A Study Guide
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.......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.
.......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.
Protagonist, Tragic Plot: Shylock, the Moneylender
Antagonist, Comic Plot: Shylock
Antagonists, Tragic Plot: Antonio, Jessica, Portia
Duke of Venice: Ruler
who sits as the judge in the trial of Antonio, the merchant of Venice
All that glisters [glitters] is not gold;But there is no portrait of Portia. Thus, 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!.......Back at Belmont, the Prince of Arragon tries his luck in the casket lottery–but loses. 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 also 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.......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,.......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;.......Shylock, outwitted, then says he will settle for money. But he not only does not get a single ducat, he must forfeit half his property for conspiring to kill Antonio. What is more, he must become a Christian and, upon his death, bequeath his property to Jessica and Lorenzo. 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. Then she gives another ring to Antonio. When he recognizes it as the ring he gave to the attorney, he realizes it was Portia who saved Antonio in the court of justice. Everyone lives happily ever after–except Shylock.
.......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, desire for revenge, depression, ignorance, and other negative qualities. Supposedly, the play has a happy ending, but the happiness of Bassanio, Portia, and their friends derives from their ruination of the Jewish moneylender, Shylock. Although traditionally classed as a comedy, the play is in reality a tragicomedy, perhaps more tragedy than comedy. Following are examples of imagery supporting the interpretation of The Merchant of Venice as a tragedy, as well as other examples of imagery demonstrating Shakespeare’s command of language.
The devil can cite scripture for his purpose. (1. 3. 80)Antonio Is 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,.......In Act I, Scene III, 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;Antonio then says,
I am as like to call thee so again,Later, of course, fate wrecks Antonio’s ships–which, like the Titantic, were thought unsinkable–and Antonio’s own words (exact the penalty) echo back to condemn him. When Shylock claims his pound of flesh from the defaulting Antonio, there can be no gainsaying that Shylock asks for a brutal and inhumane exactment. However, there can also be no gainsaying that it was Antonio who incited Shylock to action. If we fault Shylock for his viciously vengeful legalisms, we must first fault Antonio for his contemptuous hauteur and overconfidence.
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.
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.
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, 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.
The Real Villains in The Merchant of Venice
.......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.
.......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,.......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 who prefaces his news with the slur dog Jew. 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........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 believes the play is so outrageously anti-Semitic that he wrote a “counter-play” about Shylock, investing him with a nobility 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 21st 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. . .” (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 (56-120 AD) 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. (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, 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 I, 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.......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 of 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, a snob and racist, tells 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,.......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?.......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.
Hugo, Victor. William Shakespeare. Trans. Melville B. Anderson. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1970.
Rowe, Nicholas. Quoted in Shakespeare. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1939.
Tacitus, Publius Cornelius. "Book V." History. Classics of Roman Literature. Wedeck, Harry E., ed. Trans. Anonymous. Paterson, N.J.: Littlefield, 1964.
Weis, Theodore. The Breath of Clowns and Kings. New York: Atheneum, 1971.
Study Questions and Essay Topics
1. Was Shakespeare an anti-Semite?
Or was he using Shylock to arouse opposition to anti-Semitism?
2. Rated: Berated.
3. Usances: Contracts made to lend money at interest; usury.
4. Phoebus'; fire: The sun. Phoebus is another name for Apollo, the sun god.