The Merchant of Venice Historical Background

William Shakespeare

Historical Background

There may not be a play more misnamed in Shakespeare’s entire canon than The Merchant of Venice. Though he is certainly an important character, Antonio—the merchant in question—merits, at best, fourth billing. The main lovers in the play, Portia and Bassanio, command a great deal more attention, and, as most commentators suggest, Shylock is ultimately the main attraction. Although the Jewish moneylender “appears in only five of the play’s twenty scenes, and not at all in the fifth act, everyone agrees that the play belongs to Shylock” (Barnet 193-4). His dominance is such that, in certain productions (particularly in the nineteenth century), the last act has been “omitted entirely” (Myrick, “Introduction” xxii). Yet, despite his somewhat lesser role, Antonio proves crucial to both main plots of The Merchant of Venice. His agreement to serve as collateral for Shylock’s loan to Bassanio facilitates the latter’s courtship of Portia, and the risk to his life which results from this arrangement generates much of the plot’s complications. Shakespeare’s decision to make him the title character perhaps stems from an acknowledgment of Antonio’s structural importance to all the various story lines, as well as from an effort—perhaps unsuccessful—to balance the audience’s attention equally between Shylock’s thirst for revenge and the romance of Portia and Bassanio.

Antonio’s importance as the hinge between the play’s two main plots may reflect the fact that Shakespeare had no one particular inspiration for The Merchant, but rather drew primarily on two different sources. Both the story of the three caskets and the story of a usurer’s demand of a pound of human flesh apparently derive from Oriental folk-tales (Myrick, “Sources” 142-3; Barton 250), though it is likely that Shakespeare encountered them from Italian and Latin sources. A collection of Italian stories, Il Pecorone, is usually suggested as Shakespeare’s source for the pound of flesh, while Gesta Romanorum, a book of medieval Latin stories (first translated into English in 1577), was very likely his introduction to the three caskets (Myrick, “Sources” 142-3). As with most of Shakespeare’s plays, the exact date of composition is unknown, but contemporary references prove that it had been performed at least by 1598. “In 1598 and in 1600 the play was entered in the Stationers’ Register. It was first published in a quarto (Q1) in 1600" (Myrick, “Textual Note” 139).

The most prominent cultural issues in The Merchant, both embodied in the character of Shylock, are the Elizabethan attitudes toward Jews and usury (moneylending). Although “[e]laborate arguments have been mounted to demonstrate that The Merchant of Venice is not anti-Semitic”—presumably stemming from critics’ desire to defend the ethics of the man many consider to be the greatest poet of the English language—”it is no good to try to discard the hate that energizes the play” (Charney 47). “Jews had been officially banished from England for three centuries” by the time Shakespeare was writing, and there was a lingering hatred of the Jewish race and religion among Christian societies (Barton 250). Such a Christian grudge against Jews allegedly stemmed from the latter group’s rejection of Christ, and this sad mixture of racial and religious prejudice is by no means absent from the play. The anti-Semitic mood of England was further fueled by the trial and execution of Roderigo Lopez—a Portuguese Jew and physician to Queen Elizabeth—who was accused of attempting to poison his employer in 1594, a few years before Shakespeare’s play was written (Barton 250). The association of Jews with usury is a stereotype unfortunately still familiar to us today; apart from such racial animosity, however, the Elizabethans despised moneylending for interest in and of itself. The practice was technically illegal in England at the time, although there were various ways—some officially-sanctioned—around the law (Myrick, “Introduction” xxvii-iii). The possibility of Antonio’s death as a result of his financial dealings with Shylock no doubt reflects the contemporary fear about the exorbitant interest rates usurers sometimes charged.

The stage history of The Merchant of Venice has largely been the history of the interpretation of Shylock. How Shakespeare staged the play and the part is unknown; the absence of extensive reference to it throughout the 1600s suggests it wasn’t originally one of the author’s most popular works (Barnet 194). George Granville staged a notable adaptation of it in 1701, featuring a bumbling, comic Shylock, and this interpretation appears to have been the standard one until 1741, when Charles Macklin radically transformed the character into a terrifying, almost monstrous villain (Barnet 194-6). The next major revision in the acting of the role occurred in 1814, when Edmund Kean presented a Shylock who “evoked not simply terror but pity”; Shylock was seen as justified in his rage, due to his ill-treatment at the hands of the Christians (Barnet 196-7)....

(The entire section is 2097 words.)