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The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice is a famous comedy by William Shakespeare, written at an uncertain date between 1594 and 1597. The play was entered in the Stationers' Register, the method at that time of obtaining copyright for a new play, by James Roberts, on July 22, 1598. It was first printed in 1600 and again in a pirated edition in 1619. The play was mentioned by Francis Meres in 1598, so must have been familiar on the stage by that date.


Warning: Wikipedia contains spoilers.

The title character is the merchant Antonio, not the more famous villain, the Jewish moneylender Shylock. Antonio borrows money from Shylock, agreeing that, if he is unable to repay at a specified date, Shylock is free to take instead a pound of his flesh from near the heart. Antonio is untroubled by the stipulation because he feels certain he can repay easily, but in fact a series of reverses leaves him unable to meet his debt. Shylock, who may possibly not have intended to collect this default at first, is determined to do so after his daughter Jessica flees his home to convert to Christianity and marry the Christian Lorenzo.

Meanwhile, Antonio's friend Bassanio has travelled to Belmont seeking to marry the beautiful and wealthy heiress Portia. Portia's father has left a will specifying that her suitors must choose between three caskets of gold, silver, and lead. The suitor who correctly looks past the outer show to choose the lead casket will win Portia's hand. After two comical suitors choose incorrectly, Bassanio makes the correct choice, perhaps aided by a subtle hint from Portia. Portia and Bassanio have just been married, along with their friends Gratiano and Nerissa, when Bassanio receives a letter telling him that Antonio has defaulted. He returns to Venice with money from Portia to seek to save Antonio's life, while Portia and Nerissa also leave Belmont.

The dramatic center of the play comes in the Venetian court, where Shylock refuses Portia's money and demands instead his pound of flesh. The Duke, wanting to save Antonio but being unwilling to set the legal precedent of nullifying a contract, turns to a young scholar who is actually Portia in disguise. Portia asks Shylock to show mercy in a famous speech, (The quality of mercy is not strained - Act IV, Scene I, l 185), but on Shylock's refusal she awards him the pound of flesh. However, she then notes that the bond allows him to remove only flesh, and if he removes any hair or blood, he will be executed. Shylock then seeks monetary payment for the defaulted bond, but is denied money, and further forced to give up half his wealth, accept conversion to Christianity, and will his remaining property to Lorenzo and Jessica.

The destruction of Shylock is in Act IV, scene 1. The remainder of the story is an anticlimactic bit of foolery about some rings given by Portia and Nerissa to their new husbands.


The play, which seems to have been popular when originally written, remains popular today, but is troubling to modern audiences due to its central anti-Semitic theme. The play does soften its treatment of Shylock to some degree by showing his painful station in Venetian society, rendering him as a complex character. Shylock is given a celebrated speech (Hath not a Jew eyes? - Act III, Scene 1, l60) which to some critics redeems him and even makes him into something of a tragic figure. It seems more likely that the speech is intended to emphasize Shylocks's bestial nature - the long list of traits Shylock describes Jews as sharing with Christians are purely physical - a horse shares them as much as a Jew. The only strictly human trait Shylock mentions in this speech is revenge.

It seems probable 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, and Shakespeare's audiences probably did view the play in that light - some references from the 17th century suggest that it was regarded as effective anti-Semitic propaganda. Modern viewers, noting the contempt shown to Shylock by every Christian character, the harsh nature of the 'mercy' of Shylock's forced conversion in the courtroom scene, and the long history of Christian anti-Semitism, will not find such a simple moral. The fact that the play retains its power on stage for audiences who perceive its central conflicts in terms radically different from the terms Shakespeare did, is an illustration of the subtlety of Shakespeare's characterizations and his greatness as a playwright.

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