Shakespeare Videos: Complete List Shakespeare
Study Guide Prepared by
Michael J. Cummings...© 2003, 2008, 2011, 2013
.......Although the play
is considered a comedy, it is probably better categorized as a
tragicomedy (a play with both comic and tragic elements). As a comedy,
the play focuses on Christians whose problems have a happy resolution.
As a tragedy, the play focuses on the downfall of a Jewish moneylender,
Shylock, who is forced at the end to become a Christian and to forfeit
property. He leaves the stage a broken man.
Composition and Publication
the play in about 1596. It was first published in 1600 from
Shakespeare's original manuscript, which contained editing and
proofreading insertions. It was published in its final form in 1623 as
part of the First Folio, the first authorized collection of
.......The probable main
sources for The Merchant of Venice were Il Pecorone (1378),
by Giovanni Fiorentino; Gesta Romanorum (Latin,
thirteenth century); oriental tales; and The Jew of Malta (circa
.......The action takes place in Venice, Italy, and Belmont,
the site of the estate of Portia, one of the main characters.
Shakespeare does not identify the precise location of Belmont, but the
stage directions refer to it as being “on the Continent” (Europe).
Presumably, Belmont is not far from Venice. Venice (Venezia) is in
northeastern Italy on the coast of the Adriatic Sea. In late medieval
and early Renaissance times, Venice was one of Europe’s greatest
centers of commerce.
Comic Plot: Antonio, the Merchant
Tragic Plot: Shylock, the Moneylender
Tragic Plot: Antonio, Jessica, Portia
Duke of Venice:
judge in the trial of Antonio, the merchant of
merchant of Venice who borrows money from Shylock on behalf of his
friend Bassanio. Antonio agrees to pay a pound of flesh if he defaults
on the loan.
Wealthy Jewish moneylender who seeks revenge for ill treatment by
Christians. Because he is a tragic figure—and
drama takes on overtones of tragedy.
Wealthy heiress wooed by many suitors. Although often described by
Shakespeare interpreters as noble, upright, and benevolent, a close
reading of the play reveals her as a racist and a snob.
Friend of Antonio who loves Portia.
Prince of Morocco, Prince of Arragon: Suitors
Gratiano, Salerio: Friends of Antonio and Bassanio.
no speaking part.
the Court of Justice, gaoler
(jailer), servants of Portia, attendants.
.......Bassanio’s heart brims with love for the fair Portia,
a wealthy heiress. He must have her. However, his pockets brim only
with emptiness. How can he court a woman of such elegance with a vacant
purse? Bassanio asks his friend Antonio for money to woo and win
delightful Portia. Three thousand ducats will do the trick. Antonio, a
wealthy merchant of Venice, is willing to do anything for Bassanio, his
most excellent friend. But because most of Antonio’s money is tied up
in lofty enterprises, he does not have enough cash on hand to make a
loan. Nonetheless, because ships he owns will soon arrive laden with
merchandise, he agrees to post his property as collateral so Bassanio
can obtain a loan.
.......Although Portia considers Bassanio a worthy young
gentleman, she promised her late father that she would marry the man
who chooses the correct of three caskets: one gold, one silver, and one
lead. The correct casket is the one containing a portrait of her.
Suitors from around the world have come to her home to win the
beautiful heiress. However, several of them—including a Neapolitan
prince, a count palatine (a count with royal privileges), a Frenchman
named Monsieur Le Bon, an English baron, a Scottish lord, and the
nephew of the Duke of Saxony—have decided to return home rather than
take part in the casket lottery. Their decision to withdraw is a relief
to Portia, who dislikes all of them. When a servant informs her that
another suitor, the Prince of Morocco, will soon arrive, Portia makes a
racist comment to her maid, Nerissa, “If he have the condition of a
saint and the complexion of a devil, I had rather he should shrive me
than wive me” (1.2.33).
.......After receiving Antonio’s pledge to post collateral
for a loan, Bassanio meets a Jewish moneylender, Shylock, on a street
and asks him for the money, telling him Antonio will guarantee
repayment at the end of three months. Shylock has suffered frequent
ridicule from Antonio and other Christian Venetians. They despise him
not only because he charges exorbitant interest rates but also because
he is a Jew. Nevertheless, Shylock agrees to lend Bassanio the money.
However, if Antonio does not repay the loan in the designated time, he
must forfeit a pound of flesh. Moments later, Antonio arrives and signs
a contract binding him to this strange condition, confident that his
ships will arrive in time with merchandise to repay the loan. Shylock,
of course, secretly hopes Antonio will default on the loan so that he
can cut away the pound of flesh (certain death) as revenge against his
.......Bassanio, now with money and wooing rights, leaves for
Portia’s home, Belmont, near Venice. Meanwhile, the Prince of Morocco,
a black Moor, has arrived at Belmont. After he presents himself to
choose a casket, he correctly senses Portia’s attitude toward blacks:
“Mislike me not for my complexion / The shadow’s livery of the
burnish’d sun” (2.1.3-4).
.......Elsewhere, at about nine in the evening, Shylock’s
daughter Jessica elopes with Bassanio’s friend Lorenzo, taking with her
a goodly portion of Shylock’s jewels and gold. What is more, she has
become a Christian.
.......At Belmont, the Prince of Morocco chooses the golden
casket. When he opens it, he finds a scroll bearing this message:
All that glisters [glitters] is not gold;
Portia. Thus, the prince has chosen
incorrectly. After he leaves Belmont, Portia says to herself, “A gentle
riddance. Draw the curtains: go. / Let all of his complexion choose me
Often have you heard that told:
Many a man his life hath sold
But my outside to behold:
Gilded tombs do worms infold.
Had you been as wise as bold,
Young in limbs, in judgment old,
Your answer had not been inscroll’d:
Fare you well; your suit is cold. (2.7.67)
a Venice street, Salanio and Salarino—friends of Bassanio and
Antonio—exchange news. Salarino says he heard a report that Lorenzo and
Jessica were seen together in a gondola. Salanio then says he heard the
“dog Jew,” Shylock, shouting in the streets:
My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!
at Belmont, the Prince of Arragon tries his luck in the casket
lottery—but loses. On the Venice street, Shylock runs into Salanio and
Salarino, lamenting that Jessica, his “own flesh and blood” (3.1.17),
has abandoned him. The three men also discuss a report that Antonio’s
ships were lost, causing him to default on the contract with Shylock.
When Salarino asks Shylock whether he will really claim a pound of
Antonio’s flesh, Shylock affirms that he will, pointing out that doing
so will avenge him against all the indignities he has suffered as a Jew
in a Christian world. Jews are just as human as Christians, he asserts:
Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats!
Justice! the law! my ducats, and my daughter!
A sealed bag, two sealed bags of ducats,
Of double ducats, stol’n from me by my daughter!
And jewels! two stones, two rich and precious stones,
Stol’n by my daughter! Justice! find the girl!
She hath the stones upon her, and the ducats.
I am a Jew. 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, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled 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? (3.1.23)
Bassanio arrives at Belmont with his friend Gratiano, Portia’s heart
soars, for she hopes that he will be the one to choose the right
casket. “If you do love me,” she says, “you will find me out” (3.2.45).
To help him choose the right casket, she has a song sung that gives him
a clue, and he picks the correct casket, the lead one. Portia then vows
to marry Bassanio and presents him a ring, telling him never to lose it
or give it away.
Bassanio and Portia are not the only happily united lovers; for
Gratiano, who has had an eye for Portia’s servant Nerissa, successfully
woos her. As the couples rejoice at their good fortune, Lorenzo and
Jessica arrive with a messenger who gives Bassanio a letter from
Antonio. Bassanio welcomes the new arrivals, then opens the letter and
reads terrible news: Antonio’s ships have been wrecked; he cannot repay
the loan. Jessica tells Bassanio and Portia that Antonio will be held
to Shylock’s condition, saying,
I have heard him swear
then offers a vast sum of gold to satisfy the debt. After she and
Bassanio are married, Bassanio leaves for Venice to pay off Shylock.
Portia says she will remain behind at Belmont. However, Portia, who has
brains as well as beauty, is no one to sit by idly. She has a scheme of
her own to save Antonio, and she and Nerissa disguise themselves as men
and follow Bassanio to Venice.
To Tubal and to Chus, his countrymen,
That he would rather have Antonio’s flesh
Than twenty times the value of the sum
That he did owe him. (3.2.277-281)
the Venetian court of justice before the Duke of Venice, the duke asks
Shylock to show mercy by giving up his claim for a pound of flesh.
Shylock refuses. Bassanio then offers Shylock more than he is owed, but
Shylock continues to insist on exacting a pound of flesh. Nerissa,
dressed like a law clerk, arrives and introduces the disguised Portia
as Bellario, a learned doctor of law. Portia then goes to work on
Antonio’s behalf, first trying to soften the hard-hearted Shylock.
The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
Shylock is in no mood to be merciful, saying, “. . . I crave the law /
The penalty and forfeit of my bond” (4.1.180-193). Portia suggests that
he settle for triple the amount owed him. Shylock refuses; he wants
only his pound of flesh. When Portia tells Antonio he will have to bear
his chest for Shylock’s knife, all seems lost. Shylock, overjoyed,
hails Portia (Bellario) as “Most rightful judge!” (4.1.301).
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice bless’d;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. (4.1.180-193)
clever Portia then warns Shylock that when he cuts away the pound of
flesh, he must take only flesh, not blood; for the signed agreement
calls only for a pound of flesh and nothing else.
Then take thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh;
outwitted, then says he will settle for money. But he not only does not
get a single ducat, he must forfeit half his property for conspiring to
kill Antonio. What is more, he must become a Christian and, upon his
death, bequeath his property to Jessica and Lorenzo. Shylock, stunned
and broken, agrees to the settlement. Leaving the court, he says, “I am
not well” (4.1.400).
But, in the cutting it, if thou dost shed
One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods
Are, by the laws of Venice, confiscate
Unto the state of Venice. (4.1.308-312)
Portia (still in disguise) refuses payment for legal services from
Bassanio, he insists she accept a remembrance. To his dismay, she takes
the ring she told him never to give up. Later, when Portia (no longer
in disguise) welcomes Bassanio, Gratiano, and Antonio back to Belmont,
she pretends to scold Bassanio after Gratiano tells her that Bassanio
gave his ring—the one Portia told him never to give up—to Antonio’s
attorney, the doctor of law. Then she gives another ring to Antonio.
When he recognizes it as the ring he gave to the attorney, he realizes
it was Portia who saved Antonio in the court of justice. Everyone lives
happily ever after—except Shylock.
sacrifice. Antonio risks his fortune—and later his life—to
help Bassanio win Portia. Tubal lends Shylock the three thousand ducats
requested by Antonio.
deceiving. Neither the gold nor the silver casket contains the
key to winning Portia. Instead, it is the plain lead casket.
Shakespeare expresses this theme—appearances are deceiving—in a message
inside the golden casket. It says, “All that glisters [glitters] is not
gold” (2.7.67). The latter quotation can also apply to characters who
tie their happiness, destiny, or status to money, including Antonio,
Bassanio, and Shylock.
perpetrator. Shylock seeks revenge against
his enemies, but it is he who suffers the downfall after Christians
unite to trick him. Perhaps he would have had more success if he had
pursued justice instead of revenge.
of mistreatment because of their
religion and race. Christians alienate Shylock simply because he is
a Jew. In ancient, medieval, and Renaissance times, Jews almost always
encountered prejudice from non-Jews around them. Scholars are divided
on whether Shakespeare, in The Merchant of Venice, was
attempting condemn anti-Semitism by sympathizing with Shylock or
approve of anti-Semitism by ridiculing Shylock. It may well be that
Shakespeare was simply holding a mirror to civilization to allow
audiences to draw their own conclusions. An
essay on this page contends that Shakespeare wrote The Merchant
of Venice partly to condemn the moral and ethical values of errant
Christians, not the Jewish moneylender Shylock.
as men, maybe even more so. Portia,
disguised as a man, speaks eloquently in defense of Antonio and
persuades the Duke of Venice to rule in Antonio's favor.
as men, maybe even more so. Portia, who
lectures Shylock and the court on the importance of mercy, exhibits
racism after she rejects the Prince of Morocco because he is black.
Moreover, she cleverly tricks and ruins Shylock without showing a hint
in port. Antonio confidently pledges
the merchandise on his ships at sea to repay Shylock's loan to
Bassanio. But all the ships are wrecked before they reach Venice.
and disquietude. In the opening
line of the play, Antonio says, "In sooth, I know not why I am so sad."
Then, in the first line of second scene of Act I, Portia expresses a
similar sentiment: "By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is aweary of
this great world." Nerissa, Portia's servant, understands what the
privileged classes cannot understand: "They are as sick that surfeit
with too much as they that starve with nothing" (1.2.4).
Imagery: Flawed Humanity
.......The Merchant of Venice abounds in
imagery that centers on deception, vice, and human weakness—and fittingly so. After all, the central
characters in the drama are deeply flawed or disturbed, exhibiting
prejudice, hatred, greed, ignorance, desire for revenge, and other
negative qualities. Supposedly, the play has a happy ending, but the
happiness of Bassanio, Portia, and their friends derives from their
ruination of the Jewish moneylender, Shylock. Although traditionally
classed as a comedy, the play is in reality a tragicomedy, perhaps more
tragedy than comedy. Following are examples of imagery centering on the
dark side of the play.
devil can cite scripture for his purpose. (1.3.80)
Figures of Speech
referring to Shylock, uses paradox and irony to make his point.
A goodly apple
rotten at the heart.
O, what a goodly
outside falsehood hath! (1.3.83-84)
falsehood to the core of an apple
There is no
vice so simple but assumes
Some mark of
virtue on his outward parts. (3.2.75-76)
compares vice to a virtuous person in a metaphor and a personification.
is but the guiled shore
To a most
dangerous sea. . . . (3.2.91-92)
compares the golden casket to a seacoast in a metaphor that reinforces
the theme of deception.
me dog before thou hadst a cause;
But, since I am a
dog, beware my fangs. (3.3.9-10)
threatens the bigoted Antonio, who had compared the moneylender to a
Drops earliest to
the ground. (4.1.120-121)
metaphor, Antonio compares himself to a fruit.
They are as
sick that surfeit with too much as they that starve with nothing.
In a paradox,
Nerissa says that overfed people are as sick as starving people.
In other words,
living a life of excess impoverishes the spirit.
Such a want-wit
sadness makes of me,
That I have much
where sits the wind;
Peering in maps for ports, and piers,
bosoms and rough hearts
From stubborn Turks and Tartars,
of tender courtesy.
thy bond, take thou
thy pound of flesh
Some men there are love not a gaping
Some, that are mad if they behold a cat.
Why he cannot abide a gaping pig;
Why he, a harmless necessary cat;
Why he, a wauling bagpipe. (4.1.58-60)
You may as well go stand upon the
And bid the main
flood bate his usual height;
You may as well use question with the
Why he hath made
the ewe bleat for the lamb;
You may as well forbid the mountain
To wag their
tops, and to make no noise
When they are
fretted with the gusts of heaven;
You may as well do anything most hard.
audience is aware that Antonio's legal counsel is really Portia.
Shylock, Antonio, and other characters are unaware of the attorney's
the fairest creature northward born,
Synecdoche, and Paradox
scarce thaws the icicles. (2.1.6-7)
the sun to the fire of the Greek sun god, Apollo (Phoebus)
To allay with
cold drops of modesty
modesty to a liquid
I am a
wether of the flock. (4.1.119)
compares himself to a wether, a castrated sheep or goat
look, how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid
with patines of bright gold. (5.1.67-68)
the sky to the floor of heaven and the stars to gold
knew so young a body with so old a head. (4.1.157)
A court clerk
reads a letter from Bellario commending Portia, disguised as Balthasar,
at the trial. Metaphor: Comparison of wisdom to an old head.
body for person and head for brain.
Portia is both young and old.
bad habit (1.2.15)
herein Fortune shows herself more kind
Than is her
custom: it is still her use
To let the
wretched man outlive his wealth, (4.1.267-269)
Fortune to a person
should a man, whose blood is warm within,
Antonio Is His Own Worst Enemy
Sit like his
grandsire cut in alabaster?
man to a statue or tomb of his grandfather
.......Antonio's complacency about the welfare
of his shipping enterprises and his spiteful defiance of Shylock are as
much responsible for his courtroom predicament as Shylock's desire for
revenge. First, after Salanio and Salarino inquire whether Antonio's
depression is due to worry about his shipping interests, Antonio
ventures are not in one bottom trusted,
the third scene of Act I, Antonio—seeking
money for his friend Bassanio—asks Shylock
for a loan, saying he will stand his shipping interests as collateral.
Nor to one
nor is my whole estate
Upon the fortune
of this present year:
merchandise makes me not sad. (1.1.45-48)
on Wednesday last;
day; another time
for these courtesies
like to call thee so again,
Later, of course,
fate wrecks Antonio’s ships—which, like
the Titantic, were thought unsinkable—and
penalty") echo back to condemn him.
When Shylock claims his pound of flesh from the defaulting Antonio,
there can be no gainsaying that Shylock asks for a brutal and inhumane
exactment. However, there can also be no gainsaying that it was Antonio
who incited Shylock to action. If we fault Shylock for his viciously
vengeful legalisms, we must first fault Antonio for his contemptuous
hauteur and overconfidence.
To spit on thee
again, to spurn thee too.
If thou wilt
this money, lend it not
As to thy
for when did friendship take
A breed for
metal of his friend?
But lend it
to thine enemy,
Who, if he
thou mayst with better face
.......The climax of a
play or another narrative work, such
as a short story or a novel, can be defined as (1) the turning point at
which the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as
(2) the final and most exciting event in a series of events. According
to both definitions, the climax occurs during the trial in the first
scene of Act IV, when Portia thwarts Shylock's attempt to gain revenge
Anti-Semitism in England
Jews increased in England around 1190 after non-Jews borrowed heavily
from Jewish moneylenders, becoming deeply indebted to them. In York,
about 150 Jews committed suicide to avoid being captured by an angry
mob. King Richard I (reign: 1189-1199) put a stop to Jewish
persecution, but it returned in the following century during King
Edward I's reign from 1272 to 1307. The government required Jews to
wear strips of yellow cloth as identification, taxed them heavily, and
forbade them to mingle with Christians.
.......Finally, in 1290
Edward banished them from England.
Only a few Jews remained behind, either because they had converted to
Christianity or because they enjoyed special protection for the
services they provided. In Shakespeare's time three hundred years
later, anti-Semitism remained in force and almost no Jews lived in
England. Christopher Marlowe, a contemporary of Shakespeare, wrote a
play entitled The Jew of Malta, which depicted a Jew named
Barabas as a savage murderer. Shakespeare, while depicting the Jewish
moneylender Shylock according to denigrating stereotypes, infuses
Shylock with humanity and arouses sympathy for the plight of the Jews.
Use of Disguises
Portia: Detestable Hypocrite
.......Time and again,
Shakespeare disguises women as men to
further a plot. For example, In All's Well That Ends Well,
Helena wears the attire of a pilgrim to get close to Bertram. In Cymbeline,
to win back Posthumous. Julia also becomes a
page boy in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, as does Viola in Twelfth
Night. In The Merchant of Venice, Portia disguises herself
as a male judge to save the friend of her lover in a court of law.
Rosalind, in As You Like It, dons the garb of a man to become a
shepherd as she seeks out her love, Orlando. In each of these plays,
the women disguised as men eventually reveal their true female
identities All of this could have been quite confusing to playgoers in
Shakespeare's day, for only men played women's roles. Thus, in the
above-mentioned plays, men played women disguised as men who at some
point doffed their male identities to reveal themselves as females..
.......Not a few modern Shakespeare scholars
and critics maintain that one of the most admirable leading women in
Shakespeare’s plays is Portia, the wealthy heiress in The Merchant of
Venice. She is intelligent, self-assured, enterprising, bold; her
reason controls her emotions. To many modern interpreters of
Shakespeare, she is the ideal woman—a
woman ahead of her times.
close examination of the play reveals her as deeply flawed and even
detestable. Especially reprehensible is her racial bigotry. It first
manifests itself before her
suitors, the Prince of Morocco, a black Moor,
in Act I, Scene II. She tells her maid, Nerissa, “If he have the
condition of a saint and the complexion of a devil, I had rather he
should shrive me [hear her confession, as if he were a priest] than
wive me” (1. 2. 33). When the prince arrives, he appears to detect her
prejudice, saying, “Mislike me not for my complexion / The shadow’s
livery of the burnish’d sun” (2. 1. 3-4). In a hypocritical
reply, Portia assures him he is as fair “as any comer I have look’d on
yet / For my affection” (2. 1. 23-24). After he chooses the wrong
casket, disqualifying him for Portia’s hand in marriage, he leaves
Belmont disappointed. Portia, though, rejoices, saying, “A gentle
riddance. Draw the curtains, go. / Let all of his complexion choose me
so” (2. 7. 72-73).
while defending Antonio against the Jewish moneylender Shylock, this
same bigoted Portia—in another display of
hypocrisy—delivers an eloquent speech
saying mercy should temper justice. Then, after winning the case
against Shylock, Portia and her friends humiliate him, ruin him
financially, and force him to accept Christianity. In effect, they
abort Shylock and flush him into oblivion. Afterward, without the
slightest prick of conscience, Portia and company hie off to her
exclusive estate, Belmont, to partake in the pleasures of the idle
highborn and wealthy.
their pleasures result only in boredom and dissipation. Like children
who eat too much cake and become nauseated, the Portia crowd consumes
too much of the good life and becomes listless. Antonio is first to
manifest symptoms of dissipation. In the opening lines of the play, he
sooth, I know not why I am so sad:
in the first line of Act I, Scene II, Portia expresses a similar
sentiment: “By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is aweary of this
great world.” Nerissa, a lowly maid, well understands what afflicts the
privileged classes, replying, “They are as sick that surfeit with too
much as they that starve with nothing” (1. 2. 4).
It wearies me;
say it wearies you;
But how I caught
it, found it, or came by it,
What stuff 'tis
made of, whereof it is born,
I am to learn;
And such a
want-wit sadness makes of me,
That I have much
ado to know myself.
Portia were the enlightened, independent-minded icon that some critics
and scholars make her out to be, she would know what Nerissa knows. But
she does not. Nor does Antonio.
the end of the play, Portia, Bassanio, Antonio, and their friends have
their pound of flesh, Shylock’s heart. They also have his daughter, a
convert to Christianity. But, in addition, they have the languor and
tedium of their empty lifestyles
Trial Scene: a Dramatic Triumph
English essayist and literary critic William Hazlitt (1778-1830) wrote that the trial scene demonstrated Shakespeare's great skill as a dramatist. Hazlitt said:
whole of the trial-scene, both before and after the entrance of Portia,
is a master-piece of dramatic skill. The legal acuteness, the
passionate declamations, the sound maxims of jurisprudence, the wit and
irony interspersed in it, the fluctuations of hope and fear in the
different persons, and the completeness and suddenness of the
catastrophe, cannot be surpassed. Shylock, who is his own counsel,
defends himself well, and is triumphant on all the general topics that
are urged against him, and only fails through a legal flaw. (Characters of Shakespeare's Plays. London: C. H. Reynell, 1817)
Christians, Not Jews, Are
The Merchant of Venice
Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
.......Was William Shakespeare anti-Semitic?
school of Shakespeare interpreters answers yes, resoundingly. Their
primary evidence is his depiction of the Jewish moneylender Shylock in The
Venice as grasping, vengeful, and ethnically foul.
Shakespeare’s message: Jews are evil.
close scrutiny of the play reveals that Shakespeare wrote it to condemn
the moral and ethical values of errant Christians, not Jews. The
Christian characters in The Merchant of Venice assess their own
worth and the worth of others according to faulty standards, believing
that money and status are the sum of a man or a woman. It is these
Christians who force Shylock into moneylending; it is they who seed his
monomaniacal lust for revenge. To be sure, Shylock exhibits monstrous
behavior, but it is reactive behavior. He makes his living through
usury because usury is the only way he can compete in Christian Venice;
he accumulates wealth because he believes it undergirds his security
and independence in a hostile Christian world.
Shakespeare thought about Jews is profoundly important to writers,
teachers, actors, historians, social scientists, members of the clergy—indeed to every thinking human being—because of the extraordinary influence his
literary legacy exerts on human thought and endeavor. The popularity of
Shakespeare films in recent times further aggrandizes his reputation
while instilling uneasiness in those who believe he harbored prejudices
that inflame anti-Semitism.
find out Shakespeare—to try pin him down
on the Jewish question—critics generally
scrutinize The Merchant of Venice and its characters as well as
six other Shakespeare plays in which characters slur Jews. They also
peruse the Elizabethan era’s record of strong anti-Semitism.
daunting task for explorers of this subject is to put aside their own
biases. Not all researchers can. Consequently, they guide themselves
toward the desired conclusion rather than letting the research guide
them to the most logical conclusion. Lovers of Shakespeare—“bardolaters,” George Bernard Shaw called them
in his day—are prone to such bias. So are
fault-finders who criticize Shakespeare for the offensive dialogue in The
Venice and other plays.
be sure, there is much for these fault-finders to complain about in The
Merchant. Throughout the play, Christians depersonalize and
alienate Shylock by refusing to use his given name. Instead, they call
him the Jew, the villain Jew, this currish Jew, impenetrable cur, harsh
Jew, infidel, cruel devil, and the devil in the likeness of the Jew. To
the Christians, Shylock is diabolically foul.
course, there can be no denying Shylock’s passion for accumulating
wealth. Verily, he breeds it, as rams and ewes breed lambs, he tells
Antonio (1.3.77). He also tells his daughter, Jessica, that he
even dreams about moneybags (2.5.21). After Jessica raids those
moneybags and her father’s store of jewels to abscond with Lorenzo, a
Christian, Salanio tells his companion Salarino that
heard a passion so confus'd,
lines appear to indict Shylock as a man so consumed by his love of
money that he cares more for his ducats than he does for his daughter.
However, while acknowledging Shylock’s avarice, careful Shakespeare
exegetes also should note that Salarino, a Christian, is a biased
reporter who prefaces his news with the slur dog Jew. In a court of
law, his credibility would be nil. But what if he reported the exact
words of Shylock? In that case, consider that the quotation contains
six references to his daughter, indicating that Shylock cares about
Jessica. That she would steal from him and run off with an avowed enemy
does anger him, but it also wounds him deeply.
outrageous, and so variable,
As the dog Jew
utter in the streets:
"My daughter! O
ducats! O my daughter!
Fled with a
Christian! O my Christian ducats!
my ducats, and my daughter!
A sealed bag,
sealed bags of ducats,
stolen from me by my daughter!
Fled with a
Christian! O my Christian ducats!
my ducats, and my daughter! (2.8.14-21)
gibes also brand Shylock as Satan in godly clothing. For example, after
Shylock quotes the Bible to make a point, Antonio tells Bassanio:
devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
eventually suffers spiritual and material ruin after Portia’s clever
dupery at the trial strips him of property and forces him to accept
Christianity. Nevertheless, interpreters of the play who see a
malevolent Shakespeare behind the Christian taunts accuse him of
An evil soul
producing holy witness
Is like a
with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple
rotten at the heart:
O, what a goodly
outside falsehood hath! (1.3.80-84)
playwright Arnold Wesker believes the play is so outrageously
anti-Semitic that he wrote a “counter-play” about Shylock, investing
him with a nobility lacking in Shakespeare. For example, Wesker’s
Shylock spends his money on the poor and rescues Jewish texts from
like Wesker worry that twenty-first-century readers of Shakespeare will
regard Shylock as so many readers of previous centuries regarded him:
as an archetype—a typical Jew manifesting
the characteristics of all Jews. In his time, the nineteenth-century
French novelist and poet Victor Hugo (1802-1885) believed Shylock was
indeed perceived as an archetype by Shakespeare’s audiences. In his
book William Shakespeare, Hugo wrote: “While Shakespeare makes
Shylock, the popular tongue creates the bloodsucker. Shylock is the
embodiment of Jewishness; he is also Judaism—that
the high as well as the low, faith as well as
fraud. . .” (224).
dates to ancient times, resulting in part from Jews’ refusal to
acknowledge the pantheon of Greek and Roman gods and from their refusal
to submit to Roman rule. In the fifth book of his History, the
Roman historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus (AD 56-120) spurns Jewry
.......Whatever is held sacred by the Romans,
with the Jews is profane: and what in other nations is unlawful and
impure, with them is permitted. . . . They eat and lodge with one
another only; and though a people of unbridled lust, they admit no
intercourse with women from other nations. Among themselves no
restraints are imposed. . . . The first thing instilled in their
proselytes is to despise the gods, to abjure their country, to set at
naught parents, children, brothers. (321-322)
for the death of Christ, Jews suffered severe persecution over the
centuries, including torture, loss of property, and forced conversion
to Christianity. Because of fabricated charges of “blood libel,” in
which malicious Christians accused Jews of sacrificing Christian
children at Passover, many Jews were burned at the stake. In England
and other European countries in the late Middle Ages, laws required
Jews to wear identifying patches not unlike the yellow stars in
Hitler’s Germany centuries later. During outbreaks of plague,
Christians implicated Jews for spreading the disease. England decided
to solve the “Jewish problem” once and for all by expelling Jews in
a measure was not as extreme as the Nazi “final solution,” but it did
remove almost all Jews from English soil. In Shakespeare’s time,
English law continued to forbid Jews from living in England, but a few
hundred survived in London and other cities in the guise of Christians.
One of them, Portuguese doctor Roderigo Lopez, served as
Evidence indicates that he also spied
in the service of the King of Spain. When a court snoop, the Earl of
Essex, discovered his true identity, he accused Rodriguez of plotting
to poison the queen, a charge that was probably untrue. After his trial
and conviction, Rodriguez suffered an excruciating execution in 1594.
First he was hanged and then, while still alive, drawn and quartered.
The citizenry—already envenomed against
Jews—celebrated his death.
was during this time of heightened anti-Jewish fervor that Shakespeare
wrote The Merchant of Venice and staged it, probably just
before 1600. When printed in a quarto edition, the play was entitled The
Merchant of Venice, With the Extreme
Crueltie of Shylocke the Jew Towards the Said Merchant in Cutting a
Just Pound of His Flesh. It was the second major stage production
within a decade to star a Jew as a villain. The first was Christopher
Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, performed about 1590. In that play,
the title character, Barabas (Marlowe’s spelling of Barabbas), is so
detestable that his enemies boil him in a cauldron. Audiences loved the
play, many of them not realizing that Marlowe’s main intent was to
satirize Christians. The play enjoyed a revival four years later, after
the execution of Lopez, and it probably influenced Shakespeare in his
depiction of Shylock.
the anti-Jewish climate in Elizabethan England and Shakespeare’s
portrayal of Shylock as a negative stereotype, it seems reasonable to
conclude that Shakespeare was indeed anti-Jewish. But that would be far
from the truth. In fact, the more reasonable conclusion—if based on a detailed study of the play and
pertinent background information—is that
Shakespeare was presenting life as it was, not life as it should be. In
The Breath of Clowns and Kings, Theodore Weis says
Shakespeare presents Shylock as a flawed human who happens to be Jewish:
.......[Shylock in The Merchant of Venice]
to be a Jew, is . . . a most meager
man, a wretch no more and no less than others in Shakespeare who happen
to be, as they are individual men, Irish, Welsh, French, Italian,
English. One can judge the play an indictment of all Jews, and grossly
anti-Semitic, if one cares to. Certainly in an age like ours, with
our humanitarianism and simultaneously the monstrous persecution
and destruction of the Jews, it is difficult not to. But the play, in
my understanding of it, involves no such indictment. What it does say
is: see what happens to a man altogether committed, with a passion well
nigh religious, to materialism; how it has destroyed him even as it
would through him destroy others. . . . (127)
real evil in The Merchant of Venice is the corrupt value system
of the principal Christian characters who are, of course,
representative of people in Shakespeare’s time. Antonio, the merchant
of the title, is among the worst of the lot. Although he enjoys a
sterling reputation among fellow Christians as a righteous,
self-sacrificing citizen and friend—a
Christ figure, even—he despises Shylock
primarily because he is a Jew; Antonio, thus, is a true bigot. “Thou
call’dst me dog before thou hadst just cause” (3.3.9), Shylock
complains to Antonio. Behind Shylock’s back, Antonio ridicules him as a
moneylender, then without qualm enters into a loan agreement with him
on behalf of wastrel Bassanio, pledging—at
Shylock’s suggestion—a pound of his own
flesh as security for Bassanio’s against the day when Antonio’s
bounty-laden ships arrive with riches to repay the loan.
Act I, Shylock—who, unlike the Christians,
never lies and always speaks his mind—calls
is true, of course, that Shylock charges interest for loans, a practice
considered immoral by the Venetian Christians in the play. However,
beginning in the thirteenth century, lending money at interest was
legal in parts of Europe, and English law in the Elizabethan Age
sanctioned the practice. But whether legal or illegal, moneylending was
sometimes the only way a Jew—severely
restricted in the Christian world of commerce—could
In Venice of the sixteenth century, the
setting of The Merchant of Venice, Jews even had to live in a
ghetto, separated from Christian-kind. The word ghetto (Italian for
foundry) was first used during this time to refer to the Jewish quarter
of a city because the Venice ghetto had a cannon foundry within its
In the Rialto1 you have rated2 me
About my moneys
and my usances3:
Still have I
it with a patient shrug,
the badge of all our tribe.
You call me
misbeliever, cut-throat dog,
And spit upon my
And all for use
that which is mine own.
Well then, it
appears you need my help:
Go to, then; you
come to me, and you say
have moneys”: you say so;
You, that did
your rheum upon my beard
And foot me as
spurn a stranger cur. (1.3.88-100)
prejudice, raw hatred—the Jews of
sixteenth-century Venice suffered all of these indignities at the hands
of Christian bigots. But Jews were not the only victims. In The
Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare uses the Prince of Morocco, a
suitor for the hand of Portia, to make this point. The prince is a
black Moor, like Othello. Even before he arrives at Belmont to select a
casket, Portia, a snob and racist, tells Nerissa, “If he have the
condition of a saint and the complexion of a devil, I had rather he
should shrive me than wive me” (1.2.33). After the prince presents
himself to choose a casket, he correctly senses Portia’s racist
attitude and says:
assures him he is as fair as “any comer I have look’d on yet for my
affection” (2.1.23). After he chooses the wrong casket—disqualifying him for Portia’s hand in marriage—he leaves Belmont disappointed. Portia,
though, rejoices, making a blatantly bigoted remark: “A gentle
riddance. Draw the curtains, go. / Let all of his complexion choose me
livery of the burnish’d sun,
To whom I am a
neighbour and near bred.
Bring me the
fairest creature northward born,
Where Phoebus’ fire4 scarce thaws the icicles,
And let us make
incision for your love,
To prove whose
blood is reddest, his or mine.
I tell thee,
this aspect of mine
Hath fear’d the
valiant: by my love I swear
virgins of our clime
Have loved it
I would not change this hue,
Except to steal
your thoughts, my gentle queen. (2.1.3-14)
hypocrisy is never more odious, though, than during the trial. First,
the duke asks Shylock, ready to claim his pound of flesh, “How shalt
thou hope for mercy, rendering none?” (4.1.92). Ever outspoken Shylock
judgment shall I dread, doing no wrong?
after Portia speaks eloquently of the need for clemency and compassion
in her “quality of mercy” courtroom speech, she and her friends
humiliate Shylock, ruin him financially, and force him to accept
Christianity. After the trial, without the slightest prick of
conscience, the Christians hie off to Belmont—a
this world and heaven—to
the pleasures of the idle highborn and wealthy. They have
their pound of flesh, Shylock’s heart. They also have his daughter, a
convert to Christianity.
You have among
many a purchased slave,
Which, like your
asses and your dogs and mules,
You use in
and in slavish parts,
them: shall I say to you,
Let them be
marry them to your heirs?
Why sweat they
under burthens? let their beds
Be made as soft
yours and let their palates
Be season’d with
such viands? You will answer
‘The slaves are
ours’: so do I answer you:
The pound of
flesh, which I demand of him,
’tis mine and I will have it. (4.1.93-104)
is hard to believe—in fact, well nigh
impossible to believe—that Shakespeare
intended to lecture his audience, vilifying Judaism and Jewry, through
these shockingly ruthless characters, especially in view of the
following famous lines spoken by Shylock in his plea for recognition as
a worthy human being:
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, healed by the same
means, warmed and cooled 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 villany [villainy] you teach me I will
execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.
the end, Shylock, becomes a victim of a perverse world, a victim
of people who mislead, misuse and prejudge him—and force him to take a desperate stand and
lose everything. The Christians, meanwhile, live on happily ever after,
allowing the play to be called a comedy. But it is not a true comedy.
At the end, while Christians exult in their victory at Belmont, one can
imagine Shylock walking the streets of the Rialto or the Jewish ghetto
looking for his dignity and the glow of a friendly candle.
Hugo, Victor. William
Shakespeare. Trans. Melville B. Anderson. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for
Libraries Press, 1970.
Nicholas. Quoted in Shakespeare. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday,
Cornelius. Book V. History. Classics of Roman Literature.
Theodore. The Breath of Clowns and Kings. New York: Atheneum,
Questions and Essay Topics
1...Was Shakespeare an anti-Semite? Or was he
using Shylock to arouse opposition to anti-Semitism?
2...The Merchant of Venice is classified
as a comedy. Do you agree that it should instead by called a
3...Why is the play entitled The Merchant of
Venice? Who is the merchant?
4...In medieval and Renaissance times, why was
Venice such an ideal city for a merchant to conduct business? Write an
informative.essay answering this question.
5...Why does Portia, a woman of astute intellect,
abide by her father's plan to have her marry a man selected by chance?
Does Portia do anything to help her favorite suitor choose the right
6...Write an essay that tells what Portia would
have done if the wrong man had selected the right casket.
7...In the seventh scene of Act II, the Prince of
Morocco chooses the gold casket and discovers a message therein that
opens with this famous line: "All that glisters [glitters] is not
gold." What does this line mean?
1...Rialto: Business district in Venice.
3...Usances: Contracts made to lend money
at interest; usury.
4...Phoebus'; fire: The sun. Phoebus is
another name for Apollo, the sun god in Greek mythology.
Example of an MLA
This Study Guide
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Guide to the Complete Works of William Shakespeare. N.p., 2013.
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Note: "5 Feb. 2013" is the date that the essay writer accessed the
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