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The Merchant of Venice | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Merchant of Venice | Context


Early Publications of The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice was first printed in a quarto edition in 1600. A quarto was a small book-sized edition of a single play, similar to any individual edition of William Shakespeare's play available today. Some early quarto editions were of questionable quality and accuracy—the result of an audience member copying down the lines during a performance, but the quarto for The Merchant of Venice is of higher quality. It seems to have been produced from one of Shakespeare's own scripts. The Merchant of Venice appeared in a definitive version in the First Folio, a large-format collection printed in 1623 of all Shakespeare's plays.

Jews in Renaissance Europe

The Merchant of Venice reflects prevailing European Christian attitudes toward Judaism rooted in conflicts dating back almost to the origins of Christianity itself. Christianity began as a sect within Judaism, the ancient monotheistic religion of Jewish people which became divided around the 8th century BCE. Issues contributing to the division were related to continued dominance from other cultures—most notably those of Greece and Rome—and related questions as to whether spiritual salvation should be regarded as something available to all or to only to a select group chosen by God. Early Christianity evolved from this rift as much as from the events surrounding the life of Jesus of Nazareth, whom Christians regard as the Messiah or savior for all humankind. The Christian church grew rapidly during its first thousand years, with the Catholic church achieving cultural and political dominance in western Europe after its break with the Orthodox churches of eastern Europe in 1054.

Beginnings of Anti-Semitism

Pope Innocent III was the most prominent of the medieval popes. Innocent III was elected pope in 1198 and led the church until his death in 1216. He authored many decrees that would define the structure of the church and its influence over European politics for centuries. He instigated the Fourth Crusade to re-assert the control of the European Christian church over Orthodox Christians and the Middle East. He endorsed the persecution of "heretics"—essentially non-Christians, including Jews and Muslims. These decrees consolidated the church's power and made anti-Semitism a matter of doctrine. In 1205 Innocent III stated in a letter, "the Jews, by their own guilt, are consigned to perpetual servitude because they crucified the Lord." In 1208 he followed with a letter stating Jews should "as wanderers ... remain upon the earth ... forced into the servitude of which they made themselves deserving." Other early Christian leaders had expressed similar sentiments, but as one of the most influential leaders in Europe at the time, Innocent III's position that the Jews were responsible for Jesus's death and should be punished for it became the basis for centuries of oppression directed at Jewish populations across Europe.


While Jewish populations found tolerance and acceptance in some areas, as these populations became prosperous in trade and banking, they inspired jealousy among other citizens, and the prejudices reinforced by Christian doctrine allowed an easy means to eliminate the economic competition. Jews were exiled from England in 1290, from France in the 1300s, from Germany in the 1350s, from Portugal in 1496, and from Spain in 1492. Jews who remained in Spain after 1492 were subject to the Inquisition, a series of brutal tortures perpetrated by Christian church officials to root out and destroy those considered heretics. In other areas Jews were prohibited from owning land and tended to gravitate toward trade, moneylending, or medicine as means for making livings. Moneylending was prohibited by Christian doctrine as sinful; similarly, many medical practices were discouraged because they sought to thwart the will of God. Persecution and violence were not uncommon. These incidents were often based on unfounded accusations of human sacrifice or desecration of Christian churches, but Jews were often scapegoated for more mundane crimes as well. For example, in 1594—shortly before The Merchant of Venice was performed for the first time—Roderigo Lopez, a Jew and the chief physician to Queen Elizabeth I of England, was falsely accused of treason and executed. The Lopez incident likely influenced The Merchant of Venice, though the extent of that influence is unclear.

Jews in Venice

The history of Venice, where the play is set, has a clear influence in The Merchant of Venice. During the 1300s and 1400s Jews from all over Europe, often driven out of their home countries, settled in Venice. Modern Venice is a city in Italy, but during the medieval and Renaissance periods Venice operated as an independent city-state ruled by a doge, or duke. Venice's autonomy and relatively progressive population, along with its position as a center of trade, made it an appealing settlement for displaced Jews. However, in 1516 Venice relegated its entire Jewish population to a small area of the city called the geto nuovo, or ghetto, and this is where The Merchant of Venice unfolds. Residents of the ghetto were required to abide by a curfew, as the gates were locked at night, and until 1703 they were prohibited from using wells outside the ghetto because of fears Jews might poison the city's public water supply. Venetian Jews were also required to distinguish themselves by wearing a yellow circle on their clothing or a yellow or red hat. The ghetto was officially dismantled in 1797, but the area remains a central part of Jewish life in Venice and a popular tourist attraction.

Continuing into Modern Times

The Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, when Christian groups across Europe split from the Catholic church, did little to affect anti-Semitism. Exile from various countries ended—for example, England allowed Jews to return in 1656—but by this time, Europe's largest Jewish populations had settled in eastern Europe, where the political and religious climate tended to be more hospitable. Still, expressions of prejudice and incidents of violence continued through the 20th century, culminating in the rise of Nazism in Germany and the Holocaust of the 1930s and 1940s. Only after these events did both the Catholic Church and Protestant denominations officially renounce longstanding anti-Jewish positions.

Characterization of Shylock

Shakespeare's Shylock is written as a much more complex character than some of his predecessors. Barabbas in Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta is presented as a purer villain than Shylock, filled with murderous rage and few redeeming features. While Shylock is bent on revenge, he also presents evidence of the ways society has wronged and wounded him deeply. His anguish is palpable in his words, and depending on the presentation in performance, Shylock is written as a figure with high potential to elicit sympathy.

Because the source material is open to interpretation, the play's reception has been closely tied to its presentation. Given the anti-Semitic sentiment present in English culture at the time of its first production and Shakespeare's monetary success as a playwright, it's possible early portrayals of Shylock as the play's villain were less sympathetic to the character than modern productions. King James I was a patron of Shakespeare's company and a staunch Roman Catholic best known for his zealous persecution of suspected witchcraft and as the originator of the King James translation of the Bible. He saw the play at court in 1605 and requested a repeat performance two days later. What James I found intriguing or likeable about The Merchant of Venice is not documented, but given his religious devotion, it is safe to assume these early performances provided a positive portrayal of Christianity. Doubtless he was gratified to see that the two main Jewish characters—Shylock and his daughter, Jessica—both convert to Christianity by the end of the play.

Continuing up to the 1800s performances likely portrayed Shylock as a cartoonish stereotype, and the stereotypes inherent in the role gave the play a reputation as anti-Semitic. Underscoring this reputation, Shylock's very name has become a derogatory slang term to describe an unscrupulous loan shark. However, starting with Edmund Kean's performance at the Drury Lane Theatre in 1814, later actors began bringing more nuance and sympathy to the role. Such portrayals were not unusual, but they were also not sufficient to dispel the play's anti-Semitic overtones, especially when productions of The Merchant of Venice became popular in Germany in the early 1930s, coinciding with the rise of Nazism. Still, even the Nazis were put off by Shylock's humanity in his speeches and his daughter's marriage to a Christian, resulting in its confiscation from some libraries in 1938.

While The Merchant of Venice remains controversial for audience members, scholars, and critics, the play has become a rallying point for tolerance in recent productions. In a notable example, a 2004 film adaptation, directed by Michael Radford and starring Al Pacino as Shylock, received praise for presenting a balanced version embracing the contradictions in the text and placing all the characters' various flaws, prejudices, and virtues on full display. Further evidence of the play's rehabilitated reputation emerges with its part in Venice's commemoration of the ghetto's 500th anniversary in 2016, which included a performance of the play on the ghetto's square as well as a mock trial in which Shylock appealed his verdict to United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and a jury of dignitaries and Shakespeare scholars.

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