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Any approach to understanding Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice inevitably includes a discussion of the vexed question of its alleged anti-Semitism. This Introduction to the play therefore confronts the question directly, focusing on the background against which the play must be considered and a comparison with another play famous, or infamous, for its portrayal of a Jew, Marlowe's The Jew of Malta. From thence a discussion of the Merchant's more immediate sources and its date continues, followed by a detailed analysis of the play itself, which emphasizes its ambiguities, inconsistencies, and internal contradictions. This discussion naturally leads into a survey of the play's performance history, particularly its representation of the dominant character, Shylock, and the major ways he has been portrayed. The Introduction concludes with a discussion of the text and the editorial procedures followed in this edition.

Shakespeare and Semitism

Shakespeare's attitude toward Jews, specifically in The Merchant of Venice, has been the cause of unending controversy. Recognizing the problem, in the Stratford-upon-Avon season of 1987 the Royal Shakespeare Company performed The Merchant of Venice back-to-back with a production of Marlowe's The Jew of Malta.1 The Jew of Malta, played as a very broad heroic comedy, was evidently intended to contrast with Shakespeare's play and disarm criticism, such as the RSC had experienced earlier, in 1983, with a less successful production of The Merchant. To reinforce the new strategy, Antony Sher, a South African Jew, was cast as Shylock.2 It almost worked, but not quite. Sher was largely a sympathetic Shylock, with swastikas and other anti-Semitic slurs used to underscore the pg 2money-lender as victim; however, the trial scene portrayed Shylock as extremely bloodthirsty. Interpolating some extra-Shakespearian stage business, borrowed from the Passover Haggadah, the RSC and Sher indicated that cutting Antonio's pound of flesh was tantamount to a religious ritual of human sacrifice. Of course, nothing could be further from Jewish religious practice or principles, the aborted sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22 being the archetype of Jewish opposition to human sacrifice.1 In the event, Antony Sher's Shylock was not far removed from Alun Armstrong's Barabas.

Looking closely at both Marlowe's play and Shakespeare's will clarify the attitudes towards Semitism in those dramas, but the background against which both were conceived is also important. Jews had been officially banished from England since the Expulsion of 1290 by King Edward I, but the eviction was not quite so thoroughgoing as was hoped. A few Jews, whether converts or not, remained in England in the intervening period before Oliver Cromwell invited them to return in the seventeenth century. There is sufficient evidence for this assertion, but whether Shakespeare or Marlowe actually knew any Jews may be irrelevant.2 In their plays they wrote not from personal experience but from a tradition that had evolved both in England and on the Continent of the Jew as alien, usurer, member of a race maudite.3 In Marlowe's case, the tradition of the amoral machiavel was even more important than that of the money-lender.

In these post-Holocaust days, it may be difficult for us to conceive how Jews were regarded and treated in Europe, including England, during the Middle Ages. They had few rights and could not claim inalienable citizenship in any country. Typically, they depended upon rulers of the realm pg 3for protection and such rights as they might enjoy. In the thirteenth century in England, for example, under Henry III and Edward I, they were tantamount to the king's chattel. The king could—and did—dispose of them and their possessions entirely as he chose. Heavy talladges, or taxes, were imposed upon Jews—individually and collectively—to support the sovereign's financial needs, and when the moneys were not forthcoming, imprisonment and/or confiscation usually followed. At the same time, the Church vigorously opposed the existence of Jews in the country, but as they were under the king's protection the Church was powerless to do more than excite popular feeling against them.

Contrary to common belief, not all Jews were moneylenders, although usury was one of the few means to accumulate such wealth as they had. Many Jews were poor and served in humble, even menial capacities.1 But as non-believers in Christ, they were a despised people, however useful, financially and otherwise (as doctors, for instance). Near the end of the thirteenth century, when Edward had practically bankrupted his Jews, who found it impossible to meet his increasingly exorbitant demands for payments, the king decided to play his last card—expulsion. This act was not only satisfying to the Church, but it provided the king with the last bit of income from that once profitable source. Since everything the Jews owned belonged to the king, including the debts owed them as money-lenders or pawnbrokers, the king became the beneficiary of those debts as well as everything else of value. Although Edward relieved the debtors of the interest on their loans and made some other concessions, he hoped to realize a sizeable amount of money eventually, however much he might later regret the termination—forever?—of this once lucrative source of income.2

Doubtless, some Jews preferred conversion to expulsion in England, as later in Spain under the Inquisition, and they took shelter in the Domus conversorum, the House of Converts. This institution dates from the early thirteenth century and pg 4was an effort by the Dominicans, assisted by the king, to convert Jews to Christianity. The Domus conversorum in what is now Chancery Lane in London lasted well into the eighteenth century. Although at times few if any converts of Jewish birth lived there, in the centuries following 1290 it sheltered several from Exeter, Oxford, Woodstock, Northampton, Bury St Edmunds, Norwich, Bristol, as well as London and elsewhere where Jews had lived before being expelled.1 After the Expulsion, some Jews entered the realm for one reason or another, either as travellers and merchants, as refugees from Spain and Portugal, or as invited professionals, such as the physicians who treated Henry IV in his illness and the engineer, Joachim Gaunse, who helped found the mining industry in Wales in the sixteenth century.2 Small settlements of Marranos, or crypto-Jews, can be traced in London and Bristol during the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.3

But if Jews were scarce and those few who remained were forbidden to practise their religion openly, they were not forgotten, either in history or legend, and certainly not in the popular imagination, as ballads and other literature indicate.4As mystery plays grew and flourished, Old and New Testament stories were dramatized, with Jews occupying a prominent place in both. One recent scholar has suggested that the contrast between the biblical Jews of the Old Testament and those of the New Testament, particularly in plays dealing with the Crucifixion and events leading up to it, resulted in a 'dual image' of the Jew. On the one hand, 'he excites horror, fear, hatred; but he also excites wonder, awe, and love'.5 The pg 5examples of Judas and the Pharisees in the Corpus Christi plays must have supported common belief in the Jew as an incarnation of the devil;1 on the other hand, the patriarchs, Moses, Daniel, the prophets, and other figures appear as heroes, symbols or presentiments of patience, constancy, and other Christian virtues.2 Moreover, Christian theology, as represented in the epistles of St Paul, as in Romans 11 for example, argues for the redemption of Israel through conversion to Christianity. The Jews of post-biblical history, therefore, must be present not only 'as witness to the final consummation of the Christian promise of salvation', but as a participant in it.3 If Jews were shunned as a pariah race, they also had to be preserved for the ultimate Christian fulfilment; hence, the 'dual image', and the dialectic of Christian thought and feeling regarding them.

The significance of this twofold attitude, and of historical actions against Jews in England and elsewhere, is apparent in The Merchant of Venice. Earlier, it appears in such works as the Croxton Play of the Sacrament, written in the latter half of the fifteenth century. Its principal character is Aristorius, a Sicilian merchant with connections all over the known world, from Antioch to Holland, and from the Brabant to Turkey. Jonathas, a wealthy Jew, approaches him intent on testing the efficacy of the Holy Sacrament, in which he utterly disbelieves. Only the riches he has acquired—gold and precious gems—mean anything to him. Jonathas bribes Aristorius with a hundred pounds to steal the holy wafer from the church and give it to him, whereupon miraculous events occur. When he and his four compatriots strike the Host with their daggers (a re-enactment of the Crucifixion), it begins to bleed. Jonathas picks it up and tries to put it in a cauldron of boiling oil, but it sticks to his hand and he is unable to get free of it. In the succeeding comic turmoil, Jonathas loses his hand; the water in the cauldron turns to blood after the pg 6Host and his hand are thrown into it; and when the Host is finally removed and thrown into a hot oven, the oven bursts, bleeding from its cracks, and an image of the crucified Christ emerges. A dialogue, in English and Latin, ensues between the image, Jonathas, and the others, in which Jesus sorrowfully asks why they torment him still and refuse to believe in what he has taught:

  • Why blaspheme yow me? Why do ye thus?
  • Why put yow me to a newe tormentry?
  • And I dyed for yow on the crosse!1

The Jews are contrite and repent, converting to Christianity; whereupon Jonathas's hand is restored and Aristorius, abjectly penitent, is absolved from his sin.

The representation of the Jew in this fifteenth-century miracle play combines the attributes of physical mutilation (blood sacrifice) and commercial malpractice, as Edgar Rosenberg remarks.2 But beneath its obviously broad comedy, it also shows a strong impulse on the part of the unknown playwright to encourage regeneration through conversion. Later, in Robert Wilson's play, The Three Ladies of London (1584), the Jew Gerontus appears as the hero and Mercadore, an Italian merchant, is the comic villain who speaks in broken English and is willing to embrace Islam rather than pay Gerontus the debt he owes him. In the event, Gerontus prefers to surrender the debt obligation so that Mercadore will not be driven to apostasy, but even so Mercadore is unrepentant, and both are finally brought before an upright judge, who passes appropriate sentence.

Generous Gerontus, however, is hardly typical of the Jewish stereotype in Elizabethan literature. The scoundrels Zadoch and Zachary in Thomas Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller (1594) are much more like what we might expect, or the Jewish apothecary who poisons Bajazeth and Aga in The Tragical Reign of Selimus (1594). These and other comic vil-pg 7lains may owe something to the notoriety caused by the trial and execution in 1594 of Roderigo Lopez, the Portuguese convert, who had been Queen Elizabeth's physician.1 They may also owe a good deal to Marlowe's Barabas, the protagonist of The Jew of Malta (c.1589), a direct descendant of the vice figure in the morality plays2 as well as the villainous Jews of the mystery and miracle plays. By a stroke of genius, Marlowe combined these elements with the popular conception of the Italian machiavel to produce the comic and heroic villainy of Barabas, a major dramatic figure and an extraordinarily powerful one.

While all three aspects of his character are important, Barabas as a comic machiavel emerges as the dominant one, suggested from the start when Barabas's opening soliloquy immediately follows Machiavel's prologue. Usury, so often associated with Jews, is not nearly as significant as Barabas's evident delight in his multifarious scheming. Owing loyalty to no one—not even, finally, his daughter Abigail—he proceeds despite setbacks to confound his enemies, until he ultimately and comically overreaches himself; or rather, until his enemies, Ferneze, the governor of Malta, and his knights surpass his treachery. For neither the Christians nor the Jews nor the Turks who threaten Malta emerge as the moral centre of this play, which instead substitutes wit and the ability to implement 'policy' as the controlling force. 'Marlowe is not finally interested, as Shakespeare is', Rosenberg says, 'in questions which touch deeply on the nature of justice, is even less interested in legalistic quibbles; he enjoys the spectacle of these depraved noblemen of passion trying to cut each other's throats' (pp. 20–1).

But what of Barabas's Jewishness and its role in the drama? As an alien figure, an outsider, the Jew might be associated with the amoral machiavel, except that Jews, as representative of the Old Testament, had a strict moral code of their own. In his references to the patriarchs and biblical story, Barabas pg 8confirms his Jewish heritage, but in the process he comically perverts it. For example, he equates the riches he has acquired with the blessings promised to the Jews (1.1.101–4).1 When threatened with a tax needed to pay the Turkish tribute—a tax reminiscent of Edward I's 'talladges'—Barabas does not seek refuge in conversion to Christianity; but his hesitation results in confiscation of his wealth. Only his craftiness in hiding the better part of his fortune prevents complete destitution. His revenge later is to have the governor's son killed in a duel with his daughter's rival suitor, Mathias—the start of a series of murders and atrocities accomplished through duplicity and deception that characterize the hero-villain.

Duplicity and deception provide the link between Barabas's Jewishness and Machiavellism, at least in the popular imagination to which Marlowe appealed. Barabas implies the connection in his soliloquy brooding upon Ferneze's unjust confiscation of his property:

  • I am not of the tribe of Levi, I,
  • That can so soon forget an injury.
  • We Jews can fawn like spaniels when we please,
  • And when we grin, we bite; yet are our looks
  • As innocent and harmless as a lamb's.
  • I learned in Florence how to kiss my hand,
  • Heave up my shoulders when they call me dog,
  • And duck as low as any barefoot friar,
  • Hoping to see them starve upon a stall. …


Florence, of course, was Machiavelli's city. Unlike Venice, it was not known for harbouring many Jews. The soliloquy occurs shortly before Barabas purchases the slave Ithamore, a Turk who rivals him in treachery, especially directed against Christians (see 2.3.171–212). Since Marlowe includes Christian treachery as well in his play, most prominently at the end, it is clear that he enjoys attacking hypocritical professors of all three major religions, not solely the Jewish machiavel.

pg 9Shakespeare also attacks Christian hypocrisy, as modern commentators have frequently noted, specifically in Shylock's speech on Christian slave-holding (4.1.89–99).1 But the conception of Shylock is altogether different from Marlowe's Barabas, notwithstanding the fact that both authors drew upon the same historical and literary backgrounds. Whereas Marlowe seems intent on a virtuoso display of comic villainy, with little regard for serious or deep character motives after Acts 1 and 2, Shakespeare concentrates upon Shylock's complex nature and the relationships of justice and mercy that lie at the heart of his play. If Shylock is another version of the villainous Jewish money-lender, and like Barabas a comic villain, he is also something more—the first stage Jew in English drama who is multi-dimensional and thus made to appear human.

Scholars, including myself, have looked elsewhere in Shakespeare's work for references to Jews and from them to discover more about his attitude. The references, such as those in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, 1 Henry IV, and Macbeth, are hardly complimentary, though usually offhandedly remarked and consistent with the dramatic character. The references in Love's Labour's Lost, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Much Ado About Nothing, on the other hand, are clearly humorous ones, depending in part on word-play to gain effect.2 No allusions at all appear in the poems or sonnets. Anti-Semitic slurs thus do not appear to be important in Shakespeare's vocabulary or his thinking, with the outstanding exception of The Merchant of Venice. There, in the view of some critics, Shakespeare unleashed a venomous attack upon Jews—not only money-lenders and usurers, but all Jews.3 To cite only one piece of evidence, Shylock is rarely referred to by name; instead, he is typically referred to or addressed as 'Jew', a pg 10term then as now (in some quarters) of considerable contempt.1

Despite this fact, or rather in addition to it, complicating Shakespeare's attitude and our understanding of it, are other aspects of Shylock's character. These have enabled some actors, notably Henry Irving and Laurence Olivier, to portray Shylock as sympathetic, someone more sinned against than sinning, in short a tragic figure. A certain amount of textual adaptation, such as cutting Shylock's long aside, 'How like a fawning publican he looks. | I hate him for he is a Christian', etc. (1.3.38–49), is of course essential for this interpretation, although the dramatist otherwise endowed his comic villain with sufficient depth to permit the tragic emphasis. But it needs to be stressed that despite Shylock's depths, his very human traits,2 Shakespeare's initial conception of him was essentially as a comic villain, most likely adorned with a red wig and beard and a bottle nose, but not a middle-European accent.3

The evidence for Shylock as a comic villain is partly in the literary and dramatic traditions, which Shakespeare followed, that lie behind the character, and partly in certain generic and other considerations.4 Romantic comedy, as Shakespeare pg 11developed the genre, is not without its darker elements, as Hero's denunciation and assumed death in Much Ado About Nothing clearly demonstrate and as, in a play closer to the Merchant, some aspects of A Midsummer Night's Dream also reveal.1 Into this side of romantic comedy falls Shylock's design against Antonio's life. But the comic element also includes Antonio's hairbreadth escape. Legalistic quibbling over the validity of the bond, or Portia's arguments opposing, is not of paramount concern: Shylock's defeat is another in a long series going back beyond Barabas's descent into the cauldron—an example of 'the biter bit', a joke Elizabethans loved almost as much as jokes about cuckoldry. As for Shylock's conversion, we need only note that it was accepted as the alternative to something that, sinfully, Shylock thought would be worse. It could have been regarded by Elizabethan audiences (unlike those since then) as evidence of Antonio's Christian charity to Shylock—a mercy, combined with his request that Shylock be spared from destitution, entirely consonant with Portia's exhortations to Shylock earlier in the trial scene. In this way, the shallowness of Shylock's Judaism contrasts strikingly with the depth of Antonio's magnanimity and, before his, the Duke's spontaneous charity.2

But is Shylock worth saving? Apart from the consideration that every human soul is precious, does Shylock earn any serious sympathy that may lead us to rejoice in his salvation—such as it is? In spurning Shylock, Antonio and others, particularly Graziano, simultaneously spurn both his business and his religion; for in their minds—as in most Elizabethans'—usury and Jewishness were interlocked.3 They thus pg 12provide Shylock with his deep resentment and the motivation for his revenge. Heaping injury upon insult, Jessica's elopement with Lorenzo, accompanied by bags of ducats and jewels, further exacerbates Shylock's bitter resentment. When news that Antonio's ships have miscarried reaches him at the moment of his agony over Jessica's actions, Shylock is more than ever prepared for a vicious counter-attack. His intention to hold Antonio to his bond and its penalty comes precisely when Salerio and Solanio taunt him unmercifully (3.1.21–49). True, Jessica later claims that Shylock always meant to undo Antonio if he could (3.2.282–8), but in the dramatic structure of the play, the impulse to revenge comes just here, where it is most powerfully motivated.1 And it is through this motivation and the circumstances immediately surrounding it as much as anything else that Shylock's essential human quality emerges, just as Hamlet's action in the prayer scene— his lust for vengeance against Claudius—makes him not nobler but more human.2

Our response to Shylock, then, must be measured accordingly. Norman Rabkin is among the few critics who remind us that the scene with Salerio and Solanio involves the audience in a congeries of emotions so complex and contradictory that it is impossible to maintain a simple, single response to Shylock's behaviour. At once humorous, pathetic, antagonizing, Shylock's reaction to the news of his daughter's elopement, her theft, Antonio's misfortune, Jessica's squandering of his prized possessions parallels the similar situation in the Boar's Head scene in 1 Henry IV where Falstaff makes his apologia pro vita sua (2.5.421–86).3 If we are true to our experience of character and events, then no simplistic, reductivist description can appear accurate. Moreover, in subsequent scenes, our response to Shylock will be affected, or it ought to be, by an understanding not only of his position, but of pg 13his frame of mind, including the kinds of emotion his experience generates. That Shylock is hell-bent, literally, upon his revenge against Antonio should then hardly surprise us. Everything considered, his attitude and actions appear those of a man seriously deranged by what he, rightly or wrongly, regards as an enormous injustice against him personally and, through him, the people he represents.1 Is it any wonder, then, that Shylock remains intransigent, impervious to Portia's appeals to mercy in the trial scene?

In this and other ways (developed below), Shakespeare reveals his attitude toward Shylock. It is ambivalent, far more than Marlowe's attitude toward Barabas. But in neither author can we confidently proclaim an anti-Semitic bias that is more than abstract and traditional. For Marlowe, the machiavel was more significant than Barabas's Judaism, which merged with it. By contrast, in developing Shylock's character in depth, and endowing it with vivid attitudes and emotions, Shakespeare succeeded in creating a dramatic figure who arouses far deeper feelings than Barabas can. Whereas the one remains, first and last, a comic stage villain, however brilliant and quick-witted, the other transcends the type, shatters the conventional image with his appeal to our common humanity, and leaves us unsettled in our prejudices, disturbed in our emotions, and by no means sure of our convictions.

Sources, Analogues, and Date

Although a play called The Jew (c.1578) was a precursor and possibly influenced the composition of The Merchant of Venice, very little is known about it other than Stephen Gosson's remarks in The Schoole of Abuse (1579). There it is described along with another play, Ptolome, as 'shown at the Bull, the one representing the greediness of worldly choosers, and bloody minds of usurers; the other very lively describing how seditious estates … are overthrown, neither with amorous gesture wounding the eye, nor with slovenly talk hurting the pg 14ears of the chaste hearers'.1 Whether or not Shakespeare knew this old play, which may have been lost to him as well as to us, his immediate source was very likely a story in Giovanni Fiorentino's collection of tales called Il pecorone ('The Dunce'). Modelled on Boccaccio's Decameron and written at the end of the fourteenth century, the collection was printed in Milan in 1558, but not translated into English in Shakespeare's day. Shakespeare may have read the tale in the original along with another possible source, Masuccio Salernitano's Il novellino (1476), which contains a parallel to the Jessica-Lorenzo subplot. Or he may have otherwise picked up the stories through conversation or discussion. Yet another possible source, Richard Robinson's translation of the Gesta romanorum in 1595, contains an analogous casket story from which Shakespeare apparently borrowed the word insculpt at

Most of the major plot elements as well as themes in The Merchant of Venice appear in Fiorentino's first tale told on the fourth day in Il pecorone, though Shakespeare alters them and, combining them with elements from other sources (not least his own fertile imagination), transforms them into something far more compelling, both dramatically and intellectually. In Fiorentino's tale, for example, Giannetto (the hero) is the adopted son of a wealthy Venetian, Ansaldo, friend of his lately deceased father—not Giannetto's older friend, as Antonio is to Bassanio. Ansaldo showers gifts as well as affection upon Giannetto, and when the young man wants to take a trip with two of his friends to Alexandria, Ansaldo provides him with a ship like theirs, fully fitted out for the journey. En route, as the ships pass Belmonte, Giannetto learns about the mysterious lady who rules there. She has promised to give herself and everything she has to the man who possesses her. pg 15Intrigued, Giannetto gives his friends the slip, enters the harbour, and is entertained graciously by the lady. In the evening, after a great feast, he and the lady retire to her bedchamber, where she invites him to drink before going to bed. The drink is drugged, and as soon as the young man's head touches the pillow, he falls asleep till well after daybreak. As a forfeit, Giannetto is obliged to surrender his ship and everything in it.

Giannetto sneaks back to Venice, chagrined and ashamed, but is at last persuaded to see Ansaldo, who believes his false story about shipwreck and forgives him. Smitten with love for the lady of Belmonte, Giannetto determines to try his luck again, and again he fails in exactly the same way. By now Ansaldo has spent most of his wealth, but he is willing to borrow from a Jewish money-lender so that Giannetto can try once more to sail to Alexandria and make his fortune, which he repeatedly proclaims as his goal. This time, taking pity on the handsome and debonair young man, a servant girl warns him about the drink, and Giannetto successfully possesses the lady—to everyone's delight and satisfaction. In his new-found joy, however, he forgets the due date of Ansaldo's bond, which elapses, leaving his benefactor at the mercy of the Jew, who thereupon demands his pound of flesh, the forfeit agreed upon. When belatedly Giannetto arrives with the money, the Jew refuses payment, insisting on his forfeit. Meanwhile, the lady also arrives, disguised as a lawyer, and foils the Jew's wishes. She also succeeds in getting a ring from Giannetto that his bride had given him, and at the end reveals her deception and cleverness. Ansaldo returns with them to Belmonte and is married to the servant girl who had told Giannetto how to win the lady.

While certain similarities to the Belmont plot in The Merchant of Venice are immediately apparent, differences also emerge that are equally if not more important. The lady's motivation for tricking her suitors suggests a concupiscence that does not fit with her otherwise noble character; hence, Shakespeare adds a more virtuous motivation, borrowed from the story in the Gesta romanorum (see below). The Jew's behaviour also lacks adequate motivation. Of an ancient grudge between the two principals, or a 'merry bond', there is nothing. The only suggestion of religious rivalry occurs in pg 16the Jew's explanation of his intransigence, simply that he could then boast that he had put to death the greatest of Christian merchants ('e'l Giudeo non voile mai, anzi voleva fare quello homicidio, per poter dire che avesse morto il maggiore mercantante che fosse tra' Cristiani').1 While other merchants appeal to the Jew to relent, and Giannetto arrives and offers many times over the original sum borrowed, the trial lacks Portia's eloquent speech on mercy as well as most of the drama of the situation, though it heightens the comedy. Retaining the lady's insistence that the Jew extract precisely one pound of flesh without spilling so much as a drop of blood, the episode ends not with the forced conversion of the Jew, but with his furious anger as, outwitted completely, he tears the bond to pieces.

The Jessica-Lorenzo subplot and Graziano's courtship of Nerissa, with its doubling of the ring business, are also missing from this tale. So are the appearances of other suitors, counterparts to the Prince of Morocco and the Prince of Arragon. In adapting Fiorentino's story, Shakespeare did more than complicate his plot; he deepened its significance and broadened its themes. The introduction of the Jessica story, for example, suggested by Marlowe's Jew of Malta and Masuccio's tale, not only strengthens Shylock's motive for revenge, as Muir says;2 it also adds to the comic conclusion of three happily married couples. But here again Shakespeare alters his sources; for Antonio, unlike Ansaldo, is left at the end as at the beginning a 'fifth wheel'. Although his ships, once believed wrecked, have miraculously returned (5.1.276–7), he may have as much cause for melancholy as at the start: he has just narrowly escaped death and, his dearest friend now married, he faces a lonely future. Touches of mortality, apparent though seldom emphasized in early Shakespearian comedy (most notably in Love's Labour's Lost), round off the play in ways found neither in Shakespeare's sources nor in the related work of his contemporaries.

pg 17 The Casket Story

The flesh-bond story, which Shakespeare fused with the casket story, has its origin in tales as ancient as one in the Mahabharata, where King Usinara saves a dove from a hawk by giving it some of his own flesh instead. The Talmud includes a similar story of sacrifice involving Moses, and under the Twelve Tables of Roman Law, creditors were allowed as a last resort to claim the body of a defaulting debtor and divide it among them.1 Although the first story in English may be found in the Cursor mundi, dating from the thirteenth century,2 Shakespeare's use of the casket story probably derives from History 32 of the Gesta romanorum, as translated by Richard Robinson, but it too has ancient origins in myth and fable as well as great psychological and symbolic significance. In Robinson's version of the Gesta romanorum, Ancelmus, the emperor of Rome, agrees to marry his only son to the daughter of the king of Ampluy. After undergoing many hardships, including shipwreck at sea, the princess arrives at the emperor's court, but she must pass a further test before she can marry the emperor's son. The emperor sets before her three caskets of gold, silver, and lead. The first, encrusted with precious stones but containing dead men's bones, is inscribed, 'Whoso chooseth me shall find that he deserveth'. The second, crafted of fine silver but containing earth and worms, is inscribed 'Whoso chooseth me shall find that his nature desireth'. The leaden casket, inscribed with the motto 'Whoso chooseth me, shall find that God hath disposed for him', is filled with precious stones. The princess piously chooses the last one, to the satisfaction of all concerned, and is married to the prince.3

Borrowing the casket story, Shakespeare obviously did more than alter the inscriptions. He dramatized the selection of each casket and, in fusing the tale with the flesh-bond plot, made the choosers men. In his study of 'the Theme of the Three Caskets', Sigmund Freud speculated on the significance of the pg 18story as Shakespeare adapted it not only in The Merchant of Venice but also in King Lear.1 While he is more deeply interested in the tragedy, he makes some important observations about the comedy as well. He begins by noting the relation of the story to an astral myth, identified by Eduard Stucken, who saw the Prince of Morocco as the sun, the Prince of Arragon the moon, and Bassanio the star youth (Astralmythen der Hebraer, Babylonier und Aegypter, Leipzig, 1907). But Freud goes further. The astral myth is, after all, a projection of a human situation, and it is the human content of the myth that is important.

The change from female to male choosers in The Merchant of Venice is clearly a significant inversion of the theme. Symbolically, the caskets—like coffers, boxes, or baskets—are equivalent to women. Hence, the choice involved is of three women, as in the Greek legend of the Judgement of Paris. The third woman, the one Paris chooses, is Aphrodite, the beautiful Goddess of Love. But the symbolism of the leaden casket hardly points in this direction; it points towards death. If the third goddess is the Goddess of Death, then all three goddesses are the Fates, the Moirai, the third of whom is Atropos. Yet no one consciously chooses death; one falls victim to it, inexorably.

Freud resolves this apparent contradiction through his theory of 'reaction-formation', which argues that human beings substitute for the terrors of reality a more acceptable version, one that satisfies their wishes as reality often does not ('wishfulfilment'). Human nature thus rebelled against the myth of the Moirai and imaginatively constructed a counter-myth, one derived from it, 'in which the Goddess of Death was replaced by the Goddess of Love and by what was equivalent to her in human shape. The third of the sisters was no longer Death; she was the fairest, best, most desirable and most lovable of women' (p. 299). Through similar wishful reversal, choice entered the myth of the three sisters, or Fates, and became a substitute for necessity, or destiny:

pg 19In this way man overcomes death, which he has recognized intellectually. No greater triumph of wish-fulfillment is conceivable. A choice is made where in reality there is obedience to a compulsion; and what is chosen is not a figure of terror, but the fairest and most desirable of women. (Ibid.)

Bassanio's 'choice', then, becomes his fate, and he and Portia, the Aphrodite figure, are destined for life together in love. But first Shylock, the killjoy, the true spirit of deathliness, must be overcome. Like the princess in the original casket story, or rather the clever lady in the flesh-bond tale, Portia accomplishes this deed. Thus the two stories are fused.1

The Jessica-Lorenzo Subplot

The fourteenth story in Masuccio's Il novellino provides the likeliest source for the Jessica-Lorenzo subplot, although Abigail, Barabas's daughter in Marlowe's The Jew of Malta, may have first led Shakespeare to think of a daughter for Shylock. In Masuccio's tale, an old miser, a merchant of Messina, has a lovely young daughter much like Miranda in The Tempest, someone who has hardly ever seen a man. She falls in love with Giuffredi Saccano, a cavalier, who notices her one day at her window and is likewise inflamed with passion for her. The cavalier plots with a slave girl to trick the old man and get Carmosina to elope with him. He succeeds; moreover, Carmosina steals away with a great store of her father's treasure, leaving the miser doubly bereft.2

A related situation occurs in Book III of Anthony Munday's prose tale, Zelauto or The Fountaine of Fame (1580), which bears other similarities to Shakespeare's play, including a flesh-bond story. There, two friends, Strabino and Rodolfo, woo two young women, Cornelia and Brisana. Cornelia is also sought by an old miser named Truculento, who is Brisana's father. To ensure success in their suits, the two young men pg 20borrow a sum of money from Truculento, pledging to repay it on a certain date or else forfeit their right eyes. Strabino and Rodolfo win their suits, much to the furious displeasure of Truculento, who then seizes on the missed payment of their debt to claim the forfeit. The immediate spur to his revenge is thus similar to Shylock's. Furthermore, in a trial before the magistrate, Cornelia and Brisana pose as lawyers and successfully plead their fiancés' case. They win partly because Truculento (again like Shylock) has failed to claim as payment any drop of blood along with the right eyes of the debtors. Truculento is denied his principal, but eventually accepts Rodolfo as his son-in-law, making him his heir.1 Missing from both Masuccio's tale and Munday's, however, is the motif of a Jewess's love for a Christian and her subsequent conversion, which Shakespeare must have seen in Abigail's relationship with her lover in Marlowe's play and adapted accordingly.

Other possible sources and analogues include the ballad of Gernutus,2 Gower's Confessio Amantis, Book V,3 and Alexandre Sylvain's The Orator, which was translated from the French by 'L.P.' (Lazarus Piot, a pseudonym Munday used) and published in 1596.4 Of these, the last is the most important, for Declamation 95, 'Of a Jew, who would for his debt have a pound of flesh of a Christian', contains the shape of arguments very similar to those Shylock and others use in the Trial Scene. For example, Sylvain's Jew, declining to say specifically why he prefers the pound of flesh to the money owed, offers various possible reasons, although they are quite different from the more caustic response Shylock gives at 4.1.39–61. Indeed, comparison between Shakespeare's play and its sources shows, here as elsewhere, a far more fertile pg 21imagination at work, able not only to refashion and transform adapted materials, but by dramatizing them afresh in striking and vivid language, to recreate them almost as if they were new.

Biblical and Classical Allusions

The Merchant of Venice is studded with both classical and biblical allusions, though how many were deliberately intended or unconsciously woven into the fabric of the dialogue is uncertain. Similarly, the degree to which Shakespeare could depend upon audience recognition is debatable. Some, of course, cannot be mistaken or missed, as in Shylock's long account of Jacob, Laban, and the parti-coloured lambs (1.3.68–93), or the repeated references to the story of Jason and the golden fleece (1.1.169–72, 3.2.240, etc.). Others may be more subtle, involving satirical or other purposes.1 But all of them extend the play's dimensions, helping to universalize its themes and providing a broader context of human experience.

More controversial is the extent to which Shakespeare may have been consciously building allegorical elements into his play, adapting to his secular theatre the more forthright examples of morality and miracle plays that he would have witnessed as a youth in Warwickshire and that still had an important influence on the drama of the 1590s, as in Marlowe's Dr Faustus. Lancelot Gobbo's debate on whether to leave his master the Jew (2.2.1–29) is a comic interlude adapted from moralities that present good and evil angels arguing with an Everyman character on how to behave. This much is clear. But how deliberately Shakespeare intended an allegory of the Old Law versus the New in the trial scene of Act 4 is less certain. Though allegorical elements may be identified—Shylock 'stands for' law, Portia advocates mercy— the characters are not simply embodied abstractions typical of that mode (see below). The episode may owe something to the Processus Belial, a medieval story in which the Devil pleads for mankind's soul in the court of heaven, basing his appeal on strict justice. The Virgin Mary, however, intercedes, claiming that mercy is also an attribute of God, and succeeds in pg 22her appeal. During the debate, the Devil even produces a set of scales to weigh the part of humankind that is owed him. Shylock's behaviour and his identification with the Devil in The Merchant of Venice brings the analogue to mind, especially as the plea for mercy and other details do not appear in any of the recognized sources, but how aware of it Shakespeare was during composition is impossible to determine.1

On the other hand, Shakespeare apparently read the Bible (in the Geneva translation) to learn something about Hebraic traditions, specifically to help him develop the character of Shylock, since he evidently knew little at first hand about Jews or Jewish traditions.2 Besides Shylock's long account of Jacob and Laban, there are allusions to Rachel's trick in obtaining Esau's birthright for her other son, to Hagar and her offspring, to a synagogue where Shylock takes his oath, to Jewish dietary restrictions, and so forth. Shylock's name may also derive from biblical sources, although its derivation is less certain than the names of other Jewish characters.

In the genealogies of Genesis 10–11 Shakespeare found the Hebrew names he needed. Tubal is there (Gen. 10:2) and Cush, Ham's first-born son and the father of Nimrod (Gen. 10:6–9; spelled 'Chus' in the Bishops' Bible and others except Geneva). Iscah, the daughter of Abraham's brother Haran, appears a little later (Gen. 11:29); from it, the name Jessica derives.3 All are descendants of Shem, Ham, or Japheth, the sons of Noah. So is Shelah, Shem's grandson, mentioned twice in these chapters (Gen. 10:24 and 11:12–pg 2315). Shelah begot Eber and thus became the progenitor of Hebrews.1 Shylock's name probably derives from Shelah, in Hebrew 'Shelach', still closer in pronunciation to that of Shakespeare's character, whose first syllable probably contained a short i, lost in today's pronunciation.2 His wife's name, Leah, occurs later in Genesis 29 and again in chapter 30, where the story of Jacob's dealings with Laban appears.3

Other Influences

No literature emerges from a vacuum, though the lines of descent for ideas, images, terms may be more or less direct or indirect. From all accounts, Shakespeare was a good reader; in addition, he must have been a good listener, picking up references to books, people, and events in conversation with his friends and colleagues almost daily. Because of the close proximity of the tales of Thisbe, Dido, and Medea in The Legend of Good Women, which follows closely upon the Troylus and Creseyda in old editions of Chaucer, some scholars believe Shakespeare may have had his Chaucer open before him as he began Act 5 (see commentary on 5.1.1–14). Less direct may have been the influence of Boethius' De institutione musica in the same act, when Lorenzo lectures Jessica on the music of the spheres.4

Shakespeare was well acquainted with the law—like many of his contemporaries, he was himself litigious—but discussions of equity and justice, based upon his assumed intimate pg 24knowledge of Coke or William Lambarde's Archaionomia (1568), may be quite beside the point, dramatically speaking, as we try to understand what happens in the trial scene in Act 4.1 Similarly, we recognize Shakespeare's knowledge of Roman comedy; The Comedy of Errors, one of his earliest plays, is adapted from a comedy by Plautus. But Shylock and Jessica may owe as much to the pantaloon and his daughter in the Italian commedia dell'arte, and in any case they derive more directly from Masuccio's tale. Much was written about usury and its evils during Elizabeth's reign, and doubtless Shakespeare was aware of current controversy. But did he actually read Calvin's arguments and Beza's in support of it, or Miles Mosse's The Arraignment and Conviction of Usury (1595) against it,2 to understand the terms of the controversy? And how relevant are the details of usury to The Merchant of Venice after all? Although Shylock and Antonio debate lending money at interest in 1.3, Shylock expressly forgoes any return on his loan in his apparent attempt to be friendly.3 From that point on, not interest on the loan but the security, or its forfeit, becomes the central issue.4

The 'Myth' of Venice

The so-called 'myth' of Venice, on the other hand, certainly exerted an influence in the composition of the play.5 To Shakespeare and his contemporaries, Italy was in every sense romantic, and doubtless for that reason many of the dramas of the time, comedies and tragedies alike, were set there. Venice had a special appeal. An ancient republic, it had earned a reputation for political astuteness, great wealth, and legal justice. In addition, it was a pleasure-loving city, to pg 25

View of Venice (1593)

1. View of Venice, from Civitatis Orbis Terrarum (1593), by Georg Braun and Frans Hogenburg

which swarms of tourists flocked constantly, including many from England.1 Shakespeare could have become aware of these aspects of the myth in a variety of ways—through both oral and written sources—though we have no evidence that he himself ever visited there.

Of especial importance to The Merchant of Venice was the city's reputation for far-flung trade; if Shakespeare exaggerates its extensiveness,2 which by then was in decline, her reputation as a great maritime power nevertheless was commonly accepted. So was her reputation for fairness in dealing with foreigners, which had contributed to making her a great maritime power. Her vaunted impartiality was seconded by the severity of her justice. Fynes Moryson, who journeyed to pg 26

Carnival scene in Venice (1609)

2. Venetian carnival, from Giacomo Franco, Habiti d'huomini et donne Venetiane (1609)

Venice in 1593–4, saw two young sons of senators mutilated and then executed for singing blasphemous songs and for other misdemeanours.1 Speaking of the Venetians, Lewis Lewkenor notes 'the greatness of their Empire, the gravity of their prince, the majesty of their Senate, the inviolableness of their laws, their zeal in religion, and lastly their moderation and equity'2—qualities exhibited by characters and events in Shakespeare's play. In recalling, too, 'the delicacy of their entertainments, the beauty, pomp, and daintiness of their women, and finally the infinite superfluities of all pleasure and delights', he pays homage to the city as the pleasure capital of Europe, an aspect of Venice also revealed in The Merchant of Venice and later cited in Othello.

Though discriminated against in various ways, Jews were tolerated in Venice and allowed to practise their religion openly, pg 27as they were not in London or anywhere in England. Compelled to wear distinctive garb,1 to live in a special district called the 'ghetto' (the Italian name for a foundry that was once built there), and to pay disproportionately heavy taxes, they could still earn a living; in fact, partly because so few other occupations were open to them, they became the city's leading moneylenders and second-hand dealers, or pawnbrokers. Relations between Christians and Jews were far from cordial, but animosity was based upon religious grounds, not racial. Shakespeare knew or understood some of these details, though by no means all. Shylock, for example, apparently lives in Venice proper, not in the ghetto, which is never referred to by name. But Antonio explicitly invokes the reputation for impartial justice and its importance for foreign trade, the thought of which makes him despair of help from the Duke (3.3.26–31).


Although not printed and published until 1600, The Merchant of Venice was entered in the Stationers' Register on 22 July 1598 (see below, p. 85). Six weeks later, on 7 September, Francis Meres's Palladis Tamia was also entered on the Register. In this book, Meres specifically mentions The Merchant of Venice among Shakespeare's comedies. The references clearly establish the last possible date for the play.

How early it was written is more difficult to determine. Salarino's reference to 'my wealthy Andrew docked in sand' (1.1.27) apparently alludes to the San Andrés, a Spanish galleon that, along with the San Matias, ran aground and was captured fully loaded by English ships under the earl of Essex in Cadiz harbour, June 1596.2 The ship was later renamed the Saint Andrew and had further misadventures the year following, so that it was much in the news during the pg 28period 1596–7. On her return from the Islands Voyage, for example, after much battering by storms, Essex decided not to risk her sailing by the Goodwin Sands, mentioned in The Merchant of Venice as a graveyard for ships (3.1.4–5).

Two other pieces of external evidence also suggest 1596–7 as the approximate date for composition. Marlowe's The Jew of Malta was still being performed by the rivals of Shakespeare's company, the Lord Admiral's Men; in 1596 it was performed eight times (Brown, p. xxiv), and The Merchant was doubtless designed to capitalize on its popularity. Since the Lord Chamberlain's Men had lost their lease at the Theatre and the Globe had not yet been built, they were playing at this time at the Swan on the Bankside, near where the Globe would eventually stand. To obtain the right to perform in that theatre, members of Shakespeare's company were compelled by its proprietor, Francis Langley, to sign 'outrageously exorbitant' bonds. These stipulated that the players would perform exclusively at the Swan, on forfeit of the huge sum of one hundred pounds. Bonds were a new form of contractual agreement in the theatre; Philip Henslowe soon afterwards resorted to their use as well, and Shakespeare's company became involved with his requirement for a bond when the Swan was later refused a licence to open. Although the terms of the bond are unknown, the negotiations very likely influenced Shakespeare's thinking as he wrote the Merchant.1

Internal evidence, based upon stylistic analysis, also suggests 1596–7 as the date of composition. According to the editors of the Oxford Complete Works, Oras's pause test links it to the Henry IV plays, but the handling of the imagery and verse is less mature; hence, in their chronology it appears after the 'lyric' group (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Romeo and Juliet, Richard II), and between King John and 1 Henry IV.2This ordering makes a good deal of sense. The verse, especially in Act 5, strikingly resembles that of the lyric plays, but the pg 29prose passages, such as Shylock's 'Hath not a Jew eyes' (3.1.55–69), look forward to Falstaff's.1 As the first of Shakespeare's great comic heroines, Portia was soon followed by Beatrice, Rosalind, and Viola, with whom she shares a number of traits. Similarly, Bassanio, the handsome but somewhat feckless romantic hero, anticipates Claudio in Much Ado and Orlando in As You Like It. But in the treatment of comic villains, Shakespeare must have learned from the development of Shylock's character a need for some restraint. He obviously exercised a great deal as regards Don John, just the right amount in the creation of Malvolio.

The Play

The emphasis upon different kinds of bondage and bonding in The Merchant of Venice opens the play to a comprehensive critical interpretation that takes account of inconsistencies and contradictions without reducing actions, characters, and events to an oversimplified, unified pattern.2 In his very first lines Antonio confesses the grip that melancholy has upon him, and shortly thereafter we see the bonds, both weak and strong, that tie him to friends and acquaintances. The bond of friendship with Bassanio involves debts of loyalty but also money that almost immediately lead to other debts, obligations alternatively despised, feared, or lightly entered into, when Bassanio approaches Shylock in Antonio's name to secure a sizeable loan. But before Shakespeare presents that confrontation, Portia and Nerissa at Belmont debate other obligations, those involving the bond between parent and child, father and daughter. By the time the second act concludes, still other bonds between parents and children are affirmed or broken, as are loyalties to religion, master-servant relationships, holiday sport—even time and tides.3 Through it all, and indeed throughout the entire action, the play both implicitly and explicitly affirms the bondage that our common humanity imposes, not only between individuals but also as pg 30

Italian Merchant (1590)

3. Italian Merchant, from Cesare Vecelli, De gli habiti antichi et moderni … (1590)

Italian Young Man (1590)

4. Italian Young Man, from Cesare Vecelli, De gli habiti antichi et moderni … (1590)

pg 31regards our 'muddy vesture of decay'. Important, too, is the hold that great dramatic art has upon its audience—and the reasons for that fascination.

Although Granville-Barker maintains that The Merchant of Venice is 'a fairy-tale' (p. 67), it does not begin like one, and other critics have noticed the play's mixture of realism and convention, or artifice and naturalism.1 Antonio's melancholy has been variously explained, but in the play all the explanations that his friends offer are rejected. Like many people who suffer from free-floating depression, Antonio does not know why he is 'so sad'. It troubles him as much as, or more than, others; and whatever the cause, its grip appears relentless. By the end of the play, although his miraculously returned ships (part of the 'fairy-tale' quality of the action) have given him 'life and living' (5.1.286), he is scarcely cured of his malady. Apparently a seventh wheel among the newly-wedded couples,2 he is cordially welcomed into Portia's house; but what he will do there or what his role will be now that Bassanio is safely married and no longer needs his friend as he did in 1.1 remains in question. Since the play ends at this point, no answer is forthcoming. That is one way (though not the most important way) the play retains its fascination for us.3

Psychoanalytically oriented critics and stage directors have explained Antonio's melancholy as the result of his homosexual attachment to Bassanio, his young friend. The theory is plausible but unprovable.4 Without doubt, Antonio's attachment to Bassanio is as strong as it is real, as the account of their leave-taking (2.8.36–49) demonstrates; but that it goes beyond a Platonic attachment between friends cannot be determined. While homosexual love in the Platonic hierarchy pg 32rests on a higher plane than heterosexual love, it is by no means the highest level.1 Nor can we confidently attribute Antonio's melancholy to a version of Weltschmerz, although quite possibly his affliction derives from a world-weariness sometimes experienced in middle life. Whatever the cause (very likely more than one), he appears ready to sacrifice himself for his friend. As 'a tainted wether of the flock' (4.1.113), he sees himself as a scapegoat figure, though what sins he carries on his back remain, like the causes of his melancholy, unspecified.

On his part, Bassanio is also tied to Antonio, by more than bonds of friendship. He has, he acknowledges, borrowed from Antonio before, but like a true gentleman Antonio refuses to let his friend dwell on that fact (1.1.153–4). Keen as his needs are, and anxious as he is to try to win the lady of Belmont, Bassanio tries to dissuade Antonio when it actually comes to signing the agreement with Shylock. Although some critics see him as little other than a self-aggrandizing opportunist,2 others view Bassanio as a naïve young man who, like many of the characters, has much to learn about the ways of the world as well as himself. As the play progresses, he proves an apt pupil, bound to learn.3

Bound, also, is Portia—to her father's will as against her own desires in the way of matrimony. If the weariness she voices in her first appearance echoes Antonio's, we hardly need Nerissa's explanation to learn the cause of it. Like any rich, spoiled heiress, she is bored with her lot; surfeiting with too much, she feels as bad as those who suffer from too little. Until Bassanio comes along and releases her from her enclosed world—at least temporarily—into 'the world', she has hardly anything to do. Like Rosalind and Celia at the beginning of As You Like It, or the Brangwen sisters in the opening chapter of Women in Love, she therefore talks with Nerissa about love and marriage, bridling at her father's decree concerning the choice of a husband, but determined nevertheless to observe it. She thus stands in direct contrast to Jessica later, another pg 33only child, who breaks the bonds to her father and to her religion in eloping with Lorenzo, compounding her double disloyalty by stealing ducats and jewels from Shylock as well.

Early in Act 2 Lancelot Gobbo also focuses on family ties, though he begins with a broadly comic soliloquy on breaking the bond to his master Shylock in search of better employment. His dilemma raises questions about his 'honesty', leading eventually to a coarse joke concerning his father's marital fidelity, a joke he amplifies when Old Gobbo appears ('it is a wise father that knows his own child', 2.2.72–3). Insisting on calling himself 'Master', Lancelot not only confuses and embarrasses his father, but satirizes upward social mobility, an oblique glance, perhaps, at Bassanio's wish to become lord of Belmont by winning Portia—and possibly a self-reflexive joke on Shakespeare's own social ascendance at this time.1

Lancelot does more than comically abuse his filial relationship and justify breaking with Shylock, his master, to find new service with Bassanio. His frequent malapropisms and other examples of verbal pretentiousness comically bend, if they do not break, the boundaries of ordinary speech.2 He demonstrates his legitimate descent from Old Gobbo, linguistically and otherwise, in their address to Bassanio:

gobbo He hath a great infection, sir, as one would say, to serve—

lancelot Indeed, the short and the long is, I serve the Jew, and

have a desire, as my father shall specify—

gobbo His master and he, saving your worship's reverence, are scarce


lancelot To be brief, the very truth is that the Jew, having done

me wrong, doth cause me, as my father—being, I hope, an old

man—shall frutify unto you— (2.2.120–8)

Later, Lancelot's linguistic virtuosity, such as it is, appears in dialogue with Jessica, when he confesses his 'agitation' regarding her putative damnation for being a Jew's daughter (3.5.1–23). Trying to comfort her, he ends by compounding her predicament, as he sees it, twice over: first, by holding pg 34out the hope that Shylock did not father her after all—a kind of 'bastard' hope, as both agree; then by rejecting her salvation at the hands of her husband, Lorenzo, who by making her a Christian will raise the price of pork, causing widespread shortages. When Lorenzo enters, Lancelot changes tactics and engages in other forms of chop logic and verbal quibbling, to Lorenzo's near exasperation: 'How every fool can play upon the word' (40). The word-play, comic here, ironically foreshadows the linguistic display in Act 4 that ends with another conversion—Shylock's.1

Different kinds of verbal pretentiousness also characterize Portia's suitors, particularly the Prince of Morocco. He opens Act 2 with a self-conscious and extravagant defence of his complexion, 'The shadowed livery of the burnished sun' (2.1.2). Bragging of his red blood and of his military and sexual accomplishments, he confuses classical allusions, collapsing the story of Hercules playing at dice into the quite different story of the poisoned shirt of Nessus. Similarly, in his boasts of military prowess, he falsifies history (see commentary on 2.1.25–6 and 32–8). Withal, he is too dense to pick up Portia's hint (doubtless unintentional, or if not, then a test of her suitor's perspicacity) when she disdains the appeal of visual attractions (2.1.13–14). When the time comes for the actual choice of caskets, he rejects the leaden one, indicating his predisposition with the words, 'A golden mind stoops not to shows of dross' (2.7.20). The silver casket appears attractive, especially as it encourages a choice based upon self-worth, of which Morocco has plenty. But the golden one seduces him with 'Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire' (37), whereupon the prince breaks into hyperbole praising 'the lady'—and indirectly himself for 'solving' the riddle. His reward is the death's head and a scroll that reads, in part:

  • Had you been as wise as bold,
  • Young in limbs, in judgement old,
  • Your answer had not been inscrolled.
  • (70–2)

pg 35The words anticipate not only Bassanio's correct choice later, but Portia's actions in the trial scene, where she resembles a 'Daniel come to judgement' (see 4.1.220, 247, and commentary).

Arragon's pretentiousness is of another sort. Rejecting the golden casket, because he 'will not jump with common spirits' (2.9.31) who are thus attracted ('what many men desire'), he 'assumes' desert (50) and chooses the silver one after a long and pompous deliberation on the matter. His pedantry is rewarded with a fool's portrait and words that say:

  • There be fools alive, iwis,
  • Silvered o'er, and so was this.
  • Take what wife you will to bed,
  • I will ever be your head.
  • (67–70)

After his swift departure, Portia comments on 'these deliberate fools' who in choosing 'have the wisdom by their wit to lose' (80), or in other words, who outsmart themselves.

The inconsistency in the scroll's words—suggesting that Arragon is not bound to his pledge never 'To woo a maid in way of marriage' (13)—has been variously explained (see commentary) but is only one among the play's many inconsistencies and contradictions. It differs from the ambiguities of language that simultaneously bind and unloose, as Macbeth finds and in this play Shylock will—to his cost. Another link between the casket plot and the flesh-bond plot is the oath that the suitors take before making their election and the confidence they exhibit in themselves. Their hubris and Antonio's, as he agrees to the 'merry bond' and its diabolical forfeiture, are of a piece, though with potentially far more terrible consequences for the latter. While the comic absurdities that Morocco and Arragon reveal forestall or at least minimize sympathy, their plight is also a sad one, however well deserved, though they are never heard from again.

Bassanio's confidence, from first to last, is of a different quality and is motivated as much by Portia's evident favour towards him as by the belief he may have in himself (see 1.1.163–4, 3.2.1–18). Blessed with the right instincts and a good capacity to learn, when his turn comes to choose, he pg 36makes the right selection. Sceptical critics argue that Portia helps him by having a song sung as he contemplates the caskets (its first three lines all rhyme with lead), and it is certainly true that the other suitors are not thus privileged. The words of the song, furthermore, warn against choosing by visual attraction. However deep in contemplation he may be, Bassanio can scarcely be oblivious to it all, and his first words, 'So may the outward shows be least themselves' (3.2.73), seem to follow on directly from the song's theme. But Lawrence Danson has argued on many grounds, including the nature of the play as a romantic comedy (as opposed to a farce or 'neatly disguised satire') that the song should not be taken as Portia's 'tip-off'.1 Furthermore, Portia's disclaimer—that she could teach Bassanio how to choose, but that would make her forsworn, something she 'will never be' (10–12)—is evidence within the play against this hypothesis. Finally, despite the ambiguities and apparent contradictions in this scene, Portia's assertion—'If you do love me, you will find me out' (41)—must carry considerable weight.2 Again, this is part of the play's fairy-tale quality, that the handsome and noble young man, like the hero Alcides (55–7), must rescue the princess, instinctively choosing the least attractive casket precisely because, as he knows or has learned, 'The world is still deceived with ornament' (74).

Like Morocco and Arragon, Bassanio delivers a long speech before making his choice (73–107); but unlike theirs, his speech is neither filled with hyperbole (Morocco) nor swollen with abstractions (Arragon). Besides its concrete and detailed imagery, it is far more witty and perceptive.3 The key is in his use of irony and metaphor. In contrast to Arragon's sententiae on 'estates, degrees, and offices', for example, and his talk of 'the true seed of honour' (2.9.41–7), Bassanio speaks of 'cowards, whose hearts are all as false | As stairs of sand' (83–4). In contrast to Morocco's confused allusion pg 37to 'this shrine, this mortal breathing saint' (2.7.40),1 Bassanio notes how paradoxically cosmetics create 'a miracle in nature, | Making them lightest that wear most of it' (90–1). Finally, rejecting gold as 'hard food for Midas', he indeed gives and hazards all he has (and more, for he risks Antonio's fortune as well)—just as the inscription on the leaden casket demands (2.7.9). Joy is the consequence—and ties that now bind him to his wife.

How securely the ties are bound will be tested by the rings which both he and Graziano—the other winner in this contest—receive from their brides with promises to wear them always. But before the celebrations fully develop, word comes of Antonio's misfortune. Like Mercadé in Love's Labour's Lost, Salerio appears with a letter from Antonio announcing his plight and with another couple, Lorenzo and Jessica, whose presence recalls the raging father and creditor of 3.1.2Whether, like Giannetto in Fiorentino's tale, Bassanio has forgotten about Antonio's bond (see 'Sources', above), or whether he has too easily acquiesced in Antonio's reassurances (that his ships will come in before the due date, 1.3.178–9), we cannot tell. Keeping the time scheme vague, Shakespeare lets Bassanio remain up to now unaware of what is happening back in Venice, though the audience is fully apprised of events. The news therefore comes as a shock in Belmont. Portia shows her true nobility in recognizing without the merest hint of jealousy Bassanio's debt of loyalty to his friend and generously offers payment many times over to deface the bond (3.2.297–300). Afterwards, in dialogue with Lorenzo, she comments on her motives:

  • I never did repent for doing good,
  • Nor shall not now; for in companions
  • That do converse and waste the time together,
  • Whose souls do bear an equal yoke of love,
  • There must be needs a like proportion
  • Of lineaments, of manners, and of spirit,
  • Which makes me think that this Antonio,
  • Being the bosom lover of my lord,
  • Must needs be like my lord. If it be so,
  • pg 38How little is the cost I have bestowed
  • In purchasing the semblance of my soul
  • From out the state of hellish cruelty.
  • (3.4.10–21)

Portia and Bassanio, being husband and wife, are now one (which explains why she insists on their marriage before he returns to Venice). Hence, if Antonio is as like Bassanio as he must be, given their close relationship, she feels no qualms about ransoming the 'semblance' of her soul, i.e. Antonio as a reflection of Bassanio and therefore herself. Indeed, she cannot help feeling obliged to do so, and her feelings move her to more than supplying cash. Freed from her 'enchantment' at Belmont by Bassanio's election of the right casket, she can now engage in active intervention. To do so, she must free herself and Nerissa further, from their appearance as women, so that they can be effective in the role they will play in Act 4, when the action returns to Venice.

It is a critical commonplace regarding this play that although he appears in only five scenes, Shylock dominates the action. The trial scene, in which he plays a major role, contributes to this effect, but so too does the overall dramatic structure. The casket choices, including Bassanio's, are also trials and lead up to the climactic though not final trial of 4.1. One other trial (involving the rings) takes place, helping the play to a comic denouement and further developing the kinds of bonding that make for durable and compassionate human relationships—the nature of which Shylock's role in the play helps to define.

No advanced preparation is given for his first appearance. Although Antonio has commissioned Bassanio to raise the money he needs, the only danger suggested lies in his metaphor: 'Try what my credit can in Venice do; | That shall be racked, even to the uttermost, | To furnish thee to Belmont' (1.1.180–2). By Act 4 every principal character will be 'racked' in one way or another by this action; but as 1.3 opens Shylock seems hardly anything more than a cautious moneylender, carefully contemplating the loan Bassanio desires.1 If pg 39Shylock enjoys keeping Bassanio on the hook as he mulls over the request, the more sinister aspects of the loan do not emerge until Shylock repeats the terms for the fourth time: 'Three thousand ducats for three months and Antonio bound' (9–10). The emphasis comes on the last word,1 as the dialogue turns to Antonio's 'sufficiency'. Here, despite attempts at levity, Shylock lets slip a suppressed hope when he refers to the way Antonio has 'squandered' his ventures abroad (21). Slowly, but still keeping Bassanio in suspense, he suggests a positive response:

shylock Three thousand ducats; I think I may take his bond.

bassanio Be assured you may.

shylock I will be assured I may, and that I may be assured, I will

bethink me. May I speak with Antonio?


This is Bassanio's cue, gentleman that he is, to invite Shylock to dinner, occasioning the first of two asides2 in which Shylock reveals his deep-seated animosity to Christians generally and to Antonio in particular. It is also Antonio's cue to enter, and in his second and longer aside Shylock expresses his attitude and the underlying reasons for it:

  • How like a fawning publican he looks.
  • I hate him for he is a Christian,
  • But more for that in low simplicity
  • He lends out money gratis and brings down
  • The rate of usance here with us in Venice.
  • If I can catch him once upon the hip,
  • I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him.
  • He hates our sacred nation, and he rails,
  • Even there where merchants most do congregate,
  • On me, my bargains, and my well-won thrift,
  • Which he calls interest. Cursèd be my tribe
  • If I forgive him.
  • (38–49)

pg 40For actors and directors who wish to portray a sympathetic Shylock, the speech is problematical and therefore often cut,1although no one has ever questioned its textual authenticity. Retaining it, as Shakespeare doubtless intended, means endowing Shylock with motives that are as repulsive as they are comprehensible. Moreover, there is then no escaping the religious antagonism forthrightly stated in 'I hate him for he is a Christian'. But note two further points: first, his religion is not the main reason why Shylock hates Antonio; second, there is no comparable statement by any Christian in the play.2 We have only Shylock's word that Antonio 'hates our sacred nation' and later that he despises him because he is a Jew (3.1.55). But there, too, his assertion seems qualified by Antonio's contempt for him as a money-lender. The charge of anti-Semitism in 3.1 thus comes as a non-sequitur or red herring, in consonance with this speech, where Antonio's opposition to usury carries more weight than his alleged racialism.

Not that anti-Semitism and hostility to usury can easily be separated; in fact, historically they cannot be. Although not all usurers were Jews, in drama and fiction all Jews were usurers. Under the restrictions placed on Jews throughout most of Europe, very few other occupations were open to them.3 The origin of the twin antagonisms towards Jews and usurers may lie partly in Scripture, specifically Deuteronymy 23:20, which stipulates that interest-bearing loans may be made to 'strangers', but not to one's 'brother'.4 As aliens, Jews were not bound in Venice or elsewhere to lend money interest-free to others outside their religious confraternity, a pg 41practice which doubtless exacerbated the antagonism engendered towards them for other reasons.

The split in the community of Venice between Christians and Jews becomes a dominant issue in 1.3 and throughout the first four acts of the play. Shylock's delayed but cordial greeting to Antonio is the first of a series of steps apparently taken to heal that breach. He follows it with the long story of Jacob and Laban, which not only emphasizes Shylock's Jewishness and his association with Old Testament patriarchs, but tries to justify his lending money out at interest. Failing at that, Shylock confronts Antonio directly, sparing few details of how the merchant prince has treated him in the past—calling him names, spitting upon his 'Jewish gaberdine', spurning him like a dog (103–25). So far from denying his behaviour, Antonio warns Shylock that he may act that way again and urges him to lend the money, if he will, not as to a friend but to an enemy. Whatever compassion he shows later in 4.1, when he and Shylock change places on the rack of judgement, he shows none now, and it remains for Shylock to try to smooth things over. Here he succeeds, saying he will forget the past, supply the money, and take 'no doit | Of usance' for it (136–7). He would be friends and have Antonio's love, he claims; and as further proof, he 'in a merry sport' will demand only a pound of flesh as the forfeit in the bond they will both sign.

His earlier suspicions and Bassanio's demurrer notwithstanding (95–9, 151–2), Antonio agrees to the bond. He recognizes Shylock's 'kindness', calls him 'gentle Jew'—very likely punning on 'gentile'—and concludes: 'The Hebrew will turn Christian: he grows kind' (174–5). At the end, the Hebrew will turn Christian, but out of necessity, not 'kindness'. Nevertheless, there as here 'kindness'—understood as eliminating differences ('he is our kind') as well as charity and gentleness—is the means to bind up and make whole the divided community of Venice. The question is, how sincere are the parties in this agreement? When Shylock chides Bassanio for his suspiciousness, disdaining the value of a pound of human flesh, his jocular speech convinces Antonio but leaves Bassanio (otherwise and in other circumstances so naïve) still uneasy: 'I like not fair terms and a villain's mind' pg 42(177). Shylock may indeed be a smiling villain (such as Hamlet deplores) and will later, under provocation, drop the smiling and prove one. But Antonio is willing to take his offer as offered; and at the end, when the tables are turned in Act 4, he will follow through all the implications here of 'kindness'. Meanwhile, Shylock's attitude may be regarded as at least ambivalent.1

Shylock does not himself appear again until 2.5, but his presence is felt in two earlier scenes: 2.2, where Lancelot Gobbo decides to leave his master, and 2.3, where Jessica bids the clown farewell and plans to elope with Lorenzo. Her lines in this brief scene contain some harsh criticisms of Shylock but little that proves his villainy, which still remains undemonstrated. 'Our house is hell' (2) may signify nothing other than a strict, sober household in which Lancelot's antics rob it of 'tediousness'. That Jessica is ashamed to be her father's child is a more serious charge against Shylock and his 'manners', which she rejects, though it still does not prove him a villain.

In scene 5 we actually see the household members interact, and again strictness, sobriety, thrift are the watchwords. When Shylock explains why he is going out to dine with Bassanio and Antonio (contradicting his earlier demurral, 1.3.31–5), his true feelings resurface, making the 'kindness' of 1.3 seem a sham or a mere ploy:

  • I am bid forth to supper, Jessica:
  • There are my keys. But wherefore should I go?
  • I am not bid for love. They flatter me.
  • But yet I'll go in hate, to feed upon
  • The prodigal Christian.
  • (2.5.11–15)

pg 43The resentment that Shylock feels towards the Christian community is still there. He remains sceptical of the Christian motives underlying his invitation to dinner, and whatever occurs at the gathering is no part of the play, only what happens afterwards, when Shylock suspects that the invitation was part of the elopement conspiracy. Ill at ease, with presentiments of some evil brewing, Shylock goes forth reluctantly, uncertain whether he will return immediately, giving his daughter strict orders to keep his house tightly shut against the music and merriment of masquing (28–36). 'Fast bind, fast find', he mutters—a proverb that sums up his attitude and one that Jessica, he will shortly discover, totally repudiates. Her desertion and the circumstances that surround it refuel Shylock's bitterness against Christians, destroy all feelings of 'kindness', and bind him unshakeably to a desire for revenge.

In the next scene the elopement occurs. Graziano and Salarino appear as masquers to assist the tardy Lorenzo. While they dutifully await their friend, they comment on lovers' sense of time (at the same time giving Jessica time to change into her page's costume). Graziano rather ominously expatiates on the theme, 'All things that are, | Are with more spirit chasèd than enjoyed' (12–13), lines that may suggest a subtext for Jessica, who may later have second thoughts about her defection, leaving her bemused and regretful at the end, as in the 1970 National Theatre production. Graziano concludes with the image of a ship setting off in dazzling array but returning home like a 'prodigal', with 'over-weathered ribs and raggèd sails, | Lean, rent, and beggared by the strumpet wind!' (18–19). His imagery recalls Salarino's, 1.1.8–40, attributing the cause of Antonio's melancholy to a preoccupation with his argosies 'tossing on the ocean'; more immediately, it recalls Antonio's bond, which must be paid by the safe return of at least one of those argosies. Both passages, Salarino's in the opening scene and Graziano's here, graphically describe the very real dangers of setting ventures abroad and help prepare us for the damaging news in 3.1. But as a prelude to the elopement, Graziano's speech points to the risky business the lovers are involved in as well as their prodigality, of which we also hear later in 3.1.

pg 44Jessica's nervous wit comments upon her transformation into a boy and other 'pretty follies' that lovers commit (33–42). Her actions do more. Tossing Lorenzo a casket of ducats and jewels from her balcony, she momentarily disappears to lock up the doors and 'gild' herself with additional ducats. While she is gone, Graziano remarks, 'Now, by my hood, a gentile and no Jew' (51), summing up the break from her father and his religion. Lorenzo's apostrophe to Jessica as someone 'wise, fair, and true' (53–7) conceals a discrepancy: being true to Lorenzo, she must be false to Shylock and to her religious faith. A blow 'struck at all that Shylock holds dear', her elopement is a 'crucial point in his development'1and leads directly to the climactic moment in 3.1 when Shylock resolves to enact his revenge against the Christian community by demanding Antonio's forfeit.

Scene 8 prepares for that moment. As Salarino and Solanio discuss Bassanio's departure for Belmont, they remark on how Shylock and the Duke wanted to search the ship for the eloped lovers. But they came too late; in any event Antonio certified that the couple was not on the ship.2 This is the first association of Antonio with Shylock's personal loss, and the first time Shylock is explicitly called 'villain' (2.8.4). Solanio laughs at the old man's distress at losing his daughter and his ducats (12–22), but ends with the warning: 'Let good Antonio look he keep his day, | Or he shall pay for this' (25–6). Earlier hints that the merchant's ships may founder on the seas are now more concrete (27–32); however, in his emotional leave-taking Antonio urges Bassanio to banish all thoughts of the bond: 'And for the Jew's bond which he hath of me, | Let it not enter in your mind of love: | Be merry …' (41–3). His friend's departure, on the other hand, leaves Antonio far from merry; rather, his melancholy—'his embracèd heaviness' as Solanio calls it—tightens its grip, and worse will follow.

The alternation of good and bad luck—Morocco and Arragon failing in their quest, Jessica and Lorenzo successfully pg 45eloping, Shylock losing his daughter and his ducats, Lancelot winning a new master—culminates in Act 3. In Belmont, immediately Bassanio wins Portia by choosing the right casket, word arrives that Antonio has certainly lost his ships and is in danger of surrendering his forfeit. Before that, a climactic scene of another sort occurs, where fear and jocularity also alternate and end with threats of dire disaster. Just as his characters experience joy and sadness almost simultaneously, Shakespeare encourages his audience to entertain similar feelings, thereby intensifying the comic pleasure that comes at the end when everything—or almost everything—is resolved in a relatively happy outcome.

The intermingling of joy and fear in Act 3 begins with Solanio and Salarino's dialogue, lamenting the loss of Antonio's ship on the Goodwins, and fearing it is not the last of his losses. At this moment Shylock enters in disarray, bitterly accusing them of conspiracy in his daughter's elopement. Relieving their anxiety over Antonio, Solanio and Salarino mock Shylock until Salarino's anxiety gets the better of him and he asks Shylock if he, too, has heard of Antonio's misfortune. At first, the remark only deepens Shylock's sense of loss, but almost at once he sees an advantage:

  • There I have another bad match. A bankrupt, a prodigal, who dare scarce show his head on the Rialto a beggar, that was used to come so smug upon the mart. Let him look to his bond. He was wont to call me usurer: let him look to his bond. He was wont to lend money for a Christian courtesy: let him look to his bond. (41–7)

The thrice uttered 'Let him look to his bond' alerts Salarino to the danger, which he tries to laugh off, nervously asking 'What's that good for?' In reply, Shylock first is mordantly flippant—'To bait fish withal'—then ominous: 'If it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge' (50–1). To justify taking revenge, he launches into a long speech affirming his identity as a Jew but also as a human being—no better and no worse than others are, including Christians (55–69). And it is Christian example, he claims, that has taught him the nature of revenge.1 Bound to the rest of humanity by identical attributes pg 46of sense and feeling as well as a shared mortality, he feels bound also by a common dedication to revenge for wrongs suffered at the hands of his enemy. This 'kindness' he will show (1.3.140).

Out of context, without the framework of vengeance, the speech is an eloquent plea for Jews—and by extension, other minority groups—to be viewed as human beings also; it has often been quoted or recited as such. An emotional high point in the play, it easily earns 'tragic' Shylocks enormous compassion. But even for less attractive Shylocks the speech also arouses sympathy, even though it appeals to the lowest common denominators among human attributes, as many among Shakespeare's audience would notice. By endowing his villainous money-lender with 'organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions', Shakespeare identifies Shylock with the rest of humanity, but a humanity depraved by revenge. Utterly absent from Shylock's claims is any connection with purer or nobler human attributes. Furthermore, he fails to consider here or elsewhere that neither his religion nor Christianity condones or sanctions vengeance. Quite the contrary: both systems of religious belief stand adamantly opposed to it, condemning it as a corruption of the human spirit.1

In Act 4 Portia's plea to be merciful is designed to help Shylock overcome his human depravity and redeem himself in a way he finds impossible to understand or pursue. Here, the conflicting emotions aroused in him by the loss of his daughter and his money, the taunting of Salarino and Solanio, and Tubal's news alternating between reports of Antonio's misfortune and Jessica's spendthrift ways evoke in the audience a complex response mingling laughter, repugnance, and compassion. We sense the wrongs Shylock suffers and the agony he feels, for example, when Tubal describes how Jessica gave his turquoise 'for a monkey'—the ring his wife Leah had given him when he was a bachelor, though his hysteria is pg 47also comical (111–16). And revulsion comes as Shylock exults over Antonio's losses—'I'll plague him, I'll torture him. I am glad of it' (109–10). Finally, like the Duke (4.1.16–20), we cannot believe he will really exact the grotesque forfeiture the bond requires.

His heart hardens against Antonio in the brief scene after Bassanio's success at Belmont. Shylock specifically rejects any suggestion of mercy (3.3.1) and derides all 'Christian intercessors' (14–16), thus anticipating the opposition of justice and mercy in the trial scene. In vain, Antonio begs to be heard, but Shylock will not hear; he will have his bond, he repeats over and over again. It is a curious scene—Antonio, led by a gaoler, pleading with Shylock to hear him; Shylock, chiding the gaoler and waving Antonio off, insisting 'I'll have no speaking; I will have my bond' (17). He clearly has the upper hand, as Antonio, recovering his composure and his dignity, dashes Solanio's hope that the forfeit will not hold: 'The Duke cannot deny the course of law', he says, for if the penalty is denied, it will 'much impeach the justice of the state' (26–9). But in explaining Shylock's motivation, he mentions only financial rivalry, nothing about religious differences:

  • He seeks my life. His reason well I know:
  • I oft delivered from his forfeitures
  • Many that have at times made moan to me;
  • Therefore he hates me. (21–4)

Their conflict over the competing claims of justice and mercy has often emerged before, it seems, but never in such deadly earnest as now.

As an allegory of Justice and Mercy, the Old Law versus the New, is the way some critics interpret the trial scene, 4.I.1Doubtless some allegorical aspects are present. By his own words, Shylock 'stands for' judgement and for law (102, 141)—for 'justice', narrowly conceived. Identified in the scene immediately preceding as an embodiment of heavenly joys here on earth (3.5.71), Portia here speaks on behalf of divine pg 48mercy (4.1.181–200). But of course the trial is more than a medieval allegory, just as Shakespeare's drama is more than a morality play, though it incorporates elements of both. Portia as Balthasar, dressed in her robes, is very much the young legal expert, 'brisk and businesslike';1 Shylock is very much the wronged individual and a grimly determined creditor, demanding his due. Neither embodies merely an abstract concept as an allegorical figure. What makes the scene defy ordinary reality (besides the fact that it is all play-acting) are the dynamics of the conflict and the extraordinary circumstances. What began as a 'merry sport' (ostensibly to heal up the breach between money-lender and merchant, Jew and Christian) has become deadly serious.

In demanding his forfeit, Shylock, however, seems to lose most of his humanity—not as he defines it, but as others do. Epithets hurled at him earlier now take on added significance. More than a 'stony adversary', he is 'an inhuman wretch | Uncapable of pity' (3–4).2 Antonio, almost Christ-like, opposes his 'patience' to Shylock's fury and is 'armed | To suffer with a quietness of spirit | The very tyranny and rage of his' (10–12).3 The first appeal for mercy comes from the Duke (16–33), whose words suggest (though they never explicitly state) that a positive response would help heal the breach in Venice, especially as he asks Shylock to be generous and forgive both the forfeit and part of the principal as well. But Shylock is adamant: he has taken an oath 'by our holy Sabbath' to have 'the due and forfeit' of his bond (35–6). Oblivious to the oath's blasphemy, he argues the consequences to the city if his claim is denied. Bassanio intervenes, but Antonio sees the futility of argument and for the first time cites Shylock's religion as a source of cruelty: nothing is harder than his 'Jewish heart' (79). Hoping greed will overcome cruelty, Bassanio offers to double the principal, all in vain. Now the Duke intervenes: 'How shalt thou hope for mercy, rend'ring none?' (87). Like a Pharisee maintaining pg 49his righteousness, Shylock defies judgement. He is convinced, moreover, that the law is on his side. To bring home his point, at the same time exposing Christian hypocrisy, he compares their ownership and treatment of slaves to his claim to own a piece of Antonio (89–100).

The Duke recognizes the impasse, which he hopes Dr Bellario can resolve. But instead of the learned jurist, young Balthasar appears. Meanwhile, Bassanio offers to trade places with Antonio who, resigned to self-immolation, sees himself as a kind of sacrificial victim, 'a tainted wether of the flock, | Meetest for death' (113–14).1 Bassanio's offer points to the eventual resolution of the problem; but Shylock, whetting his knife, on his part also intent on Antonio's demise, misses the clue, just as Bassanio and the others do:2

  • Good cheer, Antonio! What, man, courage yet!
  • The Jew shall have my flesh, blood, bones, and all
  • Ere thou shalt lose for me one drop of blood.
  • (110–12)

After a further interlude (an acrimonious exchange between Graziano and Shylock), the focus centres on Bellario's emissary and the trial, although technically it is not that but a hearing.3 And it is here that the conflict between Justice and Mercy reaches its apex.

pg 50Portia begins by recognizing Shylock's claims under Venetian law and, gaining Antonio's concurrence, concludes: 'Then must the Jew be merciful' (179). When Shylock bridles at her suggested 'compulsion', she launches into a speech on the nature of mercy and its benefits to both giver and receiver: 'It is twice blest', she says: 'It blesseth him that gives and him that takes' (183–4). She then expands upon the Duke's earlier theme:

  • Therefore, Jew,
  • Though justice be thy plea, consider this:
  • That in the course of justice none of us
  • Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy,
  • And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
  • The deeds of mercy.
  • (194–9)

But Shylock cares nothing for 'deeds of mercy'. Echoing those who demanded Jesus's crucifixion, he cries: 'My deeds upon my head! I crave the law, | The penalty and forfeit of my bond' (203–4).1 The impasse remains as it was.

Further offers to repay the debt several times over avail nothing. Nor do Portia's repeated appeals for mercy (230, 254–5, 258). But by also affirming the claims of justice under the law—and the bond's apparently airtight claim—Portia does more than win Shylock's extravagant praise ('A Daniel come to judgement, yea, a Daniel!'). She establishes the context in which mercy gains its full significance as a fulfilment of law, not its antagonist.2 Or, in less theological terms, she demonstrates how mercy becomes meaningful only in the context of justice. Failing first to recognize the claims of justice, we may fall too easily into forgiveness. To avoid such pg 51sentimentality, Shakespeare clarifies what justice involves before moving to the administration of mercy, just as he does later in Measure for Measure.1 At the same time, he gives Shylock every opportunity to see this for himself. But as E. M. W. Tillyard maintains, Shylock is the victim of 'spiritual stupidity';2 he cannot see the moral advantage in rendering mercy any more than he can perceive the moral danger inherent in revenge. When Portia stops him just as he thinks he has succeeded in his quest, he becomes hoist by his own petard, as befits his insistence on 'justice', or what Danson calls his 'diabolical literalism' (p. 96).

By rejecting Portia's several invitations to show compassion,3 Shylock fails to rise above the lowest level of humanity and convert incipient tragedy into the 'merry sport' he claimed it was when he first proposed the bond (1.3.134–48). Therefore, Portia must resort to other measures, in the process assuring a comic outcome.4 Not only must she demonstrate to Shylock the error of a fanatical dependence upon literalist judgements, she must further humanize him so that he becomes acceptable within the community. Although for some critics her first procedure depends upon a legal quibble, for others it is not merely a verbal trick. It is, rather, 'the revelation of truth', which in part consists in showing that the law is 'society's servant, not its master, and … the unmitigated law before all who would stand condemned can be made to yield its mercies'.5

Shylock has asked for 'justice' and receives more than he desired under the same terms and conditions he has insisted upon. Taking his argument to its logical extreme, Portia awards him his just pound of flesh but not one drop of blood. It is now she who appears to be as relentless as Shylock waspg 52earlier. He shall have 'all justice', she insists; hence, she now disallows the offer of thrice the principal or even the principal itself. She awards Shylock nothing but the penalty—under the further condition that the pound of flesh exceed the just weight by not so much as 'the twentieth part | Of one poor scruple' (320–8). Paradoxically, she frees Antonio from the tyranny of the bond by focusing more strictly than Shylock on the binding quality of its language. Defeated, Shylock starts to leave, when Portia begins her second attack.

Convicting him of violating another law of Venice, Portia now holds Shylock condemned to death and all his goods confiscate, half to the state and half to the party upon whose life he had practised. It is here, in the strictest context of justice, that her eloquent speech on mercy bears fruit. Graziano's incorrigible vindictiveness (360–3) notwithstanding, the Duke at once spares Shylock's life. Further, he suggests that Shylock's humility can drive that part of his fortune owed the state into a fine. But Shylock is not yet humbled; a burst of the old fire remains:

  • Nay, take my life and all! Pardon not that!
  • You take my house when you do take the prop
  • That doth sustain my house; you take my life
  • When you do take the means whereby I live. (370–3)

It is now Antonio's turn to demonstrate what he has learned from Portia's speech. With little prompting, he asks the Duke to remit the fine to the state for half of Shylock's goods, thereby restoring the 'prop' that will sustain his 'house'. He specifies two further conditions: first, that Shylock become a Christian; second, that he make Lorenzo and Jessica his sole heirs.

Antonio's first condition perhaps more than anything else in the play troubles modern audiences.1 Regardless of how Elizabethans responded, audiences today find the imposed conversion difficult to accept. Reinforced by the Duke's threat pg 53to rescind his pardon, Antonio's requirement may be essentially 'merciful'—Shylock's only opportunity to win eternal life as well as his mortal one.1 But in an age more secular than Shakespeare's, the requirement appears to violate human rights. However intended to complete the comic structure of the play, it remains for a modern audience problematical. Seen from a social rather than theological perspective— the attempt at last to purge Shylock's humanity and welcome him more fully into the community as 'one of us'2—Antonio's demand and Shylock's acquiescence are still seriously disturbing. That is one reason why The Merchant of Venice appears to some more a 'problem play' than a 'festive' comedy'3 and its fifth act more like an excrescence than an appropriately celebratory ending.

Part of the problem lies in Shylock's ready willingness to accept Antonio's terms. A more deeply religious person would prefer death to apostasy—so much for Shylock's pretended devotion to his faith!4 From his apparently swift compliance, some actors playing the role regard Shylock as a man finally more interested in money than anything else, including his daughter and his religion.5 But this is to make too summary a judgement, oversimplifying Shylock's character and the shadings latent in his departing lines. As Portia puts the question squarely before him, Shylock hesitates before answering:

portia Art thou contented, Jew? What dost thou say?

shylock I am content.


pg 54His few words of compliance lend themselves to various nuances—deep reluctance, weary acceptance of the inevitable, bitter resignation, moral collapse, relief that he has escaped the worst and has a chance to live despite reduced resources, and so forth. They are followed by lines that also signal distress, as Portia orders Nerissa to prepare the deed of gift:

  • I pray you, give me leave to go from hence.
  • I am not well. Send the deed after me,
  • And I will sign it. (391–3)

Shylock's last words in the play—monosyllabic and fraught with heaviness—may be spoken with some eagerness to be gone, to withdraw from the sight of his tormentors; but they may also convey the weight of his defeat simultaneously with a new understanding of shared humanity. The diabolical lust for revenge—or the Old Adam, as some critics see it—has been whipped out of him, and he is left exhausted, no longer a serious menace or a comic butt. He is human—like the rest of the community, if not yet quite fully part of it, as the Duke's gruff dismissal and Graziano's parting taunts suggest. However he was played by Shakespeare's colleague, the actor who can communicate to a modern audience as many conflicting emotions as possible does best justice to the role.

It remains only for the other principals to recover their true identities, return home, and become reunited in joyful harmony. To avoid sentimentality, extend the trial motif in a lighter comic vein, and conclude the significance of bonds and bondage, Shakespeare includes the ring plot and adds some further discordances, mainly in the rather incongruous figure of Antonio at Belmont. Other jarring notes occur in the teasing banter between Lorenzo and Jessica. Lorenzo opens the fifth act with some lovely lines about the moonlight and the gentle breezes; but then in what is at one level mere playfulness, he and Jessica begin a series of allusions to unhappy love stories involving Troilus and Cressida, Pyramus and Thisbe, Dido and Aeneas, Medea and Jason—among which Lorenzo humorously associates his elopement with Jessica (5.1.3–20). Before the scene shifts to Belmont, how-pg 55ever, Portia and Nerissa concoct their plot to try the fidelity of their husbands.

The ring Portia gives to Bassanio represents, she says, all that she has and is; and when he parts from it, by losing or giving it away, it will presage the ruin of his love (3.2.171–4). Bassanio responds accordingly, solemnly swearing to keep the ring on his finger until death. His predicament is therefore acute when, declining monetary recompense, Portia as Balthasar asks for the ring. Only Antonio's intervention persuades Bassanio to agree, bringing to bear the conflict of Bassanio's two loves.1 Bound to Portia by his marriage vows, he is bound also to Antonio by friendship and even deeper obligations: this is the man whose flesh, his very life, was pawned for him. He yields the ring after Antonio puts the issue directly:

  • Let his deservings and my love withal
  • Be valued 'gainst your wife's commandement. (4.1.446–7)

Of course, Portia means to get the ring back as a joke, as she says to Nerissa, who in turn gets hers from Graziano (4.2.13–17). But jokes, as Freud long ago showed, often convey more than humour, or rather the humour overlays a deeper, sometimes tendentious, significance. Earlier in the trial scene, when things looked especially grim, Bassanio had passionately exclaimed that he would sacrifice everything— life, wife, and 'all the world'—to deliver Antonio from Shylock's grip (4.1.279–84). He is seconded by Graziano, who also swears he would willingly sacrifice his wife to free Antonio. These outbursts occasion comic asides from Portia and Nerissa, as well as a bitter one from Shylock ('These be the Christian husbands', 4.1.292), but the men's outbursts evidently sink in, and the women are out to teach their husbands a lesson.

The weapon they use to bring home their point about the supremacy of the marriage contract is the threat of infiidelity. pg 56They eschew any allegiance to Elizabethan double standards and assert their sexual equality. Since their husbands have been unfaithful, they will be too—with the very ones to whom they gave the rings. Revenge, so much the subject of the earlier acts, rears its head again here.1 Although the audience is in on the joke, Bassanio's anguish and Graziano's discomfiture show that the lesson is working. When Antonio intervenes, recognizing that he is the 'unhappy subject of these quarrels' (5.1.238), he again pledges himself on Bassanio's behalf, but this time with his soul, not his flesh, and the conflict is resolved.2

The broken harmonies with which the scene began are now wound up. Portia, who presided over the trial in Act 4, here presides over the dropping of 'manna in the way | Of starvèd people' (294–5). Conventionally, as Harry Levin reminds us, the happy endings of comedies are formalized by various forms of revelry—feasts or dances—with a betrothal or mating in view.3 But since the weddings have already taken place, it is time now for the couples to retire to the bridal chamber, and for other reasons revelry here might seem inappropriate. For one thing, the ending perforce excludes many characters, chiefly Shylock.4 For another, Antonio (unlike his counterpart in Shakespeare's source) remains a solitary figure—however his isolation may be disguised—and thus disturbing.5 pg 57Although Lorenzo' melodic verses describe the music of the spheres, he recognizes that 'we cannot hear it' (54–65). Music surrounds the lovers, and for some the image of Jessica and Lorenzo in each other's arms (109) is an emblem of Christian and Jew, the New Law and the Old, united in love.1 But for others the tone of the ending has much of the ironic reserve of Christ's praise of the bad steward (Luke 16:8).2

We end where we began, acknowledging the play's inconsistencies and contradictions, but at the same time its plenitude, its richness—a richness so great that the foregoing discussion has necessarily omitted or slighted a number of important aspects. More could be said of love's wealth as opposed to crass materialism, as in John Russell Brown's analysis3 and in C. L. Barber's, which opposes Antonio's loan (viewed as 'venture capital') to usury, or money used to get money.4 Something, too, could be said about the way the play reflects and perhaps comments upon the development of capitalism at the end of the sixteenth century—the conflict between Antonio's modern capitalist values (from an Italian point of view) and Shylock's quasi-feudal fiscalism, and indeed the opposition of various class perspectives.5 M. M. Mahood is doubtless right in refusing to yield to critical reductiveness, arguing that such underlying unity and coherence as the play has remains intuitive, hence within the individual possession of each member of an audience.6 The broad approach taken here—showing how concern with bonds and bondage pervades the play—is not all-encompassing. Criticism cannot displace art, after all; the play's the thing, as it always was, and is. And as the stage history of The Merchant of Venice pg 58demonstrates, the play lends itself to a wide variety of interpretations—so various that no one staging can encompass the full range available. But, taken together, they may comprise a comprehensive criticism that makes us aware of the many currents and counter-currents that flow within The Merchant of Venice.

The Merchant of Venice in Performance

Over the centuries, The Merchant of Venice has been one of the most frequently performed of Shakespeare's plays in the professional theatre. The reasons for its popularity among producers, actors, and audiences are not hard to infer. It is a play of rich complexity, raising issues of justice and mercy (among others) that are not easily resolved—if resolved at all. It is also a great starring vehicle, pre-eminently in the roles of Shylock and Portia but also with excellent character parts in Bassanio, Graziano, Nerissa, Jessica, Lorenzo, and Lancelot Gobbo. The double-plot structure involving Venice and Belmont allows the set and costume designer wide scope for inventive splendour. A romantic comedy that borders on, and in some ways penetrates, the environs of tragedy, The Merchant has captivated audiences for over two centuries, or ever since Granville's debasement, The Jew of Venice (1701), was replaced by something closer to Shakespeare's original.

For Shakespeare's play as presented in this edition was by no means always identical with the acting script used in the theatre. More often than not until recently—and even now quite often—the text underwent revisions of one kind or another involving omissions (sometimes of an entire act), additions, transpositions of passages or scenes—anything, in short, that in the view of the director or producer might make for a good 'show'. This fact will surprise no one at all familiar with the inner workings of the theatre, whose goal, in Shakespeare's time as in ours, has always been to ensure good box office receipts. The purist, of course, may long for 'authentic' Shakespeare. But that desideratum remains a will-o'-the-wisp, a working and workable definition of which has eluded scholars and annoyed theatre practitioners, intent as they are on something more vital and alive than 'museum' pg 59Shakespeare.1 Meanwhile, we have a robust series of productions and performances that endlessly explore, develop, and present the rewarding depths of Shakespeare's art.

Seventeenth-century productions

Unfortunately, scant information on The Merchant of Venice as performed in Shakespeare's era has come down to us. The first known record of any performance appears on the title-page of the first quarto (1600; see 'Textual Introduction', below). There we learn that the play was performed 'divers times' by the Lord Chamberlain's Men. No date is given for any performance, but probably the play was in the repertory by 1596–7.2 The next record is of performance at the court of James I on Shrove Sunday (10 February) 1605. James apparently liked the play, since he ordered it to be repeated at court two days later on Shrove Tuesday. On the Monday between, the King's Men (as they were now called) performed The Spanish Maze, a play about which nothing else is known.3

The appropriateness of The Merchant of Venice to be performed at Shrovetide, like its more recent popularity, may not be difficult to apprehend.4 The season is one that mixes carnival licence and penitential introspection with the desire, indeed the need, for absolution. Shrove Tuesday ('Fat Tuesday') is the day when carnival reaches its apex, the day before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. Some have suggested that The Merchant of Venice is in fact set during Shrovetide and the Lenten month that follows.5 Certainly the masquing discussed by Lorenzo, Graziano, and the others in Act 2 suggests the period of carnival, though in fact the masquing does not take place, and in any case masquing is not limited to Shrovetide. More pertinent, perhaps, are the thematic suggestions of ritual sacrifice, God's mercy, and the pg 60grace of love that dominate both the play and the liturgy of Shrovetide and that would appeal to the theologically oriented James.

Whatever the situation at court, most likely in the first performances Will Kemp played the part of the clown, Lancelot Gobbo, which is typical of his presumed roles in other early Shakespearian comedies. On the other hand, if Shylock was played as a comic villain, he rather than Burbage may have essayed the role.1 Doubling was, of course, a common practice among Elizabethan and Jacobean acting companies, which depended upon a nucleus of about a dozen actors and apprentices plus a number of mutes, or supers, as we should now call them, to stage their plays. According to one analysis, twelve men and four boys, or sixteen actors (including mutes), were required for The Merchant of Venice, which contains twenty speaking parts and eight or nine distinguishable mutes needed, for example, to fill up Morocco's train and Portia's in 2.1 and 2.7. This is the usual number of actors Shakespeare depended upon at this time, that is, before moving into the Globe Theatre a few years later, although Richard III, with fifty-five speakers and seventeen mutes, required as many as seventeen actors.2

Following the performances at court in 1605, no others are recorded until after the Restoration, when The Merchant of Venice was among those of Shakespeare's dramas assigned to the actor-manager, Thomas Killigrew.3 When the play dropped out of the King's Men's repertory—or if it did—is not known, nor is any record of a performance by Killigrew's company. Very likely the play, like other comedies by Shakespeare, had little appeal to the more refined tastes of the later Stuart period, influenced as it was by French drama, which now set the standard for much of English culture. It seems pg 61inevitable, therefore, that The Merchant of Venice would eventually experience the fate of The Tempest and Troilus and Cressida, as well as tragedies like King Lear and Macbeth, which underwent rewriting and 'improvement' at the hands of lesser but more fashionable playwrights, in this instance George Granville, who rewrote it in 1701.

The Merchant of Venice transformed

Granville's adaptation, called The Jew of Venice,1 is typical of the drama of its time, particularly of Shakespearian transformations. Like Tate's King Lear (1681), The Jew of Venice preserves many of Shakespeare's lines but adds others; omits characters; shortens, transposes, and cuts passages or scenes; and invents a remarkable new scene—an elaborate banquet at the end of the otherwise heavily curtailed Act 2. Shylock is present, and all the guests witness an elegant masque entitled 'Peleus & Thetis'. Gone, however, are many comic characters, not only Lancelot Gobbo and his father, but Morocco and Arragon. Gone too are Salanio, Salerio, and Salarino; Tubal; Stefano; and other minor characters. Granville attempted thereby to condense the play, partly to make room for the masque, but apparently also to adhere more closely to neo-classical concepts of dramatic unity.

Two examples of Granville's adaptation illustrate both his method and the taste of his time. The play opens, not with Salanio and Salarino probing the cause of Antonio's melancholy, but more than seventy-five lines later (Granville inserts inverted commas in the text to indicate major additions or revisions, though not all of them):

Anto. I Hold the World, but as a Stage, Gratiano,

'Where every Man must play some certain Part,

And mine's a serious one.

Grat. Laughter and Mirth be mine,

Why should a Man, whose Blood is warm and young,

pg 62Sit like his Grandsire, cut in Alablaster! [sic]

Sleep, when he wakes, and creep into the Jaundice,

By being peevish! I tell thee what, Antonio!

I love thee, and it is my Love that speaks;

There are a sort of Men, whose Visages

Do cream and mantle, like a standing Pond;

And do a willful Stillness entertain,

'Screwing their Faces in a politick Form,

'To cheat Observers with a false Opinion

Of Wisdom, Gravity, profound Conceit;

As who should say, I am, Sir, an Oracle.

While much of Shakespeare's verse remains, much is changed, as the example shows (in deference to the reader's sensibility I refrain from quoting verse that is utterly Granville's1). Later, in the climactic trial scene, Granville introduces blatant melodrama. As Shylock prepares to exact his pound of flesh, Bassanio intercedes, first to offer himself to Shylock in place of Antonio; then, drawing his sword, to oppose the justice of the court. Thereupon Portia, disguised as the lawyer, appeals to the enraged Duke, who has ordered his arrest: 'Spare him, my Lord; I have a way to tame him. | Hear me one word' (p. 36); whereupon she presents her solution, prohibiting Shylock from shedding a single drop of Christian blood. And so the play proceeds to its conclusion in Act 5, emphasizing throughout (but well beyond Shakespeare's original) the themes of Love and Friendship.2 Granville retained the ring episode but, not surprisingly, heavily rewrote it.

The Jew of Venice was the only version of The Merchant of Venice enacted in London for the next forty years. If we can judge by the number of performances, it was not, despite its concessions to prevailing taste, a very popular play.3 Betterton pg 63

Macklin as Shylock, Mrs. Pope as Portia

5. Macklin as Shylock, Mrs. Pope as Portia

played Bassanio, Thomas Dogget Shylock, and Anne Brace-girdle Portia (as we learn from the list of actors following the Prologue written by Bevill Higgons, Granville's cousin). That Dogget, a well-known comedian, was assigned Shylock's part suggests that an earlier tradition—Shylock as a comic villain—was being followed, or at any rate this was the way the role was understood.1 When Charles Macklin played Shylock, using a text much closer to Shakespeare's, he too was a villain, but a terrifying rather than a comic one, and he was highly successful.2 His production at Drury Lane pg 64numbered twenty-seven performances in the first year alone, with more than half of these following almost consecutively after the opening on 14 February 1741. With Macklin usually as Shylock, the play continued in the repertory almost uninterrupted to the end of the century as one of Shakespeare's most popular comedies.1

Macklin's 'restoration'

Macklin not only restored Morocco and Arragon, he also brought back Lancelot Gobbo and his father. As no copy of his prompt-book survives, we do not know precisely how much of Shakespeare's text was retained or omitted. Probably a good many lines were revised, and a year after the original production the composer Thomas Arne supplied Portia with a song, and Lorenzo sang two ditties that lasted through the century.2 A good evening's entertainment, after all, was the object to ensure good box office receipts. Costumes followed contemporary fashion, in accordance with theatrical tradition pg 65since Shakespeare; not until the next century did historical authenticity overwhelm the staging of Shakespeare's plays. Macklin, however, reputedly attempted some authenticity: he wore a loose black gown, long wide trousers, and a red skullcap, which tended to emphasize the Pantalone rather than the traditional stage Jew, though for the part he also wore a wispy red beard.1

If Macklin's fierce, relentless Shylock dominated eighteenth-century conceptions of the role, it gave way in 1814 to Edmund Kean's equally original conception of Shakespeare's Jew as a man 'more sinned against than sinning';2 in brief, a tragic figure. Kean's portrayal was startling in every respect. Having argued the management of Drury Lane into allowing him to essay the role, he stunned the rest of the cast with his representation. After a single rehearsal on the morning of the performance, 26 January 1814, he appeared on stage with a black wig (defying all stage tradition), loose gaberdine, and Venetian slippers. The boxes in the theatre were empty, and only about fifty people in the pit witnessed Kean's revolutionary interpretation; but theatre history was made that night.3

Nineteenth-century productions

Other actors since Macklin had played Shylock, including John Philip Kemble and George Frederick Cooke, but none had approached the role as Kean did. As against Kemble's 'artificiality' or Cooke's 'fiendish savagery', Kean 'intellectualized' his acting of Shylock, bringing a freshness and energy that was new.4 It altered entirely William Hazlitt's view of Shylock, formed by earlier portrayals rather than Shakespeare's text.5On looking into what Shakespeare wrote and comparing it to pg 66Kean's representation, he found Shylock much more human than he had suspected or other actors had displayed. Commenting on this insight, he reveals moreover a bias not uncharacteristic of his time: 'Shakespeare could not easily divest his characters of their entire humanity; his Jew is more than half a Christian; and Mr. Kean's manner is much nearer the mark'.1

Although in the next decade William Charles Macready began performing in the role, he was never very happy with his portrayal of Shylock, however much both critics and public admired it. His productions, which eliminated many of the non-Shakespearian 'ditties' that had encumbered performances, emphasized Shakespeare's language. As against Kean's impassioned, intense portrayal of a persecuted martyr, Macready was dignified and stately, his Shylock a man consumed with malice.2 Only Edwin Forrest's Shylock in America rivalled Kean's, though Samuel Phelps and Robert Campbell Maywood were also admired towards the end of that era.3

By now, elaborate stage settings and scenery had long since displaced Shakespeare's 'bare' stage. Restoration theatres had introduced movable, painted flats, and throughout the eighteenth century scenic effects became increasingly ingenious. In the next century, Macready tried in his productions to ensure that spectacle did not overwhelm performance. The stage design for The Merchant of Venice was, in fact, much admired by the Times reviewer as 'in the best possible taste, very beautiful, and yet nicely discriminated, so as not to overbalance the drama'. The moonlit garden in Act 5 was especially admired, 'sparkling with soft light, and melting away into a poetic indistinctness at the back'.4 The comment is especially noteworthy as lately the play tended to end with Shylock's defeat in Act 4. By mid-century, however, the splendour, intricacy, and 'authenticity' of Charles Kean's productions became the dominant mode.

Since as an actor Charles Kean, unlike his father, was little more than competent, perhaps his staging of Shakespeare's pg 67plays helped compensate for other shortcomings. His productions were extremely elaborate, as the designs by Telbin reveal.1 Using multiple levels and movable pieces, Kean transformed the stage of the Princess's Theatre into a Venetian carnival for the 1858 production of The Merchant of Venice. Music and dance concluded the elopement scene, which ended Act 2, while gondolas passed to and fro upon 'real' canals.2Claiming to adhere more strictly to Shakespeare's text, Kean restored Morocco and Arragon, who had again disappeared (in Kemble's and Phelps's scripts), but he had to shorten their speeches severely, as he did Bassanio's and Portia's in 3.2 and Lorenzo's and Jessica's in 5.1: scene-shifting and spectacular effects took time and effort, and some things had to give way. For similar reasons, he transposed or 'transfused' various scenes. Odell sums up Kean's version as 'a good acting play without undue favour to lines that happened to be poetical'. Or, as he puts it more generally, 'What Kean gave was nothing but Shakespeare; but alas! the great deal that he did not give was also Shakespeare. This however was expected in his day'.3

Kean and his wife, Ellen Tree, played Shylock and Portia, two of their best roles. Large numbers of dancers and 'supers' filled the stage, for Kean was especially adept at crowd management. Costumes reflected late sixteenth-century Italian fashions which, according to Kean's preface to his 1858 edition, chiefly derived from Caesar Vecellio's Degli habiti antichi e moderni di diverse parti del mondo (Venice, 1590). What in his father's performance had been a compelling drama became in the younger Kean's production 'a magnificent show'.4 The set designer and scene mechanic rivalled the actor for pre-eminence—a phenomenon not unknown in today's theatre.

Henry Irving and Ellen Terry

This emphasis on the spectacular continued to the end of the century, which included the now legendary performances of pg 68Henry Irving as Shylock. They began on 1 November 1879, at the Lyceum Theatre, with Ellen Terry as Portia, and ran for over 250 performances—an astonishing achievement for a Shakespeare revival.1 As in Kean's productions, real palaces, real canals, real gondolas, and huge crowds decorated the stage, but the superlative acting of Irving and Terry nevertheless shone through.2 To accommodate the spectacle but as much, I think, to highlight his acting, Irving heavily cut the text. Arragon once more departed, and other scenes were eliminated (e.g. 2.3., 3.5, 4.2) or curtailed (e.g. 1.2, 3.2, 5.1). But a new scene was added: Shylock returning home by lamplight in Act 2 and knocking on the door of his empty house—just once, in Irving's performance, which was highly moving, though later some actors allowed the moment to degenerate into a frenzy of despair.3

Irving's Shylock was 'the type of a persecuted race; almost the only gentleman in the play, and most ill-used'.4 How far had interpretation proceeded since the days of Dogget or Macklin! Irving claimed to have taken his portrait from life, from observing a 'Moorish Jew' in Morocco.5 He affected the audience accordingly:

  • His Jew was no doubt often repulsive, but he had moments of sheer humanity, when one felt with him and almost, or quite, suffered with him. Something of the eternal man, subject to the striving and suffering which is the common lot of all human beings, pierced through the crust of his greedy Jewishness, prey-demanding, revengeful, and bitter, and went to the heart. One almost forgave him.6

pg 69

Henry Irving as Shylock

6. Fitzgerald's drawing of Henry Irving as Shylock

Although other interpretations would later compete with living's, and from time to time he himself would alter some aspects, his basic conception remains even now a powerful influence in the theatre and in criticism.1

Ellen Terry's Portia was a match for Irving's Shylock, bringing to the role an emphasis on the heroine's womanliness: she was 'all grace, sparkle, piquancy, ardor, sweetness and passion'.2 Before joining with Irving, she had played the role very effectively in the Bancrofts' production at the Prince of Wales Theatre in 1875 against a very poor Shylock (Charles Coghlan).3 In 1868 she had acted with Irving in Katherine and Petruchio, but his engagement of her as Portia in The Merchant of Venice ten years later marked the beginning of a truly new and mutually beneficial relationship, which endured for over two decades. Choosing her for the leading pg 70lady in his productions at the Lyceum was one of the wisest decisions Irving ever made.1

The role of Portia is fraught with pitfalls. She may be too spirited and flighty, as Kitty Clive was in Macklin's revival,2or too snobbish and sophisticated, as Joan Plowright was in Jonathan Miller's National Theatre production. Like other Shakespearian heroines who also adopt male attire for a while, she must be at once, or alternately, romantic, sensitive, witty, and intelligent-forceful but not overbearing, loving and in love but not sentimental.3 Nerissa plays up to her in the early scenes, but the real test of her character lies in her relationship—what there is of it—with the convert, Jessica. Criticism of early productions is relatively sparse, unfortunately, but among the most successful Portias, besides Ellen Terry, were Peg Woffington and Sarah Siddons4 in the eighteenth century, Helen Faucit, Helena Modjeska, and Julia Marlowe in the nineteenth.

Twentieth-century reaction

Before the twentieth century dawned, reaction had already set in against over-elaborate staging of Shakespeare's plays. Chief among the 'challengers' was William Poel, whose theories advocated a return to the simplicity and swiftness that characterized performances at Shakespeare's Globe, at least as he understood them. Furthermore, where The Merchant of Venice was concerned, he took great exception to the prevalent conception of Shylock as a tragic figure, a man wronged rather than a wrongdoer—a misconception Poel attributed, in part, to 'a change in a nation's religion or politics [which] pg 71causes a change in the theatre'. Just as new plays are written to express new sentiment, old plays when revived are 'modified or readjusted' to bring them in line with new taste and opinion.1 Arguing that Shylock is essentially a villain, despised not because he is a Jew but because he is a 'morose and malicious usurer', a 'curmudgeon' who, in a romantic comedy, must be defeated, Poel drew comparisons with Marlowe's Barabas and Molière's Harpagon to make his point. In Poel's view, Shylock's Jewishness is almost incidental; the play has more to do with his profession as usurer and rigid adherence to legalism than with religious convictions. Shakespeare's play was a protest against Marlowe's 'pagan Christians', not his 'inhuman Jew', Barabas.2 The result of all this theorizing was a reversion to Shylock as a comic villain—complete with red wig—who at the end of the trial scene leaves the stage, not as a broken, pathetic figure, but as a man furious at having been outwitted.3

Other protests were sounded. An actress, who preferred to remain anonymous, published a critique of Portia, as played by Ellen Terry, that is really a polemic against the benevolent and impulsive warmth that had been so much admired, favouring instead a more tough-minded and resourceful character.4 By the 1930s the Victorian tradition, which had reached its apex in Irving's production and was continued by Herbert Beerbohm Tree, Arthur Bourchier, Richard Mansfield, and others, had come to an end. Its last gasp was Frank Benson's final performance at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, 16 May 1932.5 The new manager of the Festival, William Bridges-Adams, set out to breathe new life into Shakespearian productions. He invited pg 72

Komisarjevsky's set design (1932)

7. Komisarjevsky's set design (1932)

Russian-born Theodore Komisarjevsky to direct The Merchant, which opened on 25 July 1932. A 'cat-among-the pigeons' version, as J. C. Trewin says, it could hardly be more different from anything Stratford—or London—had previously witnessed.

Komisarjevsky was determined to overturn the tradition of 'pictorial realism' that, combined with historical detail, naturalistic acting, and moral sententiousness, had dominated productions for half a century or more.1 While he kept all but fourteen lines of Shakespeare's text, restoring both princes, Morocco and Arragon, and both Gobbos, he added some mimed episodes, such as 'a capering of commedia dell'arte masquers' at the beginning, and a yawning Lancelot Gobbo at the end. Morocco, Arragon, and the Duke were burlesqued, and for the trial scene Portia wore bicycle-wheel spectacles and Antonio a large ruff that made his face look like the head of John the Baptist on a charger, according to one report.2For Komisarjevsky, The Merchant of Venice was a fantastic pg 73comedy, to be staged as such. Sets, costumes, and acting expressed 'the emotional and rhythmic movement' of the play, not any particular period. Buildings veered off at odd angles, a Bridge of Sighs was split in two, and unearthly shades of green and crimson alternately bathed the stage to create 'a Venice of popular dreams'. Antonio, dressed in brilliant colours, became 'a depraved exquisite', the cause of his melancholy, self-love.1 Into this extravaganza, Randle Ayrton's traditional Shylock was out of place, resisting Komisarjevsky's attempt to reduce the role to comic villainy.2

Despite the fantasy, or underlying it, Komisarjevsky's Merchant had a political and social goal. This was to satirize capitalist, bourgeois 'decadence' which, in his view, engendered racial prejudice. Komisarjevsky saw the young, effete Venetians as dissipated idlers and Shylock, however malicious, as someone suffering injustice at their hands.3 To this extent, his conception was not altogether removed from nineteenth-century interpretations. Indeed, throughout its stage history, the play continues to oscillate between the poles of tragedy and comedy, justifying critical insistence on its ambivalent, or contradictory, nature. Following World War II, when the extreme of racial hatred stood revealed, directors found the Holocaust impossible to ignore, although their ways of dealing with the recent historical horror varied from production to production.

Jonathan Miller's way of dealing with it in his 1970 National Theatre production was to stage the play in an epoch closer to our own. His Venice, set in 1880, closely resembled mid-Victorian London. His Shylock, enacted by Laurence Olivier, resembled assimilationist Jews, such as Benjamin Disraeli (whose features Olivier emulated), bankers and financiers (not Elizabethan usurers), such as Baron Rothschild. Like Komisarjevsky, Miller had a social programme—to show the roots of modern anti-Semitism in economics and the competition for power, which have more to do with capitalism and politics than with biblical theories of the death of Christ.4 To make pg 74

Laurence Olivier as Shylock, Joan Plowright as Portia (1970)

8. Laurence Olivier as Shylock, Joan Plowright as Portia: National Theatre (1970)

Shylock a more sympathetic character, he heavily cut the text, excising for example Shylock's long aside, 1.3.38–49 ('I hate him for he is a Christian') and reducing or eliminating (in the televised version) Lancelot's low comedy. Further, he saw Jessica as a young woman deeply troubled by the desertion of her father and her religion. Shylock's reaction to her elopement—and to Salarino and Solanio's taunting—leads directly to his quest for revenge against Antonio as representative of the Christian community that has grievously wronged him. To emphasize the tragic aspect, so that an audience could not help grasping his intention, Miller ended the production with a startling coup de théâtre. As Portia and the others enter her house, Jessica drifts away in the opposite direction, holding the deed Shylock has signed, while offstage a cantor intones the mourner's Kaddish.

Ten years later, Miller again produced The Merchant of Venice, this time for the BBC television series of Shakespeare's plays. Constrained by series policy, this production was per-pg 75force more traditional. Jack Gold, who had little experience with Shakespeare, was the director. Warren Mitchell played Shylock; but whereas Olivier adopted the speech accents of a 'too consciously naturalised alien', appropriate for the interpretation he followed, Mitchell spoke with a 'thickish accent' of a middle European Jew, and both actors represented men more driven by emotion than concupiscence.1 In the intervening period between the two productions, Miller had come to see the play as 'totally symmetrical in its prejudices'.2 Both sides were in the wrong, as in the trial scene, which balances Shylock's inhuman behaviour towards Antonio with the brutality of his forced conversion.

The Royal Shakespeare Company's 'Merchants'

Meanwhile, another British director, John Barton, also staged two productions, an experimental one at The Other Place in Stratford-upon-Avon (1978), and a full-scale production in the main house (1981).3 Both were set in the later nineteenth century, though less elaborately than Miller. Two quite different actors played Shylock for these productions, with two quite different conceptions of the role. Their differences further demonstrate the ambiguities inherent in the play. Patrick Stewart's Shylock at The Other Place was a mean-spirited man, interested more in money than anything else—love, family, religion, social status. For Stewart, Shylock was a bad man and a bad Jew; hence, he readily accedes to Antonio's demand at the end to convert to Christianity: no groans or moans accompanied his yielding, just a nervous, ingratiating giggle. This was totally in keeping with Barton's idea, that 'the play is about true and false value and not about race'.4

pg 76

Patrick Stewart as Shylock (1978)

9. Patrick Stewart as Shylock: Royal Shakespeare Company (The Other Place, 1978)

David Suchet as Shylock, Sinead Cusack as Portia, and Tom Wilkinson as Antonio (1981)

10. David Suchet as Shylock, Sinead Cusack as Portia, Tom Wilkinson as Antonio: Royal Shakespeare Company (1981)

pg 77For David Suchet, who like Warren Mitchell is himself Jewish, matters were more complicated. For him, Shylock's Jewishness is central; he is not an outsider who happens to be a Jew; he is an outsider because he is a Jew.1 The difference was highlighted by Suchet's slight accent, occasioned by his sense of Shylock's pride of race, as against the absence of anything 'Jewish' in Stewart's speaking.2

Other differences emerged that are instructive. Suchet drew a distinction between the public Shylock and the private one. For him, the most difficult scene was 2.5, Shylock at home with Jessica. Suchet wanted to show Shylock's tender feelings towards his daughter and at the same time justify her desertion, and he could not reconcile the contradiction. Stewart showed no tenderness towards Jessica; on the contrary, at one point, sensing a flicker of defiance, he slapped her resoundingly across the cheek.3 But for both actors, the decisive moment came at 3.1.118, when Shylock laments the loss of Leah's ring and determines then on his revenge.4 As for Olivier's Shylock, Jessica's elopement was crucial, and 3.1 rather than the trial scene was the real climax of the drama.

Two more British productions may be briefly considered before going on to productions abroad. After John Caird's disastrous, overdesigned production in 1984, the Royal Shakespeare Company again staged the play in 1987, with Antony Sher as Shylock under Bill Alexander's direction. Sher reverted to an unassimilated, oriental Shylock, with a corresponding accent and costume, and Deborah Goodman's Jessica followed suit. The production nevertheless was not without contemporary allusions, such as swastikas and similar graffiti scrawled on walls near Shylock's home. In fact, the production deliberately intensified the problematic nature of the text, compelling the audience to examine the nature of their own prejudices. As a result, this Merchant became highly con-pg 78

Antony Sher as Shylock, Deborah Goodman as Jessica (1987)

11. Antony Sher as Shylock, Deborah Goodman as Jessica: Royal Shakespeare Company (1987)

troversial, not least because, in stripping bare his bloodthirsty motives, Sher made Shylock highly offensive.1

Alexander did not want this production to be about anti-Semitism only but about racism generally, and as a South African Jew, Sher concurred.2 Hence, in the trial scene, while commenting on Venetian slave-holding (4.1.89–99), Shylock held a black attendant before him, connecting discrimination against Jews and blacks and making it visually unmistakable.3On the other hand, Alexander felt strongly that the play should be set in a Jacobean period (1630) to emphasize the cruelty and rigorous justice of that world. Only thus, he believed, could Shylock's intention to carve the heart out of Antonio be credible; to put it in a Victorian or later context would lessen credibility. Moreover, the social context requires the historical setting, he argued, to understand the position of Jews in Venice and Christian hypocrisy in dealing with them.4

pg 79Other aspects of Alexander's production were also calculated to dislodge audience complacency and, indeed, arouse controversy, such as the blatant homosexuality Antonio revealed in his relationship with Bassanio. But Sir Peter Hall's production at the Phoenix Theatre in 1989, which borrowed a good deal from Alexander's, seems to have occasioned comparatively little uproar, even in New York, where it was staged the following year. Perhaps critics and public had grown weary of debate, or the presence of another, more popular Jewish actor, the American Dustin Hoffman, defused controversy while it promoted box office success. More to the point, Hall's production, compared to Alexander's, was milder in tone, certainly less tendentious, though not less elaborately staged, and a great deal of spitting by Christians occurred in both. In his first Shakespearian role, Hoffman was hardly a dominating presence, giving Geraldine James's Portia an opportunity to shine—as she did—thereby effecting a necessary and useful counterbalance to Shylock. And like Sinead Cusack in Barton's 1981 staging, she seemed to be the only one with any compassion for Shylock at the moment of his forced conversion.1

The Merchant of Venice abroad

Dustin Hoffman's Shylock is a reminder that The Merchant of Venice, like all of Shakespeare's plays, does not belong exclusively to the English theatre; as part of the world's, it has been performed in all corners of the earth. It was the first of Shakespeare's plays to be performed by professional actors in America, when Lewis Hallam and a company from London staged it in Williamsburg, Virginia, on 15 September 1752.2By far the greatest American actor to play Shylock was Edwin Booth, who succeeded his father, Junius Brutus Booth, in the pg 80role. By the early nineteenth century, the stock figure of the Jew was well recognized, and the elder Booth, who knew Hebrew, played Shylock using a Yiddish accent.1

Edwin Booth made his debut in London as Shylock in 1861 and later not only surpassed his father but another eminent American actor in the role, Edwin Forrest. Whereas Forrest's representation rivalled Kean's, the younger Booth's more closely resembled Macklin's or, in our own time, Patrick Stewart's. For he saw Shylock as essentially driven by economic concerns—an avaricious old man devoid of love or compassion, moved more by the 'money value' of Leah's ring than by sentimental associations.2 For his revivals of the play in New York beginning in 1867, which none surpassed until Henry Irving's, he cut or otherwise altered the text, making Shylock's threats more ominous and bringing the role into still greater prominence. He ended 1.3, for example, after Antonio and Bassanio go off, with: 'Thou called'st me dog before thou hadst a cause, | But since I am a dog, beware my fangs' (3.3.6–7), and concluded the play with Shylock's exit in 4.1. He costumed Shylock as an oriental patriarch whose appearance was 'grotesque' but also tragic, and acted him accordingly.3

In the nineteenth century another, less well-known American actor played Shylock with great success. Since he was black, his appearances occurred mainly in Europe, where he won great acclaim, especially in Russia—not as an oddity, but for his stirring portrayal of many Shakespearian characters, King Lear as well as Shylock. This actor was Ira Aldridge, born in New York, 24 July 1807, and dead at 60 in Lodz, Poland. His Shylock reminded the critic K. Zvantsev more of the Wandering Jew than Shakespeare's money-lender, but the comment reveals Aldridge's attempt to universalize the character, making him representative of diaspora Jews generally.4More recently, at Stratford, Connecticut, in 1957, Morris Carnovsky starred as Shylock. Acclaimed by critics as a pg 81'superb' Shylock, particularly for his vigour and humour,1 he recognized the 'intellectual' quality of Shylock's language and its 'magnificent, haunting diction', which he refused to debase with an accent, as the fashion was then in England.2 At about the same time, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, The Merchant of Venice was staged in 'authentic' Elizabethan fashion, with Angus Bowmer, the actor and founding director, playing Shylock as a comic villain, complete with red wig and beard, putty nose, and middle European accent. For someone (like this editor) brought up on 'tragic' Shylocks, Bowmer's rendition was a shock—and a revelation. For it worked; it helped realize the play's comic structure and intent, without at the same time provoking repugnant anti-Semitic responses. A quite different, modern dress version was performed on the same stage in 1991, a controversial production that did, unfortunately, arouse spirited accusations of anti-Semitism.3

Elsewhere, The Merchant of Venice has been played in a variety of styles with a variety of emphases. Not surprisingly, during the Nazi era in Germany, it was used along with Marlowe's Jew of Malta mainly for propaganda purposes to ridicule Jews, who were then being systematically eliminated for a Judenfrei Third Reich. It was not always thus, as in Max Reinhardt's splendid productions in Germany and in Italy (1905–35), with Rudolf Schildkraut, Albert Basserman, and Memo Benassi playing Shylock.4 And it was not in the 1963 Berlin production, directed by Erwin Piscator, with Ernst Deutsch as a very human Shylock; or in the 1968–9 Austro-German television co-production, with Fritz Kortner as a less dignified but more realistic Shylock.5

Israeli Productions

Although The Merchant of Venice has not been performed as frequently in Israel as in other countries, its several produc-pg 82tions there have aroused considerable interest. The first, in 1936, before the State of Israel was formed, was at the Habimah Theatre, directed by Leopold Jessner, a Jewish refugee, famous for his work at Berlin's Staatstheater and the Schiller Theater in the 1920s. His Shylock, played alternately by Aharon Meskin and Shim'on Finkel, stood for all the Jewish people battling with Christian society. Meskin emphasized Shylock's heroic stature, Finkel his bitter spite, and every trace of comic villainy was banished. Nevertheless, because the Christians appeared too decent, the production evoked controversy. A public 'trial' was organized by and held at the theatre, where the author, the director, and the theatre were all defendants charged with fomenting anti-Semitism.1

Tyrone Guthrie directed the next production in Israel many years later, in 1959, well after the Nazi Holocaust had ended and the State of Israel was established. Meskin again played Shylock in this modern dress production, where he affected a Rothschildian appearance to underscore Shylock's position as a financier. Guthrie attempted to keep the play within the bounds of romantic comedy, but his attempt to present a 'fantasia on the twin themes of mercy and justice' was only partly successful.2 His Portia was miscast, and Meskin's marked pathos fitted awkwardly into the romantic conception. After a few months, the production disappeared from the Habimah's repertoire, and the play was not staged again until 1972, when Israeli-born Yossi Yzraeli directed it at the Cameri Theatre in Tel Aviv. By this time, after the stunning victory of the Six-Day War in 1967, Israeli pride and self-confidence were such that an unsympathetic Shylock could be risked in a version far removed from realism. A mimed Good Friday procession opened the play; in the trial scene Antonio appeared as a Christ figure, with a large black cross fitted on his back; and throughout the performance a puppet theatre pg 83in the background mimicked the action of the main stage or otherwise commented upon it. A noted Israeli comedian, Avner Hyskiahu, grotesquely impersonated Shylock as a shrewd old Jew used to making clever deals. Not surprisingly, the production was a box office and artistic failure that aroused much hostile criticism.

In 1980 the Cameri Theatre again attempted the Merchant, importing Barry Kyle from the RSC to direct, with Christopher Morley as set designer. To placate or rather defuse anticipated objections, some of the cast persuaded Kyle to delete Shylock's conversion in 4.1. Kyle's conception of Shylock as a man 'succumbing to the logic and mentality of terrorism', however, proved not much more successful than other versions of this controversial character, especially in a country which by then had long occupied another people's territory. In this political and social context, Kyle's message of 'concord and love' was not as fully appreciated as he and others hoped. In 1986 the Bet-Lessin Theatre in Tel Aviv attempted a revival in a new translation by Avraham Oz, directed by Yossi Alfi, but the production was stopped during rehearsals for want of sufficient financing. Two years later, Moshe Shamir adapted the play as A Carnival in Venice, produced at the Festival of Alternative Theatre in Acre.

The Merchant of Venice continues to hold the stage the world over. The reasons for its popularity remain the same: its rich complexity, which both actors and critics continue to explore rewardingly, and its marvellous opportunities for acting, staging, and set design. It still arouses controversy, especially in audiences sensitive to the elements of anti-Semitism it undoubtedly contains. Whether the play is itself anti-Semitic or not depends largely upon one's interpretation, on the stage as on the page, and one's inclination or not to accept the ambiguities, inconsistencies, and contradictions inherent in the text. Resolving those ambiguities may predispose representation in one direction or another, as we have seen, but it may also diminish the play that Shakespeare wrote.

pg 84

Title-page of The Merchant of Venice (1600)

12. Title-page of the 1600 Quarto


1 The Merchant was performed on the main stage, with The Jew at the Swan Theatre.

2 Sher was not the first Jewish actor recently to essay the role on the British stage. David Suchet, for example, had played Shylock at the RSC in 1981.

1 Cf. Hermann Sinsheimer, Shylock: The History of a Character (1947; repr. New York, 1964), 133–4.

2 See Danson, 60. A Jewish merchant from Venice, Alonzo Nuñez de Herrera (Abraham Cohen de Herrera), was captured in Essex's raid on Cadiz and brought to London as one of forty hostages in 1596, where he remained until 1600. It is unlikely, however, that he bears any resemblance to Shakespeare's Shylock or (though born in Florence) to Marlowe's Barabas. See Richard H. Popkin, 'A Jewish Merchant of Venice', SQ 40 (1989), 329–31.

3 See Leo Kirschbaum, 'Shylock and the City of God', Character and Characterization in Shakespeare (Detroit, 1962), 7–8.

1 Cecil Roth, 'A Day in the Life of a Medieval English Jew', Essays and Portraits in Anglo-Jewish History (Philadelphia, 1962), 36.

2 See H. G. Richardson, 'The Expulsion', The English Jewry under Angevin Kings (1960), 213–33.

1 A. M. Hyamson, A History of the Jews in England (1908), 125–33.

2 See Cecil Roth, A History of the Jews in England, 3rd edn. (Oxford, 1964), 132–48; E. N. Calisch, The Jew in English Literature (1909; repr. Port Washington, NY, 1969), 41–2; Hyamson, History of the Jews in England, 135–6.

3 Lucien Wolf, 'Jews in Tudor England', in C. Roth (ed.), Essays in Jewish History (1934), 73–90; 'Jews in Elizabethan England', Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society, 11 (1924–27), 1–33; C. J. Sisson, 'A Colony of Jews in Shakespeare's London', Essays and Studies, 23 (1937), 38–51. Far from being oppressed, the Marranos in Shakespeare's London, Sisson says, reaped the rewards of compromise and submission to law, carrying on trade or entering professions, so long as they did not flaunt their real nonconformity.

4 See Calisch, The Jew in English Literature, 51–4, and Warren D. Smith, 'Shakespeare's Shylock', SQ 15 (1964), 193–4.

5 Harold Fisch, The Dual Image: The Figure of the Jew in English and American Literature (New York, 1971), 13. Cf. Calisch, The Jew in English Literature, 54–6.

1 Cf. Merchant 2.2.25, where Lancelot Gobbo says, 'Certainly the Jew is the very devil incarnation'.

2 Fisch, Dual Image, 16–18.

3 Ibid. 14. Compare Danson, who cites Fisch, Dual Image, 165–9.

1 The Play of the Sacrament, in Chief Pre-Shakespearean Dramas, ed. Joseph Quincy Adams (Cambridge, Mass., 1924), 257, ll. 651–3.

2 'The Jew in Western Drama: An Essay and A Checklist', Bulletin of the New York Public Library, 72 (1968), 442–91; repr. in Edward Coleman, The Jew in English Drama: An Annotated Bibliography (New York, 1970), 1–50. The reference is to the reprint, p. 7.

1 See Hyamson, History of the Jews in England, 136–40, for an account of this episode, and compare Sinsheimer, Shylock, 62–8, who notes the crowd's derision as Lopez was executed.

2 See David Bevington, From 'Mankind' to Marlowe (Cambridge, Mass., 1962), 218–33.

1 References are to The Complete Plays of Christopher Marlowe, ed. I. Ribner (New York, 1963). For the Deity's promises to Abram, see Gen. 12: 1– 3, 7; 15: 5; 17: 4–8, 16.

1 See e.g. John R. Cooper, 'Shylock's Humanity', SQ 21 (1970), 122.

2 M. J. Landa, The Jew in Drama (1926; repr. Port Washington, NY, 1968), 70–1. N. Nathan, 'Three Notes on The Merchant of Venice', Shakespeare Association Bulletin, 23 (1948), 158, 161–2 n. 9, adds seven references to 'Jewry', but says none are abusive. But allusions to the treachery of Judas, as in As You Like It 3.4.7–11, and Richard II 4.1.170, must also be included in any complete list.

3 See e.g. D. M. Cohen, 'The Jew and Shylock', SQ 31 (1980), 53–63, esp. 54–5; also Nathan, 'Three Notes', 157–60, and Hyam Maccoby, 'The Figure of Shylock', Midstream, 16 (Feb. 1970), 56–69.

1 See also Christopher Spencer, The Genesis of Shakespeare's 'The Merchant of Venice' (Lewiston, NY, 1988), 88–92.

2 On the famous speech that begins 'Hath not a Jew eyes?' (3.1.55) see 'The Play', below.

3 Since medieval mystery and miracle plays portrayed Judas with red beard and hair and a large nose, later stage-Jews followed suit: see Landa, The Jew in Drama, 11; Calisch, The Jew in English Literature, 73; and Edgar Rosenberg, From Shylock to Svengali: Jewish Stereotypes in English Fiction (Stanford, Calif., 1960), 22. A ballad published in 1664 by an old actor, Thomas Jordan, indicates that Shakespeare's Shylock continued this tradition: see E. E. Stoll, 'Shylock', in Shakespeare Studies (New York, 1927), 255, 271, and Toby Lelyveld, Shylock on the Stage (Cleveland, 1960), 11. The large nose was also characteristic of Pantaloon's make-up in the commedia dell'arte, a secondary source for Shylock: see 'Sources', below, and John R. Moore, 'Pantaloon as Shylock', Boston Public Library Quarterly, 1 (1949), 33–42 (cited by Spencer, Genesis, 97). Had he intended to give Shylock an identifiable accent, Shakespeare could have done so, as he does, for example, Doctor Caius in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Nevertheless, many actors persist in using a comic—usually middle-European-accent when portraying Shylock, even though Spanish— the language of Sephardic Jews—was the lingua franca of European Jews in Shakespeare's time.

4 See Marion D. Perret, 'Shakespeare's Jew: Preconception and Performance', SStud 20 (1988), 261–8.

1 See Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary, trans. Boleslaw Taborski (Garden City, NY, 1964), 212–19, and Jay L. Halio, 'Nightingales That Roar: The Language of A Midsummer Night's Dream', in D. G. Allen and R. A. White (eds.), Traditions and Innovations (Newark, Del. 1990), 137–49.

2 Cf. Bernard Grebanier, The Truth about Shylock (New York, 1962), 291; Cooper, 'Shylock's Humanity', 121; and Alan C. Dessen, 'The Elizabethan Stage Jew and Christian Example', Modern Language Quarterly, 35 (1974), 242–3.

3Stage-usurers were not necessarily Jews, but stage-Jews were invariably associated with usury. See Rosenberg, From Shylock to Svengali, 27. Kirschbaum, 'Shylock and the City of God', 25, and Warren D. Smith, 'Shakespeare's Shylock', SQ 15 (1964), 193–9, try (I think unsuccessfully) to distinguish between ethnic and ethic in Antonio's attitude toward Shylock.

1 In Comic Transformations in Shakespeare (London, 1980), 130–1, Ruth Nevo develops this point.

2 See Jay L. Halio, 'Hamlet's Alternatives', Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 8 (1966), 169–88.

3 Norman Rabkin, 'Meaning and The Merchant of Venice', in Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning (Chicago, 1981), 7; cf. also pp. 22–3. Danson makes a similar point without citing the Falstaff passage, pp. 135–6.

1 Cf. Shylock's complaint to Tubal, 'The curse never fell upon our nation till now; I never felt it till now' (3.1.80–2).

1 Cited from Arber's edition in Bullough, i. 445–6. By using a variety of approaches, including secondary sources and an analysis of the Merchant, S. A. Small has attempted to reconstruct the general outlines and essential substance of The Jew in '"The Jew"', Modern Language Review, 26 (1931), 281–7; but the results remain speculative. Compare M. A. Levy, 'Did Shakespeare Join the Casket and Bond Plots in The Merchant of Venice?', SQ 11 (1960), 388–91.

2 It appears nowhere else in Shakespeare, although 'insculpture' occurs in Timon, 5.5.68. See Brown, pp. xxxii, 173.

1 Il pecorone di Ser Giovanni Fiorentino (Venice, 1565), 40; reprinted in slightly different form in J. Payne Collier, Shakespeare's Library (London, n.d.), II. ii. 86.

2 Kenneth Muir, The Sources of Shakespeare's Plays (New Haven, Conn., 1977). 90.

1 Bullough, 446–7.

2 The story, which has a Christian goldsmith as the borrower and a Jewish money-lender as his creditor, is paraphrased and summarized by L. Toulmin Smith in Furness, 313–14.

3 See the relevant passages in Brown, Appendix V, pp. 172–3.

1 The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey (London, 1958), xii. 291–301.

1 Norman Holland goes further and relates Freud's idea to the play as a whole through 'the theme of venturing, which links the romantic plot to the mercantile one. This third woman, death (lovely, rich, and merciful in a Christian view), stands for the investor's return in the great venture of life itself, 'Freud on Shakespeare', PMLA, 75 (1960), 171.

2 The story is reprinted from W. G. Waters's translation (1895) in Bullough, 497–505, and in Joseph Satin, Shakespeare and his Sources (Boston, 1966), 142–9.

1 Compare Bullough, 452–4, and Brown, p. xxxi, who reprint excerpts from Zelauto on pp. 486–90 and 156–68, respectively.

2 Reprinted in Brown, 153–6. The date is uncertain but is roughly contemporary with the Merchant, which may actually have been its source instead of the other way round. Bullough, 449–50, believes the ballad is pre-Shakespearian and may derive from The Jew.

3 Excerpted in Bullough, 506–11.

4 Reprinted in Bullough, 482–6; Brown, 168–72; Satin, Shakespeare and his Sources, 138–41; Furness, 310–13. Compare Muir, Sources, 87. In '"Lazarus Pyott" and Other Inventions of Anthony Munday', Philological Quarterly, 42 (1963), 532–41, Celeste Turner Wright ascertains that 'L.P.' was, in fact, Anthony Munday.

1 See e.g. commentary on 2.1.32–8; 4.1.196–8, 203; etc.

1 See J. D. Rea, 'Shylock and the Processus Belial', Philological Quarterly, 8 (1929), 311–13. The Weighing of Souls appears in medieval wall paintings as well, and in morality plays, e.g. The Castle of Perseverance, similar debates occur (NS 9).

2 See above, 'Shakespeare and Semitism'. The point is made by Mahood in an appendix on Shakespeare's use of the Bible in The Merchant of Venice (NCS 184–8). She also notes that Shakespeare, like many of his contemporaries, would be familiar with both the Bishops' Bible (1584 edn.) and the Geneva (1596). Although echoes from the former outnumber those from the latter, allusions to the Geneva's marginal glosses indicate that Shakespeare was probably reading that version as he wrote this play.

3 J. L. Cardozo, The Contemporary Jew in Elizabethan Drama (Amsterdam, 1925), 226, notes that according to the great Hebraist Rashi, Iiskah was an early name of Sarai (or Sarah), wife of the patriarch Abraham and mother of Isaac. The Geneva marginal gloss makes the point as well. Compare Sinsheimer, Shylock, 87, who also discusses the derivation of the names.

1 As the marginal gloss to Gen. 10: 24 in the Geneva Bible states.

2 Cardozo, Contemporary Jew, 223, notes that y and i were interchangeable and suspects a pun, Scylla-Shylock, in Lancelot's speech, 3.5.14. Note also the Q1 spelling 'Shyloch', when Bassanio addresses him, 1.3.49. Not everyone agrees with this etymology, however. For example, Maurice Brodsky conjectured a derivation from the phrase shelee shelee v'sheloch sheloch, representing a man who stood on the letter of the law. Israel Gollancz noted the association with shallach, the Hebrew word for cormorant, a synonym in Elizabethan English for usurer. And Norman Nathan, who cites the previous two contenders, argues instead for a cognate with shullock, an obsolete term of contempt which the OED records as early as 1603 ('Three Notes', 152–4). But given the biblical origin of the other Jewish names and their close association with Shem's grandson, the derivation from Shelah, or Shelach, seems more likely. Cf. Brown, 3; Merchant, 171; Spencer, Genesis, 96–7.

3 For the ironic appropriateness of her name, see commentary on 3.1.114.

4 See Danson, 187, who cites John Hollander, The Untuning of the Sky (Princeton, NJ, 1961), 25.

1 See E. F. J. Tucker, 'The Letter of the Law in The Merchant of Venice', SSur 29 (1976), 93–101.

2 Compare Brown, p. xliii. In '"When Jacob Graz'd his Uncle Laban's Sheep": A New Source for The Merchant of Venice', SQ 36 (1985), 64–5, Joan Ozark Holmer claims Mosse's book as a source, specifically for Shakespeare's use of the Jacob-Laban story.

3 See 1.3.134–8 and the critical interpretation of the play below.

4 Of course, as Brown notes (p. xliii), Antonio has been a chief obstacle to higher rates of interest among Venetian usurers, and this is an important motive underlying Shylock's decision to insist upon the forfeiture (3.1.119– 21). But revenge for all the wrongs he feels he has suffered is more important.

5 In this paragraph and the next, I am indebted to McPherson, esp. ch. 2.

1 Among the most famous of these is Thomas Coryat, who visited Venice in 1608. His account of the visit (including his encounters with Jews) is in Coryat's Crudities Hastily gobled vp in fiue Moneths trauells in France, Sauoy, Italy … (1611).

2 See commentary on 3.2.266.

1 McPherson, 37.

2 The Commonwealth and Government of Venice (1599); quoted by McPherson, 39.

1 Shylock's 'Jewish gaberdine' (1.3.109; see commentary) may be Shakespeare's way of indicating this fact, although actually a still more distinctive and humiliating garb was worn, as in the RSC production of 1984. This consisted of a badge (a yellow circle) and a yellow or red high pointed hat, or turban.

2 Sir William Slingsby, 'A Relation of the Voyage to Cadiz', The Naval Miscellany I, ed. J. K. Laughton (1902), 25–92 (NS 1). Compare Brown, p. xxvi, who notes that Ernest Kuhl first identified the allusion in TLS, 27 Dec. 1928, p. 1025.

1 See James Shapiro, 'Which is The Merchant here, and which The Jew', SStud 20 (1988), 275–6, who cites (among others) William Ingram, A London Life in the Brazen Age: Francis Langley, 1548–1602 (Cambridge, Mass., 1978) and C. W. Wallace, 'The Swan Theatre and the Earl of Pembroke's Players', Englische Studien, 43 (1911), 340–95.

2 TC 119–20.

1 Cf. e.g. 1 Henry IV 2.4.471–85, 5.1.127–40.

2 See above, 'Shakespeare and Semitism.'

3 When the wind has 'come about', Bassanio and his entourage have to leave before the masque can begin in Act 2: see 2.6.62–8.

1 For example, Danson, 92–3; Leggatt, 119–22.

2 For Shakespeare's alteration of his source, see 'Sources', above.

3 For five possible ways of ending the play, see Thomas Clayton, 'Theatrical Shakespearegresses at the Guthrie and Elsewhere: Notes on "Legitimate Production"', New Literary History, 17 (1985–6), 331–3, and cf. Leggatt, 149.

4 See Holland, 238–9, 331, and compare Graham Midgley, 'The Merchant of Venice: A Reconsideration', Essays in Criticism 10 (1960), 125: 'Antonio is an outsider because he is an unconscious homosexual in a predominantly, and indeed blatantly, heterosexual society'. See also Danson, 34–40.

1 See Plato, The Symposium.

2 Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, for example, calls Bassanio a 'predatory young gentleman' (NS, p. xxv).

3 See Danson, 110–11.

1 See S. Schoenbaum, William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary life (Oxford, 1987), 227–30, concerning the grant of a coat of arms to Shakespeare's family in 1596, about the time this play was written.

2 On linguistic perversions in the play, Lancelot's and others', compare Danson, 96–104.

1Leggatt, 140.

1 Danson, 118. See commentary on 3.2.63–72 and on 4.1.112 for Bassanio's apparent obtuseness in the trial scene.

2 Cf. Nerissa's similar remarks, 1.2.27–32.

3 Cf. a similar contrast between Romeo's lovesick laments over Rosaline (1.1.165–234) and the lines he speaks to and about Juliet (1.5.43–52, 2.2.43–67); also the contrast in the love contest between Goneril and Regan's language (Lear 1.1.55–61, 69–76) and Cordelia's (1.1.91–3).

1 See commentary: shrines hold the relics of dead saints, not living ones.

2 Leggatt, 135–6.

1 Of course, Shylock's costume may influence an audience, predisposing it accordingly as he wears a shock red wig, putty nose, and other accoutrements of the comic villain, or is dressed in the expensive clothes of a successful businessman. See stage history below.

1 Danson, 140, calls attention to both its figurative and 'frighteningly literal' meanings.

2 The first, 1.1.31–5, is not so indicated in all editions, but see commentary for its justification.

1 As in Jonathan Miller's National Theatre production with Laurence Olivier as Shylock.

2 Although such feelings may be surmised by Antonio's comment on an 'evil soul producing holy witness'; (96), or the behaviour of Solanio and Salarino toward Shylock and Tubal in 3.1, aversion, disgust, repugnance, rather than hatred, seem to characterize the Christians' attitude—until of course the trial scene, where the antagonism peaks and is most forcefully expressed by Graziano.

3 See 'Shakespeare and Semitism', above.

4 'Unto a stranger thou mayest lend upon usury, but thou shalt not lend upon usury unto thy brother'; cited by John S. Coolidge, 'Law and Love in The Merchant of Venice', SQ 27 (1976), 243. Coolidge develops at length the theological aspects of the problem of usury in the play.

1 Danson compares Shylock here to Richard III (pp. 151–7), and Lewalski, 331 (among others) sees Shylock's attempt to heal the breach between Antonio and himself as 'merely pretence', 'a mockery of forgiveness', in so far as at the first sight of Antonio he has declared for revenge and Jessica later confirms his attitude, 3.2.282–8. But citing other parts in the dialogue, Richard A. Levin notes the ambiguity of Shylock's possibly conflicting motives: the bond may be a 'vicious and deceptive offer', or it may be an incentive to Antonio to treat him better (Love and Society in Shakespeare's Comedy (Newark, Del. 1985), 42). It may, of course, be both.

1 Midgley, 'Merchant of Venice', 124.

2 Divided as the Venetian community may be, the Christian and Jewish segments are themselves closely knit; hence, Shylock suspects that Bassanio is a party to Jessica's elopement, and in 3.1 he further associates Solanio and Salarino and then Antonio with it.

1 Here Shakespeare carefully distinguishes between Christian practice and Christian doctrine.

1 See e.g. Lev. 19: 17–18; Ps. 94; Rom. 12: 19. In the sixteenth century, both church and secular authorities vigorously opposed blood vengeance. Compare John R. Cooper, who says that Shylock's speech provides insight into his 'all-too-human mind. We see his motives arise from a nature like ours, one that looks for vengeance when wronged.' Nevertheless, 'Shylock, in seeking revenge against Antonio, is not justified' ('Shylock's Humanity', SQ 21 (1970), 120).

1 See e.g. Nevill Coghill, 'The Basis of Shakespearian Comedy', Essays and Studies, ns 3 (1950), 20–3; C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Princeton, NJ, 1959), 185; and Lewalski, 331–5.

1 Granville-Barker, 88.

2 Graziano, citing Pythagoras, suggests that the spirit of a wolf, hanged for human slaughter, 'infused itself' in Shylock while he was still an embryo (131–8).

3 For Antonio as 'a passive, submissive Christ, risking his body and blood,' see Holland, Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare, 331.

1 From this point onwards, the scene suggests an analogy also to the Sacrifice of Isaac, in which Isaac is spared at the last moment, and a ram is substituted for him (Gen. 22). In such analogues, parallels are seldom exact, though they resemble each other in general shape and movement, and more than one analogue may operate simultaneously. For example, Antonio as the intended sacrificial victim may parallel Isaac, notwithstanding the reference to himself as a 'wether' (= ram), i.e. the substitute. On his role as a scapegoat or 'sin offering', atoning for the sins of the community, compare Lev. 16: 5–16. For Antonio as the victim of 'father aggression' in psychoanalytic terms, see Holland, Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare, 235–7.

2 One reason for this apparent obtuseness may be that everyone implicitly recognizes the legal principle that 'a right granted to do something includes the right to do anything that is necessarily incidental thereto', as the nineteenth-century German jurist, Josef Kohler, maintained. Moreover, Portia's second argument is vitiated in so far as a creditor is allowed to take less than that to which he is entitled. But these points do not supersede the more important one involving an abuse of legal right: 'to seek to take a person's life through abuse of right is against law as attempted murder'. See O. Hood Phillips, Shakespeare and the Lawyers (1972), 95, and Merchant, 24.

3 For many opinions concerning the nature and conduct of the trial, see e.g. Phillips, Shakespeare and the lawyers, 91–118, and compare Tucker, 'The Letter of the Law', 93–101. Among some of the points discussed are the validity of the bond in the first instance, Portia's role as an interested party, and the differences between common law and equity. Lawyers have a field day with this scene, but legal technicalities are mostly irrelevant to the scene as Shakespeare presents it, which carries sufficient plausibility for his dramatic purpose.

1 See commentary on the reference to Matt. 27: 25.

2 Compare Danson, 65. Citing St Augustine's commentaries, he says that 'the essential thing added to the law by Christ is forgiveness. Mercy, therefore, is made part of the law, rather than an opposing principle. Indeed, mercy, or forgiveness, becomes the legal principle enabling all other legal principles'.

1 Compare Frank Kermode, 'The Mature Comedies', in John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris (eds.), Early Shakespeare (1961), 223: 'as Shakespeare is careful to show in Measure for Measure the arguments for Justice are strong, and in the course of Christian doctrine it is necessarily satisfied before mercy operates'.

2 Shakespeare's Early Comedies (1965), 192.

3 On her graduated appeals to Shylock to 'prove his affinity with humankind', see Bertrand Evans, Shakespeare's Comedies (Oxford, 1960), 64.

4 See Barber, 180–5.

5 Danson, 119–120.

1 Compare Sinsheimer, Shylock, 99: 'That Shakespeare makes Shylock agree to be baptised is the worst offence of all'; Nevo, Comic Transformations, 136–7: 'The benign offer of [conversion] is the ultimate cruelty of alienation, of denial of that essential being which has just made itself so palpably manifest. Therefore it is counterfeit mercy.'

1 See Coghill, 'Basis of Shakespearian Comedy', 22–3; Lewalski, 341; Grebanier, Truth about Shylock, 291; Kirschbaum, 'Shylock and the City of God', 29–31.

2 '… perhaps Elizabethans saw in [Shylock's conversion] a gesture in the direction of bringing him into the community of civilized men', 'Introduction', Sylvan Barnet (ed.). Twentieth Century Interpretations of 'The Merchant of Venice' (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1970), 7.

3 Compare W. H. Auden, 'Brothers & Others', The Dyer's Hand (New York, 1962), 223–5, and Leo Salingar, 'Is The Merchant of Venice a Problem Play?', in Dramatic Form in Shakespeare and the Jacobeans (Cambridge, 1986), 19–31.

4 If life is at risk, Jews may violate any of the 613 commandments in the Old Testament—except this one, which can require martyrdom.

5 e.g. Patrick Stewart (see stage history, below).

1 On the development of this conflict, see Coppélia Kahn, 'The Cuckoo's Note: Male Friendship and Cuckoldry in The Merchant of Venice', in Peter Erickson and Coppélia Kahn (eds.), Shakespeare's 'Rough Magic' (Newark, Del., 1985), 104–12.

1 Kahn, 'The Cuckoo's Note', 108–11, develops these points in detail.

2 Compare Leslie Fiedler, The Stranger in Shakespeare (New York, 1972), 135, who says that in giving him the ring to give to Bassanio, Portia takes her revenge on Antonio, by forcing him to marry her to Bassanio a second time, as it were.

3 'A Garden in Belmont: The Merchant of Venice, 5.1', in W. R. Elton and William B. Long (eds.), Shakespeare and Dramatic Traditions (Newark, Del., 1989), 29.

4 Leggatt, 149: 'In short, the play has shown a larger world than it can finally bring into harmony.'

5 Compare Auden, 'Brothers & Others', 233–4: 'If Antonio is not to fade away into a nonentity, then the married couples must enter the lighted house and leave Antonio standing alone on the darkened stage, outside the Eden from which, not by the choice of others, but by his own nature, he is excluded'. See also Leonard Tennenhouse, 'The Counterfeit Order of The Merchant of Venice', in Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn (eds.), Representing Shakespeare (Baltimore, 1980), 63; and Jean Howard, 'The Difficulties of Closure', in A. R. Braunmuller and J. C. Bulman (eds.), Comedy from Shakespeare to Sheridan (Newark, Del., 1986), 125, who argues that in the end the ironies not the harmonies are the most striking feature of this play.

1 Coghill, 'Basis of Shakespearian Comedy', 23. Levin, 'A Garden in Belmont', 24, notes that music, the recurrent symbol of harmony in Shakespeare, as Coghill says, is alluded to fifteen times, more than in any other Shakespeare play, and eleven times in the last act alone.

2 A. D. Moody, The Merchant of Venice (1964), in Barnet, Twentieth Century Interpretations, 107.

3 'Love's Wealth and the Judgement of The Merchant of Venice', in Shakespeare and his Comedies (1957), 62–75.

4 'The Merchants and the Jew of Venice: Wealth's Communion and an Intruder', in Shakespeare's Festive Comedy, 163–91, esp. 175.

5 See Walter Cohen, 'The Merchant of Venice and the Possibilities of Historical Criticism', ELH 49 (1982), 765–89.

6 NCS 25.

1 For a discussion of this problem, see Peter Brook, 'The Deadly Theatre', ch. 1 of The Empty Space (New York, 1968; repr. 1978), 9–41.

2 See 'Sources, analogues, and date' above. Cf. E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage (Oxford, 1923), ii. 195, and TC 119–20.

3 Ibid. iv. 119, 172.

4 For several of the ideas here I am indebted to R. Chris Hassel, Renaissance Drama and the English Church Year (Lincoln, Neb., 1979), 113–18.

5 Hassel, English Church Year, 118, who cites Enid Welsford's descriptions of traditional Shrovetide public masquing, mummery, etc., in The Court Masque, 2nd edn. (1927; repr., New York, 1962), 12, 36.

1 Toby Lelyveld, Shylock on the Stage (Cleveland, 1960), 7.

2 William Ringler, Jr., 'The Number of Actors in Shakespeare's Early Plays', in G. E. Bentley (ed.), The Seventeenth-Century Stage (Chicago, 1968), 123.

3 The play is included along with fifteen others by Shakespeare and many more plays by Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher, Massinger, etc., formerly performed at the Blackfriars Theatre and now assigned to Thomas Killigrew and the King's Company on 12 Jan. 1669. (The rest were assigned to Davenant.) See The London Stage, 1660–1800, ed. William Van Lennep et al. (Carbondale, Ill., 1965), 5 vols, in 11; Part I, 1660–1700, 151–2.

1 Granville's name does not appear on the title-page of the quarto, which advertises the play as 'Acted at the Theatre in Little-Lincolns-Inn-Fields, by His Majesty's Servants' and published by 'Ber. Lintott at the Post-House in the Middle Temple-Gate, Fleetstreet, 1701'. It is reprinted in Five Restoration Adaptations of Shakespeare, ed. Christopher Spencer (Urbana, Ill., 1965), 345–402, and reproduced in facsimile by Cornmarket Press (London, 1969). References and quotations below are from the facsimile.

1 In Shakespeare from Betterton to Irving (New York, 1920), 2 vols., i. 76–9, George C. D. Odell exercises no such restraint in his scathing analysis, and estimates that about one-third of the lines in the play are Granville's.

2 See Spencer's introduction, Five Restoration Adaptations, 30–2, for a more detailed analysis of this and other aspects of Granville's adaptation.

3 C. B. Hogan, Shakespeare in the Theatre, 1701–1800 (Oxford, 1952), 2 vols., i. 461, records thirty-six performances through 1748; Ben Ross Schneider's index to The London Stage, 1660–1800 (Carbondale, Ill., 1979), lists forty-three, but these include several that were not complete performances, such as one at the Blue Post Tavern, 18 Mar. 1724, part of a 'medley' of theatricals. No performances are listed for 1706–11, and usually only one or two a year after that, if any at all.

1 See above, p. 10. The tradition resumed or begun by Dogget continued when Benjamin Griffin, another comedian, took over the role, followed by Anthony Boheme, John Ogden, Walter Aston, and John Arthur (Spencer, Five Restoration Adaptations, 29). Compare A. C. Sprague, Shakespeare and the Actors (Cambridge, Mass., 1944), 19, who claims that Dogget established a tradition but did not follow one.

2 Macklin possibly took his cue from Nicholas Rowe's remarks in the Life of Shakespeare prefixed to his edition of 1709, cited in Brian Vickers (ed)., Shakespeare: The Critical Heritage, 5 vols. (1974–81), ii. 196: 'To these [i.e. Thersites in Troilus and Apemantus in Timon, 'masterpieces of ill Nature and satyrical Snarling'] I might add that incomparable Character of Shylock the Jew, in The Merchant of Venice; but tho' we have seen that Play Receiv'd and Acted as a Comedy, and the Part of the Jew perform'd by an Excellent Comedian [i.e. Dogget], yet I cannot but think it was design'd Tragically by the Author. There appears in it such a deadly Spirit of Revenge, such a savage Fierceness and Fellness, and such a bloody designation of Cruelty and Mischief, as cannot agree either with the Stile or Characters of Comedy.'

1 Schneider's index lists no performances for only 1766 and at least one in 1758, 1764, 1765, 1785, 1793. Compare Hogan, Shakespeare in the Theatre, ii. 717, whose totals for each of Shakespeare's plays clearly indicate the Merchant's popularity. At the rival theatre in Covent Garden, the play was also staged soon after Macklin's revival with various actors in the role of Shylock, e.g. James Rosco, Isaac Ridout, Lacy Ryan, none of whom enjoyed Macklin's success: ibid. i. 315–17.

2 Odell, Betterton to Irving, i. 262. Lelyveld, Shylock, 21, notes that Nerissa and Jessica were also given songs. She concludes from Bell's edition (1774), which probably followed Macklin's script, that Macklin cut lines in many scenes (doubtless to make room for these and other additions), but the trial scene was kept almost intact and Act 5 'was entirely faithful to Shakespeare'. Like other actor-producers, Macklin continually tinkered with the text, which varied from production to production over the years. Odell laments, for example, that the Morocco and Arragon scenes were later cut, and Bassanio's casket scene 'curtailed beyond recognition, almost beyond the point of clarity' (Betterton to Irving, ii. 25–7).

1 Lelyveld, Shylock, 25. Cf. W. W. Appleton, Charles Macklin: An Actor's Life (Cambridge, Mass., 1960), 45–6.

2 Influenced by Kean, Hazlitt borrowed Shakespeare's phrase from King Lear 3.2.60, to describe Shylock in The Characters of Shakespeare's Plays (1817), 269.

3 F. W. Hawkins, The Life of Edmund Kean, 2 vols. (London, 1869; repr. New York, 1969), i. 124–37; for details of Kean's interpretation, see pp. 146–53.

4 Lelyveld, Shylock, 43–9.

5 See his reviews in the Morning Chronicle for 27 Jan. and 2 Feb. 1814, reprinted in A View of the English Stage (1818), 1–4.

1 Cited by Hawkins, Life of Kean, i. 137.

2 Lelyveld, Shylock, 49–56.

3 Ibid. 56, 67.

4 Cited by Odell, Betterton to Irving, ii. 227.

1 See Nancy J. Doran Hazelton, Historical Consciousness in Nineteenth-Century Shakespearean Staging (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1987), 71–4.

2 Peter Davison, Introduction to the Cornmarket facsimile of Kean's 1858 edition of The Merchant of Venice (1971), n.p.

3 Odell, Betterton to Irving, ii. 296, 287.

4 Lelyveld, Shylock, 59.

1 Odell, Betterton to Irving, ii. 375.

2 Ibid. 421–3; Lelyveld, Shylock, 81.

3 For example, Herbert Beerbohm Tree (Lelyveld, Shylock, 100). For a detailed and well-documented analysis of Irving's production, see Alan Hughes, Henry Irving, Shakespearean (Cambridge, 1981), 227–41; and James Bulman, Shakespeare in Performance: 'The Merchant of Venice' (Manchester, 1991), 33–52. Reports of Irving's added scene vary, from a silent re-entry into the house to several knocks on the door: cf. e.g. Robert Hichins, 'Irving as Shylock', in H. A. Saintsbury and Cecil Palmer (eds.). We Saw Him Act (1939; repr. 1969), 168; Hughes, Henry Irving, 232; William Winter, Shakespeare on the Stage (New York, 1911), 186; Bulman, 38.

4 Joseph Hatton, Henry Irving's Impressions of America, 2 vols. (London, 1884), i. 265; cited by Lelyveld, Shylock, 82.

5 Hichins, 'Irving as Shylock', 167. Unlike other actors, who erroneously adopt a middle European accent, Irving continued a tradition of Shylock as an oriental Jew, as Antony Sher did in the 1987 RSC production (see below).

6 Ibid.

1 For example, in Laurence Olivier's portrayal in 1970 (see below). Compare Bernard Grebanier, Then Came Each Actor (New York, 1975), 296.

2 Ibid. 305.

3 Odell, Betterton to Irving, ii. 306.

1 See Austin Brereton, The Life of Henry Irving (1908; repr. New York, 1969), 262–7.

2 Lelyveld, Shylock, 23. At the time, Clive was a celebrated comedienne; she may have been influenced, moreover, by the farcical element in Granville's adaptation.

3 See Winter, Shakespeare on the Stage, 217–22, for Ellen Terry in the role, and reviews of her performances reprinted in Gāmini Salgādo, Eyewitnesses of Shakespeare (1975), 137–43.

4 Her debut in London on 29 Dec. 1775 at Garrick's Drury Lane was as Portia, with Tom King as Shylock. Hampered by illness, she failed utterly, but redeemed herself in the role later on, in 1785–6. See Mrs Clement Parsons, The Incomparable Siddons (1909), 23–4, 125–6, and Roger Manville, Sarah Siddons (New York, 1971), 32–3, 131.

1 William Poel, Shakespeare in the Theatre (1913), 70–1.

2 Ibid. 71–84. Poel attributes some interesting political motives to Shakespeare here.

3 See Lelyveld, Shylock, 97–8; Robert Speaight, Shakespeare on the Stage (1973), 136; and compare Poel, Shakespeare in the Theatre, 132, who, ignoring Shylock's last lines, justifies his conclusion by reference to the parallel episode in Il Pecorone.

4 The True Ophelia; and Other Studies of Shakespeare's Women, by 'An Actress' (1913); quoted in Leigh Woods, On Playing Shakespeare (New York, 1991), 129–33.

5 Bulman, 53, citing J. C. Trewin's account of the performance in Shakespeare on the English Stage, 1900–1964 (1964), 137.

1 Bulman, 54.

2 Trewin, Shakespeare on the English Stage, 137. Compare Bulman, 59–61, who notes that the leader of the opening masque, Bruno Barnabe, returned as Lancelot, his double role suggesting that the action of the play was Lancelot's dream.

1 Bulman, 56–8.

2 Trewin, Shakespeare on the English Stage, 137; Bulman, 68–71.

3 Bulman, 72.

4 Bulman, 76–7, citing Miller's reference to Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism. Bulman's extended analysis of Miller's production is excellent.

1 Bill Overton, Text and Performance: 'The Merchant of Venice' (Atlantic Highlands, NJ, 1987), 49.

2 Bulman, 101, quoting from the interview on PBS (the American Public Broadcasting System), 22 Feb. 1982. See also Marion D. Perret, 'Shakespeare and Anti-Semitism: Two Television Versions of The Merchant of Venice', Mosaic, 16 (1983), 145–63.

3 Both afterwards transferred to London: the first to the Warehouse in 1979, the second to the Aldwych Theatre later the same year.

4 Overton, 53, quoting from the 1981 theatre programme. See also Patrick Stewart, 'Shylock in The Merchant of Venice', in Philip Brockbank (ed.), Players of Shakespeare (Cambridge, 1985), 11–28, for the genesis and development of his portrayal.

1 See John Barton, Playing Shakespeare (1984), 171. In this chapter, called 'Exploring a Character', Suchet and Stewart discuss their views of Shylock with Barton, and in the videotapes (from which the book was transcribed) they enact several key passages or scenes. Compare their interviews with Judith Cook, Shakespeare's Players (1983), 80–6.

2 Overton, 53; compare Barton, Playing Shakespeare, 172.

3 Stewart, 'Shylock', 22; Barton, Playing Shakespeare, 176.

4 Barton, Playing Shakespeare, 177–8.

1 Bulman, 117–20.

2 See Antony Sher, 'Shaping up to Shakespeare', Drama, 4 (1987), 28; cited by Bulman, 120.

3 Bulman, 124–5.

4 See the interview with him in Ralph Berry, On Directing Shakespeare (1989), 181–2.

1 On the London production, see Stanley Wells, 'Shakespeare Production in England in 1989', SSur 43 (1991), 187–8; for the New York production, see Irene Dash, 'The Merchant of Venice', Shakespeare Bulletin, 8 (Spring 1990), 10–11, and Bernice W. Kliman, 'The Hall/Hoffman Merchant: Which is the Anti-Semite Here?', Shakespeare Bulletin, 8 (Spring 1990), 11–13.

2 Charles Shattuck, Shakespeare on the American Stage: From the Hallams to Edwin Booth (Washington, DC, 1976), 3. But cf. Hugh F. Rankin, The Theatre in Colonial America (Chapel Hill, NC, 1960), 191, who notes performances of Richard III and Othello that antedate Merchant (cited by Shattuck, 15).

1 Lelyveld, Shylock, 63–5.

2 See Booth's analysis of the role in Furness, 383–4, and compare Winter, Shakespeare on the Stage, 153–9.

3 Winter, Shakespeare on the Stage, 155–9.

4 See Herbert Marshall and Mildred Stock, Ira Aldridge: The Negro Tragedian (1958), 235.

1 Lelyveld, Shylock, 114.

2 Morris Carnovsky, 'On Playing the Role of Shylock', in Francis Fergusson (ed.), The Merchant of Venice (New York, 1958), 25.

3 See e.g. Glenn Loney, 'P.C. or Not P.C', Theatre Week, 2&8 Sept. 1991, pp. 29&31.

4 Speaight, Shakespeare on the Stage, 206–8; J. L. Styan, Max Reinhardt (Cambridge, 1982), 61–4.

5 See Bulman, 151–3, for an account of George Tabori's production in Munich, 1978, and elsewhere, and Maria Verch, 'The Merchant of Venice on the German Stage since 1945', Theatre History Studies, 5 (1985), 84–94.

1 See Avraham Oz, 'Transformations of Authenticity: The Merchant of Venice in Israel 1936–1980', in Werner Habicht (ed.), Shakespeare Jahrbuch West (Bochum, 1983), 165–77. Subsequent references to Israeli productions during this period are to this article.

2 Tyrone Guthrie, In Various Directions: A View of the Theatre (1965), 103; cited by Oz, 'Transformations', 173.

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