The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare

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Significant Allusions

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Greek History and Mythology: Many of the allusions in this play are to love stories from Greek and Roman mythology and to classical gods of love, chastity, and romance. The Christian characters use these allusions to show off their learning in the humanistic style. Ironically, many of the references they make are to couples whose stories have tragic endings. 

  • On the night that Lorenzo and Jessica run away together with Shylock’s gold, they compare their elopement to the conditions “on such a night” of famous, mythological romances, such as Pyramus and Thisbe, Troilus and Cressida, Dido and Aeneas, and Medea and Jason. Ironically, all of these mythological stories end tragically. Dido commits suicide after Aeneas leaves her; Pyramus kills himself when he believes Thisbe has been eaten by a lion; Cressida is made to become a Greek’s paramour and betray her Troilus; and Medea kills her own children when Jason betrays her. Jessica and Lorenzo compare their escape to these tragic love stories, missing the point of the myths they have alluded to.
LORENZO: In such a night, 
Did Jessica steal from the wealthy Jew, 
And with an unthrift love did run from Venice, 
As far as Belmont. 
JESSICA: In such a night, 
Did young Lorenzo swear he lov’d her well; 
Stealing her soul with many vows of faith, 
And ne’er a true one. (4.1) 
  • Allusions to Gods: Venus, Goddess of love: “O, ten times faster Venus’ pigeons fly / To seal love’s bonds new-made, than they are wont / To keep obliged faith unforfeited!” (2.6) 
– Cupid, God of love: “Cupid himself would blush, / To see me thus transformed to a boy” (2.6); “for I long to see / Quick Cupid’s post that comes so mannerly” (2.9) 
– Diana, Goddess of chastity: “Come, ho! and wake Diana with a hymn; / With sweetest touches pierce your mistress’ ear” (1.1); (5.1) 
– Mars, God of war: “As stairs of sand, wear yet upon their chins / The beards of Hercules and frowning Mars” (3.2) 
  • Portia shares the same name as Brutus’s wife. Brutus was the man who killed Caesar. As Julius Caesar was written contemporaneously with The Merchant of Venice, it is likely this is not a coincidence. 

Biblical Allusions: Most of the biblical references in this text come from Shylock. In this way, Shylock is defined by his religion and his piety, whereas the Christian characters are defined by their business and knowledge of Greek and Roman texts. 

  • Barrabas was in jail under the Romans at the same time as Jesus. Pontius Pilate asked his people to choose which man they wanted to live. The people chose Barrabas and so Jesus was crucified. Barrabas is also the name of the diabolical Jewish man in Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta.
SHYLOCK: These be the Christian husbands: I have a daughter; 
Would any of the stock of Barrabas 
Had been her husband rather, than a Christian!
We trifle time; I pray thee pursue sentence. (4.1) 
  • Shylock references the Prodigal Son in order to warn his daughter Jessica not to fraternize with the Christians. The Prodigal Son is a parable told by Jesus in the book of Luke. In the parable, a son asks his father for his inheritance and then squanders all of his money. Eventually, the penniless son returns home. Rather than punishing his son, the father welcomes him and forgives him. In this reference, Shylock is referring to Antonio’s wastefulness and destitution.
SHYLOCK: I am not bid for love; they flatter me: 
But yet I’ll go in hate, to feed upon 
The prodigal Christian. (1.5) 

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