The Merchant of Venice (Mer.)
Auden, W. H. “Brothers and Others.” In The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays, pp. 218–37. London: Faber & Faber, 1963.
Auden contrasts the feudal economy of Shakespeare’s plays about medieval history, Henry IV, Part 1 and Richard II, with the mercantile society of Mer. in terms of the change in the nature of wealth from land to money, “a form of social power which can be gained or lost.” Gone from Mer. is the medieval “oath of life-long loyalty”; it has been replaced by the contract, according to which the signatories’ commitment to each other ends on a specified date. Auden surveys the views of usury in scripture, as well as in writings by the Fathers of the Christian Church, Talmudic scholars, and the Reformation’s leaders, Luther and Calvin. In the end he classes Mer. among Shakespeare’s “unpleasant plays” because the attraction we feel toward the “romantic fairy story of Belmont” is constantly undercut by the historical reality of “money-making Venice,” which is the focus of Auden’s interest. The presence of Antonio and Shylock, he says, reminds us that the utopian qualities of Belmont are illusory.
Barton, John. “Exploring a Character: Playing Shylock.” In Playing Shakespeare, pp. 169–80. London: Methuen, 1984.
This discussion between Barton and two actors, David Suchet and Patrick Stewart, whom he directed as Shylock, centers initially on the question of the play’s anti-Semitism. All agree that the play resists anti-Semitism, but also agree that Shakespeare “shows Shylock as a bad Jew and a bad human being.” They debate if Shylock stands for all outsiders and aliens or if he is an outsider because he is Jew. They disagree about how his lines are best delivered; Suchet prefers uttering them with a discernible accent, Stewart without a foreign accent. One actor has Shylock cringing and ingratiating; the other has the character stand on his dignity. Finally, the two actors find that the key to the role is to “play the inconsistencies”: “these inconsistencies are the character: flawed, contradictory, human.”
Ben-Sasson, H. H. The History of the Jewish People, pp. 385–723. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976.
Ben-Sasson chronicles a thousand-year period of Jewish history, including the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Throughout this stretch of time, the Jewish people lived under Christian and Islamic rulers, whose monotheistic religions had developed out of the religious concepts of Judaism but claimed to be truer conceptions of those tenets. Among the events in Jewish history narrated are the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290 and the growth in interest for their readmission during the English Civil War and the Interregnum (1643–60); the penning of the Jewish population in ghettos in sixteenth-century Italian cities like Venice, and the persecution and torture of Jews in the Papal States by Pope Paul IV beginning in 1555; the greater tolerance of Jews at the beginning of the Reformation (1517) by religious leaders like Luther in their hope of converting the Jewish people to the new Protestant faiths, followed by reactionary intolerance when no conversion took place. All in all Ben-Sasson maintains that throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance the persecution of Jews was an act of “deliberate policy.”
Boose, Lynda. “The Comic Contract and Portia’s Golden Ring.” Shakespeare Studies 20 (1988): 241–54.
Boose pursues the connection between the “comic contract”—that between the play and the audience—and the role of the comic heroine. The play is “transferred to the hands of its audience” in an exchange similar to the delivery of the bride to the groom by her father. Boose attends to the differences between Portia, the comic heroine of Mer., and Katherine, who plays the same role in Shakespeare’s earlier play The Taming of the Shrew. Gone from Portia is Katherine’s open defiance and also her total submission to her husband in the end. It is as if Portia has learned from Katherine’s example and, having learned, has suppressed defiance, while, appearing submissive, she controls all relationships within the play through carefully concealed manipulation. However, over the course of the play, Portia threatens the “comic contract” by excluding all suitors “outside her own social, ethnic, religious, and linguistic group.”
Bulman, J. C. Shakespeare in Performance: The Merchant of Venice. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991.
Bulman investigates how Shakespeare’s text has been staged with reference to the following selection of productions and screen presentations: the Lyceum Theatre, London, UK, 1879 production directed by Henry Irving, in which he played Shylock; the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, UK, 1932 production directed by Theodore Komisarjevsky, with Randle Ayrton as Shylock; the American Shakespeare Festival, Stratford, Connecticut, 1957 production directed by Jack Landau, with Morris Carnovsky as Shylock; the National Theatre, London, 1970 (adapted for television in 1973) production directed by Jonathan Miller, with Laurence Olivier as Shylock; the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 1971 production directed by Terry Hands, with Emrys Jones as Shylock; the Beaumont Theater, Lincoln Center, New York, 1973 production directed by Ellis Rabb, with Sidney Walker as Shylock; the British Broadcasting Company 1980 (1981 in USA) television presentation directed by Jonathan Miller, with Warren Mitchell as Shylock; the Royal Shakespeare Theatre 1987 production directed by Bill Alexander, with Antony Sher as Shylock; the Festival Stage, Stratford, Canada, 1989 production directed by Michael Langham, with Brian Bedford as Shylock. The study includes discussion of how practical considerations influence the meaning of Mer. onstage: the stage the actor plays on, the acting company, the players’ abilities, as well as political, social, and economic conditions of performance.
Cohen, Derek. “Shylock and the Idea of the Jew.” In Shakespearean Motives, pp. 104–18. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988.
Cohen unequivocally calls Mer. a “crudely anti-Semitic play,” which associates “negative racial characteristics with the term Jewish and with Jewish characters generally.” He reflects on the rhetorical power of the iteration of Hebrew, Jew, and their variants some 74 times in the play, and especially the repeated and generalizing reference to the villain Shylock as “the Jew.” Then Cohen examines the paradox that arises from the following assertion: while Shylock is the drama’s villain, he is also its victim, who “reveals a capacity for pain and suffering.” Cohen concludes that the “trial scene” (4.1) reveals that Shakespeare knew Jews were human beings, but chose to exploit a cruel stereotype for “mercenary and artistic reasons,” a possibility Cohen finds “profoundly troubling.”
Cooper, John R. “Shylock’s Humanity.” Shakespeare Quarterly 21 (1970): 117–24.
After surveying the critical debate over Shylock, Cooper argues that he is neither villainous nor sentimental, but is instead a character with a real if limited viewpoint. In Cooper’s reading of Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech, Shakespeare is not inviting the audience to rebuke or ridicule Shylock but to empathize with what is a “universal issue.” Therefore the speech invests Shylock with dignity and offers “not only an insight into the degree of his malice but also a glimpse into Shylock’s all-too-human mind.” For Cooper, the “fundamental opposition” in the play is not between Christian and Jew, but between Belmont and Venice. Belmont is characterized by “uncalculating generosity and forgiveness,” Venice by the “hard-hearted attitude of those who have a high estimation of their own value and rights.”
Danson, Lawrence. The Harmonies of The Merchant of Venice. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978.
Danson focuses on the circle as the play’s most pervasive figure. He divides the play into three connected episodes: (1) the trial of the caskets that Portia’s suitors undergo in Belmont according to the rigorous provision of her dead father’s will, with Bassanio, always the one Portia desires, emerging the winner; (2) the trial scene (4.1) in Venice, in which the disguised Portia mercifully releases her husband’s friend Antonio from Shylock’s mortal vengeance by adhering to the strict letter of the law; (3) the exchange of the ring, in which Bassanio’s apparent breaking of faith with Portia through giving away her ring is revealed as instead his giving of the ring back to her and thus not breaking faith. Danson argues that in each of these episodes “an apparently insoluble dilemma is resolved as opposing ends join in a ring of harmony.” Thus the play’s contrasting pairs—law/freedom, justice/mercy, friendship/marriage, Jew/Christian, Venice/Belmont—“interlock into a concordant whole.”
Jardine, Lisa. “Cultural Confusion and Shakespeare’s Learned Heroine: ‘These are old paradoxes.’ ” Shakespeare Quarterly 38 (1987): 1–18.
Jardine observes a split in Renaissance humanist pedagogical treatises in their responses to educated women: “on the one hand the view is expressed . . . that an education (by which is meant an education in the classics) will contribute to the pupil’s moral fiber and fitness to be an active member of a social elite; this view is matched by the equally clearly expressed position that there is something intrinsically indecorous about a woman who (whether with the encouragement of her family or not) transgresses the social code which requires her to observe a modest silence and passivity in public.” While such texts encourage females to aspire to learning, at the same time the texts mythologize female intellectual achievement into iconic chastity. Jardine follows “the traces of the learned women in . . . the texts of two Shakespeare plays,” All’s Well That Ends Well and Mer., pursuing this ambivalence about a “woman’s place” in Renaissance intellectual life. In Mer. Portia’s knowledge of the law elicits “two versions of a confused cultural response” to educated women: she is a woman “powerfully chaste and loyal” in her “manly spirit/mind”; she is a woman who is threatening in her possession of authority and knowledge.
Kitch, Aaron. “Shylock’s Sacred Nation.” Shakespeare Quarterly 59 (2008): 131–55.
Kitch explores how Mer. situates “Jews within discourses and practices of early modern political economy.” He begins by characterizing the “Jewish nation” as it survived in sixteenth-century Europe, where arguments for its toleration rested on its contributions to the public good in developing commerce through trade and banking, both essential to civic life and political stability. Venice, in particular, recognized the advantages of admitting Jews, and therefore offered them protection from the Inquisition, as well as the freedom openly to practice their religion, although it insisted on their living in a ghetto and wearing the yellow hat. According to Kitch, Mer. stages its trial scene as a test of the Jewish nation in which Portia’s Christian universalism (“prayer doth teach us all to render / The deeds of mercy”) opposes Shylock’s insistence on property rights. When the court fails to uphold Shylock’s rights, “Shakespeare criticizes a mercantile state that reserves the right of private ownership to an elite class that benefits from the mercantile activities of a politically oppressed group. . . . The containment of Shylock allows the Venetian state to continue to separate its ideals of legal justice and independence from the economic realities of slaveholding and the Jewish ghetto.”
Korda, Natasha. “Dame Usury: Gender, Credit, and (Ac)counting in the Sonnets and The Merchant of Venice.” Shakespeare Quarterly 60 (2009): 129–53.
Korda’s essay analyzes “the gendered bonds of credit and lexicon of (ac)counting that feature so prominently in . . . The Merchant of Venice in relation to the emergent figure of the female moneylender, in an effort to understand how the complex power dynamics between female creditors and male debtors influenced social bonds of friendship, kinship, marriage, and civic community, including the community or fellowship of the all-male playing companies.” Korda presents evidence that women functioned in the Elizabethan economy as moneylenders who took interest; wives even lent their husbands money in this way. Then she asks us to think of Portia in this role when she provides the money to Bassanio to free his friend Antonio from Shylock’s bond. The ring or wedding band that she gives Bassanio functions as a bond of “sexual trustworthiness and fiscal creditability,” making her estate his, but not his to give away. In the trial scene (4.1) Portia shows the “will and skill,” of which women were often said to be incapable, to protect the money she has lent Bassanio. The exactitude and precision with which Portia interprets Shylock’s bond may even have “confirmed her Christian virtue,” her diligent striving for perfection in her accounting, rather than just her cruelty.
Lelyveld, Toby. Shylock on the Stage. Cleveland: The Press of Western Reserve University, 1960.
Attempting to trace the manner in which Shylock has been characterized onstage from Shakespeare’s day to the present, Lelyveld discusses changing conceptions of the role. According to him, in the beginning the role was comic, with Shylock held up to ridicule as the stock Pantalone character from Italian Commedia dell’Arte—the avaricious Venetian tradesman, wearing a false nose and carrying a knife in his belt. In the middle of the eighteenth century, the actor Charles Macklin presented Shylock in a serious way as “stormy and diabolical.” By the early nineteenth century Edmund Kean achieved a “compassionate treatment of Shylock.” Later in the century Edwin Forrest played the role with “fierce animal intensity,” but his rival Edwin Booth, employing a simpler style of acting, chose to make Shylock a “grotesquely tragic” figure. Summing up the historical development of the role, Lelyveld finds that Shylock has been transformed from his alleged Elizabethan origin as a stock villainous Jew to become “a superb theatrical character.”
Lewalski, Barbara K. “Biblical Allusion and Allegory in The Merchant of Venice.” Shakespeare Quarterly 13 (1962): 327–43.
Lewalski locates in Mer. “patterns of Biblical allusion and imagery so precise and pervasive as to be patently deliberate.” These lead her to interpret the play in terms of four levels of allegorical significance: a “literal or story level”; a level concerned with truths relating to humanity and Christ; a level dealing with factors “in the moral development of the individual”; and a level treating “the ultimate reality, the Heavenly City.” According to her allegorical reading of Mer., “Shylock and Antonio embody the theological conflicts and historical interrelationships of the Old [Testament] Law and New,” with Antonio finally becoming “a perfect embodiment of Christian love.” When Bassanio chooses the leaden casket, he is choosing “life, the love of God.” “Belmont . . . figures forth the Heavenly City.”
Marlowe, Christopher. The Jew of Malta (c. 1589). In Tamburlaine, parts I and II; Doctor Faustus, A- and B-texts; The Jew of Malta; Edward II [by] Christopher Marlowe. Ed. David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen. Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Shylock’s relationship with Jessica has obvious parallels with that of Marlowe’s flamboyant villain-hero Barabas and his daughter, Abigail. Unlike Jessica, Abigail at first aids her father in his efforts to recover his lost wealth from the Christians. But later, like Jessica, Abigail flees her father (who has tricked her beloved into a fatal duel with a supposed rival) and becomes a Christian. Barabas then has her poisoned. He brags of his many plots and murderous exploits: “I walk abroad a-nights, / And kill sick people groaning under walls. / Sometimes I go about and poison wells; / And now and then, to cherish Christian thieves, / I am content to lose some of my crowns, / That I may, walking in my gallery, / See ’em go pinion’d along by my door.”
Midgley, Graham. “The Merchant of Venice: A Reconsideration.” Essays in Criticism 10 (1960): 119–33.
Midgley argues that the two focal points of the play are Shylock and Antonio, and that the world of love and marriage is paralleled by the social, political, and economic world of Venice. “As Shylock is to Venetian society, so is Antonio to the world of love of marriage.” For Midgley, it is unimportant that Shylock is a Jew, and important only that he is an alien or outsider shut out from Venetian society. As such, he parallels Antonio, whose love for Bassanio excludes him from the world of love and marriage in Venice’s “predominantly, and indeed blatantly, heterosexual society.” Antonio’s lot in life is sad, and he would be content to die for Bassanio. For Midgley, the play is a “twin study in loneliness,” with Shylock and Antonio “each retiring defeated into his own loneliness again” at the end.
Newman, Karen. “Portia’s Ring: Unruly Women and Structures of Exchange in The Merchant of Venice.” Shakespeare Quarterly 38 (1987): 19–33.
Newman offers an anthropological interpretation of Mer., employing the work of Marcel Mauss and Claude Lévi-Strauss, and their French feminist critics Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray. For Lévi-Strauss, “the total relationship of exchange which constitutes marriage is not established between a man and a woman . . . but between two groups of men, and the woman figures only as one of the objects in the exchange, not as one of the partners.” For Newman, Mer. is a study in inversion of this model of marriage; Portia contrives to transcend her status as an object of exchange and becomes a partner. For evidence Newman turns to Portia’s speech at 3.2.153–78 and to the progress throughout the play of the ring that she gives Bassanio during this speech. In the speech Portia figures herself as the former Lord of Belmont who is converting herself and her great wealth to Bassanio’s charge. Thus she gives him a gift greater than he can ever reciprocate, and in giving him this gift both in 3.2 and again at the end of the play when she returns him the ring that is the symbol of her gift, she secures her status as a partner in their marriage.
Overton, Bill. The Merchant of Venice: Text and Performance. London: Macmillan, 1987.
Overton discusses Mer.’s text in terms of contrasts that he widens into contradictions. He then refers to five English productions from the 1970s and 80s: Jonathan Miller’s National Theatre production (1970); John Barton’s Royal Shakespeare Company studio production (1978); Miller’s British Broadcasting Company television production (1980), Barton’s Royal Shakespeare Company main-house production (1981); and John Caird’s Royal Shakespeare Company main-house production (1984). Overton sketches out the ways in which the contradictions he has already located in the text can be successfully, or unsuccessfully, staged. He favors productions that “break down” the barrier between audience and performer and therefore sharpen the focus on the play’s contradictions in matters of gender and race.
Rabkin, Norman. “Meaning and The Merchant of Venice.” In Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning, pp. 1–32. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.
Rabkin explores the tensions, contradictions, and mixed signals that the play generates. “On the one side . . . we find Shylock, trickery, anality, precise definition, possessiveness, contempt for prodigality, legalism, the Old Testament, Jews, dislocated values, mechanistic ethics and psychology, a fondness for bonds, stinginess, a wronged father, a conventional comic butt, an outsider, a paradoxical honesty about intention, a repressive father, distrust of emotion and hatred of music, bad luck, and failure. On the other hand we find Portia, but also Antonio, Bassanio, Lorenzo, Jessica, and Gratiano; freedom, metaphorical richness in language, prodigality, transcendence of the law, intense commitment to legalism, stealing, the New Testament, Christians; values that sometimes seem simple and right, sometimes complex and right, sometimes complex and wrong; love, generosity, cruelty to a father, life within a charmed circle, self-deception about motivation, youth rebelling against conventional comic repressive fatherhood, love of emotion and music, supreme trickery, a fondness for bonds, good luck, success.” Mer. demands constant reassessment and “inconsistent responses” from an audience, and Rabkin therefore argues against interpretations that find “meaning as the principle of unity in a work.” He explicitly takes issue with the readings of John R. Cooper and Lawrence Danson, summarized above.
Shapiro, James. Shakespeare and the Jews. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.
Shapiro is concerned to place Mer. in a wider context of cultural history that stretches from the reign of Edward I, who negotiated the official expulsion of Jews from England in 1290 (apparently in return for a tax increase), to the middle of the eighteenth century, when a 1753 bill before Parliament concerning a minor change to the law governing the naturalization of Jews sparked an extensive press and pamphlet war in which reference to Shakespeare’s play was prominent. The core of the book focuses on “Shakespeare and the cultural moment in which The Merchant of Venice was first staged.” Chapter 3, “The Jewish Crime,” treats myths associated with Jews at that cultural moment: their poisoning wells, desecrating hosts, threatening invasion, and practicing ritual murder. Chapter 4, “The Pound of Flesh,” concentrates on the myths most closely analogous to the one staged in Mer.: stories of Jewish threats to the genitals and hearts of Christian men. Finally, Chapter 5 deals with the fantasies of conversion of the Jews to Christianity that were a persistent feature of Elizabethan cultural history. An over-arching theme of this study is the way that Englishness has been constructed in opposition to a construction of Jewishness.
Tennenhouse, Leonard. “The Counterfeit Order of The Merchant of Venice.” In Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, edited by Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn, pp. 54–69. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.
For Tennenhouse, Shakespeare’s design of opposition in composing Mer. signals a desire to create a dramatic world that was “whole, social, and stable.” Yet Tennenhouse finds a number of features in the play that function as “means of resolving oppositions within Shakespeare’s culture” but that nonetheless “signal disturbance, conflict, and anxiety.” These include the use of two settings (Venice, Belmont), Jessica’s desertion of and theft from Shylock, the masculine characteristics of Portia, the idealization of male friendship between Bassanio and Antonio, the relation between love and wealth in the marriage of Portia and Bassanio, the ring plot contrived by Portia and Nerissa, and the bawdy dialogue through which this plot is resolved at the play’s conclusion.
Wilson, Thomas. A Discourse upon Usury (1572). Introduction by R. H. Tawney. London: G. Bell & Sons, 1925.
This 1572 account of usury is written in the form of a debate among four speakers: Ockerfoe, “the godly and zealous preacher” or “enemy to usury”; Gromel-gainer, “a rich worldly merchant”; a civil lawyer (i.e., a lawyer who studies Roman Law, rather than English Common Law); and a temporal lawyer (i.e., a secular, as opposed to a canon or church, lawyer). In addition to debating each other, all deliver orations. Chapters include “The Needy Gentleman,” “The Damnable Sin of Usury,” “The Harrying of the Usurer,” and “The Punishments Appointed by the Laws.” Tawney’s introduction places the subject of usury in its historical context.