The Merchant of Venice | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Merchant of Venice | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, written in 1596–97, was not initially one of the Bard's more popular plays, but since the 17th century it has been adapted into several operas and more than a dozen films, including a Maori (indigenous New Zealander) version.

The Merchant of Venice is counted among Shakespeare's comedies, though its darker themes and the complex characterizations of Portia and Shylock tend to tilt it toward tragedy. Although the play is often revived, its anti-Semitism challenges critics and viewers. Still, its themes of the role of religion in moral actions and the distinction between appearance and reality cause modern viewers to reflect seriously on the centuries-old play.

1. The expression "all that glitters is not gold" originated in The Merchant of Venice.

"All that glitters ("glisters" in The Merchant of Venice) is not gold," meaning that not everything that looks valuable is, is only one of the commonly used phrases that came from Shakespeare's play. Others include:

  • "with bated breath" (with great anticipation)
  • "a pound of flesh" (something owed that must be paid back, no matter what the cost)
  • "a blinking idiot" (a fool)

2. Shakespeare's source for The Merchant of Venice may have been an Italian tale called "The Simpleton."

Shakespeare's main source for The Merchant of Venice was probably an Italian tale in a collection called Il Pecorone, or The Simpleton. It's unclear if Shakespeare would have read the story in Italian or in a translation. The Simpleton tells of a wealthy woman whose husband needs money. His friend borrows the money for him from a Jewish moneylender, who demands a pound of flesh as payment. This agreement is reflected in the arrangement made between Shylock and Antonio in The Merchant of Venice.

3. English King James I loved The Merchant of Venice.

The first recorded performance of The Merchant of Venice was on February 10, 1605, before King James I at court. After the first performance, the king commanded that another be performed the following Tuesday, indicating that he enjoyed the play. These are the only two recorded performances of the play during Shakespeare's lifetime, but the printed title page of the play states it was "diuers [divers, or many] times acted by the Lord Chamberlaine his seruants [servants]," meaning that it was often acted by the Lord Chamberlain's players, a group of actors.

4. The Nazis used The Merchant of Venice as propaganda.

Shylock, the Jewish villain of The Merchant of Venice, is characterized as cruel and cunning. Though Shakespeare gave him sympathetic characteristics, the Nazis believed the play was in line with their virulent anti-Semitism. There were 50 productions of the play in Germany between 1933 and 1939. The most notorious production was in Vienna in Nazi Austria in 1943; one critic wrote of Shylock's entrance that "With a crash and a weird train of shadows, something revoltingly alien and startlingly repulsive crawled across the stage."

5. A film version of The Merchant of Venice starring Orson Welles was never released because Welles claimed the negative was stolen.

In 1969 actor/director Orson Welles began filming a television adaptation of The Merchant of Venice for CBS. However, the network withdrew its financial support for the project, and it was never finished. Welles claimed the negative for the film was stolen, but in fact it was the version of the film that included the sound that went missing. After discovering the original script and director's notes, editor Stefan Droessler put together a version of the film that was shown at the Venice Film Festival and displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2015.

6. Some readers find a gay subtext in the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio.

Some critics have interpreted the love between the characters Bassanio and Antonio as homoerotic in nature. When Antonio leaves Bassanio to marry Portia, Antonio's friend Salarino says:

I saw Bassanio and Antonio part:
And even there, his eye being big with tears,
Turning his face, he put his hand behind him,
And with affection wondrous sensible
He wrung Bassanio's hand; and so they parted.

Later, when Antonio believes he will die, he says to Bassanio:

Say how I loved you, speak me fair in death;
And, when the tale is told, bid her be judge
Whether Bassanio had not once a love.

Whether the men's love is ever consummated is uncertain, but Shakespeare makes it clear that they love each other "more than life itself."

7. Shakespeare invented the name Jessica in The Merchant of Venice.

Shakespeare gives Shylock's daughter the name Jessica. Before that time, the name didn't exist. It may have been based on the Biblical name Iscah, who was Abraham's niece. That name might have been spelled Jescha in Shakespeare's time.

8. In 2016 The Merchant of Venice was performed in its actual setting—the Jewish ghetto in Venice.

In 2016 a group called The Merchant in Venice commemorated the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death and the 500th anniversary of the formation of the Jewish ghetto in Venice by performing The Merchant of Venice in the place where it was actually set. The ghetto (from geto, meaning "foundry") was originally a place where Jews were segregated from the rest of the population, but it has now been restored and revitalized. The play was performed in multiple languages with a multinational cast.

9. Some critics feel The Merchant of Venice is too anti-Semitic to be redeemed.

In 1998 critic Harold Bloom wrote, "One would have to be blind, deaf and dumb not to recognize that ... The Merchant of Venice is nevertheless a profoundly anti-Semitic work." The villainy of the Jew Shylock and his forced conversion to Christianity has appalled readers and viewers for centuries. Some scholars believe Shylock is redeemed in his speech "Hath not a Jew eyes?" However, playwright Arnold Wesker retorted that anti-Semites like Shylock because he fits the "myth they love" but also gives a redemptive speech: "They can breathe freely as he utters his apologia to help them feel merciful and generous while enjoying their cherished image of the cruel Jew."

10. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg presided over a mock trial featuring Antonio and Shylock.

In October 2016 Ruth Bader Ginsberg was the presiding judge at a mock appeals trial in the Venice ghetto. The trial sought to right the possible miscarriage of justice resulting from the clash between Shylock and Antonio in The Merchant of Venice. Actor F. Murray Abraham performed Shylock's "Hath not a Jew eyes?" speech, and lawyers represented each side. The judges gave a unanimous verdict, giving Shylock back his property and money and overturning his forced conversion.

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