The Merchant of Venice

Content Group


This play is one of the most over-interpreted of all Shakespeare's, because of our modern anxiety over racist stereotypes. The "merchant" of the title is actually the emotionally disturbed, indeed downright suicidal Antonio, whose mental sickness is the opening theme of the play (1.1.1-55) and is reflected in his numerous excessive reactions to his associates: in his morbid commitment to the volatile Bassanio (5.1.249-253), and his obsessive hatred of the Jewish Shylock (1.3.106-137). This latter Jewish character is not the play's principal figure, for he only appears in four out of the play's twenty scenes, though with powerful claims on our sympathy. Antonio's obsessive harshness understandably drives Shylock to a murderous fury, which Antonio then attempts to use as a means of pathetic suicide (4.1.114-118). Both figures remain socially disconnected at the end of the play: Shylock seeks "leave to go from hence: I am not well" (4.1.395) and Antonio's last words are equally ominous: "I am dumb" (5.1.279).

Modern performances often misrepresent Renaissance Venice as brutally and uniformly antisemitic, when it was then the most ethnically tolerant society in Europe and accepted Jewish refugees from persecution in Spain and elsewhere, giving them many rights and public functions (which is not to say these equal the requirements of modern multiculturalism, as its Ghetto illustrates). This characteristic of Venice Shakespeare may have learned from his Dark Lady, if she were indeed an Italian musician, the Jewish Emilia Bassano, as claimed by James Shapiro in Shakespeare and the Jews. As William Thomas makes clear in his History of Italy (1549) the intolerant Gratiano and Antonio should not be presented as typical Venetians. Shakespeare makes his awareness of this point evident in the ethnically respectful behavior of the Venetian senate to the Moor in Othello (1.3).

The play's most dramatic tensions effectively depend on the unpredictable confrontations between the pernicious sentimentality of the Christian Antonio and the resulting bitterness of a righteous Jew. The shocking, forced conversion finally imposed on Shylock is Antonio's malevolent idea, and it was hardly likely to be viewed sympathetically by a Shakespeare who, as a member of a recusant group of covert Catholics, would scarcely sympathize with the kind of murderously enforced conversion such as doomed members of his own family in Protestant, Elizabethan England. The Christian Portia herself is deliberately tainted by the author with acceptance of ethnic stereotyping, as plainly reflected in her contemptuous view of her non-Italian suitors (1.2.36-121), and she finishes up, like Nerissa, ruefully aware of how erratic even her new husband can be under the pernicious influence of Antonio, who has put Bassanio into the humiliating situation of favoring his emotionally disturbed friend over his wife. As Antonio admits: "I am the unhappy subject of these quarrels" (5.1.238).

This kind of ethnically dispassionate interpretation works very well in the theatre, as illustrated by the sympathetic Olivier performance of Shylock (and of Jessica) in the television version of a production originally directed by Trevor Nunn (production 1970, film 1973) which updated the play to the 1930s. Nevertheless, as a result of modern ethnic preoccupations, audience reactions to the play remain highly unpredictable: a local rabbi recently wanted the Santa Cruz Shakespeare Festival to cancel its production unless audiences were subjected to corrective instruction; yet, earlier in New York, Sam Wanamaker chose the play to entertain Jewish supporters of his restoration of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, with Dustin Hoffman as a sympathetic Shylock (Peter Hall Company, 1989). As these two productions demonstrate, to succeed with a modern audience, the play has to be treated as a kind of objective, almost Ibsenite study in the unresolvable problems of multiculturalism as first attempted in Venice, a state then greatly admired for its judiciousness.

Merchant of Venice, 1998
Merchant of Venice, 1998
The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare's Globe, 1998
Merchant of Venice, 19th Century
Merchant of Venice, Alexandra Carlisle as Portia (as the Lawyer Balthazar), 1908
Merchant of Venice, James Carew as Shylock, 20th Century
The Merchant of Venice, Laurence Olivier as Shylock, National Theatre Company, 1974
The Merchant of Venice, Peter Hall Company, 1989
The Merchant of Venice: Sir Henry Irving (1838-1905) as Shylock
The Merchant of Venice: Ellen Terry as Portia
The Merchant of Venice: Laurence Olivier as Shylock
Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival, The Merchant of Venice, 1970
Stratford Festival, Ontario, Canada: The Merchant of Venice, 1976.

Berry, Ralph. "The Merchant of Venice." In Shakespeare in Performance: A Collection of Essays, edited by Frank Occhiogrosso, 47-57. Newark: University of Delaware Press; London: Associated University Presses, 2003.

Bulman, James C. The Merchant of Venice. Shakespeare in Performance. Manchester; New York: Manchester University Press, 1991.

Contarini, Gasparo (cardinal). De Magistratibus et Republica Venetorum, 1543. Reprinted as Gaspar Contareno, The Commonwealth and Government of Venice, Amsterdan and New York: De Capo Press, 1969.

Cusack, Sinead. "Portia in The Merchant of Venice." In Players of Shakespeare: Essays in Shakespearean Performance by Twelve Players with the Royal Shakespeare Company, edited by Philip Brockbank, 29-40. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Dessen, Alan C. "The Key as a Theatrical Metaphor in The Merchant of Venice." Shakespeare Bulletin 3, no. 3 (1985): 13-14.

Edelman, Charles, ed. The Merchant of Venice. Shakespeare in Production. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Fischer-Lichte, Erika. "Theatre as Festive Play: Max Reinhardt's Production of The Merchant of Venice." In Venetian Views, Venetian Blinds: English Fantasies of Venice, edited by Manfred Pfister and Barbara Schaff,169-80. Amsterdam and Atlanta: Rodopi, 1999.

Fischer, Susan L. "Crossing National Borders: Staging The Merchant of Venice in Spain." In Hispanic Essays in Honor of Frank P. Cas, edited by Robert A. Lauer and Henry W. Sullivan, 388-406. New York: Lang, 1997.

Foulkes, Richard. "The Staging of the Trial Scene in Irving's The Merchant of Venice." Theatre Journal 28 (1976): 312-17.

Gaudet, Paul. "Lorenzo's 'Infidel': The Staging of Difference in The Merchant of Venice." Theatre Journal 38 (1986): 275-90.

Gilbert, Miriam. The Merchant of Venice. London: Arden Shakespeare & Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, 2002.

Gross, John. Shylock: A Legend and Its Legacy. New York: Touchstone, 1994.

Halio, J. L. "Singing Chords: Performing Shylock and Other Characters in The Merchant of Venice." In The Merchant of Venice: New Critical Essays, edited by John W. Mahon and Ellen MacLeod Mahon, 369-373. New York and London: Routledge, 2002.

Halio, Jay L. "The Merchant of Venice in Modern Dress." In Renaissance Refractions: Essays in Honour of Alexander Shurbanov, edited by Boika Sokolova and Evgenia Pancheva, 187-93. Sofia: St. Kliment Ohridski University Press, 2001.

Hannaham, J. "Wrestling with Shylock." American Theatre 5 (1995): 24-29.

Hughes, Clair. "Zoffany's Trial Scene from The Merchant of Venice." Burlington Magazine 123 (1981): 290-94.

Kauffman, S. "Lights, Camera, Hatred." New Republic 21 (2001): 47-49.

Magnus, Bart. "De evolutie van Shylock in Vlaanderen" ["The Evolution of Shylock in Flanders"]. Scriptiebank, 2007.

Mahon, John W. "The Fortunes of The Merchant of Venice from 1596 to 2001." In The Merchant of Venice: New Critical Essays, edited by John W. Mahon and Ellen MacLeod Mahon, 1-93. New York and London: Routledge, 2002.

Merchant, W. Moelwyn. "On Looking at The Merchant of Venice." In Nineteenth Century British Theatre, edited by Kenneth Richards and Peter Thomson, 171-78. London: Methuen, 1971.

O'Connor, J. "Shylock in Performance." In The Merchant of Venice: New Critical Essays, edited by John W. Mahon and Ellen MacLeod Mahon, 387-430. New York and London: Routledge, 2002.

Popkin, R. H. "A Jewish Merchant of Venice." Shakespeare Quarterly 40 (1989): 329-331.

Ripley, John. "Sociology and Soundscape: Herbert Beerbohm Tree's 1908 Merchant of Venice." Shakespeare Quarterly 56, no. 4 (2005): 385-410.

Rokem, Freddie. Review of Theatrical Performance During the Holocaust: Texts, Documents, Memoirs, edited by Rebecca Rovit and Alvin Goldfarb, 1999. Theatre Journal 54, no. 2 (2002): 331.

Smith, Emma. "The Merchant of Venice: Prejudice and Performance." English Review 8, no. 1 (1997): 6-9.

Stewart, Patrick. "Shylock in The Merchant of Venice." In Players of Shakespeare: Essays in Shakespearean Performance by Twelve Players with the Royal Shakespeare Company, edited by Philip Brockbank, 11-28. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

The Merchant of Venice at Talkin' Broadway.

Vander Motten, J. P. "The Merchant of Venice, Rosamond and Other English Plays Performed on the Continent in 1703?" Theatre Research International 7, no. 1 (Winter 1981): 54-58.

Wheeler, Thomas, ed. The Merchant of Venice: Critical Essays. New York and London: Garland, 1991.

Zoglin, R. "Shylock on the Beach." Time 18 (1994): 78.

Except where otherwise specified, all written commentary is © 2016, Hugh Macrae Richmond