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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
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
Lawrence J. Epstein, Associate Professor of English
Leonard Gardner, Lecturer, English Department
Beverly A. Haley, Member, Advisory Committee
Elaine C. Johnson, English Teacher
Marvin J. LaHood, Professor of English
Robert Lecker, Associate Professor of English
David E. Manly, Professor of Educational Studies
Bruce Miller, Associate Professor of Education
Frank O'Hare, Professor of English and Director of Writing
Faith Z. Schullstrom, Member of Executive Committee
Mattie C. Williams, Director, Bureau of Language Arts