About Merchant of Venice
The Merchant of Venice was first printed in 1600 in quarto, of which nineteen copies survive. This was followed by a 1619 printing, and later an inclusion in the First Folio in 1623. The play was written shortly after Christopher Marlowe’s immensely popular Jew of Malta (1589), a play wherein a Jew named Barabas plays a greatly exaggerated villain. The portrayal of Shakespeare’s Jew was and remained comic until the late 1700s at which time he was first played as a true villain. In 1814 Shylock‘s role was depicted as a character to be pitied, and in 1879 he was first portrayed as a tragic character. Subsequent interpretations have varied greatly over the years, but since World War II he has most often been conceived of as tragic.
The Merchant of Venice has been described as a great commentary on the nature of racial and religious interactions. The title itself is misleading, and is often misconstrued as a reference to Shylock, the Jew. However, in reality it describes the merchantAntonio. This ambiguity and misinterpretation has not surprisingly led scholars to continue hotly debating whether Shakespeare meant to be anti-Semitic or critical of anti-Semitism. His depiction of Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, causes the audience to both hate and pity the man, and has left critics wondering what Shakespeare was really trying to achieve.
The choice of Venice can hardly have been arbitrary. The Venice of Shakespeare’s day was renowned for its wealth and diversity of cultures, for it was a cosmopolitan market where Eastern goods made their way into the West. Since Shakespeare’s interactions with Jews in England would have been limited, if at all, Venice provided him with the example of tolerance and heterogeneity that he needed.
It is interesting to note that the Christians are portrayed as being an incredibly tight, commonly bound group. Antonio rushes to grant Bassanio a loan, even though it will bankrupt him. A similar example occurs later when Graziano asks Bassanio for a favor, which is granted before Bassanio even knows exactly what Graziano is asking for. However, this central community of Christians, with all of its virtue and decency, is immediately subverted by the prodigal loss of the money by Bassanio. While it may be virtuous for Antonio to give all he has to his friend, it is clear to the audience that it is foolish for him to give to a friend who will gamble it away.
In addition, the Christian’s generosity and friendship is further undermined by the racism so apparent in their actions. Antonio is proud of the fact that he kicks and spits upon Shylock, while Portia is overjoyed when the black Prince of Morocco fails to choose the correct casket, saying, “Let all of his complexion choose me so” (2.7.79). The Christian ideals are not only undermined by this racism, this inherent distaste for anyone different from themselves, but also by their hypocrisy with respect to slavery. When the Christians exhort Shylock to release Antonio, he asks them why Antonio should be treated differently from their slaves, considering that he was bought by Shylock via the contract. Shakespeare thus plants doubt as to whether the Christians’ kindness to each other is in fact as great a virtue as it would at first appear.
The nature of the religious differences has a profound impact on the way the Christians and the Jews live their lives. For Shylock, absolute adherence to the law is necessary, as evidenced by his reliance on contracts. In addition, money and possessions are things which he feels he must defend. Rather than try to increase his wealth, he struggles merely to maintain it. This economic conservatism contrasts starkly with the aristocratic, gambling nature of Bassanio and the others. The characteristic generosity of the Christians is a very aristocratic trait, based on an ideology which forces gentlemen to ignore practical monetary concerns. Thus Bassanio can truly say, “all the wealth I had ran in my veins” (3.2.253-254).
Perhaps the moment of strongest contrast between Shylock and the Christians’ ideals concerns the contract of a pound of flesh. Shylock directly links money and flesh as being equal, something which any Christian would consider taboo. Antonio is unable to see this link, thinking instead that the contract is some form of game for Shylock. He makes the crucial mistake of believing that the contract cannot be for real, and that Shylock must somehow have grown “kind.”
There is a division between the Christian portrayal of Shylock and the words and actions of Shylock himself which cannot be overlooked. The Christians are convinced that he can only think of money, whereas Shylock actually presents a very different, even sentimental outlook. Solanio claims that Shylock ran through the street crying out for his daughter and ducats in the same breath, yet there is no evidence of this when Shylock himself appears. Later, when his daughter, Jessica, exchanges a turquoise ring for a monkey, Shylock is not upset about the monetary loss of the ring, but rather the sentimental value it held for him.
Most of Shakespeare’s comedies return to the first city in which they are set. However, this type of ending is uniquely absent in The Merchant of Venice. The final scene moves away from the abandonment of Shylock in Venice, shifting instead to Belmont. Belmont, however, is not nearly as idyllic as it appears throughout the play. Indeed, it represents wealth derived from inheritance, built on the merchandising of Venice, and is therefore a paradise founded on the despised trade it claims to hate. Ending the play in Belmont serves to remind the audience that the play can be viewed as anything but a comedy, and that in fact it is in many ways a tragedy
Although the plot turns on Antonio’s predicament, his character is not sharply drawn. He is a rich man, and a comfortable man, and a popular man, but still he suffers from an inner sadness. One obvious, dramatic reason for Antonio’s quiet melancholy is simply that Shakespeare cannot give Antonio too much to do or say without taking away valuable dialogue time from his major characters. Therefore, Shakespeare makes Antonio a quiet, dignified figure.
One of Antonio’s most distinguishing characteristics is his generosity. He is more than happy to offer his good credit standing so that Bassanio can go to Belmont in the latest fashions in order to court Portia. And one of the reasons why Shylock hates Antonio so intensely is that Antonio has received Shylock’s borrowers by lending them money at the last minute to pay off Shylock; and Antonio never charges interest. He is only too happy to help his friends, but he would never stoop to accepting more than the original amount in return. Antonio’s generosity is boundless, and for Bassanio, he is willing to go to the full length of friendship, even if it means that he himself may suffer for it.
Antonio is an honorable man. When he realizes that Shylock is within his lawful rights, Antonio is ready to fulfill the bargain he entered into to help Bassanio. “The Duke cannot deny the course of the law,” he says. And later, he adds that he is “arm’d / To suffer, with a quietness of spirit . . . For if the Jew do cut but deep enough, / I’ll pay it presently with all my heart.”
Antonio’s courage and goodness are finally rewarded; at the end of the play, when the three pairs of lovers are reunited and happiness abounds at Belmont, Portia delivers a letter to Antonio in which he learns that the remainder of his ships has returned home safely to port
Bassanio’s character is more fully drawn than Antonio’s, but it does not possess the powerful individuality that Shakespeare gives to his portraits of Portia and Shylock. First off, when one begins considering Bassanio, one should dismiss all the critics who condemn him for his financial habits. Bassanio’s request to Antonio for more money is perfectly natural for him. He is young; he is in love; and he is, by nature, impulsive and romantic. Young men in love have often gone into debt; thus Bassanio has always borrowed money and, furthermore, no moral stigma should be involved. Shakespeare needs just such a character in this play for his plot.
If Bassanio is not a powerful hero, he is certainly a sympathetic one. First, he has some of the most memorable verse in the play — language which has music, richness, and dignity. Second, he shows us his immediate, uncalculated generosity and love; this is especially obvious when Bassanio, who has just won Portia, receives the letter telling him of Antonio’s danger. Bassanio is immediately and extremely concerned over the fate of Antonio and is anxious to do whatever is possible for his friend. Here, the situation is melodramatic and calls for a romantic, seemingly impossible, rescue mission.
When at last Bassanio and Portia are reunited, he speaks forthrightly and truthfully to her. He refuses to implicate Antonio, even though it was at Antonio’s urging that he gave away his wedding ring to the judge who cleverly saved Antonio’s life: “If you did know,” he tells Portia, “for what I gave the ring / And how unwillingly I left the ring . . . You would abate the strength of your displeasure.” No matter how powerful the circumstances, he admits that he was wrong to part with the ring because he had given his oath to Portia to keep it. As the play ends, Bassanio’s impetuous nature is once more stage-center. Speaking to his wife, he vows: “Portia, forgive me this enforced wrong; . . . and by my soul I swear / I never more will break an oath with thee.” Of course, he will; this, however, is part of Bassanio’s charm. He means it with all his heart when he swears to Portia, but when the next opportunity arises and he is called on to rashly undertake some adventure full of dash and daring, he’ll be off. Portia knows this also and loves him deeply, despite this minor flaw.
Portia is the romantic heroine of the play, and she must be presented on the stage with much beauty and intelligence. Of her beauty, we need no convincing. Bassanio’s words are enough; thus we turn to her love for Bassanio. Already she has given him cause to think that it is possible that he can woo and win her, for on an earlier visit to Belmont, Bassanio did “receive fair speechless messages” from her eyes. And when Nerissa mentions the fact that Bassanio might possibly be a suitor, Portia tries to disguise her anxiety, but she fails. Nerissa understands her mistress. Portia is usually very self-controlled, but she reveals her anxiety concerning Bassanio a little later when he has arrived at her mansion and is about to choose one of the caskets. She has fallen in love with him, and her anxiety and confusion undo her. “Pause a day or two,” she begs, for “in choosing wrong, / I lose your company.” She thus makes sure that he knows that it is not hate that she feels for him.
Bassanio’s correct choice of the casket overwhelms Portia. She wishes she had more of everything to give Bassanio: “This house, these servants and this same myself / Are yours, my lord: I give them with this ring.” She willingly shares all she owns with Bassanio. Once master of her emotions, she has fallen completely under the spell of love’s madness. Love is a reciprocal giving and receiving, and so it is with perfect empathy that she sends her beloved away almost immediately to try and save his friend Antonio. They will be married, but their love will not be consummated until his friend is saved, if possible.
Portia’s second characteristic that is most readily apparent is her graciousness — that is, her tact and sympathy. Despite her real feelings about the Prince of Morocco, Portia answers him politely and reassuringly. Since the irony of her words is not apparent to him, his feelings are spared. She tells him that he is “as fair / As any comer I have look’d on yet / For my affection.” She shows Morocco the honor his rank deserves. But once he is gone, she reveals that she did not like him. “A gentle riddance,” she says; “Draw the curtains.”
When the Prince of Arragon arrives, Portia carefully addresses him with all the deference due his position. She calls him “noble.” But after he has failed and has left, she cries out, “O, these deliberate fools!” To her, both of these men are shallow and greedy and self-centered; yet to their faces, she is as ladylike as possible. Lorenzo appreciates this gentle generosity of spirit; when Portia has allowed her new husband to leave to try and help his best friend out of his difficulty, he says to her: “You have a noble and a true conceit / Of god-like amity.”
In the courtroom, Portia (in disguise) speaks to Shylock about mercy, but this is not merely an attempt to stall; she truly means what she says. It is an eloquent appeal she makes. Her request for mercy comes from her habitual goodness. She hopes, of course, to soften his heart, knowing the outcome if he refuses. But the words come from her heart, honestly and openly and naturally.
Finally, of course, what we most remember about Portia, after the play is over, is her wit and her playfulness. Even when Portia is complaining to Nerissa about the terms of her father’s will, she does so wittily: “Is it not hard, Nerissa, that I cannot choose one nor refuse none?” And then she ticks off, like a computer, the eccentricities of the six suitors who have arrived at Belmont to try for her hand. They are either childish, humorless, volatile, ignorant, too fantastically dressed, weak, or have a drinking problem. She is clearly glad to be rid of them all when it is announced that they are departing.
We recall too the humorous way that she imagines dressing like a man and aping the mannerisms of all of the men she has observed in her short life. She bets Nerissa that she can out-man any man when it comes to swaggering and playing the macho bit: “I have within my mind / A thousand raw tricks of these bragging Jacks, / Which I will practise.” Men are as transparent as stale beer to her; she revels in turning the tables and having a bit of fun even while she is on a daring mission to try and save Antonio’s life. And even in the courtroom, when Bassanio extravagantly offers his life for Antonio’s, Portia quips in an aside that “Your wife would give you little thanks for that, / If she were by, to hear you make the offer.”
The entire ring plot is Portia’s idea, and she and Nerissa relish the prospect of the jest at their husbands’ expense. Bassanio swears over and over that he never gave his ring away to another woman (and he is more than a little embarrassed to admit that he gave it to another man), but with a fine sense of comedy, Portia plays the role of the “angry wife” just as well as she played the role of the “learned young lawyer” at Antonio’s trial.
Only when Portia first falls in love with Bassanio does she lose all self-control; once she regains control of herself, she takes matters in hand until the very end of the play, and there she displays total command of the situation. “You are all amazed,” she tells them, and then she shows them a letter from Padua, explaining everything, and she gaily invites them inside where she will continue to explain and entertain. She is a delightful creature, one of Shakespeare’s most intelligent and captivating heroines.
Shylock is the most vivid and memorable character in The Merchant of Venice, and he is one of Shakespeare’s greatest dramatic creations. On stage, it is Shylock who makes the play, and almost all of the great actors of the English and Continental stage have attempted the role. But the character of Shylock has also been the subject of much critical debate: How are we meant to evaluate the attitude of the Venetians in the play toward him? Or his attitude toward them? Is he a bloodthirsty villain? Or is he a man “more sinned against than sinning”? One of the reasons that such questions arise is that there are really two stage Shylocks in the play: first, there is the stage “villain” who is required for the plot; second, there is the human being who suffers the loss of his daughter, his property, and, very importantly for him, his religion.
Shylock’s function in this play is to be the obstacle, the man who stands in the way of the love stories; such a man is a traditional figure in romantic comedies. Something or someone must impede young, romantic love; here, it is Shylock and the many and various ways that he is linked to the three sets of lovers. The fact that he is a Jew is, in a sense, accidental. Shakespeare wanted to contrast liberality against selfishness — in terms of money and in terms of love. There was such a figure available from the literature of the time, one man who could fulfill both functions: this man would be a usurer, or moneylender, with a beautiful daughter that he held onto as tightly as he did his ducats. Usury was forbidden to Christians by the church of the Middle Ages, and as a consequence, money lending was controlled by the Jews; as a rule, it was usually the only occupation which the law allowed to them. As a result, a great deal of medieval literature produced the conventional figure of the Jewish moneylender, usually as a minor character, but also too, as a major character.
It is from this medieval literary tradition that Shakespeare borrows the figure of Shylock, just as Marlowe did for his Jew of Malta. Some commentators have said that the character of Shylock is an example of Elizabethan (and Shakespeare’s own) anti-Semitism. In contrast, many have seen the creation of Shylock as an attack on this kind of intolerance. But Shakespeare, they forget, was a dramatist. He was not concerned with either anti- nor pro-Semitism, except in the way it shaped individual characters in his plays to produce the necessary drama that he was attempting to create. The play is thus emphatically notanti-Semitic; rather, because of the nature of Shylock’s involvement in the love plots, it is about anti-Semitism. Shakespeare never seriously defined or condemned a group through the presentation of an individual; he only did this for the purposes of comedy by creating caricatures in miniature for our amusement. Shylock is drawn in bold strokes; he is meant to be a “villain” in terms of the romantic comedy, but because of the multi-dimensionality which Shakespeare gives him, we are meant to sympathize with him at times, loathe him at others. Shakespeare’s manipulation of our emotions regarding Shylock is a testament to his genius as a creator of character.
When Shylock leaves the courtroom in Act IV, Scene 1, he is stripped of all that he has. He is a defeated man. Yet we cannot feel deep sympathy for him — some, perhaps, but not much. Shakespeare’s intention was not to make Shylock a tragic figure; instead, Shylock was meant to function as a man who could be vividly realized as the epitome of selfishness; he must be defeated in this romantic comedy. In a sense, it is Shakespeare’s own brilliance which led him to create Shylock as almost too human. Shylock is powerfully drawn, perhaps too powerfully for this comedy, but his superb dignity is admirable, despite the fact that we must finally condemn him. Perhaps the poet W. H. Auden has given us our best clue as to how we must deal with Shylock: “Those to whom evil is done,” he says, “do evil in return.” This explains in a few words much of the moneylender’s complexity and our complex reactions toward him.
1. Why has the character of Shylock been interpreted in so many differing ways by so many different critics? Why is this dramatic character more puzzling, or more stimulating, than any other character in any of Shakespeare’s other romantic comedies?
2. Many critics feel that the images of the sea in Act I, Scene 1, strike the keynote of the play, that they suggest the bond story as the central theme. Do you agree or disagree? Why?
3. What do the choice of caskets made by the Prince of Morocco and the Prince of Arragon show about their fitness to marry Portia? Explain.
4. Relate Antonio’s naturally melancholy disposition, which is emphasized in the opening scene, to his stoic acceptance of misfortune when he has to forfeit the bond.
5. The famous eighteenth-century writer Samuel Johnson refers in one of his essays to the “improbability” of The Merchant of Venice. What qualities of the play are the most improbable?
6. The nineteenth-century poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge speaks of Shakespeare’s “representation of men in all ages and all times” in this particular play. What are the universal or timeless elements in it?
7. Compare the argument about usury (I.iii), the talk about friendship (III.ii), and the plea for mercy (IV.i) from the standpoint of dramatic intensity. Which one of these subjects, in your view, is the most important issue in this play?
8. Many critics think that The Merchant of Venice is more tragic than comic. Why do you think so? Or do you disagree? Why?
9. Justify Shylock’s demand for revenge against Antonio.
10. From references in the play, quotes, allusions, etc., describe Venice as a setting and as a city for this play.