The Merchant of Venice
The title page of the first quarto printing of The Merchant of Venice (1600) gives a succinct summary of the plot: ‘The most excellent historie of the merchant of Venice. With the extreame crueltie of Shylocke the Jewe towards the sayd merchant, in cutting a just pound of his flesh: and the obtayning of Portia by the choyse of three chests.’
The merchant Antonio sets the plot in motion by agreeing to lend his friend Bassanio money so that he can woo Portia, a rich and beautiful heiress from Belmont near Venice. In an attempt to protect her from suitors who are only interested in her money, Portia’s father has put a test in place: a choice of three boxes in gold, silver and lead. With some assistance from Portia, Bassanio realises the lead is supposed to be the choice symbolising pure intentions. So they marry, as do Bassanio’s friend Gratiano and Portia’s lady-in-waiting Nerissa.
As Antonio’s own finances depend on the safe return of merchant ships, he is forced to request a loan from the Jewish moneylender Shylock. Shylock agrees only on the condition that he can take a pound of Antonio’s flesh if he fails to pay by the agreed date. Hearing that Antonio’s ships have been lost, Shylock goes to court in an attempt to extract his dues. But Portia disguises herself as a male lawyer to defend Antonio’s interests. She argues that Shylock is entitled to take the flesh but not to spill a drop of blood. And, as he is effectively planning the murder of a citizen, he should be sentenced to death. The Duke decrees that Shylock can go free if he splits his own wealth between Antonio and the state of Venice, though Antonio is willing to let Shylock keep his half if he converts to Christianity and redrafts his will to include the daughter, Jessica, whom he had disinherited for running away with a Christian. In a financial sense, the arc of comedy is completed when Antonio’s ships reappear. At the same time, Portia and Nerissa successfully engineer a trick with rings that establishes their power over their husbands.
Click here for a short PDF summary of the sources relating to The Merchant of Venice from 'Discovering Literature: Shakespeare'.
- Article by:
- Farah Karim-Cooper
- Gender, sexuality, courtship and marriage, Power, politics and religion, Comedies
The valuation of property and people – particularly women – in Shakespeare’s Venice reflects contemporary anxieties nearer home, suggests Farah Karim-Cooper.
- Article by:
- James Shapiro
- Ethnicity and identity, Comedies
Jews in 16th-century England practised their religion secretly, and many of those raised in the Jewish faith either converted to Christianity or pretended to have done so. James Shapiro considers Elizabethan prejudices and paranoia about Jews, putting Shakespeare's Shylock in context.
- Article by:
- Eric Rasmussen
- Shakespeare’s life and world, Gender, sexuality, courtship and marriage
Eric Rasmussen explains the complex process of getting married in Shakespeare’s England, and the way this worked for young Will himself. He explores the tension, in Shakespeare’s plays, between the old order, in which fathers chose their daughters’ husbands, and the new order based on mutual love, but still plagued by the threat of infidelity.
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Related teachers' notes
This summary of sources is a quick and easy way to explore the contexts for The Merchant of Venice – from early modern ideas about trade and usury, Venice and Jewish culture to 20th-century productions by both Nazis and Yiddish companies in the shadow of the World War Two.
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