The Merchant of Venice

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Title page of the first quarto (1600)
Title page of the first quarto (1600)

The Merchant of Venice is one of William Shakespeare's best-known plays, written sometime between 1596 and 1598. Although it is sometimes classified as a comedy ("comedy" had a very different meaning at the time; see Shakespearean comedies) and shares certain aspects with the other romantic comedies, it is perhaps more remembered for its dramatic scenes (particularly the trial scene) and is best known for its portrayal of the Jew Shylock, which has raised questions of anti-semitism.

The title character is the merchant Antonio, not the more famous villain, the Jewish moneylender Shylock, who is the play's chief antagonist. Though Shylock is a tormented character, he is also a tormentor, so whether he is to be viewed with disdain or sympathy is up to the audience. The play is accordingly sometimes classified as one of Shakespeare's problem plays.

Date, Text, Publication

The date of composition for The Merchant of Venice is believed to be between 1596 and 1598. The play was mentioned by Francis Meres in 1598, so it must have been familiar on the stage by that date. Solanio's reference to his ship the "Andrew" (I,i,27) is thought to be an allusion to the Spanish ship St. Andrew captured by the English at Cadiz in 1596. A date of 1596-7 is considered consistent with the play's style. The play was entered in the Register of the Stationers Company, the method at that time of obtaining copyright for a new play, by James Roberts on July 22, 1598 under the title The Merchant of Venice, or otherwise called The Jew of Venice. On Oct. 28, 1600 Roberts transferred his right to the play to the stationer Thomas Hayes; Hayes published the first quarto before the end of the year. It was printed again in a pirated edition in 1619, as part of William Jaggard's so-called False Folio. (Afterward, Thomas Hayes' son and heir Laurence Hayes asked for and was granted a confirmation of his right to the play, on July 8, 1619.) The 1600 edition is the basis of the text published in the First Folio (1623) and is regarded as being generally accurate and reliable.

No further performances are recorded between 1605 and 1701. In the latter year George Granville staged a successful adaptation, titled The Jew of Venice, with Thomas Betterton as Bassanio. This version (which featured a masque) was popular, and was acted for the next forty years. In 1741 Charles Macklin returned to the original text in a very successful production at Drury Lane, paving the way for Edmund Kean seventy years later (see below).


Bassanio, a young Venetian, would like to travel to Belmont to woo the beautiful and wealthy heiress Portia. He approaches his friend Antonio, a merchant, for three thousand ducats needed to subsidize his traveling expenditures as a suitor for three months. As all of Antonio's ships and merchandise are busy at sea, Antonio approaches the Jewish moneylender Shylock for a loan.

Shylock, spiteful of Antonio because he had insulted and spat on him for being a Jew a week ago, proposes a condition. If Antonio is unable to repay the loan at the specified date, Shylock will be free to take a pound of Antonio's flesh from wherever part of Antonio's body he pleases. Although Bassanio does not want Antonio to accept such a risky condition, Antonio, surprised by what he sees as the moneylender's generosity, accedes and signs the contract. With money at hand, Bassanio leaves for Belmont with another friend Gratiano.

At Belmont, Portia has no lack of suitors. Portia's father, however, has left a will stipulating each of her suitors must choose correctly from one of three caskets – one each of gold, silver, and lead – before he could win Portia's hand. In order to be granted an opportunity to marry Portia, each suitor must agree in advance to live out his life as a bachelor were he to select wrongly. The suitor who correctly looks past the outward appearance of the caskets will find Portia's portrait inside and win her hand.

After two suitors, the Princes of Morocco and Aragon, choose incorrectly, Bassanio makes the correct choice, that of the leaden casket. The other two contain mocking verses, including the famous phrase all that glisters is not gold.

At Venice, all ships bearing Antonio's goods are reported lost at sea, leaving him unable to satisfy the bond. Shylock is determined to exact revenge from Christians after his daughter Jessica flees his home to convert to Christianity and elope with the Christian Lorenzo, taking a substantial amount of Shylock's wealth with her. With the bond at hand, Shylock has Antonio arrested and brought before court.

At Belmont, Portia and Bassanio have just been married, along with his friend Gratiano and Portia's handmaid Nerissa. He receives a letter telling him that Antonio has defaulted on his loan from Shylock. Shocked, Bassanio and Gratiano leave for Venice immediately, with money from Portia, to save Antonio's life. Unbeknown to Bassanio and Gratiano, Portia and Nerissa leave Belmont to seek the counsel of Portia's cousin, Bellario, a lawyer, at Padova.

The dramatic centre of the play comes in the court of the Duke of Venice. Shylock refuses Bassanio's offer, despite Bassanio increasing the repayment to 6000 ducats (twice the specified loan). He demands the pound of flesh from Antonio. The Duke, wishing to save Antonio but unwilling to set a dangerous legal precedent of nullifying a contract, refers the case to Balthasar, a young male "doctor of the law" who is actually Portia in disguise, with "his" lawyer's clerk, who is Nerissa in disguise. Portia asks Shylock to show mercy in a famous speech (The quality of mercy is not strained—IV,i,185), but Shylock refuses. Thus the court allows Shylock to extract the pound of flesh.

At the very moment Shylock is about to cut Antonio with his knife, Portia points out a flaw in the contract (see Quibble (plot device)). The bond only allows Shylock to remove the flesh, not blood, of Antonio. If Shylock were to shed any drop of Antonio's blood in doing so, his "lands and goods" will be forfeited under Venetian laws.

Defeated, Shylock accedes to accept monetary payment for the defaulted bond, but is denied. Portia pronounces none should be given, and for his attempt to take the life of a citizen, Shylock's property will be forfeited, half to the government and half to Antonio, and his life will be at the mercy of the Duke. The Duke pardons his life before Shylock can beg for it, and Antonio holds his share "in use" (that is, reserving the principal amount while taking only the income) until Shylock's death, when the principal will be given to Lorenzo and Jessica. At Antonio's request, the Duke grants remission of the state's half of forfeiture, but in return, Shylock is forced to convert to Christianity and to bequeath the rest of his property to Lorenzo and Jessica (IV,i).

Bassanio does not recognize his disguised wife. He offers to give "him" a present. First she declines, but after he insists, Portia requests his ring and his gloves. He gives the gloves away without a second thought, but gives the ring only after much persuasion from Antonio, as earlier in the play he promised his wife never to lose, sell or give it away.

At Belmont, Portia and Nerissa taunt their husbands before revealing they were really the lawyer and his clerk in disguise.

After all the other characters make amends, all ends happily (except for Shylock) as Antonio learns that three of his ships were not stranded and have returned safely after all.

Shylock and the anti-Semitism debate

The play is frequently staged today, but is potentially troubling to modern audiences due to its central themes, which can easily appear anti-Semitic. Critics still argue over whether the play is itself anti-semitic, or that it is merely a play about anti-Semitism, or whether the foreign setting, including the protagonists' ethnicity, is a literary device used to couch uncomfortable truths.

The anti-Semitic reading

English society in the Elizabethan era has often been described as anti-Semitic. English Jews had been expelled in the Middle Ages and were not permitted to return until the rule of Oliver Cromwell. Jews were often presented on the Elizabethan stage in hideous caricature, with hooked noses and bright red wigs, and were usually depicted as avaricious usurers; the best known example is Christopher Marlowe's extremely popular play The Jew of Malta, which features a comically wicked Jewish villain called Barabas. They were usually characterized as evil, deceptive, and greedy.

During the 1600s in Venice and in some other places, Jews were required to wear a red hat at all times in public to make sure that they were easily identified. If they did not comply with this rule they could get the death penalty. Jews also had to live in a ghetto protected by Christians, supposedly for their own safety. The Jews were expected to pay their guards.

Many readers see Shakespeare's play as a continuation of this anti-Semitic tradition. The title page of the Quarto indicates that the play was sometimes known as The Jew of Venice in its day, which suggests that it was seen as similar to Marlowe's The Jew of Malta. One interpretation of the play's structure is that Shakespeare meant to contrast the mercy of the main Christian characters with the vengefulness of a Jew, who lacks the religious grace to comprehend mercy. Similarly, it is possible that Shakespeare meant Shylock's forced conversion to Christianity to be a " happy ending" for the character, as it 'redeems' Shylock both from his unbelief and his specific sin of wanting to kill Antonio. This reading of the play would certainly fit with the anti-Semitic trends present in Elizabethan England.

The sympathetic reading

Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree as Shylock, painted by Charles Buchel (1895-1935).
Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree as Shylock, painted by Charles Buchel (1895-1935).

Many modern readers and theatregoers have read the play as a plea for tolerance as Shylock is a sympathetic character. Shylock's 'trial' at the end of the play is a mockery of justice, with Portia acting as a judge when she has no real right to do so. Thus, Shakespeare is not calling into question Shylock's intentions, but the fact that the very people who berated Shylock for being dishonest have had to resort to trickery in order to win.Shakespeare puts one of his most eloquent speeches into the mouth of this "villain":

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, heal'd by the same means,
warm'd and cool'd by the same winter and summer
as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us,
do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?
If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.
If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility?
Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his
sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge.
The villainy you teach me, I will execute,
and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.
Act III, scene I

Influence on anti-semitism

Regardless of what Shakespeare's own intentions may have been, the play has been made use of by Anti-semites throughout history. One must note that the end of the title in the 1619 edition "With the Extreme Cruelty of Shylocke the Jew..." must aptly describes how Shylock was viewed by the English public. The prevalance of the money-grubbing Jew in literature such as in Charles Dickens Fagin or even Kiplings admittedly more humane treatment in Puck of Pooks Hill would seem to imply some influence from "The Merchant". The Nazis also used the usurious Shylock for their propoganda. Shortly after, Kristallnacht in 1938 "The Merchant of Venice" was broadcast for propagandistic ends over the German airwaves. Productions of the play followed in Lubeck (1938), Berlin (1940), and elsewhere within the Nazi Territory. (lecture by James Shapiro, Shakespeare and the Jews)

Religious interpretations

Sympathy for Shylock can be derived from an understanding of the difference between the concept of forgiveness of sins in Judaism and Christianity. In Christianity, like in Judaism, forgiveness comes only to those who "truly repent"; this repentance comes about through faith in Christ, and does not involve any specific ritual. (See Justification.) In Judaism, Jews who seek to atone for their sins ( Teshuvah) are called to a deep reckoning and soul-searching, of which confession, though of paramount importance, is but one aspect. Judaism draws heavily on the exhortations of the prophets, most notably Isaiah and Jeremiah, that the repentance be an intensely personal experience; any and all associated ritual is but the means of formalizing the deeper, inner dimension of Teshuvah. This theme is brought out with particular force in the ritual of Yom Kippur, the annual Day of Atonement. See Judaism.

According to some Jewish thinkers, the laws set out by God were designed to make people happy: not to be ritualistic, cumbersome, etc. By breaking God's law, (according to this theory), you are really just harming yourself directly and in this life, so forgiveness from God is irrelevant. It is not a stretch of the imagination to see that the violation of the moral law would quickly degenerate into a chaotic society if everyone lied, killed, stole, and so on - this has been noted not only by Judeo-Christian thinkers, but also by philosophers as diverse as Confucius and Voltaire. Christianity seems to suffer from a problem: if forgiveness is freely available at any time, what incentive is there to live a moral life? This argument falls on its face though because forgiveness is not freely available at anytime, but rather only when someone truly desires it. Forgiveness can only come from God when subjectively asked, not when a simple outward expression is made. Someone can not steal, outwardly say they are sorry and be forgiven unless they subjectively desire to be saved by God. Also "repentance" carries the connotation of changed behaviour. Thus, someone who is forgiven will not break the law again. Shylock and the Duke know the law is for the functioning of society, but Shylock breaks it anyway; Portia believes forgiveness is the quality which maintains the well-being of society.

According to this interpretation, Shylock is the most morally upright character (of the main characters) in the play. Supporters of this interpretation tend to describe the other main characters in negative terms: Antonio as a repressed homosexual (immoral by the standards of the day); Bassanio as a prodigal who does no work except capitalize on his looks and live off of other people, and who ends up with Portia, who, at the end, realizes that Bassanio only ever wanted her money despite all his charms; and Jessica as an ungrateful daughter who steals her father's possessions and runs away to marry Lorenzo, a proselytizing hypocrite.

Directors such as John Neville who support this interpretation tend to show the '"young love" story in which Jessica escapes her father to marry Lorenzo, ending unhappily, a reading that may be justified by careful reading of the text.

In this reading, though the play is light and funny on the surface, the Christian characters' lives are collapsing because of their immoral behaviour and disrespect for duty to God and the law. Meanwhile, Shylock does not deceive, trick, lie, kill, steal, or do anything mischievous. The promise of a pound of flesh upon default of the loan was something Antonio freely agreed to. Still it can hardly be moral for Shylock to demand a pound of flesh from Antonio. Shylock knows this will kill Antonio, but according to this theory his desire for vengeance is not only justified but in a sense moral as well.

Some actors who are trained in early modern drama will, for the above reason, identify the Merchant of Venice as not an anti-Jewish play, but an anti-Christian play. This is not reflected in the history of the production and is a recent phenomenon. This does not necessarily mean that Shakespeare himself was anti-Christian, but rather that he was using the story of Shylock to attack prevailing hypocrisies.

Character study

It is difficult to know whether the sympathetic reading of Shylock is entirely due to changing sensibilities among readers, or whether Shakespeare, a writer who clearly delighted in creating complex, multi-faceted characters, deliberately intended this reading.

One reason for this interpretation is that Shylock's painful status in Venetian society is emphasised. To some critics, Shylock's celebrated "Hath not a Jew eyes" speech (see above) redeems him and even makes him into something of a tragic figure. In the speech, Shylock argues that he is no different from the Christian characters. Detractors note that Shylock ends the speech with a tone of revenge: "if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?" However, those who see the speech as sympathetic point out that Shylock says he learned the desire for revenge from the Christian characters: "If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge! The villainy you teach me I will execute. It will go hard, but I will better the instruction."

Even if Shakespeare did not intend the play to be read this way, the fact that it retains its power on stage for audiences who may perceive its central conflicts in radically different terms is an illustration of the subtlety of Shakespeare's characterizations.

Shylock on stage

Jacob Adler and others report that the tradition of playing Shylock sympathetically began in the first half of the 19th century with Edmund Kean, and that previously the role had been played "by a comedian as a repulsive clown or, alternatively, as a monster of unrelieved evil." Kean's Shylock established his reputation as an actor.

From Kean's time forward, all of the actors who have famously played the role, with the exception of Edwin Booth, who played Shylock as a simple villain, have chosen a sympathetic approach to the character; even Booth's father, Junius Brutus Booth, played the role sympathetically. Henry Irving was among the most notable late 19th century Shylocks, and Jacob Adler certainly the most notable of the early 20th century. Adler played the role in Yiddish-language translation, first in Yiddish theatre Manhattan's Lower East Side, and later on Broadway, where, to great acclaim, he performed the role in Yiddish in an otherwise English-language production.

Kean and Irving presented a Shylock justified in wanting his revenge; Adler's Shylock evolved over the years he played the role, first as a stock Shakespearean villain, then as a man whose better nature was overcome by a desire for revenge, and finally as a man who operated not from revenge but from pride. In a 1902 interview with Theatre magazine, Adler pointed out that Shylock is a wealthy man, "rich enough to forego the interest on three thousand ducats" and that Antonio is "far from the chivalrous gentleman he is made to appear. He has insulted the Jew and spat on him, yet he comes with hypocritical politeness to borrow money of him." Shylock's fatal flaw is to depend on the law, but "would he not walk out of that courtroom head erect, the very apotheosis of defiant hatred and scorn?"

Some modern productions take further pains to show how Shylock's thirst for vengeance has some justification. For instance in the 2004 film adaptation directed by Michael Radford and starring Al Pacino as Shylock, the film begins with text and a montage of how the Jewish community is cruelly abused by the bigoted Christian population of the city. One of the last shots of the film also brings attention to the fact that, as a convert, Shylock would have been cast out of the Jewish community in Venice, no longer allowed to live in the ghetto, and would still not be accepted by the Christians, as they would feel that Shylock was yet the Jew he once was.

A Catholic reading

In 2005 Clare Asquith published her analysis of Shakespeare's writing from the perspective of Catholics toiling under the nascent Reformation movement in England, in her book Shadowplay. Asquith maintains that Shakespeare was a recusant Catholic whose sympathies are covertly woven within his works. Queen Elizabeth I was the third monarch to reign over the Church of England's split from Rome (succeeding her Catholic half-sister Queen Mary who had attempted to undo their younger half-brother Edward's consolidation of Henry VIII's original schism). Mrs Asquith's thesis posits that the dramatis personae mask actual persons in the politics of England at the end of the 16th century. Portia can be seen to represent Queen Elizabeth I herself, while Shylock represents a patriarch of the Puritan merchant classes who had suffered under Queen Mary's persecutions. The relevance of the legal setting to the plot calls to mind the conviction that Christ's new Law of Love fulfills the Old Covenant, the natural law revealed to Moses (defended by Shylock in the speech quoted above) whereby an eye-for-an-eye is a reasonable measure, superior to the lawlessness of barbarian rape and pillage, but inferior to peaceful reconciliation dispensed with Christ-like mercy.

The question remains, does Portia dispense a Christian portion of Divine mercy? The final act contains many allusions to Catholic rituals for the celebration of solemnities in the three days before Easter, the Triduum, banned in England at the time the play was published, but still celebrated elsewhere in Catholic Europe, certainly in Venice. As Asquith points out

"The opening love-duet between Lorenzo and Jessica in Act V repeats the phrase "in such a night" eight times: exactly the same number that the phrase "this is the night" is repeated in the great Easter hymn, the Exultet. "

Catholics in England continued to be persecuted for more than two centuries before regaining their religious freedoms, albeit with concessions to the civil rights of their Irish brethren, under the second Catholic Relief Act. Antonio is reprieved by Portia's comprehension of the Christian Mystery: Christ the Pascal Lamb shed blood for us all, justice does not require a second blood-shedding.

Sexuality in the play

Antonio, Bassanio and homosexuality

Antonio's unexplained depression—"I know not why I am so sad"—and utter devotion to Bassanio has led some critics to theorize that he is suffering from unrequited love for Bassanio and is depressed because Bassanio is coming to an age where he will marry a woman. In his plays and poetry Shakespeare often depicted strong male bonds of varying homosociality, which has led some critics to infer that Bassanio returns Antonio's affections despite his obligation to marry:

ANTONIO: Commend me to your honorable wife:
Tell her the process of Antonio's end,
Say how I lov'd you, speak me fair in death;
And, when the tale is told, bid her be judge
Whether Bassanio had not once a love.
BASSANIO: But life itself, my wife, and all the world
Are not with me esteemed above thy life;
I would lose all, ay, sacrifice them all
Here to this devil, to deliver you. (IV,i)

In his essay "Brothers and Others", published in The Dyer's Hand, W.H. Auden describes Antonio as "a man whose emotional life, though his conduct may be chaste, is concentrated upon a member of his own sex." Antonio's feelings for Bassanio are likened to a couplet from Shakespeare's Sonnets: "But since she pricked thee out for women's pleasure,/ Mine be thy love, and my love's use their treasure." Antonio, says Auden, embodies the words on Portia's leaden casket: "Who chooseth me, must give and hazard all he hath." Antonio has taken this potentially fatal turn because he despairs, not only over the loss of Bassanio in marriage, but also because Bassanio cannot requite what Antonio feels for him. Antonio's frustrated devotion is a form of idolatry: the right to live is yielded for the sake of the loved one. There is one other such idolator in the play: Shylock himself. "Shylock, however unintentionally, did, in fact, hazard all for the sake of destroying the enemy he hated; and Antonio, however unthinkingly he signed the bond, hazarded all to secure the happiness of the man he loved." Both Antonio and Shylock, agreeing to put Antonio's life at a forfeit, stand outside the normal bounds of society. There was, states Auden, a traditional "association of sodomy with usury" with which Shakespeare was likely familiar. (Auden sees the theme of usury in the play as a comment on human relations in a mercantile society.) The interpretation of Antonio's sexual desire for Bassanio is questionable. In The Merchant of Venice starring Al Pacino the director explains that although there is a scene where Antonio and Bassanio actually kiss, it is platonic, for the male friendship was an incredibly strong bond at the time.

Bassanio, Portia and fidelity

Portia and Bassanio marry, with the promise that he will never give up her ring. The ring is a symbol of marital fidelity. The Elizabethans were obsessed with wifely fidelity, and a whole subgenre of jokes were devoted to the subject. An Elizabethan audience may have seen the significance of Bassanio giving Portia's "ring" back to her as an emblem of his potential for infidelity.

Film adaptations

The Shakespeare play has inspired several movies. The following are the best known. (They are given in chronological order.)

  • 1914—silent movie directed by Lois Weber
    • Weber, who also stars as Portia, became the first woman to direct a full-length feature film in America with this film.
    • The Merchant of Venice at the Internet Movie Database
  • 1973—television film directed by John Sichel
    • The cast included Laurence Olivier as Shylock, Anthony Nicholls as Antonio, Jeremy Brett as Bassanio, Joan Plowright as Portia, Louise Purnell as Jessica.
    • The Merchant of Venice at the Internet Movie Database
  • 1980—A BBC television film directed by Jack Gold
    • The cast included Warren Mitchell as Shylock and John Rhys-Davies as Salerio
    • The Merchant of Venice at the Internet Movie Database
  • 2001—A BBC television film directed by Trevor Nunn
    • Royal National Theatre production starring Henry Goodman as Shylock
    • The Merchant of Venice at the Internet Movie Database
  • 2004— The Merchant of Venice (2004 film) directed by Michael Radford.
    • The cast included Al Pacino as Shylock, Jeremy Irons as Antonio, Joseph Fiennes as Bassanio, Lynn Collins as Portia, Zuleikha Robinson as Jessica.
    • The Merchant of Venice at the Internet Movie Database
  • 2007(?)— The Merchant of Venice (2007 film) written by John Logan (writer)
    • The cast will include Sir Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart and be set in a Las Vegas casino.
    • Filming to start in late 2006.


  • The device of three caskets with riddles has been used for logic games in works like What is the name of this book? by Raymond Smullyan. The coffers assert about the truthfulness of their and the other inscriptions (e.g. the golden casket has the portrait, two of the caskets are lying"), to discover the portrait of Portia, and the reader of the pastime has to find which is telling truth.
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