The Merchant of Venice

Shakespeare’s dramatic comedy of love, prejudice, retribution, mercy and injustice.

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The quality of mercy is not strain’d...

Portia, Act 4, Scene 1

Antonio, a wealthy Christian merchant, has been successful in business, and over the years has lent a lot of money to his friend, Bassanio.

After squandering his own fortune, Bassanio now needs more money to woo the rich and brilliant Portia of Belmont. Antonio immediately agrees to help his friend, but his money is tied up in merchandise at sea. He goes to the Jewish moneylender, Shylock, to furnish him with the sum. Shylock, who has long been the subject of Antonio’s anti-Semitic scorn for many years, agrees to lend the money interest-free as long as the bond is set as a pound of Antonio’s flesh, should he forfeit. Antonioagrees to the deal, but it soon becomes clear that he won’t be able to repay the money. Shylock goes to court, ready to exact revenge, while Portia, disguised as a male lawyer, comes to Antonio’s rescue.

The Merchant of Venice is classed as one of Shakespeare’s comedies, as it ends in marriages rather than deaths. Its focus on anti-Semitism and injustice, however, makes it one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays. Whether the play is itself anti-Semitic, or is merely about anti-Semitism, or a combination of both, is still debated.

Merchant of Venice
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The Merchant of Venice (2017)


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In sooth, I know not why I am so sad...

Antonio, Act 1, Scene 1

The wealthy young gentlemen of Venice are in good spirits, all except Antonio, a merchant. His friends try to cheer him up, or at least get to the bottom of what might be making him so sad. They wonder if Antonio’s grief is because he has risked his fortune on merchandise still at sea, or because he may be in love. He assures them it is neither, so the source of his sadness remains a mystery.

Antonio’s most treasured friend, Bassanio, needs to borrow some money. He plans to woo Portia, a wealthy heiress, but to do so he needs some capital. He concedes that he has been very irresponsible with money in the past, and already owes a great debt to Antonio, but promises that this time will be different and he will pay back everything he owes. Antonio is quick to assure his friend that Bassanio need only ask and he will be supplied with whatever he needs. However, most of Antonio’s cash is currently invested and he doesn’t have access to his money at present. Bassanio and Antonio decide to approach Shylock, a Jewish money lender, for a loan.

As a Jew, Shylock is regularly the target of religious discrimination, hatred, and abuse at the hands of Antonio and other Christians in Venice. He is furious at his treatment and at the fact that Antonio lends money to people without charging interest, thereby robbing Shylock of his only option for making a living. However, in a strictly business sense, he concludes that Antonio is a reasonable risk and so agrees to lend him 3,000 ducats for a period of 3 months. In the spirit of “friendship” (Act 1, Scene 3) Shylock offers to not charge interest and to set the penalty for defaulting on the loan at a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Bassanio is wary of these terms, but Antonio is confident that all his investments will have paid off by the time the money needs to be repaid, so he agrees to the deal.

In Belmont, the young heiress Portia complains to her lady-in-waiting, Nerissa, that she has everything she could possibly want except the ability to make her own choice about who she must marry. Portia’s late father has set up a kind of test whereby any potential suitor must choose between three caskets to obtain her hand in marriage: gold, silver, or lead. If the suitor chooses correctly they will win Portia’s hand, but if they choose incorrectly they must vow never to marry. Portia and Nerissa make fun of the various wealthy, well-bred men who have decided not to even attempt the game, for fear of making the wrong choice. Nerissa recalls a visitor they met some time ago called Bassanio, and Portia remembers him fondly. More suitors arrive, and the next hopeful is the Prince of Morocco, much to Portia’s dismay.

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Famous lines

If you prick us
do we not bleed?
If you tickle us
do we not laugh?
If you poison us
do we not die?
And if you wrong us
shall we not revenge?

Shylock, Act 3, Scene 1

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Historical background

Shakespeare's closest source for the play is Giovanni Fiorentino’s 1558 novella Il Pecorone.

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Fast facts

When William Shakespeare was a young boy, it was illegal to lend money at interest.

In fact, his father, John Shakespeare, was in trouble with the law on a few occasions for doing so.

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Debatable points

Is Antonio in love with Bassanio?

The relationship between Antonio and Bassanio has been a source of much debate for many years. Certainly the two men care deeply for one another, yet whether that bond extends beyond friendship is unclear.

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The Merchant of Venice (2017)

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Jewishness on stage and anti-Semitism

The vilification of the Jewish faith is rife throughout literary history and folk-lore, and is believed to have been very present in London in the 16th century when Shakespeare was writing. There was a very small number of Jews living in London at this time, and it is important to consider how they would have perceived these Christian-drawn portrayals of their religion.

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