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Definition: Merchant of Venice, The from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Comedy by William Shakespeare, first performed 1596–97. Antonio, a rich merchant, borrows money from Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, promising a pound of flesh if the sum is not repaid; when Shylock presses his claim, the heroine, Portia, disguised as a lawyer, saves Antonio's life.


Shakespeare, William: The Merchant of Venice, I ii

Summary Article: Merchant of Venice, The
From Dictionary of Shakespeare, Peter Collin Publishing

Written between 1596-98, The Merchant of Venice was first published, as a comedy, in a quarto edition in 1600. The play's first recorded performance was in at King James's court in 1605 when it played twice in one week, but there were certainly unrecorded performances before then. During the 19th century, The Merchant of Venice was particularly popular in England, the role of Shylock made famous by actors such as Edmund Kean and Sir Henry Irving. Nineteenth century stage directors produced increasingly elaborate sets and amazing special effects for the play set in Venice, with bridges and gondolas. The main sources for the play were a story, Il Pecorone (1558) by Ser Giovanni and other, older, traditional stories of the bond [promise to repay borrowed money] for flesh and the caskets. It is possible, too, that Shakespeare's play may have been indebted to some extent to The Jew Of Malta (1589) by Christopher Marlowe. Set mostly in Venice, The Merchant of Venice explores themes of greed, and love and forgiveness, and anti-semitism, a prejudice that flourished in Elizabethan England. Jews had been mostly expelled from England three hundred years earlier; those remaining in London in Shakespeare's time were required by law to conform, outwardly at least, to Christianity. Many Elizabethans would have relied on borrowing money from Jewish moneylenders, but nonetheless usury [lending money at extortionate rates of interest], practised by the Jews, was disapproved of. The fact that a Jewish man had been condemned to death for treason only a few years before the play was written, may have added to a well-established prejudice.


Bassanio loves the beautiful heiress Portia, but lacks the money to court her. His friend Antonio is keen to help but since all his money is tied up in a fleet of merchant ships, Bassanio has to raise a loan from the miserly Jewish moneylender Shylock. Antonio cheerfully signs an agreement guaranteeing that if the debt is not repaid within three months when his ships return to Venice, Shylock can take a pound of flesh instead. Bassanio, courting the heiress Portia, is required by the terms of her father's will, to chose one of three caskets (one is gold, one silver and one lead) in order to win her hand. Bassanio, faced with the test, chooses the lead casket reasoning that external worth and beauty are less important than what lies inside; his choice is the right one and Portia lovingly accepts him as her husband. Their happiness is interrupted by news that Shylock has called in Bassanio's debt and, as all his ships have been lost at sea, Antonio has no money to pay. Shylock is demanding his pound of flesh and Antonio has been arrested. Bassanio leaves to help Antonio and Portia implements her own plan to help her lover and his friend. Disguised as a young lawyer she arrives in the courtroom but despite her eloquent plea for mercy, Shylock refuses to make any kind of compromise and sharpens his knife. His daughter, Jessica, has recently eloped with a Christian nobleman, Lorenzo, and her defection has fuelled Shylock's hatred of the Christians who abuse and insult him. Portia agrees that he can take his pound of flesh but says under the terms of his agreement with Antonio he cannot shed one single drop of blood. Shylock is defeated and stripped of his wealth, Antonio is freed, and there is a happy reunion of lovers and friends. See also anti-semitism, Jews

See alsoanti-semitism, Antonio, Arragon, (Aragon) the Prince of, Balthazar, Bassanio, Bellario, Gobbo, Launcelot, Gobbo, Old, Gratiano, Jessica, Jews, Launcelot Gobbo, Leonardo, Lorenzo, Morocco, Prince of, Musicians, Nerissa, peripeteia, Portia, Salerio, Shylock, Solanio and Solario, Stephano, tragi-comedy, Tubal, Venice, the Duke of

Dictionary of Shakespeare, Peter Collin Publishing, © Louise McConnell 2000

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