Venice - The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare

The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare


William Shakespeare was born in 1564. His father was a glover and wool-dealer; so Shakespeare probably attended grammar school. Many years later, he married the widow Ann Hathaway to inherit the money from her dead husband; three children were born to them. In 1586 he left Stratford; nothing is known about him for the next six years. In 1592 he was already a well-known actor in London, but he also had a constantly growing reputation as dramatist and playwright as well. He was also shareholder of the Globe Theatre in London. Shakespeare wrote historical plays, tragedies, comedies and romantic dramas. He used the Holinshed Chronicles as source for history in his plays, and that is why he made some historical mistakes in his plays. From 1592 to 1601 he wrote most of his plays; in 1611 he retired in Stratford as a highly regarded citizen. Shakespeare died in 1616 and was buried in Stratford on April 25th.


Antonio, a well-off, venetian merchant is expecting the return of his ships from abroad, he is hoping for major profits. His special friend, named Bassanio wants to propose to a woman. This woman is a wealthy heiress named Portia, whose hand is to go to whichever of her suitors makes the right choice among three caskets (a box) of gold, silver, and lead. Bassanio is now asking Antonio for a loan to impress Portia. Antonio, expecting wealth in the near future, enables Bassanio to fulfil his fantasy by borrowing 3000 ducats of Shylock, a Jewish usurer. Antonio and Shylock are opponents, first of all because Antonio treats Shylock as an inferior person. Secondly they are competitors in business.

As a way for taking revenge on the one hand and as a guarantee to get back his money on the other hand, Shylock demands a pawn from Antonio. 'Just for fun' as Shylock calls it, he wants to save the right to cut out one pound of Antonio's flesh in the case of Antonio not being able to pay him back the money on time. Antonio agrees. After other suitors have failed, Bassanio wins Portia by choosing the plain, leaden casket. At the same time Jessica, Shylock's daughter, flees with her lover and all her fathers jewels and gold. There is another couple: Nerissa, Portia's waiting-woman, and Graziano, another one of Antonio's friends. Those three couples are enjoying themselves on Portia's country estate. Meanwhile at Venice Antonio is in peril of his life, for it is said that all of his ships have grounded. After hearing this, Bassanio hurries home to Venice to help his friend, by giving him some of Portia's fortune, to pay Shylock back his money. Shylock refuses any amount of money, but insists on getting one pound of Antonio's flesh. The case comes before the Duke of Venice. Not even he knows how to judge this argument, and therefor seeks for an experts opinion. This expert is not the famous lawyer Bellario, as everyone thinks, but Portia, who has disguised herself. She turns Shylock's inhuman bond against himself, by noticing that there is not one word said in the contract of Antonio losing blood. Lawyer Bellario, or Portia admits that Shylock is entitled to get one pound of Antonio's flesh. Shylock is already sharpening his massive knife, when she says, that if he would only spill one tiny drop of Antonio's blood, all his fortune would be confiscated. In answer to this Shylock declares himself satisfied with the amount of money which had been proposed before. The Duke says 'No', because Shylock refused the money before, he will not get any now. Shylock even receives a financial punishment for having wanted to kill a citizen and all ends happily.


Critics and scholars confirm to the present date that there is a high difficulty in the text, which makes it hard to find one single, correct way of interpreting the Merchant of Venice. Nevertheless one can say that maybe in no other of Shakespeare's plays the various relationships, bonds and interests are being investigated. All characters are wrapped up in relationships of either friendship, love or hatred, and through this all characters are getting into trouble and conflicts. In the case of Antonio it leads to mortal danger, and in Shylock's case to destruction. There are two main motives in the play, which are being displayed in two different located spheres.

In the centre of the first sphere, the commercial world of Venice, stands the main character, the rich, respected merchant of Venice, Antonio, who risks his life for helping his best friend. In this action one can see the friendship-ideal of the Renaissance: a special spiritual relationship of two men, which is characterised by trust, affection and attraction. Antonio also represents the Elizabethan attitude towards Jews. The reader is shocked by the way Antonio treats Shylock in public. In a manner full of hatred and contempt, he shows that the Elizabethan picture of the Jew was determined by fairytales of childmurder or wellpoisoning. Jewish characteristics like the addiction to money and usury were still regarded as a matter for comedy- as were other national characteristics like Scotch, Irish, Dutch etc. To the Elizabethans Shylock was a comic character, though we may think of him as more tragic, because we know history of the following 400 years. 1934, in a time of general contempt towards Jews, the director Max Reinhardt tried to make Shylock seem as a completely comical character, but could not convince his audience anymore. The contempt for the Jews was followed by a persecution, which resulted in the Holocaust. Therefore when watching the play we develop different emotions today than people 400 years ago. Shylock, first of all a non-violent person, is abused physically and psychologically throughout the play. Antonio spits on him and kicks Shylock just because he is a Jew. Antonio's behaviour as a Christian continually contradicts his values of good will, generosity and trust.

Antonio and Shylock have different attitudes towards money and materialistic goods. Antonio and his friend Bassanio show a daring, risky behaviour, which aims at profit, but also at spending the money again e.g. on a friend who needs it. Money in this case can be regarded as a symbol for love and friendship. In contrast with Shylock, who saves money and only lends it to make more out of it. For a Jew of that time making money and dealing with it, was the only possibility to reach security, power and an honourable seat in society. Jews were not enabled to start a career in other social areas than the economic one.

In the centre of the second sphere stands Portia, the loveable and rich heiress, whose hand is being won by Bassanio who chooses the right casket. Portia's country estate, called Belmont, seems like a wonderland out of commercial reality. Happiness and fortune, as well as wealth are being regarded as naturally connected to love. Shakespeare describes the lifestyle of young, rich venetian society. Shakespeare portrays here a clash of values and it is easy to think of the play in terms of contrasts: between the beautiful, generous, merciful Portia and the scheming, miserly, legalistic Shylock; between their religions, Christianity and Judaism; between their settings, the idealised Belmont and the money markets of Venice; even between the heights of lyrical poetry to which Portia can rise and Shylock's harsh prose. The two worlds are on the one hand connected through Bassanio and Graziano who both fulfil their love with women from Belmont, namely Portia and Nerissa. On the other hand the language creates a link: The lovers use commercial and legal rhetoric elements, as they are usual in Venice, in forms of metaphors to express their feelings. It has often been claimed that, through the gloomy character of Shylock, the play loses its comedy character. The Merchant of Venice is not a play, which proves Shakespeare to be a classical author, but it shows a kind of experiment. He combines completely different plots and characters from various societies and religions. Their motives, actions and values are not to be depicted in black and white, they seem to be ambiguous and dubious. That is the reason why interpretations are difficult. Shakespeare never presents a morally absolute character or theme. That is why he is so realistic, universal, and why we are talking about this some 400 years after the original opening night.



'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?'

In the enlightened Venice of the finishing 16. century, these well calculated words by Shylock must have activated the conscience of his Christian opponents. These words express grief and pain, which the minority of the European Jews had to bear, because of discrimination by the majority of the Christians throughout hundreds of years. Shylock's character though is not reduced to the enduring man. His actions rather reflect the revenge of an injured person. His idea, to make Antonio forfeit a whole pound of his living flesh, shows that Shylock is not only victim, but also knows, how to humiliate his opponent. He takes advantage of Antonio desperately needing the money and suggests the absurd requirement. His one-sided, direct language does not have anything in common with the antithetic, easy going, metaphorical speech of all other characters. His character is emphasised so much that the inner balance of the play almost seems to be disturbed. His appearance causes feelings of pity and horror in the audience.

But still, as devilish as his words are, he actually does not practically do anything wrong. One may say that it was his intention to do a bloody act. But then one must admit that he does it in a stupid way. Another motive (apart from revenge) for insisting on the bloody contract might therefore be, to draw attention upon himself by putting Antonio down. To his daughter Jessica he does not have an intimate relationship at all. Her acceptance of his moral code is essential to his peace of mind. It makes him feel sad that his daughter flees from him to marry the venetian Christian Lorenzo, but rather because she takes all his jewels and gold than because he loves her so much. Jessica now is like an immoral child of the devil to him. He even claims that he would gladly see her dead at his feet, if only his jewels were safe. Shylock's impotence over Jessica then turns into a neurotic lust for vengeance on Antonio. Throughout the trial-scene he behaves like someone mentally unbalanced, suffering a nervous breakdown, and when the trial is over he stumbles out of Venetian business life, and out of the play.


Portia, the witty and funny owner of Belmont, in some ways equals other superior heroines of Shakespeare's comedies, e.g. Othello's Desdemona. Still she shows traits of character which make her appear not only charming and loveable. This is proved by the way she refuses her proposers. She has a lot of prejudices towards other nations and races, which makes her seem immature and narrow minded.

Situation: Portia wants her waiting-woman Nerissa to name all the suitors and she will then describe them. Nerissa should then according to Portia's description, level them at her affection. Portia plays a central part in both plots. She and her world of music and beauty are the antithesis of the harsh commercial world of Venice. In the courtroom-scene she presents herself in a dominant, clever way. She even seems to enjoy her speech on mercy, after which she does not show any for Shylock. She destroys his life with a smile on her face.


The Merchant of Venice was written around 1596/97. It is a comedy in 5 acts, written in verse and prose. The first performance took place in London before 1600. It was first printed in 1600. Shakespeare used sources like e.g. 'The Jew of Malta' by Christopher Marlowe, or 'Il Pecorone' by Ser Giovanni Fiorentino. There appears the pound-of-flesh story for the first time.

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