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)....

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Venice. Major Italian port whose commercial activities are the play’s focus. William Shakespeare’s Venice is a busy mercantile center, in which businessmen are concerned about their cargoes at sea and who are often at the mercy of usurious moneylenders, such as Shylock. A wealthy Jew, Shylock has a deep-rooted animosity toward Christians, who chronically insult him and his religion. Although Venice is dominated by money, with its foundations resting on commerce, trade, and family inheritances, there is a society of exclusiveness under its busy mercantile surface—which is symbolized by the Rialto Bridge, a common meeting place for businessmen. Venice’s people include reviled Jews and anti-Semitic Christians, and Venetian law has the inveterate power to turn individuals into scapegoats.


*Belmont. Town near Venice in which the wealthy young Portia lives. In contrast with Venice, Belmont is a place of beautiful material luxury and pleasure. Portia’s beauty, wit, and grace distinguish her home, but it is actually a world of idleness, frivolity, music, and romance. Portia and her waiting-maid Nerissa seem to do little but gossip about Portia’s eager suitors and show much anxiety about Bassanio’s chances at winning her hand. A scene in which Portia’s suitors must choose among treasure caskets to win her hand in marriage is pregnant with the symbolism of wealth and moral implications.

Shylock’s house

Shylock’s house. Venetian home of Shylock the moneylender. Shylock’s daughter Jessica and his servant Launcelot Gobbo complain about the hellishness of the place, where thrift is practiced, where doors and windows are shut against the masked Christian revelers whom Shylock regards as threats to his religion and his property.

Shakespeare also uses generalized street scenes or scenes in front of Shylock’s to demonstrate the anti-Semitism of Solario, Salerio, and Gratiano, and to contrast the shallowness of these men and of Launcelot Gobbo with the wisdom of Portia and the considered judgment of Antonio, the rich and generous merchant of the play’s title.


Court. Venetian court of justice that is the setting for the all-important trial scene, in which the problem of Shylock’s bond is resolved by Portia’s ingenious cleverness and a bargain that Shylock is forced to make with Venetian law in a crystallization of opposite forces: lofty Jewish concept of right and Christian “mercy.”

Modern Connections

(Shakespeare for Students)

The Merchant of Venice is considered one of Shakespeare's problem comedies in part due to its anti-Semitism. A problem play introduces...

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(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Bulman, James. Shakespeare in Performance: The Merchant of Venice. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. Provides a survey of nineteenth century productions and a critique of several major twentieth century productions, including a comparison of Jonathan Miller’s stage version (featuring Laurence Olivier as Shylock) with the BBC-TV version he produced ten years later.

Danson, Lawrence. The Harmonies of “The Merchant of Venice.” New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1978. An excellent full-length study of the play that treats everything from “The Problem of Shylock” to law and language, miracle and myth, love and friendship, and the “quality of mercy.”

Frye, R. M. Shakespeare and Christian Doctrine. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1963. Presents biblical, patristic, medieval, and early modern Christian doctrine, especially Catholic-Anglican, as background to Shakespeare’s works.

Greenblatt, Stephen. Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. New York: W. W. Norton, 2004. Provides useful information about the Roderigo Lopez affair and the current of anti-Semitism in mid-1590’s London as background to The Merchant of Venice.

Gross, John. Shylock: Four Hundred Years in the Life of a Legend. London: Chatto & Windus, 1992. Gross traces Shylock’s role and that of the play’s in the history of anti-Semitism in the Western world. Also discusses the stage history of The Merchant of Venice, including several adaptations.

Hall, Jonathan. Anxious Pleasures: Shakespearean Comedy and the Nation-State. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1995. In addition to an overview of Shakespeare’s political world, this book contains valuable commentary on capitalism in The Merchant of Venice and on Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (pr. c. 1589, pb. 1633).

Levin, Richard A. Love and Society in Shakespearean Comedy. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1985. Levin devotes one chapter to The Merchant of Venice and focuses on one of the play’s central problems: the ambiguity of Shylock’s conflicting motives in Act I, scene iii: The bond proposed may have been “a vicious and deceptive offer” or it may have been an incentive for better treatment from Antonio and others.

Rabkin, Norman. Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981. In a superb essay on The Merchant of Venice, Rabkin notes the many significant inconsistencies and contradictions in the play and shows the impossibility of imposing easy, reductivist interpretation on it.

Shaheen, Naseb. Biblical References in Shakespeare’s Comedies. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1993. Examines Shakespeare’s knowledge of English Bibles (Geneva and others), details his textual references, and corrects an earlier misattribution of a text in The Merchant of Venice.

Shapiro, James. Shakespeare and the Jews. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996. Shapiro examines English identity and Jewish identity in the Elizabethan age; recounts myths, histories, and historical anecdotes; and includes a chapter titled “A Pound of Flesh.”

Bibliography and Further Reading

*If available, books are linked to Amazon.com

Barnet, Sylvan. “The Merchant of Venice on the Stage.” Shakespeare 192-205.

Barton, Anne. “Introduction to The Merchant of Venice.” The Riverside Shakespeare. By William Shakespeare. Eds. G. Blakemore Evans, et al. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1974. 250-253.

Bradbrook, Muriel C. Shakespeare the Craftsman. London: Chatto & Windus, 1969.

Brown, John Russell. Discovering Shakespeare: A New Guide to the Plays. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.

Charney, Maurice. All of Shakespeare. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, The Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971.

Council, Norman. When Honour's at Stake: Ideas of Honour in Shakespeare's Plays. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1973.

Driscoll, James P. Identity in Shakespearean Drama. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1983.

Edwards, Philip. Shakespeare: A Writer's Progress. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Ericson, Peter. Patriarchal Structure in Shakespeare's Drama. Berkeley, CA: University of California, 1985.

Granville-Barker, Harley. Prefaces to Shakespeare. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1965/1978.

Jardine, Lisa. Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare. Sussex, England: Harvester Press,1983.

Levin, Harry. Shakespeare and the Revolution of the Times. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Muir, Kenneth. "Fifty Years of Shakespeare Criticism: 1900-1950," Shakespeare Survey, 4 (1951), pp.1-25.

Myrick, Kenneth. Introduction. Shakespeare xxi-xxxviii.

—. “Textual Note.” Shakespeare 139-141.

—. “A Note on the Sources of The Merchant of Venice.” Shakespeare 142-144.

Sewell, Arthur. Character and Society in Shakespeare. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1951.

Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Ed. Kenneth Myrick. Rev. ed. New York: Signet Classic, 1987.

Spencer, Theodore. Shakespeare and the Nature of Man. New York: MacMillan, 1942.

Spivack, Bernard. Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil. New York: Columbia University Press, 1958.

Stoll, Elmer Edgar. Art and Artifice in Shakespeare. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1963.

Van Doren, Mark. Shakespeare. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1939.

Wells, Stanley. (Ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Culture And Value. Eds. G.H. Von Wright and Heikki Nyman. Trans. Peter Winch. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.