A Study Guide
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Table of Contents
Type of Work Composition and Publication First Performance Sources Settings Characters Plot Summary
Themes Conflicts Tone Climax and Conclusion Trial Scene: a Dramatic Triumph Antonio: His Own Worst Enemy
Imagery: Flawed Humanity Figures of Speech Anti-Semitism in England Portia: Detestable Hypocrite
The Real Villains: Christians, not Jews Use of Disguises Study Questions Essay Topics How to Cite This Study Guide
The Merchant of Venice were Il Pecorone (1378), by Giovanni Fiorentino; Gesta Romanorum (Latin, thirteenth century); and The Jew of Malta (circa 1590), by Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593).
Venezia in Italian) 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.
Antonio: A merchant of Venice who borrows money from the Jewish moneylender Shylock on behalf of his friend Bassanio. Antonio agrees to pay a pound of flesh if he defaults on the loan. Antonio is the protagonist (main character) in the comic plot.
Shylock: Wealthy Jewish moneylender who seeks revenge for ill treatment by Christians. Because he is a tragic figure—and the most compelling character in the play—the drama takes on overtones of tragedy. Shylock is the protagonist (main character) in the tragic plot.
Portia: Wealthy heiress wooed by many suitors at her estate, Belmont. Although often described by Shakespeare interpreters as noble, upright, and benevolent, a close reading of the play reveals her as a bigot who despises Jews and blacks.
Bassanio: Friend of Antonio. Bassanio loves Portia but lacks money to woo and win her.
Duke of Venice: Ruler who sits as the judge in the trial of Antonio, who defaults on his loan from Shylock.
Prince of Morocco, Prince of Arragon: Suitors of Portia.
Nerissa: Portia's maid.
Gratiano: Friend of Bassanio. He loves Nerissa.
Salanio, Salarino, Salerio: Friends of Antonio and Bassanio.
Jessica: Shylock's rebellious daughter.
Lorenzo: Jessica's suitor and later her husband.
Tubal, Chus: Lorenzo's Jewish friends. Chus has no speaking part.
Launcelot Gobbo: Clown and Shylock's servant.
Old Gobbo: Launcelot's father.
Leonardo: Bassanio's servant.
Balthasar, Stephano: Portia's servants.
Leah: Wife of Shylock. She has no speaking role.
Margery: Wife of Old Gobbo. She is Launcelot's mother. Margery has no speaking role.
Minor Characters: Magnificoes of Venice, officers of the Court of Justice, gaoler (jailer), servants, attendants.
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 on display at her estate at Belmont: one gold, one silver, and one lead. The correct casket contains a portrait of Portia. 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 (black) 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 Christian enemy.
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’d 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 becomes 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;But there is no portrait of Portia; 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 so” (2.7.72-73).
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)
On 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!
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. (2.8.17-24)
Meanwhile, at Belmont, the Prince of Arragon tries his luck in the casket lottery—but loses. Back 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 then 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:
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)
When 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.
But 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
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)
Portia 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.
At 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. Portia says,
The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
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)
But 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).
The 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;
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)
Shylock, outwitted, says he will settle for money. But he does not get a single ducat. In fact, according to Venice law, an alien such as Shylock must pay a severe penalty for scheming to cause the death of a Venetian citizen such as Antonio. The law dictates that Shylock must yield half his property to the citizen and the other half to the government. The law also permits the duke to impose a death sentence or grant a pardon. The duke pardons Shylock. Antonio then suggests that half of Shylock's property be awarded immediately to Lorenzo and that the rest of Shylock's possessions be awarded, upon his death, Lorenzo and Jessica. He further suggests that Shylock be required to become a Christian. The duke approves these suggestions and imposes them on Shylock as obligations. Shylock, stunned and broken, agrees to the settlement. Leaving the court, he says, “I am not well” (4.1.400).
When 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. Bassanio also reveals that he gave his own ring to the law clerk (Nerissa in disguise) after the latter begged him for it. It was a ring Nerissa gave to him when they pledged their love for each other. Nerissa then pretends to scold Gratiano for parting with the ring.
The whole matter is resolved when Portia gives a ring to Antonio, telling him to pass it on to Bassanio. Bassanio recognizes it as the ring Portia gave him on his earlier visit to Belmont—the ring he gave to the skilled attorney who saved Antonio. He realizes then that Portia was that attorney, in disguise. Gratiano, meanwhile, realizes that Nerissa was the law clerk, in disguise. All ends well, everyone lives happily ever after—except Shylock.
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Friendship Requires Sacrifice
Antonio risks his fortune—and later his life—to help Bassanio win Portia. Tubal lends Shylock the three thousand ducats requested by Antonio.
Appearances Are 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. Portia has charm, beauty, and intelligence—qualities that tend to hide the ugliness of her bigotry.
Shylock seeks revenge against his Christian enemies, but he suffers ruin after they unite to trick him. Perhaps he would have had more success if he had pursued justice instead of revenge. For their part, the Christians—heady from their courtroom victory—take revenge against Shylock, seizing his property and forcing him to become a Christian.
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 in this study guide contends that Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice partly to condemn the moral and ethical values of errant Christians in their treatment of Jews.
Women Can Be as Competent and Devious as Men
Portia speaks eloquently in defense of Antonio and persuades the Duke of Venice to rule in Antonio's favor. All the while, she wears a disguise and pretends to be a male attorney.
Women Can Be as Ruthless as Men
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 of remorse.
Wealth and Privilege Can Breed Discontent
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 1, 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).
impertinent for pertinent (2.2.43), also add a comic touch.
English essayist and literary critic William Hazlitt (1778-1830) wrote that the trial scene in The Merchant of Venice demonstrated Shakespeare's great skill as a dramatist. Hazlitt said:
The 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)
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 replies that
My ventures are not in one bottom trusted,
Nor to one place; nor is my whole estate
Upon the fortune of this present year:
Therefore my merchandise makes me not sad. (1.1.45-48)
In the third scene of Act 1, Antonio—seeking money for his friend Bassanio—asks Shylock for a loan, saying he will stand his shipping interests as collateral. Shylock observes,
Fair sir, you spit on me on Wednesday last;
You spurn’d me such a day; another time
You call’d me dog; and for these courtesies
I’ll lend you thus much moneys? (108-111)
I am as like to call thee so again,
To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too.
If thou wilt lend this money, lend it not
As to thy friends; for when did friendship take
A breed for barren metal of his friend?
But lend it rather to thine enemy,
Who, if he break, thou mayst with better face
Exact the penalty. (1.3.112-119)
Later, of course, a rumor circulates that Antonio’s ships—thought unsinkable—were wrecked. Shylock then claims his pound of flesh.
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.
However, 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 encounter with one of her suitors, the Prince of Morocco, a black Moor. 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).
Later, 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.
But 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 says,
In sooth, I know not why I am so sad:
It wearies me; you 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.
Then, in the first line of the second scene of Act 1,
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).
The Merchant of
Venice abounds in imagery that centers on
vice, and human weakness—and fittingly so. After all,
characters in the drama are deeply flawed or disturbed,
prejudice, hatred, greed, ignorance, desire for revenge,
negative qualities. Supposedly, the play has a happy
ending, but the
happiness of Bassanio, Portia, and their friends derives
in large part from their
ruination of 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 flawed humanity.
The brain may devise laws for the blood, but a hot temper leaps o'er a cold decree. (1.2.7)
(A man's hot temper can overcome reason and common sense.)
The devil can cite scripture for his purpose. (1.3.80)
(Antonio is referring to Shylock as a devil.)
A goodly apple rotten at the heart.
O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath! (1.3.83-84)
(These lines compare falsehood to the core of an apple.)
Love is blind, and lovers cannot see
The pretty follies that themselves commit. (2.6.41-42)
(Lovers are blind to each other's faults.)
Gilded tombs do worms infold. (Part of a poem following line 67 of 2.7)
(This line criticizes the proud and ostentatious, who often arrange for grandiose tombs to signal their importance after they die. But they end up being eaten by the same worms that eat paupers and beggars.)
If [taking a pound of Antonio's flesh] will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies; and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. (3.1.23)
(Shylock speaks of his own reprehensible desire for revenge as well as of the vicious treatment he receives from Christians.)
Thus ornament is but the guiled shore
To a most dangerous sea. . . . (3.2.91-92)
(Bassanio compares the golden casket to a seacoast in a metaphor that reinforces the theme of deception.)
Thou call’dst me dog before thou hadst a cause;
But, since I am a dog, beware my fangs. (3.3.9-10)
(Shylock threatens the bigoted Antonio, who had compared the moneylender to a dog.)
The weakest kind of fruit
Drops earliest to the ground. (4.1.120-121)
(In this metaphor, Antonio describes his weakness.)
They are as sick that surfeit with too much as they that starve with nothing. (1.2.4)
(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.)
Alliteration is the repetition of consonant sounds, as
indicated by the boldfaced letters below.
Such a want-wit sadness makes of me,
That I have much ado to know myself. (1.1.8-9)
Plucking the grass to know where sits the wind;
Peering in maps for ports, and piers, and roads (1.1.20-21)
From brassy bosoms and rough hearts of flint,
From stubborn Turks and Tartars, never train’d
To offices of tender courtesy.
Then take thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh (4.1.308)
Anaphora is the repetition of a word, phrase, clause, or
sentence at or
near the beginning of word groups occurring one after
the other, as
indicated by the boldfaced words below.
Some men there are love not a gaping pig;
Some, that are mad if they behold a cat. (4.1.51-52)
(At the beginning of the second line, men is understood after some.)
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 beach,
And bid the main flood bate his usual height;
You may as well use question with the wolf,
Why he hath made the ewe bleat for the lamb;
You may as well forbid the mountain pines
To wag their high tops, and to make no noise
When they are fretted with the gusts of heaven;
You may as well do anything most hard. (4.1.75-82)
Irony, DramaticDramatic irony is a situation in a play or another literary work in which the audience or the reader grasps the irony or incongruity of the words or attitude of a character when the character does not. Here is an example in The Merchant of Venice: the audience is aware that Antonio's legal counsel is really Portia. Shylock, Antonio, and other characters are unaware of the attorney's real identity.
MetaphorA metaphor is a comparison between unlike things. In making the comparison, it does not use like, as, or than. Note the following examples.
Bring me the fairest creature northward born,
Where Phoebus’ fire scarce thaws the icicles. (2.1.6-7)
(Comparison of the sun to the fire of the Greek sun god, Apollo, who was also called Phoebus)
Pray thee, take pain
To allay with some cold drops of modesty
Thy skipping spirit. (2.2.76-78)
(Comparison of modesty to the drops of a liquid)
I am a tainted wether of the flock. (4.1.119)
(Antonio compares himself to a wether, a castrated sheep or goat)
Sit, Jessica: look, how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold. (5.1.67-68)
(Comparison of the sky to the floor of heaven and of the stars to gold)
Metaphor, Synecdoche, and ParadoxMetaphor is defined in the previous entry. Synecdoche is the substitution of a part to stand for the whole, or the whole to stand for a part. Examples: (1) The Confederates have eyes in Lincoln's government. (The word eyes stands for spies.) (2) Jack bought a new set of wheels. (Wheels stands for a car.) (3) The law pursued the bank robbers from Maine to Florida. (Law stands for police.) A paradox is a contradictory statement that may actually be true. Paradox is similar to oxymoron in that both figures of speech use contradictions to state a truth. However, paradox does not place opposing words side by side, as oxymoron does. Examples of paradox: (1) They called him a lion. But in the boxing ring, the lion was a lamb. (2) For slaves, life was death, and death was life.
I never 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. Synecdoche: Substitution of body for person and head for brain. Paradox: Portia is both young and old.)
OxymoronAn oxymoron is the placement of contradictory words side by side.
A better bad habit (1.2.15)
PersonificationPersonification is the application of humanlike qualities or human form to objects and abstractions. Personification is a form of metaphor.
For 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)
(Comparison of Fortune to a person)
SimileA simile is the comparison of one thing to an unlike thing by using like, as, or than, as in the following example.
Why should a man, whose blood is warm within,
Sit like his grandsire cut in alabaster?
(Comparison of a man to a statue or tomb of his grandfather. Note the use of like.)
Prejudice against Jews increased in England around 1190 after non-Jews borrowed heavily from Jewish moneylenders, becoming deeply indebted to them. In York, about one hundred fifty 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 Barabbas 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.
Was William Shakespeare anti-Semitic?
One school of Shakespeare interpreters answers yes, resoundingly. Their primary evidence is his depiction of the Jewish moneylender Shylock in The Merchant of Venice as grasping, vengeful, and ethnically foul. Shakespeare’s message: Jews are evil.
In my view, however, 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.
What 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.
To 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. A 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 Merchant of Venice and other plays.
To 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.
Of 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
I never heard a passion so confus'd,
So strange, outrageous, and so variable,
As the dog Jew did utter in the streets:
"My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!
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, stolen from me by my daughter!
Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats!
Justice! the law! my ducats, and my daughter! (2.8.14-21)
These 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 likely to bend the facts. 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.
Christian gibes also brand Shylock as Satan in godly clothing. For example, after Shylock quotes the Bible to make a point, Antonio tells Bassanio:
The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
An evil soul producing holy witness
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart:
O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath! (1.3.80-84)
Shylock 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 anti-Semitism.
British playwright Arnold Wesker went so far as to write a “counter-play” about Shylock, investing him with a nobility that he said was lacking in Shakespeare. For example, Wesker’s Shylock spends his money on the poor and rescues Jewish texts from book-burners.
Critics 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 is, to say, his whole nation, the high as well as the low, faith as well as fraud. . .” (William Shakespeare. Trans. Melville B. Anderson. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1970, page 224).
Anti-Semitism 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 unequivocally.
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. (Classics of Roman Literature. Wedeck, Harry E., ed. Trans., anonymous. Patterson, N.J.: Littlefield, 1964, pages 321-322)
Blamed 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 1290.
Such 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 physician to Queen Elizabeth I. 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.
It 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 Most Excellent History of 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.
Given 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 (New York: Atheneum, 1971) Theodore Weis says Shakespeare presents Shylock as a flawed human who happens to be Jewish:
[Shylock in The Merchant of Venice] is one individual who, happening 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)
The 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. In Act 1, Shylock—who, unlike the Christians, never lies and always speaks his mind—calls attention to Antonio’s tartuffery:
Signior Antonio, many a time and oft
In the Rialto you have rated me
About my moneys and my usances:
Still have I borne it with a patient shrug,
For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe.
You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,
And all for use of that which is mine own.
Well then, it now appears you need my help:
Go to, then; you come to me, and you say
“Shylock, we would have moneys”: you say so;
You, that did void your rheum upon my beard
And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur. (1.3.88-100)
It 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 support himself and his family. 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 boundaries.
Alienation, prejudice, raw hatred—the Jews of sixteenth-century Venice suffered all 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 tells her servant 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:
Mislike me not for my complexion,
The shadow’s 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, lady, this aspect of mine
Hath fear’d the valiant: by my love I swear
The best-regarded virgins of our clime
Have loved it too: I would not change this hue,
Except to steal your thoughts, my gentle queen. (2.1.3-14)
Portia 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 so” (2.7.72-73).
Christian 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 replies:
What judgment shall I dread, doing no wrong?
You have among you many a purchased slave,
Which, like your asses and your dogs and mules,
You use in abject and in slavish parts,
Because you bought them: shall I say to you,
Let them be free, marry them to your heirs?
Why sweat they under burthens? let their beds
Be made as soft as 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,
Is dearly bought; ’tis mine and I will have it. (4.1.93-104)
Then, 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 kind of way station between this world and heaven—to partake in 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.
It 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:
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? 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. (3.1.23)
In 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.
All's Well That Ends Well, Helena wears the attire of a pilgrim to get close to Bertram. In Cymbeline, Imogen becomes a page boy to win back Posthumous. In The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Julia also becomes a page boy, as does Viola in Twelfth Night. Rosalind, in As You Like It, dons the garb of a man to become a shepherd as she seeks out her love, Orlando. In The Merchant of Venice, Portia disguises herself as a male judge to save the friend of her lover in a court of law; her maid, Nerissa, becomes Portia's male law clerk, wearing an appropriate disguise. In each of these plays, the women disguised as men eventually reveal their true female identities. All of these shenanigans could have been quite confusing to playgoers in Shakespeare's day, for only males played female roles. Thus, in the above-mentioned plays, males played females disguised as males who at some point doffed their male identities to reveal themselves as females.
2. The Merchant of Venice is classified as a comedy. Do you agree that it should instead be called a tragicomedy?
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 casket?
6. Write an essay that speculates on what Portia would have done if the wrong man had selected the right casket.
7. In the seventh scene of Act 2, 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?.