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Free Study Guide-The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare-Study Guide
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BACKGROUND INFORMATION - BIOGRAPHY

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE

William Shakespeare is usually considered the greatest dramatist and finest poet the world has ever known. No other writer's plays and poetry have been produced so many times or in so many countries or translated into so many languages. One of the major reasons for Shakespeare's popularity is the variety of rich characters that he successfully creates, from drunkards and paid murderers to princes and kings and from inane fools and court jesters to wise and noble generals. Each character springs vividly to life upon the stage and, as they speak their beautiful verse or prose, the characters remind the viewers of their own personalities, traits, and flaws. Shakespeare also made his characters very realistic. The dramatist had an amazing knowledge of a wide variety of subjects, and his well-developed characters reflect this knowledge, whether it be about military science, the graces of royalty, seamanship, history, the Bible, music, or sports.

In Shakespeare's time, few biographies were written, and none of the literary men of the Elizabethan Age was considered important enough to merit a book about his life. The first portfolio of his works, collected as a memorial to Shakespeare by members of his own acting company, was not published until 1623, seven years after his death. His first biography was written one hundred years later. As a result, many of the facts of Shakespeare's life are unknown.

It is known that he was born in Stratford-on-Avon in England, sometime in early 1564, for his Baptism is recorded on April 26 of that year. His mother Mary had eight children, with William being the third. His father, John Shakespeare, was a fairly prosperous glovemaker and trader who owned several houses in Stratford and became the town's mayor when Shakespeare was a boy. The young Shakespeare probably studied in the local grammar school and hunted and played sports in the open fields behind his home.


The next definite information about William Shakespeare is that the young man, at age 18, married Anne Hathaway, who was 26, on November 28, 1582. In 1583, it is recorded that Anne gave birth to their oldest child, Susanna, and that twins, Hamnet and Judith, were born to the couple in 1585. By 1592, the family was living in London, where Shakespeare was busy acting in plays and writing his own dramas. From 1592 to 1594, the plague kept most London theaters closed, so the dramatist turned to writing poetry during this period, and his poems, which were actually published unlike his plays, became popular with the masses and contributed to his good reputation as a writer. From 1594 to the end of his career, Shakespeare belonged to the same theatrical company, known first as Lord Chamberlain's Men and then as the King's Company. It is also known that he was both a leader and stockholder in this acting organization, which became the most prosperous group in London, and that he was meeting with both financial success and critical acclaim.

In 1954, Shakespeare was popular enough as an actor to perform before Queen Elizabeth. By 1596, he owned considerable property in London and bought one of the finest houses in Stratford, known as New Place, in 1597. A year later, in 1598, he bought ten percent of the stock in the Globe Theatre, where his plays were produced. In 1608, he and his colleagues also purchased The Blackfriars Theatre, where they began to hold productions during the winter, returning to the Globe during the summer months. Throughout the rest of his life, Shakespeare continued to purchase land, homes, and businesses. He obviously was a busy man between handling his business ventures, performing on the stage, and writing or collaborating on the thirty-seven plays that are credited to him.

Shakespeare's most productive years were from 1594 to 1608, the period in which he wrote all of his great tragedies, such as Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Romeo and Juliet. During these fourteen years, he furnished his acting company with approximately two plays annually. After 1608, it appears he went into semi-retirement, spending more time in Stratford and creating only five plays before his death on April 23, 1616. He was buried before the altar in the Stratford Church, where his body still lies today. Many literary students and visitors make a pilgrimage to this shrine each year in order to honor William Shakespeare, still recognized after 400 years as the world's greatest poet and dramatist.

LITERARY/HISTORICAL INFORMATION

Drama was the prime means of public entertainment during Shakespeare's time. Traveling actors went around the countryside and could be hired by those who wanted their services. London was growing as a trade center and merchants arrived from many lands. Also, the Tudor monarchy preferred to stay in the capital. These twin factors helped the companies of actors to prosper. They acted regularly before audiences at places that became established as centers for actors. Theater-houses like the Globe, the Curtain, and the Fortune were built. Shakespeare's company owned the Globe, which was patronized by the Lord Chamberlain and hence, was successful.

The Globe was an open-air theater. Plays were staged in the afternoons because there was no artificial lighting. The stage jutted out into the audience, the majority of whom stood on the ground around the stage. They were called the groundlings. Other spectators paid higher prices to sit in the galleries round about. There were three openings at the back of the stage--one in the center and one on each side--hidden by a thick curtain. The stage- floor often had one or more trap doors, useful for the speedy disappearance or re-appearance of characters, especially ghosts. Above the stage was a balcony, usually used for love scenes. There was no stage scenery though props were widely used. Black stage hangings were used for tragic plays and colorful curtains were used for comedies or light plays.

The Society Reflected in the Play, The Merchant of Venice reflects the prejudices of a society which honored the religious persecution of Jews and the happy, sometimes extravagant, life of the Christian nobility. The play opens with the description of adventurous merchants who have obtained a high social status due to their wealth. The era was one of expanding trade and trade routes with corresponding commercial expansion through navigation and shipping.

During the time of the play, the nobility of any undertaking was based upon the level of danger and commitment involved. Thus, in The Merchant of Venice, many of the characters risk their all in the service of love and friendship. The motto of the play (and of Elizabethan society as well) is "Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath," a motto that symbolizes Bassanio, Antonio and Portia.

The medieval society of the play reflects a sense of order and propriety called the "Chain of Being," which is formed by a strictly defined hierarchy. Nobility and gentility follow the accepted behavior of living lavishly and spending generously. Wealth is crucial to support the lives of the glamorous aristocrats. They spend fortunes on servants and on entertainment, often borrowing huge amounts of money.

Money lending had earlier been deemed a sin by the Christian church. Usury, the lending of money at exorbitant rates, was one of the important issues of the times. Though it had been legalized in England in 1571, it was held in strong disapproval. Shakespeare's contemporaries considered usury to be bad for the economy and an immoral activity. Many books and pamphlets were published on this controversial subject, this debate was reflected in the drama of the period.

During the period of the play, Jews were persecuted because they were a religious minority. Part of their persecution was economic. They were banned from all respectable professions and many trades. However, they were allowed to manage money, a task considered beneath the dignity of Christian nobles and merchants. Stereotypes were developed and perpetuated about Jews, who were considered to be the worst usurers. Anti-Semitism flourished, and Jews were subject to a great deal of racial hatred. At the coronation of Richard I, for instance, Jewish massacres and tortures formed part of the planned celebration. The word "Jew" was synonymous with money-lender, and Jews were portrayed in dramas without a single redeeming feature. Jews were inevitably cast as miserly, vile, and vicious, without a single redeeming feature. In the play, this general condemnation is echoed through Antonio, and the presentation of Shylock is a reflection of this atmosphere.

The Merchant of Venice was officially entered into the Stationer's register in 1598, although it may have been composed a few years earlier around 1595. It was cited in the same year by Francis Meres in Palladais Tamia. It was formally published in a quarto in 1600. A second quarto appeared in 1619 and the "First Folio" in 1623. The earliest recorded performance of The Merchant of Venice was in 1605, when the King's men put it on before James I, with a repeat performance a few days later.

The two main stories in The Merchant of Venice are (a) Portia and the caskets, and (b) the pound of flesh. The "pound of flesh" tale has been found in ancient religious stories from Persia and India and has appeared in varying forms throughout western literature. Another play called The Jew, known to have existence in the 1570s, is speculated to be the direct source of this play. Another surviving Italian tale, Il Pecorone, written in 1378 by Ser Giovanni and printed in Italian in 1558, also bears a close resemblance to The Merchant of Venice.

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