The Merchant of Venice

By William Shakespeare


The Merchant of Venice is grouped amongst Shakespeare's comedies because of the humorous portrayal of the Jew Shylock, and the happy resolution of the ending. Especially since the Second World War, it has been hard for people to accept the play's humour at the expense of the Jew. A political message wholly unintended by Shakespeare is now read into the play. Therefore, the student of The Merchant of Venice must always bear in mind the current view of the play. Increasingly, Shylock is seen as a stranger in a strange land: lonely and ill treated (similarly, Malvolio in Twelfth Night is now raised up as a hero in some quarters). Some would argue that the play has become every bit as tragic as Macbeth or Othello. However, this is tragedy in the loose, modern sense rather than the traditional genre in which Shakespeare wrote. More convincingly it might be contended that the play explores the difference between parental and romantic love every bit as well as Romeo and Juliet and the abuse of wealth and position in a manner comparable to Coriolanus.

Venice was the gateway to Europe for trade coming in from the East. It is therefore a fitting location for a play whose main focus is the relationship between Christians and a specific non-Christian. Venice was filled with traders from the Ottoman Empire, from the Far East, from North Africa, and with Jews. As with many of Shakespeare's plays set abroad, the location may be foreign and the names may be Italian, but the mindset of the characters involved (with the obvious exception of Shylock) is resolutely English. Shakespeare needed to set the play in Venice because a Jew in England would have had a much harder time than in multi-ethnic Venice.

Whether The Merchant of Venice is an anti-Semitic work is debatable. It is certain that Shylock is usurious - indeed one might say that it is his profession. He is tight-fisted, scheming and, in short, conforms to many of the most negative Jewish stereotypes. He is, however, a wonderfully sculpted character, unlike the rather bland Christians. The audience is left with much sympathy for the clever Shylock in his battle for recognition amongst the bullying Christians. Whilst early critics saw him as one- dimensional, a contemporary reading finds much to be admired in Shylock.

It is often thought that the 'merchant' referred to in the title is Shylock. This is incorrect. The title in fact refers to Antonio, whose inability to keep his side of a bargain with Shylock leads to the sordid events of the play's central theme: Shylock's plea for 'a pound of flesh'.

The Merchant of Venice is concerned with the death of the old order in the face of global capitalism. This may sound rather too advanced for a play first performed in 1600 but, much like early Victorian novels - A Tale of Two Cities, for instance - questioned the values of the industrial age, and The Great Gatsby questions the validity of the American Dream in the 1920s, The Merchant of Venice explores the notion of trade between races who have little common cultural heritage or values. The difficulties between Antonio and Shylock are Shakespeare's predictions of the difficulties to come in an increasingly cosmopolitan world. In fact, the situation, as John Sutherland has pointed out (in Henry V: War Criminal?) is inherently artificial since there was no necessity for Antonio to use Shylock as his money-lender when there would have been many Christians doing the same job. The cross-cultural story is set up, against the grain of modern political correctness, to exploit the image of the Jew as avaricious and cruel.

Nonetheless, the play raises as many questions about Christianity as it does about Judaism. The Christian are seen as monotone and introverted, bullying those of different races whose custom has made their city a success. Antonio knows that Bassanio has lost all of his money gambling; he is therefore foolish to vouch for a loan to him. The Christian value system propounded in the play seems terribly outdated and illogical in a world run by the likes of Shylock. It is based on a misplaced English sense of fair play - Antonia does not believe that Shylock would be so cruel as to actually remove a pound of his flesh; he takes it as a sort of joke.

Shylock's conversion to Christianity at the end of the play is a form of religious imperialism. Shakespeare's comedies end with a sense of resolution; Shakespeare's tragedies with a sense of loss and catharsis. The audience would not have accepted Shylock's continued Judaism. Shylock has to repent to make the play a Christian one, and to temper his sympathetic portrayal. Given the depth of anti-Semitic feeling in the sixteenth century, the play would otherwise have been seen as a piece of Jewish propaganda.