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The Merchant of Venice
William Shakespeare




When I saw this piece played in Drury Lane there stood behind me in the box a British beauty who, at the end of the fourth Act, wept passionately, and many times cried out, 'The poor man is wronged!' It was a countenance of noblest Grecian cut, and the eyes were large and black. I have never been able to forget them, those great black eyes which wept for Shylock!

When I think of those tears I must include The Merchant of Venice among the tragedies, although the fame of the work is a composition of laughing masks and sunny faces, satyr forms and amorets, as though the poet meant to make a comedy. Shakespeare perhaps intended originally to please the mob, to represent a thorough going wehr-wolf, a hated fabulous being who yearns for blood, and pays for it with a daughter and with ducats, and is over and above laughed to scorn. But the genius of the poet, the spirit of the wide worlds which ruled in him, was ever stronger than in his own will, and so it came to pass that Shylock, despite the glaring grotesqueness, expressed the justification of an unfortunate sect which was oppressed by providence....

Heinrich Heine, 1839; quoted in Wilders, A Selection of Critical Essays

The Merchant of Venice is not a realistic drama; and its characters simply cannot be judged by realistic standards. Jessica, taken out of the context of the play, and exposed to the cold light of moral analysis, may be a wicked little thing; but in the play, wherein alone she has her being, she is nothing of the kind- she is charming.

...The Merchant of Venice is not a problem play; it is a fairy story, within the framework of which Shakespeare allowed free working to the thoughts of his mind and the feelings of his heart.

J. Middleton Murry in Shakespeare, 1936

The Merchant of Venice is, among other things, as much a problem play as one by Ibsen or Shaw. The question of the immorality or morality of usury was a sixteenth century issue on which both the theologians and the secular authorities were divided....

W. H. Auden, "Love and Usury in The Merchant of Venice," 1965


Gratiano's excessiveness in the way of mirth and laughter makes him the direct antithesis of Shylock, who is notably deficient in these departments. And when, at the trial, Gratiano capers about, taunting Shylock and exulting in his discomfiture, this excessiveness (which in certain circumstances can be attractive enough) is revealed in its more repulsive aspect.

Lawrence Danson, The Harmonies of The Merchant of Venice, 1978


Is it by accident or design that Shakespeare allows the Duke, as representative of Elizabethan propriety, to philosophize about Christian mercy ("Thou shalt see the difference of our spirits") minutes before he sanctions Shylock's unmerciful destruction? Why was Portia, the playgirl of the Elizabethan World, given that line of ultimate hypocrisy- "The quality of mercy is not strain'd / It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven"- as a prelude to utterly wiping out Shylock? Could Shakespeare have put in Shylock's mouth that classic assault against discrimination, "Hath not a Jew eyes..." if he wanted merely to create a hateful stereotype?

Fred M. Hechinger, "Why Shylock Should Not Be Censored," The New York Times, March 31, 1974

But the speech that to-day moves us is 'Hath not a Jew eyes?' etc. This is the speech not so much of a comic character as of a villain; and like other villains in Shakespeare he is given his due- a full chance to speak up for himself- while he holds the floor. But it seems quite impossible to take it as pathetic, so hedged about is it with prejudice, beginning on a note of thwarted avarice and of revengefulness, and ending on one of rivalry in revenge, of beating the Christians at what, however justly, he chooses to think of as their own game.

E. E. Stoll, Shakespeare Studies, 1927

Shakespeare set out to write a comedy about a stage Jew involved in a grotesque story about a pound of flesh. But Shylock, to satisfy his author, must seem to act as a recognisably human being would behave in the given circumstances and Shakespeare has humanised him to such good purpose that this comic Jew has become, for many brilliant and sensitive critics, a moving, almost tragic, figure. Some even go so far as to exclaim of Shylock in his anguish: O what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!

...Shylock, since his motives must be more humanly comprehensible, is presented as a natural product of Christian intolerance, but he does not thereby cease to be a comic character or become an advocate of the humaner virtues.

John Palmer, 1946; excerpted in Wilders, A Selection of Critical Essays


...As Shylock is to Venetian society, so is Antonio to the world of love and marriage. The relationship of these two to these two worlds is the same, the relationship of an outsider. The play is, in effect, a twin study in loneliness. The fact that these two outcasts, these two lonely men, only meet in the cruel circumstances they do, adds an irony and pathos to the play which lift it out of the category of fairy tale romance.

Graham Midgley, 1960; quoted in Tillyard, Shakespeare's Early Comedies

[The Merchant of Venice Contents]


We wish to thank the following educators who helped us focus our Book Notes series to meet student needs and critiqued our manuscripts to provide quality materials.

Sandra Dunn, English Teacher
Hempstead High School, Hempstead, New York

Lawrence J. Epstein, Associate Professor of English
Suffolk County Community College, Selden, New York

Leonard Gardner, Lecturer, English Department
State University of New York at Stony Brook

Beverly A. Haley, Member, Advisory Committee
National Council of Teachers of English Student Guide Series
Fort Morgan, Colorado

Elaine C. Johnson, English Teacher
Tamalpais Union High School District
Mill Valley, California

Marvin J. LaHood, Professor of English
State University of New York College at Buffalo

Robert Lecker, Associate Professor of English
McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

David E. Manly, Professor of Educational Studies
State University of New York College at Geneseo

Bruce Miller, Associate Professor of Education
State University of New York at Buffalo

Frank O'Hare, Professor of English and Director of Writing
Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio

Faith Z. Schullstrom, Member of Executive Committee
National Council of Teachers of English
Director of Curriculum and Instruction
Guilderland Central School District, New York

Mattie C. Williams, Director, Bureau of Language Arts
Chicago Public Schools, Chicago, Illinois

[The Merchant of Venice Contents]



Auden, W. H. "Love and Usury in The Merchant of Venice." In Four Centuries of Shakespeare Criticism, ed. by Frank Kermode. New York: Avon, 1965.

Charlton, H. B. Shakespearean Comedy. New York: Methuen, 1938. A sympathetic view of Shylock.

Danson, Lawrence. The Harmonies of The Merchant of Venice. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978.

Grebanier, Bernard. The Truth About Shylock. New York: Random House, 1962.

Holland, Norman. The Shakespearean Imagination. New York: Macmillan, 1964.

Lelyveld, Toby. Shylock on the Stage. London: Routledge, 1961.

Sinsheimer, Hermann. Shylock. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1947. Includes much historical background on usury and Jews in medieval and Renaissance literature.

Tillyard, E. M. W. Shakespeare's Early Comedies. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1965.

Van Doren, Mark. Shakespeare. New York: Henry Holt, 1939.

Walley, Harold. "Shakespeare's Portrayal of Shylock." The Parrott Presentation Volume, ed. Hardin Craig. New York: Russell & Russell, 1967.

Weiss, Theodore. The Breath of Clowns and Kings: Shakespeare's Early Comedies and Histories. New York: Atheneum, 1971.

Wilders, John, ed. The Merchant of Venice: A Selection of Critical Essays. London: Macmillan, 1969. Criticism from 1709 to 1963, including many of the more important essays on the play.


Shakespeare wrote 37 plays (38 if you include The Two Noble Kinsmen) over a 20-year period, from about 1590 to 1610. It's difficult to determine the exact dates when many were written, but scholars have made the following intelligent guesses about his plays and poems:


    1588-93 The Comedy of Errors
    1588-94 Love's Labour's Lost
    1590-91 2 Henry VI
    1590-91 3 Henry VI
    1591-92 1 Henry VI
    1592-93 Richard III
    1592-94 Titus Andronicus
    1593-94 The Taming of the Shrew
    1593-95 The Two Gentlemen of Verona
    1594-96 Romeo and Juliet
    1595 Richard II
    1594-96 A Midsummer Night's Dream
    1596-97 King John
    1596-97 The Merchant of Venice
    1597 1 Henry IV
    1597-98 2 Henry IV
    1598-1600 Much Ado About Nothing
    1598-99 Henry V
    1599 Julius Caesar
    1599-1600 As You Like It
    1599-1600 Twelfth Night
    1600-01 Hamlet
    1597-1601 The Merry Wives of Windsor
    1601-02 Troilus and Cressida
    1602-04 All's Well That Ends Well
    1603-04 Othello
    1604 Measure for Measure
    1605-06 King Lear
    1605-06 Macbeth
    1606-07 Antony and Cleopatra
    1605-08 Timon of Athens
    1607-09 Coriolanus
    1608-09 Pericles
    1609-10 Cymbeline
    1610-11 The Winter's Tale
    1611-12 The Tempest
    1612-13 Henry VIII


    1592 Venus and Adonis
    1593-94 The Rape of Lucrece
    1593-1600 Sonnets
    1600-01 The Phoenix and the Turtle

[Shakespeare's Sonnets read by John Gielgud]


ECC [The Merchant of Venice Contents] []

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