The Merchant of Venice
Settings
• The action takes place in Venice, Italy, and
Belmont, the site of Portia’s estate. Venice
(Venezia) is in northeastern Italy on the coast of
the Adriatic Sea.
• In late medieval and early Renaissance times,
Venice was one of Europe’s greatest centers of
commerce.
Dates, Sources, and Type of Play
• Date Written: About 1596
• Probable Main Sources: Il Pecorone (1378), by Giovanni
Fiorentino; Gesta Romanorum (Latin, 13th Century); oriental
tales; the Jew of Malta, by Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593)
• Type of Play: Although the play is considered a comedy, it is
probably better categorized as a tragicomedy (a play with both
comic and tragic elements).
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.
Anti-Semitism in England
• 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 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 depicting the Jewish moneylender
Shylock according to denigrating stereotypes, infuses
Shylock with humanity and arouses sympathy for the
plight of the Jews.
Use of Disguises
• Time and again, Shakespeare disguises women as
men to further a plot.
• In each of these plays, the women disguised as
men eventually reveal their true female
identities. All of this could have been quite
confusing to playgoers in Shakespeare's day, for
only men played women's roles. Thus, in the abovementioned plays, men played women disguised as
men who at some point doffed their male identities
to reveal themselves as females.
Themes
• Theme 1: Jews suffer bigotry and other forms of mistreatment
because of their religion and race.
• Theme 2: Friendship requires sacrifice.
• Theme 3: Revenge ultimately destroys its perpetrator.
• Theme 4: Appearances are deceiving.
• Theme 5: Women can be just as competent as men, maybe
even more so.
• Theme 6: Women can be just as ruthless as men, maybe
even more so.
• Theme 7: Don't count your ships until they're in port.
• Theme 8: Great wealth and privilege breed apathy and
disquietude.
Themes
• Theme 1: Friendship requires sacrifice. Antonio risks his fortune-and later his life--to help Bassanio win Portia. Tubal lends Shylock
the 3,000 ducats requested by Antonio.
• Theme 2: 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
glitters is not gold." The latter quotation can also apply to characters
who tie their happiness, destiny, or status to money, including
Antonio, Bassanio, and Shylock.
• Theme 3: Revenge ultimately destroys its perpetrator. Shylock
seeks revenge against his enemies, but it is he who suffers the
downfall after Christians unite to trick him. Perhaps he would have
had more success if he had pursued justice instead of revenge.
Themes
• Theme 4: Jews suffer bigotry and other forms of mistreatment
because of their religion and race. Christians alienate Shylock
simply because he is a Jew. In ancient, medieval, and Renaissance
times, Jews almost always encountered prejudice from non-Jews
around them. Scholars are divided on whether Shakespeare, in The
Merchant of Venice, was attempting condemn anti-Semitism by
sympathizing with Shylock or approve of anti-Semitism by ridiculing
Shylock. It may well be that Shakespeare was simply holding a
mirror to civilization to allow audiences to draw their own
conclusions.
• Theme 5: Women can be just as competent as men, maybe even
more so. Portia, disguised as a man, speaks eloquently in defense
of Antonio and persuades the Duke of Venice to rule in Antonio's
favor.
Themes
•
Theme 6: Women can be just as ruthless as men, maybe even more
so. Portia, who lectures Shylock and the court on the importance of
mercy, exhibits racism after she rejects the Prince of Morocco because
he is black. Moreover, she cleverly tricks and ruins Shylock without
showing a hint of remorse.
•
Theme 7: Don't count your ships until they're in port. Antonio
confidently pledges the merchandise on his ships at sea to repay
Shylock's loan to Bassanio. But all the ships are wrecked before they
reach Venice.
•
Theme 8: Great wealth and privilege breed apathy and disquietude. In
the opening line of the play, Antonio says, "In sooth, I know not why I
am so sad." Then, in the first line of Act I, Scene II, 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."
Debate
• Does Shakespeare, in The Merchant
of Venice, attempt to condemn antiSemitism by sympathizing with
Shylock or approve of anti-Semitism
by ridiculing Shylock?