The Merchant of Venice
A Study Guide
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Table of Contents

Type of Work
Composition and Publication
First Performance
Plot Summary

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
Complete Text With Definitions of Difficult Words and Explanations of Difficult Passages
How Shakespeare Prepared Manuscripts

Study Questions and Essay Topics
How to Cite This Study Guide

Type of Work

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

Shakespeare wrote 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 Shakespeare's plays.

First Performance

The first recorded performance was at the court of England's King James I in 1605.


The probable main sources for 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).


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 only a short distance from Venice. Venice (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, SalarinoSalerio: 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.

Plot Summary

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 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;
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)

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).

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.


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).

Climax and Conclusion

The climax of a play or another literary 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 4, when Portia thwarts Shylock's attempt to gain revenge against Antonio.


The main conflict centers on the hostility between the Jewish moneylender Shylock and the Christian anti-Semites, in particular Antonio and his friends. Because the Christians continually ridicule him, Shylock seeks revenge against them. He gets an opportunity for a gruesome form of revenge, but the Christians thwart his efforts with Portia's clever legal maneuvering in a courtroom presided over by the duke of Venice. Other conflicts focus on Shylock and his rebellious daughter, as well as on Bassanio and prodigality.


Since the play is a tragicomedy, it has overtones of both tragedy and comedy. The tragic events center on the bitter confrontations between the Jewish moneylender Shylock and the Christians. These events end with the ruination of Shylock. The comic events center on the progress of romances between Bassanio and Portia, Gratiano and Nerissa, and Lorenzo and Jessica.The three couples marry and presumably live happily ever after. Launcelot Gobbo's malapropisms, such as the use of impertinent for pertinent (2.2.43), also add a comic touch.

Trial Scene: a Dramatic Triumph

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: His Own Worst Enemy

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)

Antonio replies,

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.

Portia: Detestable Hypocrite

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.
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).

If 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.

At 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.

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 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.)

Figures of Speech


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, Dramatic

Dramatic 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.


A 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 Paradox

Metaphor 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: (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.)


An oxymoron is the placement of contradictory words side by side.

A better bad habit (1.2.15)


Personification 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)


A 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.)

Anti-Semitism in England

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.

Christians: the Real Villains in the Play

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.

Use of Disguises

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, 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.

How Shakespeare Prepared Manuscripts

Writing Tool: Quill Dipped in Ink

A quill was the hollow, rigid shaft of a bird’s feather. The word pen is derived from the Latin name for featherpenna. Shakespeare and other writers of his day used a variety of quills that they dipped in an ink container (inkwell) on a stand (standish) that held all the writing materials. If a writer’s pocket lacked jingle, he invested in a goose quill. If he could afford something better, he invested in a swan quill. Writers or artists who needed quills to produce fine lines purchased crow quills. Quills from ducks, eagles, turkeys, hawks and owls also served as “word processors,” producing plays, poems, and sometimes revolution.

Quills were the writing instruments of choice between AD 500 and AD 1850. (In the ancient world, writers used a variety of other instruments to write history, literature, announcements, bureaucratic records, and so on. These instruments included shaped twigs or branches that impressed words into clay, mallet-driven chisels that etched words in stone, brushes that wrote on pottery and other smooth surfaces—such as plaster and animal skins—sharpened bone or metal that inscribed words on wax surfaces, and sharpened reed stems dipped in ink that wrote on papyrus, an Egyptian water plant that was dried and pressed to make thin sheets suitable for receiving impressions. The introduction of the quill in the 500s—an event recorded by St. Isidore, a Spanish theologian—greatly eased the task of writers, much as personal computers did when they replaced typewriters in the last half of the twentieth century.)

Lighting: Daylight, Candlelight, Oil Lamps

Shakespeare probably did most of his writing during the day, perhaps near a window, because writing at night required lit candles or an oil lamp. Candles were expensive. A writer could easily spend a day's earnings or more on candlelight illuminating the first draft of a poem or a soliloquy in a play. The alternative—oil lamps—gave off smoke and unpleasant odors. And they, too, required a pretty penny to buy, fuel, and maintain.

However, if Shakespeare attempted to confine all his writing to mornings and afternoons, he probably failed. After all, as a playwright and an actor, he had to appear for the daytime rehearsals and performances of his works. Like people today, he had a "nine-to-five job" that probably forced him to moonlight. Also, passages in his plays suggest that he could have been something of an insomniac addicted to "burning the candle at both ends." In his book Shakespeare: the Biography (New York: Doubleday, 2005), Peter Ackroyd speculates that as a result of his various employments in the theatre, [Shakespeare] was obliged to write at night; there are various references in the plays to "oil-dried lamps," to candles, and to "the smoakie light" that is "fed with stinking Tallow" (page 273).

Word Choice and Spelling

No official English dictionaries existed in Shakespeare's time. Therefore, he was free to use spellings and meanings that did not agree with accepted spellings and meanings. He could also choose from among words imported from Italy, France, and other countries by seafaring traders, soldiers, tourists, and adventurers.

When words did not exist to express his thoughts, Shakespeare made up his own—hundreds of them. Many of his neologisms are now in common use around the world. Jeffrey McQuain and Stanley Malless, authors of Coined by Shakespeare (Merriam-Webster, 1998), list numerous words originated by Shakespeare, including bedroom, eyeball, generous, investment, madcap, obscene, radiance, torture, unreal, and varied.

Hundreds of words used by Shakespeare have changed meanings or connotations over time. For example, says one scholar, "Fellow, which has friendly overtones for us, was insulting in Shakespeare's day. Phrases that were metaphors to him have often lost their coloring with us: Since we seldom play the game of bowls, we overlook the concrete implications of "There's the rub" (an impediment on the green)."—Levin, Harry. "General Introduction." The Riverside Shakespeare. G. Blakemore Evans, textual ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, page 9.)

Sources and Settings

To write his plays, Shakespeare borrowed from history, Greek and Roman mythology, and literary works, then used his genius to enliven histories and myths and to improve on plots, reworking them and sometimes adding new characters.

Because settings on an Elizabethan stage were spare, Shakespeare had to write descriptions of them into his dialogue. This handicap proved to be a boon, for it motivated Shakespeare to write some of his best descriptions.

Whenever place or time mattered [in a Shakespeare play], some references to them could be introduced into the dialogue, and if special atmospheric or dramatic effects were needed, they could be created by the poet's pen. Hence, it is to the Elizabethan stage that we are indebted in great measure for the exquisite descriptive poetry of Shakespeare. Such conditions, moreover, encouraged a greater imaginative cooperation on the part of the audience in the production of a play, and this active participation was further increased by the informality of the platform stage. With such intimacy, soliloquies, asides, and long set speeches are natural and not absurd as they are in modern theatre.—Watt, Homer A., and Karl J. Holzknecht. Outlines of Shakespeare's Plays. New York: Barnes, 1947 (page 8).

Drafts of Plays and Censorship

Shakespeare's manuscripts had to be submitted for approval. After writing out a manuscript, Shakespeare (or a professional scribe) made a copy of it in which obvious errors were corrected. An acting company could alter a playwright's manuscript with or without the author's approval. It is possible that editors improved some of Shakespeare's manuscripts. It is also possible that they weakened manuscripts. The original manuscript was called the "foul papers" because of the blots and crossouts on it. The new version was called a "fair copy." It was submitted to the Master of Revels, a government censor who examined it for material offensive to the crown. If approved, the fair copy became known as a "prompt copy," which the actors used to memorize their lines. The acting company bought the prompt copy from the writer, gaining sole possession of it. The company then wrote in the stage directions (exit, enter, etc.). John Russell Brown, author of Shakespeare and His Theatre (New York: Lothrop, Lee and Shepard, 1982, page 31) discusses the circumstances under which the censor forbade the staging of one of Shakespeare's plays:

At a time of unrest, when the Earl of Essex was challenging the Queen's [Elizabeth I's] authority and armed bands terrorized the streets of London, the Chamberlain's Men [Shakespeare's company] were forbidden to perform Richard II, a play already licensed and performed, because it contained a scene in which a king is compelled to renounce his crown; in 1601, the queen's counsellors believed that this might encourage her enemies and spark off a revolution. The theatre was taken very seriously by the authorities and was allowed to deal with political issues only if they did not refer too obviously to current affairs or seditious ideas, but were set, safely, in an earlier century or, better still, in ancient Rome or foreign countries.

No original copy, or foul papers, of a Shakespeare play has survived to the present day except for a few pages of Sir Thomas More, partly written by Shakespeare. Fredson Bowers explains why the manuscripts were lost:

No Shakespeare manuscript is in existence. This is not surprising: they were not collectors' items. Printers would have thrown them away after setting type from them; almost twenty years passed in the Commonwealth with no public performances of plays, and the manuscripts of the disbanded theatrical companies were completely dispersed; the Great Fire of London must have destroyed some. Indeed, only a relative handful of the hundreds and hundreds of Elizabethan plays have come down to us in manuscript form, and it is our bad luck that so few of these are by major dramatists. None is Shakespeare's if we except the good possibility that one scene in the manuscript of the unacted Sir Thomas More is in his hand.—Bowers, Fredson. ''What Shakespeare Wrote.'' Approaches to Shakespeare, by Norma Rabkin. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964 (page 266).

Writing Format: Verse, Prose, and Poetry

Shakespeare wrote his plays partly in verse and partly in prose, sometimes freely alternating between the two in the same acts and scenes. It is not unusual, in fact, for one character to address a second character in verse while the second character responds in prose. Sometimes, the same character speaks in verse in one moment and in prose in another.

Verse is a collection of lines that follow a regular, rhythmic pattern. In Shakespeare, this pattern is usually iambic pentameter, a rhythm scheme in which each line has five pairs of syllables. Each pair consists of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Verse resembles poetry. Prose, on the other hand, is the everyday language of conversation, letters, lectures, sermons, newspaper articles, book chapters, and encyclopedia articles. Prose has no rhyme or metric scheme.

Why did Shakespeare mix verse (including poetry) and prose in his plays? That is a question that inevitably occupies anyone studying Shakespeare’s writing techniques. Before considering that question, the Shakespeare analyst first needs to learn how to identify the verse and prose passages in a play. That task is easy. Here’s why:

In most modern editions of the plays, each line in multi-line verse passages begins with a capital letter, and each line in multi-line prose passages begins with a small letter except the first line or a line beginning with the opening word of a sentence. In addition, verse passages have a shortened right margin, but prose passages have a full right margin. Following are examples of these visual cues in verse and prose passages from The Merchant of Venice:

Verse Passage

ANTONIO:  Well, tell me now, what lady is the same   
To whom you swore a secret pilgrimage,   
That you to-day promis’d to tell me of?   
BASSANIO:  ’Tis not unknown to you, Antonio,   
How much I have disabled mine estate,          
By something showing a more swelling port 
Than my faint means would grant continuance. (1.1.121-127) 

Prose Passage

LAUNCELOT:  Certainly my conscience will serve me to run from this Jew my master. The fiend [devil] is at mine elbow, and tempts me, saying to me, ‘Gobbo, Launcelot Gobbo, good Launcelot,’ or ‘good Gobbo,’ or ‘good Launcelot Gobbo, use your legs, take the start, run away.’ My conscience says, ‘No; take heed, honest Launcelot; take heed, honest Gobbo;’ or, as aforesaid, ‘honest Launcelot Gobbo; do not run; scorn running with thy heels.’ Well, the most courageous fiend bids me pack: ‘Via!’ [Go!] says the fiend; ‘away!’ says the fiend; ‘for the heavens, rouse up a brave mind,’ says the fiend, ‘and run.’ Well, my conscience, hanging about the neck of my heart, says very wisely to me, ‘My honest friend Launcelot, being an honest man’s son,’—or rather an honest woman’s son;—for, indeed, my father did something smack [taste], something grow to, he had a kind of taste; [for, indeed . . . kind of taste: Launcelot's father did something dishonest, but it is not clear what his offense was] —well, my conscience says, ‘Launcelot, budge not.’ ‘Budge,’ says the fiend. (2.2.3) 

Now, then, what about single lines—those spoken in conversation as questions or replies? They are in prose if a line has no paired rhyming line immediately following it or is too abrupt to contain a rhythmic or rhyming pattern. The following prose passage contains such short lines.

SHYLOCK:  Three thousand ducats; well?   
BASSANIO:  Ay, sir, for three months.   
SHYLOCK:  For three months; well?           
BASSANIO:  For the which, as I told you, Antonio shall be bound.   
SHYLOCK:  Antonio shall become bound; well?   
BASSANIO:  May you stead [help] me? Will you pleasure me? Shall I know your answer?   
SHYLOCK:  Three thousand ducats, for three months, and Antonio bound. 
BASSANIO:  Your answer to that.           
SHYLOCK:  Antonio is a good man. (1.3.3-11)

Shakespeare used verse to do the following:

(1) Present a play with an elegant format that was a tradition of the times. He also used verse to express deep emotion requiring elevated language. Because nobles and commoners were both capable of experiencing profound emotion, both expressed their emotions in verse from time to time. Here is an example of an elegant verse passage, spoken in The Merchant of Venice by the Prince of Morocco:

Mislike me not for my complexion,   
The shadow’d livery of the burnish’d sun,   
[The shadow'd . . . sun: The black uniform I wear as a servant of the sun]
To whom I am a neighbour and near bred.           
Bring me the fairest creature northward born,   
Where Phoebus’ fire scarce thaws the icicles,   
[Phoebus: In Greek mythology, the name used for Apollo in his role as the sun god]
And let us make incision for your love,   
To prove whose blood is reddest [boldest; bravest], his or mine. (2.1.3-9)

(2) Make wise and penetrating observations or reflect on one's response or reaction to conditions and circumstances, as in the following passage spoken by Portia. True, she appears to be a bigot (as established by her racial slurs against the Prince of Morocco). Moreover, her sincerity in speaking the passage is in doubt, since she later shows no mercy to the ruined Shylock. Nevertheless, the passage itself—standing alone—is undeniably beautiful.

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)

(3) Present poems or poetic language within a play, as in the following passages from The Merchant of Venice.

Example 1

Tell me where is fancy [love; desire] bred,
    Or in the heart or in the head?
    How begot, how nourished?
            Reply, reply.
    It is engender’d in the eyes,
    With gazing fed; and fancy dies
    In the cradle where it lies.
            Let us all ring fancy’s knell:
            I’ll begin it,—Ding, dong, bell.
          All.  Ding, dong, bell. (3.2.67)

Example 2

All that glisters is not gold;
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. (2.7.68)

Example 3

Cold, indeed; and labour lost:   
Then, farewell, heat, and welcome, frost!   
Portia, adieu. I have too griev’d a heart           
To take a tedious leave: thus losers part. (2.7.68-71)

Example 4

Still more fool I shall appear    
By the time I linger here:    
With one fool’s head I came to woo,    
But I go away with two.  (2.9.70)

(4) Suggest order and exactitude. A character who speaks in precise rhythms and patterns is a character with a tidy brain that plans ahead and executes actions on schedule.

Shakespeare used prose to do the following:

(1) Express ordinary, undistinguished observations coming from the surface of the mind rather than its active, ruminating interior.

(2) Make quick, one-line replies such as “Ay, my lord” that are the stuff of day-to-day conversations.

(3) Present auditory relief for audiences (or visual relief for readers) from the intellectual and connotative density of some verse passages.

(4) Suggest madness or senility, as in Shakespeare's play King Lear. Lear shifts from measured verse to rambling, aimless, slapdash prose to reflect the deterioration of his mind. Prose lacks the regular beat and meter of verse passages.

(5) Depict the rambling, desultory path of conversation from a tongue loosened by alcohol.

(6) Poke fun at characters who lack the wit to versify their lines.

(7) Demonstrate that prose can have merits as a literary medium. In Shakespeare’s day, verse (and its elegant cousin, poetry) was the sine qua non of successful writing. As an innovator, Shakespeare may have wanted to tout the merits of prose. Thus, on occasion, he infused his plays with prose passages so graceful and thought-provoking that they equaled, and sometimes even surpassed, the majesty of verse or poetry passages. Such a prose passage is the following, spoken in Hamlet by the title character:

What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me: no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so. (2.2.250)

Blank Verse and Iambic Pentameter

Under Writing Format: Verse, Prose, and Poetry, you read that Shakespeare wrote his plays in verse, prose, and poetry and that he used a rhythm format called iambic pentameter.
When his verse lines in iambic pentameter do not rhyme, they are said to be in blank verse.
To understand iambic pentameter, you first need to understand the term iamb. An iamb is a unit of rhythm consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Consider the words annoy, fulfill,  pretend, regard, and serene. They are all iambs because the first syllable of each word is unstressed (or unaccented) and the second syllable is stressed (or accented): an NOY, ful FILL, pre TEND, re GARD, and ser ENE. Iambs can also consist of one word with a single unstressed (unaccented) syllable followed by another word with a single stressed (accented) syllable (example: the KING). In addition, they may consist of a final unstressed syllable of one word followed by an initial stressed syllable of the next word. The following lines from The Merchant of Venice demonstrate the use of iambs. The stressed syllables or words are capitalized in boldface:

MisLIKE me NOT for MY comPLEX i ON,   
The SHADow’d LIVEry OF the BURNish’d SUN,    [Livery is pronounced LIV re.]
To WHOM I AM a NEIGHbour AND near BRED.           
Bring ME the FAIRest CREAture NORTHward BORN,   
Where PHOEbus’ FIRE scarce THAWS the IC ic LES,   
And LET us MAKE inCISion FOR your LOVE. (2.1.3-8)  

When a line has five iambs, it is in iambic pentameter. Each line in the passage above has five iambs. For example, the iambs in the third line are (1) To whom, (2) I am, (3) a neigh, (4) bour and, (5) near bred.

The prefix pent- (in pentameter) means five. The suffix -meter refers to the recurrence of a rhythmic unit (also called a foot). Thus, because the above lines contain iambs, they are iambic. Because they contain five iambs (five feet) they are said to be in iambic pentameter. Finally, because the words at the end of each line do not rhyme, the lines are said to be in unrhymed iambic pentameter, or blank verse.

Blank verse was modeled after ancient Greek and Latin verse. It was first used in 1514 in Renaissance Italy by Francesco Maria Molza. In 1539, Italian Giovanni Rucellai was the first poet to label the unrhymed iambic pentameter in his poetry as blank verse (versi sciolti in Italian). Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey (1516-1547), first used blank verse in English in his translation of Vergil's epic Latin poem The Aeneid (19 BC). The first English drama in blank verse was Gorboduc, staged in 1561, by Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton. It was about an early British king. Later in the same century, Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare turned blank verse into high art when they used it in their plays. Marlowe used the verse form in Doctor Faustus, Tamburlaine, and Edward II. Shakespeare used it in all of his plays. In Germany, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) popularized blank verse in his long poem Nathan the Wise (Nathan der Weise), published in 1779.

Study 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 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?.

How to Cite This Study Guide

Example of an MLA Citation for This Study Guide

Cummings, Michael J. “The Merchant of Venice: a Study Guide.” Shake Sphere: a Guide to the Complete Works of William Shakespeare. N.p., 2013.

Web. 5 Feb. 2013. <http://shakespearestudyguide.com/Merchantof.html#>.

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Example of an APA Citation for This Study Guide

Cummings, M. (2013). "The Merchant of Venice: a Study Guide.” Retrieved from http://shakespearestudyguide.com/Merchantof.html