(Shakespearean Criticism)

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.”

M. M. Mahood (essay date 1987)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Jay L. Halio (essay date 1993)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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,...

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Yoshiko Kawachi (essay date 1998)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Charles Edelman (essay date 2002)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Robert Hapgood (essay date March 1967)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Elizabeth S. Sklar (essay date fall 1976)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Kenneth S. Rothwell (review date fall 2001)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Susan L. Fischer (review date winter 2002)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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....

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

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Russell Astley (essay date April 1979)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Burton Hatlen (essay date 1980)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Douglas Anderson (essay date spring 1985)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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John K. Hale (essay date 2002)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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,...

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Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 386 words.)