical Allusion and Allegory in The Merchant of Venice,Shakespeare Quarterly 13 (1962): 327-43.

  5. All biblical citations are to The Geneva Bible: A Facsimile of the First Edition, ed. Lloyd E. Berry (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1969). I have supplied consonants in place of diacritical marks and printed “and” in place of the ampersand.

  6. The Towneley Mysteries, vol. 3 in The Publications of the Surtees Society (London: Nichols and Son, 1836), 65. S. Schoenbaum speculates that Shakespeare may have been acquainted with the tradition of mystery plays. He had an opportunity to witness one of the last performances of the Coventry cycle when he was fifteen. See S. Schoenbaum, William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1977), 111.

  7. E. S. LeComte traces the Endymion myth through all its classical sources in Endymion in England: The Literary History of a Greek Myth (New York: King's Crown Press, 1944). It is an extremely complicated piece of detective work, and the myth itself is hospitable to a wide variety of interpretations which poets and compilers in succeeding centuries have not hesitated to provide. It seems likely that the predominant version of the myth available to Shakespeare carried connotations of unfulfillment. LeComte quotes Montaigne's punning reference: “Seemes it not to be a lunatique humor in the Moone, being otherwise unable to enjoy Endimion hir favorite darling, to lull him in a sweete slumber for many moneths together; and feed herself with the jovissance of a boye that stirred not but in a dreame?” (LeComte, quoting Florio's translation, 9).

Charles Edelman (essay date 2002)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12162

SOURCE: Edelman, Charles, ed. Introduction to The Merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare, pp. 1-93. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

[In the following excerpt, Edelman documents the performance history of The Merchant of Venice, paying particular attention to the actors who have played Shylock.]

Mark Twain is thought to have said that Shakespeare was not really the author of the plays, ‘they were written by someone else of the same name’. Although the comment appears nowhere in Mark Twain's works, and has been attributed to others in relation to Homer, not Shakespeare, it still serves as the most sensible solution to the perennial authorship question. Similarly, this introduction, especially when looking at the play as it was first performed, is not about Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, but about another play, also by Shakespeare, of the same name.

In fact, it is very possible that our play was not originally known as The Merchant of Venice: on 22 July 1598, perhaps a year or two after the first performance, ‘a booke of the Merchaunt of Venyce otherwise called the Jewe of Venyce’ was entered for printing at the London Stationers' Register. This is both revealing and reassuring, since The Jew of Venice is a more appropriate title—when printed in 1600, The Merchant of Venice may have been preferred only to avoid confusion with Marlowe's The Jew of Malta.

Critics are fond of pointing out that Shylock is not the ‘Merchant of Venice’, and that his is not an especially long role, appearing in only five scenes. But amongst the male characters, Shylock has the largest part, with nearly twice as many lines as Antonio—no less than Hamlet, this is a play with a central star role, one so famous that like Cervantes's Quixote and Dickens's Scrooge, he has become a common word, a distinction not even Hamlet can claim; today, in our age of ‘director's theatre’, Merchant performances are, like Hamlet performances, usually identified by the name of the main actor, not the director.

There is one enormous difference, however, between Shylock and Hamlet or any other great Shakespearean character: The Merchant of Venice is unique in that we are told that a performance in Shakespeare's time, and the audience's appreciation of it, would have been entirely different from what we experience today.


In his review of Peter Hall's 1989 production, Jack Kroll of Newsweek (1 January 1990) makes what has been a standard observation in Merchant [The Merchant of Venice] criticism for over two hundred years, that ‘Shakespeare's first audience would have been amazed’ by a sympathetic portrayal of a Jew. Although Kroll finds Dustin Hoffman's ‘painfully real’ Shylock impressive, he qualifies his approval by quoting Harold Bloom's opinion, ‘“an honest production of the play, sensitive to its values, would now be intolerable in any Western country”’.

Indeed, in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Bloom proves an eloquent spokesman for this most enduring of Shakespearean myths:

One would have to be blind, deaf, and dumb not to recognize that Shakespeare's grand, equivocal comedy The Merchant of Venice is nevertheless a profoundly anti-Semitic work … The unfortunate Dr Lopez, Queen Elizabeth's physician, was hanged, drawn, and quartered (possibly with Shakespeare among the mob looking on), having been more or less framed by the Earl of Essex and so perhaps falsely accused of a plot to poison the Queen. A Portuguese converso [converted Jew] whom Shakespeare may have known, poor Lopez lives on as a shadowy provocation to the highly successful revival of Marlowe's The Jew of Malta in 1593-4, and presumably Shakespeare's eventual overcoming of Marlowe in The Merchant of Venice, perhaps in 1596-7.1

However, like the famous non-barking dog in the Sherlock Holmes story, the curious thing about the evidence connecting Lopez to Marlowe and Shakespeare is its non-existence. Marlowe's play was always a money-spinner; Henslowe records that it took in thirty-five shillings when acted in February of 1593, and the following year it played to good houses before Lopez's execution.2 There is no good reason to think that things would have been different had Lopez never existed, for Lopez's being, or having been, a Jew was hardly mentioned at his trial. So far as can be found from prosecutor Sir Edward Coke's notes, neither he nor anyone else said, or even implied, that being a Jew was an indicator of treacherous intention—Coke was trying to establish a Catholic, not a Jewish assassination plot.3 Whether or not Lopez was guilty (current scholarship indicates that he was)4 is beside the point—if he was railroaded, his having been Jewish had nothing to do with it. From the time of Lopez's indictment and trial to his execution on 7 June 1594, there is no record of victimisation of other Jews in London, or of any call to expel Jews or conversos residing there.

Obviously, one may still argue that even without the inspiration of Lopez, the original Shylock conformed to an anti-Semitic stereotype, but no such theatrical tradition existed. The only Jew to appear in extant Elizabethan drama before Marlowe's Barabas is the moneylender Gerontus in Robert Wilson's The Three Ladies of London (1584)—he is the most honourable character in the play, the most contemptible being Mercadore, an Italian merchant. Still, John Gross writes, ‘to an Elizabethan audience, the fiery red wig that [Shylock] almost certainly wore spelled out his ancestry even more insistently than anything that was actually said. It was the same kind of wig that had been worn by Marlowe's Barabas, and before that by both Judas and Satan in the old mystery plays.’5

This ‘fiery red wig’, which will reappear in our story, has a rather strange history. There is no mention of Barabas's hair colour in Marlowe's play, neither is there any real connection between Barabas and Judas; even if there were, while ‘it is an old and familiar tradition that Judas Iscariot had red hair, the actual evidence is rather scattered and not very abundant’.6 In 1846, the noted scholar John Payne Collier discovered and published a poem written on the occasion of Richard Burbage's funeral, which reads, in part,

Heart-broken Philaster, and Amintas too
Are lost forever, with the red-hair'd Jew.(7)

Like most of Collier's ‘discoveries’, this was a forgery—he claimed to have seen and copied it from an original in the library of the antiquarian Richard Heber (conveniently Heber had died in 1833, and his entire collection was auctioned off). Why Collier decided to give Shylock red hair is hard to say; perhaps he was influenced by Thomas Jordan's crude ballad, ‘The Forfeiture’, published in 1664. Sung to the tune of ‘Dear, let me now this evening dye’, it starts

You that do look with Christian hue
Attend unto my Sonnet
I'le tell you of as vilde a Jew
As ever wore a Bonnet

and goes on to tell a twisted version of the Merchant in which Jessica, not Portia, dresses up as a lawyer and tricks her father, who

… by usury and trade
Did much exceed in riches:
His beard was red, his face was made
Not much unlike a Witches.

To think this doggerel could have anything to do with The Merchant of Venice as it was performed more than sixty years previously is positively ludicrous, yet E. E. Stoll, in his often-cited argument for the ‘traditional’ Shylock, accepts the work of the ‘old actor’ (Jordan had worked as an actor at the end of the Caroline era) as proof of Shylock's appearance.8

If we assume that all Elizabethans hated Jews, then we can easily assume that it was fine for Antonio to call Shylock a dog, to spit at him and then demand that he become a Christian. But we might also assume that Shakespeare and many others at a London playhouse knew a good deal about Venice, and would therefore know that a ‘real’ Antonio would have earned little approval. Although Venice segregated Jews into the world's first Ghetto, established in 1516, it guaranteed them the right to go about their business, and to practise their religion, free from interference or molestation,9 and while Jews were always regarded as candidates for conversion, any attempt to force them to convert was forbidden by law.10 It is often argued that Shakespeare's audience would have approved of Antonio's version of ‘mercy’, because baptism would save Shylock's soul, with or without his permission, but Shylock has been placed in a position similar to that of the Jews of Spain one hundred years earlier: convert, or make their living elsewhere. To many, Shylock's forced baptism would have been associated with the Spaniards, who had just tried to murder the Queen, and with the Papacy, which had excommunicated her in 1570.

Even if Shylock's religion, in itself, is not enough to make him a villain to the original audience, there is still the matter of Shylock as usurer to be considered. People making their way to the playhouse to see The Merchant of Venice in 1597 could stop at a bookstall and buy Miles Mosse's moral tract condemning the charging of any interest, The Arraignment and Conviction of Usurie, but they could also buy a book containing tables of interest rates.11 No economy can exist without the availability of credit, and except for an extremely conservative faction, it was accepted that usury was the charging of excessive interest. In the absence of loan banks, ordinary citizens borrowed money from an acquaintance, or found an acquaintance to act as broker to negotiate the loan with someone else. One prosperous Englishman who loaned large sums at interest, sued when he was not repaid and also acted as a broker, was William Shakespeare of Stratford.12

The latter parts of this Introduction will show that it in recent times, few productions of the Merchant can take place without public discussion over whether it should be performed at all, or at the very least, without school packs or other material justifying its presentation, explaining that the original audience held different attitudes than we do today. Ironically, this can have an effect opposite to what is intended: the natural response to The Merchant of Venice, from those rare persons with no ‘knowledge’ of it before entering the theatre, is likely to be similar to that of the spectator once observed by Heinrich Heine: ‘When I saw this play at Drury Lane, there stood behind me in the box a pale, fair Briton, who at the end of the Fourth Act, fell to weeping passionately, several times exclaiming, “The poor man is wronged.”’13 ‘Passionate weeping’ is not required, nor are we expected to think of Shylock as a person free of serious faults (obviously, he is not), yet the entire history of our play, everywhere in the world, shows that it has been most successful when Shylock was not acted as a villain, or thought to be one. For us to fully understand the history of Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice in production, we must replace it with that ‘other’ Shakespeare play of the same title.

That play was a success: the title page of the 1600 Quarto notes that it was acted ‘divers times’; the first recorded performance was at court on 10 February 1605, followed by a second performance two days later. Since Shylock is the largest and best male part, it is likely that Burbage was the first to play him, but no genuine contemporary document confirms this, and any speculation about casting is only that. Whoever the actors may have been, the Merchant's place in the King's Men's repertoire nine or ten years after it was written argues for its popularity, but there is no further record of the play being shown, in any form, until George Granville's adaptation, The Jew of Venice, opened in 1701.


Jewish presence in England increased markedly during the 1600s: as W. D. Rubinstein notes, the Commonwealth had an underlying culture of philo-Semitism, the Puritans seeing themselves in many respects as the re-embodiment of Old Testament Judaism.14 In 1656, Cromwell gave the Jews permission to remain in England and to open their first synagogue in Creechurch Lane.

During the Restoration, Jewish economic power and status rose further. It was still a tiny community, and nearly all Portuguese or Spanish Sephardim:  in 1677 a London directory had forty-eight Portuguese, and two German (in Hebrew, Ashkenazi) names.15 As the Glorious Revolution approached, Anglo-Jews were officially residents—politically, they were essentially the English branch of Holland's Jewish community, something much to their advantage, for the Revolution could not have succeeded without the financial support of the Dutch-Jewish company of Machado and Pereira.16 Although this point is disputed by historians, Rubinstein and David S. Katz argue persuasively that from the Glorious Revolution until late Victorian times, the status of England's Jews was little different from that of the Quakers or other dissenters, and in many respects was better than that of English Catholics.17 On 23 June 1700, William III knighted Solomon de Medina, a rich London Jew who was in partnership with Machado and Pereira; six months later The Jew of Venice opened at Lincoln's Inn Fields.

Granville retains much of Shakespeare's text, but many passages are shortened, altered or transposed,18 and Morocco, Arragon, the Gobbos, Solanio, Salarino and Salerio (the ‘Salads’) are omitted. Taking the place of the missing scenes is a banquet at the end of Act II, when Shylock, Bassanio and Antonio celebrate the ‘merry bond’ by offering toasts to wealth, and then witness an elaborate masque, ‘Peleus and Thetis’.

The prologue, spoken by the ghosts of Shakespeare and Dryden, is perhaps of greater interest than anything in the play proper. ‘Shakespeare’ announces,

To day we punish a Stock-jobbing Jew.
A piece of Justice, terrible and strange;
Which, if persu'd, would make a thin Exchange.

The late 1690s and early 1700s saw a major shift in economic power ‘from countryside to town, and from landowner to businessman, profoundly unsettling the traditional order’.19 Particularly notorious were the ‘stock-jobbers’, busily amassing wealth through speculative dealings in joint-stock ventures: their excesses led to an Act of 1697, restricting their number in London to one hundred, with twelve places reserved for Jews and twelve for other ‘aliens’. So Shylock, once a Venetian moneylender, has become a London dealer in investment schemes, despised by arch-Tories such as Granville.

Thomas Betterton was a sixty-six-year-old Bassanio, and Anne Bracegirdle played Portia. Thomas Doggett, who played Shylock, was one of the most popular comic actors of his day: according to Colley Cibber, who admired Doggett greatly, Congreve wrote the characters of Ben in Love for Love and Fondlewife in The Old Bachelor expressly for him.20 Records of London's 1700-1 theatre season are scanty, and we do not know how often The Jew of Venice was performed, but in any event it is difficult to agree with Gross's view that The Jew of Venice ‘held the stage for forty years’,21 for it was hardly ever seen after 1701. There is record of one performance in May 1703, three in the 1721-2 season and two in 1722-3, but none at all for the ensuing three years, and less than one a year after that—with just one recorded performance between 1736 and 1741. Given these circumstances, it is fair to say that Granville's adaptation, while interesting in and of itself, plays little part in the performance history of The Merchant of Venice. No tradition existed in the interpretation of Shylock, or of any other role, when Charles Macklin took the stage on 12 February 1741, and no expectation on the part of the Drury Lane audience had to be confirmed or denied. The Merchant of Venice was a new play.


Born in Ireland in 1699, Charles Macklin was a popular favourite in a variety of roles amongst provincial audiences of the early 1730s. John Fleetwood, the patent holder of Drury Lane, engaged him to play small parts for the 1733-4 season, but that season fell into disarray when a dispute between Fleetwood and the actors, led by Theophilus Cibber, led to the defection of Cibber's group to the Haymarket. Macklin remained loyal to Fleetwood, though, and his importance at Drury Lane grew.

Several factors contributed to Drury Lane's decision to mount The Merchant of Venice in 1741: the renewal and strengthening of the Stage Licensing Act in 1737 placed the Lord Chamberlain in charge of theatrical censorship, establishing ‘a much more rigorous system of state surveillance, which would endure until 1968’, over the theatre.22 The inherent difficulties in getting a play approved encouraged managements to rely on Shakespeare and others whose plays were already part of the repertoire, and not subject to new scrutiny. Furthermore, there was no need to set the takings of the third performance aside, as was customary, for an ‘author's benefit’.23 Since the Merchant, in its original text, had not been performed within living memory, it would have brought with it the excitement of a famous play being seen for the first time by everyone present, the perfect vehicle for a popular actor in his first starring role.

Descriptions of Macklin's Shylock are consistent in giving us a fierce and malevolent figure, driven by his hatred of Antonio. Francis Gentleman was only thirteen in 1741, and his Dramatic Censor was published in 1770, so he presumably saw Macklin in the 1760s:

in the level scenes his voice is most happily suited to that sententious gloominess of expression the author intended; which, with a sullen solemnity of deportment, marks the character strongly; in his malevolence, there is forcible and terrifying ferocity; in the third act scene, where alternate passions reign, he breaks the tones of utterance, and varies his countenance admirably; in the dumb action of the trial scene, he is amazingly descriptive; and through the whole displays such unequalled merit, as justly entitles him to that very comprehensive, though concise compliment paid him many years ago, ‘This is the Jew that Shakespeare drew.’24

The famous ‘concise compliment’ is attributed to Alexander Pope, supposedly paid when he and Macklin met after a performance.

Portia was played by Kitty Clive, a delightful comedienne who received more unfavourable criticism for this performance than for any in her long career.25 Gentleman calls it ‘a ludicrous burlesque on the character … in the spirited scene she was clumsy … in the grave part—sure never was such a female put into breeches before!—she was awkwardly dissonant’. In the trial, ‘as if conscious she could not get through without the aid of trick, [she] flew to the pitiful resource of taking off the peculiarity of some judge, or noted lawyer; from which wise stroke, she created laughter in a scene where the deepest attention should be preserved’.26

Macklin's text for the 1740-1 season, although probably abbreviated, would have been very close to the Quarto text of 1600. There is no record of any interpolation, and all characters, including Morocco and Arragon, were present—Arragon fell out of the play during the first season, and was not seen again until Charles Kean's revival of 1858, but ‘Morochius’ appeared in some, although not all, London performances of the Merchant until 1757: the 1773 Bell edition, without either of Portia's unsuccessful suitors, is probably close to the play that Macklin performed later in his career.27

On 7 May 1789, Macklin, at the age of ninety, began a performance, but found himself unable to continue past the first scene, and retired from the stage. For nearly fifty years, he had defined the role of Shylock.


As the Macklin era was drawing to a close, the history of The Merchant of Venice in modern Germany began. Friedrich Ludwig Schröder was chiefly responsible for introducing Shakespeare to the German theatre; in 1771 he took over the management of the Hamburg National Theatre from his stepfather Konrad Ackermann, and brought Hamlet to the stage in 1776, followed by Othello and The Merchant of Venice in 1777.

Using the translation of Christoph Martin Wieland, Schröder cut nearly all of the fifth act. Not much has been written about his Shylock—he is thought to have played him much as Macklin did, harsh and vindictive, while retaining some of the audience's sympathy.28 More important, perhaps, than Schröder's own performances is the influence he had as guest director in Vienna, Mannheim and elsewhere—one of his associates in Mannheim was the playwright-actor August Wilhelm Iffland.29

Schiller admired Iffland as an actor but did not think much of his plays,30 perhaps because at the time they were more popular than Schiller's. During the 1780s the Mannheim National Theatre developed strongly under Iffland's leadership, and upon transferring to the National Theatre of Berlin, Iffland mounted several visually spectacular productions of Shakespeare.31 As the Jew, he presented a comical figure—indeed he may have been the first actor to play Shylock this way—speaking with a foreign accent, and regarded as ‘irksome’ and ‘impish’ rather than seriously threatening.32 He wore a ‘blue coat with fur trimming, a caftan and red stockings. His performance was an aggregation of small mannerisms, commonly accepted as typical of the Jews. He pattered across the stage with mincing footsteps, he walked in circles when worried, he crumpled his cap in distress during the trial scene.’33

Ferdinand Fleck had his first success as Gloucester, opposite Schröder's Lear; he played Shylock in 1797, only four years before his death at the age of forty-one. His was a different Jew than Iffland presented: the poet, critic and Shakespeare translator Ludwig Tieck thought Fleck ‘horrible and ghostlike, but … always noble’.34


The 1788-9 season that saw Macklin's final exit from the English stage was also John Philip Kemble's first as manager of Drury Lane—the Merchant was performed once, on 17 January 1789, with Kemble as Shylock and his sister, Sarah Siddons, as Portia.35 The handsome and dignified Kemble never considered himself suited to the role, however, and when he later staged the Merchant, it was usually with Tom King, the original Sir Peter Teazle and a much-loved actor, but no Shylock: the best that Gentleman could say about him was that his performance ‘is by no means so deficient as many principal parts’ then being acted in London.36

Kemble published his own edition of the Merchant ‘as first acted at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden’, in 1810. Taken together with Elizabeth Inchbald's 1808 edition, also ‘as Performed at the Theatre Royal’, these versions give us a reliable record of the play as it was presented at this time. As in the Bell edition, both Morocco and Arragon are missing, but the Kemble and Inchbald texts make some sense of the casket theme by rewriting Bassanio's choosing speech in 3.2.37 Songs for Lorenzo and Jessica are interpolated, and except for the Shylock scenes, huge chunks of the play are deleted. Overall, though, Kemble retained more of the Quarto text than did Macklin, and the order of the scenes is not altered—that ‘improvement’ was yet to come.

While Kemble's work in preparing a relatively coherent text is to be admired, we should remember that his production was rarely seen—in the 1790s, aside from a few summer performances at the Haymarket, Londoners had the opportunity to see the Merchant only once every two years. But this changed when Thomas Harris and W. T. ‘Gentleman’ Lewis engaged George Frederick Cooke for the 1800-1 season at Covent Garden,38 and London audiences learned what those in the provinces had known for years: the new Macklin had arrived. However, he did not stay long.


Cooke was forty-four years old when he made his debut at Covent Garden.39 An actor of immense power, he would have had a long and distinguished career, but frequent non-appearances due to drunkenness made employing him a risky proposition: at the time, Covent Garden had no one to compare with Drury Lane's Kemble, so the risk was worth taking.

Like David Garrick, Cooke chose Richard III for his debut. His Shylock, first seen 10 November 1800, earned qualified praise from the Porcupine: ‘His acting was uncommonly striking, his knowledge of the author complete, but his declamation jars upon the ear, as he is accustomed to give a whole line on one unvaried harsh note … In every scene there was much, very much, to commend; in the great scene with Tubal, everything. The audience seemed electrified by his excellence in it.’40

The 1800-1 season was the high point of Cooke's career; over the rest of the decade, non-appearances due to ‘indisposition’, and appearances that should have been non-appearances, grew too frequent for managements and audiences to tolerate. In 1810 he embarked on an American tour, and for the first time Americans could experience the full power of The Merchant of Venice. ‘Thespis’ of the New York Columbian writes that Cooke's performance was

more than acting, it was nature improved and refined by the most consummate art. Mr Cooke, beyond all other players that have appeared on the American boards, adheres with more critical accuracy and studied uniformity to the text and spirit of his author. He is less solicitous to attract admiration by polished gestures and striking attitudes … The great points of playing are, consequently, at times in some measure lost. No actor appears less inclined to gain applause, at the sacrifice of nature and propriety.41

Less than two years later Cooke died, virtually destitute, in New York. He was buried in the Strangers' Vault of St Paul's Church, and in 1820, another famous Shylock, Edmund Kean, had the remains moved to the churchyard and commissioned a monument to his great predecessor.

It may seem odd to place Edmund Kean near the end of a section, rather than the beginning, but contrary to what is generally believed, Kean did not bring any radically new conception to Shylock. The legend of his first appearance at Drury Lane has been recounted many times, and to say that it has been ‘embellished’ is to put it charitably.

An article in New Monthly Magazine of May 1834 relates that when Kean turned up at the theatre, an unnamed actor said, ‘I say! he's got a black wig and beard! Did you ever see Shylock in a black wig?’.42 This fanciful account, written after Kean's death, was accepted by Frederick William Hawkins, whose 1883 biography of Kean reveals that he took ‘a little black wig from his little bundle … heedless of or inattentive to the astonishment on the faces of his companions’.43

But there is no compelling reason to believe that any Shylock wore a red wig before William Poel in 1898: Johann Zoffany's portrait of Macklin as Shylock shows him with dark brown hair, and a coloured engraving of Kemble's Shylock, issued in 1809, reveals him to be black-haired and bearded.44 The notion that Kean would harbour a ‘secret’ Shylock, and play him differently than he had done so successfully in the provinces, is not only absurd, but is inconsistent with the one opening-night story that does have an air of truth about it: Kean's friend, Joseph Drury, former headmaster of Harrow, was in the house and is said to have murmured ‘he is safe!’ when the audience applauded Shylock's first line. Drury was living in retirement near Exeter, and had seen Kean perform there; should the actor have presented some new and different interpretation, Drury surely would have commented on it.

Playing before the same type of stock scenery Kemble would have had twenty years earlier, and using the same text, Kean's performance was well within the boundaries defined by his two most important predecessors. When ‘Mr Kean from Exeter’ stunned Drury Lane on 26 January 1814, it was as a new and brilliant actor, not a new and brilliant Shylock—had Kean emulated Garrick and Cooke, and chosen Richard III for his debut, the result would have been the same.

Coleridge's famous remark about Kean, ‘To see him act, is like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning’,45 is not merely general praise, he is describing the most important element in Kean's approach to the art of acting. As Charles Shattuck notes, ‘Kean's forte was naturalism—the vivid realisation of exactly what emotional state, vocal tone, and bit of behavior was to be called up at every instant in the stage life of a character.’46 Coleridge was not the only great poet to notice this: to Keats, ‘other actors are constantly thinking about their sum-total effect throughout a play. Kean delivers himself up to the instant feeling, without a shadow of a thought about anything else.’47 These perceptions serve as reminder that whatever the ‘sum-total effect’ of Kean's Shylock, it did not derive from a considered interpretation of the role as an organic whole.

Kean impressed William Hazlitt, though Hazlitt correctly predicted in the Morning Chronicle of 27 January 1814 that the young actor would be ‘a greater favourite in other parts’. To Hazlitt, Kean did not sufficiently show the ‘the morose, sullen, inward, inveterate, inflexible malignancy of Shylock’, but

in giving effect to the conflict of passions arising out of the contrasts of situation, in varied vehemence of declamation, in keenness of sarcasm, in the rapidity of his transitions from one tone and feeling to another, in propriety and novelty of action, presenting a succession of striking pictures, and giving perpetually fresh shocks of delight and surprise, it would be difficult to single out a competitor.48

Two years later, Hazlitt gave an even more favourable opinion, noting ‘Mr Kean's manner is much nearer the mark’,49 and returned to the subject again in 1817, with a well-known, and most misleading, comment:

When we first went to see Mr Kean as Shylock, we expected to see, what we had been used to see, a decrepid old man, bent with age and ugly with mental deformity, grinning with deadly malice, with the venom of his heart congealed in the expression of his countenance, sullen, morose, gloomy, inflexible, brooding over one idea, that of his hatred, and fixed on one unalterable purpose, that of his revenge … so rooted was our habitual impression of the part from seeing it caricatured in the representation, that it was only from a careful perusal of the play itself that we saw our error …50

Hazlitt's description of these other Shylocks has been accepted as ‘a composite portrait as actors since Macklin had presented him’,51 but who were these ‘decrepid old’ Shylocks, and when did Hazlitt see them? Hazlitt joined the Morning Chronicle as parliamentary and theatrical correspondent in 1812, and he is unlikely to have been a regular theatregoer before that. After his wedding in 1808, he resided at Winterslow in a cottage belonging to his wife—he may have seen Kemble or Cooke in the provinces, or in London, but what we know of these Shylocks hardly puts them into the ‘bent with age’ category. After Cooke, the Merchant was seldom seen in London: a more likely explanation is that Hazlitt's other Shylocks existed only in his imagination, and that he had rarely, if ever, seen The Merchant of Venice before January of 1814; Hazlitt would not have been the first newcomer to theatre criticism to claim more playgoing experience than he actually had.

This is not to say that Kean's Shylock was not in some respects more sympathetic than Macklin's or Cooke's. Shylock is an ‘outsider’, and as Jonathan Bate notes, Kean, with his illegitimate birth and poverty-stricken youth, was an outsider himself, who specialised in outsider parts. Such an actor would have special appeal to the radical Hazlitt, and to the Whig-dominated audience at Drury Lane, a theatre that served as a home ‘for Opposition politics, and a reading of Shakespeare as a friend of the people against the autocracy of government’.52 There is also the intriguing matter of Kean's own Jewish ancestry—his father had brothers named Aaron and Moses.53 That this could have been a factor, even a major factor, in Kean's portrayal of Shylock is undeniable, but it is also undeniable that another of Kean's triumphs was Barabas in The Jew of Malta.


Just as Edmund Kean was the greatest of English Romantic actors, Ludwig Devrient held that status in Germany, and his Shylock commanded the German stage over the same period that Kean's did the English and American—they were nearly exact contemporaries. As Simon Williams notes, Devrient's Shylock seemed to have spent his life ‘building up resentment against the hated Christians; in fact, this hatred was the dominant concern of his life, making his demand for Antonio's flesh an act of desperate rebellion, a necessary consummation, yet a triumphant culmination of years of bitterness, suffering and martyrdom’.54

Complicating any discussion of Devrient's characterisation is the fact that he often changed it, this inconsistency exacerbated by a serious drinking problem. He played Shylock

either with a distinctly dark skin or speaking in a recognisably Jewish accent, dressed as a Venetian Jew, or as a Polish or Hungarian Jew. But he always took care that the character's nobility—a quality which audiences constantly associated with European culture—was persistently to the fore … perhaps no German actor so completely embodied the tragic dimensions of the role.55

Only a few years younger than Kean and Devrient, and also going to an early grave, was Karl Seydelmann. Born in Silesia, he made his way to the German stage via Prague, and came to be regarded as Devrient's successor in Berlin in the 1830s;56 Mephistopheles, Iago and Shylock were some of his best roles. As the Jew, he ‘was the incorporation of a persecuted nation's accumulated wrath. Even in his outbursts of fiendish rejoicing over Antonio's ruin, in his sanguinary yearnings to take the life of his arch-enemy, in his tremulous exaltation whilst anticipating his revenge, he compelled his audience to feel that there was some justification for all those manifestations of extravagant excitement.’57


Yet another contemporary of Edmund Kean was William Charles Macready; he lived so much longer that he is easily mistaken for someone of a later era, but he was only five years younger, and after his London debut in 1816, he became Kean's rival for the unofficial title of England's leading actor. Macready first played Shylock at Covent Garden in 1823, when he was thirty, but only sporadically after that—he never considered it a good part for him, and given his triumphs as Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth and Claude Melnotte in The Lady of Lyons, there was little reason to persist. He did perform the Merchant somewhat more frequently in the late 1830s and early 1840s; he appears to have anticipated Irving in lending Shylock an unusual air of refinement. The Spectator (12 October 1839) said,

Mr Macready has endeavoured to give personal dignity to the Jew, and to soften down the ugly features of the character by assuming an erect port and a frank and cordial manner, that are quite inconsistent with the persecution and insults to which the whole tribe are subject; he makes us wonder that a man of his appearance should belong to a despised race, much more that he should be accustomed to such indignities as Shylock reminds Antonio of putting on him.

Macready's Portia at this time was Helen Faucit. She ‘became the gravity of the learned doctor better than the gayety of Portia; her sprightly sallies at the expense of her suitors were forced, and her modest sweetness was not wholly free from the approach of affectation’.58 The Spectator closes by remarking, ‘we ought not to pass by the two scenes of Venice without praise, but they made others look shabby by comparison’.

The comparative quality of Macready's Venice and Belmont sets is not important; that the scenery should be mentioned at all is. The 1820s saw the introduction of gas and calcium lighting, i.e. ‘limelight’, to London's theatres, innovations that demanded greater attention to the quality of what was being illuminated, and Macready's tenure at Drury Lane marks the gradual transition from the ‘stock’ Merchant to one with scenery expressly designed for the play. In contrast to 1839, when only the Venice scenes were worthy of a brief comment, the December 1841 production drew this reaction from The Times:

The scenery is in the best possible taste, very beautiful, and yet nicely discriminated, so as not to overbalance the drama. The effect of the tribunal, with the forty, was most imposing, reminding us of that produced by the Roman Senate in Mr Macready's revival of Coriolanus. The moonlit garden in the fifth act is particularly beautiful, sparkling with soft light, and melting away into a poetic indistinctness at the back.59


From the time of Macklin through to the late nineteenth century, reviews of English productions make little mention of Shylock as a representative character of the Jewish race. One can only speculate why this was so: while not disregarding such phenomena as the debate over the Jew Bill of 1753, or the barriers that kept Nathan Rothschild, elected four times, from taking his seat in Parliament, it appears that the rights of England's Jewish population, always comparatively small, were not a major factor in English political life.60

A progression of other Jewish characters made its way to the London stage. Ironically, the first was created by Charles Macklin in 1769, the Italian Jew Beau Mordecai, a minor figure in his enormously successful farce, Love à la Mode, where not only Mordecai, but the Scottish Sir Archibald Macsarcasm (the role Macklin wrote for himself), and the Irish Sir Callaghan O'Brallaghan are satirised. In 1772 Richard Cumberland wrote Napthali, a Jewish stockbroker and moneylender (a small part and one of the less likeable characters) into his comedy The Fashionable Lover; in the same year the broker Moses had a four-line role in Samuel Foote's The Nabob, followed two years later by the friendly Moses Manasses in Foote's The Cozeners. Sheridan gave the English theatre the ‘honest Israelite’ Moses in The School for Scandal (1776), and other kindly Jews followed: Sheva in Cumberland's The Jew (1794), Nadab in his comic opera The Jew of Mogadore (1808) and the warm-hearted central roles in two plays by Thomas Dibdin, Abednego in The Jew and the Doctor (1798), and Ephraim in The School for Prejudice (1801). Some of these plays were popular for a long time, and one, The School for Scandal, is a major work: except for Nadab, the Jewish characters are taken from contemporary English life, and that they are mostly sympathetic means that we have travelled some distance from Granville's ‘stock-jobbing Jew’.

Of infinitely greater importance was a brilliantly drawn character, taken not from the Exchange, but from London's underworld: with the publication of Oliver Twist in 1838, and its subsequent stage adaptations, Fagin, virtually overnight, replaced Shylock as the most important fictive Jew in English culture. Although Jews were never a large proportion of London's poor East End neighbourhoods, their increasing numbers during the nineteenth century inevitably meant that some would turn to crime: ‘Fagin was probably untypical of the run of London criminals of the time, but the portrait of him offered by Dickens was not an inaccurate depiction of the common view of the Anglo-Jewish malefactor.’61 As is well known, Dickens encountered protests about his depiction of Fagin, and later tried to make amends with the kindly Riah in Our Mutual Friend.


Macready's production, with its attention to details of staging, began a new phase in the Merchant's history, and it marked the close of another. The exclusive right of London's two patent theatres to perform spoken plays ended in 1843, and so the names Drury Lane and Covent Garden disappear from our story—they were devoted more and more to opera, while the newly licensed smaller houses such as the Haymarket (now allowed to operate throughout the year), the Princess's and the Lyceum became the focus of Shakespearean production in London.

The link between Macready and Charles Kean is direct, for the younger Kean used Macready's promptbooks, copied for him by the stage manager and prompter George Ellis, in preparing his own productions. His skills as an actor never approached those of his father, but as a director and theatrical manager his influence on Shakespeare in the English theatre was greater and more lasting. When he assumed control of the Princess's in 1851, Kean embarked on a series of Shakespearean productions, of which The Merchant of Venice, opening on 12 June 1858, was the most spectacular ever seen until that time. John William Cole provides this description of the opening scene:

The curtain draws up and we discover ourselves in Venice, the famed Queen of the Adriatic, ‘throned on her hundred Isles’ … we see the actual square of St Mark with the campanile and clocktower, the cathedral, and the three standards, painted from drawings taken on the spot; restored, as in 1600, when Shakespeare wrote the play, and the incidents he has so skilfully interwoven are supposed to take place. Throngs of picturesquely-contrasted occupants gradually fill the area, passing and re-passing in their ordinary avocations. Nobles, citizens, inquisitors, foreigners, traders, water-carriers, and flower-girls are there; a flourish of trumpets announces the approach of the Doge, who issues in state procession, on his way to some public ceremony.62

Kean's text was also very different from anything seen before. Although their parts were much reduced, Morocco and Arragon were restored, The Times (14 June 1858) noting,

whereas the story of Portia and her caskets has hitherto seemed only subordinate to that part of the action in which Shylock and Antonio are chief figures, full justice is now done to the whole of the plot as designed by the author, and thus a play that has hitherto been attractive solely on account of certain isolated scenes is now interesting from beginning to end.

While the spectacle at the Princess's warranted the attention it received from the critics, the performances were unexciting: The Times did note that ‘Mr Charles Kean is seldom seen to more advantage than as Shylock’, but clearly the fire of his father, or even of Macready, was not lit. For developments in the acting of the Merchant, we must look to Germany and America.


Bohumil Dawison made his acting debut at the age of nineteen in his native Warsaw; after establishing himself in Hamburg, he went on to important roles in Vienna and Dresden.63 Known for his Hamlet, Othello, Lear and Richard III, he was the first Jewish actor to play Shylock in Europe, and he also toured to the United States. William Winter of the New York Tribune, as bigoted and vindictive a critic as the American theatre has ever known,64 was usually suspicious of foreign actors, but he had some good things to say about Dawison's performance at New York's Stadt Theatre in September of 1866:

The chief merits of it were authority and executive skill. The chief defect of it was an indefinable yet clearly perceptible pettiness in the quality, fibre, or essence of the character. Whatever else Shylock may not be, he is terrible. Dawison's embodiment evinced duplicity, greed, and implacable malignity, but, notwithstanding his uncommon advantages of physical stature and intellectual force, it was not terrific … the dress was skilfully fashioned to accentuate the height and leanness of the figure; the elocution was exact, fluent, and consistent, marked by a slight accent, intended to denote that Shylock is a foreigner in Venice, and that accent was intensified in moments of vehement utterance.65

In the spring of 1853, during the days of the California gold rush, the actress Catherine Sinclair, who had achieved some notoriety due to her recent divorce from Edwin Forrest, engaged a nineteen-year-old actor for a season at the San Francisco Theatre. The Placer Times and Transcript (9 September 1853) duly noted:

Last evening Mr Edwin Booth had a full house at this theatre on the occasion of his benefit. He performed for the second time the part of Shylock, in Shakespeare's play the Merchant of Venice. He was highly successful in this difficult delineation of character, giving promise of great future excellence in it. As Portia, Mrs Sinclair acquitted herself with much credit, her performances in the court scene being in our opinion, the most judicious and excellent piece of acting she has rendered on the San Francisco boards.

Booth went on to achieve an unchallenged pre-eminence amongst American actors; as with Edmund Kean, Shylock did not rank with Hamlet, Othello or Iago as one of his great roles, but he played the part often, especially as he grew older. His Jew was very much in the tradition established by Macklin—hard, cruel and single-minded in his pursuit of revenge—John Ranken Towse, one of the major critics of the day, writes ‘his portrayal was a most harmonious blend of racial prejudice and hate, insatiate avarice, dignity, craft, revengeful passion, and abject defeat. He made no pretence of elevating it with any touch of patriarchal or romantic nobility.’66

For all of his fame, Booth cannot be seen as part of a move towards a greater naturalism that was later to distinguish Shakespearean acting in America, but in Germany this movement had begun. The actor Joseph Schildkraut says of Friedrich Mitterwurzer, ‘in a period when the German stage was dominated by the romantic and declamatory school of acting, [he] was one of the few exponents of the nascent era of realism’.67 Known for his interpretation of Hjalmar Ekdal in The Wild Duck and other Ibsen characters, Mitterwurzer showed Shylock to be driven by malice, ‘the common moneypeddling Jew, rich beyond all measure, greedy and mendacious’,68 a strange mix of the traditional German clown Hanswurst, and the intense realism he brought to Ibsen.69


Squire and Marie Bancroft were having great success with the genteel comedies of Tom Robertson at their small Prince of Wales Theatre on Tottenam Street,70 so their decision to offer The Merchant of Venice in 1875 represented a new direction.

Charles Kean cut the Merchant drastically, but he did not alter the order of the scenes. The Bancrofts, hampered by a tiny stage, were forced to take a radical approach to the text: as Squire Bancroft recalls: ‘I took upon myself the great responsibility of rearranging the text of the Play, so as to avoid change of scene in sight of the audience, and to adapt the work, so far as possible, to its miniature frame.’71 He delayed 1.2 until after the first interval, and combined 1.1 and 1.3 into one scene, setting it ‘under the arches of the Doge's Palace … [with] a lovely view of Santa Salute’. The necessary passage of time between 1.1 and 1.3 was established ‘by carefully arranged processions and appropriate pantomimic action from the crowd of merchants, sailors, beggars, Jews, who were throughout passing and repassing’.72 Clement Scott mentions one important detail missing from Bancroft's list—gondolas—one seemed ‘to hear the ripple of water as [they] glide on’.73

Bancroft's invention, born of the necessity to economise on set changes, became standard practice—while different actor-managers adopted different sequences, they always grouped the Venice and Belmont scenes, the journey from one to the other taking place during an interval. Beerbohm Tree, recalling the Bancroft Merchant years later, remarks that it was ‘the first production in which the modern spirit of stage management asserted itself, transporting us as it did into the atmosphere of Venice, into the rarefied realms of Shakespearian comedy’.74

The production was not a success, due mostly to Charles Coghlan's decision to underplay Shylock in a style more suited to the modern comedies in which he had excelled, ‘a moody, sulky, and uninteresting person’.75 Obviously, one cannot have a good Merchant without a good Shylock, but the Bancrofts came close, for as Tree remembers, ‘it was here that Ellen Terry first shed the sunlight of her buoyant and radiant personality on the character of Portia’.76


Portia is by far the largest part in the play, but some aspects of the character place her out of the first rank of Shakespeare's comic heroines. Although a transvestite role, it is not one of the ‘breeches’ parts so loved in the Restoration theatre:77 instead of dressing up like Rosalind, ‘in all points like a man / A gallant curtle-ax upon [her] thigh’, she wears a legal gown, possibly reverting to civilian dress for the very brief 4.2. Unlike Rosalind, Viola, Julia or Imogen, she does not don male attire to escape danger or find her true love, but only to participate in a legal proceeding—unlike the other heroines, she gets her man in the middle of the play, and no resourcefulness or bravery is required until she decides to help her new husband's friend out of trouble; until then, her role is entirely passive. Hence we can understand why Sarah Siddons thought her ‘a character in which it was not likely that I should excite any great sensation’, while Fanny Kemble noted that Portia ‘is not a part that is generally much liked by actresses, or that excited much enthusiasm in the public’.78

Apart from being comparatively unexciting, there is also the fact that Portia is, in some respects, less than admirable. She is the chief agent of Shylock's downfall—after invalidating the bond through the ‘no jot of blood’ quibble, she unnecessarily (or so it seems) engages in a prosecution that quickly becomes a persecution: indeed, Ellen Terry notes, ‘whatever view one takes of it, it is impossible to admire it, although it may be defended on the ground that the end justifies the means’.79

Before Terry, no actress advanced her career, or even made a lasting impression, as Portia. The great Shylocks who preceded Irving—Macklin, Cooke, Kean—played opposite any number of Portias, depending on when and where they happened to be doing the play, while Terry had the advantage of long-term employment in the Lyceum company. Also, the extent to which the text was cut in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries turned Portia into a relatively minor role: without Morocco and Arragon three scenes are gone, and gone along with them is any coherent treatment of the riddle of gold, silver and lead. Bassanio's casket scene was always much abbreviated, as was Act V, if Act V was played at all.

Helen Faucit's performance has probably received more attention than it deserves because of the notoriously negative review of the Irving production that appeared in Blackwood's (December 1879)—that the author was Blackwood's publisher Sir Theodore Martin, Faucit's husband, was an open secret. Martin deplored all the qualities Terry brought to the role in an implied, and at one point explicit, comparison with his now retired wife:80 reading this review, one might think that Portia was an important part for Faucit, but Faucit spent only a few seasons with Macready, and Macready did not do the Merchant that often; most of her later career was in minor provincial companies. In 1867 she appeared in Manchester, and the North British Daily Mail was unimpressed, saying that the casket scene was ‘painful … bordering on the ridiculous’, adding that ‘Portia was never one of Miss Faucit's best characters, and she is now more than ever past looking the part’.81

Terry came to Portia with the advantage of being relatively young, twenty-eight, with a slim figure and great physical beauty. James Spedding (known primarily as an authority on Sir Francis Bacon) writes of her performance for the Bancrofts, ‘everything that she had to do seemed to come equally easy to her, and was done equally well; and the critic who would undertake to define the limits within which her power lies must be either very sagacious or very blind and deaf’.82

Some of the cuts and rearrangements the Bancrofts made to the text would have been a help, not a hindrance, to Terry—indeed, Spedding observes that ‘the part of Portia is not a long one’. In this version, instead of first being ‘aweary of this great world’, Portia was thrust into the tension of Morocco's choice of caskets. Spedding admired ‘the reserved and stately courtesy with which she received the Prince of Morocco, and explained to him the conditions of his venture; her momentary flutter of alarm as he went to make his choice; her sudden relief, mixed with amusement, when he began by dismissing the leaden casket with contempt’.83

Terry's brilliance was wasted opposite the quiet Shylock of Coghlan, but Henry Irving was looking for an Ophelia in 1878, and acting on the advice of his friends Sir Frederick and Lady Pollock, he engaged Terry. After her success in that part, and as Pauline in Lytton's ever-popular Lady of Lyons, Irving cast her as Portia, and the result was, in terms of longevity and audience approval, the most successful production ever of The Merchant of Venice.

So much has been written about the Lyceum Merchant, which opened on 1 November 1879, that only a few main points can be dealt with here—Irving's stage business is well recorded in reviews, biographies and other historical literature, and key moments, such as his famous ‘return’ to an empty house after Jessica's elopement, are described in the textual commentary.

Lyceum productions were highly regarded for the quality of their scenery, but the Merchant of 1879 was not particularly lavish, its total cost being only £1,200. As Irving's biographer August Brereton notes, the production was ‘a revelation, but it was made so by the intelligence and admirable acting, not, as some people seem to think … by the scenery’.84 The story of how Irving decided to play Shylock after observing Levantine merchants while on a Mediterranean cruise is well known; it is also said that he went for a more dignified Jew because he knew how limited an actor he was, without the physical or vocal power of a Macklin or a Kemble. In a remarkably well-written review, the Spectator (8 November 1879) describes the qualities Irving brought to Shylock, and the social attitudes that articulate spectators brought to, and derived from, the performance:

Probably, to every mind, except that of Shakespeare himself—in which all potential interpretations of his Shylock, as all potential interpretations of his Hamlet, must have had a place—the complex image which Mr Irving, presented to a crowd more or less impressed with notions of their own concerning the Jew whom Shakespeare drew, was entirely novel and unexpected; for here is a man whom none can despise, who can raise emotions both of pity and of fear, and make us Christians thrill with a retrospective sense of shame. Here is an usurer indeed, but no more like the customary modern rendering of that extortionate lender of whom Bassanio borrowed ‘monies’, than the merchants dei Medici were like pawnbrokers down Whitechapel way; an usurer, indeed, and full of ‘thrift’, which is rather the protest of his disdain and disgust for the sensuality and frivolity of the ribald crew out of whom he makes his ‘Christian ducats’, than of his own sordidness … a Jew, in intellectual faculties, in spiritual discipline, far in advance of the time and the country in which he lives, shaken with strong passion sometimes, but for the most part fixed in a deep and weary disdain.

This Shylock is not from the world of Whitechapel pawnbrokers—in mentioning contemporary Jewish life, the critic instantly dismisses it as being of no relevance to the play. Irving is opposed to another Shylock, the presumed Shylock of two centuries ago, and it is in comparison with this Shylock that Irving can ‘make us Christians thrill with a retrospective sense of shame’.

While Irving played a fuller text than was customary at that time (he included Morocco but not Arragon), Portia's part was still heavily cut. What most endeared Terry to the audience, and offended the more conservative critics, was her beauty, her gaiety and the frankness with which she portrayed her sexual desire for Bassanio. Blackwood's was especially disapproving of how Terry held Bassanio

caressingly by the hand, nay, almost in an embrace, with all the unrestrained fondness which is conceivable only after he had actually won her … There is, altogether, a great deal too much of what Rosalind calls ‘a coming-on disposition’85 in Miss Terry's bearing towards her lover. It is a general fault with her, but in Portia it is painfully out of place.

Terry's forwardness was also more than Henry James could cope with. To this ‘miserable little snob’,86 as Theodore Roosevelt once called him, Terry

giggles too much, plays too much with her fingers, is too free and familiar, too osculatory, in her relations with Bassanio. The mistress of Belmont was a great lady, as well as a tender and clever woman; but this side of the part quite eludes the actress, whose deportment is not such as we should expect in the splendid spinster who has princes for wooers. When Bassanio has chosen the casket which contains the key of her heart, she approaches him, and begins to pat and stroke him. This seems to us an appallingly false note, ‘Good heavens, she's touching him!’ a person sitting next to us exclaimed—a person whose judgment in such matters is always unerring.

James's ‘unerring’ judge was the former Portia, Fanny Kemble.87


The Lyceum production marks a major turning point in the history of the Merchant: Irving joined Macklin, Cooke and Kean as a Shylock against whom future performers would be measured, and for the first time Portia attracted considerable notice. This was as true in the United States as it was in England, since Irving's company made no less than six American tours between 1883 and 1903.

One nearly immediate effect of Irving's success was that the play would no longer be acceptable without Act V. When Lawrence Barrett staged the Merchant in 1886, using his friend Edwin Booth's text, Shakespeariana's critic complained, ‘The charming fifth act, which so ideally and joyously rounds out the comedy, is altogether cut, and only a ragged here and there, and a consciousness of inconsequence, in scenes not wholly dedicated to the Jew, remain vaguely to remind us of the perfect whole we miss.’88

Booth and Barrett jointly mounted a new Merchant in the following season, and 5.1 was restored, the newly executed set revealing, as described in the Philadelphia Item, Jessica and Lorenzo in a ‘dreamy Italian garden by moonlight, with rose-colored lamps and twinkling stars’.89 They went to great lengths to ensure that the other sets, too, would outdo anything yet seen in America: Act I showed ‘the Piazzetta of St Mark along the south side of the Palace of the Doges, whose columned facade filled the side of the stage to the audience's right’, and for Act II Shylock's house stood beside a bridge spanning a canal, high enough so that a gondola could pass underneath with its gondolier standing.90 The beautiful Polish actress Helena Modjeska, who had great success as Ophelia, was their Portia. Her performance was distinguished by the quiet earnestness with which she delivered the ‘mercy’ speech.91

As noted, Booth's Shylock was a much darker character than Irving's, and some of the stage business in his promptbooks is reminiscent of Victorian melodrama. He was not unaware that his performance might be seen as a libel against the Jewish people, but like many an actor after him, he believed that to play Shylock essentially as a villain was to remain faithful to Shakespeare's intention, however problematic that might be to modern sentiments. He once wrote to Richard Mansfield, another notable Shylock, ‘it is not easy to estimate how much the antipathies to the Jewish race have been sharpened by those portrayals of the wolf-like ferocity of the one great figure that typifies the spirit of usury’.92

Mansfield, an accomplished musician as well as a versatile actor, played only a few Shakespearean leads in a career cut short by an early death; his great successes were as Jekyll/Hyde in a stage adaptation of Stevenson's tale, and as Cyrano de Bergerac. The story of Mansfield's Merchant is a strange one:93 while on his third American tour of 1887-8, Henry Irving saw Mansfield perform, and was so impressed that he invited him to appear for a season at the Lyceum, a season that unfortunately did not prove to be a success. Mansfield ended up owing Irving a large amount of money, and subsequently developed an irrational and obsessive hatred of his erstwhile friend—when he came to play Shylock in 1893, opposite his wife Beatrice Cameron as Portia, Mansfield most wanted to better Irving, about to embark on another American tour, by returning to the ‘true’ Shylock of Shakespeare. He wrote to William Winter, ‘I shall make Shylock what Shakespeare evidently intended: a hotblooded, revengeful & rapacious Oriental Jew.’ Winter then praised Mansfield's interpretation for having ‘brought into the strongest relief the craft and wickedness of his motives, the malignity of his hatred, and the deadly determination of his passion for revenge’, but the production played to poor houses in Chicago, where Irving had been a short time previously. Mansfield blamed Winter: ‘Damn your criticisms! … I had a deuce of a time getting our only patrons, the Jews, to come and see The Merchant, because you made me out a fiend and a vulture.’94

More successful in post-Irving America was Augustin Daly, one of the most powerful managers of the century, known especially for bringing elaborate spectacle to his productions of Shakespeare. Daly's first encounter with the Merchant was in 1875, and he followed the (by then) traditional pattern of a rearranged text to allow for scenic tableaux. Towse thought that the ‘the rich dressing and picturesque setting’ made ‘small amends for the irreverent and often incapable treatment of the text’,95 but he admired the Shylock of E. L. Davenport:

He surpassed Edwin Booth in range, though inferior to him in subtlety and electrical tragic inspiration. His Jew was a forceful and consistent study, masterful, keen, with a note of menace in its sarcastic self-control. He was intense rather than tempestuous, and tore no passion to tatters … the concentrated, cool, and deadly purpose of his acting in the court scene was appalling, and his final collapse a tragic picture of blank and irremediable despair.96

Twenty-three years later Daly chose The Merchant of Venice for what was to be his last and most sumptuous Shakespearean production. Unlike his previous effort, this was after Irving's American tours and the Booth/Barrett revival, and Daly was determined to surpass them. Venice was prettified—Shylock's house, ‘mouldy and crumbling’ in Booth and Barrett's production, was gaily painted and covered with roses, and there were more extras providing atmosphere than had ever been seen in the Merchant.97 Apart from the scenery, Daly's leading lady, Ada Rehan, was the only real attraction—Sidney Herbert was too limited and inexperienced an actor to succeed Davenport, and Daly's last production was not one of his triumphs.98

The Shylock of Scottish-born Robert Mantell, an audience favourite in a variety of heroic roles, would have been more important had he been able to play New York in his prime, but he had to remain outside the state because of a pending arrest warrant for failing to meet alimony payments. His Hamlet and Othello were a hit with the public, but received only guarded approval from the critics, due to his tendency to over-act in the more passionate scenes. One would expect that these excesses would be even worse as Shylock, but to Mantell's credit, he gave a controlled performance, moving William Edgett to write in the Boston Evening Transcript, ‘so perfect is his command of himself that he is able to give a quiet and downright restrained earnestness to the single phrase, “I am a Jew”, in the midst of a long speech that is aflame with uninterrupted passion and pathos’.99

Even when allowing for the varying perceptions of individual critics, around the turn of the century we see a definite pattern emerging in American attitudes to the way Shylock should be played. Irving still cast a long shadow over his successors, who found themselves hard-pressed to place their own stamp on the role: Mansfield and Sothern, in presenting a physically unpleasant and undignified Shylock, received little approval for their efforts, while Mantell earned respect for his restraint. …


  1. Bloom, Shakespeare, pp. 171-2.

  2. Foakes and Rickert, Henslowe's Diary, p. 255.

  3. Calendar of State Papers, pp. 90-6, 453-62.

  4. Berek, ‘The Jew as Renaissance Man’, pp. 149-53; D. Katz, Jews, pp. 90-6.

  5. Gross, Shylock, pp. 16-17. For a more detailed argument denying that Shylock conformed to a stereotype, see Edelman, ‘Which is the Jew’.

  6. Baum, ‘Judas's Red Hair’, p. 520.

  7. Collier, Memoirs of the Principal Actors, p. 53.

  8. Stoll, Shakespeare Studies, p. 255.

  9. Chambers and Pullan, Venice, pp. 338-49. In a 1977 article, Brian Pullan finds little trace of popular resentment against Jews in Renaissance Venice, and where it did exist, it seems to have been amongst Greeks or other minorities, not Italians (Pullan, ‘A Ship with Two Rudders’, p. 54).

  10. Roth, Venice, p. 116.

  11. Jones, God and the Moneylenders, pp. 78, 144 ff.

  12. Honigmann, ‘World Elsewhere’, pp. 41-5; Honigmann, Shakespeare's Impact, pp. 8-14.

  13. Furness, A New Variorum Edition, p. 449.

  14. Rubinstein, History of the Jews, pp. 44-5.

  15. Ibid., p. 62.

  16. D. Katz, Jews, p. 157.

  17. In the 1680s Ashkenazi immigration to England increased, and by 1690 enough German Jews lived in London for them to form their own independent community. The first Ashkenazi synagogue, later known as the Great Synagogue, was founded in Duke's Place in 1690. In 1695 the London census showed 853 Jewish names, 255 (30 per cent) of them Ashkenazi (Rubinstein, History of the Jews, p. 61).

  18. See Halio, Merchant, pp. 61-2.

  19. Hoppit, Land of Liberty, p. 4.

  20. Biographical Dictionary.

  21. Gross, Shylock, pp. 91-2.

  22. Dobson, ‘Improving on the Original’, p. 64.

  23. London Stage, pt. 3, p. cx.

  24. Gentleman, Dramatic Censor, p. 292.

  25. Biographical Dictionary.

  26. Gentleman, Dramatic Censor, p. 297.

  27. Odell, Shakespeare, p. 15.

  28. Williams, Shakespeare on the German Stage, p. 133. I am very much indebted to Williams's magisterial study.

  29. Bruford, Theatre Drama, p. 34.

  30. Ibid., pp. 255, 302.

  31. Banham, Cambridge Guide, p. 470.

  32. Häublein, ‘Ein Stück’, p. 37.

  33. Williams, Shakespeare on the German Stage, p. 135.

  34. Devrient, Geschichte, vol. I, p. 525.

  35. This was not Kemble's first attempt at the part—he did it at Smock Alley, Dublin, and for his London debut in January, 1784.

  36. Gentleman, Dramatic Censor, p. 293.

  37. See Appendix 1.

  38. Hare, George Frederick Cooke, p. 113.

  39. He had appeared in London before, at the Little Theatre, Haymarket, in 1778.

  40. Hare, George Frederick Cooke, p. 119.

  41. Odell, Annals., pp. 359-60.

  42. qtd Cornwall, Life of Edmund Kean, p. 219.

  43. Hawkins, Life of Edmund Kean, vol. I, p. 126.

  44. Lelyveld, Shylock on the Stage, p. 42.

  45. qtd Bate, The Romantics on Shakespeare, p. 160.

  46. Shattuck, American Stage, vol. I, p. 50.

  47. qtd Bate, The Romantics on Shakespeare, p. 201.

  48. Hazlitt, View of the English Stage, p. 179.

  49. Ibid., p. 296.

  50. Ibid., pp. 323-4.

  51. Gross, Shylock, p. 107.

  52. Bate, ‘Romantic Stage’, p. 107.

  53. Ibid., p. 108.

  54. Williams, Shakespeare on the German Stage, p. 137.

  55. Ibid., pp. 137-8.

  56. Williams, German Actors, p. 85.

  57. Beatty-Kingston, ‘Shylock in Germany’, p. 87.

  58. Faucit's Portia is discussed further, p. 22.

  59. Odell, Shakespeare p. 227.

  60. In Shakespeare and the Jews, Shapiro questions the conclusions of Katz and other historians (see above, p. 6), who regard this time as one of improvement for England's Jews, as ‘wishful thinking’ (p. 193). But Shapiro's own use of incidents such as the Jew Bill of 1753 as proof of pervasive anti-Semitism is equally questionable.

  61. Rubinstein, History of the Jews, p. 69.

  62. Cole, Life of Charles Kean, pp. 264-5. One of the flower-girls was the ten-year-old Ellen Terry.

  63. Ewbank, ‘European Cross Currents’, p. 133.

  64. Atkinson, Broadway, p. 91.

  65. Winter, Shakespeare on the Stage, pp. 163-4.

  66. Towse, Sixty Years, p. 189.

  67. Schildkraut, My Father, pp. 40-1.

  68. qtd Williams, German Actors, p. 132.

  69. Williams, Shakespeare on the German Stage, pp. 145-6.

  70. Jackson, ‘Actor-Managers’, p. 115.

  71. Bancroft, Bancrofts, p. 226.

  72. Ibid., p. 227.

  73. Scott, Drama of Yesterday and Today, p. 583.

  74. Tree, Thoughts, p. 44.

  75. Scott, Drama of Yesterday and Today, p. 188.

  76. Tree, Thoughts, p. 44.

  77. See Hankey, ‘Victorian Portias’, p. 433.

  78. qtd ibid., p. 434.

  79. Terry, Four Lectures, p. 121.

  80. See pp. 25, 192, 234.

  81. qtd Carlisle, Helen Faucit, pp. 218-19.

  82. Spedding, Reviews and Discussions, p. 361.

  83. Ibid.

  84. Brereton, Life of Henry Irving, vol. II, p. 301.

  85. As You Like It, 4.1.112-13.

  86. qtd Cunliffe, Literature of the United States, p. 258.

  87. James, Scenic Art, pp. xviii, 143.

  88. ‘The Drama’, pp. 523, 524.

  89. qtd Shattuck, Amer.II, pp. 48-9.

  90. Ibid., p. 48.

  91. See p. 223.

  92. Shattuck, Amer.II, p. 50.

  93. For a fuller account see ibid., pp. 211-25.

  94. Ibid., pp. 217-18.

  95. Towse, Sixty Years, p. 130.

  96. Ibid., p. 131.

  97. Shattuck, Amer.II, pp. 92-3.

  98. Photographs of Augustin Daly's sets for his last great Shakespearean revival of 1898 are in ibid.

  99. 7 March 1907, qtd ibid., p. 239.



Bawcutt, N. W., ed. The Jew of Malta. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1978.

Furness, H. H. A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1888.

Granville, George. The Jew of Venice. London: 1701.

Standard Reference Works

A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers & Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660-1800. Ed. Philip H. Highfill, Jr, Kalman A. Burnim and Edward A. Langhans. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1973-8.

Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Series, Of the Reign of Elizabeth, 1591-4. Nendeln: Kraus, 1967.

The London Stage, 1660-1800: A calendar of plays, entertainments & afterpieces, together with casts, box-receipts and contemporary comment / Compiled from the playbills, newspapers and theatrical diaries of the period. 5 pts. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1960-8.

Other Works: Printed

Atkinson, Brooks. Broadway. London: Cassell, 1971.

Bancroft, Marie and Squire. The Bancrofts: Recollections of Sixty Years. London: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1911.

Banham, Martin, ed. Cambridge Guide to World Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Bate, Jonathan. The Romantics on Shakespeare. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992.

Baum, Paul Franklinn. ‘Judas's Red Hair’. Journal of English and Germanic Philology 21 (1922): 520-9.

Beatty-Kingston, William. ‘Shylock in Germany’. The Theatre 1 (1880): 17-20, 86-90.

Berek, Peter. ‘The Jew as Renaissance Man’. Renaissance Quarterly 51 (1998): 128-62.

Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. London: Fourth Estate, 1999.

Brereton, Austin. The Life of Henry Irving. 2 vols. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1908.

Bruford, W. H. Theatre Drama and Audience in Goethe's Germany. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1950.

Carlisle, Carol Jones. Helen Faucit: Fire and Ice on the Victorian Stage. London: Society for Theatre Research, 2000.

Chambers, David and Brian Pullan, eds. Venice: A Documentary History, 1450-1630. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992.

Cole, John William. The Life and Theatrical Times of Charles Kean, F.S.A., vol. II [1859]. New York: Garland, 1986.

Collier, J. Payne. Memoirs of the Principal Actors in the Plays of Shakespeare. London: Shakespeare Society, 1846.

[Cornwall, Barry]. The Life of Edmund Kean. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1835.

Cunliffe, Marcus. The Literature of the United States. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967.

Devrient, Eduard. Geschichte der Deutschen Schauspielkunst, vol. I. Berlin: Henschelverlag, 1967.

Dobson, Michael. ‘Improving on the Original: Actresses and Adaptations’. In Shakespeare: An Illustrated Stage History. Ed. Jonathan Bate and Russell Jackson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Ewbank, Inga-Stina. ‘European Cross Currents: Ibsen and Brech’. In Shakespeare: An Illustrated Stage History. Ed. Jonathan Bate and Russell Jackson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Foakes, R. A. and R. T. Rickert, ed. Henslowe's Diary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961.

Gentleman, Francis. The Dramatic Censor, or Critical Companion. 2 vols. London: J. Bell, 1770.

Gross, John. Shylock: Four Hundred Years in the Life of a Legend. New York: Vintage, 1994.

Halio, Jay L., introd. The Merchant of Venice. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Hankey, Julie. ‘Victorian Portias: Shakespeare's Borderline Heroine’. Shakespeare Quarterly 45 (1994): 426-48.

Hare, Arnold. George Frederick Cooke: The Actor and the Man. London: Society for Theatre Research, 1980.

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Hawkins, Frederick William. The Life of Edmund Kean. 2 vols. London: Tinsley Brothers, 1969.

Hazlitt, William. A View of the English Stage. Ed. W. Spencer Jackson. London: Bell, 1906.

Honigmann, E. A. J. ‘“There is a World Elsewhere”, William Shakespeare, Businessman’. In Images of Shakespeare: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the International Shakespeare Association, 1986. Ed. Werner Habicht, D. J. Palmer, Roger Pringle. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1986.

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Lelyveld, Toby. Shylock on the Stage. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1961.

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John K. Hale (essay date 2002)

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SOURCE: Hale, John K. “Does Source Criticism Illuminate the Problems of Interpreting The Merchant as a Soured Comedy?” In The Merchant of Venice: New Critical Essays, edited by John W. Mahon and Ellen Macleod Mahon, pp. 187-97. New York: Routledge, 2002.

[In the following essay, Hale discusses Shakespeare's use of Il Pecorone as a source for The Merchant of Venice.]

The value of source-criticism within Shakespeare is ancillary, negative, and indicative. It will help us think about a play or scene. It will tell us how not to think about them. And in the absence of other hard evidence as to the genesis or intention of a play, source-criticism—by showing where and how a play began—can indicate directions of imaginative change. In fact, the pattern of what Shakespeare leaves out, picks up, extends, and adds from elsewhere indicates a great deal.

These truisms apply with particular force to The Merchant of Venice, for two main reasons. First, the play's storyline keeps very close to its main source, the story of Giannetto from Il Pecorone—from the initial borrowing of capital for a wooing journey by the young protégé of the Venetian merchant, through the sex-disguising and trial scene, to the concluding practical joke of the wedding rings. Secondly, source-study has something to put alongside the play's theatre and critical history, in which Shylock dominates. Just as Shylock's original, the “Jew of Mestri,” had not even a name, so Shylock appears in a bare five scenes and is absent from the finale: what sort of play did Shakespeare think he was writing, even if we know better about the one he did create?

Without expecting to change anyone's mind, and indeed without quite knowing my own mind,1 I offer as a reality check the following observations about how Shakespeare went to work on the chosen materials. The chief emphasis will fall on Il Pecorone, which is a skeleton for the story and characters together—the entire central transaction, of the pound-of-flesh bond and its results.2 The parties to the transaction will be called the “Beneficiary” of the bond (Giannetto/Bassanio), its “Donor” (Ansaldo/Antonio), the “prize” or “Lady” (the widow of Belmonte/Portia3), and the “Bondholder” (the Jew of Mestri/Shylock). Other sources will be acknowledged at the appropriate points of a (mainly) scene-by-scene analysis.4

The opening scene shows the young protégé raising the wind from his kinsman.5 This is exactly as in the source, except that Bassanio is doing it for the first and only time: Shakespeare cunningly alters Giannetto's three attempts at his widow, into Bassanio's being the third of three suitors tackling the moral riddle whose solution brings marriage with Portia. (He shows mental and moral penetration, whereas Giannetto had trouble achieving the physical sort.)

More simply, Shakespeare begins as usual in medias res. The emotions of Bassanio on this single occasion are those of Giannetto at the final one—embarrassment, some shame, dependency, and withal a loverlike determination. The emotions of the Donor, and indeed his prominence, have shifted, towards or even past equality. Though we instinctively call the source “Giannetto's story,” Shakespeare is launching “the Merchant of Venice,” Antonio's story. Antonio is onstage for the entire scene, with emphatic probing of his melancholy. In this, the feelings of a surrogate father (Ansaldo) are extended into a burdensome overplus of grief (which “wearies” Antonio himself, and all of the group [1.1.2] if “you” is plural) for imminent loss, which Antonio cannot express to Bassanio but which all the more clouds the giving.

The second scene is assigned to Portia, Belmont, and the strange conditions of courting her. Since the first two conditions have been introduced already, the new scene concentrates on the third: there is more to this courtship than a cash float and love-glances. Shakespeare of course splices in here his adaptation of the “Caskets” romance,6 but he dwells equally on her father's mysterious will for Portia. The play has much to say about fathers, and even more about people whose life's fulfillment depends—in the manner of a wager—upon a single choice, made by someone else. Because the scene holds no events, only exposition, jokes, and thematic wonderment, it makes us think around the design; to other fathers (Shylock and old Gobbo, maybe Antonio as father-figure); and to those who depend on choices by others (Antonio, three couples, Shylock, and Jessica). The source said much less about fathers, so Shakespeare's addition of them is intriguing. Risk, however, was embedded in the source, at all its points, in both its locations. The scene also sets going a connection of places (whether to differentiate them, or to align them), by which Belmont will have almost as many scenes as Venice and the action will close there—Shakespeare again giving life to what lay inert in his source.

In his third scene Shakespeare introduces the remaining figure of his source's quadrilateral transaction, the Jewish moneylender. It is striking that when (improbably but necessarily) the Donor can find no lender except the hostile Jew, the latter is not found out as a last resort by Ansaldo himself but by Bassanio, who brings him along to Antonio. Of what is the change indicative? Is it made to involve Bassanio more deeply in responsibility (a character-based explanation)? To build up the Bondholder by giving him further relationships (for enhancement of another character)? To enable him to express motivation through soliloquy, such as no previous character has needed? To strengthen the fateful transaction and its scene by building to the meeting of the play's two mighty opposites? Although one purpose does not preclude another in Shakespeare, a source-approach hints at the last-named possibility. The scene is made stronger by the change, and many other source-changes serve the same end. The previous two scenes having rearranged a mass of good detail to gain strong scenes, this third one seeks a still stronger scene, a scene not of latent tension but outright conflict, and not of things unsaid but palpable rancor, ominously patched up.

This, however, leaves unexplained why Shylock alone of the main foursome needs a soliloquy to launch him. After all, later on he will talk of his motives to any bystander, and Shakespeare will give him Tubal for more intimate confidences. In general, soliloquy near the start of action puts emphasis on apartness, aloneness, secrecy, and ill will, if Richard III's or Hamlet's are parallel. But in particular, using the source as guide, the soliloquy is Shakespeare's expansion of minimal matter from his source. The Jew of Mestri's intentions are not stated at all at the equivalent point of the novella (Bullough 469), and emerge only later, when after the crash of Ansaldo's fortunes he refuses the offer of repayment from “many merchants joined together … for he wished to commit this homicide in order to be able to say that he had put to death the greatest of the Christian merchants” (472). The changes are extremely indicative here, and helpful to Shakespeare's interpreters, including all three actors of the scene. He wants to establish motivation at once, not by and by. Nor is the motivation that of the novella, a Guinness-Book-of-Records ambition for a twisted glory. The soliloquy expresses contempt and Jewish identity (36), then religious antipathy (37), “but more” it expresses commercial resentment. Then “grudge,” against Antonio as commercial and racial enemy: “he hates our sacred nation” and so in return “cursèd be my tribe / If I forgive him.” All of these manifold motives, entwined like a snake dance, will be developed into actions later; and albeit extended by new motives such as his loss of Jessica and her looted dowry, they are here already made his guiding principles. It is simply untrue that Shylock means his “merry sport” merrily, or as a genuine overture, or that he plans revenge only after later losses, because Shakespeare has written such a strong weltering of motives into this explanatory, unsourced, initial soliloquy. In soliloquy, characters do not lie, except sometimes to themselves.

Shakespeare is putting further expansion, that is to say conscious effort, into the argument about Laban's sheep (lines 66-97). Using the Bible now as source, he shows us Shylock raising the subject of Jacob's triumph in that story of patriarchs' wagering. Antonio gives a haughty rebuttal whilst Shylock collects the laugh. Which was more Shakespeare's design is still being debated, but from our present standpoint in any case we can see both characters more deeply as a result—Shylock aggressively identifying with the most tricky of the patriarchs who was nonethelesss to carry the blessing upon Israel, and Antonio self-righteous in orthodoxy (Bassanio silent, embarrassed and impatient). A wider significance, perhaps, is that Shakespeare has picked on this precise passage of the Scripture which their religions share, with its inscrutable sheep genetics and its awkward (surely ex post facto) vindication (Genesis 31.12), in which God in Jacob's dream had explained his success as divine retaliation against Laban's exploitations of Jacob. The murky episode, in which Shylock casts himself as Jacob, makes Antonio an exploitative Laban: this accounts for Antonio's otherwise excessive anger, for he hates losing face in front of Bassanio.

The rest of the scene is all Shakespeare's own, with its excess and hubris on Antonio's part,7 Bassanio's fears for his benefactor and dismay at the terms of the Bond, and Shylock's steady working of the advantage first gained in the biblical altercation.

The following ten scenes, 2.1 through 3.1, are mainly short ones. Individually they may seem minor, preparing as they certainly do for the double crisis of act 3, scene 2. Nonetheless, they are better seen together first, because thus they reveal Shakespeare's persistent interweaving. The sequence interweaves the pound-of-flesh motif with the wooing motif, the two strands of the main plot, and furthermore interweaves both with several further risk-actions (Gobbo, Gratiano, Jessica). These come from diverse sources. They are not all interwoven in the same way. They do not all have the like impact. The manysidedness of this whole is the myriad-mindedness which Coleridge admired in Shakespeare. And it provides the key to full enjoyment of this play. Seen in this context, Shylock's refusal to change provides one dark contrast to the many changes for the better which characterize comedy, though it is not the sole such contrast. Just the same, comedy normally favors change.8

Briefly to substantiate all that, Morocco—another outsider as to race and religion—is the first to undertake the risk of the caskets test (2.1 and 7). Then in the longer 2.2, Gobbo tricks his father, only to rue it; together they sue for him to leave Shylock's service and join Bassanio's. Gratiano, too, “must” accompany him to Belmont. Jessica, not seen till 2.3, dominates the next four scenes—not joining Bassanio nor at this juncture going to Belmont, but decisively rejecting her father Shylock, religion and all. In 2.8 Antonio's losses commence, and with them the threat from Shylock, whose other losses (daughter and ducats) have enraged him. Antonio was angry and off-balance in 1.3: now it is Shylock's turn. Losses proliferate as Arragon (an outsider in religion though not in race) becomes the second to pick a wrong casket, and Shylock is torn between grief and glee; grief at his own losses, glee at Antonio's. I discern no privileging whatever of Shylock's strand over all the others within this expert web. Interaction and multiplicity are the guiding principles.

In 3.2, by contrast, hierarchy is pivotal. Bassanio's successful choosing modulates, absurdly, into Gratiano's noisy jubilation: Bassanio's choosing, which is not a lucky dip, occasions Gratiano's success, which is, a silly side bet. Then by a further excellent modulation, “Enter Lorenzo, Jessica, and Salerio, a messenger from Venice”: Salerio brings news of Antonio's mortal danger, while Jessica's sole speech confirms that danger. The spotlight moves away from the Beneficiary, and from the Lady, too, though to a lesser extent because the plot still keeps her passive, to the Donor and Bondholder. It stays with the last two for the next scene. But then with the sex-disguising of the Lady, and her getting into motion at last, attention shifts to her preparations for meeting—her sole, and incognito meeting—with the Bondholder.

What, then, is 3.5 included for? It is not enough to say it covers the lapse of time while Portia reaches Venice, since that journey can be quick or slow at Shakespeare's own wish (and any other small scene would serve the same purpose). It shows Jessica, with Gobbo again, then with Lorenzo. Jessica, to my mind, is Shakespeare's largest and most significant addition to the Bondholder's role. It is worth mentioning that she has seven scenes, her father five. She shares only one scene with him, in which she speaks to him only when spoken to (receiving several commands and one hot question—2.5.10-55). So what does this large addition contribute?

Contrasting strongly with her passive, innocent prototype Abigail,9 Jessica is proactive and determined. She throws down her father's money from a window like Abigail, but to her lover, not her father. She is given many of the quintessential attributes of heroines in romance comedy—male disguise, giggling about it, participation in masque, abandoning family for lover like Juliet—but like Desdemona crossing a racial gap, too. Is it her change of religion which alienates current feminist sympathies? If so, this too was taken from Marlowe's Abigail. I find it odd, then, that Jessica attracts a modern odium, for example from many of my students: Shakespeare is empowering her, at least equally with the other two cross-dressing heroines.

He is not empowering her for empowerment's sake, but to represent a strong counterweight to what her father represents. It is done subtly whenever she has a scene, or (more often) part of one. “Our house is hell,” she says to Gobbo, “and thou (a merry devil) / Didst rob it of some taste of tediousness” (2.3.2-3, her first speech in the play sings a keynote). At the other end of the play she is “never merry when I hear sweet music,” which Lorenzo diagnoses as “attentiveness”—thoughtfulness or intenseness. She has had reason to be both; and yet the two laugh together about dangerous topics like untrustworthy lovers (5.1.1-22).10 Shakespeare seems eager to qualify her for comic luck, all the more because he writes so many passages which explain that her father is disqualified for it!11

It is amongst all of this added Jessica material that Shakespeare adds two passages which have most elicited sympathy for Shylock: “Hath not a Jew eyes?” and Jessica's theft of his wife's engagement ring, both in 3.1. The first is said to Solanio and Salerio, after they have concluded their jeering at him; the second is said to Tubal, whose alternating good and bad news has reduced Shylock to a suffering automaton.

The first is therefore natural anger, strongly expressed, and meant to alarm them. They have deserved all of it. The second is actually the stronger effect, because it swings between absurdity and pathos. The element common to the two passages is reductiveness, in the one case Antonio's flesh as fish bait and the meaning of life narrowed to revenge, in the other case Shylock swung between extremes of schadenfreude and self-centered misery. As Shakespeare is inventing all of this,12 we need to ask for what purpose, or to what discernible authorial effect? So far, I discern the desire to make a strong scene, part of which is the aptness of Shylock's words to his Venetian interlocutors.

But then, next, to Tubal. What is the fellow-Jew up to? Presumably we are not to think, with friends like this who needs enemies? Perhaps Tubal is up to nothing, being an unknown quantity—there for Shylock to react to, and to his news, not himself. So we keep our eyes on Shylock, more than in the previous exchange. This helps explain why Jessica gets the blame. One could just laugh at the idea of wasting a valuable ring on a pet monkey, or relish the idea that the miser's daughter has become one of life's big spenders. Or one could sympathize with Shylock's hurt at his engagement ring being lost to him. Should we? We know nothing about his Leah, nor whether she was Jessica's mother. The passage as a whole is nonetheless showing us a strongly suffering Shylock, who is “tortured” and excessive and absurd, by turns or even all at once. The stronger this scene is, the stronger will be the showdown in 4.1. Source-criticism is alerting us to Shakespeare's extensions and additions, and these alert us to his dramaturgy; here, in the form of that “principle of episodic intensification” which is normal on the Elizabethan stage, but can lead to overinterpretation or misunderstanding. Shakespeare's wealth of specificity and ambivalent empathy in the scene can distort our perception if we do not recognize that they exist in Jessica's scenes too, and others—such as the Trial scene itself, greatest and last for Shylock, yet not for others. (The fact that Jessica is withheld means that counterweight is available later.)13 Hence, by the principle of episodic intensification once more, in the Trial scene Shakespeare gives his Bondholder the most rousing possible finish, trusting to his own experience and intuition to restore the balance later, by benefitting later scenes similarly. Did he succeed, is the question? And are we prepared to let him, is the question to ourselves.

The Trial scene is the one closest to the novella. The source has the same shape: pleas from “the merchants of Venice one and all” are made to the Jew, who, however, insists on getting Venetian—that is, strict—justice (Bullough 472); he is offered up to ten times the amount of the bond, without avail; the disguised heroine hears the case and urges him to quit while he is so far ahead; and when he refuses, she springs the trap; and a reverse-auction (Dutch auction) ensues. Here we begin to notice divergence in Shakespeare's treatment. In the source the bond is declared null and void, everyone “mocked at the Jew, saying, ‘He who lays snares for others is caught himself’” (Bullough 474). The Jew then “took his bond and tore it in pieces in a rage.” In the play there is less of a reverse-auction, and nothing explicit about the bond itself,14 more of mockery, a different moralitas. Responses of bystanders differ from one another (this is important and often ignored by critics). Instead of a stormy sudden exit like Malvolio's, Shylock's is prolonged. The delaying of the exit, and its qualities when at last it does come, is the heart of the problem of this play for us all.

My view can already be guessed. It is dramaturgical more than ethical. Shakespeare has seen how to milk the situation for a bewildering variety of effects, now that the hard work is all done and before the comic sequel is reached. And he does milk it.15 It is episodic intensification with a vengeance, because it creates not just a variety of strong effects but a literally bewildering variety. We are left not knowing what to think; and as the debate shows, this is not a contented relinquishing of any need to make judgment, but rather a need to make judgment which is not, and cannot, be satisfied. I take those points of divergence one by one in the same order.

The bond is not declared “null and void” in Shakespeare; rather, it is upheld to the full by Portia (“all justice,” “nothing but the penalty” she says), and woe betide Shylock if he deviate by a hair's breadth. This emphasizes the peripeteia, not suddenly, but by a reverse literalism, rubbing in the defeat. What is swift in the source, with “everyone present” mocking the loser when his plot backfires, and with the Jew tearing up his bond, is being made gradual and (among other things) educative. It is by nature hard to distinguish “teaching someone a lesson” (with deterrence and reform uppermost in the punishment) from retribution; and the slower the process, the more like a vengeance.

The case is alike regarding the Bond, the paper document as stage property, whose presence is often implied, and which must end up somewhere once Shylock has lost. Many actors of Shylock have torn it up anyway, as a good dramatic admission of defeat; but Shakespeare does not specify it, and this may well be because the trial is now passing beyond what the bond says, to something else. That something else is not a contest about bonds, but about what is to happen on the other charges to which (Portia reveals) he is liable, conspiracy against the life of a Venetian (345). Shylock is not getting more than he bargained for. Seen one way, this is fitting, being inherent in any act of hubris. Seen in the light of the sequel, his forcible conversion and stripping of assets, it looks more as if he is being punished for what he is, than for what he has done—since in a sense he has done (accomplished) absolutely nothing. Whose will is done, then? The court's? The state's? Portia's? Antonio's? Let us see who says what, in the process by which Shakespeare diversifies what “everyone present” said, into the responses of Gratiano, Bassanio, the Duke, Portia, and Antonio.

Gratiano is very vocal, jeering in the loudmouth way which Bassanio had long before disrelished and which now blossoms into racist jokes. Bassanio simply wants to give the Jew back his principal (333) but is overruled by Portia: since in 1.3 and later in the present scene he is overruled by Antonio, he seems decent, dependent, and accommodating, the sort who finds it hard to say no. The Duke pardons Shylock for two lines, then imposes conditions—as befits a lawcourt, but hardly a comic one.16 Portia is legalistic now: her celebrated appeal for mercy is absent, or muted into asking Antonio “What mercy can you render him, Antonio?” She is keeping up her role, and testing the Merchant of Venice (whose “mercy” comes last and is made the Duke's decision also). Maybe the whole play tests this merchant. It is Antonio who disposes of Shylock's possessions and insists on the enforced conversion. None of this, to repeat, was in the novella.

It is Antonio again who insists on Bassanio's surrendering his wedding ring, and neither is this in the novella. In an age which respected oaths as binding, and considering that the ring is the emblem of a marriage taken most seriously (and not even yet consummated), Antonio is asking a lot. The fact that Bassanio as Beneficiary owes him so much makes it harder to deny him, and so he ought not to have asked. Portia rightly smells a threat. Far from being misnamed after Antonio, the play is correctly seen as about his ambivalences; not simply here at the end of the trial, when he punishes Shylock not for what he does but for what he is, but at points throughout the sequel. His burdensome love of Bassanio is the last of all the obstacles which stand (like increasingly difficult obstacles in a steeplechase) between the lovers and their joy. I completely agree with Anne Barton's reading of Antonio.17

The finale expands on the joking and partying of the source's ending, but has to provide a counterweight to the complexity and intensity and unresolved emotion which Shakespeare added to the trial scene. How does it attempt this, and does it succeed?

It attempts the task, which Shakespeare has just made very hard for himself and unquestionably harder than he found it in his main source, by the following discernible sequences: a night duet for Lorenzo and Jessica (1-23); messengers, from outside the household and inside (Stephano and Gobbo, eisangelos and exangelos so to speak, 25-53); rhapsody on the music of the spheres and the music of earth (54-88). There is much talk of the time, of lights and whether dawn is come; it does not come, so that at the close it will still be suitable time for the lovers' going to bed.18 Enter Portia and her company (89), then Bassanio and his, which now includes Antonio (127), whereupon she is at long last introduced to him. Small talk follows till the rings' quarrel erupts (142), and the exploitation of this and then its elucidation fill out the last half of the finale. The first half is added from other sources, while the second expands on the novella.

The litany of lovers, I have argued, mentions instances of the tribulations of lovers, not because they apply, but because they do not. Lorenzo and Jessica can warble (respectively) of the separation of Troilus and of Dido from their faithless lovers because they themselves are not separated, hence not thinking about betrayal either. When they bring themselves into the litany, they do a crossover, woman naming man and vice versa. Ovid is being appropriated for love-expression, not subpoenaed to help cast a blight.

So these lovers are being authorized, as it were, to give us the play's backward look at the strife now ended. We could say that Jessica, not Shylock, gets the last word, so long as we recognize her exact state of mind. She says nothing at all while Lorenzo interprets the stars as symbols of celestial harmony, a music of the heavenly bodies. But when he moves on to physical music, her answer is edgy, transitional, ambivalent … What is the word for it? Maybe just realistic: music, heeded, draws us into itself, and that is the bliss it gives. And denies to “the man that hath no music in himself.” Frank Kermode's comment was that the passage “tells the audience how to interpret the action” so that “only by a determined attempt to avoid the obvious can one mistake the theme” (221, 224).

Broadly, I agree. To reinsert the thought of Shylock—except here, where Shakespeare himself does it, and does it moreover by a glancing generalization—is to superimpose one's own play on the very sufficient one the dramatist wrote. Let people do so, by all means, but let them not call it his play. His play, though multi-centered and problematical, does center where its title puts the emphasis, on Antonio.

I should have said, it does this when allowed to. If a company's best actor takes the role of Shylock, and his scenes are arranged to suit him, and if further Shylock-allusions are inserted by the director in the finale, then of course he will upstage Antonio and the other parties to the four-way transaction which the play enacts. It is self-fulfilling. But if he does upstage them we will have an unresolved, or soured, comedy—or even a tragedy.19 And so we will not be watching the play which Shakespeare wrote, nor the design which source-criticism establishes. And similarly with written interpretation: if attention starts or finishes with Shylock, in and beyond his five scenes, the play will emerge less perfect and more skewed than if we keep our attention wheresoever Shakespeare is directing it. This option is more difficult, but more rewarding. The play manifests a tense, shifting balance throughout, the balancing of four principal agents with several love stories, which—let us not forget—he chose to work out. That, and not Shylock alone, is the play's driving force.


  1. I approximate to the view of M. M. Mahood, ed. The Merchant of Venice, New Cambridge Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), Introduction, pp. 24-25, where she speaks of our “multiple and shifting responses …” The text used for quotation and reference is this one, hereafter termed “Mahood.”

  2. “Plot,” in Aristotle's full sense of the term: the what and the who as they merge in causality, hence governing characterization also.

  3. The “golden fleece” of 1.1.169 (also 3.2.240, typically vulgarized by Gratiano).

  4. The essay owes something to my essay “The Merchant of Venice and Il Pecorone, or Can Source-Study resolve the Question of Shylock?” in AUMLA: Journal of the Australasian Universities Language and Literature Association 40 (1973), (271-283), and to my book The Shakespeare of the Comedies. A Multiple Approach (Berne: Peter Lang, 1996).

  5. 1.1.57, the only time kinship is mentioned: a vestige of Giannetto's story, where Ansaldo is Giannetto's godfather?

  6. From the medieval Gesta Romanorum, Englished in 1577 and revised just before the play (see Mahood 4).

  7. Implicit in the source, where Ansaldo “decided to sell everything he had in the world, to equip another ship” (Bullough 469).

  8. As Mr. Woodhouse in Emma recognizes. He dislikes weddings because they are inseparable from change: the play accumulates changes, of gender-dress, allegiance, status, religion, ownership, matrimony, and most especially of who has the power.

  9. Mahood (8) is cautious about accepting Marlowe's Jew of Malta as a source at all, speaking instead of its “pervasive presence,” and mainly in terms of contrast. Considering the Marlovian language of Morocco, “pervasive presence” seems right. But so does significant contrast as regards Abigail/Barabas and Jessica/Shylock.

  10. What with the many other comedic features assigned to Jessica, it seems misguided to dwell on the allusions to false love as signs of falsity in their speakers: spoken between lovers they are more a sign of confidence and security than of skating on thin ice. The dangerous stuff can be acknowledged, by lovers who have made a dangerous alliance, without imperilling anything.

  11. I understand the off-color jokes in 3.5 similarly: Lorenzo talks of being jealous of Gobbo because he is not jealous, not because he is, though it is open to some humorless or axe-grinding director to play the scene against the grain. See also Hale, The Shakespeare of the Comedies, p. 17.

  12. Bullough 472: the Jew of Mestri is merely laconically adamant.

  13. We never see father and daughter at ease with each other, they never say anything good about each other. She is “ashamed” to be his child, and once he notices her rebellion the feeling is strongly reciprocated. She is “dead” to him.

  14. Despite stage tradition, intuitively reinstating the Jew of Mestri's impassioned gesture.

  15. As he does elsewhere, to similarly problematic effect: Iago's humiliations to Othello are prolonged too, because they make good theater. Shakespeare's rigor can look like cruelty.

  16. He is the harshest of Shakespeare's comedy-dukes in passing judgment.

  17. In the Riverside edition. I am reminded of Jonathan Miller's solution of the ending of the Taming of the Shrew, another ending unpleasing to modern sensibilites, until it is psychologized. Just as Katharina has been exorcised of a demon by Petruchio's play-acting, so Antonio must stand aside lest he become the demon of Bassanio's married life.

  18. Like, but not like, the close of A Midsummer Night's Dream: these lovers get to bed late, in the nick of time, whereas the symmetrical puppets of the previous play go at the set time, midnight. The delayed wedding night in the Merchant is part of its design, seen very clearly by the contrast with its source where consummation had to precede the wedding, the former performance qualifying Giannetto for the latter.

  19. The play ended with Shylock's exit in some eighteenth-century versions (Mahood 43)—a curious opposite to the happy ending of Nahum Tate's Lear. If the latter is scorned as travesty nowadays, why not the former also? And with it, the intrusion of Shylock where Shakespeare did not put him?

Works Cited

Barton, Anne. “Introduction.” The Merchant of Venice. In The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. B. Evans. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1974. 250-53.

Bullough, Geoffrey, ed. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare. Volume 1. London: Routledge, 1957.

Hale, John K. “The Merchant of Venice and Il Pecorone, or Can Source-Study Resolve the Question of Shylock?” AUMLA: Journal of the Australasian Universities Language and Literature Association 40 (1973): 271-83.

———. The Shakespeare of the Comedies: A Multiple Approach. Berne: Peter Lang, 1996.

Kermode, Frank. “The Mature Comedies.” Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 3: Early Shakespeare. London: Edward Arnold, 1961. 211-27.

Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Ed. M. M. Mahood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Further Reading

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Barnet, Sylvan, ed. Introduction to Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Merchant of Venice: A Collection of Critical Essays, pp. 1-10. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1970.

Maintains that the overall comic structure of The Merchant of Venice should not be obscured by a sympathetic approach to the characterization of Shylock.

Colley, John Scott. “Launcelot, Jacob, and Esau: Old and New Law in The Merchant of Venice.The Yearbook of English Studies 10 (1980): 181-89.

Explores elements of The Merchant of Venice that often trouble audiences, in both Shakespeare's time and today.

Cooper, John R. “Shylock's Humanity.” In Shakespeare Quarterly 21, no. 2 (spring 1970): 117-24.

Examines interpretations of Shylock's character from various perspectives, maintaining that he should be viewed neither as a grotesque villain nor as a sympathetic victim.

Crocker, Lester G. “The Merchant of Venice and Christian Conscience.” Diogenes, no. 118 (summer 1982): 77-102.

Investigates why the treatment of Shylock causes uneasiness and distress in the conscience of Christians.

Gross, John. “Where Does He Come From?” In Shylock: A Legend and Its Legacy, pp. 15-30. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.

Analyzes the sources Shakespeare used to create Shylock.

Jefferey, Chris. “The Merchant of Venice at the Tivoli Amphitheatre (Port Elizabeth, South Africa).” Shakespeare in Southern Africa (2001): 104-07.

Maintains that director Helen Flax presented a surface-level interpretation of The Merchant of Venice in her 2001 production for the Port Elizabeth Shakespearean Festival.

Lyon, John. “Complicating Matters.” In Harvester New Critical Introductions to Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice, pp. 53-72. New York: Harvester, Wheatsheaf, 1988.

Discusses the complicated set of events and characters that appear in the second act of The Merchant of Venice.

Nash, Ralph. “Shylock's Wolvish Spirit.” Shakespeare Quarterly 10, no. 1 (winter 1959): 125-28.

Interprets Gratiano's trial scene speech in which he compares Shylock to a wolf.

Palmer, Daryl W. “Merchants and Miscegenation: The Three Ladies of London, The Jew of Malta, and The Merchant of Venice.” In Race, Ethnicity, and Power in the Renaissance, edited by Joyce Green MacDonald, pp. 36-66. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1997.

Evaluates practices of sixteenth-century merchants and their relationship with the contemporary discourse on “alien races.”

Tucker, E. F. J. “The Letter of the Law in The Merchant of Venice.” In Shakespeare Survey 29 (1976): 93-101.

Surveys various views of the notion of equity in Elizabethan England and examines the basis in Common Law for Portia's case against Shylock.


The Merchant of Venice (Vol. 77)


The Pound of Flesh