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The Merchant of Venice
William Shakespeare


THE PLAY

THE PLOT

Antonio, a rich Venetian merchant, has lent a good deal of money to his best friend Bassanio, a charming and carefree young man with a tendency to live beyond his means. Bassanio has fallen in love with a beautiful heiress, Portia of Belmont, and he has reason to believe that she loves him too. If only he could marry Portia, Bassanio tells Antonio, his money problems would be solved, and he would be able to pay back all the money he owes. But Bassanio needs still more money to travel to Belmont and court Portia in suitable style. Antonio is not particularly worried about being repaid, and he wants to help Bassanio for friendship's sake. Since all of his capital is invested in ships' cargoes, he has no cash on hand at the moment, and therefore suggests that Bassanio borrow the money. Antonio promises to put up the collateral for the loan.

Bassanio strikes a deal with Shylock, a rich Jewish moneylender, to borrow three thousand gold ducats for three months. Shylock proposes an unusual contract: He will charge no interest on the loan, but if the money is not repaid in time, Antonio will have to give Shylock a pound of his own flesh! Shylock pretends that he means this part of the bargain as a joke. In reality, since he has been the victim of Antonio's prejudice, he is nursing a deep and bitter grudge against the merchant. Antonio, a generous and optimistic man, does not understand the depths of Shylock's hatred and cannot imagine that his business would fail and that he would have to pay this bond. Besides, he will have more money than he needs within a few weeks. He agrees to the bizarre terms of the loan.

In the meantime, we see Portia of Belmont with her maid Nerissa, discussing the arrangements for her marriage that have been set up under her late father's will. Portia, we learn, will not be allowed to choose a husband for herself. Instead, her suitors will have to choose among three small chests, or caskets- one made of gold, one of silver, and one of lead. The first suitor to pick the chest with Portia's picture in it will win her hand in marriage and her entire fortune. The losers must promise to remain single for the rest of their lives, not to reveal to anyone their incorrect choice, and to leave immediately.

In Act II of the play, two suitors try their luck with this test. The first, the proud and exotic Prince of Morocco, picks the gold casket. Inside the casket, he finds a skull and a scroll which warns that "all that glisters is not gold." Obviously, he has made the wrong choice. A second suitor, the haughty Prince of Arragon (Arragon = arrogant?), chooses the silver casket. He has won nothing but a portrait of a grinning idiot.

Back in Venice, Bassanio is planning a dinner party to celebrate his upcoming departure for Belmont. During the course of the preparations, his friend Lorenzo manages to elope with his secret sweetheart, Shylock's daughter Jessica. Jessica runs away from her father's house on the same night that Bassanio leaves Venice, taking with her as much of her father's gold and jewelry as she can carry.

Upon arriving in Belmont, Bassanio learns of the test of the three caskets and willingly tries his luck. Reasoning that outward appearances are often deceiving, he chooses the lead casket, and so wins Portia's hand. Portia is delighted. She gives Bassanio a gold ring as a token of her love, making him promise never to give it away as long as their love lasts.

While Bassanio was courting Portia, his friend Gratiano has fallen in love with Portia's maid, Nerissa. This couple also decides to marry and Nerissa gives Gratiano a ring similar to the one Portia gave Bassanio.

The two pairs of lovers have little chance to enjoy their newfound happiness. Shortly after their betrothal, news arrives from Venice that all of Antonio's merchant ships have been lost at sea. Suddenly impoverished, Antonio is unable to repay on time the money Bassanio borrowed from Shylock. Shylock demands that Antonio fulfill the terms of the contract by giving up a pound of his own flesh. After a hasty double marriage ceremony, Bassanio and Gratiano hurry back to Venice to save their friend Antonio, leaving their brides behind in Belmont.

Lorenzo and Jessica, now married, show up in Belmont at the same time Antonio's bad news arrives from Venice. Portia asks the young couple to take care of her house while she and Nerissa go on a retreat to pray for their husbands' safe return. In reality, however, Portia has a secret plan. She and Nerissa arrive in Venice, disguised as a doctor of laws and his page boy, just in time for the trial which will decide whether or not Antonio must honor the terms of his agreement with Shylock.

At the trial, Shylock stubbornly insists that the law must award him his pound of Antonio's flesh. Bassanio, now wealthy, thanks to his marriage to Portia, offers to repay three times what he originally borrowed, but Shylock has no interest in the money. He wants revenge for the way he had been abused- and if the loss of a pound of flesh costs Antonio his life, so much the better. Shylock is also angry over his daughter's elopement with a Christian. Portia, disguised as a young male lawyer, argues that while Shylock is entitled to his "bond" under the law, in the interest of true justice he ought to be willing to show mercy towards his enemy Antonio. Shylock rejects this plea.

Just at the moment when it seems Shylock has won his case and Antonio will have to die, Portia brings up another objection. Under the terms of the loan, Shylock is entitled to exactly one pound of flesh, but not a drop of blood. Moreover, Shylock could be found guilty of a capital crime for breaking a law that forbids conspiring to take the life of a citizen of Venice. The Duke of Venice, acting as judge at the trial, spares Shylock's life but orders him to convert to Christianity and give half his wealth to Antonio, who will manage it on behalf of Lorenzo and Jessica. In addition, Shylock must agree to leave his own money to Jessica and Lorenzo in his will.

Having saved Antonio, Portia decides to play a trick on her new husband Bassanio- who still does not recognize her in her disguise. Portia says that the only reward she will accept for rescuing Antonio from certain death is the gold ring that Bassanio is wearing. Bassanio hesitates, but when Antonio urges him to give it, he feels he cannot refuse. Later, Nerissa manages to get her ring back from Gratiano under the same pretense.

When Bassanio, Gratiano, and Antonio return to Belmont, Portia and Nerissa pretend to be very jealous. They accuse their husbands of giving away the gold rings to women- which, in fact, is true although Bassanio and Gratiano don't know it. Portia then produces the ring and hands it to Antonio. He, in turn, hands it to Bassanio who recognizes it as the same ring he gave the young lawyer in Venice. After more teasing, Portia finally admits that she and the male "doctor of laws" are one and the same person. Nerissa shows her ring and tells Gratiano that she was the lawyer's boy servant. Bassanio and Gratiano are delighted to learn that their new wives are as clever as they are beautiful. Portia, meanwhile, has one more piece of good news. A letter has arrived from Venice with word that Antonio's ships were not destroyed at sea after all. They have returned to port bearing rich cargoes, making him once again a wealthy man.

HIGH POINTS IN THE PLOT OF THE MERCHANT OF VENICE

-                                                                           
                               Antonio                                      
                            Cannot Repay                                    
                              the Loan                                      
-                                                                           
                              Bassanio                                      
                              Picks the                                     
                            Right Casket                                    
-                                                                           
                Morocco &      Shylock                                      
  Pound of       Arragon      Wants His     Antonio is     Unfolding        
    Flesh      Fail to Win     Pound of    About to Lose    of the          
  Contract       Portia         Flesh        His Life      Ring Plot        
-                                                                           
                Usurer's                   Portia Upsets     Happy          
  Portia's      Daughter     Portia Will   the Contract   Ending for        
  Father's     Elopes with   Try to Save       -----        All but         
    Will       a Christian     Antonio     Shylock Loses    Shylock         
-                                                                           
   ACT I         ACT II        ACT III        ACT IV        ACT V           
-

[The Merchant of Venice Contents]


THE CHARACTERS

  • SHYLOCK

    We do not know for sure how Shylock was portrayed in the earliest productions of The Merchant of Venice, but we have evidence that from the beginning he captured the imaginations of audiences. Although the play is named after Antonio, not Shylock, The Merchant of Venice soon came to be known by an alternate title, The Jew of Venice.

    During the first half of the eighteenth century, Shylock was played as a straight comic villain- a whining fool. In 1741, a popular actor named Charles Macklin introduced a new way of playing the role. He made Shylock the epitome of evil, a malevolent old man consumed with hatred plotting the downfall of his enemies. In 1814, the famous actor Edmund Kean presented an even more startling version of the character. His Shylock was dignified and austere, almost a tragic hero.

    In some recent versions of the play, including a movie adaptation, Shylock becomes so dominant that we begin to see the other characters through his eyes. A 1971 production of The Merchant of Venice created by the avant-garde director Peter Brook ended with the sounds of Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, being played as the "good" Christian characters gather in the final act.

    Most scholars today agree that Shakespeare never intended to make Shylock a hero. In all probability, the playwright was not even very interested in Shylock's Jewishness. He used the prevailing anti-Semitic stereotypes as a handy way to characterize his play's villain. What mattered to Shakespeare was that Shylock was an outsider- set apart from society because of his religion, his profession of lending money for interest, and his hatred for Antonio and the other Christian characters of the play.

    Many of the most powerful works in nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature deal with the predicament of an individual who, for one reason or another, finds himself out of step with society. It is important to realize that this was not necessarily Shakespeare's point of view. The English of the late sixteenth century believed that Christianity was the only true religion and that the social order was ordained by God. The individual who set himself against the establishment could only be a source of disruption or, at worst, evil.

    Shylock's behavior during the trial scene (Act IV, Scene I) shows us another reason why Shakespeare cannot have intended him to be a true tragic hero. A tragic hero would pursue his drive for revenge at all costs to himself. But Shylock, when he learns that he might lose his own life if he sheds a drop of Antonio's blood, immediately backs down. Suddenly, he would be quite happy to have the loan repaid in money and forget all about his call for "justice." Many readers interpret that as the behavior of a weak and unprincipled man, not a hero.

    Still, most readers agree that Shakespeare has granted Shylock a dignity and depth of character beyond what we expect of a comic villain. Shylock's motives may not be admirable, yet his character is realistic in a way that the characters of the ever-cheerful, untroubled Bassanio and Portia are not. It is impossible to listen to Shylock speak the lines which begin "Hath not a Jew eyes?" without recognizing something of ourselves in him. We feel the sting of Shylock's passion for revenge, and the sourness of his contempt for the Christians who have tormented him. Shylock even speaks differently from the other characters in the play. He seldom resorts to poetic imagery. His sentences are short and choppy, emphasizing that he is cut off from the others. At times, he almost spits out his words.

    The majority view of Shylock is that the contradictory sides of his nature were written into the part by the dramatist. Surely, in a play about the virtue of mercy it is essential that the audience should be able to see the villain's point of view and accept him as a fellow human being, however wrong or evil his actions might be.

    In fact, the "debate" about Shylock is not so much a debate about the character himself as about the way the others in the play treat him. Whether Shylock receives mercy- or is the victim of a group of selfish, narrow-minded opponents- is a question you will ultimately have to answer for yourself.

  • PORTIA

    Portia is in some ways a fairy-tale heroine. She lives in Belmont, a land of music, luxury, and perpetual happiness. Her father is dead, and we never hear about or meet any members of her own family. She is totally without problems of her own. All she lacks is a husband, and she doesn't even have to do anything about finding one. Under the terms of her father's will, the right suitor will be selected without any effort on her part. Everyone admires Portia, and from what we see of her their admiration is entirely justified. Portia is not only beautiful and fabulously rich, she is wise and witty, loyal and good.

    At times during the play, Portia shows herself to be a very independent, even liberated, young woman. She complains about the terms of her father's will, and her comments on her various suitors leave no doubt that she is perfectly capable of choosing a husband for herself. When Antonio is in trouble, Portia conceives and carries out a rescue plan without even bothering to let her husband in on it. She passes herself off as a wise and learned lawyer with no trouble at all. We never seriously doubt that Portia will save Antonio. The suspense lies in seeing just how cleverly she will manage it.

    It is easier to reconcile these two sides of Portia's character if you remember the Elizabethan view that true fulfillment and happiness can come only from accepting one's proper place in society. Nowadays, we tend to admire individualists. Shakespeare's contemporaries were more likely to regard them as troublemakers. Portia is independent, but she is not a rebel. Like Shylock, she is a strong character; unlike him, she is not an outsider. She uses her talent in the service of her husband and friends, and accepts her lot in life- that of the subordinate wife- graciously.

    Even so, you may feel, as some readers do, that Portia stands out as more intelligent- even more powerful- than the male heroes of the play. Her most important scene comes when she enters the Venetian court dressed as a young male lawyer and presents an argument that frees Antonio from his grisly contract with Shylock. No doubt Shakespeare's fondness for plot twists involving young women dressing up as boys had a good deal to do with the fact that his heroines' parts were being played by boy actors in women's clothes. Audiences enjoyed seeing how a male actor would handle the double challenge of portraying a woman who disguises herself as a man. In this play, however, Shakespeare does not take the opportunity to milk the situation for its humor. Even when teasing Bassanio in the business about his missing ring, Portia is always in control of the joke. She herself is never made to seem ridiculous. She is as impressive as a man as she is as a woman.

  • BASSANIO

    Bassanio is an appealing character- ever optimistic, always impulsive. Even though he is already in debt, he is not particularly worried about having to ask Antonio for another loan. He thinks that he can win Portia's hand, and he does. Later, though he has promised Portia that he will never part with the ring she has given him, he hands it over to the lawyer "Balthazar." Of course, Balthazar is really Portia in disguise, and her demand for the ring is just a playful joke. She does not blame Bassanio for breaking his promise under the circumstances.

    There are always a few readers and playgoers who feel that Bassanio is just a little bit too carefree to be likable. Some have even suggested that he is a fortune hunter. After all, the first thing he tells Antonio about Portia is that she is rich. Her other qualities take second place. Bassanio gets Antonio in trouble through his borrowing, and in the meantime rushes off in pursuit of a wealthy wife. Whether you agree with this view will depend on your feelings about borrowing, financial responsibility, and friendship.

    Notice, however, that Bassanio never makes excuses for himself. In Act V, when Portia asks about the ring, Bassanio does not blame Antonio for talking him into giving it away. He takes the responsibility on himself. Bassanio's speeches also show him to be a young man of sensitivity and poetic feeling. Of all the suitors, he is the one who picks the lead casket because he understands that external appearances are unimportant compared to true inner worth. Perhaps Bassanio deserves even more credit for recognizing this, precisely because he himself has all the external advantages of good looks, social status, and charm.

  • ANTONIO

    Antonio is the merchant of Venice, the character named in the title of the play. As such, Antonio must be considered the central character in the drama, yet in some ways he is also the most enigmatic. Antonio is rich, popular and confident. He seems to be a young man who has every reason to be happy. However, the very first lines in the play inform us that Antonio is in the grip of an unexplained depression.

    You'll probably notice that the play presents two different views of Antonio's character. To his friends, Antonio is kind and generous. Although Bassanio already owes him money, Antonio does not hesitate to help his friend borrow more, even pledging his own flesh to guarantee the loan. When the loan cannot be repaid, and Antonio is in danger of losing his life to keep this bargain, he never complains or blames Bassanio for his troubles. In his dealings with Shylock, however, Antonio seems less than noble. When Shylock accuses Antonio of insulting him, even of spitting on him in the street, Antonio never denies these accusations. He even vows that he will do the same things again when the opportunity arises. You may feel that Antonio must be held at least partly responsible for Shylock's hatred of him. It is easy to be generous to one's friends. Isn't the way a person treats his enemies a good guide to his (or her) character?

    Different theories have been suggested to explain it. One possibility is that Antonio is sad because his best friend is talking about marrying- foretelling the end of their carefree bachelor friendship. Others feel that Shakespeare makes Antonio sad as a way of foreshadowing the bad luck which will befall him during the course of the play. Nowadays, we might call his gloominess a kind of "extrasensory perception"- ESP.

    Another theory- rather extreme but accepted by some readers- is that Antonio feels an unconscious homosexual attraction to Bassanio and is depressed that his friend has fallen in love with a woman. You will have to decide for yourself whether there is any evidence in the play to support this interpretation.

    Still another view of Antonio is that he is sad because he has chosen a way of life that sets him somewhat apart from his friends. Antonio condemns Shylock for being a moneylender, yet he himself is dedicated to pursuing profits in trade. While Bassanio, Lorenzo and Gratiano all marry during the course of the play, Antonio remains alone- too busy worrying about the fate of his merchant ships to fall in love.

  • GRATIANO

    Gratiano is a joker, the kind of young man who is constantly kidding around in an attempt to entertain his buddies. Bassanio takes him along to Belmont, but only after issuing a stern warning that he must keep his "wildness" under control. For the most part, Gratiano manages to do this. When he returns to Belmont for the trial scene (Act IV) we see a less attractive side of Gratiano's character. Of all those present, he is the only one who gets involved in exchanging insults with Shylock- and in gloating openly over Shylock's defeat. Gratiano's happy marriage to Nerissa seems to signal his acceptance into the fairy-tale world of Belmont. However, Gratiano never quite settles down, as we see from his continued fondness for bawdy jokes and puns.

  • SOLANIO AND SALERIO

    Solanio and Salerio (in some editions of the play called Salarino or Salerino) are not popular roles with many Shakespearean actors. These young men have so little individuality that you'll probably find it almost impossible to tell them apart. They seem to have been written into the play mostly to comment on the plot and to keep the action moving along.

    Since these two actors function largely as commentators, stage directors have a good deal of leeway in deciding how their role should be interpreted. In some productions, Solanio and Salerio reveal the darker side of Venetian life, expressing Antonio's unspoken prejudices by physically jostling and abusing Shylock. In other versions of the play, their roles are more genial and philosophical.

  • JESSICA

    Like Shylock, his daughter Jessica is a "problem" character for some theatergoers and readers of the play. When she elopes with Lorenzo, Jessica steals money and jewels from her father's house and then spends the treasure on trifles, including a pet monkey. Shakespearean audiences probably felt that Jessica was morally entitled to some of Shylock's money, in lieu of the dowry he would refuse her if she married a Christian. And her instant and complete adoption of her husband's point of view would have been considered proper behavior in an Elizabethan wife. Nevertheless, by modern standards, Jessica's lack of loyalty to her father, her people and her religion is unsettling to some readers and audiences.

    Some readers see a change for the better in Jessica's character by the end of the play; having left her father's house and had her fling at rebellion (while spending his money), she settles down to the life of a mature married woman.

  • LAUNCELOT GOBBO

    At the start of the play, Launcelot is Shylock's servant, the "merry devil" whose malapropisms (unintentional and humorous misuse of words) keep Jessica entertained. Just before Jessica leaves her father's house, Launcelot also departs to join the service of Bassanio.

    Notice that at the time that he switches employers, Launcelot is warned that he will no longer be able to get away with lazing around all day and doing nothing as he presumably did when he worked in Shylock's house. It may surprise you to hear that Shylock, the hard-driving miser, tolerated such behavior.

    In later scenes, in his new role as Bassanio's servant, Launcelot appears to have changed from a stupid country bumpkin into a more polished entertainer, whose puns are consciously designed to amuse his master.

    Partly because of his inconsistency, it is generally agreed that Launcelot is not the most successful of Shakespeare's humorous characters.

  • NERISSA

    Nerissa is Portia's lady in waiting and confidante. She falls in love with and marries Gratiano. During the trial scene, she is disguised as Portia's clerk.

  • LORENZO

    A friend of Antonio and Bassanio, Lorenzo elopes with Shylock's daughter Jessica.

  • THE PRINCE OF MOROCCO

    Portia's first suitor, the Prince of Morocco chooses the gold casket and loses his chance to win her hand in marriage.

  • THE PRINCE OF ARRAGON

    Portia's second suitor, the Prince of Arragon is cold and arrogant. He chooses the silver casket, and thus also comes out a loser in the contest for Portia's hand.

[The Merchant of Venice Contents]


OTHER ELEMENTS

SETTING

The physical action of The Merchant of Venice is divided between two settings: Venice and Belmont. The first of these locales is real, the second imaginary- a split that emphasizes the tension in the play between real-life problems and fairy-tale solutions.

The Italian city-state of Venice exercised a powerful hold on the imaginations of Englishmen in Shakespeare's time. In many ways, Venice was what England aspired to become. It was a major commercial hub and a center of international trade. Although geographically small, the city-state had a tradition of independence and orderly government the English admired. The cosmopolitan character of Venice was especially alluring. In the English imagination, at least, the well-traveled citizens of Venice were witty and sophisticated, enjoying as a matter of course such oriental luxuries as fine silks, sugar and exotic spices which were still relatively expensive in England.

On the negative side, there was a feeling that Venice's internationalism, and its devotion to making money through trade, represented trends threatening the traditional character of English society. For example, Venice- unlike England- had a substantial population of Jews and other alien elements. It is noteworthy that in The Merchant of Venice Shakespeare makes use of the traditional image of the Jew as an alien, plotting against the welfare of citizens.

Belmont, the second locale of the play, is an imaginary world of music, laughter, and domestic bliss. The scenes of the play set in Venice take place in public spaces, in the streets, and in the courtroom. The action in Belmont is relegated to Portia's house and garden. Venice is governed by a set of laws that bind even the Duke; Belmont is ruled by the fairy-tale illogic of Portia's father's will. Portia's father, of course, is dead before the play begins. Even the generation gap is absent from the idealized world of Belmont, as are the social restrictions that would have prevented a sixteenth-century heiress from acting as independently as Portia.

Some readers feel that Shakespeare intended Venice and Belmont to represent opposite sets of values. Another view is that the two worlds are complementary; Venice stands for the public side of life where business, law, and manly friendship predominate- Belmont represents the private treasures of the heart, including romantic love and an appreciation of the merciful side of God's nature. You might be able to think of still another way to express the contrast between these two places.

FORM AND STRUCTURE

If you associate the word "comedy" with movies or TV shows filled with slapstick humor and snappy one-liners, then you may be surprised to learn that The Merchant of Venice is considered a comedy. In dramatic terms, however, a comedy can be a play that makes a light, basically optimistic comment on romantic relationships.

As it happens, The Merchant of Venice touches on some serious social issues, particularly the problem of anti-Semitism. Because of this, some readers are tempted to forget that the form of the play is a romantic comedy. There have even been a few readers, the same ones who see Shylock as a tragic hero, who have tried to argue that the play is not a true comedy at all, but a tragedy disguised as comedy.

If you look at the plot devices used in The Merchant of Venice, however, you will find that they are quite typical of romantic comedies, particularly the romantic comedies of Shakespeare's time. For example, the lovers in the play are kept apart by external forces, not by shortcomings in their own characters or incompatibility. As in other Shakespearean comedies, these forces include arbitrary laws and restrictions (the conditions of Portia's father's will) and cases of mistaken identity, often involving the wearing of disguises.

Another common feature of comedies is that the original problem is often less important and complex than the eventual solution. This is certainly true in The Merchant of Venice. At the beginning of the play, Bassanio's "problem" is supposedly that he wants to repay the debt he owes Antonio- even though Antonio does not care very much about getting his money back. Bassanio's "solution" to this problem, courting and marrying a beautiful heiress, promises to be pleasant enough for him but requires turning Antonio into a debtor himself and even endangering his very life. Only in the world of comedy would the logic of this sequence of events be accepted without question.

THE FIVE-ACT STRUCTURE. The following diagram may help you to visualize how the action of the play is structured around the "problem" of Bassanio's debt:

    ACT I: EXPOSITION. Bassanio declares his intention to repay Antonio. The audience learns of the difficulties that stand in his path- the terms of Portia's father's will and Shylock's determination to revenge himself on Antonio.

    ACT II: RISING ACTION. Complications ensue. Other suitors arrive to compete for Portia's hand; the elopement of Shylock's daughter strengthens his desire for vengeance.

    ACT III: RISING ACTION. Bassanio wins Portia, but the problem of the debt is more urgent than ever.

    ACT IV: CLIMAX. Portia's unexpected appearance at the trial enables Bassanio to repay his debt of friendship.

    ACT V: CONCLUSION. The "interest" on the debt is tallied up in the form of Antonio's restored wealth and the lovers' happiness.

Another view of the structure of The Merchant of Venice is that the action is circular: Antonio helps Bassanio to borrow money... which Bassanio uses to win Portia... which causes Portia to go to Venice to save Antonio. In this interpretation, the circle is completed at the end of Act IV of the play. Act V also serves to reemphasize the theme of circularity through the episode of the rings.

Another way of looking at the structure of the play might be to see it as a two-stranded braid. Woven together are events in two settings, Belmont and Venice, as well as threads of two different stories- the tale of the three caskets and that of the pound of flesh. Here, too, the knot between the two strands is tied in Act IV, when Portia comes to Venice and resolves Antonio's dilemma. Act V might be compared to the decorative tassel at the end of the braid- finishing off the play neatly and happily.

You can visualize the structure of the play by paying attention to the locales of the succeeding scenes:

-                                                                           
               BELMONT                     VENICE                           
-                                                                           
  ACT I:                                   Scene I                          
               Scene II                                                     
                                           Scene III                        
-                                                                           
  ACT II:      Scene I                                                      
                                           Scenes II through VI             
               Scene VII                                                    
                                           Scene VIII                       
               Scene IX                                                     
-                                                                           
  ACT III:                                 Scene I                          
               Scene II                                                     
                                           Scene III                        
               Scenes IV & V                                                
-                                                                           
  ACT IV:      Scenes I & II are both in Venice, but with Portia and        
               Nerissa present there.                                       
-                                                                           
  ACT V:       The single scene of Act V takes place in Belmont, but        
               with Antonio present.                                        
-

HISTORICAL AND SOCIAL BACKGROUND

Two major issues raised by The Merchant of Venice are anti-Semitism and usury (which meant, in Shakespeare's time, loaning money at any rate of interest, not just at an excessive rate- as we define usury today). The following background information will help you understand these issues.

ANTI-SEMITISM

The Merchant of Venice is one of several Shakespearean plays that create problems for modern readers because they are based on assumptions that we may find unpleasant and even repugnant. Many theatergoers today, especially women, have trouble enjoying performances of The Taming of the Shrew because the happy ending of this comedy is based on the heroine's acceptance of the principle that a good wife ought to submit to the authority of her husband. Some audiences and readers dislike the history play Henry V because of the manner in which it glorifies war and conquest. In the case of The Merchant of Venice, the troublesome issue is the anti-Semitic portrayal of the character of Shylock. There is no way to ignore the fact that Shylock's character reflects some very nasty stereotypes about Jews. Not only is Shylock portrayed as being money mad, to the point of having lost touch with his natural feelings for his only daughter, but the motivation of his actions also draws on the belief, common in Shakespeare's time, that Jews were constantly plotting in the most bloodthirsty ways against Christians.

Of course, if The Merchant of Venice were merely an anti-Semitic propaganda play there would be no reason to continue to read and study it today. The play's continued popularity depends not just on other factors- such as the beauty of the language and the treatment of such timeless themes as love, mercy, and justice- but on the very way in which Shakespeare managed to rise above the anti-Semitism of his times to make Shylock a fully developed, even sympathetic character. One way in which modern readers come to terms with the anti-Semitic assumptions in The Merchant of Venice is to stress these counterbalancing factors. A few readers go so far as to deny that Shylock is the villain of the play at all.

Another way to come to terms with the value system of the play is to try to understand it in the social context of Shakespeare's times. In sixteenth-century Europe Jews were a despised and persecuted minority. England, in fact, went beyond mere persecution and harassment by banning Jews from the country altogether. In theory at least, there were no Jews at all in England in Shakespeare's time, and there hadn't been since the year 1290 when they were officially expelled by King Edward I.

For some time it was thought that Shakespeare had never actually met a Jew and must have created the character of Shylock entirely from his imagination. We now know that this was not necessarily the case. Despite what the law said, there was a small community of Spanish Jews living in London during Shakespeare's time. These exiles from Spain managed to evade the intent of the law by nominally converting to Christianity. Shakespeare may have been aware of this community, and possibly even have known some of its members. However, there is no reason to believe that either he or his audience viewed the existence of Jews in London as a major social problem.

One theory about Shakespeare's motivation for writing The Merchant of Venice is that he intended to capitalize on anti-Semitic public opinion aroused by the well-publicized trial in 1594 of Roderigo Lopez. Lopez, a Portuguese Jew who had converted to Christianity, had been the personal physician of the very popular queen, Elizabeth I. He was convicted and executed for supposedly plotting to murder his royal patient. We cannot be sure that Shakespeare had the Roderigo Lopez case in mind. Most likely, he did. However, a few historians doubt that this was so. They point out that during Shakespeare's time the English people viewed the Portuguese and the Spanish, their national enemies and rivals in trade, with great distrust. The popular hatred of Roderigo Lopez may have had more to do with his being Portuguese than with his being Jewish.

In any event, the most influential models for the character of Shylock were no doubt drawn from literature, not real life. The Jewish villain was a stock character in medieval literature. Medieval passion plays, reenactments of the story of the crucifixion of Jesus, invariably portrayed the disloyal disciple Judas Iscariot as a stereotypical Jew. (Of course, historically, Jesus and all of his disciples were Jewish, but this was ignored.) The part of Judas was usually played for comedy, by an actor wearing an outrageous red wig and a false nose. Subsequent authors, when they portrayed Jewish characters at all, always cast them as villains.

A more immediate model for the character of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice was probably the character of Barabas in the play The Jew of Malta by Christopher Marlowe. In Marlowe's play, which was first performed in 1591, Barabas is a very wealthy Jewish merchant who lives on the Mediterranean island of Malta. Like Shylock, Barabas has an only daughter who is in love with a Christian. Barabas also has a rational motive for hating Christian society. In the play, he is angered by the passage of a law requiring all Jews to either convert to Christianity or give up one half of their wealth. Nevertheless, Barabas is a thoroughly evil character. He resorts to murder and treason to gain his revenge and enjoys watching the pain and suffering he has caused.

When we compare The Merchant of Venice to a play such as The Jew of Malta we can see just how far Shakespeare rose above the prejudices of his times. Shylock may be a comic villain, a stereotypical figure to some extent, but the play also insists that the audience accept him as a human being. It is no accident that many readers today find Shylock the most fully realized, even the most sympathetic character in the play.

USURY

The contemporary issue that Shakespeare had in mind when he set out to write The Merchant of Venice was not so much anti-Semitism as usury. Today, the word usury means lending money at excessively high rates of interest. In Shakespeare's time, any loan made for interest was usury, regardless of the rate charged. Nowadays, usury in this sense of the word is not a social issue, except in a very few countries. It may be true that no one enjoys owing money, but the average American, for instance, takes payment of interest completely for granted.

During the Middle Ages, however, most European countries had laws against usury. These laws were based on the Christian church's view that usury was forbidden by the Bible. Churchmen called attention to a passage in Deuteronomy: "Thou shalt not lend upon usury to thy brother; usury of money, usury of victuals, usury of any thing that is lent upon usury: Unto a stranger thou mayest lend upon usury." Since in the New Testament Jesus had chased moneylenders out of the temple, most Christian theologians felt that the prohibition against usury carried over to Christians as well. All Christians were brothers in theory; therefore they could not charge each other interest. Jews, however, according to Deuteronomy, could charge interest to Christians, though not to other Jews. Laws which kept Jewish minorities from entering into many occupations encouraged Jews in many countries to take advantage of this interpretation of the law and go into the business of moneylending.

By Shakespeare's time, changing economic conditions had made the Church's traditional position on usury impractical to say the least. In medieval times, the typical individual borrowed money only in cases of dire need. By the sixteenth century, however, the economy had developed to a point where businessmen needed to borrow money in the everyday course of conducting their affairs. It was no longer reasonable to expect that anyone would advance them money purely for friendship's sake.

Usury became legal in England in 1551, four decades before The Merchant of Venice was written. However, it was still a controversial social issue, and not just among the poor. By the sixteenth century, however, anyone who wanted to live well needed a constant flow of cash. There were more luxury goods available than ever before, but their prices were constantly rising. The young noblemen of The Merchant of Venice, cheerfully striving to live above their means, were all too familiar to Shakespeare's audiences.

In making the character of Antonio an international merchant, Shakespeare seems to recognize and accept certain social changes. Antonio professes to be against the practice of usury. Yet he himself makes a living by buying goods on a large scale and selling wherever he can make a profit. What is the difference between profiting from, say, a cargo of wheat and profiting from a loan of money?

However, the play does seem to be taking the traditional position of the Church that usury and brotherhood are mutually exclusive. It is Shylock's practice of lending money at interest, as much as his Jewishness, which sets him apart from the rest of society. Antonio and Bassanio seek out the moneylender Shylock of their own free will. They aren't driven to borrow by any desperate personal need, but by Bassanio's belief that he can use the borrowed money to make a good impression on Portia. At the end of the play, Bassanio escapes economic reality by marrying the heiress Portia and going to live in Belmont. However, Antonio is left in Venice where, we suppose, he will continue doing business as before. Shylock, of course, has been condemned for trying to turn usury into a weapon of revenge, for scheming to get his "pound of flesh." Yet at the same time he has been given a speech which reminds us forcefully that moneylenders, and Jews, are human beings like anyone else.

Ultimately, you will have to decide for yourself what The Merchant of Venice is trying to say about the social issues of Jews vs. Christians and moneylenders vs. debtors. Remember, just because a work of literature is a classic, there is no requirement that you have to approve or agree with every message it contains. On the other hand, the more you learn about the play and its social context, the more you may come to discover and appreciate the complexities of its views of human nature and social relationships.

THE PLAY, continued

THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES


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