The Merchant of Venice

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Editor: Anne Marie Hacht
Date: 2007
Document Type: Topic overview; Critical essay; Work overview; Study questions; Character overview; Plot summary
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The Merchant of Venice


The Merchant of Venice (c. 1596–1597) ranks with Hamlet as one of William Shakespeare's most frequently performed dramas. It is a puzzling play. Many critics debate if the play is anti-Semitic in and of itself or if it is a play about anti-Semitism. There are several lines in the play that are hard to listen to because of the hatred, the Christian and Jewish mistrust and dislike of one another, that is portrayed on both sides of the issue. The plot line, as well as the complexity of some of the major characters, draws producers and audiences alike to this drama. Rather than creating stock characters that are easily mocked, Shakespeare has positioned his characters so that empathy is aroused. His characters have flaws; but that is what makes them human.

Although Antonio, the Christian shipping merchant whose flesh is at stake in this drama, is often referred to as the title character of the play, it is Shylock, the Jewish moneylender who is the source of much of the critical discussion. Some of Shylock's speeches point out the same prejudices that were alive in Elizabethan times and are still alive today in any culture that creates stereotypes of a particular race or religion and then establishes laws that discriminate against them. This is one of the elements that makes this play not only controversial but timeless.

The date that Shakespeare wrote this play is not certain. Scholars generally try to place it somewhere between 1596 and 1597, after Shakespeare Page 509  |  Top of Articlewrote Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet, but before he wrote Hamlet.

This play is said to have been based, in part, on Il PecoTone (1378), a collection of tales and anecdotes by the fourteenth-century Italian writer Giovanni Fiorentino. One of the stories in this Italian collection focuses on a rich heiress who is living at Belmont. She marries a man who has a friend who owes money to a Jewish man, who demands a pound of flesh in payment. The young woman saves the day in court. The plot is the backbone of Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice. There is another story contained in this play, that of a riddle that suitors of the beautiful heiress Portia must solve in order to win her hand. This part of the play might have come from another collection of fairy-tale type stories—a book, whose author is unknown, called Gesta Romanorum. The English translation of this book was very popular in Shakespeare's England. Another possible influence might have come from one of Shakespeare's contemporaries, the popular play The Jew of Malta (1589) by Christopher Marlowe. Critics are quick to point out, however, that Marlowe's Jewish character was more ruthless and much less human than Shakespeare's Shylock.

In spite of the controversies caused by The Merchant of Venice, it continues to fascinate its audiences. The characters are complex, leading to several interpretations of their personalities and actions. The play is harsh but fascinating, exposing some of humanity's greatest shortcomings.


Act 1, Scene 1

The first act of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice opens in Venice. Antonio, a merchant who owns several cargo ships, is talking about a sadness that he feels but cannot explain. Bassanio, a dear friend of Antonio's, arrives; they greet one another, and shortly afterward, Bassanio asks Antonio if he can borrow some money. Bassanio has devised a plan, he says, by which he can pay back all his debts. There is a beautiful woman in Belmont, Bassanio tells Antonio, whose father was a king. The father has died, leaving all his wealth to his daughter, Portia. Suitors, wishing to become Portia's wife, are lining up at her door, hoping to win her hand. However, they first must guess a riddle that Portia's father has devised. Bassanio needs the money to buy new clothes in order to make a good impression and to sail to Belmont and try his luck in figuring out the puzzle and thus winning the beautiful (and rich) Portia.

Antonio replies that he would do anything for Bassanio. However, all Antonio's money is tied up in his ships. He gives Bassanio a signed slip of paper and tells him to go out and see if he can gain credit in Antonio's name.

This scene establishes the close relationship between Antonio and Bassanio and also sets up the events that will occur as a consequence of Antonio's and Bassanio's actions.

Act 1, Scene 2

Scene 2 is set in Belmont, where Portia lives. Here the audience hears Portia complaining about her father's will that commands her to stand passively by, watching suitors try to win her by guessing which out of three chests contains her picture. She feels helpless, unable to choose her own husband and unable to deny a suitor to whom she is not attracted. Portia's servant maid, Nerissa, teases Portia, telling her that the whole world should have the problems of Portia—a woman who does not want for any material goods. Nerissa also reminds Portia that Portia's father was a wise and virtuous man and must have known what he was doing. By having suitors challenged by the test, her father knew that the one who figured the puzzle out would be the man best suited for his daughter and would provide Portia with a man she could truly love.

Portia and Nerissa look out at the suitors who have lined up to test their luck. The two women privately judge them by their appearances and manners and make fun of them. Then Nerissa remembers a handsome man who once visited Portia's father at Belmont and asks Portia if she remembers the man called Bassanio. Portia does recall Bassanio as having been very attractive and intelligent. Nerissa states that of all the men who have come to Belmont, she believes Bassanio is the most deserving of Portia.

Act 1, Scene 3

In Venice, Bassanio meets with Shylock to ask him if he will lend him money. Bassanio mentions Antonio's name when he asks to borrow money. Shylock tells Bassanio that he is well acquainted with Antonio and knows Antonio is a good businessman. Shylock also mentions that shipping can be a tricky business because a ship Page 510  |  Top of Article
Launcelot, Shylock, and Jessica from Act II, scene v Launcelot, Shylock, and Jessica from Act II, scene v (© Shakespeare Collection, Special Collections Library, University of Michigan) can go down in a storm. However, he suggests that he is willing to consider the loan.

Bassanio asks Shylock to dine with him and Antonio, but Shylock points out the disparity between Christians and Jews. Shylock tells Bassanio that he will walk, talk, sell, and buy with them, but he will not eat or pray with him.

Antonio enters the scene. In an aside (as if Shylock is talking to himself or directly to the audience), Shylock states that he hates Antonio because he is a Christian. Then Shylock discusses the interest rate that he will charge, how long he will hold the loan, and other terms of lending money. Shylock chides Antonio, reminding him that Antonio used to say he would neither lend nor borrow money. Shylock also reminds Antonio how he has, in the past, insulted Shylock in the Rialto, the meeting place of businessmen in Venice. Antonio, in the past, has called Shylock names and has also spit on him. Shylock finds humor in the fact that Antonio must now come to him to borrow money.

Antonio makes it clear to Shylock that this loan in no way should be interpreted that he wants to be friends with Shylock. He tells Shylock that it is best that they remain enemies. Then, if Antonio should fail to pay back the loan, Shylock can gain great happiness in the forfeiture. Shylock pretends to be offended by this. He mockingly tells Antonio that to prove he lends this money to Antonio in friendship, he will not charge him any interest. Instead, Shylock will write up a bond that Antonio must sign, a contract that states if Antonio does not pay the money back in three months, Shylock can take his payment in the form of one pound of Antonio's flesh from any part of Antonio's body that Shylock determines.

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Bassanio is shocked. He does not want this heavy weight on his conscious and tells Antonio not to sign the contract. Antonio waves Bassanio off. Antonio is sure that he will have ten-fold the money he owes Shylock in three months. Shylock again contends that he loans this money in friendship. What profit would he gain from a pound of flesh, he asks Antonio?

Act 2, Scene 1

Back at Belmont, Morocco, a king from northern Africa, arrives to try his hand at solving the puzzle of the chests.

Act 2, Scene 2

In Venice, Launcelot Gobbo, a servant to Shylock, decides to leave Shylock's service and prepares to ask Bassanio to employ him. Launcelot meets with his old father, whom he has not seen in many years and asks him to go with him to Bassanio's. There, the father offers some of his wares to Bassanio, enticing him to hire his son. Bassanio agrees to do so.

Next, Gratiano appears. He is a friend of Bassanio's. Gratiano begs Bassanio to take him to Belmont. Antonio tells Gratiano that he is too wild, rude, and bold. Bassanio, who enjoys Gratiano at Venice's parties, is concerned that Gratiano will not make a good impression on Portia in Belmont. Gratiano promises to behave; and Bassanio agrees to take Gratiano with him.

Act 2, Scene 3

At Shylock's home in Venice, Jessica, Shylock's daughter, says good-bye to Launcelot. But before the servant leaves, Jessica asks him to deliver a letter to Lorenzo, a friend of Bassanio's. Later, while Jessica is thinking out loud, she claims that if Lorenzo truly loves her and comes for her, she will become a Christian.

Act 2, Scene 4

Lorenzo and Gratiano plan a small entertaining skit and a party for Bassanio that night. But when Launcelot delivers Jessica's letter, small revisions in their plans must be made. Lorenzo and Gratiano plan how they will go into the Jewish quarters that night and steal away Jessica from her father.

Act 2, Scene 5

At Shylock's house, Launcelot returns to invite Shylock to eat with Bassanio. Shylock agrees, this time. Before Shylock leaves, he tells Jessica to stay away from the windows and to lock the doors. Launcelot whispers to Jessica that she should look out for a masked Christian who will come calling for her.

Act 2, Scene 6

Gratiano and Salerio arrive at Shylock's house later that evening. They wait for Lorenzo to appear. Lorenzo calls out for Jessica, who is dressed like a boy. She goes with Lorenzo, stealing a large portion of her father's money as a dowry. The two young people profess their love for one another.

Act 2, Scene 7

At Belmont, Morocco, the prince from northern Africa, is with Portia and is about to take the test. He must choose one chest among three. The first chest is made of gold. It has a note attached to it that reads: "Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire." Morocco then reads the note on the silver chest. "Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves." The chest made out of dull lead also has a note. It reads: "Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath." Morocco analyzes the three notes. Then he chooses the gold chest, the only chest worthy of Portia's beauty, he assumes. However, Morocco has chosen the wrong one.

Act 2, Scene 8

In Venice, Salerio and Solanio relate the events of the past night. The audience learns that Bassanio has set sail for Belmont and has taken Gratiano with him. Shylock has discovered that Jessica is missing. He went to the duke to try to have Bassanio's shipped searched. Antonio swears to the duke that Jessica is not with Bassanio.

Solanio then states that he heard Shylock wailing in a very strange way in the streets that night. First Shylock cried for his daughter; then he cried for the loss of his money. Shylock moans that if he finds his daughter, he is sure he will also find his money. Salerio says that he heard a rumor that a ship from Venice has capsized. He hopes it is not one of Antonio's.

Act 2, Scene 9

In Belmont, the prince of Arragon arrives to try his luck in winning fair Portia. He chooses the silver chest; and he chooses wrong.

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Act 3, Scene 1

At the Rialto in Venice, news is out that one of Antonio's ships has indeed sunk. Shylock is still lost in his misery of having lost his money and his daughter. He is seen wandering around, asking Solanio and Salerio if they knew Jessica was planning her escape or if they had seen her in the town. They are able to tell him nothing. They do mention, though, that one of Antonio's ships has gone down and wonder if Shylock knows this. Saleria, who is worried about Antonio, asks what good a pound of flesh would be to Shylock. Shylock answers: "It will feed my revenge." Shylock then relates how Antonio has disgraced him, over and over again. He says Antonio has laughed at him, mocked him, and spit on him. It is at this point that Shylock makes his famous speech, noted by some as one of the more impelling speeches against prejudice ever written. Shylock begins with the statement that Antonio has done all these hateful things against him merely because Shylock is a Jew. Then he continues: "Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands?" Shylock's point is that a Jew is the same as a Christian. He uses his speech, however, to also justify his own revenge against Antonio because Shylock is doing only what has been done to him. He has learned about revenge, he claims, from the Christians.

Tubal, a friend of Shylock's, then appears. He tells Shylock that he has heard news of Jessica. She has been spending a lot of money. Tubal also tells Shylock that Antonio has lost another ship. Then Tubal switches back to the topic of Jessica. She has sold a family ring in order to buy a monkey. Then he talks of Antonio again, pushing Shylock back and forth emotionally, from feeling sad about his daughter to feeling glad that Antonio is failing. Tubal assures Shylock that Antonio is sure to fail. Shylock tells Tubal that if Antonio cannot pay back the loan on time, he plans to take Antonio's heart, the pound of flesh, in payment.

Act 3, Scene 2

In Belmont, Bassanio arrives. Portia sees him and debates in her mind whether she should help him choose the correct chest. She knows she cannot really do this without breaking her vow to her father, but she wishes that she could.

Bassanio and Portia talk, hinting at one another's love. Portia tells Bassanio that she is locked inside one of the chests. As Bassanio stands in front of the chests, he thinks out loud, trying to figure out the scheme behind the notes accompanying each one. "The world is still deceiv'd with ornament," Bassanio tells himself as he looks over the silver and gold chests. Then, as he stands in front of the lead chest, he claims: "Thy plainness moves me more than eloquence." He chooses the lead chest and is right. He finds a picture of Portia inside.

Bassanio and Portia celebrate. In the midst of this, Gratiano and Nerissa announce that they too want to be married.

A messenger from Venice arrives with a letter for Bassanio from Antonio. Portia notices the changes in Bassanio's expression and wants to know the news. Bassanio confesses that he came to Portia not only a man without money, but a man who is in debt. He owes everything to Antonio. And now Antonio is in jail and must pay off that debt with his flesh. Portia says the amount of money is small. She will double it and give it to Shylock. Jessica warns them that her father has sworn that if Antonio, himself, does not pay back the money, he will have Antonio's flesh. Portia believes she can solve this problem, but first she wants to become Bassanio's wife.

Act 3, Scene 3

Antonio is in prison. Shylock insists on having Antonio's flesh, no matter how much Antonio and his friends beg for mercy. When Shylock refuses, Antonio is resigned to his death. He knows that Shylock has the law on his side. There is nothing anyone can do. Antonio signed the bond, which is binding.

Act 3, Scene 4

Lorenzo praises Portia for coming to the aid of Antonio. Portia tells him that if Antonio is Bassanio's friend, then he must be as good as Bassanio and is worth anything she can do. She tells Lorenzo that he must look after her estate as she and Nerissa are going to a monastery to pray until this ordeal is over. Portia then turns to a servant and gives him a letter to take to Padua to her cousin Doctor Bellario. Then he is to bring the things that Bellario will give him and deliver them to Portia in Venice. Portia tells Nerissa that their husbands will see them sooner than they think but they will not recognize them because the wives will be disguised as men.

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Act 3, Scene 5

Launcelot teases Jessica that she is like her father but then says maybe Shylock is not really Jessica's father. Jessica comes back by saying that would be no better, since that would make her tainted by the sins of her mother. Jessica then says that she is not concerned about her relationship to Shylock because by marrying Lorenzo, a Christian, she has been saved. Lorenzo comes in and upon finding out what they have been talking about, Lorenzo further develops the topic of racism, chiding Launcelot that the black servant he has been sleeping with is pregnant with Launcelot's baby.

Act 4, Scenes 1-2

In the courtroom in Venice, Antonio is brought in. The crowd, which now includes Bassanio and Gratiano, jeers when Shylock appears and when he denies Antonio any mercy. Even when Bassanio presents a chest filled with money, Shylock says that Bassanio could have brought multiple chests similar to the one there and he still would refuse to release Antonio from the bond. Shylock wants his pound of flesh and will not settle for anything less. He points out to the court that this is his legal right. The court tries to persuade him, asking for mercy. Shylock absolutely will not give in

Antonio finally tells everyone that it is senseless to try to reason with "the Jew." "You may as well go stand upon the beach, / And bid the main flood bate his usual height; / You may as well use question with the wolf, / Why he hath made the ewe bleat for the lamb." In other words, Antonio is saying that it is against Shylock's nature, because he is a Jew, to grant mercy.

The duke asks how Shylock could ever hope for mercy from the court if he is unwilling to provide mercy to Antonio. Shylock claims he has done no wrong, so why should he worry about the court granting him any mercy. Shylock then points out that there are people in the courtroom who own slaves. He asks if he should tell them to let the slaves go. If he does, Shylock claims, the owners would say that the slaves are theirs. So too does Shylock say that Antonio is his. "The pound of flesh which I demand of him / Is dearly bought; 'tis mine, and I will have it."

At this point a messenger enters the court, delivering a letter from Dr. Bellario to the duke, telling the duke that he is ill but in his place, he has sent two young men (which is in fact Portia, disguised and referred to as Balthazar, and Nerissa). Portia/Balthazar gives Shylock a short lecture on the benefit of mercy; but Shylock still does not give in. Bassanio and Gratiano call Shylock a dog, a devil, and other names. Portia continues to dicker with Shylock, offering him three times what is owed him. Shylock refuses all offers. Antonio prepares to die. He says good-bye to Bassanio. Bassanio tells Antonio that nothing is greater than Antonio's life, not his own life, his new wife, or anything in the whole world.

Portia hears this and comments: "Your wife would give you little thanks for that, / If she were by to hear you make the offer." Then Portia tells Shylock to go forward and collect his pound of flesh from Antonio. He proceeds; but Portia suddenly stops him. She says that he is lawful in taking the pound of flesh, but if he extracts one drop of blood in the process it will be considered a crime. "One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods / Are, by the laws of Venice, confiscate / Unto the state of Venice." Shylock could lose everything that he owns.

Shylock abruptly changes his mind. He tells the court that he will now take thrice the amount of the contract and will let Antonio go. Portia denies him this. All he is entitled to is the pound of flesh. Shylock then turns to leave, but Portia tells him to stay. She says the court will take everything from him. Antonio protests, telling the court that he will take half of what Shylock has, but the other half should go to Lorenzo and Jessica upon Shylock's death. In the meantime, Shylock must give up his faith and become a Christian. The courtroom empties.

Bassanio and Gratiano approach Portia and Nerissa, still in disguise and ask what payment they might request for their having saved the life of Antonio. Portia says she needs nothing, except for the ring on Bassanio's finger. It is the ring that Portia gave to Bassanio before they were wed, telling him that if he ever takes it off his finger, it would mean that his love for her has ended. Bassanio gives the young lawyer the ring. In this way, Portia appears to test Bassanio's love for her. Some critics believe that there is a tug of war going on between Antonio and Portia to see whom Bassanio loves more. Portia intends to teach Bassanio a lesson. Acting as if Portia's shadow, Nerissa also asks for Gratiano's ring and receives it.

Act 5, Scene 1

Back in Belmont, Portia welcomes her husband and shortly after, asks to see his ring. When he cannot produce it, Portia brings the ring forth, Page 514  |  Top of Articleconfessing that she was the young lawyer. She berates Bassanio for having given it away. He promises never to do that again. Nerissa does the same to Gratiano. Some critics have complained that the rest of this act is used to merely tie up loose ends, especially the part in which Antonio finds out through a letter, which Portia mysteriously produces, that all of Antonio's ships are safe.



Antonio is a successful Venetian merchant and the title character of this play. He owns several ships that travel all over the world. Antonio's best friend is Bassanio. Antonio's situation is that he would do almost anything for Bassanio, but in the beginning of the play, when Bassanio asks for a loan, Antonio is short of cash. Bassanio, who has been frivolous with his money in the past, promises that he has a plan that will allow him to pay back Antonio everything he owes him. Because of his love of his friend, Antonio seems unable to refuse him. Since Antonio has no cash, he does the next best thing, he offers his credit to Bassanio. Whether Bassanio knows it or not, he ends up borrowing money from a man Antonio detests, Shylock.

Antonio, who is a proud and confident man when it comes to money, signs a bond authorizing Bassanio to borrow 3,000 ducats (gold coins) from Shylock. The bond with Shylock states that Antonio will owe no interest; but in its place, Antonio must give Shylock a pound of his flesh if he cannot pay the debt back in the stipulated time period. Antonio barely squirms, so sure is he of having triple that amount in three months. He signs the agreement without a shrug.

Sidebar: HideShow


  • A classic version of this play starred noted British actor Lawrence Olivier, in a 1973 production by Universal/Artisan. The play is set in Venice, but it is set in the 1880s rather than the 1500s. Olivier plays Shylock. It is available on video.
  • In 1981, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) recorded The Merchant of Venice as part of the broadcaster's series The Shakespeare Plays. This video stars Warren Mitchell, Gemma Jones, and John Franklyn-Robbins.
  • Henry Goodman played Shylock in a 2000 DVD formatted version of the play, directed by Trevor Nunn. Goodman's Shylock is said to be a soft-spoken and less spiteful version of this character.
  • In 2001, the Royal National Theatre produced an award-winning version of The Merchant of Venice for the BBC, starring David Bamber and Peter De Jersey.
  • Michael Radford's 2004 film production of The Merchant of Venice starred Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, and Lynn Collins. Containing beautiful photography and great acting performances, this version is available on DVD.

Antonio's emotions lie elsewhere—not in business dealings. In the first lines of the play, Antonio admits to sadness. It appears that he does not know the reason for this sadness. It is possible, he says, that it is his fate to be melancholy. People around him find no reason for Antonio to be depressed. He is one of the most successful businessmen in the city. If it is not money, then it must be a lack of love or maybe it is too much love. The curious circumstances surrounding Antonio's melancholy at the beginning of the play have generated some debate among critics. Some commentators interpret the merchant's sadness as an indication of his inability to reconcile the accumulation of wealth with his Christian faith; others read Antonio's sorrow as a manifestation of his unconscious homosexual love for Bassanio. In some productions of this play, Antonio appears to be in love with Bassanio, not necessarily in a sexual way, but nonetheless he is very affected by Bassanio. He feels a strong friendship and bond with Antonio. He will do anything for him. Toward the end of the play, Portia questions just how deep that love is between Bassanio and Antonio, and whether it might be threatening to her love affair with Bassanio. There is no specific reason given for Antonio's sadness, unless one might read into the play that he could sense the Page 515  |  Top of Articleimpending fate that would fall upon him, the threat against his life.

Of all the characters in the play, Antonio is the most outspoken in terms of his hatred of Jews. He is disgusted at the thought of Shylock, calls Shylock names, and continually makes prejudicial statements about him. To some degree, due to Antonio's hatred, audiences might be persuaded to accept, or at least understand, Shylock's lack of mercy toward the man.

Critics generally agree that while the merchant Antonio is generally overshadowed by both Shylock and Portia, he nonetheless remains crucial to the interweaving of the Belmont and Venice plots. Commentators note that while Antonio is depicted as the consummate Christian because of his humility and charity, his treatment of Shylock conforms to conventional attitudes toward Jews rather than the unconditional love advocated in the New Testament. Is Antonio a hypocrite? Or is he a man fashioned by his times? These are some of the questions that are raised by this play in reference to Antonio.


Balthazar is one of Portia's servants. However, when Portia goes to Venice, this is the name she uses when she is disguised as a young lawyer in the courtroom—the young lawyer who eventually saves Antonio's life.


Bassanio is a Venetian gentleman and Antonio's close friend. He borrows money from Shylock and therefore commits Antonio, who signs the bond, to a loan with a heavy payment should Antonio forfeit payment. Bassanio appears young and irresponsible in the beginning of the play, spending money without much care on meaningless things like parties, and then borrowing more. However, once Bassanio solves the riddle of the caskets by choosing the lead chest and thus winning Portia for his bride, Bassanio seems to take a turn toward maturity. He realizes the heavy cost of his frivolity of the past, putting Antonio's life on the line, and does his best to try to save his friend. However, Bassanio makes one more mistake when he gives his ring to Balthazar after the trial, failing to live up to his promise to his wife. By the end of the play, however, there appears to be hope that Bassanio has learned his lesson and has matured.

Shakespeare invented Bassanio by exploiting a popular dramatic convention of the time in which a hero of a play wins the hand of a maiden by solving a perplexing riddle. Because of the significance Bassanio places on Portia's wealth early in the play, his character has been interpreted in two conflicting ways. Some commentators maintain that Bassanio is a scheming opportunist, drawn only to Portia's wealth and position. By contrast, others view the character as a portrait of the ideal Elizabethan lover, arguing that Shakespeare's audience probably considered Bassanio's actions perfectly acceptable. Women of that time were supposed to offer their husbands a dowry. Bassanio merely follows with the fashion of the day.

Launcelot Gobbo

Launcelot was, at one time, Shylock's servant. He convinces Bassanio to employ him because Shylock does not treat him well. Shakespeare uses Launcelot in this play mostly as comic relief. Launcelot is witty at times, but quickly dismissed when not needed, which is for most of the play.


Gratiano is a Venetian gentleman and a companion of Bassanio's. He is mostly a party boy, and is less practical than Bassanio. He follows Bassanio around, mimicking many of Bassanio's moves, such as marrying Nerissa, Portia's handmaiden, in a double wedding with Bassanio and Portia. Gratiano also gives away the ring that Nerissa has given him, thus further mirroring Bassanio. Whereas, at the end, Bassanio seems to have matured, Gratiano ends his appearance on the stage with a crude joke, exhibiting his attachment to—and reluctance to give up—his youth.


Jessica is Shylock's daughter. She elopes with Lorenzo, stealing a portion of her father's wealth for her dowry. She leaves her home without noticeable regret, portraying her father as the enemy. She feels she is saved from her father's reputation because she has married a Christian, as if this has absolved her from some nonexistent crime, that of being a Jew. Her role is a minor one, used mostly to further deepen the hatred of Shylock that is exposed elsewhere.

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Lorenzo is Antonio and Bassanio's friend. He falls in love and elopes with Jessica. His role is used to set up another facet of the relationship between Christians and Jews. His Christianity is seen as a way for Jessica to cleanse her soul from being a Jew, at least that is what Jessica believes. She is saved because she will now become a Christian. This reflects the sentiment in Elizabethan England. Queen Elizabeth I was willing to kill anyone who professed a faith other than that of the Protestant Church of England. People, in that time, were truly saved when they either converted to Christianity or at least pretended to.


Portia's lady-in-waiting, Nerissa marries Gratiano and later accompanies Portia to Venice disguised as a law clerk Nerissa's character is not fully developed. She appears to be in this play mostly to help Portia reflect on her thoughts. Nerissa, if she acts on her own, merely mimics what Portia does.


Portia is a rich heiress living in Belmont. She marries Bassanio, who successfully passes the casket test. Determined to help her husband save Antonio from Shylock's bond, Portia travels to Venice disguised as a lawyer named Balthazar to represent the merchant at the trial.

Many commentators assert that Portia is one of Shakespeare's finest dramatic creations. Highly intelligent and resourceful, she is viewed as a paragon of femininity, with much more complexity of character than the fairy-tale princesses found in the literary sources available to the playwright. Some critics view Portia as an initially disruptive force in the play because, as an unmarried and wealthy young woman, she poses a threat to the male-dominated Elizabethan worldview—her situation is similar to the unmarried Queen Elizabeth I's problem. This dramatic tension is relieved, however, when Portia conforms to societal conventions through her marriage to Bassanio. On a more symbolic level, Portia represents the influence of Christian mercy and forgiveness. Perhaps the two most notable instances of Portia's benevolence occur when she attempts to persuade Shylock to have compassion on Antonio during the trial scene, and when she pardons Bassanio for forfeiting her ring.

Prince of Arragon

A suitor to Portia, he incorrectly selects the silver box during the casket test.

Prince of Morocco

A suitor to Portia, he incorrectly chooses the golden box during the casket test.


Shylock is a Jewish moneylender living in Venice. He is also Jessica's father. He loans Bassanio 3,000 ducats on Antonio's behalf, stipulating that he will take a pound of Antonio's flesh if the sum is not repaid on time. Shylock suffers a lot of abuse in this play, representing the treatment of Jews in Venice during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Although Venice was a fairly religious-tolerant city, Jews were still not considered equal to Christian citizens. This play clearly demonstrates the demeaning attitudes toward Jews through the attitudes and actions of Antonio. This is not to say that Shylock is a virtuous man who suffers without any cause. For example, when Jessica runs away, it is unclear if Shylock misses her or merely misses his money. In anger, he also says that he would see his daughter dead. In addition, Shylock does not hide his hatred of Antonio. But despite his poor treatment at Antonio's hands, it is hard to forgive Shylock for wanting to kill Antonio merely because he was late in paying his loan. Of course, this is not the only reason for his anger. It is merely an excuse for Shylock to get his revenge for the abuse that Antonio has given him in the past.

The Merchant of Venice is often considered to be Shylock's play, for the reading of his character generally influences the interpretation of the drama as a whole. If Shylock is perceived as a comic villain, with all the stock characteristics associated with such a role, then he receives his due in the trial scene, and the work is truly a comedy. However, if Shylock is seen as the hero of the drama, then his humiliation indicates that the work is a tragedy. Both views can be argued based on the ambiguous content of the play. Numerous commentators have discussed the extent to which Shakespeare was influenced by the anti-Semitic sentiment of his day. While it might be true that the playwright began writing his play with the stereotypical Elizabethan conception of a Jewish usurer in mind—a figure that was quite common in drama at that time—Shakespeare created in Shylock a complex and Page 517  |  Top of Articlememorable figure who defies those conventional attributes and who overshadows the rest of the work. By giving Shylock sympathetic human traits—most notably his feelings of persecution at the hands of the Venetians—Shakespeare raises the question of whether Shylock's villainous behavior toward Antonio is purely malicious, or whether his actions reflect the desperate attempts of an outsider attempting to secure justice and revenge against the enemies who have wronged him



Economics is a prime concern in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, and critical perspectives often treat the play as a clash between emerging mercantile sensibilities of the times and religious traditions. During Shakespeare's era, usury (lending money for interest) grew to be an accepted business practice as profits became increasingly more important than religious principles.

Usury was one of the few ways that Jews were allowed to make a living in Elizabethan England. Pressure was mounted on this profession when Christian moneylenders lent funds without charging interest. This made it more difficult for Jewish people to make a profit. The rivalry between Antonio and Shylock, in this play, is often viewed as an example of two conflicting business ethics. Although Shylock represents usury as a pragmatic and legitimate business practice, Antonio embodies a more idealistic perspective of the practice of lending money. Following Christian precepts, merchants were to generously lend their money interest-free because their wealth was such that they could afford to do so. This fundamental economic contention, in addition to the two characters' religious differences, establishes their enmity toward one another and creates a rivalry that reaches its climax in the trial sequence in act 4.

Bassanio's marriage to Portia demonstrates another economic dimension of the play. Because of rising costs during the Renaissance, aristocrats, in many cases, had to concern themselves with obtaining more wealth to maintain their expected lifestyle, and a generous dowry (from a woman to her future husband) was considered a respectable means of achieving this end. Many critics contend that even though Bassanio is virtually penniless because of his extravagant spending prior to marrying Portia, his open desire to marry her for her money—in addition to her charm and beauty—should not be construed by modern readers as the shrewd enterprise of an unscrupulous fortune hunter. In fact, an Elizabethan audience probably would have interpreted Bassanio's suit of love as an ordinary and perfectly acceptable arrangement. A similar situation occurs when Jessica steals her father's money before eloping with Lorenzo; in a sense, she is helping herself to her dowry.


Different types of love and rivalry are other important topics in The Merchant of Venice. The suitors who vie for Portia's hand all represent different types of love. The Princes of Arragon and Morocco—the two unsuccessful petitioners—symbolize a shallow and limited form of love. Arragon, by selecting the silver casket on the basis of its inscription ("Who choo-seth me shall get as much as he deserves"), in act 2, scene 7, reveals that his concept of love is self-serving and vain. Morocco's choice of the gold casket indicates that his notion of love is based on superficiality or physicality ("Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire"). However, when Bassanio correctly identifies the lead casket, he demonstrates a superior understanding of love, as he judges the box on the inner qualities it may possess rather than on its dull, outer appearance. This represents a deeper and more spiritual type of love.

The issue of rivalry in love is evident in the association between Antonio, Portia, and Bassanio. Some critics argue that the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio may be a homosexual one, citing the merchant's unexplained melancholy at the beginning of the play as the result of Portia displacing him as the object of Bassanio's affection, as well as Antonio's desire to keep Bassanio happy by continually supplying him with money, despite the consequences. In addition, the two couples—Bassanio and Portia and Jessica and Lorenzo—represent two antithetical kinds of love in this play. Bassanio and Portia demonstrate a socially acceptable courtship; not only do they obey her father's request that Portia's suitor successfully pass the casket test, but they also uphold the legal provisions of the test as mandated in the father's will. Jessica and Lorenzo's courtship, however, illustrates a romantic love linked to the great Page 518  |  Top of Article
Bassanios Choice, Act I, scene i "Bassanio's Choice," Act I, scene i (© Shakespeare Collection, Special Collections Library, University of Michigan) lovers of myth, particularly in the illicitness of their elopement. Unlike Portia and Bassanio's union, Jessica and Lorenzo's defies social traditions because their aspiration to get married causes them to step out of the bounds of the accepted rules of society as well as the rules of the father.

Real vs. Ideal

Shakespeare's delicate balancing of the worlds of Venice (the real) and Belmont (the ideal) is another central issue in The Merchant of Venice. On one side is the city of Venice, which reflects a complex reality that includes many different principles but also many contradictions. Venice is supposedly governed by Christian values. However, the Christians are shown to be hypocritical. Christian values advocate charity, mercy, and virtue, and yet Antonio discriminates against Shylock and further denigrates him by ultimately forcing Shylock to renounce Judaism completely and embrace Christianity.

In addition, although Christian values support the idea of loaning money without charging interest, Shylock and other Jewish businessmen contribute a mercenary dimension to the affairs of the city, in which lending money for interest is considered a legitimate business practice. Further confirming this practice, breaches of lending contracts are immediately redressed with legal action. In other words, usury, which supposedly goes against Christian principles, is sanctioned by Venetian civil laws. Hypocrisy is also exposed in the Christian attitude toward Jewish people in the city. Although accepted by the Venetians on an economic level, Shylock and his fellow Jewish families remain outsiders in the city. They are cursed by the Christians, who profess love and acceptance for all mankind.

Portia and Belmont represent the ideal, the counterpoint to Venice, by embodying the qualities of an idealistic world that markedly contrasts with the hypocrisy, revenge, and commercial exploitation that dominate affairs in Venice. In essence, Belmont represents a fairy-tale realm where happiness and love flourish and Christian charity and forgiveness are actually upheld. These benevolent qualities manifest themselves in Portia, whose confrontation with Shylock in the courtroom can be interpreted as a direct clash between the retributive justice ordained in the Old Testament (which Shylock represents) and the mercy and charity advocated in the New Testament. Shakespeare provides The Merchant of Venice with a happy ending by emphasizing the love, joy, and forgiveness that thrives in Belmont. Nevertheless, the reader is left with the unsettling impression that hypocrisy and hatred persist just down the road in Venice.

Religious Prejudice

Religious prejudices prevail in this drama. From the opening act to the courtroom scene toward the end of this play, debilitating, prejudicial insults are thrown from one character to another. Shylock is the target for many of these hurtful remarks, but he demonstrates that he is also capable of delivering them. Prejudice makes a person see a group of people as stereotypical stick figures, contaminated with negative characteristics. These impressions are based merely on the fact that a group of people may look different, embrace different principles, or act in different manners. A prejudiced person does not consider that individuals in that group might differ from one another. Nor does he or she allow that there is a common core that runs through all human beings—a place where everyone can relate to one another.

For example, Shylock confesses in the beginning of this play that he hates Antonio because Antonio is a Christian. Shylock does this in spite Page 519  |  Top of Articleof the fact that he makes a magnificent speech in act 3, scene 1, in which he attempts to make Christians understand how hurtful prejudice can be. Shylock states that just because he is a Jew does not mean that he is not human. Conversely, Antonio spits on, mocks, and rails against Shylock, because Shylock is a Jew. When Antonio suspects that Shylock is doing something good, such as when Shylock insists on not charging interest on his loan to Antonio, Antonio tells Bassanio, "This Hebrew will turn Christian: he grows kind," as if only Christians practice charity. Also, in the courtroom scene, Antonio states that trying to change Shylock's "Jewish heart" would be as impossible as changing nature.

Mercy and Hypocrisy

The concept of mercy comes to a head in the courtroom scene. It begins earlier, once rumors are spread that Antonio might have lost one or more of his ships. As the tension grows toward the date that Antonio's loan to Shylock is due, the cries for mercy begin to rise among the Christian citizenry.

Mercy implies the ability of one person to forgive another, a strong Christian principle that is advocated in many Christian pulpits on Sunday morning. Though this virtue of mercy is often preached, Shakespeare shows that his Christian characters in this play do not always practice it, thus demonstrating their hypocrisy.

Shakespeare allows his Christian characters in this play to cry out for mercy when one of their own is in trouble. Portia even increases the value of mercy in her courtroom speech, when she equates mercy to godly power. Mercy, Portia states, "is an attribute to God himself, / And earthly power doth then show likest God's / When mercy seasons justice." This is how Portia attempts to get Shylock to show mercy for Antonio and therefore to spare Antonio's life. However, when it is time for Portia to show mercy on Shylock, what does she do? What does the court do? And especially, what does Antonio do? These are all Christians, the same Christians who asked Shylock for mercy. Though, when it is their turn to practice mercy, they strip Shylock of all his goods and worldly wealth. Antonio amends this verdict and, claiming he is being merciful, says he only wants half of Shylock's wealth. The other half is to be handed over to the Christian man who stole Shylock's daughter. To top it all, Antonio also demands that Shylock forsake his religion and become that which he hates, a Christian. Had Antonio been on trial, would he have thought it merciful if he had been forced to become a Jew?

Shylock, on the other hand, does not see why he is being asked to show mercy. His mind is set on revenge, which he believes he deserves. He also knows that he has done nothing wrong, so he does not have to worry about receiving mercy from the court. It is not until the court turns on him, making him realize that he cannot have his pound of flesh—that he cannot eke out his revenge on Antonio—that Shylock begins to see the power of mercy. He tells the court he will now take the money Bassanio has offered. The court, of course, refuses him.

Shakespeare points out the hypocrisy in this fictitious Venetian society. The principle of mercy might be deeply imbedded in the Christian religion but it is not so deeply set in the actions of the people who cry out for it.

Daughter and Father Relationship

There are two daughter-and-father relationships in this play. First, there is the heiress of Belmont, Portia, and her relationship with her deceased father. Then, there is the relationship between Jessica and Shylock. Although Portia sounds depressed because she is tied to her vow with her father not to become involved in the selection of her husband, she is a devoted daughter. She honors her father, though she could easily break her vow and technically he could do nothing about it. She respects her father's integrity, intelligence, and wisdom. She does not, for instance, give Bassanio any hints as to which chest holds her picture, though the thought of his not finding it tears at her heart. She goes against her own instinct, in this case, and puts her future in her father's hands.

On the other end of the spectrum is Jessica, who not only runs away from her father and steals a large sum of his money, she also has little respect for him. She lavishly throws her money away. She gives away a precious family heirloom, having not sentiment attached to it though her father's memory of the ring is so imbued with emotions. She does not in so many words claim that her father is wrong for his beliefs, but she feels saved having married a Christian and thus rids herself of being Jewish. She exhibits no emotions toward her father except for happiness in getting away from him.

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Shakespeare does not condemn Jessica for her lack of feelings for her father, so the theme is, in some ways, incidental. He uses Jessica's actions more as a contrast between Jews and Christians than as an example of a daughter's dislike of a father. Portia, on the other hand, represents an ideal—what an ideal daughter would feel for an ideal father.


Structure: Comedy or Tragedy?

The Merchant of Venice is often listed under the category of Shakespearean comedy. Keep in mind that comedy, in Elizabethan times, did not mean the same thing it does today. If someone were to tell you there was a comedy playing at one of your local movie theatres today, you would expect to see a movie that makes you laugh a lot. In Shakespeare's time, a person going to the theatre to see a comedy would expect to see a play about love. A Shakespearean comedy often includes the trials and tribulations of a young man and woman who have fallen in love at first sight and then must contend with a variety of challenges to realize that love. By the end of the play, they are married.

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  • With a friend or classmate, discuss the similarities and differences between Antonio and Shylock. What traits do they have in common? How do they act differently? How do their beliefs differ? Keep track of the details that you generate. Then, each of you take on one of those characters, remembering the traits about their personalities that you have uncovered. Prepare a speech, in character, as if you were running for president. Present your speeches to your class. Invite them to ask you questions and then, at the end, ask them to guess whether you are playing Antonio or Shylock.
  • The Merchant of Venice is classified as a comedy. What, if anything, did you find funny about this play? Choose a scene or a particular dialogue between two or more characters and act it out with a partner. Do whatever you must to emphasize the humor and record your audience's reaction. Did you make them laugh?
  • Research the history of the Jewish people. Why have they been discriminated against throughout the centuries? Where were some of the larger populations of Jews located in the Renaissance? How did they come to claim Israel as their home? Write a paper about your findings.
  • Interview an economics professor. Make sure you choose someone who is familiar with the history of usury. Find out if there are any differences between the interest rates and the policies of the Renaissance period and the twenty-first century in terms of how loans are made. How do interest rates compare to current mortgage loans, for instance. What about the interest rates on credit cards today; are they higher or lower than those charged in the fifteenth and sixteen centuries? Create a chart demonstrating the facts and figures that you have collected and explain it to your class.

In The Merchant of Venice, audiences find these elements in the structure of the play. There are three marriages, actually: Portia and Bassanio; Nerissa and Gratiano; and Jessica and Lorenzo. Bassanio must face the challenge of money and the guessing of the correct casket in order to win the hand of Portia. Lorenzo must secretly steal Jessica from her father's house at night. Gratiano appears to have little or no challenge, except for winning permission from Bassanio to go to Belmont. Page 521  |  Top of ArticleHowever, it is the stories of these three couples that makes this play a comedy.

Shakespeare appears to mix the elements of comedy and tragedy in this play, therefore leading some critics to classify The Merchant of Venice as a problem play. In other words, it is a combination of tragedy and comedy, and therefore, there is difficulty in placing it completely in one category or the other. Certainly, if you look at this play through the eyes of Shylock, there would be no comedy seen at all. Shylock loses everything by the end of the drama, including his right to maintain his own identity as a Jew. Shakespearean tragedies involve death; and even though there is no actual death in The Merchant of Venice, Shylock tells the court that if they take away everything he has, they might as well kill him. In Shylock's case, life after the courtroom scene might be more tragic than death.

Divided Setting

Reflecting the division that is inherent in this play between comedy and tragedy is the division in the setting between Venice and Belmont. Venice is the place of business, where money is made, lent, and lost; where cultures clash; where fathers and daughters do not get along; and where courts decide who will live and who will die. Venice is the world of challenges, unhappy people, and prejudice. In Venice, Antonio is filled with sadness, though he has much wealth. Likewise Shylock is embittered because his wealth does not earn him respect. The people of Venice, as portrayed in this play, center their lives on money instead of on love.

Belmont, the other half of the setting in The Merchant of Venice, represents the opposite of Venice. It is separated from Venice in many ways. Belmont is the fairy-tale city of music and love. Although there is much money there, fortunes are secondary to love. Whereas Venice is portrayed in darker tones, Belmont is light and colorful. People are happy, festive, and generous in Belmont.

The play itself is divided in form and themes; so the setting of the two varied places helps to emphasize the double visions of the underlying currents of the play.

Use of the Fable

Portia's father was determined to find a good husband for his loving daughter even after his death. So he set up a challenge, as any good fairy-tale father would do. He makes his daughter's suitors face an interesting puzzle, which they must solve to prove their worth. He does so in a set of three chests, three being a somewhat magical number in most traditional fairy tales. The riddles that are presented are very simple on the surface, but the analyses of these riddles will identify what each suitor contains in the depth of his heart and soul. Will the suitor be fooled by the luster of the gold chest, thus demonstrating his lust for surface beauty? Will he go for the silver, arrogantly believing that he deserves Portia? Or will he rightly choose the leaden chest, as Bassanio does, realizing that true beauty lies within. This part of the play is didactic in the sense that it teaches the audience that, as Shakespeare writes on the note inside the golden casket, "All that glisters is not gold." Like a fable, the play teaches a lesson.

Plot: Four Separate but Intertwined Stories

There are four different stories going on in this play. First there is the most serious one, that of Antonio, Bassanio, and Shylock's connection with the borrowed money and the bond. This story gives the play its tragic structure. The scenes involved in this story are tense because of the anti-Semitism that is portrayed and because of the threat to Antonio's loss of money and the threat to his life, as well as Shylock's losses. Many critics view this as the major plot of the drama.

The next story of importance is that of the three caskets. This story has a little tension but it is light-hearted and often quite humorous, especially when the extravagant suitors, Arragon and Morocco, try to decipher the messages and choose the correct casket. This story reflects some of the elements in the bond story in that it involves the glitter of gold and the weight of making decisions.

A third story is that of Lorenzo and Jessica's love, deception, and elopement. This story is used to compare the two daughter's relationships with their fathers: Jessica and Shylock; and Portia and her deceased father. By Jessica leaving and taking her father's money, this story adds tension and depth to Shylock's losses at the trial in the bond story. Finally, this story demonstrates a reconciliation between Jews and Christians that is lacking in the bond story.

Finally, as if tacked on to the end of the play to lighten the tension of the courtroom scene, Page 522  |  Top of Articlethere is the story of the rings. Portia and Nerissa trick their husbands, testing their husbands' loyalty by asking for their rings (while disguised as young male lawyers). Bassanio and Gratiano, indebted to the young lawyers for saving Antonio's lives, give the rings away. In the final scene, the husbands are shamed and ask forgiveness. They are given a second chance, thus ending the play on a happy note, rather than ending with the trial scene, which would make this play resonate with tragedy.


Jews in England

One of the first documented statements of Jews in England was recorded in 1075 in Oxford. At this time, and for another hundred years or so, Jews, unlike their counterparts in other European countries, were not forced to live in a ghetto—especially designated sections of a town or city. Jewish people in England were banned from certain professions, though, with most taking up jobs peddling wares and moneylending. They also could not own land.

In the twelfth century, sentiments against Jews were on the rise. The Christian Crusades were in full force and heretics were being burned to death in nearby Spain. Christians called Jews heretics because Jews did not believe that Jesus was the true Messiah. During the twelfth century, Jews suffered through two massive massacres in England, one in 1189 and another in the following year. Things did not improve in the next century. Laws were passed stating that Jewish people could no longer make a living lending money; Jewish families also suffered through having to pay unusually heavy taxes. Then in 1290, King Edward I decreed that Jewish people were a threat to England and banished them from the country.

In the sixteenth century, in Shakespeare's time, most English people would have been familiar with Jewish people not from acquaintance but from the stories told about them, most of which would have been prejudicial. Some of these stories included such false statements as Jewish people were spreading the dreaded Bubonic Plague. Other false beliefs included that Jewish people worshipped the devil and had been granted magical powers because of a pact they made with Satan. Jews were also accused of steeling Christian children at Easter time and using them in bloody rituals.

In Elizabethan times, although still banished, some Jews lived in England. If they practiced Judaism, they did so secretly. Outwardly, they tried to conform to Christian ways, even professing conversion to the Christian faith. Even so, Jews were still restricted to two main professions: usury and peddling.

Jewish Ghetto

Although there were no Jewish ghettoes in England in Shakespeare's time, there were ghettoes in Venice. The absence of ghettoes in England were a result of Jewish people having been technically banned from England. Those Jews who did live there were supposedly assimilated into the Christian faith and lived as Christians, scattered throughout the cities' neighborhoods.

Ironically, it is from the Venetians, from a city that was at that time known for its tolerance of different religions, that the word ghetto is derived. Venice was not the first city to create a ghetto for Jews. It was, however, the city that first devised the term ghetto, in 1516, when it established a special section in the northern part of the city. This was not the most pleasant part of the city. It was a place of industry, in particular iron foundries were located there with their polluting exhausts and smells. This was also an isolated part of the city, cut off by water from the main section of Venice. In order to gain access to the city proper, people had to cross one of two bridges. At night, these bridges were barred, forcing the Jewish people who lived in the ghettoes to remain at home until the gates were re-opened.

The land area in the Venetian Ghetto was not large enough to house the Jewish population, so homes built in that area tended to have five or more stories, unlike the typical houses in other parts of the cities. As the population continued to expand, additional lands were dedicated to the ghettoes. In 1630, there were about 4000 Jewish people living in the Venetian Ghetto, in what would amount today to about two and a half city squares. When Napoleon took control of Venice in the eighteenth century, he ordered the gates on the bridges to the city to be torn down. Jewish people gained some rights after this but not the right to citizenry.

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Allan Corduner as Tubal and Al Pacino as Shylock in the 2004 film The Merchant of Venice Allan Corduner as Tubal and Al Pacino as Shylock in the 2004 film The Merchant of Venice (Reproduced by permission of The Picture Desk, Inc.)


Charging interest on loans was for a long time prohibited by many different religions and declaimed as a poor practice by many philosophers in ancient times. Religions that preached against usury included the Moslem faith and the Christian faith. There was even a precept in Judaism that forbade usury; but it was limited. Jewish people could not charge interest on loans to other Jews. However, they could collect interest from non-Jews. There are passages in the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Qur'an that speak out against usury.

Gesta Romanorum

The portion of The Merchant of Venice that includes the challenge of the three caskets to win the hand of Portia was taken from a story in the Gesta Romanorum, a collection of short didactic stories, such as fables and anecdotes, originally written in Latin. It has been estimated that the stories in this collection were written either in the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century. Authors such as Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343–1400, the English author and poet who wrote The Canterbury Tales, written over the course of a decade from 1380 to 1390), John Gower (1330–1408, poet and friend of Chaucer, whose most famous work was Lover's Confession, tales of courtly love written around 1390), as well as Shakespeare, were known for borrowing some of the stories from Gesta Romanorum. It was a very popular book in England over a period of decades, and English authors used the collection to enhance their own tales and dramas. It is believed that originally the stories in the Gesta Romanorum were thought to have been put together for church ministers and priests.

Italian Renaissance

The Italian Renaissance was a period of time roughly between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries (although there are arguments for even earlier and later Renaissance movements in other parts of the world) when scholars, philosophers, and other students of history and culture examined the past, evaluated it, took the knowledge they collected, and slowly began to create a new Page 524  |  Top of Articlesociety based on new scientific and artistic ideas. Often, the Renaissance is used to mark the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the modern age in Europe, although the changes happened gradually and the dates of one era beginning and another one ending are rather arbitrary. In Italy, however, approximately during this time span, scientific and artistic discoveries enjoyed new, exciting, and dramatic changes.

Some of the earliest of the Renaissance writers in Italy were the poet Dante (1265–1321, known for his poem The Divine Comedy, written somewhere between 1310 and 1314) and the poet Petrarch (1304–1374, known for his series of love poems, written about a woman called Laura, begun somewhere around 1327). Both of these writers' works would seriously affect authors in other parts of Europe, especially in England, as the changes of the Renaissance swept through Europe. The Elizabethan Age in England is said to represent the height of the Renaissance in England. Authors such as dramatists William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593, who wrote The Jew of Malta), as well as poet John Milton (1608–74, who is known for his poem "Paradise Lost"), and many others wrote enduring works which are still studied today.

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  • 1500s: Jews are forced to live inside the walls of a ghetto in Venice. In Berlin, thirty-eight Jews are deemed heretics and are burned at the stake. A Catholic priest, who converts to Judaism, is burned at the stake in Rome.
    1800s: Many European countries grant right of citizenship to Jews. Ghettoes in Italy are abolished. However, in Germany, the anti-Semitic political party called the German Christian Social Party demands that all German Jews convert to Christianity. Moses Haim Montefiore is the first Jewish person knighted by Britain's Queen Victoria.
    Today: A United States senator from Connecticut, Joseph Liebermann, is the first Jewish person to run for the vice presidency of the United States, backed by a major political party (Democrats). Jewish people are forced to evacuate the Gaza Strip as the Israeli government makes an amendment to stop suicide bomber attacks by Palestinians who demand the return of the Gaza Strip to the Palestinian people.
  • 1500s: The Reformation, led by Martin Luther, sweeps across Europe. Queen Elizabeth I demands a unified England, outlawing all religions except for Protestantism, under the Church of England.
    1800s: The development of Orthodox Judaism is begun in an attempt to counteract the move toward modernization in the Jewish faith that is spreading across Europe.
    Today: Radical Muslims engage in gorilla warfare against what some of them refer to as infidels—Christians in the Western world.
  • 1500s: Venetians make fortunes as their city is the greatest shipping port in Europe. Typical cargo ships improved over the Middle Age models and now have as many as four masts with two sails each.
    1800s: Using steam for power, and iron to replace wood for the body of cargo ships, the modern shipping industry is born. The time it takes a steamship to cross the Atlantic Ocean is cut in half.
    Today: Although cargo is still shipped in boats, packages can be delivered around the world overnight via jetliners.

Venetian Economy in the Renaissance

The city of Venice is built on marshy islands, with many so-called streets actually comprised Page 525  |  Top of Articleof water canals. Boats and ships were a part of most every Venetian's life because water was everywhere in the city. Because of its strategic position on the Adriatic Sea, Venice became a major shipping port, controlling most of the trade between Europe and the Far East up until the end of the Renaissance. Shipping was a very important part of the city's economy, and money flowed into the hands of the many families involved in the trade. In past ages, the money had been controlled by the nobility, whose wealth was invested in the land. With the large shipping industry in Venice, though, the power of money moved into the merchant class. People in the banking industry also gained wealth, as aristocrats began a trend of borrowing money for frivolous things, such as gambling and partying, and then failed to repay their loans. Bankers often took portions of the nobility's landholdings in payment, thus increasing the bankers' profits. The business class of merchants grew drastically during the Renaissance. Many merchants invested large amounts of money into the building of great mansions and churches during this time. The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries of the Venetian Renaissance are considered the golden age of Venetian wealth.


Maurice Charney, writing in his book All of Shakespeare, begins his chapter on The Merchant of Venice by stating that this is "an odd sort of comedy." He goes on to say that despite the fact that many critics try to argue that this play is not anti-Semitic, "it is no good to try to discard the hate that energizes the play." Charney adds that "Once you admit that The Merchant of Venice is blatantly anti-Semitic, you also have to admit that it has the most sympathetic defense of Jews in all of Shakespeare and probably in all of Renaissance literature." Charney also points out that it is through this play that audiences can see "Shakespeare's skill in controlling the sympathies of the audience." Shakespeare does this to provide the audience with multiple points of view of his characters.

Norrie Epstein, writing in the book The Friendly Shakespeare, calls The Merchant of Venice a troubling play, for the same reason that other critics have come to this conclusion. It is difficult to say, after you have seen it, if it is "a tragedy or a comedy, a love story or a tale of hate." Epstein's conclusion, however, is that in the end, "in its infinite ambiguity, it is quintessential Shakespeare. No sooner have you reached one conclusion about the play than it's immediately contradicted in the next scene—or line." Despite the fact that Shakespeare's audiences in Elizabethan times enjoyed coming to the theater and ridiculing stock, stereotypical Jewish characters, as was a routine at that time, Epstein states that "yet embedded within this caricature there's a real human being [in Shylock's character], and every so often Shakespeare lets him out." Shylock shows sadness, and he respects his own culture, Epstein writes. And he displays many other emotions in this play. "He's like a survivor of the Great Depression who grows up valuing money more than love." Shakespeare's talent is demonstrated in that he is able to go beyond his "age's prejudices" and present "the world from the alien's perspective."

Like almost everyone else, Andrew Dickson, writing in his The Rough Guide to Shakespeare, found that audiences can view The Merchant of Venice from two different perspectives: Antonio's and Shylock's. "Both sides of the story are there in this brilliant and troubling play, and it's easy to feel that they're irreconcilable." But Dickson continues: "It is impossible to sit on the fence when watching The Merchant, and the issues it raises about religious intolerance and conflict seem more pressing now than ever before."

David Daniell, in his essay, "Shakespeare and the Traditions of Comedy," praises the ambiguities in this play. He writes how various characters can be seen in two different lights: Bassanio as an adventurer or as a "self-seeking" bully; Shylock as a victim or "as a villainous stage 'Jew'." Then Daniell states that this is a sign of Shakespeare's maturity as a writer. "We are seeing clearly, now, one of the principles of mature Shakespeare, that of indeterminacy. The plays are more open, more patient of interpretation, than is comfortable."

In Allan Bloom's book Shakespeare's Politics, the author writes that Shakespeare did "not understand Judaism, for he saw it from the outside." But that was not the point of the play, Bloom contends. Shakespeare was interested in "man's attempt to become man and man alone. He was of the conviction that it was of the nature Page 526  |  Top of Articleof man to have varying opinions about the highest things and that such opinions become invested in doctrine and law and bound up with established interests. When confronted with one another, these opinions must quarrel." And that is what happens between Shylock and Antonio. They were men who believed in different things. They would never understand one another. "The consequences of this must be either conflict or a bastardization of all that is noble and true in each of the separate points of view." Shakespeare was not willing to smooth the conflict over just to make a few people in his audience happy, Bloom writes.


Anne Crow

Crow examines how Shakespeare's decision to name The Merchant of Venice after a minor character serves to increase attention on the true hero of the play, Portia. Throughout the play, Portia proves herself to be more knowledeable and clever than any of the male characters. Given how Portia dominates the action of the play, Crow contends, "Shakespeare must surely have intended the title of the play to be ironic."

In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare has woven together two stories. One is a revenge drama, set in Venice and based on the tensions between two business practices. Antonio represents the Christian merchants, who make their living trading with other nations, running risks posed by storms and pirates. Shylock represents the Jews, a marginalised group, locked into the 'ghetto' at night, who, because of restrictions imposed by the ruling Christians, can only make a living by lending money at fixed rates of interest. Antonio's contempt for Shylock is not just because he is a 'misbeliever' (I.iii.103), but also because he is a 'cut-throat dog', taking no risks and making profit out of the merchants. The other story is a romantic comedy, set in the fictional world of Belmont, and based on the fairy tale device of a wealthy woman bound by her father's will to marry the first man to choose the correct casket from gold, silver and lead.

The eponymous hero of the play, Antonio, has a relatively small part, appearing in only six scenes and speaking fewer than 200 lines. However, he, or at least a pound of his flesh, is central to the Venetian story once he has contracted to give this forfeit if he fails to repay a loan within 3 months. Having signed the bond, the character has nothing more to do except await the return of his ships and then, when they are apparently lost, his fate at the hands of the moneylender. Apart from financing Bassanio with the money he borrowed, he is marginal to the romantic comedy, although he can be blamed for Bassanio giving away a ring which has symbolic significance for the two lovers.

So why has Shakespeare named the play after a relatively minor character? Throughout the history of theatre, the part of the villainous Shylock has attracted the best actors of the day, and Portia, the heiress, is arguably the best female part for an actor that Shakespeare ever wrote. The obvious hero of this play is Portia. She is not only central to the romantic comedy, she is also the one who saves Venice from the predicament it finds itself in when its apparently impartial legal system is twisted into an instrument of revenge and used to threaten a barbaric act of cruelty.

However, no Shakespearean play features a woman as the sole eponymous heroine; three of his women share the title with their partners, but the men are always named first (for example, Antony and Cleopatra, Romeo and Juliet). The playwright could have sidestepped the issue with another abstract title such as Measure for Measure, but it is much more effective to draw attention to the strong female lead by promoting a minor character as title-bearer. Portia's strength is not the only attribute which makes her a memorable character; she is also realistically flawed. The audience does not always like her—she makes racist remarks about the Prince of Morocco and leaves Antonio suffering in the courtroom while she enjoys her 15 minutes of fame—but it is always possible to understand and empathise with her.

Shakespeare reveals his genius at what Keats called 'Negative Capability' as he loses his own Page 527  |  Top of Articleidentity in the portrayal of an intelligent, independent-mindedwoman trapped in a man's world. How frustrating it would have been for a woman like Portia that her cousin, Bellario, was able to go to the university at Padua and become a 'learned doctor' of law, while she had to stay at home and learn to be a good wife to the man her father chose to inherit his estates. If she had been born a man, she would have been able to follow a profession and exercise her undoubted intelligence.

In Portia's first scene, when she bemoans her fate, Shakespeare captures the exact tones of female conversation as she admits to a 'hot temper' and the 'madness' of youth (I.ii.16-17) which wants to break out from the constraints imposed on her. She mocks her prospective suitors to her friend Nerissa in an irreverent way. Her chatter, littered with words from the semantic field of law—'decree', 'counsel', 'come into court', 'became his surety and sealed under for another'—hints that Portia might dream of becoming a barrister. She soon creates an opportunity for herself to go to Venice and take Bellario's place when the court judges Shylock's claim to a pound of Antonio's flesh. Her cousin risks his reputation so readily in recommending her erudition, 'the greatness whereof I cannot enough commend' (IV.i.156-57), that he must surely have helped her to become as knowledgeable as himself. The implication is that they have even planned such an escapade together, because, as soon as he receives her message, he sends books, notes and appropriate clothes without question.

It is interesting to compare Portia with another frustrated Shakespearean character, Katherina Minola, in The Taming of the Shrew. Kate has had only a very rudimentary education and therefore has no resources to call on in her angry battle against male oppression. Portia is much more subtle. As Bassanio prepares to choose a casket in the lottery devised by her father, Portia plays the submissive woman to perfection. She pretends to be so much in love with Bassanio that she is flustered and confused: 'One half of me is yours, the other half yours—/ Mine own I would say: but if mine then yours—/ And so all yours' (III.ii.16-18). She continues to act the model daughter and wife, delivering a carefully prepared and formal speech of dedication. She tells him 'But now I was the lord / Of this fair mansion, master of my servants, / Queen o'er myself' (III.ii.167-69). The fact that she has to use two masculine forms in 'lord' and 'master'
A Plea for Mercy, Act IV, scene I "A Plea for Mercy," Act IV, scene I (© Shakespeare Collection, Special Collections Library, University of Michigan) to suggest supremacy but can use the feminine 'Queen' is a reminder to the audience that there was a similarly strong, intelligent and independent woman on the throne of England at the time of writing. Elizabeth may have been well pleased to see her sex valued so highly in this play.

Portia subjects herself entirely to 'her lord, her governor, her king'. This is almost a direct echo of Katherina's final speech in The Taming of the Shrew in which she similarly refers to a husband as 'thy lord, thy king, thy governor'. In The Merchant of Venice, however, Shakespeare clearly demonstrates that, though a woman may say this, it is probably merely to allay the suspicions of her husband while she follows her own agenda. Portia meekly pretends to be 'an unlessoned girl, unschooled, unpractised' (III.ii.159), although the audience heard her reminding Nerissa that she speaks three languages, including Latin. However, Portia creates an escape clause. When she hands Bassanio a ring which symbolises everything she has given him, she reserves the right to 'exclaim on' him if he loses it or gives it away. Even as she dedicates herself to her husband, she is planning to trick him into giving the ring away so that she can embarrass him into accepting her dominance.

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Portia sets up the ploy with the ring before she hears about Antonio's bond, so she is obviously prepared to take whatever opportunity is offered to her. When the letter arrives from Antonio, Bassanio is forced to admit that he deceived her and is, in fact, heavily in debt. Jessica warns that her father, Shylock, 'would rather have Antonio's flesh / Than twenty times the value of the sum / That he did owe him' (III.ii.285-87). Portia plays the naive little rich girl, apparently thinking that, if she throws enough money at Shylock, he will retract his claim, but secretly she is hatching a plan. She humours Bassanio, telling him confidently that everything is going to be fine, and declares that she and Nerissa 'Will live as maids and widows' (III.ii.308-09) until their husbands return.

The playwright has created a character who is obviously used to hoodwinking her father, playing the obedient daughter to allay his suspicions, and now she smoothly lies to her new lord and master. Perhaps she fears that he would forbid her adventure, or that, just as she could not trust him to choose the right casket, begging him to delay his decision and contemplating teaching him 'how to choose right,' she cannot now trust him to keep her secret. It could be that the deceit adds to the excitement, but it seems more likely that we should deduce that she is already planning how to trick Bassanio out of the ring.

Two scenes later, the audience is permitted to see through her act as she tells Nerissa of the 'device' through which they will see their husbands 'before they think of us' (III.iv.58-59). She has planned the adventure with consummate efficiency, presumably perfected through similar tricks played on her father, and demonstrates the ease with which she will adopt the persona of a 'fine, bragging youth' (III.iv.69). When she arrives in the courtroom, the audience is in the privileged position of sharing the joke at Bassanio's expense. Whether Bellario told her about the two ancient laws which had apparently lain dormant for so long that all the Venetians had forgotten about them, or whether she found them herself in the books lent by her cousin, she plays her part most skilfully. On entering, she takes centre stage and controls the action, leading Shylock to believe he has won, the audience and the courtroom to brace themselves for a bloody end to the trial, and taking poor Antonio to the brink of death with chest bared and sentence pronounced. At the last second, she says the words which stop Shylock short, 'Tarry a little' (IV.i.301), and reveals the existence of those two racist laws which save Antonio.

The playwright has written a play in which a woman proves herself conclusively to be more astute, more shrewd and, indeed, more knowledgeable than the men, beating them at their own game. In the final scene, she makes a fool out of her husband through her trickery with the ring and also has the key role of tying up all the loose ends. She basks in the role of Lady Bountiful, giving Antonio news of the safe return of his ships (revealing her extensive network of contacts) and giving Lorenzo and Jessica a deed of gift from Shylock even though Antonio had negotiated it. Once more she takes control of her own inheritance, declaring, in front of Bassanio, 'I have not yet entered my house' (V.i.272-73).

The Merchant of Venice features not one strong woman but three. Nerissa, having looked after her own financial interests by stipulating that she will only marry Gratiano if Bassanio wins Portia, takes the lead in the final stage of the ring game. Similarly, Jessica provides her own dowry by stealing from her father not one but two caskets of jewels and ducats, and, as Lorenzo tells Gratiano, she devised the plan for their elopement: 'She hath directed / How I shall take her from her father's house.'

Shakespeare gives Jessica the speech which proves conclusively that Portia is the hero of the play. Having told Lorenzo that Bassanio does not deserve the lady in whom he finds 'the joys of heaven here on earth' (III.v.64), she concludes that 'the poor rude world / Hath not her fellow' (III.v.70-71). With such a character dominating the action of the play, central to both the romantic comedy and to the climax of the revenge drama, Shakespeare must surely have intended the title of the play to be ironic.

Source: Anne Crow, "The Poor Rude World Hath Not Her Fellow': Anne Crow Explores the Possible Irony in the Title of The Merchant of Venice," in The English Review, Vol. 15, No. 2, November 2004, pp. 33-36.

William Leigh Godshalk

Godshalk discusses the unity of The Merchant of Venice in terms of the Pound of Flesh story and the Story of the Three Caskets, emphasizing in particular the elements of "bond" and "choice." According to the critic, the characters are bound Page 529  |  Top of Articleto each other and to different courses of action in many ways. Godshalk also examines "choice" as an extension of the "bond" issues, noting that even though the characters are bound by legal constraints, religious vows, and social obligations, they are free to determine into which bonds they enter. The critic concludes with a discussion of the ring scene (Act V, scene i) in which Shakespeare ironically dramatizes the issues of "choice" and "bond."

[Graham Midgley states in his "The Merchant of Venice: A Reconsideration," Essays in Criticism X (1960)]: "The problem of The Merchant of Venice has always been its unity, and most critical discussions take this as the centre of their argument, asking what is the relative importance of its two plots and how Shakespeare contrives to interweave them into a unity." The two plots are, of course, the Pound of Flesh Story and the Story of the Three Caskets, and the successful critic must account for Shakespeare's success in molding the two divergent stories into one whole. The strategy of the present study will be to examine both plots to ascertain their basic elements—what these two stories at bottom involve—and then to show how these elements interpenetrate the play as a whole.

The Pound of Flesh Story is found in The Merchant's Italian source, Il Pecorone, and in outline it is the same in both. In the source and the play, an older man is bound to a Jew so that a younger can obtain enough money to seek an heiress. Shakespeare, however, emphasizes two points not found or emphasized in Ser Giovani's tale. First, Shylock and Antonio are known to each other, and their relationship as financial enemies seems to be an old one. Their enmity stems from an ideological conflict over the morality of usury. Shylock, if you will, is a capitalist, Antonio a socialist; and both claim religious sanction for their economic positions. Second, the bond is emphasized. In the first minutes of his negotiations with Shylock, Bassanio says, "Antonio shall be bound" [I. iii. 4-5]. Throughout the scene, "bound" is used three times and "bond" seven. As Shylock prepares to exit, Antonio assures him, "I will seal unto this bond" [I. iii. 171]. Apparently Shakespeare is at pains to underline the concept of the bond here, and the words "bound" and "bond" echo through the play. Thus, it may be suggested that the Pound of Flesh Story as it is presented in The Merchant embodies two basic ideas: personal relationship (enemy to enemy as well as friend to friend) and bondage. And further, uniting the two ideas, we may see that the story is, at very bottom, about the binding of one man to another, with a consequent limitation on complete freedom of action. "And Antonio bound."

The Caskets are not found in Il Pecorone and may well have been taken from Robinson's translation of the Gesta Romanorum. Here the Emperor asks a young maiden to prove herself worthy of marrying his son by choosing among three caskets of gold, silver, and lead. The same procedure is, of course, used in The Merchant, where to prove himself worthy of Portia, the lover must make, under the influence of his love, the proper choice. Both in the source story and in the play, 'choice' is the basic idea in the Casket Story. If one would have that which one desires, one must choose, and in so choosing, one reveals something of one's true self.

In the two basic stories out of which the play grows, there are, then, two underlying ideas: bondage and choice. The theme of the bond in various manifestations proliferates throughout the play and even penetrates the Story of the Caskets. For the characters are bound to each other and to different courses of action in many ways. Most apparent in the play is the legal bond, the bond that gives Antonio to Shylock. But if Antonio is legally bound to the evil will of Shylock, Portia is also legally bound, bound by the last will and testament of a perceptive and loving father. She may complain that "the will of a living daughter" is "curb'd by the will of a dead father" [I. ii. 24-5], but Nerissa is quick to remind her that her "father was ever virtuous, and holy men at their death have good inspirations" [I. ii. 27-8]. Later Portia's words, that her father "hedg'd" her "by his wit" [II. i. 18], suggest that she acknowledges the protection implicit in Page 530  |  Top of Articleher bondage. She is protected from her own fancy as well as from external coercion to marry.

Portia's suitors are also bound. She tells Morocco that he must

     swear before you choose, if you choose wrong
     Never to speak to lady afterward
     In way of marriage.
     [II. i. 40-2]

And they go "forward to the temple" [II. i. 44] so that Morocco may take his oath, and later Arragon takes the same oath [II. ix. 2] before he too comes to make his choice of caskets. In the oaths of the suitors, the legal bond modulates into the religious bond. Again the bondage is formal and the terms are clearly set forth [II. ix. 9-16]. And moreover, the oaths of the suitors adumbrate the self-imposed religious oath of Shylock. He tells Antonio: "I have sworn an oath, that I will have my bond" [III. iii. 5]; and in the trial scene, when Portia asks him to accept "thrice thy money" [IV. i. 227], he replies: "An oath, an oath, I have an oath in heaven,—/ Shall I lay perjury upon my soul?" [IV. i. 228-29]. The juxtaposition and inversion of values is ironic, and the point is that Shylock has bound himself religiously to a course of irreligious action.

In contrast, the lovers are bound by their religion in the rites and oaths of marriage. Jessica and Lorenzo are presumably married sometime between their elopement [II. vi] and their arrival in Belmont with Salerio [III. ii]. After choosing the right casket, Bassanio marries Portia. Speaking of herself in the third person, she says to Bassanio: "her gentle spirit / Commits itself to yours to be directed, / As from her lord, her governor, her king" [III. ii. 163-65]. "Go with me to church, and call me wife" [III. i. 303], and Gratiano and Nerissa accompany them. The bonds of marriage are symbolized by the rings which the ladies present to their respective spouses and of which we shall hear more later. For the moment, however, we may marvel how many people in the play are bound by law or by religion.

At the same time, it should be realized that the bondage extends in The Merchant beyond the formal limits of oath and legal contract. With Cicero, the Renaissance playgoer would have felt that there are "the bonds of human society", a "principle which knits together human society and cements our common interests" [De Officiis I. 5, 7; Cicero was a first-century B.C. Roman orator, statesman, and philosopher]. The principle may be called the bond of humanity, and within the play it assumes many forms. On one level, it is the close bond of friendship between Antonio and Bassanio. In our post-Freudian, sexually-oriented era, this friendship becomes latently homosexual—and possibly in many minds, worse. But rather than invoking Sigmund Freud, we may better look at Sir Thomas Elyot, who, in his Boke Named the Gouernour discusses "amitie or frendeshyp". Elyot feels that "Sens frendeshyp can not be but in good men, ne may not be without vertue, we may be assured, that therof none euyll may procede, or therwith any euyl thyng may participate". Purity or virtue rather than sexual attraction is the keynote of a Renaissance friendship … It is because of this spiritual bond of friends that Antonio is willing to bind himself legally to his enemy Shylock for the sake of his friend Bassanio. Bondage begets bondage.

Metaphorically, from this bond between Antonio and Bassanio, the social bondage spreads and grows, and is emphasized in the pattern of allusions to eating. When Lorenzo and Gratiano leave Bassanio in the first scene, they promise three times to meet him again at "dinner-time" [I. i. 70, 109, 105]. Trying to gain the financial services of Shylock, Bassanio naturally asks him "to dine with us" [I. iii. 32]. Later, Gratiano promises Bassanio that his friends will be with him "at supper-time" [II. ii. 206]. As Jessica prepares to leave her home, Lorenzo urges her to hurry, for they "are stay'd for at Bassanio's feast" [II. vi. 48]; and while they are the master and mistress of Belmont, they playfully "go to dinner" [III. v. 86]. Having saved Antonio's life at the trial, Portia is entreated by Gratiano to give Bassanio and Antonio the pleasure of her "company at dinner" [IV. ii. 8]. To survive, all men must eat, but the pattern seems to suggest more than common necessity. It points to a stronger bond of love and good fellowship—"for we have friends / That purpose merriment" [II. ii. 202-03]. On the social level, it is equivalent to the Communion Table.

In contrast, Shylock denies the social bond implied in the convivial dinner … Answering Bassanio's request that he eat with the Venetians, Shylock replies:

Yes, to smell pork, to eat of the habitation which your prophet the Nazarite conjured the devil into: I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following: but I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you.

[I. iii. 33-8]

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The denial seems absolute, and the linking of eating with praying is perhaps to be taken as an indication of the spiritual separation which Shylock feels. However, his denial is only apparent, for he later tells Jessica:

    I am bid forth to supper Jessica,…
    I am not bid for love, they flatter me,
    But yet I'll go in hate, to feed upon
    The prodigal Christian.
    [II. v. 11, 13-15]

Thus Shylock subverts the whole idea of social unity implicit in the supper and introduces the rather grotesque element of cannibalism, which again appears in his assurance to Salerio that Antonio's flesh "will feed my revenge" [III. i. 54]. In his outrageous hints at eating human flesh, in his disgust at dining with his neighbors, Shylock demonstrates his lack of the essential feeling of unity which ties one man to another. In effect, he refuses to take part in the communal aspect of the social feast; he does not recognize the social bond. And one may well think back to the denial of humanity underlying the cannibalistic feast which ends Titus Andronicus.

Nevertheless, in the same scene in which he promises to feed his revenge with a pound of human flesh, Shylock makes what has been interpreted as a meaningful plea to the Christians for the acknowledgement of his common humanity:

I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food … as a Christian is?… if you poison us do we not die? and if you wrong us shall we not revenge?

[III. i. 58-67]

Shylock appeals to the bodily feelings and appendages which all normal humans have in common; but his final appeal, unfortunately, is not to a universal bond of mercy or justice, but to a universal inhumanity: revenge. His whole plea for inclusion is vitiated by the final, ironic twist. Through his own will and desire, he excludes himself from the general bond of brotherhood which holds society together. (pp. 89-94)

Discussing the bonds of human society, Cicero notes [in Nicholas Grimald's 1596 translation, Marcvs Tullius Ciceroes Three Bookes of Duties] that the principle which knits us together has "two parts: Justice is one, in the which is the greatest brightnesse of vertue, whereof good men beare theyr name, and to this is ioyned bounty-fulnesse, which same we may tearme eyther gentlenesse, or liberalytye." It may be suggested without straining the point unduly that the bonds in The Merchant follow the same dichotomy, though it is restated in basically Christian terms: Justice and Mercy, Law and Charity. The bondage of the play, broadly viewed, falls into these categories. Though the basic intentions are different, the bonds which tie Antonio and Portia to certain agreements are strictly legal. The bonds of marriage and of religious oath seem to form a middle ground in which legality and charity (or, at least, religious emotion) coexist. And finally, there are the extra-legal bonds which hold society together, and these are firmly based on charity. Thus the pattern of bondage embodies the play's chief thematic dichotomy.

Of course, the bonds may be categorized in various ways, and possibly from the most general point of view, they may be seen as the bonds of love and the bonds of hate. Although most of the characters are bound together in what may be called 'love', the initial relationship between Antonio and Shylock must be described in different terms. It becomes immediately apparent that hate, dislike, and repugnance are as binding in their way as charity, though the negative bond is ultimately destructive, and must either be dissolved or replaced. One may compare Portia's initial reaction to her many suitors, or Jessica's reaction to her father's manners. Again, this broad categorization of the bonds fits neatly with what E. K. Chambers feels is central in the play. "The theme of The Merchant of Venice", he writes [in his Shakespeare: A Survey], "… is readily to be formulated as a conflict. It is a conflict in the moral order, between the opposing principles of Love and Hate."

Opposition of principles in the moral world presupposes the element of moral choice; for the concept of moral action is closely related to the idea of free will. To be truly moral, one must have the opportunity of being otherwise. Thus, at this point in our discussion of The Merchant, it will be expedient to return to the basic element in the Casket Story: choice. If the characters of the play are bound and their actions are determined by certain legal contracts, religious vows, and social obligations, they are also free, as all moral beings must be, to determine the bonds into which they will enter.

It may be objected, of course, that all drama, to have any dramatic force, must be based on the idea that its protagonists have freedom of action, that choice is essential to drama. Without arguing Page 532  |  Top of Articleagainst this possible objection, I would like to suggest that in The Merchant the element of choice is emphasized far beyond the point needed to maintain the requisite tension. It is doubly underlined in the Story of the Caskets.

Portia introduces the idea rather forcefully, "O me the word 'choose'!" [I. ii. 22-3], and goes on to explain, in a passage we have examined before, that her choice has been curbed by her father's will. In turn, Nerissa explains that the suitor "who chooses" her father's meaning and thus the right casket "chooses" Portia also [I. ii. 30-1]. The word echoes throughout the scene. Later, as the several caskets are revealed to Morocco, Portia commands him: "Now make your choice" [II. vii. 3], and he and Portia discuss how he will know if his choice is correct. When Arragon stands facing the caskets, he notes that the word "many" may suggest "the fool multitude that choose by show" [II. ix. 26], and decides that he "will not choose what many men desire" [II. ix. 31]. After Bassanio arrives, Portia tells him that she could teach him "How to choose right" [III. ii. 11]. But to continue with illustrations at this point is a work of supererogation. By the mere repetition of the words "choose" and "choice", Shakespeare forces the idea on the playgoer's consciousness.

Out of this central myth of choosing, the idea of choice radiates through the play. Presented with Shylock's alternatives, either signing the note with a pound of flesh as forfeiture or getting no money, Antonio chooses to "seal unto this bond" [I. iii. 171], even though Bassanio is suspicious. More agonizing is the choice of Jessica:

    Alack, what heinous sin is it in me
    To be ashamed to be my father's child!
    But though I am a daughter to his blood
    I am not to his manners.
    [II. iii. 16-19]

To end her inner strife, she chooses to elope with Lorenzo, becoming a Christian. Her situation and choice form an effective contrast to Portia's. Portia, bound by her father's will, freely chooses to abide by its rules. When Nerissa asks her if she will marry the drunken young German should he choose the correct casket, her answer—"I will do anything Nerissa ere I will be married to a sponge" [I. ii. 98-9]—seems to bar the natural solution of refusing to obey her father's will. Later, drawn by her love of Bassanio to show him the proper choice, she decides that she cannot betray her father's trust. Jessica, given a similar choice between father and lover, chooses Lorenzo. (pp. 94-6)

Although we have seen that 'the bond' and 'the choice' are basic elements in The Merchant, we must now examine how they fit into the play's larger patterns of action. There is a parallel, we have noted, between Antonio bound to the "will" of Shylock [IV. i. 83] and Portia bound to the will of her father; and from this starting point, we may distinguish two major movements in the play (movements which have some correspondence to the source stories). We may call them the suit of love—Bassanio's winning of Portia—and the suit of revenge—Shylock's pursuit of Antonio. Both suits culminate in a trial centering upon a choice which is, indeed, a test of the moral fiber of the chooser.

The first movement, the suit of love, is the least complex of the two. The audience watches the wrong choice of Morocco, who, making an equation between human worth and physical wealth, takes the golden casket [II. vii. 59-60]. He is followed by Arragon whose choice is governed by his own price: "I will not jump with common spirits" [II. ix. 32], and he picks silver. Thus by the time Bassanio comes to choose, the playgoer is fully aware of the correct choice, and Bassanio, not "deceiv'd with ornament" [III. ii. 74], makes the proper choice of lead, and by hazarding all (as his friend Antonio has done for him), he gains his heart's desire. In the realm of love and personal attachment, to gain everything one must hazard just as much.

The second movement, which we have called the suit of revenge, and which actually runs concurrently with the first, grows out of the suit of love; for Antonio binds himself to Shylock so that Bassanio may have the necessary wealth to court Portia. And in the end, love dominates and destroys revenge, though the victory is not an easy one. Through a series of mishaps, Antonio's several fleets do not arrive in Venice, and the bond is forfeit. Shylock thereupon demands that the pound of human flesh be paid, and a day of trial is set. Shylock, it appears, must have his will of Antonio, just as, in a wholly different context, Bassanio has won Portia.

The trial scene, at first, seems not to offer a direct parallel, since ostensibly the trial is not of the suitor, Shylock, but of Antonio, and therefore cannot mirror Bassanio's trial at the choice of caskets. However, if we can take advantage of our knowledge of the outcome, we see that the Page 533  |  Top of Articletrial of Antonio has, in one way, a foregone conclusion; for Portia is already armed with the quibble that will cause Shylock to break off the suit, and she already knows the forgotten law which will put Shylock in Antonio's place, in danger of his life. It is not then the trial of Antonio; he readily admits that the bond is forfeit; but it is the trial of Shylock, who is presented by Portia with a series of moral choices. First she comments:

    Of a strange nature is the suit you follow,
    Yet in such rule, that the Venetian law
    Cannot impugn you as you do proceed,
    [IV. i. 177-79]

suggesting that Shylock has complete freedom of will to act as he wishes. After finding that Antonio confesses the bond, however, she insists: "Then must the Jew be merciful" [IV. i. 182]. Mistaking the moral imperative for the physical Shylock asks, "On what compulsion must I?" [IV. i. 183], and Portia launches into her eloquent speech on the quality of mercy. Shylock is given the free choice between Justice and Mercy—with a strong incentive in Portia's speech to be merciful—and the choice seems quickly and confidently made: "My deeds upon my head! I crave the law" [IV. i. 206]. Nevertheless, Portia does not give up her testing and shifts her examination to different grounds. The next choice Shylock must make is between "thrice thy money" [IV. i. 227] and the pound of flesh. But even material wealth will not divert his suit of revenge, and his choice suggests the quality of the man. Since his choices are not in accord with the play's scheme of values, he does not gain the object of his desires—which is, rather grotesquely, Antonio's heart. The latter part of the trial scene gives both Antonio and the Duke of Venice a chance to make the proper choice, and they are merciful. Thus both the suit of love and the suit of revenge follow the pattern of 'bond' and 'choice'.

Ironically and comically, both elements are used again at the play's end. The comedy of rings, which are begged from Bassanio and Gratiano by their disguised wives, runs through the end of Act IV and into Act V, recapitulating and mirroring Antonio's bondage to Shylock; for the rings, which the husbands swear so faithfully to wear, are the symbols of the marital bond. The point of the comedy lies beneath Antonio's words to Bassanio:

    My Lord Bassanio, let him [i.e., Portia as Balthazar] have the ring,
    Let his deservings and my love withal
    Be valued 'gainst your wife's commandement.
    [IV. i. 449-51]

In different terms, Bassanio is presented with the same choice as Shylock: shall he follow the spirit of charity or the letter of the law? His choice is doubly hard because the ring is the physical symbol of the bond between Portia and himself, but charity wins, and Gratiano is sent after the disguised Portia with Bassanio's ring.

The comedy of Bassanio's aside: "Why I were best to cut my left hand off, / And swear I lost the ring defending it" [V. i. 177-78], at the discovery of his ring's loss sets the tone of the final trial; and the bawdy lightness of the accusation levelled against the recreant husbands by their apparently indignant wives suggests that Portia and Nerissa have interpreted the loss in the proper spirit. The rings are merely physical signs of a bond which is, of necessity, spiritual. Perhaps the suggestion is that all bonds between man and man—or man and woman—are of this nature. But the final binding of the play is Antonio's:

    I once did lend my body for his wealth,
    Which but for him that had your husband's ring
    Had quite miscarried. I dare be bound again,
    My soul upon the forfeit, that your lord
    Will never more break faith advisedly.
    [V. i. 249-53]

Portia accepts the new bond and seals her renewed faith by returning Bassanio's ring. The episode ends in laughter—with Gratiano's quip concerning Nerissa's ring—though the words of Antonio fall more seriously on the ear. Once more he binds himself for his friend, with his soul this time, not a pound of flesh, in the balance. The flesh has given way to the spirit, and, though in a higher key, the play ends on the same note upon which it began: 'I dare be bound again' [V. i. 251]. (pp. 97-100)

Source: William Leigh Godshalk, "The Merchant of Venice: Bond or Free?," in Patterning in Shakesperean Drama: Essays in Criticism, Mouton, 1973, pp. 87-100.

Frank Kermode

Kermode presents a concise overview of The Merchant of Venice, initially examining Shakespeare's punning of the term "gentle" and discussing the word's various meanings throughout the play. The critic identifies two readings of "gentle" which have a significant bearing on the drama: the sense of "gentleness" as in civility or an improved nature; Page 534  |  Top of Articleand the notion of "Gentile," or Christian, which stands in contrast to Shylock and Judaism. In addition, Kermode asserts that justice is a primary theme of the drama, noting that while the Christians stress mercy, love, and charity, Shylock advocates the letter (rather than the spirit) of the law, hate, and vengeance. The Merchant of Venice, the critic concludes, is about "judgement, redemption, and mercy; the supersession in human history of the grim four thousand years of unalleviated justice by the era of love and mercy."

We are not likely, whether or no we share his high opinion of Shakespeare as a comic writer, to fall into Johnson's error when he dismissed the reiteration of the word 'gentle' in [The Merchant of Venice] as only another example of Shakespeare's weakness for this 'fatal Cleopatra', the pun. 'Gentleness' in this play means civility in its old full sense, nature improved; but it also means 'Gentile', in the sense of Christian, which amounts, in a way, to the same thing. Here are some of the passages in which it occurs:

   Hie thee, gentle Jew.
   The Hebrew will turn Christian: he grows kind.
   [I. iii. 177-78]
   If e'er the Jew her father come to heaven,
   It will be for his gentle daughter's sake.
   [II. iv. 33-4]

(Jessica is also called 'gentle' in l. 19)

   Now, by my hood, a Gentile [gentle] and no Jew
   [II. iv. 51]
   … to leave a rich Jew's service and become
   The follower of so poor a gentleman
   [II. ii. 147-48]

The Duke urges Shylock to be merciful; asking him not only to

   loose the forfeiture,
   But, touch'd with human gentleness and love.
   Forgive a moiety of the principal …
   We all expect a gentle answer, Jew.
   [IV. i. 24-33]

Other 'gentle' objects are Antonio's ships, and Portia, many times over; and Portia speaks of mercy as a 'gentle rain'.

There is a straightforward contrast between gentleness, the 'mind of love', and its opposite, for which Shylock stands. He lends money at interest, which is not only unchristian, but an obvious misdirection of love; Antonio ventures with his ships, trusts his wealth to the hand of God (and so they are 'gentle' ships). It is true that a Jew hath eyes etc.; this does not reduce the difference between man and man, when one is gentle and the other not. To make all this clear, Shakespeare twice inserts the kind of passage he later learned to do without; the kind which tells the audience how to interpret the action. It is normal to cut these scenes in acting texts, but only because these plays are so grossly misunderstood. The first such is the debate on Genesis, xxxi. 37 ff. (Jacob's device to produce ringstraked, speckled and spotted lambs) which occurs when Antonio first asks for the loan [I. iii. 61 ff.]. The correct interpretation of this passage, as given by Christian commentators on Genesis (see A. Williams, The Common Expositor, 1950), is that Jacob was making a venture ('A thing not in his power to bring to pass, / but sway'd and fashion'd by the hand of heaven'; compare Faerie Queene, V. iv). But Shylock sees no difference between the breeding of metal and the breeding of sheep—a constant charge against usurers … Later, in II. viii, we have a pair of almost Spenserian exampla [examples] to make this point clear. First Solanio describes Shylock's grief at the loss of daughter and ducats; he cannot distinguish properly between them, or lament the one more than the other. Then Solario describes the parting of Antonio and Bassanio; Antonio urges Bassanio not even to consider money; the loss of Bassanio is serious, but he urges him to be merry and not to think of Shylock's bond. When love is measured out, confused by the 'spirit of calculation' (R. B. Heilman's phrase in his discussion of the errors of Lear [II. ix. 21]), the result is moral chaos.

Bassanio's visit to Belmont is frankly presented as a venture, like Jason's for the Golden Fleece; and the theme of gentle venturing is deepened in the scenes of the choice of caskets. The breeding metals, gold and silver, are to be rejected; the good lead requires that the chooser should 'give and hazard all he hath' [II. ix. 21]. Page 535  |  Top of ArticleMorocco (II. vii) supposes that Portia cannot be got by any casket save the golden one, tacitly confusing her living worth with that of gold, the value of gentleness with that of the best breeding metal. Arragon (II. ix—the intervening scene contains the lamentation of Shylock over his daughter-ducats) rejects gold out of pride only, ironically giving the right reasons for despising the choice of the 'many', that they are swayed not by Truth but by Opinion, a mere false appearance of Truth, not Truth itself. (In this sense the Jews are enslaved to Opinion.) He chooses silver because he 'assumes desert', another matter from trusting to the hand of God; and his reward is 'a shadow's bliss' [II. ix. 67]. After another scene in which Shylock rejoices over Antonio's losses and again laments Jessica's treachery, there follows (III. ii) the central scene of choice, in which Bassanio comes to 'hazard' and 'venture' for Portia. The point of the little song is certainly that in matters of love the eye is a treacherous agent, and can mistake substance for shadow. Bassanio, rejecting the barren metals which appear to breed, avoids the curse of barrenness on himself (for that is the punishment of failure); and he finds in the leaden casket Portia's true image. The scroll speaks of the 'fortune' which has fallen to him. Portia, in her happiness, speaks of Bassanio's prize as not rich enough, deploring the poorness of her 'full sum'; and Gratiano speaks of the forthcoming marriage as the solemnization of 'the bargain of your faith' [III. ii. 193]. Bassanio the merchant has 'won the fleece' [III. ii. 241]; but at the same moment Antonio has lost his. Bassanio is 'dear bought', as Portia says; but Antonio will not have him return for any reason save love: 'if your love do not persuade you to come, let not my letter' [III. ii. 321-22].

At this point the conflict between gentleness (Antonio's laying down his life for his friend) and a harsh ungentle legalism becomes the main burden of the plot. Shylock demands his bond; this is just, like Angelo's strict application of the law against fornication in the hard case of Claudio [in Measure for Measure]. It is, in a way, characteristic of Shakespeare's inspired luck with his themes that Shylock in the old stories will take flesh for money. There is no substantial difference: he lacks the power to distinguish gold, goat's flesh, man's flesh, and thinks of Antonio's body as carrion. The difference between this and a 'gentle' attitude reflects a greater difference:

DUKE: How shalt thou hope for mercy, rendering none?

SHYLOCK: What judgement shall I dread, doing no wrong?

[IV. i. 88-9]

There is no need to sentimentalize this; as Shakespeare is careful to show in Measure for Measure the arguments for justice are strong, and in the course of Christian doctrine it is necessarily satisfied before mercy operates … Shylock has legally bought his pound of flesh; if he does not get it there is no force in the decrees of Venice' [IV. i. 102]. But as heavenly mercy is never deserved, it is an adornment of human authority to exercise it with the same grace:

     … earthly power doth then show likest God's
     When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
     Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
     That, in the course of justice, none of us
     Should see salvation.
     [IV. i. 196-200]

But this plea does not work on the stony unregenerate heart; Shylock persists in the demand for justice, and gets it. Like any other human being, he must lose all by such a demand. In offering to meet the demands of strict justice (in accordance with the Old Law) Antonio will pay in blood the price of his friend's happiness; and it cannot be extravagant to argue that he is here a type of the divine Redeemer, as Shylock is of the unredeemed.

Shakespeare's last act, another 'thematic' appendix to the dramatic action, is motivated by the device of the rings. It begins with a most remarkable passage, Lorenzo's famous 'praise of music'. In this are treated 'topics' which, as James Hutton shows in an extremely important study ['Some English Poems in Praise of Music', English Miscellany II (1951)], are all evidently the regular parts of a coherent and familiar theme—so familiar indeed, that Shakespeare permits himself to treat it 'in a kind of shorthand'. The implications of this 'theme' are vast; but behind it lies the notion, very explicit in Milton's 'Ode at a Solemn Musick', of the universal harmony impaired by sin and restored by the Redemption. The lovers, in the restored harmony of Belmont, have a debt to Antonio:

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Norbert Kentrup as Shylock, Mark Rylance as Bassanio, Jack Sheperd as Antonio and Kathryn Pogson as Portia in Act I, scene iii at Shakespeares Globe, London, 1998 Norbert Kentrup as Shylock, Mark Rylance as Bassanio, Jack Sheperd as Antonio and Kathryn Pogson as Portia in Act I, scene iii at Shakespeare's Globe, London, 1998 (© Donald Cooper/Photostage. Reproduced by permission)

   You should in all sense be much bound to him,
   For, as I hear, he was much bound for you.
   [V. i. 136-37]

In such an atmosphere the amorous sufferings of Troilus, Thisbe, Dido and Medea are only shadows of possible disaster [cf. V.i.1-14], like the mechanicals' play in A Midsummer Night's Dream; Antonio on his arrival is allowed, by the contretemps [inopportune and embarrassing occurence] of the ring-plot, to affirm once more the nature of his love, standing guarantor for Bassanio in perpetuity, 'my soul upon the forfeit' [V. i. 252]. The Merchant of Venice, then, is 'about' judgment, redemption and mercy; the supersession in human history of the grim four thousand years of unalleviated justice by the era of love and mercy. It begins with usury and corrupt love; it ends with harmony and perfect love. And all the time it tells its audience that this is its subject; only by a determined effort to avoid the obvious can one mistake the theme of The Merchant of Venice.

Source: Frank Kermode, "The Mature Comedies," in Early Shakespeare, edited by John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris, Edward Arnold (Publishers) Ltd., 1961, pp. 211-27.

John W. Draper

Draper provides historical background on English Jews and the practice of usury (moneylending for interest) as they existed in Shakespeare's time to prove that the chief concern of The Merchant of Venice is conflicting economic ideals rather than race or religion. The critic argues that Shylock hates Antonio not only because he lends money interest-free, but also because he denigrates Shylock's profession and thwarts his business. According to Draper, Shakespeare is merely representative of his age when he idealistically compares Antonio's Christian business ethic with Shylock's more rigid and unforgiving value system. This fundamental distinction, the critic concludes, reflects "the difficult transition from the medieval economic system to modern capitalism" which was occurring in Elizabethan England.

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The character portrayal of Shakespeare shows the widest human sympathy, but Shylock is an exception. He is an object of loathing and contempt; he is depicted as unprincipled in business and unfeeling in his home. In the end he pays a terrible penalty, even more severe than does his prototype in Il Pecorone, the probable source of the play, or indeed in any of the other versions of the old folk tale; and no one, not even the kindly Antonio, says a single word in his favor: the dramatist apparently expected his audience to be even more unsympathetic toward Shylock than toward the notorious Richard III, whose overthrow had brought to the throne the glorious House of Tudor. This unwonted saeva indignatio [furious indignation] of Shakespeare is usually attributed to an anti-Semiticism inherited from the Middle Ages and kept alive by the illegal presence of Jews in London and especially aroused at the time by the alleged attempt in 1594 of Lopez, the court physician, to poison the Queen. As a matter of fact, however, the prejudice of the Middle Ages must have been dying out, even in clerical circles, for under Cromwell the Jews were permitted to return; moreover, such few Spaniards of Jewish descent as lived in London had long since been converted to at least outward Catholic conformity, and so were indistinguishable from other Spaniards; and the cause célèbre [celebrated case] of Lopez, though perhaps the occasion for one or two anti-Jewish plays, is too far removed both from Shakespeare's character and from his plot to have furnished the chief motive for either. Shylock, the Machiavellian Jew, would seem, indeed, to have been a study not in Elizabethan realism but in Italian local color; for Italy, especially Venice where the Jews were go-betweens in the Turkish trade, had become, since their expulsion from Spain, their chief refuge in Western Europe. Merely as a Jew, therefore, Shylock could hardly call forth the contemptuous abhorrence manifest in the play, for that side of his character was the stuff of exotic romance; and, furthermore, Shakespeare's one appeal to the sympathy of the audience for Shylock is the latter's defense of his race and religion: "Hath not Iew eyes? hath not Iew hands, organs, dementions …?" [cf. III. i. 58-60].

The conflict between Shylock and Antonio is not so much a matter of religion but rather of mercantile ideals, as Shylock declares in an aside at the entrance of Antonio:

   I hate him for he is a Christian:
   But more, for that in low simplicitie
   He lends out money gratis, and brings downe
   The rate of usance here with us in Venice.
   [I. iii. 42-5]

The audience is amply informed that Shylock hates Antonio because the latter has called him "Usurer," and spat upon him, and "thwarted" his "bargaines"; and Antonio openly glories in having cast such slurs. Upon the Rialto he has railed at Shylock, not for religion but for usury—as Shylock puts it, "all for use of that which is mine owne" [I. iii. 113]. In the crucial third act, Shylock twice reiterates this theme; and Antonio himself assures the audience:

   He seekes my life, his reason well I know;
   I oft deliuered from his forfeitures
   Many that haue at times made mone to me,
   Therefore he hates me.
   [III. i. 21-4]

Race and religion, then, are not the main theme of the play; it is rather conflicting economic ideals. In Elizabethan parlance, "usurer" meant anyone who took even the lowest interest on money. Antonio follows the medieval ideal, and, like Chaucer's Merchant [in The Canterbury Tales], is supposed "neither to lend nor borrow" [cf. I. iii. 61] at interest; and Shylock, like the modern capitalist, makes interest the very basis of his business.

Again and again, in Shakespeare, this allusion to usury recurs, and commonly with a fling at its un-Christian ethics and its bitter consequences. It is "forbidden"; and the usurer is a simile of shame; the citizens in Coriolanus are outraged that the senators pass "edicts for usury to support usurers" [Coriolonus, I. i. 82]; and Timon is full of attacks upon the system as undermining the Christian virtues and the state. In other Elizabethan dramatists also the usurer is a common object of hatred shading into Page 538  |  Top of Articlecontemptuous ridicule. Partly classical, partly medieval in origin, he is often, like Vice in the old Morality plays, both wicked and comic: Shylock is clearly in this tradition, and follows directly upon Marlowe's Barabas [in The Jew of Malta] who also combines moneylender and Italianate Jew. The widespread currency of this theme and the intensity of emotion that it aroused suggest that it could not have been purely a dramatic convention, and that it struck closer home to the Elizabethans than a mere medieval tradition or a bit of Venetian local color. Like the miles gloriosus [boastful soldier], the Elizabethan usurer owes something to Latin comedy; but, like Falstaff, Shylock is more than a classical survival: if not a characteristic London type, he at least exemplified an immediate and crying problem, the iniquity of English usurers and the interest that they charged; and this theme in The Merchant of Venice can hardly be the accidental petrified remains of Shakespeare's "clerical predecessor," the author of the lost play The Jew; for it is too prominent both in this and in other plays by Shakespeare.

Indeed, the question of the moral and the legal justification of interest came close home to every Elizabethan, and was crucial in the transition from feudal society to modern capitalism. The hardships of this transition appear in the "misery and squalor" of the age. Gold was pouring into Europe from America; prices were rising, and merchants grew rich, but classes with fixed incomes suffered intensely. The rural aristocracy, whom political life was drawing to London, could no longer live directly off the produce of their estates, but required ample supplies of ready money, which they had to borrow at an interest inflated by competition with the merchants who could afford to pay exorbitant rates. Even miners, weavers, and other classes of artisans worked on small loans often at ruinous interest. The increasing need for large capital, both in industry and in commerce, required similar large-scale organization of finance; and the devolution of the medieval guilds, begun by the exactions of Henry VII and continued during the sixteenth century, put much of this business into the hands of almost unregulated individuals or of new organizations. The players themselves sometimes had reason to be bitter at the demands of [Rose Theatre manager Philip] Henslowe and others who supplied them with buildings and furnishings; and thus both audience and actors had personal motives for hating the usurer …

Shakespeare … took the regular attitude of the 1590's. Indeed, most revelatory of the dramatist's point of view are the excuses that Shylock gives for his trade … Like the devil, he quotes Scripture to his purpose, though the audience doubtless had by memory more than one text that forbade it. He parodies Aristotle's attack on usury as if it were an argument in favor [cf. I. iii. 76-90]. He declares that he is unjustly hated "all for use of that which is mine owne" [I. iii. 113]; and anyone would have told him that since a usurer's goods were got by a sort of theft, they were not his own. Of course, it was this feeling on the part of the audience that justified the treatment of Shylock at the dénouement. He calls Antonio a "prodigall," though the term is clearly misapplied; for usurers preyed on the youthful heirs of noble families, and so, to the horror of the age, brought ruin on ancient houses. He hates Antonio for reducing the rate of interest "here with us in Venice" [I. iii. 45], and so upholds the extortionate charges of the day. With a callous presumption, he publicly demands "justice" for his compounded iniquities; he calls upon his oath in a "heaven" whose law he flouts; and he claims the support of the Venetian commonwealth, whose well-being his practices were supposed to undermine. To the Elizabethans all this was mordant casuistry; and, by making Shylock himself call up almost every argument against his own way of life, Shakespeare, with keen dramatic irony, implies that not one honest word can be said in his favor. For Shylock the Jew, there is no such rationale of bitterness; and so utter and thorough a philippie [tirade] must surely have been intentional.

Not only does The Merchant of Venice reflect the Elizabethan attitude toward interest, but the details of the play constantly refer to current business customs. Such a "merry bond," signed under pretense of friendliness, was not without precedent in actual fact. Bassanio, to seal the bargain, follows the usual etiquette of asking the lender to dine; and later Shylock actually goes to a feast, like a true usurer, to help use up the borrowed sum and so insure a forfeiture … Shylock, moreover, carefully avoids the term "usury," is insulted at being called a "usurer," and, with an exquisite delicacy, objects even to having his "well won thrift" [I. iii. 50] described as "interest"—though this euphemism was commonly allowed by contemporary Page 539  |  Top of Articlemoneylenders. London usurers—perhaps because they had risen from poverty by extreme penuriousness—were supposed to run their households in a stingy, not to say starvling, expenditure; and Shylock and Gobbo mutually complain of each other in this regard. Usurers regularly wished the forfeiture rather than the repayment of the loan; and in [Thomas] Lodge's [Lookin-glasse for London and England], the young gentleman, like Bassanio, offers much more than the nominated sum; but the moneylender, like Shylock, refuses and demands the forfeiture. Contemporary London, therefore, would seem to have supplied both the commercial decorum and the business trickery of Shakespeare's Venice; and this suggests that the dramatist intended to bring before his audience with immediate realism his economic theme.

Even the idealized Antonio reflects Elizabethan London. He "was wont to lend out money for a Christian curtsie" [III. i. 49], according to the highest ethics of the age … The comparison of Antonio to a "royal Merchant" suggests England as well as Venice; for the London merchants had grown rich, and in their "comely entertainment" were not to be "matched by any foreign opposition." Hunter, on Shylock's word, declared that Antonio condemned interest "through simplicity," and that, as Shylock says, he was a "prodigal" wasting an ample patrimony [in The Merchant of Venice, ed. H. H. Furness]; but the dramatist clearly expects us to admire his probity rather than condemn his ignorance and waste … As a matter of fact, Antonio knew well the exactions of usurers, and realized that if he would accommodate his friend, he must accept hard terms. Elsewhere he appears as a skilful merchant who does not risk his "whole estate Upon the fortune of this present yeere" [I. i. 43-4]; and, like a shrewd man of affairs, he does not seem overanxious early in the play to divulge his business secrets. He is, indeed, the ideal merchant, very much as Othello and Henry V are the ideal of army life; and, just as Shakespeare heightened his effect by contrasting Hotspur and Prince Hal with the poltroonery of Falstaff [in 1 Henry IV], so, in The Merchant of Venice, he put Shylock and Antonio side by side as comparative studies in business ethics.

Shylock the Jew was merely exotic local color; Shylock the usurer was a commentary on London life. The moneylender had been hated for centuries; and, in Shakespeare's day, the difficult transition from the medieval economic system to modern capitalism especially subjected both rich and poor to his exactions. Efforts to find realism in Shylock have generally looked to Venice or the Orient—regions of which Shakespeare knew none too much and the groundlings even less: the crux of the play is nearer home; and it reflects the current uses of commercial life and the current attitude toward them. Nevertheless, The Merchant of Venice is not strictly a problem play like All's Well, or even mainly one as is Othello, for it is written ex parte [from a one-sided point of view]; to Shakespeare there is but one answer, and so there is no problem; and, moreover, the old stories upon which it is founded dictated a happy ending that forbade the logical conclusion of the theme and kept the play a romantic comedy; but, to the Elizabethans, it had a verve and realism that is lost upon the present reader. Just as the stories of the romances were changed and reinterpreted century by century, so Shakespeare gave timely significance and telling vividness to his borrowed origins; and this intensified reality is perhaps his chief contribution to Elizabethan drama. Usually the matrix from which his play developed was a plot, as in King Lear; sometimes both plot and character, as in Henry V; and, on this matrix, he built a drama that, almost certainly in details of setting and style and often in motivation and theme, shows the immediate impress of his age. Julius Caesar is full of English setting; the background and motives of Desdemona [in Othello] are thoroughly Elizabethan; in Twelfth Night he transplanted an English household and staff of servants to the confines of Illyria; the character of Falstaff is a realistic foil to the romantic wars of chivalry; and, in Merry Wives, even the plot would seem to have been borrowed from common contemporary situations. The Merchant of Venice is a romantic comedy built of old folk material, to which has been added a realistic theme and motivation; and this theme, although Shakespeare has not yet learned to make it entirely implicit in his plot, obviously portrays the downfall of hated usury and the triumph of Christian charity in the person of a princely merchant.

Source: John W. Draper, "Usury in The Merchant of Venice," in Modern Philology, Vol. XXXIII, No. 1, August 1935, pp. 37-47.

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Bloom, Allan, with Harry V. Jaffa, "On Christian and Jew: The Merchant of Venice," in Shakespeare's Politics, University of Chicago Press, 1964, pp. 13-34.

Charney, Maurice, "The Merchant of Venice," in All of Shakespeare, Columbia University Press, 1993, pp. 41-9.

Daniell, David, "Shakespeare and the Traditions of Comedy," in The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare Studies, edited by Stanley Wells, Cambridge University Press, reprint, 1997, pp. 101-21.

Dickson, Andrew, "The Merchant of Venice," in The Rough Guide to Shakespeare, Rough Guides, 2005, pp. 217-27.

Epstein, Norrie, "The Merchant of Venice," in The Friendly Shakespeare, Penguin Books, 1993, pp. 97-109.

Shakespeare, William, The Merchant of Venice, edited by William Lyon Phelps, Yale University Press, 1957.


Barnet, Sylvan, ed., Twentieth-Century Interpretations of "The Merchant of Venice": A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1970.

This is a collection of essays by prominent critics writing on various topics concerning Shakespeare's play.

Grebanier, Bernard, The Truth about Shylock, Random House,1962.

Grebanier reconstructs Elizabethan attitudes toward Jews and the practice of usury, determining how much this climate of opinion affected Shakespeare's writing of The Merchant of Venice. Grebanier also offers a critical analysis of the play, which he interprets as an allegorical dramatization of the triumph of love and mercy over justice and hate.

Gross, Kenneth, Shylock is Shakespeare, University of Chicago Press, 2006

Professor Gross contends that Shylock, one of Shakespeare's most complex characters is actually Shakespeare himself, revealing himself through his character.

Hadfield, Andrew, The English Renaissance, 1500–1620 (Blackwell Guides to Literature), Blackwell Publishing, 2000.

Professor Hadfield helps students to understand the times, culture, and literature of the Renaissance, through short biographical sketches of some of England's best authors of this time period and analyses of their works.

Shapiro, James, A Year in the Life of Shakespeare, Harper Perennial, 2006.

Shapiro recreates the year 1599, showing how the political and cultural life around him shaped Shakespeare's work, moving him into a more mature stage as playwright, one that would eventually mark him as one of the greatest writers ever.

Tovey, Barbara, "The Golden Casket: An Interpretation of The Merchant of Venice," in Shakespeare as a Political Thinker, edited by John Alvis and Thomas G. West, Carolina Academic Press, 1981, pp. 215-38.

Tovey interprets the play symbolically, arguing that Shakespeare criticizes Christianity through his dramatization of Bassanio's relationship with Antonio.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2896100027