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Introduction
Background:
Written sometime between 1596 and 1598, The Merchant of Venice is classified as both an early Shakespearean comedy (more specifically, as a "Christian comedy") and as one of the Bard's problem plays; it is a work in which good triumphs over evil, but serious themes are examined and some issues remain unresolved.

In Merchant, Shakespeare wove together two ancient folk tales, one involving a vengeful, greedy creditor trying to exact a pound of flesh, the other involving a marriage suitor's choice among three chests and thereby winning his (or her) mate. Shakespeare's treatment of the first standard plot scheme centers around the villain of Merchant, the Jewish money-lender Shylock who seeks a literal pound of flesh from his Christian opposite, the generous, faithful Antonio. Shakespeare's version of the chest-choosing device revolves around the play's Christian heroine, Portia, who steers her lover Bassanio toward the correct humble casket and then successfully defends his bosom friend Antonio from Shylock's horrid legal suit.

In the modern, post-Holocaust, readings of Merchant, the problem of anti-Semitism in the play has loomed large. A close reading of the text must acknowledge that Shylock is a stereotypical caricature of a cruel, money-obsessed, medieval Jew, but it also suggests that Shakespeare's intentions in Merchant were not primarily anti-Semitic. Indeed, the dominant thematic complex in The Merchant of Venice is much more universal than specific religious or racial hatred; it spins around the polarity between the surface attractiveness of gold and the Christian qualities of mercy and compassion that lie beneath the flesh.

Written by Roger Moore

1596-1597 Historical Background
    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 150 Jews committed suicide to avoid being captured by an angry mob. King Richard I (reign: 1189-1199) put a stop to Jewish persecution, but it returned in the following century during King Edward I's reign from 1272 to 1307. The government required Jews to wear strips of yellow cloth as identification, taxed them heavily, and forbade them to mingle with Christians. Finally, in 1290 Edward banished them from England. Only a few Jews remained behind, either because they had converted to another religion or because they enjoyed special protection for the services they provided. In Shakespeare's time 300 years later, anti-Semitism remained in force and almost no Jews lived in England. Christopher Marlowe, a contemporary of Shakespeare, wrote a play entitled The Jew of Malta, which depicted a Jew named Barabas as a savage murderer. Shakespeare, while continuing to depict Jews according to denigrating stereotypes, infuses Shylock with humanity and arouses sympathy for the plight of the Jews.
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
     
E-Text
     
Summary:
   
In a street of Venice, the merchant Antonio laments that he is sad but knows not why. His friends, Solanio and Salerio try to cheer him up, to no avail. More friends, Lorenzo and Gratiano also try and fail. Antonio's friend, Bassanio, informs him that he intends to seek the wealthy Portia's hand in marriage, yet needs financial backing. Antonio, though reluctant, offers Bassanio 3,000 ducats (money) to help him. At Belmont, Portia's house, she laments to her servant, Nerissa, that she fears a suitor she dislikes will pursue her hand in marriage. Per her late father's will, the suitor must choose the correct of three chests (gold, silver, and lead), and then, if correct, he may marry Portia. She likes none of her six suitors, but wishes Bassanio would come and choose the correct chest. Back in Venice, after much begging, Bassanio convinces the merchant Shylock the Jew to lend him 3000 ducats, with Antonio putting up his property as the bond. Although Shylock hates Antonio, he lends the money anyway, hoping Antonio will default on the loan. Antonio, though, has confidence one of his ocean vessels will come to port one month before the three month deadline.

The Moroccan prince arrives at Belmont to woo Portia and learns that if he chooses the wrong chest, he must swear to never ask any woman to marry him. Back in Venice, Launcelot Gobbo, a clown and Shylock's servant, tells his father, old Gobbo, that he wishes to leave Shylock and work for Bassanio. Bassanio agrees to it and instructs his servant Leonardo to prepare dinner for him and Shylock. Gratiano then arrives and tells Bassanio he'll help him win over Portia. Shylock's daughter, Jessica, gives a love letter to Launcelot to deliver to Antonio's Christian friend Lorenzo. In the letter, Lorenzo learns that Jessica will pretend to be a male torchbearer for him at the supper between Antonio and Shylock. Shylock, going to the supper, leaves his house keys with his daughter, Jessica, warning her not to take part in the evening's Christian activities. Later that night, Gratiano, Salerio, and Lorenzo meet outside Shylock's house to get Jessica. After Lorenzo and Jessica unite, they all head to meet Bassanio on Antonio's ship to sail to Portia's. At Portia's house, the Moroccan prince chooses a chest to open. Each has an inscription, and only the correct one contains Portia's picture. He chooses incorrectly (the gold one), and leaves defeated. Salerio assures Solanio that Lorenzo and Jessica were not on the ship with Bassanio and Gratiano, and they are thus missing. Shylock, of course, wants his money and his daughter back. At Portia's house, the Prince of Aragon arrives and chooses the silver chest, also the wrong one. Again, he must swear to never woo any maid in marriage and to never tell a soul which chest he opened.

Solanio and Salerio confirm that Antonio's ship has sunk. They then make fun of Shylock for his predicament of losing his daughters. Shylock then laments of his monetary loss to another Jew, Tubal, yet rejoices that Antonio is sure to default on his loan. At Portia's house, she begs Bassanio to wait in choosing so that she may spend time with him, in case he chooses wrong. He correctly chooses the lead casket, though, and wins Portia's hand in marriage. To seal the union, Portia gives Bassanio a ring, warning that he should never lose it or give it away, lest he risk losing her love for him. Gratiano then announces his intention to wed Nerissa. Next, Salerio, Lorenzo, and Jessica arrive, informing Bassanio that Antonio lost his ships, and, furthermore, that Shylock is viciously declaring forfeiture of the bond by Antonio. Bassanio leaves for Venice to repay the loan. In Venice, Shylock has Antonio arrested for failure to repay the loan. At Belmont, Portia tells Lorenzo and Jessica to manage her house while she and Nerissa go to a monastery until Bassanio returns. In fact, though, she and Nerissa will disguise themselves as young men and travel to Venice.

At a Venetian court, the Duke presides over the sentencing hearing of Antonio wherein Shylock intends to cut "a pound of flesh from Antonio's breast" since the due date has past and that was the terms of the bond, even though Bassanio offers him 6,000 ducats for repayment. Nerissa and Portia, disguised as a court clerk and doctor of civil law respectively, arrive at the court. Gratiano, Bassanio, the Duke, and Portia try to dissuade Shylock, to no avail. Yet, Portia points out that the deed calls for no blood to be shed and exactly one pound to be taken, lest Shylock be guilty of not following the bond himself. Shylock, realizing this is impossible, recants and simply requests 9,000 ducats. Portia then reveals that Shylock is himself guilty of a crime; namely, conspiring to kill another citizen, i.e. Antonio. As punishment, the Duke and Antonio decide that Shylock must give half his belongings to the court; keep the other half for himself and promise to give all his remaining belongings to his daughter and son-in-law (Lorenzo) upon his death; and become a Christian. With no other choice, Shylock agrees. As Portia (as the doctor of civil law) leaves, Bassanio offers her a monetary gift. Portia turns this down, instead requesting Bassanio's gloves and wedding ring instead. Bassanio, due to his vow, hesitates on the ring, but reluctantly gives it after much prodding by Antonio. Nerissa (disguised as a court clerk), vows to try to get her husband (Gratiano) to give her his wedding ring.

At Belmont, Lorenzo and Jessica share a peaceful night together. The next morning, Bassanio and Portia, and Gratiano and Nerissa reunite. After quarreling over the loss of rings, the women admit of their ruse and return the rings to their husbands. Further, they inform Antonio that three of his ships have come to port full of merchandise. Finally, they give the deed to Jessica and Lorenzo promising to give them Shylock's money and possessions upon his death.

[Quoted from The Literature Network]

   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
Study Guide
Study Questions by JM Massi, Ph.D. [The Shakespeare Classroom]
1. How do you deal with Shylock? Is he sufficiently motivated? Consider his values. (Watch out for his reference to his deceased wife--it's a good clue.)

2. Characterize the two worlds of Belmont and Venice. Who (or what group) is in charge of each? Why do Jessica and her new husband quarrel in Belmont in the fifth act?

3. Why is this play set in Italy? Why use a Jewish moneylender as a villain? Shakespeare probably never met a Jew in his life--they had been banished from England centuries earlier.

4. Consider Antonio's character? Is he straightforward and virtuous, as he claims? How accurately does his character reflect the general nature of the Christians in this play?

5. How do you deal with Jessica? The Christians applaud her running off with her father's money to wed a man Shylock disapproves of. Are they correct to feel this way?

6. Why a pound of flesh from nearest the heart? Why not the heart itself? Why not something else? Think about all the possible meanings of the phrase--ie. "pound" is the English form of currency; also, what is nearest the heart spiritually?
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
 
Shakespeare course web site by Dartmouth College. (Offering a. many resourceful website on Merchant of Venice, b. study questions, c. a list of further readings)
   
 
 
Analysis and Criticism
Commentary: Detailed description of each act. Translations and explanations provided for all important quotes.
  Characters in this paly
  Metaphor Analysis
  Theme Analysis
  THE MERCHANT OF VENICE at the University of Utah (On Shylock)
  Allusions in The Merchant of Venice
  Textual Analysis of The Merchant of Venice
 
Online Critical Essays:
List of Online Critical Essays: Shakespeare--Criticism of Individual Plays
    A listing of book and play titles taken from THE MERCHANT OF VENICE
    The Merchant of Venice May Be Anti-Christian As Well
     
Related Info
    A Review from Ashland Shakespeare Review
    An Online Discussion
Titles from The Merchant of Venice (A listing of book and play titles taken from THE MERCHANT OF VENICE)