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The Merchant of Venice

A satirical image of Shylock


The illustrations are mainly taken from the H.R. Forrest Collection; 76 folio scrap book volumes of illustrations to Shakespeare works by many different artists up to the year 1890. These include title pages, artist impressions of scenes from the play and portraits of famous actors.
Criticism, texts, production history and film versions of the play on video and DVD are all available in Birmingham Libraries; some can be borrowed for use at home.

Charles Macready (1793-1873) as Shylock

Historical background

Shakespeare's play was registered for publication in 1598. In England the official religion was Protestant Christian, and all other faiths were strongly discouraged. The very few Jews that were in England practised their faith in secret and faced extreme prejudice, as they did in the whole of Europe. In 1594 a Portuguese Jew, Dr. Lopez, the Queens physician had been tried and executed for attempting to poison the Queen. The Jew of Malta (1589) a very popular play by Christopher Marlowe (1564-93) portrays Jews as vicious and villainous, and this is an issue which Shakespeare examines in the ambiguous role of Shylock. Shakespeare may have personally known some Jews; A.L. Rowse believed that the Dark Lady of the Sonnets was Emilia Bassano-Lanier, member of a family of Italian Jewish musicians. The alternative title of the first published version of the play was The Jew of Venice. Although the Merchant is supposedly Antonio, there are really two merchants. Many modern directors have chosen to show Shylock and Antonio as visually interchangeable, and often draw on the legacy of the Holocaust. Others have chosen to visually show the Jews of Venice as set apart, exotic foreigners, confined to a Jewish ghetto.

Antonio, Bassanio and Shylock on the Rialto

Money and money-lending

You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gabardine,
And all for use of that which is mine own.
Well, then, it now appears you need my help....
Act 1 scene 3

Money values are important to the whole play. Bassanio is an attractive young man, and has run through his fortune. He borrows from his friend, the wealthy merchant Antonio, so that he can woo a beautiful and rich heiress, Portia. In Shakespeare England, it would be understood that this will give him control of Portia fortune. Antonio is temporarily short of funds, and needs to borrow to help his friend. They approach the Jewish moneylender, Shylock, although they hate and despise Jews. Shylock bitterly resents Antonio attitude to Jews, and, in particular, his generous lending of money without interest. Charging interest for loans was very controversial, and is against some religions, but money-lending was then one of the very few professions open to Jews in Europe, and many Jews became rich through usury. Shylock sees an opportunity to act against an enemy and offers to loan him the money against the forfeit of a pound of Antonio flesh, if he is unable to repay the loan when it falls due. Antonio accepts, because he loves Bassanio.

Shylock and Jessica with their servant Launcelot Gobbo

Fast bind, fast find

Lorenzo, a friend of Bassanio, is in love with Shylocks daughter, the strictly brought up Jessica, who is unhappy with her father. Lorenzo persuades her to elope with him.

Shylock's servant, Lancelot Gobbo, provides a funny but crude and racist low-life commentary on Shylock and the most beautiful pagan, Jessica. When Bassanio enriched himself, Launcelot took the opportunity to change masters and go with Bassanio to Belmont. He is acting as go-between for Jessica and Lorenzo.

Shut doors after you.
Fast bind, fast find
A proverb never stale in thrifty mind.
Farewell, and if my fortune be not crossed
I have a father, you a daughter lost.
Act 2 scene 5

Merchant of Venice elopement

Jessica elopes

When Shylock leaves, reluctantly, to dine with the Christians, Jessica disguises herself as a boy and runs away with Lorenzo, taking money and jewels with her. She will convert to Christianity and marry him. Shylock, beside himself with rage and grief, is mocked on the Rialto by Antonio's friends.

I never heard a passion so confused
As the dog Jew did utter in the streets.
y daughter! Oh my ducats! O, my daughter!
Fled with a Christian!...

Act 2 scene 7

My daughter! O my ducats!

Shylock and Tubal

One of them showed me a ring that he had of your daughter for a monkey.
Out upon her! Thou torturest me, Tubal. It was my turquoise. I had it of Leah when I was a batchelor. I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys.
Act 3 scene 1

The elopement is a crucial turning point in the plot, giving Shylock a strong motive for seeking revenge against Antonio and his friends which is not in Shakespeare sources. Until now we do not know whether or not Shylock would really have attempted to claim his pound of flesh. Taunted by Antonio's friends, Shylock rages, in the famous speech about our common humanity:..

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 3 scene 1

Bassanio choosing the casket

Bassanio chooses the casket

Song, while Bassanio chooses the casket:
Tell me where is fancy bred,
Or in the heart, or in the head?
How begot, how nourished?....
Act 3 scene 2

Portia dead father has devised a plan to prevent some unscrupulous fortune hunter winning her; the lucky man will be he who can correctly interpret a philosophical riddle and find her portrait, hidden in one of three caskets. We see two suitors fail, and then Bassanio arrives. Portia is already in love with him. She and her maid, Nerissa, wait anxiously as Bassanio chooses between the gold, silver and lead caskets. Her servant sings, probably emphasising the words which rhyme with ead On his success Portia happily prepares for marriage, and her maid Nerissa will also marry Bassanio servant Graziano.

Lorenzo and his air infidel Jessica arrive, and are welcomed by Portia. At this moment a messenger arrives with news that Antonio ships have been lost at sea, and he cannot repay Shylock, who is demanding the pound of flesh. The marriage ceremony is hastily carried out and Bassanio and Graziano immediately return to Venice. Portia and Nerissa disguise themselves as a lawyer and his clerk, and follow.

The Trial Scene

'The pound of flesh that I demand of him
Is dearly bought. Tis mine, and I will have it.
If you deny me, fie upon your law:
There is no force in the decrees of Venice.
I stand for judgment.

Act 4 scene 1

Shylock has taken Antonio to trial before the Duke of Venice to claim his pound of flesh, in what is one of the most dramatic of all Shakespeare's scenes. First the Duke begs Shylock to show mercy. Shylock refuses. Bassanio offers to pay double the amount owed. Shylock refuses, whetting his knife.

Ellen Terry as Portia

Portia speaks for Antonio

But mercy is above this sceptre sway.
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings;
It is an attribute to God himself...

Act 4 scene 1

Portia and Nerissa appear, disguised as a lawyer and his clerk, and are allowed to speak on the case. First Portia begs again for Shylock to show mercy, he again refuses, demanding his bond. Portia gives judgement for Shylock, and he prepares to cut the pound of flesh from Antonio heart. Bassanio and Graziano both protest that they would give their wives lives to save Antonio, prompting caustic asides from the disguised Portia and Nerissa.

Edmund Kean as Shylock c.1814

Shylock refuses to show mercy

As Shylock approaches Antonio with the knife, Portia speaks, revealing that, by the laws of Venice, if Shylock,in taking his revenge, should shed a drop of Christian blood, or cut a sliver more that his just pound of flesh, his own life is forfeit, with all his property. Antonio intervenes for Shylock, and his life is spared but he is forced to adopt Christianity. Half his goods will be returned to him, held in trust for Jessica and Lorenzo.
Shylock leaves the Court, humiliated.

The exchange of rings

The return to Belmont

...Love me and leave me not
Act 5 scene 1

Portia , still disguised, refuses all payment, but as she and Nerissa are leaving she says that, after all, she will accept one thing; Basanio ring, given him by Portia. After much protesting he is persuaded by Antonio to give it up. Nerissa, disguised as the clerk, also begs Graziano wedding ring. They return to Belmont, arriving just before Bassanio, Graziano and Antonio. There they pretend to discover that their husbands have given their wedding rings to new lovers. Antonio pleads for their forgiveness, and they pretend to forgive them, sending them ewrings. When Bassanio and Graziano recognise the rings, they say they got them sleeping with the lawyer and his clerk, but then reveal the truth. Antonio hears that some of his ships have survived shipwreck, Lorenzo and Jessica hear that her dowry is safe, and the play ends happily, though some modern productions Jessica is shown to regret the pain she has caused her father, or to still appear as an outsider in the world of Belmont.

Henry Irving as Shylock

Portia and Antonio

There is a sub-text here, about Portia and Antonio claim on the love of Bassanio. As Antonio takes Portia ring to give it back to Bassanio, he is recognising that from now on Bassanio love for his wife must come before his love of Antonio. Some productions suggest that Antonio is gay; the 'tainted wether of the flock' (Act 4 scene 1). Shakespeare may have meant his audience to think this, but it would be subtly suggested in an Elizabethan play since homosexual physical sex was illegal at that time.

Charles Macklin as Shylock 1775

Some productions of the play

In early productions the Jew was generally seen on stage as a red-bearded stock stage villain comical or terrifying. Shylock is, however, one of the great stage roles, because it is ambiguous and forces us to question our values. From 1741 to 1789 Charles Macklin triumphed with a totally serious portrayal of Shylock, not sympathetic, however, but cunning and vengeful. John Henderson and John Philip Kemble both triumphed with similar portrayals, and Sarah Siddons excelled as Portia. George Frederick Cooke became the first actor to introduce a note of pathos into his Shylock, and Edmund Kean from 1814 chose to portray Shylock as driven beyond endurance. Charles Macready gave Shylock a certain nobility, and this interpretation was followed from 1879 by Henry Irving in probably his most famous role, with Ellen Terry as Portia.


20th century productions

Twentieth century Shylocks included Michael Redgrave, with Peggy Ashcroft as Portia, Peter OToole, Donald Wolfit and Emlyn Williams.

There were some famously anti-Semitic productions in Nazi Germany, but since the War the role of Shylock has attracted notable Jewish actors including Dustin Hoffman, Warren Mitchell, Antony Sher and Henry Goodman.

Arnold Weskers play The Merchant which premiered at Birmingham Repertory Theatre in 1976 was written from Shylock's viewpoint.

Introduction to William Shakespeare
The Birmingham Shakespeare Library
Contents of the Sir Barry Jackson and Birmingham Repertory Theatre Archive