The Merchant of Venice

Historical background

It is believed that The Merchant of Venice was written between 1596 and 1598. It was most likely first performed at London’s second public playhouse, The Theatre, in 1598, as clergyman Francis Meres noted in his collection of essays.

The first recorded performance at court was in 1605 by the King’s Men. It was also listed on the Stationer’s Register in 1598 and was published in quarto form in 1600 as The Most Excellent Historie of the Merchant of Venice. Its second reliable publication in 1623, in the First Folio, only differs in its addition of several stage directions and musical cues.

Many academics draw attention to anti-Semitic events and sentiments present in this era as the source for Shakespeare’s stimulus. In 1594, Elizabeth I’s Jewish doctor, Roderigo Lopez, was supposedly framed, falsely tried and brutally executed for attempting to poison the Queen. Harold Bloom sees a distinct connection between this event and Shakespeare’s play and even speculates that “Shakespeare was among the mob looking on” at the execution. Charles Edelman from Cambridge, however, says this is a complete myth, believing Lopez’ conviction had nothing to do with his Jewish faith and therefore could not have inspired Shakespeare’s play.

Other sources claim that inspiration for the play might have come from Marlowe’s 1589 play The Jew of Malta, and some even suggest that Shakespeare had his own anti-Semitic beliefs. Closest to Shakespeare’s story, however, is Giovanni Fiorentino’s novella Il Pecorone (1558). It features the ‘Lady of Belmont’, a rich widow who tests her suitors, a Jewish moneylender who threatens the life of a Christian merchant, and the merchant’s rescue by his friend’s new wife disguised as a lawyer.

The Merchant of Venice is one of only two plays – Othello being the other – that Shakespeare set in Venice. It is probably no coincidence that these are the two (along with The Taming of the Shrew) that prove the most problematic for modern audiences and theatre companies because of the sensitivity around the issues they address, specifically in regards to racism and anti-Semitism.

During Shakespeare’s life Venice was, in many ways, the envy of Elizabethan Londoners. Venice was a rich marketplace where East meets West, considered the pinnacle of fashion, art, literature and architecture. But it was also something of an experiment. It was a thoroughly modern example of a society arranged around mercantile values; money, trading, commerce, and law, whereas the England that Shakespeare lived in was still built on traditional principles of faith and religion. Everyone in England had to follow the religion dictated by the monarch, but Venice accepted all peoples as long as they abided by the laws of commerce and trade. Shakespeare loved investigating the ways that human beings structured their lives and so, in Venice, he found the perfect multicultural forum, distant from his own, in which to explore race, religion, commerce, marriage and sexuality. We can’t be certain that Shakespeare travelled there, despite biographer Samuel Schoenbaum speculating of him “wandering on the continent”, but we do know that Italy was a topic of London gossip, and it is no surprise that Shakespeare returns to this setting throughout his plays.

As the Stationer’s Register in 1598 also shows records of an alternative title to the play, The Jew of Venice, there has been much contention over whom Shakespeare intended as the protagonist of his work. Audiences and directors have historically been drawn to Shylock’s plight and Portia’s powerful display of wit and intelligence, so these two roles are often the focus of casting, despite Shakespeare’s chosen title. The Merchant of Venice was highly popular during its time. It was written as a comedy, and Shylock was most likely perceived by Elizabethans as the comic villain, reminiscent of the ‘Vice’ in the medieval Mystery Plays. Well-versed in these narratives, the first audience of The Merchant of Venice would have expected that Shylock would get his comeuppance, so the suspense would have been in waiting to see how it would unfold.

After 1605 the play fell out of fashion, and following a period of neglect it was revived by George Granville in 1701, who reworked the script as The Jew Of Venice. He initiated the portrayal of the Jew as a lowly comic ‘clown’ and it remained so until 1741 when Charles Macklin revived Shakespeare’s original text and presented Shylock as a fierce, intelligent, passionate human. As academic Penny Gay states, Shylock was now somebody that audiences couldn’t “laugh at”. With the cultural shift of the Romantic Era in the late 1700s, Shylock was solidified as a true and tragic villain, the outsider at odds with society. In the early 1800s Shylock became a character to be pitied, and Act 5 was frequently cut to leave audiences musing over Shylock’s degrading defeat in court. From the late 1800s onwards, most portrayals of Shylock were highly tragic. However, during the 1930-40s, Nazis used the play as anti-Semitic propaganda to fuel their political cause. Since the fall-out of World War II, although still revered, The Merchant of Venice can never be seen again without addressing the issues of racial and religious prejudice.

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