The Merchant of Venice Reading Pointers for Sharper Insights eText

William Shakespeare

Reading Pointers for Sharper Insights

Take note of the following when reading The Merchant of Venice:

  1. One of the significant aspects of this play, as in all of Shakespeare's plays, is the poetic beauty of the language in the extended metaphors, similes, puns, etc. Shakespeare's language, especially in his use of metaphors often expresses an insightful comment on the human condition, which makes them all the more valuable

    Take the time to figure out the meanings of these metaphors and similes. Frequently, they will help you understand the play, as well as life in general.

  2. Although there were not many Jews in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, anti-semitism, which had always been present in medieval England, rose to a fever pitch when the Queen Elizabeth's physician, Dr. Rodrigo Lopez, a Portuguese Jew, was hanged for plotting with the Spanish to kill her.

    The depiction of Shylock, the stereotypical Jewish villain—characterized by an excessive love of money and the desire to injure a Christian through trickery—pandered to this anti-semitism. But note how Shakespeare develops Shylock. Of all the characters in the play, he is, by far, the most fully developed and has the greatest emotional range.

    Finally, note that Shylock is an outsider. For the Elizabethans, who believed that the social order was ordained by God, the outsider was a threat to the harmony of society. Shakespeare echoes that opinion, but does give Shylock some of the most moving lines in the play.

  3. Although usury was legal in England at this time, it was frowned upon and looked down on by most of Elizabethan society. There were restrictions against money-lending in the Church, and Shylock would, therefore, have been despised, not only because he was a Jewish outsider, but also because he lent money and charged interest on it. Audiences would have held a societal prejudice against his character prior to seeing the play.

  4. Note the development of these themes in The Merchant of Venice:

    • Justice: Should justice be tempered with mercy, or should it be above emotion and implemented just as the laws decreed?

    • Friendship: How important is it? What is its role in this play?

    • Love: What characterizes true love?