The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare

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History of the Text

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Humanism and the English Renaissance: Shakespeare wrote at the turn of the 17th century, when humanism was a dominant philosophical ideology in England. The humanist cultural movement turned away from medieval, religious scholasticism to revive ancient Greek and Roman literature—which focused on human thoughts, feelings, and motivations rather than divine or supernatural matters. 

  • The Merchant of Venice reflects humanist ideology. The many soliloquies throughout the play attempt to capture the human experience. The many Greek and Roman allusions throughout the text reference a period that was seen by Shakespeare and his peers as the apex of human potential. 

Anti-Semitism and Usury in Early Modern England: In 1290, King Edward I of England ordered the Expulsion of the Jews from his lands. This decision primarily came from the Catholic church’s complicated history with usury, the practice of lending money for profit. Church doctrine held that no Christian could lend money for profit; however, the Jewish faith did not forbid usury between Jews and non-Jews. Because Jews were banned from many other professions in medieval Europe due to anti-Semitism, many Jewish men began lending money to Christians and collecting the interest. This business led to unrealistic depictions of Jews as heartless money lenders, greedy extortionists, and diabolical figures. Rumors began to spread that Jews murdered Christ and that they performed ritual sacrifices of children. King Edward I segregated Jews and forced them to wear yellow badges on their clothing to signify their faith. When public outrage and hatred towards Jews reached a climax, King Edward banned Judaism from England, and many Jews fled. Venice, Italy, where this play is set, was more accepting of Jews because their money-lending kept the Venetian economy prosperous. Venetian law protected usury and Jewish business. However, while the law allowed Jews to exist in Venice and collect interest, Venice’s Christians treated the city’s Jews as second-class citizens, confining them to ghettos and openly discriminating against them. 

  • Anti-Semitism plays a big role in The Merchant of Venice. It drives the Christian characters to persecute and then rob Shylock of everything he has. Ultimately, the comedic ending comes for the Christian characters when they vanquish their greedy, Jewish enemy. However, Shakespeare’s portrayal of Jews is less straightforwardly malicious than other depictions in the English Early Modern period (see Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta). Shylock is a complex character. Shakespeare gives him some of the best lines in the play, including the famous “Hath not a Jew eyes” monologue. Whereas the Christian characters seem to care more about money than about their God or Christian kindness, Shylock demonstrates a true dedication to his faith. In one scene, Shylock loses his daughter, Jessica, and is reported to care more about the money she took when she runs away than her disappearance. However, the audience does not see this scene, but rather hears about it from two Christian merchants. For these reasons, Shylock is not necessarily the villain of the play. He can be read as a marginalized character who is persecuted for his beliefs. 
  • Both of the following points should be addressed when talking about this play: First, anti-Semitism was rampant in Europe, and plays likeThe Merchant of Venice helped to spread hatred of the Jews. Second, Shakespeare creates a sympathetic character in Shylock, giving us insight into both the identity of a persecuted minority and the cruelty of the Christian oppressors. 

The Merchant of Venice in the Context of Shakespearean Drama: Shakespearean tragedies generally involve a hero who has a fatal flaw that leads to his eventual downfall. This fatal flaw is usually something...

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like ambition, greed, or revenge, and the play generally ends with all of the main characters dying. Shakespeareancomedies generally revolve around one or two couples kept apart by a societal constraint, such as their parents don’t want them to get married, or by a personal flaw, such as they are too proud to admit they love one another. After a series of mistaken identities and farcical pranks, these plays tend to end happily in multiple marriages. 

  • The Merchant of Venice includes both the plot of a tragedy and the plot of a comedy. The Christians’ story is a comedy. Portia and Bassanio are kept apart because of money and Bassanio’s promise to Antonio. Portia’s “clever defeat” of Shylock allows the couple to marry at the end of the play. 
  • Shylock’s story is a tragedy. Shylock’s desire to seek revenge against the Christians for their cruel treatment causes him to demand something monstrous. For this vengeance, he loses his daughter, his livelihood, and all of his money by the end of the play, essentially rendering his life forfeit. 

The Merchant of Venice’s Performance History: The play was first performed for King James’s court in 1605. Since the king enjoyed the play, it continued to run in public venues. It was likely performed in the open-air Globe Theater. Plays at this time used minimum props or stage decorations. Instead, music, language, and costumes quickly moved the story across the stage. Female characters were played by young boys. 

  • Shylock in the 1600s: It is impossible to know exactly how Shylock was portrayed in Shakespeare’s time, and it depends on whom Shakespeare intended for the part. If Shylock was played by Will Kemp, the leading comedic actor in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men performance group, then it is likely that Shylock was exaggeratedly comedic. In medieval mystery plays and other plays at this time, evil Jewish characters would wear a red wig and a false nose. However, if Richard Burbage—the lead tragic actor famous for his portrayals of Hamlet, Lear, and Othello—played Shylock, then the character was likely played in a comparatively earnest style. 
  • Shylock since 1945: Modern interpretations of Shylock show the character to have dignity and quiet rage over the discrimination and cruelty that he faces. Rather than showing him as a farcical buffoon who has no control over his actions, modern Shylocks seem poised. 

Key Plot Points


Significant Allusions