The Merchant of Venice
The Merchant of Venice is a tragic comedy by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written between 1596 and 1598. Though classified as a comedy in the First Folio and sharing certain aspects with Shakespeare's other romantic comedies, the play is perhaps most remembered for its dramatic scenes, and is best known for Shylock and the famous 'Hath not a Jew eyes' speech. Also notable is Portia's speech about the 'quality of mercy'.
The title character is the merchant Antonio, not the Jewish moneylender Shylock, who is the play's most prominent and most famous character. This is made explicit by the title page of the first quarto: The most excellent History of the Merchant of Venice. With the extreme cruelty of Shylock the Jew towards the Merchant....
- Antonio – a merchant of Venice
- Bassanio – Antonio's friend, in love with Portia; suitor likewise to her
- Gratiano, Solanio, Salarino, Salerio – friends of Antonio and Bassanio
- Lorenzo – friend of Antonio and Bassanio, in love with Jessica
- Portia – a rich heiress
- Nerissa – Portia's waiting maid- in love with Gratiano
- Balthazar – Portia's servant, who Portia later disguises herself as
- Stephano – Nerissa's disguise as Balthazar's law clerk.
- Shylock – a rich Jew, moneylender, father of Jessica
- Tubal – a Jew; Shylock's friend
- Jessica – daughter of Shylock, in love with Lorenzo
- Launcelot Gobbo – a foolish man in the service of Shylock
- Old Gobbo – father of Launcelot
- Leonardo – servant to Bassanio
- Duke of Venice – Venetian authority who presides over the case of Shylock's bond
- Prince of Morocco – suitor to Portia
- Prince of Arragon – suitor to Portia
- Magnificoes of Venice, officers of the Court of Justice, Gaoler, servants to Portia, and other Attendants.
Bassanio, a young Venetian of noble rank, wishes to woo the beautiful and wealthy heiress Portia of Belmont. Having squandered his estate, Bassanio approaches his friend Antonio, a wealthy merchant of Venice and a kind and generous person, who has previously and repeatedly bailed him out, for three thousand ducats needed to subsidise his expenditures as a suitor. Antonio agrees, but since he is cash-poor - his ships and merchandise are busy at sea - he promises to cover a bond if Bassanio can find a lender, so Bassanio turns to the Jewish moneylender Shylock and names Antonio as the loan's guarantor.
Shylock, who hates Antonio because of his Anti-Judaism and Antonio's customary refusal to borrow or lend money with interest, is at first reluctant, citing abuse he has suffered at Antonio's hand, but finally agrees to lend Antonio the sum without interest upon the condition that if Antonio is unable to repay it at the specified date, he may take a pound of Antonio's flesh. Bassanio does not want Antonio to accept such a risky condition; Antonio is surprised by what he sees as the moneylender's generosity (no "usance" – interest – is asked for), and he signs the contract. With money at hand, Bassanio leaves for Belmont with his friend Gratiano, who has asked to accompany him. Gratiano is a likeable young man, but is often flippant, overly talkative, and tactless. Bassanio warns his companion to exercise self-control, and the two leave for Belmont and Portia.
Meanwhile in Belmont, Portia is awash with suitors. Her father left a will stipulating each of her suitors must choose correctly from one of three caskets – one each of gold, silver and lead. If he picks the right casket, he gets Portia. The first suitor, the luxurious Prince of Morocco, chooses the gold casket, interpreting its slogan "Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire" as referring to Portia. The second suitor, the conceited Prince of Arragon, chooses the silver casket, which proclaims "Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves", imagining himself to be full of merit. Both suitors leave empty-handed, having rejected the lead casket because of the baseness of its material and the uninviting nature of its slogan: "Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath." The last suitor is Bassanio, whom Portia wishes to succeed, having met him before. As Bassanio ponders his choice, members of Portia's household sing a song which says that "fancy" (not true love) is "engend'red in the eyes, With gazing fed." prompting Bassanio to disregard "outward shows" and "ornament" and choses the lead casket, winning Portia's hand.
At Venice, Antonio's ships are reported lost at sea. This leaves him unable to satisfy the bond. Shylock is even more determined to exact revenge from Christians after his daughter Jessica had fled home and eloped with the Christian Lorenzo, taking a substantial amount of Shylock's wealth with her, as well as a turquoise ring which was a gift to Shylock from his late wife, Leah. Shylock has Antonio brought before court.
At Belmont, Bassanio receives a letter telling him that Antonio has been unable to return the loan taken from Shylock. Portia and Bassanio marry, as do Gratiano and Portia's handmaid Nerissa. Bassanio and Gratiano then leave for Venice, with money from Portia, to save Antonio's life by offering the money to Shylock. Unknown to Bassanio and Gratiano, Portia has sent her servant, Balthazar, to seek the counsel of Portia's cousin, Bellario, a lawyer, at Padua.
The climax of the play comes in the court of the Duke of Venice. Shylock refuses Bassanio's offer of 6,000 ducats, twice the amount of the loan. He demands his pound of flesh from Antonio. The Duke, wishing to save Antonio but unable to nullify a contract, refers the case to a visitor who introduces himself as Balthazar, a young male "doctor of the law", bearing a letter of recommendation to the Duke from the learned lawyer Bellario. The doctor is actually Portia in disguise, and the law clerk who accompanies her is actually Nerissa, also in disguise. As Balthazar, Portia repeatedly asks Shylock to show mercy in a famous speech, advising him that mercy "is twice blest: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes." (IV,i,185) However, Shylock adamantly refuses any compensations and insists on the pound of flesh.
As the court grants Shylock his bond and Antonio prepares for Shylock's knife, Portia points out that the contract only allows Shylock to remove the flesh, not the "blood", of Antonio (see quibble). Thus, if Shylock were to shed any drop of Antonio's blood, his "lands and goods" would be forfeited under Venetian laws. Further damning Shylock's case, she tells him that he must cut precisely one pound of flesh, no more, no less; she advises him that "if the scale do turn, But in the estimation of a hair, Thou diest and all thy goods are confiscate."
Defeated, Shylock concedes to accepting Bassanio's offer of money for the defaulted bond, first his offer to pay "the bond thrice", which Portia rebuffs, telling him to take his bond, and then merely the principal, which Portia also prevents him from doing on the ground that he has already refused it "in the open court." She then cites a law under which Shylock, as a Jew and therefore an "alien", having attempted to take the life of a citizen, has forfeited his property, half to the government and half to Antonio, leaving his life at the mercy of the Duke. The Duke immediately pardons Shylock's life. Antonio asks for his share "in use" (that is, reserving the principal amount while taking only the income) until Shylock's death, when the principal will be given to Lorenzo and Jessica. At Antonio's request, the Duke grants remission of the state's half of forfeiture, but on the condition of Shylock converting to Christianity and bequeathing his entire estate to Lorenzo and Jessica (IV,i).
Bassanio does not recognise his disguised wife, but offers to give a present to the supposed lawyer. First she declines, but after he insists, Portia requests his ring and Antonio's gloves. Antonio parts with his gloves without a second thought, but Bassanio gives the ring only after much persuasion from Antonio, as earlier in the play he promised his wife never to lose, sell or give it. Nerissa, as the lawyer's clerk, also succeeds in likewise retrieving her ring from Gratiano, who does not see through her disguise.
At Belmont, Portia and Nerissa taunt and pretend to accuse their husbands before revealing they were really the lawyer and his clerk in disguise (V). After all the other characters make amends, Antonio learns from Portia that three of his ships were not stranded and have returned safely after all.
The earliest performance of which a record has survived was held at the court of King James in the spring of 1605, followed by a second performance a few days later, but there is no record of any further performances in the seventeenth century. In 1701, George Granville staged a successful adaptation, titled The Jew of Venice, with Thomas Betterton as Bassanio. This version (which featured a masque) was popular, and was acted for the next forty years. Granville cut the Gobbos in line with neoclassical decorum; he added a jail scene between Shylock and Antonio, and a more extended scene of toasting at a banquet scene. Thomas Doggett was Shylock, playing the role comically, perhaps even farcically. Rowe expressed doubts about this interpretation as early as 1709; Doggett's success in the role meant that later productions would feature the troupe clown as Shylock.
In 1741 Charles Macklin returned to the original text in a very successful production at Drury Lane, paving the way for Edmund Kean seventy years later (see below).Arthur Sullivan wrote incidental music for the play in 1871.
Shylock on stage
Jewish actor Jacob Adler and others report that the tradition of playing Shylock sympathetically began in the first half of the 19th century with Edmund Kean,and that previously the role had been played "by a comedian as a repulsive clown or, alternatively, as a monster of unrelieved evil." Kean's Shylock established his reputation as an actor.
From Kean's time forward, all of the actors who have famously played the role, with the exception of Edwin Booth, who played Shylock as a simple villain, have chosen a sympathetic approach to the character; even Booth's father, Junius Brutus Booth, played the role sympathetically. Henry Irving's portrayal of an aristocratic, proud Shylock (first seen at the Lyceum in 1879, with Portia played by Ellen Terry) has been called "the summit of his career". Jacob Adler was the most notable of the early 20th century: Adler played the role in Yiddish-language translation, first in Manhattan's Lower East Side, and later on Broadway, where, to great acclaim, he performed the role in Yiddish in an otherwise English-language production.
Kean and Irving presented a Shylock justified in wanting his revenge; Adler's Shylock evolved over the years he played the role, first as a stock Shakespearean villain, then as a man whose better nature was overcome by a desire for revenge, and finally as a man who operated not from revenge but from pride. In a 1902 interview with Theater magazine, Adler pointed out that Shylock is a wealthy man, "rich enough to forgo the interest on three thousand ducats" and that Antonio is "far from the chivalrous gentleman he is made to appear. He has insulted the Jew and spat on him, yet he comes with hypocritical politeness to borrow money of him." Shylock's fatal flaw is to depend on the law, but "would he not walk out of that courtroom head erect, the very apotheosis of defiant hatred and scorn?"
Some modern productions take further pains to show the sources of Shylock's thirst for vengeance. For instance, in the 2004 film adaptation directed by Michael Radford and starring Al Pacino as Shylock, the film begins with text and a montage of how Venetian Jews are cruelly abused by bigoted Christians. One of the last shots of the film also brings attention to the fact that, as a convert, Shylock would have been cast out of the Jewish community in Venice, no longer allowed to live in the ghetto. Another interpretation of Shylock and a vision of how "must he be acted" appears at the conclusion of the autobiography of Alexander Granach, a noted Jewish stage and film actor in Weimar Germany (and later in Hollywood and on Broadway).
The play is frequently staged today, but is potentially troubling to modern audiences due to its central themes, which can easily appear antisemitic. Critics today still continue to argue over the play's stance on antisemitism.
Shylock as a villain
English society in the Elizabethan era has been described as "judeophobic". English Jews had been expelled under Edward I in 1290 and were not permitted to return until 1656 under the rule of Oliver Cromwell. In Venice and in some other places, Jews were required to wear a red hat at all times in public to make sure that they were easily identified, and had to live in a ghetto protected by Christian guards On the Elizabethan stage, Jews were often presented in an Orientalist caricature, with hooked noses and bright red wigs, and were usually depicted as avaricious usurers; an example is Christopher Marlowe's play The Jew of Malta, which features a comically wicked Jewish villain called Barabas. They were usually characterised as evil, deceitful and greedy.
Shakespeare's play may be seen as a continuation of this tradition. The title page of the Quarto indicates that the play was sometimes known as The Jew of Venice in its day, which suggests that it was seen as similar to Marlowe's The Jew of Malta. One interpretation of the play's structure is that Shakespeare meant to contrast the mercy of the main Christian characters with the vengefulness of a Jew, who lacks the religious grace to comprehend mercy. Similarly, it is possible that Shakespeare meant Shylock's forced conversion to Christianity to be a "happy ending" for the character, as, to a Christian audience, it saves his soul and allows him to enter Heaven.
Regardless of what Shakespeare's own intentions may have been, the play has been made use of by antisemites throughout the play's history. One must note that the end of the title in the 1619 edition "With the Extreme Cruelty of Shylock the Jew..." must aptly describe how Shylock was viewed by the English public. The Nazis used the usurious Shylock for their propaganda. Shortly after Kristallnacht in 1938, "The Merchant of Venice" was broadcast for propagandistic ends over the German airwaves. Productions of the play followed in Lübeck (1938), Berlin (1940), and elsewhere within the Nazi Territory.
In a series of articles called Observer, first published in 1785, British playwright Richard Cumberland created a character named Abraham Abrahams who is quoted as saying, "I verily believe the odious character of Shylock has brought little less persecution upon us, poor scattered sons of Abraham, than the Inquisition itself." Cumberland later wrote a successful play, The Jew (1794), in which his title character, Sheva, is portrayed sympathetically, as both a kindhearted and generous man. This was the first known attempt by a dramatist to reverse the negative stereotype that Shylock personified.
The depiction of Jews in literature throughout the centuries bears the close imprint of Shylock. With slight variations much of English literature up until the 20th century depicts the Jew as "a monied, cruel, lecherous, avaricious outsider tolerated only because of his golden hoard".
Shylock as a sympathetic character
Many modern readers and theatregoers have read the play as a plea for tolerance, noting that Shylock is a sympathetic character. They cite as evidence that Shylock's 'trial' at the end of the play is a mockery of justice, with Portia acting as a judge when she has no right to do so. The characters who berated Shylock for dishonesty resort to trickery in order to win. In addition, Shakespeare gives Shylock one of his most eloquent speeches:
Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, heal'd by the same means,
warm'd and cool'd by the same winter and summer
as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us,
do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?
If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.
If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility?
Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his
sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge.
The villainy you teach me, I will execute,
and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.
(Act III, scene I)
It is difficult to know whether the sympathetic reading of Shylock is entirely due to changing sensibilities among readers, or whether Shakespeare, a writer who created complex, multi-faceted characters, deliberately intended this reading.
One of the reasons for this interpretation is that Shylock's painful status in Venetian society is emphasised. To some critics, Shylock's celebrated "Hath not a Jew eyes" speech (see above) redeems him and even makes him into something of a tragic figure; in the speech, Shylock argues that he is no different from the Christian characters. Detractors note that Shylock ends the speech with a tone of revenge: "if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?" Those who see the speech as sympathetic point out that Shylock says he learned the desire for revenge from the Christian characters: "If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction."
Even if Shakespeare did not intend the play to be read this way, the fact that it retains its power on stage for audiences who may perceive its central conflicts in radically different terms is an illustration of the subtlety of Shakespeare's characterisations. In the trial Shylock represents what Elizabethan Christians believed to be the Jewish desire for "justice", contrasted with their obviously superior Christian value of mercy. The Christians in the courtroom urge Shylock to love his enemies, although they themselves have failed in the past. Harold Bloom explains that, although the play gives merit to both cases, the portraits are not even-handed: "Shylock’s shrewd indictment of Christian hypocrisy [delights us, but]…Shakespeare’s intimations do not alleviate the savagery of his portrait of the Jew…
Sexuality in the play
Antonio's unexplained depression — "In sooth I know not why I am so sad" — and utter devotion to Bassanio has led some critics to theorise that he is suffering from unrequited love for Bassanio and is depressed because Bassanio is coming to an age where he will marry a woman. In his plays and poetry Shakespeare often depicted strong male bonds of varying homosociality, which has led some critics to infer that Bassanio returns Antonio's affections despite his obligation to marry:
ANTONIO: Commend me to your honourable wife:
Tell her the process of Antonio's end,
Say how I lov'd you, speak me fair in death;
And, when the tale is told, bid her be judge
Whether Bassanio had not once a love.
BASSANIO: But life itself, my wife, and all the world
Are not with me esteemed above thy life;
I would lose all, ay, sacrifice them all
Here to this devil, to deliver you. (IV,i)
In his essay "Brothers and Others", published in The Dyer's Hand, W. H. Auden describes Antonio as "a man whose emotional life, though his conduct may be chaste, is concentrated upon a member of his own sex." Antonio's feelings for Bassanio are likened to a couplet from Shakespeare's Sonnets: "But since she pricked thee out for women's pleasure,/ Mine be thy love, and my love's use their treasure." Antonio, says Auden, embodies the words on Portia's leaden casket: "Who chooseth me, must give and hazard all he hath." Antonio has taken this potentially fatal turn because he despairs, not only over the loss of Bassanio in marriage, but also because Bassanio cannot requite what Antonio feels for him. Antonio's frustrated devotion is a form of idolatry: the right to live is yielded for the sake of the loved one. There is one other such idolator in the play: Shylock himself. "Shylock, however unintentionally, did, in fact, hazard all for the sake of destroying the enemy he hated; and Antonio, however unthinkingly he signed the bond, hazarded all to secure the happiness of the man he loved." Both Antonio and Shylock, agreeing to put Antonio's life at a forfeit, stand outside the normal bounds of society. There was, states Auden, a traditional "association of sodomy with usury", reaching back at least as far as Dante, with which Shakespeare was likely familiar. (Auden sees the theme of usury in the play as a comment on human relations in a mercantile society.)
Other interpreters of the play regard Auden's conception of Antonio's sexual desire for Bassanio as questionable. Michael Radford, director of the 2004 film version starring Al Pacino, explained that although the film contains a scene where Antonio and Bassanio actually kiss, the friendship between the two is platonic, in line with the prevailing view of male friendship at the time. Jeremy Irons, in an interview, concurs with the director's view and states that he did not "play Antonio as gay". Joseph Fiennes, however, who plays Bassanio, encouraged a homoerotic interpretation and, in fact, surprised Irons with the kiss on set, which was filmed in one take. Fiennes defended his choice, saying "I would never invent something before doing my detective work in the text. If you look at the choice of language ... you'll read very sensuous language. That's the key for me in the relationship. The great thing about Shakespeare and why he's so difficult to pin down is his ambiguity. He's not saying they're gay or they're straight, he's leaving it up to his actors. I feel there has to be a great love between the two characters ... there's great attraction. I don't think they have slept together but that's for the audience to decide.
The Merchant of Venice contains all of the elements required of a Shakespearean comedy, but is often so overshadowed by the character of Shylock and his quest for a pound of flesh that it is hard not to find in the play a generous share of the tragic as well. Lovers pine and are reunited, a foolish servant makes endless series of puns, and genteel women masquerade as men—all of which are defining marks of Shakespearean comedy. In sharp contrast to these elements, however, Shakespeare also presents Shylock, a degraded old man who has lost his daughter and is consumed with a bloody greed. The light language of the play’s comedic moments disappears for whole scenes at a time, and Antonio’s fate is more suspenseful than funny. The final act redeems the play’s claims to be a comedy, piling on the necessary humor and serendipity, but the rest of the play is overcast by the fact that Antonio may soon pay Bassanio’s debt with his life.