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The Merchant of Venice

Term Definition
The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice is a play by William Shakespeare in which a merchant in 16th-century Venice must default on a large loan provided by an abusive Jewish moneylender. It is believed to have been written between 1596 and 1598.

The Merchant of Venice - Summary

The Merchant of Venice is a play written by William Shakespeare between 1596 and 1598. The story follows a sixteenth century merchant living in Venice, Antonio, who, despite having anti-Semitic tendencies, has to borrow money from a Jewish moneylender, Shylock. Shylock agrees to the loan but tells Antonio that if he does not repay the loan within three months’ time, he will exact a pound of his flesh as payment. Antonio was suck away at sea when the loan defaults and Shylock attempts to claim his debt. 

A court decides that Shylock is entitled to his pound of flesh as long as he does not draw any blood, as it is against Venetian law to shed the blood of a Christian. As there is no way for Shylock to do this, he is denied his suit. In addition, as removing a pound of Antonio’s flesh would kill him, Shylock is accused of conspiring to commit murder and he is ordered to forfeit half his wealth to the city and the other half to Antonio. Antonio gives his half back to Shylock under the condition that he bequeath the money to his daughter upon his death and that he rebuke his religion and convert to Christianity.

Oddly, this play has been categorized as both a tragedy and comedy.

Hatred and revenge as a common theme

A chief theme in The Merchant of Venice is hatred (a very Machiavellian theme common in Shakespeare's works). Shylock insists throughout the play that his actions are simply a reflection of what he is shown by his Christian neighbors. The very first time we are introduced to Shylock, he plots to hurt Antonio, though the plan is inspired and fed by Antonio’s past treatment of him. As the story continues, Shylock recalls more instances in which he has been treated terribly by the Christian characters and Antonio himself seems to understand the weight of his actions in the end; he demands that Shylock leave his money to his daughter upon his death and that Shylock converts to Christianity. This is seen as a gracious decision, but he forced Shylock to abandon his religion and instead assume the practices of those who treat him poorly. Though he might not realize it, Antonio’s act is hateful.

Related story: Learn more about the theme of revenge in The Count of Monte Cristo

Historical criticism due to anti-semitism

The play has always caught negative attention for its apparent anti-Semitism and it continues to be a debate centuries after the play was written. During the time the play is set, Elizabethan times, English society can certainly be described as judeophobic. Under King Edward I, English Jews were eradicated from the country and were not permitted to return until 1656. In some place, like Venice, Jews were forced to wear a red hat in public so that they could be easily identified as Jewish and had to live in Jewish ghettos secured by Christian guards. At the time, Jewish people were represented in theater as caricatures with large, hooked noses and bright red wigs who were notoriously greedy usurers. Often times, Jewish characters in plays were evil and prone to trickery. 

Some feel that The Merchant of Venice only plays into this misrepresentation. The play was sometimes called “The Jew of Venice”, drawing comparison to “The Jew of Malta”, an extremely anti-Semitic play by Christopher Marlowe. Those who believe that Shakespeare’s play is also anti-Semitic believe that Shakespeare intended to compare the magnanimous nature of the Christians to Shylock’s greed and taste for vengeance. In addition, they suspect that Shakespeare intended for Shylock being forced to convert to Christianity to be a ‘happy ending’ to both the characters and the predominantly Christian audience. Whether Shakespeare intended The Merchant of Venice to be anti-Semitic or not, though, the image of Shylock was used in anti-Jewish propaganda and the Nazis broadcast the play over the radio after Kristallnacht. 

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