The Merchant of Venice

Fast facts

  • Many people assume that the ‘merchant’ in the title of the play is Shylock, the Jewish money lender. However, the title actually refers to Antonio.

  • 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.

  • The play contains one of Shakespeare’s most missquoted lines – while many people say “All that glitters is not gold” the correct line is “All that glisters is not gold.” (Act 2, Scene 7)

  • It is believed that Shakespeare invented the name Jessica in writing the play, as there was no prior evidence of the name in literature or records.

  • It is believed that actor Richard Burbage played the role of Shylock in the original production in 1596. Burbage would already have played Romeo and would go on to create the roles of Hamlet, Othello and Macbeth on stage.

  • The Merchant of Venice is categorised, rather oddly, as one of Shakespeare’s comedies. It is important to note that Shakespeare did not give his plays these genres, that was done by editors after his death. The classification of comedy is not in regards to how funny the play is, it actually has to do with the fact that characters do not die as a result of the action, and that weddings take place as part of the play’s resolution.

  • The Merchant of Venice is believed to have been performed for King James I in 1605. Records show that he ordered a repeat performance of it the very next week.

  • In Nazi Germany and Austria the play was often performed as Nazi propaganda, with Shylock’s cunning nature and darker qualities emphasised, ignoring the humanity Shakespeare gives him as a character.

  • In 2016, Ruth Bader Ginsburg presided over a mock trial named ‘Mock Appeal In the Matter of Shylock v. Antonio’ held in Venice as part of the 500th anniversary of the Venice Ghetto. Ginsburg heard arguments from lawyers representing the main characters of the play. Ultimately, the judges and Ginsburg were unanimous in giving Shylock back his property, money and liberty, redressing the events in Shakespeare’s play. The star-studded event included Shakespeare academics James Shapiro and Stephen Greenblatt.

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