Index of Shakespeare Plays on DVDs, Including Eight Productions of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
The Merchant of Venice
A Study Guide
Cummings Guides Home..|..Shakespeare Books
Type of Work
Composition, Publication
Plot Summary
Antonio: Own Worst Enemy
Use of Disguises
Portia as a Hypocrite
Christians as Villains
Study Questions
Essay Topics
Shakespeare Biography
Complete Free Text

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Type of Work

.......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. 

Composition and Publication

.......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. 

.......The probable main sources for The Merchant of Venice were Il Pecorone (1378), by Giovanni Fiorentino; Gesta Romanorum (Latin, 13th Century); oriental tales; and The Jew of Malta (circa 1590), by Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593).

.......The action takes place in Venice, Italy, and Belmont, the site of Portia’s estate. Shakespeare does not identify the precise location of Belmont, but the stage directions refer to it as being “on the Continent” (Europe). Presumably, Belmont is not far from Venice. 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.


Protagonist, Comic Plot: Antonio, the Merchant
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
Antonio: A merchant of Venice who borrows money from Shylock on behalf of his friend Bassanio. Antonio agrees to pay a pound of flesh if he defaults on the loan.
Shylock: Wealthy Jewish moneylender who seeks revenge for ill treatment by Christians. Because he is a tragic figure–and the most compelling character in the play–the drama takes on overtones of tragedy.
Portia: Wealthy heiress wooed by many suitors. Although often described by Shakespeare interpreters as noble, upright, and benevolent, a close reading of the play reveals her as a racist and a snob.
Bassanio: Friend of Antonio who loves Portia.
Prince of Morocco, Prince of Arragon: Suitors of Portia.
Salanio, Salarino, Gratiano, Salerio: Friends of Antonio and Bassanio.
Jessica: Shylock's daughter.
Lorenzo: Jessica's suitor.
Tubal, Chus: Lorenzo's Jewish friends. Chus has no speaking part.
Launcelot Gobbo: clown and Shylock's servant.
Old Gobbo: Launcelot's father.
Leonardo: Bassanio's servant. 
Balthasar, Stephano: Portia's servants.
Nerissa: Portia's maid.
Minor Characters: Magnificoes of Venice, officers of the Court of Justice, gaoler (jailer), servants of Portia, attendants.

Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
.......Bassanio’s heart brims with love for the fair Portia, a wealthy heiress. He must have her. However, his pockets brim only with emptiness. How can he court a woman of such elegance with a vacant purse? Bassanio asks his friend Antonio for money to woo and win delightful Portia. Three thousand ducats will do the trick. Antonio, a wealthy merchant of Venice, is willing to do anything for Bassanio, his most excellent friend. But because most of Antonio’s money is tied up in lofty enterprises, he does not have enough cash on hand to make a loan. Nonetheless, because ships he owns will soon arrive laden with merchandise, he agrees to post his property as collateral so Bassanio can obtain a loan.
.......Although Portia considers Bassanio a worthy young gentleman, she promised her late father that she would marry the man who chooses the correct of three caskets: one gold, one silver, and one lead. The correct casket is the one containing a portrait of her. Suitors from around the world have come to Belmont to win the beautiful heiress. However, several of them–including a Neapolitan prince, a count palatine (a count with royal privileges), a Frenchman named Monsieur Le Bon, an English baron, a Scottish lord, and the nephew of the Duke of Saxony–have decided to return home rather than take part in the casket lottery. Their decision to withdraw is a relief to Portia, who dislikes all of them. When a servant informs her that another suitor, the Prince of Morocco, will soon arrive, Portia makes a racist comment to her maid, 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 receiving Antonio’s pledge to post collateral for a loan, Bassanio meets a Jewish moneylender, Shylock, on a street and asks him for the money, telling him Antonio will guarantee repayment at the end of three months. Shylock has suffered frequent ridicule from Antonio and other Christian Venetians. They despise him not only because he charges exorbitant interest rates but also because he is a Jew. Nevertheless, Shylock agrees to lend Bassanio the money. However, if Antonio does not repay the loan in the designated time, he must forfeit a pound of flesh. Moments later, Antonio arrives and signs a contract binding him to this strange condition, confident that his ships will arrive in time with merchandise to repay the loan. Shylock, of course, secretly hopes Antonio will default on the loan so that he can cut away the pound of flesh (certain death) as revenge against his Christian enemy. 
.......Bassanio, now with money and wooing rights, leaves for Portia’s home, Belmont, near Venice. Meanwhile, the Prince of Morocco, a black Moor, has arrived at Belmont. After he presents himself to choose a casket, he correctly senses Portia’s attitude toward blacks: “Mislike me not for my complexion / The shadow’s livery of the burnish’d sun” (2. 1. 3-4).
.......Elsewhere, at about nine in the evening, Shylock’s daughter Jessica elopes with Bassanio’s friend Lorenzo, taking with her a goodly portion of Shylock’s jewels and gold. What is more, she has become a Christian. 
.......At Belmont, the Prince of Morocco chooses the golden casket. When he opens it, he finds a scroll bearing this message:

All that glisters [glitters] is not gold; 
Often have you heard that told: 
Many a man his life hath sold 
But my outside to behold: 
Gilded tombs do worms infold. 
Had you been as wise as bold, 
Young in limbs, in judgment old, 
Your answer had not been inscroll’d: 
Fare you well; your suit is cold. (2. 7. 67) 
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! 
Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats! 
Justice! the law! my ducats, and my daughter! 
A sealed bag, two sealed bags of ducats, 
Of double ducats, stol’n from me by my daughter! 
And jewels! two stones, two rich and precious stones, 
Stol’n by my daughter! Justice! find the girl! 
She hath the stones upon her, and the ducats. (2. 8. 17-24) 
.......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 
To Tubal and to Chus, his countrymen, 
That he would rather have Antonio’s flesh 
Than twenty times the value of the sum
That he did owe him. (3. 2. 277-281)
.......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,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice bless’d;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. (4. 1. 180-193) 
.......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;
But, in the cutting it, if thou dost shed
One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods
Are, by the laws of Venice, confiscate
Unto the state of Venice. (4. 1. 308-312)
.......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.

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.
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 glisters [glitters] is not gold” (2. 7. 67). The latter quotation can also apply to characters who tie their happiness, destiny, or status to money, including Antonio, Bassanio, and Shylock.
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.
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. An essay on this page contends that Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice partly to condemn the moral and ethical values of errant Christians, not the Jewish moneylender Shylock.
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. 
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.
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. 
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."
Shakespeare Study Guide in Book Form

........Shakespeare: a Guide to the Complete Works is now available in hardback and paperback. It incorporates virtually all of the information on this web site, including plot summaries of all the plays. It also gives dates and sources of each play, describes the setting and characters, discusses imagery, identifies themes, points out the climax, and provides historical background wherever necessary. In addition, it discusses and analyzes the sonnets, as well as other poems written by Shakespeare. 
........Among the many additional features of the book are essays, glossaries, explanations of versification and iambic pentameter, and a section on the Globe Theatre.
........Your purchase of this book will help maintain this web site as a free resource for teachers and students. You can order the book directly from the publisher's web site or from Amazon.com



.......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, referring to Shylock, uses paradox and irony to make his point.

There is no vice so simple but assumes 
Some mark of virtue on his outward parts. (3. 2. 75-76)
Bassanio compares vice to a virtuous person in a metaphor and a personification.

Thus ornament is but the guiled shore 
To a most dangerous sea. . . . (3. 2. 91-92) 
Bassanio compares the golden casket to a seacoast in a metaphor that reinforces the theme of deception. 

Thou call’dst me dog before thou hadst a cause; 
But, since I am a dog, beware my fangs. (3. 3. 9-10)
Shylock tells Antonio that he had used a metaphor comparing Shylock to a dog.

     The weakest kind of fruit 
Drops earliest to the ground. (4. 1. 120-121)
In this metaphor, Antonio compares himself to a fruit.

I never knew so young a body with so old a head. (4. 1. 157)
A court clerk reads a letter from Bellario commending Portia, disguised as Balthasar, at the trial. This line contains these figures of speech: synecdoche (substituting body for person and head for brain), metaphor (comparing the old head to wisdom), alliteration (never, knew; so, so), and paradox (young body and old head).

 They are as sick that surfeit with too much as they that starve with nothing. (1. 2. 4)
 In a paradox, Nerissa says that overfed people are as sick as starving people. The line also contains alliteration (they, that; they, that; sick, surfeit, starve; with, with).

Why should a man, whose blood is warm within, 
Sit like his grandsire cut in alabaster? (1. 1. 89-90)
In a simile, Gratiano compares a man to a statue. The words why, warm, and within constitute alliteration. Whose does not alliterate with these words because it begins with an h sound.

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,
Nor to one place; nor is my whole estate
Upon the fortune of this present year:
Therefore my merchandise makes me not sad. (1. 1. 45-48)
.......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;
    You spurn’d me such a day; another time
    You call’d me dog; and for these courtesies
    I’ll lend you thus much moneys? (108-111)
Antonio then says, 
I am as like to call thee so again,
To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too.
If thou wilt lend this money, lend it not
As to thy friends; for when did friendship take
A breed for barren metal of his friend?
But lend it rather to thine enemy,
Who, if he break, thou mayst with better face
Exact the penalty. (1. 3. 112-119)
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.

.......The climax of a play or another narrative work, such as a short story or a novel, can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting event in a series of events. According to both definitions, the climax occurs during the trial in Act IV, Scene I, when Portia thwarts Shylock's attempt to gain revenge against Antonio. 

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 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. For example, In All's Well That Ends Well, Helena wears the attire of a pilgrim to get close to Bertram. In Cymbeline, Imogen becomes a page boy to win back Posthumous. Julia also becomes a page boy in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, as does Viola in Twelfth Night. In The Merchant of Venice, Portia disguises herself as a male judge to save the friend of her lover in a court of law. Rosalind, in As You Like It, dons the garb of a man to become a shepherd as she seeks out her love, Orlando. 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 above-mentioned plays, men played women disguised as men who at some point doffed their male identities to reveal themselves as females.

Portia: Detestable Hypocrite

.......Not 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. 
.......However, close examination of the play reveals her as deeply flawed and even detestable. Especially reprehensible is her racial bigotry. It first manifests itself before her encounter with one of her suitors, the Prince of Morocco, a black Moor, in Act I, Scene II. She tells her maid, Nerissa, “If he have the condition of a saint and the complexion of a devil, I had rather he should shrive me [hear her confession, as if he were a priest] than wive me” (1. 2. 33). When the prince arrives, he appears to detect her prejudice, saying, “Mislike me not for my complexion / The shadow’s livery of the burnish’d sun” (2. 1. 3-4).  In a hypocritical reply, Portia assures him he is as fair “as any comer I have look’d on yet / For my affection” (2. 1. 23-24). After he chooses the wrong casket, disqualifying him for Portia’s hand in marriage, he leaves Belmont disappointed. Portia, though, rejoices, saying, “A gentle riddance. Draw the curtains, go. / Let all of his complexion choose me so” (2. 7. 72-73).
.......Later, while defending Antonio against the Jewish moneylender Shylock, this same bigoted Portia–in another display of hypocrisy–delivers an eloquent speech saying mercy should temper justice. Then, after winning the case against Shylock, Portia and her friends humiliate him, ruin him financially, and force him to accept Christianity. In effect, they abort Shylock and flush him into oblivion. Afterward, without the slightest prick of conscience, Portia and company hie off to her exclusive estate, Belmont, to partake in the pleasures of the idle highborn and wealthy. 
.......But their pleasures result only in boredom and dissipation. Like children who eat too much cake and become nauseated, the Portia crowd consumes too much of the good life and becomes listless. Antonio is first to manifest symptoms of dissipation. In the opening lines of the play, he says, 

In sooth, I know not why I am so sad:
It wearies me; you say it wearies you;
But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,
What stuff 'tis made of, whereof it is born,
I am to learn;
And such a want-wit sadness makes of me,
That I have much ado to know myself.
.......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.
Christians, Not Jews, Are
The Real Villains in The Merchant of Venice
.......Was William Shakespeare anti-Semitic?
.......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,
So strange, outrageous, and so variable,
As the dog Jew did utter in the streets:
"My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!
Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats!
Justice! the law! my ducats, and my daughter!
A sealed bag, two sealed bags of ducats,
Of double ducats, stolen from me by my daughter!
Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats!
Justice! the law! my ducats, and my daughter! (2. 8. 14-21)
.......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.
An evil soul producing holy witness
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart:
O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath! (1. 3. 80-84)
.......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
In the Rialto1 you have rated2 me
About my moneys and my usances3:
Still have I borne it with a patient shrug,
For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe.
You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,
And all for use of that which is mine own.
Well then, it now appears you need my help:
Go to, then; you come to me, and you say
“Shylock, we would have moneys”: you say so;
You, that did void your rheum upon my beard
And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur. (1. 3. 88-100)
.......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,
The shadow’s livery of the burnish’d sun,
To whom I am a neighbour and near bred.
Bring me the fairest creature northward born,
Where Phoebus’ fire4 scarce thaws the icicles,
And let us make incision for your love,
To prove whose blood is reddest, his or mine.
I tell thee, lady, this aspect of mine
Hath fear’d the valiant: by my love I swear
The best-regarded virgins of our clime
Have loved it too: I would not change this hue,
Except to steal your thoughts, my gentle queen. (2. 1. 3-14)
.......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?
You have among you many a purchased slave,
Which, like your asses and your dogs and mules,
You use in abject and in slavish parts,
Because you bought them: shall I say to you,
Let them be free, marry them to your heirs?
Why sweat they under burthens? let their beds
Be made as soft as yours and let their palates
Be season’d with such viands? You will answer
‘The slaves are ours’: so do I answer you:
The pound of flesh, which I demand of him,
Is dearly bought; ’tis mine and I will have it. (4. 1. 93-104)
.......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.


Works Cited
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.

Shakespeare Study Guide in Book Form

........Shakespeare: a Guide to the Complete Works is now available in hardback and paperback. It incorporates virtually all of the information on this web site, including plot summaries of all the plays. It also gives dates and sources of each play, describes the setting and characters, discusses imagery, identifies themes, points out the climax, and provides historical background wherever necessary. In addition, it discusses and analyzes the sonnets, as well as other poems written by Shakespeare. 
........Among the many additional features of the book are essays, glossaries, explanations of versification and iambic pentameter, and a section on the Globe Theatre.
........Your purchase of this book will help maintain this web site as a free resource for teachers and students. You can order the book directly from the publisher's web site or from Amazon.com

Study Questions and Essay Topics

1. Was Shakespeare an anti-Semite? Or was he using Shylock to arouse opposition to anti-Semitism?
2. The Merchant of Venice is classified as a comedy. Do you agree that it should instead by called a tragicomedy? 
3. Why is the play entitled The Merchant of Venice? Who is the merchant? 
4. In medieval and Renaissance times, why was Venice such an ideal city for a merchant to conduct business? Write an informative.essay answering this question.
5. Why does Portia, a woman of astute intellect, abide by her father's plan to have her marry a man selected by chance? Does Portia do ....anything to help her favorite suitor choose the right casket? 
6. Write an essay that tells what Portia would have done if the wrong man had selected the right casket. 
7. In Act II, Scene VII, the Prince of Morocco chooses the gold casket and discovers a message therein that opens with this famous line: "All that glisters [glitters] is not gold." What does this line mean? 

1. Rialto: Business district in Venice.
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.

Plays on DVD (or VHS) 

Play Director Actors
Antony and Cleopatra (1974) Trevor Nunn, John Schoffield Richard Johnson, Janet Suzman
Antony and Cleopatra BBC Production  Jane Lapotaire 
As You Like It (2010)  Thea Sharrock Jack Laskey, Naomi Frederick
As You Like It (1937)  Paul Czinner Henry Ainley, Felix Aylmer
The Comedy of Errors BBC Production Not Listed
Coriolanus BBC Production  Alan Howard, Irene Worth
Cymbeline Elijah Moshinsky Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson, Helen Mirren
Gift Box: The Comedies BBC Production Various
Gift Box: The Histories BBC Production Various
Gift Box: The Tragedies BBC Production Various
Hamlet (1948)  Laurence Olivier Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons
Hamlet (1990)  Kevin Kline Kevin Kline
Hamlet(1991)  Franco Zeffirelli Mel Gibson, Glenn Close
Hamlet (1996)  Kenneth Branagh Kenneth Branagh, 
Hamlet (2009) Gregory Doran David Tennant, Patrick Stewart, Penny Downie
Hamlet (1964)  John Gielgud, Bill Colleran Richard Burton, Hume Cronyn
Hamlet (1964)  Grigori Kozintsev Innokenti Smoktunovsky
Hamlet (2000)  Cambpell Scott, Eric Simonson Campbell Scott, Blair Brown
Henry V (1989)  Kenneth Branagh Kenneth Branaugh, Derek Jacobi
Henry V( 1946)  Laurence Olivier Leslie Banks, Felix Aylmer
Henry VI Part I BBC Production Peter Benson, Trevor Peacock
Henry VI Part II BBC Production  Not Listed
Henry VI Part III BBC Production  Not Listed
Henry VIII BBC Production John Stride, Claire Bloom, Julian Glover
Julius Caesar BBC Production  Richard Pasco, Keith Michell
Julius Caesar (1950)  David Bradley Charlton Heston
Julius Caesar (1953)  Joseph L. Mankiewicz Marlon Brando, James Mason
Julius Caesar (1970)  Stuart Burge Charlton Heston, Jason Robards
King John BBC Production  Not Listed
King Lear (1970) Grigori Kozintsev Yuri Yarvet
King Lear (1971) Peter Brook Cyril Cusack, Susan Engel
King Lear (1974)  Edwin Sherin James Earl Jones
King Lear (1976)  Tony Davenall Patrick Mower, Ann Lynn
King Lear (1984)  Michael Elliott Laurence Olivier, Colin Blakely
King Lear (1997)  Richard Eyre Ian Holm
Love's Labour's Lost (2000) Kenneth Branagh Kenneth Branagh, Alicia Silverstone 
Love's Labour's Lost  BBC Production) Not Listed
Macbeth (1978)  Philip Casson Ian McKellen, Judy Dench
Macbeth BBC Production  Not Listed
The Merchant of Venice BBC Production Warren Mitchell, Gemma Jones
The Merchant of Venice (2001)  Christ Hunt, Trevor Nunn David Bamber, Peter De Jersey
The Merchant of Venice (1973) John Sichel Laurence Olivier, Joan Plowright
The Merry Wives of Windsor (1970)  Not Listed Leon Charles, Gloria Grahame
Midsummer Night's Dream (1996)  Adrian Noble Lindsay Duncan, Alex Jennings
A Midsummer Night's Dream  (1999) Michael Hoffman Kevin Kline, Michelle Pfeiffer
Much Ado About Nothing (1993)  Kenneth Branaugh Branaugh, Emma Thompson
Much Ado About Nothing (1973)  Nick Havinga  Sam Waterston, F. Murray Abraham
Othello (2005)  Janet Suzman Richard Haines, John Kaki
Othello (1990)  Trevor Nunn Ian McKellen, Michael Grandage
Othello (1965)  Stuart Burge Laurence Olivier, Frank Finlay
Othello (1955)  Orson Welles Orson Welles
Othello (1983)  Franklin Melton Peter MacLean, Bob Hoskins, Jenny Agutter
Ran  (1985) Japanese Version of King Lear  Akira Kurosawa Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Terao
Richard II (2001)  John Farrell  Matte Osian, Kadina de Elejalde
Richard III (1912)  André Calmettes, James Keane  Robert Gemp, Frederick Warde
Richard III - Criterion Collection (1956)  Laurence Olivier Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson
Richard III (1995)  Richard Loncraine Ian McKellen, Annette Bening
Richard III BBC Production  Ron Cook, Brian Protheroe, Michael Byrne
Romeo and Juliet (1968)  Franco Zeffirelli Leonard Whiting, Olivia Hussey
Romeo and Juliet (1996)  Baz Luhrmann Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes
Romeo and Juliet (1976)  Joan Kemp-Welch Christopher Neame, Ann Hasson
Romeo and Juliet BBC Production  John Gielgud, Rebecca Saire, Patrick Ryecart
The Taming of the Shrew Franco Zeffirelli Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton
The Taming of the Shrew Kirk Browning Raye Birk, Earl Boen, Ron Boussom
The Taming of The Shrew Not Listed Franklin Seales, Karen Austin, 
The Tempest Paul Mazursky John Cassavetes, Gena Rowlands
The Tempest (1998) Jack Bender Peter Fonda, John Glover, Harold Perrineau,
Throne of Blood (1961) Macbeth in Japan  Akira Kurosawa Toshirô Mifune, Isuzu Yamada
Twelfth Night (1996)  Trevor Nunn Helena Bonham Carter
Twelfth Night BBC Production  Not Listed
The Two Gentlemen of Verona BBC Production  John Hudson, Joanne Pearce
The Winter's Tale  (2005)  Greg Doran Royal Shakespeare Company
The Winter's Tale BBC Production  Not Listed