Background to William Shakespeare's play, The Merchant of Venice
Written and kindly contributed by Michael Neill (Professor of English, University of Auckland)
Written in about 1596 for London's most prestigious company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, The Merchant of Venice belongs to the period of Shakespeare's early maturity, when he had been
working as a professional actor and dramatist for nearly a decade.
This makes it roughly contemporaneous with such works as Romeo and Juliet
(1595-6), A Midsummer Night's Dream (1595-6), 1 Henry IV (c. 1596-7). The remarkable range of styles and genres represented even within this small group of plays is a reminder of Shakespeare's restless experimentalism, and the extraordinary reach of his genius. The Merchant itself is a play that pushes at the accepted boundaries of comedy by yoking elements of erotic romance with hard-edged urban comedy, and scenes of low farce with episodes of high drama and pathos that sometimes tip perilously close to tragedy.
Like many of Shakespeare's plays, it is stitched together from quite disparate sources, the most important of which are highlighted by the title page of the earliest edition (1600), as it advertises the two
great climaxes of the play: "The most excellent historie of the Merchant of Venice. With the extreme Cruelty of Shylock the Jew towards the said Merchant, in cutting a just pound of his flesh: and the obtaining
of Portia by the choyce of 3 chests".
The Shylock and Portia plots derive from quite unrelated folktales, each of which was available to Shakespeare in a variety of versions. But it was he who
transformed the meaning of these ancient stories by yoking them together in a thoroughly contemporary setting - the maritime metropolis of Venice and its trading empire.
In the Elizabethan imagination,
Venice stood for the fabulous wealth and luxury associated with the new world of mercantile expansionism to which England had only belatedly gained access. But, more dangerously, Venice also represented the
potential corruptions of mercantilism and in Shakespeare's play the cutthroat competitiveness of Venice is displaced onto the alien figure of Shylock - the Jew whose money-lending fuels the engines of commerce, even
as he is made the scapegoat for its vices.
Shakespeare's treatment of the Jew - and the extent of his complicity in the history of prejudice that has made Shylock's very name into a term of abuse - is the
great problem of the play for modern audiences. Critics have sometimes argued that, because English people had had little first-hand experience of Jews since their expulsion under Edward I, three hundred years
earlier, Shylock was simply a creature of exotic fantasy.
But it is impossible to detach him so easily from the long and shameful history of European anti-semitism. Indeed, The Merchant was written in the
immediate shadow of the terrible persecution of Spanish Jews and conversos conducted by the papal Inquisition, as a result of which a significant refugee population had established itself in the English capital. One
of their number, a Dr Lopez, had recently been convicted of attempting to poison the Queen, and his trial had provoked violent outbursts of popular feeling: anti-semitism was alive and well in Shakespeare's London.
In such a situation, the acting companies had few scruples: while their competitors revived Marlowe's savage farce, The Jew of Malta, to capitalise on the scandal, the Lord Chamberlain's Men seem to have
commissioned The Merchant of Venice for much the same purpose.
The play structures the opposition between Jew and Christian as an archetypal contest between Old Testament law and New Testament charity -
recalling the perennial indictment of the Jews as a people who had stubbornly refused the new dispensation of Christ, and thereby repudiated their own true humanity.
As the Christians' favourite pun has it,
to be "gentle" (a word whose connotations include nobility, generosity, tenderness, and human kindness) is to be a gentile. The "inhuman wretch", Shylock, inhabits a world of remorselessly
enforced "bonds", epitomised in his "I stand here for law" (4.1.142), whilst the Christians constantly appeal to the selfless ideals of "free" lending and forgiveness of debts,
articulated in Portia's great speech on mercy (4.2.180-201).
According to this scheme, the Shylock of the trial scene is a man justly hoist by his own petard, trapped and humiliated by the very law upon whose
meticulous execution he has insisted.
Yet in the richness of its human detail and the power of its poetry The Merchant of Venice constantly resists and undermines this schematic reading.
emerges as a fully three-dimensional character, capable of feeling a pain that in some productions turns him into the hero of an abortive tragedy. His scorn is shown to spring from real suffering, just as his desire
for revenge is driven by the dehumanizing effect of the humiliation that he experiences at the hands of Antonio and his fellow Christians.
When Shylock's daughter betrays him by eloping with one of his
persecutors, he laments not just for his missing ducats, but for her heartless disposal of his betrothal ring, invoking a "bond" quite opposite to the bloody contract that he tries to enforce against
It is no accident that the same token of love will become the instrument of Portia's testing of Bassanio in the last scene. The parallel is calculated to remind us, even as Shylock seems to have been
comprehensively expelled from humane society, of the great appeal to common humanity with which he challenged his persecutors in Act III. The Merchant, declares the Jew:
“hath disgraced me…laughed at my
losses, mocked at my gains, 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? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.”
It is a challenge that is likely to remain with an audience long after the questionable enchantment of Belmont's moonlight and "sweet music" has faded away.
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