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The Merchant of Venice

Creation of the play

The creation of The Merchant of Venice can be dated between 1596 and 1598. Shakespeare must have written the play by the summer of 1598, since it was entered on the Stationers’ Register on 22 July 1598. Act 1 scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice contains an allusion to the ‘wealthy Andrew dock’d in sand’, which has been accepted as a reference to the San Andrés, a Spanish ship captured during the expedition to Cadiz in 1596. News of this exploit reached court by 30 July 1596, so Shakespeare could not have written The Merchant of Venice before that date.

Early performances

The title-page of the first quarto, published in 1600, describes The Merchant of Venice as having been ‘diuers times acted by the Lord Chamberlaine his seruants’. The play was also mentioned by Francis Meres in Palladis Tamia, published in 1598, indicating that it was already known to the public by then. The Merchant of Venice was probably first performed by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men at the Theatre. The first recorded performance was not until 10 February 1605, Shrove Tuesday, when The Merchant of Venice was given by the King's Men at court before King James I. The King commanded a second performance for the following Tuesday.

Publication in quarto and folio

The Merchant of Venice appeared in five editions before 1642.

  • First quarto, 1600. Printed from a manuscript very close to Shakespeare’s autograph, perhaps a fair copy from his foul papers.
  • Second quarto, dated 1600 on the titlepage but published in 1619. Printed from the first quarto, apparently with some editorial amendments.
  • First folio, 1623. Printed from the first quarto. A playhouse manuscript may also have been consulted, for the addition of act divisions and new stage directions.
  • Second folio, 1632. Printed from the first folio.
  • Third quarto, 1637. Printed from the first quarto.

The Merchant of Venice was entered by the printer James Roberts on the Stationers’ Register on 22 July 1598. Roberts transferred the play to Thomas Heyes on 28 October 1600. The first quarto appeared in 1600, printed by James Roberts for Thomas Heyes.

The second quarto appeared with the imprint ‘printed by I. Roberts’ dated 1600. It was, in fact, one of a group of 10 plays printed by William Jaggard for Thomas Pavier in 1619. These were apparently intended to form a collection of plays attributed to Shakespeare. The King’s Men may have protested against Pavier’s intentions, for the Lord Chamberlain subsequently wrote to the Stationers’ Company demanding that no more plays belonging to them should be printed except with their consent. The third quarto appeared in 1637, printed by Marmaduke Parsons for Laurence Heyes the son of Thomas Heyes.

British Library copies of The Merchant of Venice contains detailed bibliographic descriptions of all the quarto copies of the play.

Shakespeare’s sources

Several sources were important for Shakespeare’s creation of The Merchant of Venice.

  • Ser Giovanni Fiorentino, Il Pecorone (1558). Shakespeare may have based his play directly on the Italian story, or perhaps used a lost English version which followed the original more closely than any now known.
  • A New Song: Shewing the Crueltie of Gernutus a Iew (date unknown). This ballad may have contributed to Shakespeare’s language in The Merchant of Venice.
  • Anthony Munday, Zelauto. The Fountaine of Fame (1580). Book 3 of this work may have influenced Shakespeare’s language. It also apparently gave him the character of Jessica, Shylock’s daughter.
  • Le Silvain, translated by Lazarus Pyott, The Orator (1596). Shakespeare may have taken from this work some of Shylock’s arguments in the trial scene (act 4 scene 1).

    Shylock and the pound of flesh, Le Sylvain
    Shylock and the pound of flesh, Le Sylvain, The Orator, 1596. British Library,, p.401. Larger image

  • Christopher Marlowe, The Jew of Malta (first performed about 1589 but not published until 1633). Marlowe’s characters Barabas, the Jew of Malta, and his daughter Abigail, apparently influenced Shakespeare’s Shylock and Jessica in The Merchant of Venice.
  • A Record of Auncient Histories, entituled in Latin: Gesta Romanorum (1595). History 32 of this edition translated and ‘now newly pervsed and corrected by R. Robinson’ may have been Shakespeare’s source for the choice of caskets imposed on Portia’s suitors.

Story of the play

Note: the links below will take you to the page in the quarto where each act begins, according to standard modern editions. (The quartos themselves have no act divisions.) The quarto shown for each play is always the earliest in the Library's collection - unless it is a 'bad' quarto in which case it is the earliest 'good' quarto.

The Merchant of Venice is set in Venice and at Portia’s house in Belmont.

(Act 1) Bassanio tells his friend Antonio, a merchant of Venice, that he is in love with Portia and wishes to marry her. Antonio agrees to borrow money, in advance of the profits he expects from a trading venture, to pay for Bassanio’s suit to her. At Belmont, Portia appraises her suitors, favouring only Bassanio. They must choose between three caskets, one of gold, one of silver, and one of lead, to win her. Antonio and Bassanio sign an agreement with Shylock, a Jew, to borrow money from him. The bond is to be a pound of Antonio’s flesh.

John Gielgud as Gratiano, 'Let me play the fool',
Listen  The Merchant of Venice. Act I, Scene 1. British Library Sound Archive, 1931

(Act 2) The first of Portia’s suitors, the Prince of Morocco, arrives at Belmont. Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, is in love with the Christian Lorenzo and elopes with him. The Prince of Morocco chooses the gold casket, and fails to win Portia in marriage. Her second suitor, the Prince of Aragon, chooses the silver casket and also fails to win her.

(Act 3) Shylock discovers his daughter’s flight with Lorenzo. He learns of the wreck of Antonio’s ships and his impending ruin. Bassanio makes his suit to Portia. He chooses the lead casket and wins her as his bride. Bassanio hears of Antonio’s ruin and immediately tells Portia of his debt, and the bond between Antonio and Shylock. Portia promises to pay the debt. Shylock insists on receiving his bond, the pound of Antonio’s flesh.

(Act 4) Before the Venetian Court of Justice, Shylock demands as his bond a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Portia enters, disguised as a young Doctor of Laws. She advises Shylock to be merciful. When he refuses, she judges that he is entitled to his bond but only if he sheds none of Antonio’s blood in taking it. She further judges that Shylock’s estate is forfeit because he sought the Venetian citizen Antonio’s life. Shylock leaves the court defeated and ruined. Bassanio has not recognised Portia. He offers payment for her services, but she demands her own ring from him and he gives it to her.

Ellen Terry as Portia, 'The quality of mercy is not strain’d',
Listen  The Merchant of Venice. Act 4, Scene 1. British Library Sound Archive, 1911

(Act 5) Portia returns home to Belmont, followed by Bassanio and Antonio. She forces Bassanio to confess that he gave her ring to the Doctor who defended Antonio. She returns the ring to him, telling him that she was the young Doctor of Laws.


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