William Shakespeare - The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice, first published in 1600 though seemingly written in 1596 or 1597, shares the lyric beauty and fairy-tale ending of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But the strong characterization of the play’s villain, a Jewish moneylender named Shylock, shadows the gaiety. Shakespeare drew the main plot from an Italian story in which a crafty Jew threatens the life of a Christian merchant. Its composition may have arisen from a desire by Shakespeare’s acting company to stage a play that could compete with The Jew of Malta (1589?), a tragedy by English dramatist Christopher Marlowe, performed by a rival company, the Admiral’s Men. In the play Shakespeare sets motifs of masculine friendship and romantic love in opposition to the bitterness of Shylock, whose own misfortunes are presented so as to arouse understanding and even sympathy. While this play reflects European anti-Semitism of the time (although Jews had been banished from England in 1290 and were not formally readmitted until 1656), its exploration of power and prejudice also promote a critique of such bigotry. As Shylock says, confronted by the double standards of his opponents:

He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies, and what’s his reason?—I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? 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? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.

(Act III, scene 1)