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The Merchant of Venice | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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William Shakespeare | Biography


William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in England in 1564. Although his exact birthdate was not recorded, it would have been sometime in the week preceding his baptism on April 26 and is therefore celebrated on April 23. As a performer with the Lord Chamberlain's Men and the primary writer of the theater company, Shakespeare was a prominent and popular fixture in the London theater scene and in London society. His company changed its name to the King's Men when James I ascended the throne in 1603, and the company attended James's coronation.

In all Shakespeare wrote 37 plays. The 14th of these was The Merchant of Venice, which was written and performed between 1596 and 1597. The play's content draws from several sources, including a few Italian poems and stories as well as a play by Shakespeare's contemporary and rival Christopher Marlowe called The Jew of Malta, first performed around 1589. The Jew of Malta, like The Merchant of Venice, centers around a Jewish character bent on revenge for wrongs done to him. Scholars and critics have struggled to determine whether these works represent a criticism or endorsement of the anti-Semitism prevalent in England at the time of their performances. Jews were exiled from England in 1290 and not allowed to return until 1653; this was part of a larger pattern of ongoing expulsions of Jews from countries throughout Europe during the medieval period.

Critics and scholars often regard The Merchant of Venice as one of Shakespeare's "problem plays." In this context The Merchant of Venice is relegated to a grouping of Shakespeare's non-historical works that defy easy categorization as comedy or tragedy. Comedies tend to end with a marriage or similar affirmation of life. Tragedies end with the death of the main character, at least, and Shakespearean tragedies tend to end with the deaths of many characters. In strict terms The Merchant of Venice appears to be a comedy, as four of the central characters—Bassanio and Portia and Gratiano and Nerissa—get married. While the other two main characters, Shylock and Antonio, are alive at the end of the play, both men are greatly diminished by their ordeal. Shylock loses his family and his fortune. Antonio maintains his unstable wealth but loses his best friend to marriage and has no partner of his own.

Much of Shakespeare's personal life remains a point of speculation for scholars because little verifiable information is available beyond official records. His father was a prosperous and respected figure, and young William studied Greek and Latin language and literature at King's New School in Stratford. Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway in Stratford in 1582, and they had two daughters and a son, the latter of whom died in childhood. Shakespeare moved to London in the late 1880s while his wife and children remained in Stratford, but his theater career and investments made his family financially comfortable. At some point between 1613 and 1616, after the production of his final play, The Two Noble Kinsmen, Shakespeare returned to Stratford and died there in April 1616, possibly on his 52nd birthday. He was buried in Holy Trinity Church on April 25, 1616.

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