Shakespeare Saturday: The Merchant of Venice

You speak an infinite deal of nothing.

The Merchant is another oddity of a play. Like many Shakespeare plays, it has two parallel storylines – that of Portia and her marriage woes, and that of Shylock the Jew. One is a romantic comedy. The other is… an uneasy tragedy of horrifying proportions. The romantic comedy – Bassanio’s pursuit of a rich heiress with a late father who had a tendency for practical jokes – frames a much darker story of a Jewish money lender trying to extract his revenge against an old foil, the titular Venetian merchant Antonio. The typical Shakespearean tropes are there – mistaken identities, cross-dressing women (and men who may or may not fancy their girlfriends more as boys), hordes of largely pointless bros backslapping each other, self-serving servants, young women who outsmart the men at every turn.

Bassanio is a penniless nobleman in Venice; to improve his prospects, he wants to woo Portia, a rich heiress. To this end, he needs 3000 ducats; he asks for a loan from his friend Antonio, but Antonio has no cash to spare – his fortune is tied to his merchant fleet, with which he has had varying success. Antonio allows Bassanio however to use his name to secure a loan, and – unfortunately for Antonio – Bassanio goes to Shylock, a Jewish money lender. Shylock hates Antonio, and agrees to the loan under an usual condition: if Antonio fails to secure Bassanio’s loan, Shylock will have a pound of his flesh for payment.

Portia is inundated with suitors; rather than allow to choose her own husband though, she must accept a man (posthumously) chosen by her father, who has left her suitors three boxes – one gold, one silver, one lead – to choose from, with riddles inside them they must solve. Showing a remarkable lack of genre savviness, they go for the gold or for the silver, thinking the lead box not worthy of the situation – except of course Bassanio, the supposed true love of Portia.

As another minor plot, Shylock’s daughter Jessica runs away with Lorenzo, a Christian boy, and abandons her religion in favour of his. She takes with her a lot of money and jewels from her father, and it is told that Shylock walks the streets, lamenting her betrayal, his rage against the Christians made even greater.

Bassanio, very eloquently, of course picks the leaden box, but these good news are immediately followed by the bad – Antonio’s merchant fleet has failed, all of it, and Shylock is sticking to his end of the deal. Should Antonio fail to pay, he will have a pound of his flesh; so set on this is Shylock that he refuses to accept payment from anyone on Antonio’s behalf. Bassanio returns to Venice, leaving Portia behind; she follows him disguised as a lawyer, and enters the court where Venetians are appealing to the unyielding Shylock to spare Antonio.


The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.

The law is on Shylock’s side, but Portia bends it – Shylock can have his pound of flesh, but under the condition that he draw not a drop of Christian blood. Shylock has both won and lost his case, and is punished accordingly – he must hand over half of his fortune to the state, and the other half to Antonio. Antonio, in a fit of generosity, ahem, decrees that Shylock can keep his half as long as he passes it to Jessica’s husband on his death, and converts to Christianity. Humiliated, Shylock agrees to these conditions.

The romantic comedy still requires resolution, and a wholly unnecessary rigmarole about rings and gloves still follows – as a payment for her services Portia, in disguise, demands that Bassanio give her the ring she has given to him. He resists, until Antonio appeals to him that if he loves him, he hand over the ring. Bassanio, the gormless idiot, agrees. Back home, Portia then grills Bassanio over the missing ring before triumphantly producing it and once and for all establishing who wears the trousers in this marriage. Antonio is rewarded for being pointless too – few of his ships have returned to ports and his fortunes reestablished.

Is Shakespeare anti-Semitic? Is this play anti-Semitic? Those are troublesome questions that modern reader must consider here. Shakespeare most likely didn’t know any real life Jews – as far as we know, he never left England, and the Jews had been banished by an edict from England in 1290; the Elizabethan audience (and quite possibly Shakespeare himself) was familiar to Jews as popular cultural constructs only – Shakespeare would probably have seen Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, written few years before The Merchant, and also featuring a sly, greedy, rich Jewish banker. At the time, money lending was considered immoral and the practice of usury (basically the principle of asking interest on loan) was forbidden for Christians, making money lending (later banking) one of the very few lines of work available to the Jewish people; as we see, Antonio and Bassanio possess no moral trouble in asking for the loan – a detail that reveals the massive hypocrisy of the situation. The Christians are happy to rely on the services of the Jewish money lenders when they are in need, but despise them for practicing the only profession available for them when the time to pay back comes.

Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock isn’t straightforward – in the context of the play, he is a man who is very much the victim of his circumstances; both of the antisemitism of the society in general, and of Antonio in particular. He lives in a society that has forced the Jews into ghettos, made them wear red hats as identifiers (being caught without a red hat was punishable by death), closed access to most professions and to professional guilds, and made Jews inferior in value to their fellow, Christian men. It is then not surprising that more sympathetic readings of the play have become perhaps dominant. Shylock’s plea on behalf of his people become more an accusation and less a defense – “the villainy you teach me I shall execute”, exposition of the circumstances that have made him (and all the Jews) the man he is.

To bait fish withal: if it will feed nothing else,
it will feed my revenge. 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. If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian
wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by
Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you
teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I
will better the instruction.

Shakespeare also, advertently or inadvertently, contrasts the pious, solitary Shylock, devoted to the daughter he loves, to Antonio and his friends – one is considered villainous and morally reprehensible because he’s a Jew, while the other are considered good Christian men, despite the fact that they are shown as lazy, greedy, freeloading, sexually repressed, unable to stand up for their principles, and willing to marry for money – and anything but religiously devoted. Antonio is also a rubbish businessman – he boasts about how secure his ventures are, but his entire fleet collapses and he loses everything; he then trusts on others to pick up the tab for him, which they of course do because he is an absolute ledge and the Archbishop of Banterbury, as the youth today would say. Even Portia, sometimes seen as the sort of idea female character – clever, resourceful, persuasive, sexy – has certain uneasiness about her. She hears but half the story, and takes up the law in her own hands. There’s also little point in the charade with the ring other than to show Bassanio off, establish domination over him (she’s probably not wrong in doing so) – if she does the whole thing for laughs, it puts her character in a rather questionable light.

Is it any good?

Yes, though it’s never going to be an easy, comfortable play. The text is very eloquent, but the play perhaps suffers slightly from the two storylines that slight jar together.

Fun fact

Following the 1290 Edict of Expulsion, a Benedictine monk called Gregory of Huntingdon collected as many Jewish text and manuscripts as he could procure; without his efforts, there would have been no documents of English Jewish history before 1655, when the edict was lifted.

What say thou?

The Merchant is textually very eloquent – the otherwise a bit pointless Act 5 for example is full of light, playful dialogue about the happiness of all the lovers. “A pound of flesh” itself has became an expression synonymous for any unreasonable, inescapable clause, much like “shylock” for a long time was used to mean loan shark. But it would be wrong to pick anything but Shylock’s appeal as the best quote. His testimony of the humanity of his people – the shocking fact that such testimony is required – is everything.

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.

Best character

Shylock. I’m willing to go with the interpretation that he’s the one good man pushed to extremes in a cast otherwise full of pretty despicable characters.


A 2001 BBC film of a NT stage adaptation, with Henry Goodman as Shylock. It has that same sort of claustrophobia as those ancient TV shows like Sapphire and Steel, filmed on a soundstage. Some of the acting is superb (Goodman is spot-on), but many of the actors mumble their lines to a degree that makes following the text impossible. The setting is vaguely 1930s German with nightclubs and slinky dresses and cocktails. The mumbling got to me to a point that I gave up before Act 3.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s