Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
The Merchant of Venice
The Merchant of Venice is a famous comedy (note: at the time the play was written, "comedy" had a very different meaning; see Shakespearean comedies) by William Shakespeare, written at an uncertain date between 1594 and 1597. The play was entered in the Stationers' Register, the method at that time of obtaining copyright for a new play, by James Roberts on July 22, 1598. It was first printed in 1600 and again in a pirated edition in 1619. The play was mentioned by Francis Meres in 1598, so it must have been familiar on the stage by that date.
The play is most famous for its portrayal of the Jew Shylock, which has raised questions of anti-semitism by the author. Shylock is a tormented character, but also a tormenter, so whether he is to be viewed with disdain or sympathy is up to the reader. Shakespeare has clearly also put one of his most eloquent speeches into the mouth of this villain:
- 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, heal'd by the same means
- warm'd and cool'd 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?
- Act III, scene i
The title character is the merchant Antonio, not the more famous villain, the Jewish moneylender Shylock. Antonio borrows money from Shylock, agreeing that, if he is unable to repay at a specified date, Shylock is free to take instead a pound of his flesh from near the heart. Antonio has in the past refused to lend or borrow money, and attacked Shylock for doing so, but he chooses to break his custom in this case. Antonio is untroubled by the stipulation because he feels certain he can repay easily, but in fact a series of reverses leaves him unable to meet his debt. Shylock, who may possibly not have intended to collect this default at first, is determined to do so after his daughter Jessica flees his home to convert to Christianity and marry the Christian Lorenzo. Shylock is outraged to learn that Jessica has sold his wedding ring to purchase a monkey.
Meanwhile, Antonio's friend Bassanio has travelled to Belmont seeking to marry the beautiful and wealthy heiress Portia. Portia's father has left a will specifying that her suitors must choose between three caskets of gold, silver, and lead. The suitor who correctly looks past the outer show to choose the lead casket will win Portia's hand. Those who look past the inner show will discover only a "blinking idiot," and must thereafter live eternally as bachelors. After two comical suitors choose incorrectly, Bassanio makes the correct choice, perhaps aided by a subtle hint from Portia and a knowledge of the Gesta Romanorum which explains which casket to pick. Portia and Bassanio have just been married, along with their friends Gratiano and Nerissa, when Bassanio receives a letter telling him that Antonio has defaulted. He returns to Venice with money from Portia to seek to save Antonio's life, while Portia and Nerissa also leave Belmont.
The dramatic center of the play comes in the Venetian court, where Shylock refuses Portia's money and demands instead his pound of flesh. The Duke, wanting to save Antonio but being unwilling to set the legal precedent of nullifying a contract, turns to a young scholar who is actually Portia in disguise. Portia asks Shylock to show mercy in a famous speech, (The quality of mercy is not strained - Act IV, Scene I, l 185), but on Shylock's refusal she awards him the pound of flesh. However, she then notes that the bond allows him to remove only flesh, and if he sheds any drop of Antonio's blood, he will be executed. Shylock then seeks monetary payment for the defaulted bond, but is denied money, and further forced to give up half his wealth, accept conversion to Christianity, and will his remaining property to Lorenzo and Jessica.
The destruction of Shylock is in Act IV, scene 1. The remainder of the story is an anticlimactic but inspired bit of foolery about some rings given by Portia and Nerissa to their new husbands.
The play, which seems to have been popular when originally written, remains popular today, but is troubling to modern audiences due to its central anti-Semitic theme. Jews were presented on the Elizabethan stage in hideous caricature, with hooked noses and bright red wigs. The play does soften its treatment of Shylock to some degree by showing his painful station in Venetian society, rendering him as a complex character. To some critics, Shylock's celebrated "Hath not a Jew eyes" speech (see above) redeems him and even makes him into something of a tragic figure. Some others have noted the likelihood that the speech is intended to emphasize Shylock's bestial nature - the long list of traits Shylock describes Jews as sharing with Christians are mainly physical - an ape shares them as much as a Jew. The only strictly human traits Shylock mentions in this speech are the ability to laugh and the desire for revenge.
It seems probable that Shakespeare meant to contrast the mercy of the main Christian characters with the vengefulness of a Jew who lacks the religious grace to comprehend mercy, and Shakespeare's audiences probably did view the play in that light - some references from the 17th century suggest that it was regarded as effective anti-Semitic propaganda. Modern viewers, noting the contempt shown to Shylock by every Christian character, the harsh nature of the 'mercy' of Shylock's forced conversion in the courtroom scene, and the long history of Christian anti-Semitism, will not find such a simple moral. The fact that the play retains its power on stage for audiences who perceive its central conflicts in terms radically different from the terms Shakespeare did, is an illustration of the subtlety of Shakespeare's characterizations.
Jacob Adler writes in his memoir that the tradition of playing Shylock sympathetically began with Edmund Kean in 1847, and that previously the role had been played "by a comedian as a repulsive clown or, alternatively, as a monster of unrelieved evil." Kean's Shylock established his reputation as an actor. [Adler, 1999, 341]
From Kean's time forward, all of the actors who have famously played the role, with the exception of Edwin Booth, who played Shylock as a simple villain, have chosen a sympathetic approach to the character; even Booth's father, Brutus Junius Booth , played the role sympathetically. Henry Irving was among the most notable late 19th century Shylocks, and Jacob Adler certainly the most notable of the early 20th century. Adler played the role in Yiddish-language translation, first in Yiddish theater Manhattan's Lower East Side, and later on Broadway, where, to great acclaim, he performed the role in Yiddish in an otherwise English-language production. [Adler, 1999, 342-344]
Kean and Irving presented a Shylock justified in wanting his revenge; Adler's Shylock evolved over the years he played the role, first as a stock Shakespearean villain, then as a man whose better nature was overcome by a desire for revenge, and finally as a man who operated not from revenge but from pride. In a 1902 interview with Theater magazine, Adler pointed out that Shylock is a wealthy man, "rich enough to forego the interest on three thousand ducats" and that Antonio is "far from the chivalrous gentleman he is made to appear. He has insulted and spit on the Jew, yet he comes with hypocritical politeness to borrow money of him." Shylock's fatal flaw is to depend on the law, but "would he not walk out of that courtroom head erect, the very apotheosis of defiant hatred and scorn?" [Adler, 1999, 344-350]
Some modern productions take further pains to show how Shylock's thirst for vengence has some justification. For instance in the 2004 film adaptation directed by Michael Radford and starring Al Pacino as Shylock, the film begins with text and a montage of how the Jewish community is cruelly abused by the bigoted Christian population of the city.
- The Merchant of Venice - plain vanilla text from Project Gutenberg
- The Merchant of Venice - HTML version of this title.
- Adler, Jacob, A Life on the Stage: A Memoir, translated and with commentary by Lulla Rosenfeld, Knopf, New York, 1999, ISBN 067941351.
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