Merchant Of Venice Essay Introduction

This article is about Shakespeare's play. For other uses, see The Merchant of Venice (disambiguation).

The Merchant of Venice

Title page of the first quarto (1600)

The Merchant of Venice is a 16th-century play by William Shakespeare in which a merchant in Venice must default on a large loan provided by a Jewish moneylender. It is believed to have been written between 1596 and 1599. Though classified as a comedy in the First Folio and sharing certain aspects with Shakespeare's other romantic comedies, the play is perhaps most remembered for its dramatic scenes, and it is best known for Shylock and the famous "Hath not a Jew eyes?" speech. Also notable is Portia's speech about "the quality of mercy". Critic Harold Bloom listed it among Shakespeare's great comedies.[1]


  • Antonio – a prominent merchant of Venice in a melancholic mood
  • Bassanio – Antonio's friend; suitor to Portia; later the husband of Portia
  • Gratiano – friend of Antonio and Bassanio; in love with Nerissa; later the husband of Nerissa
  • Lorenzo – friend of Antonio and Bassanio; in love with Jessica; later the husband of Jessica
  • Portia – a rich heiress; later the wife of Bassanio
  • Nerissa – Portia's waiting maid – in love with Gratiano; later the wife of Gratiano; disguises herself as Stephano
  • Balthazar – Portia's servant, whom Portia later disguises herself as
  • Shylock – a miserly Jew; moneylender; father of Jessica
  • Jessica – daughter of Shylock, later the wife of Lorenzo
  • Tubal – a Jew; friend of Shylock
  • Launcelot Gobbo – servant of Shylock; later a servant of Bassanio; son of Old Gobbo
  • Old Gobbo – blind father of Launcelot
  • Leonardo – slave to Bassanio
  • Duke of Venice – authority who presides over the case of Shylock's bond
  • Prince of Morocco – suitor to Portia
  • Prince of Arragon – suitor to Portia
  • Salarino and Salanio( also known as Solanio ) – friends of Antonio and Bassanio[2]
  • Salerio – a messenger from Venice[2]
  • Magnificoes of Venice, officers of the Court of Justice, gaoler, servants to Portia, and other attendants and Doctor Bellario, cousin of Portia


Bassanio, a young Venetian of noble rank, wishes to woo the beautiful and wealthy heiress Portia of Belmont. Having squandered his estate, he needs 3,000 ducats to subsidise his expenditures as a suitor. Bassanio approaches his friend Antonio, a wealthy merchant of Venice who has previously and repeatedly bailed him out. Antonio agrees, but since he is cash-poor – his ships and merchandise are busy at sea to Tripolis, the Indies, Mexico and England – he promises to cover a bond if Bassanio can find a lender, so Bassanio turns to the Jewish moneylender Shylock and names Antonio as the loan's guarantor.

Antonio has already antagonized Shylock through his outspoken antisemitism, and because Antonio's habit of lending money without interest forces Shylock to charge lower rates. Shylock is at first reluctant to grant the loan, citing abuse he has suffered at Antonio's hand. He finally agrees to lend the sum to Bassanio without interest upon one condition: if Antonio is unable to repay it at the specified date, Shylock may take a pound of Antonio's flesh. Bassanio does not want Antonio to accept such a risky condition; Antonio is surprised by what he sees as the moneylender's generosity (no "usance" – interest – is asked for), and he signs the contract. With money at hand, Bassanio leaves for Belmont with his friend Gratiano, who has asked to accompany him. Gratiano is a likeable young man, but is often flippant, overly talkative, and tactless. Bassanio warns his companion to exercise self-control, and the two leave for Belmont.

Meanwhile, in Belmont, Portia is awash with suitors. Her father left a will stipulating each of her suitors must choose correctly from one of three caskets – one each of gold, silver and lead. If he picks the right casket, he gets Portia. The first suitor, the Prince of Morocco, chooses the gold casket, interpreting its slogan, "Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire", as referring to Portia. The second suitor, the conceited Prince of Arragon, chooses the silver casket, which proclaims, "Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves", as he believes he is full of merit. Both suitors leave empty-handed, having rejected the lead casket because of the baseness of its material and the uninviting nature of its slogan, "Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath". The last suitor is Bassanio, whom Portia wishes to succeed, having met him before. As Bassanio ponders his choice, members of Portia's household sing a song which says that "fancy" (not true love) is "engend'red in the eyes, / With gazing fed";[3] Bassanio chooses the lead casket and wins Portia's hand.

At Venice, Antonio's ships are reported lost at sea so the merchant cannot repay the bond. Shylock has become more determined to exact revenge from Christians because his daughter Jessica eloped with the Christian Lorenzo and converted. She took a substantial amount of Shylock's wealth with her, as well as a turquoise ring which Shylock had been given by his late wife, Leah. Shylock has Antonio brought before court.

At Belmont, Bassanio receives a letter telling him that Antonio has been unable to repay the loan from Shylock. Portia and Bassanio marry, as do Gratiano and Portia's handmaid Nerissa. Bassanio and Gratiano leave for Venice, with money from Portia, to save Antonio's life by offering the money to Shylock. Unknown to Bassanio and Gratiano, Portia sent her servant, Balthazar, to seek the counsel of Portia's cousin, Bellario, a lawyer, at Padua.

The climax of the play takes place in the court of the Duke of Venice. Shylock refuses Bassanio's offer of 6,000 ducats, twice the amount of the loan. He demands his pound of flesh from Antonio. The Duke, wishing to save Antonio but unable to nullify a contract, refers the case to a visitor. He identifies himself as Balthazar, a young male "doctor of the law", bearing a letter of recommendation to the Duke from the learned lawyer Bellario. The doctor is Portia in disguise, and the law clerk who accompanies her is Nerissa, also disguised as a man. As Balthazar, Portia repeatedly asks Shylock to show mercy in a famous speech, advising him that mercy "is twice blest: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes" (IV, i, 185). However, Shylock adamantly refuses any compensations and insists on the pound of flesh.

As the court grants Shylock his bond and Antonio prepares for Shylock's knife, Portia deftly appropriates Shylock's argument for "specific performance". She says that the contract allows Shylock only to remove the flesh, not the "blood", of Antonio (see quibble). Thus, if Shylock were to shed any drop of Antonio's blood, his "lands and goods" would be forfeited under Venetian laws. She tells him that he must cut precisely one pound of flesh, no more, no less; she advises him that "if the scale do turn, But in the estimation of a hair, Thou diest and all thy goods are confiscate."

Defeated, Shylock concedes to accepting Bassanio's offer of money for the defaulted bond, first his offer to pay "the bond thrice", which Portia rebuffs, telling him to take his bond, and then merely the principal, which Portia also prevents him from doing on the ground that he has already refused it "in the open court". She cites a law under which Shylock, as a Jew and therefore an "alien", having attempted to take the life of a citizen, has forfeited his property, half to the government and half to Antonio, leaving his life at the mercy of the Duke. The Duke pardons Shylock's life. Antonio asks for his share "in use" until Shylock's death, when the principal will be given to Lorenzo and Jessica. At Antonio's request, the Duke grants remission of the state's half of forfeiture, but on the condition that Shylock convert to Christianity and bequeath his entire estate to Lorenzo and Jessica (IV,i).

Bassanio does not recognise his disguised wife, but offers to give a present to the supposed lawyer. First she declines, but after he insists, Portia requests his ring and Antonio's gloves. Antonio parts with his gloves without a second thought, but Bassanio gives the ring only after much persuasion from Antonio, as earlier in the play he promised his wife never to lose, sell or give it. Nerissa, as the lawyer's clerk, succeeds in likewise retrieving her ring from Gratiano, who does not see through her disguise.

At Belmont, Portia and Nerissa taunt and pretend to accuse their husbands before revealing they were really the lawyer and his clerk in disguise (V). After all the other characters make amends, Antonio learns from Portia that three of his ships were not stranded and have returned safely after all.


The forfeit of a merchant's deadly bond after standing surety for a friend's loan was a common tale in England in the late 16th century.[4] In addition, the test of the suitors at Belmont, the merchant's rescue from the "pound of flesh" penalty by his friend's new wife disguised as a lawyer, and her demand for the betrothal ring in payment are all elements present in the 14th-century tale Il Pecorone by Giovanni Fiorentino, which was published in Milan in 1558.[5] Elements of the trial scene are also found in The Orator by Alexandre Sylvane, published in translation in 1596.[4] The story of the three caskets can be found in Gesta Romanorum, a collection of tales probably compiled at the end of the 13th century.

Date and text[edit]

The date of composition for The Merchant of Venice is believed to be between 1596 and 1598. The play was mentioned by Francis Meres in 1598, so it must have been familiar on the stage by that date. The title page of the first edition in 1600 states that it had been performed "divers times" by that date. Salerino's reference to his ship the Andrew (I,i,27) is thought to be an allusion to the Spanish ship St. Andrew, captured by the English at Cádiz in 1596. A date of 1596–97 is considered consistent with the play's style.

The play was entered in the Register of the Stationers Company, the method at that time of obtaining copyright for a new play, by James Roberts on 22 July 1598 under the title The Merchant of Venice, otherwise called The Jew of Venice. On 28 October 1600 Roberts transferred his right to the play to the stationer Thomas Heyes; Heyes published the first quarto before the end of the year. It was printed again in a pirated edition in 1619, as part of William Jaggard's so-called False Folio. (Afterward, Thomas Heyes' son and heir Laurence Heyes asked for and was granted a confirmation of his right to the play, on 8 July 1619.) The 1600 edition is generally regarded as being accurate and reliable. It is the basis of the text published in the 1623 First Folio, which adds a number of stage directions, mainly musical cues.[7]


Shylock and the antisemitism debate[edit]

The play is frequently staged today, but is potentially troubling to modern audiences due to its central themes, which can easily appear antisemitic. Critics today still continue to argue over the play's stance on the Jews and Judaism.

Shylock as a villain[edit]

English society in the Elizabethan era has been described as "judeophobic".[8]English Jews had been expelled under Edward I in 1290 and were not permitted to return until 1656 under the rule of Oliver Cromwell. In Venice and in some other places, Jews were required to wear a red hat at all times in public to make sure that they were easily identified, and had to live in a ghetto protected by Christian guards.[9]

Shakespeare's play may be seen as a continuation of this tradition.[10] The title page of the Quarto indicates that the play was sometimes known as The Jew of Venice in its day, which suggests that it was seen as similar to Marlowe's The Jew of Malta. One interpretation of the play's structure is that Shakespeare meant to contrast the mercy of the main Christian characters with the vengefulness of a Jew, who lacks the religious grace to comprehend mercy. Similarly, it is possible that Shakespeare meant Shylock's forced conversion to Christianity to be a "happy ending" for the character, as, to a Christian audience, it saves his soul and allows him to enter Heaven.[11]

Regardless of what Shakespeare's authorial intent may have been, the play has been made use of by antisemites throughout the play's history. The Nazis used the usurious Shylock for their propaganda. Shortly after Kristallnacht in 1938, The Merchant of Venice was broadcast for propagandistic ends over the German airwaves. Productions of the play followed in Lübeck (1938), Berlin (1940), and elsewhere within the Nazi territory.[12]

In a series of articles called Observer, first published in 1785, British playwright Richard Cumberland created a character named Abraham Abrahams who is quoted as saying, "I verily believe the odious character of Shylock has brought little less persecution upon us, poor scattered sons of Abraham, than the Inquisition itself."[13] Cumberland later wrote a successful play, The Jew (1794), in which his title character, Sheva, is portrayed sympathetically, as both a kindhearted and generous man. This was the first known attempt by a dramatist to reverse the negative stereotype that Shylock personified.[14]

The depiction of Jews in literature throughout the centuries bears the close imprint of Shylock. With slight variations much of English literature up until the 20th century depicts the Jew as "a monied, cruel, lecherous, avaricious outsider tolerated only because of his golden hoard".[15]

Shylock as a sympathetic character[edit]

Many modern readers and theatregoers have read the play as a plea for tolerance, noting that Shylock is a sympathetic character. They cite as evidence that Shylock's "trial" at the end of the play is a mockery of justice, with Portia acting as a judge when she has no right to do so. The characters who berated Shylock for dishonesty resort to trickery in order to win. In addition, Shakespeare gives Shylock one of his most eloquent speeches:

Salerio. Why, I am sure, if he forfeit, thou wilt not take his flesh. What's that good for?
Shylock. To bait fish withal; if it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, 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? 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. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.

— Act III, scene I

It is difficult to know whether the sympathetic reading of Shylock is entirely due to changing sensibilities among readers, or whether Shakespeare, a writer who created complex, multi-faceted characters, deliberately intended this reading.

One of the reasons for this interpretation is that Shylock's painful status in Venetian society is emphasised. To some critics, Shylock's celebrated "Hath not a Jew eyes?" speech redeems him and even makes him into something of a tragic figure; in the speech, Shylock argues that he is no different from the Christian characters.[16] Detractors note that Shylock ends the speech with a tone of revenge: "if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?" Those who see the speech as sympathetic point out that Shylock says he learned the desire for revenge from the Christian characters: "If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction."

Even if Shakespeare did not intend the play to be read this way, the fact that it retains its power on stage for audiences who may perceive its central conflicts in radically different terms is an illustration of the subtlety of Shakespeare's characterisations.[17] In the trial Shylock represents what Elizabethan Christians believed to be the Jewish desire for "justice", contrasted with their obviously superior Christian value of mercy. The Christians in the courtroom urge Shylock to love his enemies, although they themselves have failed in the past. Jewish critic Harold Bloom suggests that, although the play gives merit to both cases, the portraits are not even-handed: "Shylock's shrewd indictment of Christian hypocrisy delights us, but … Shakespeare’s intimations do not alleviate the savagery of his portrait of the Jew…"[18]

Antonio, Bassanio[edit]

Antonio's unexplained depression – "In sooth I know not why I am so sad" – and utter devotion to Bassanio has led some critics to theorise that he is suffering from unrequited love for Bassanio and is depressed because Bassanio is coming to an age where he will marry a woman. In his plays and poetry Shakespeare often depicted strong male bonds of varying homosociality, which has led some critics to infer that Bassanio returns Antonio's affections despite his obligation to marry:[19]

ANTONIO: Commend me to your honourable wife:
Tell her the process of Antonio's end,
Say how I lov'd you, speak me fair in death;
And, when the tale is told, bid her be judge
Whether Bassanio had not once a love.

BASSANIO: But life itself, my wife, and all the world
Are not with me esteemed above thy life;
I would lose all, ay, sacrifice them all
Here to this devil, to deliver you. (IV,i)

In his essay "Brothers and Others", published in The Dyer's Hand,W. H. Auden describes Antonio as "a man whose emotional life, though his conduct may be chaste, is concentrated upon a member of his own sex." Antonio's feelings for Bassanio are likened to a couplet from Shakespeare's Sonnets: "But since she pricked thee out for women's pleasure,/ Mine be thy love, and my love's use their treasure." Antonio, says Auden, embodies the words on Portia's leaden casket: "Who chooseth me, must give and hazard all he hath." Antonio has taken this potentially fatal turn because he despairs, not only over the loss of Bassanio in marriage, but also because Bassanio cannot requite what Antonio feels for him. Antonio's frustrated devotion is a form of idolatry: the right to live is yielded for the sake of the loved one. There is one other such idolator in the play: Shylock himself. "Shylock, however unintentionally, did, in fact, hazard all for the sake of destroying the enemy he hated; and Antonio, however unthinkingly he signed the bond, hazarded all to secure the happiness of the man he loved." Both Antonio and Shylock, agreeing to put Antonio's life at a forfeit, stand outside the normal bounds of society. There was, states Auden, a traditional "association of sodomy with usury", reaching back at least as far as Dante, with which Shakespeare was likely familiar. (Auden sees the theme of usury in the play as a comment on human relations in a mercantile society.)

Other interpreters of the play regard Auden's conception of Antonio's sexual desire for Bassanio as questionable. Michael Radford, director of the 2004 film version starring Al Pacino, explained that although the film contains a scene where Antonio and Bassanio actually kiss, the friendship between the two is platonic, in line with the prevailing view of male friendship at the time. Jeremy Irons, in an interview, concurs with the director's view and states that he did not "play Antonio as gay". Joseph Fiennes, however, who plays Bassanio, encouraged a homoerotic interpretation and, in fact, surprised Irons with the kiss on set, which was filmed in one take. Fiennes defended his choice, saying "I would never invent something before doing my detective work in the text. If you look at the choice of language … you'll read very sensuous language. That's the key for me in the relationship. The great thing about Shakespeare and why he's so difficult to pin down is his ambiguity. He's not saying they're gay or they're straight, he's leaving it up to his actors. I feel there has to be a great love between the two characters … there's great attraction. I don't think they have slept together but that's for the audience to decide."[20]

Performance history[edit]

The earliest performance of which a record has survived was held at the court of King James in the spring of 1605, followed by a second performance a few days later, but there is no record of any further performances in the 17th century.[21] In 1701, George Granville staged a successful adaptation, titled The Jew of Venice, with Thomas Betterton as Bassanio. This version (which featured a masque) was popular, and was acted for the next forty years. Granville cut the clownish Gobbos[22] in line with neoclassicaldecorum; he added a jail scene between Shylock and Antonio, and a more extended scene of toasting at a banquet scene. Thomas Doggett was Shylock, playing the role comically, perhaps even farcically. Rowe expressed doubts about this interpretation as early as 1709; Doggett's success in the role meant that later productions would feature the troupe clown as Shylock.

In 1741, Charles Macklin returned to the original text in a very successful production at Drury Lane, paving the way for Edmund Kean seventy years later (see below).[23]

Arthur Sullivan wrote incidental music for the play in 1871.[24]

Shylock on stage[edit]

See also: Shylock

Jewish actor Jacob Adler and others report that the tradition of playing Shylock sympathetically began in the first half of the 19th century with Edmund Kean,[25] and that previously the role had been played "by a comedian as a repulsive clown or, alternatively, as a monster of unrelieved evil." Kean's Shylock established his reputation as an actor.[26]

From Kean's time forward, all of the actors who have famously played the role, with the exception of Edwin Booth, who played Shylock as a simple villain, have chosen a sympathetic approach to the character; even Booth's father, Junius Brutus Booth, played the role sympathetically. Henry Irving's portrayal of an aristocratic, proud Shylock (first seen at the Lyceum in 1879, with Portia played by Ellen Terry) has been called "the summit of his career".[27] Jacob Adler was the most notable of the early 20th century: Adler played the role in Yiddish-language translation, first in Manhattan's Yiddish Theater District in the Lower East Side, and later on Broadway, where, to great acclaim, he performed the role in Yiddish in an otherwise English-language production.[28]

Kean and Irving presented a Shylock justified in wanting his revenge; Adler's Shylock evolved over the years he played the role, first as a stock Shakespearean villain, then as a man whose better nature was overcome by a desire for revenge, and finally as a man who operated not from revenge but from pride. In a 1902 interview with Theater magazine, Adler pointed out that Shylock is a wealthy man, "rich enough to forgo the interest on three thousand ducats" and that Antonio is "far from the chivalrous gentleman he is made to appear. He has insulted the Jew and spat on him, yet he comes with hypocritical politeness to borrow money of him." Shylock's fatal flaw is to depend on the law, but "would he not walk out of that courtroom head erect, the very apotheosis of defiant hatred and scorn?"[29]

Some modern productions take further pains to show the sources of Shylock's thirst for vengeance. For instance, in the 2004 film adaptation directed by Michael Radford and starring Al Pacino as Shylock, the film begins with text and a montage of how Venetian Jews are cruelly abused by bigoted Christians. One of the last shots of the film also brings attention to the fact that, as a convert, Shylock would have been cast out of the Jewish community in Venice, no longer allowed to live in the ghetto. Another interpretation of Shylock and a vision of how "must he be acted" appears at the conclusion of the autobiography of Alexander Granach, a noted Jewish stage and film actor in Weimar Germany (and later in Hollywood and on Broadway).[30]

Adaptations and cultural references[edit]

Film and TV versions[edit]

The Shakespeare play has inspired several films.

  • 1914 – silent film directed by Lois Weber and Phillips Smalley
    • Weber, who also stars as Portia, became the first woman to direct a full-length feature film in America with this film.
    • The Merchant of Venice on IMDb
  • 1916 – The Merchant of Venice, a silent British film directed by Walter West for Broadwest.
  • 1923 – The Merchant of Venice, a silent German film directed by Peter Paul Felner.
  • 1941 – Shylock, an Indian Tamil language film directed by the duo Sama-Ramu.[31]
  • 1969 – The Merchant of Venice, an unreleased 40-minute television film directed by and starring Orson Welles; the film was completed, but the soundtrack for all but the first reel was stolen before it could be released.
  • 1972 – British video-taped television version directed by Cedric Messina for the BBC's Play of the Month series
  • 1973 – British video-taped television version directed by John Sichel
  • 1980 – A BBC video-taped version for the BBC Television Shakespeare directed by Jack Gold
  • 1996 – A Channel 4 television film directed by Alan Horrox
  • 2001 – A BBC television film directed by Trevor Nunn
  • 2002 – The Maori Merchant of Venice, directed by Don Selwyn.
  • 2003 – Shakespeare's Merchant, directed by Paul Wagar and produced by Lorenda Starfelt, Brad Mays and Paul Wagar.
  • 2004 – The Merchant of Venice, directed by Michael Radford and produced by Barry Navidi.


Cultural references[edit]

The play contains the earliest known use of the phrase "with bated breath" (by Shylock, in Act I, Scene 3, "Shall I bend low and, in a bondman's key, / With bated breath and whisp'ring humbleness, / Say this ..."), which has come into common use to convey the idea of restraining one's breathing in anticipation or supplicance (in which the archaic "bated" is often misidentified as "baited" in modern usage).[34][35][36]

Arnold Wesker's play The Merchant tells the same story from Shylock's point of view. In this retelling, Shylock and Antonio are fast friends bound by a mutual love of books and culture and a disdain for the crass anti-Semitism of the Christian community's laws. They make the bond in defiant mockery of the Christian establishment, never anticipating that the bond might become forfeit. When it does, the play argues, Shylock must carry through on the letter of the law or jeopardise the scant legal security of the entire Jewish community. He is, therefore, quite as grateful as Antonio when Portia, as in Shakespeare's play, shows the legal way out. The play received its American premiere on 16 November 1977 at New York's Plymouth Theatre, with Joseph Leon as Shylock and Marian Seldes as Shylock's sister Rivka. This production had a challenging history in previews on the road, culminating (after the first night out of town in Philadelphia on 8 September 1977) with the death of the larger-than-life Broadway star Zero Mostel, who was initially cast as Shylock. The play's author, Arnold Wesker, wrote a book chronicling the out-of-town tribulations that beset the play and Zero's death called The Birth of Shylock and the Death of Zero Mostel.

David Henry Wilson's play Shylock's Revenge, which was first performed by The University Players at the Audimax (University of Hamburg) on 9 June 1989, can be seen as a full-length sequel to Shakespeare's drama.

The title of the film Seven Pounds is a reference to the "pound of flesh" from the play.

Edmond Haraucourt, the French playwright and poet, was commissioned in the 1880s by the actor and theatrical director Paul Porel to make a French-verse adaptation of The Merchant of Venice. His play Shylock, first performed at the Théâtre de l'Odéon in December 1889, had incidental music by the French composer Gabriel Fauré, later incorporated into an orchestral suite of the same name.[37]

One of the four short stories comprising Alan Isler's Op Non Cit is also told from Shylock's point of view. In this story, Antonio was a boy of Jewish origin kidnapped at an early age by priests.

Ralph Vaughan Williams' choral work Serenade to Music draws its text from the discussion about music and the music of the spheres in Act V, scene 1.

In both versions of the comic film To Be or Not to Be the character "Greenberg", specified as a Jew only in the later version, gives a recitation of the "Hath Not a Jew eyes?" speech to Nazi soldiers.[38]

In The Pianist, Henryk Szpilman quotes a passage from Shylock's "Hath Not a Jew eyes?" speech to his brother Władysław Szpilman in a Jewish ghetto in Warsaw, Poland, during the Nazi occupation in World War II. Given the questioning of Antisemitism in the speech and also the Nazi use of the play for antisemitic propaganda purposes, the quote is seen as particularly poignant and symbolic.

Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List depicts SS Lieutenant Amon Göth quoting Shylock's "Hath Not a Jew eyes?" speech when deciding whether or not to rape his Jewish maid.

The rock musical Fire Angel was based on the story of the play, with the scene changed to the Little Italy district of New York. It was performed in Edinburgh in 1974 and in a revised form at Her Majesty's Theatre, London, in 1977.

Christopher Moore combines The Merchant of Venice and Othello in his 2014 comic novel The Serpent of Venice, in which he makes Portia (from The Merchant of Venice) and Desdemona (from Othello) sisters. All of the characters come from those two plays with the exception of Pocket, the Fool, who comes from Moore's earlier novel based on King Lear.

Jane Lindskold's book Changer contains a scene in which the protagonists consider "using Portia's gambit from The Merchant of Venice" to escape from a situation and binding contract analogous to Antonio's.

In its article "Unconventional Director Sets Shakespeare Play In Time, Place Shakespeare Intended", the online satirical news site The Onion satirized the contemporary fashion of altering the play's setting.[39]

The play has been quoted and paraphrased several times in the Star Trek Universe:

  • In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, while attacking the USS Enterprise in a cloaked KlingonBird of Prey, GeneralChang says the following: "Tickle us, do we not laugh? Prick us, do we not bleed? Wrong us, shall we not revenge?"
  • In "The Naked Now", the second episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, an "intoxicated" Lt. Cmdr. Data paraphrases Shylock when explaining to Captain Picard how an advanced android can become affected similarly to a biological entity, saying, "I have pores, humans have pores. I have fingerprints, humans have fingerprints. My chemical nutrients are like your blood. If you prick me, do I not...leak?"
  • Diane Duane's novel, Dark Mirror, contains quotes from a Mirror Universe version of the play. In it, Portia successfully argues that Antonio does indeed owe Shylock a pound of flesh, a sentence which is actually carried out (Antonio's heart is cut out and given to Shylock). Portia's speech is also much more authoritarian – "The quality of mercy must be earned, and not strewn gratis on the common ground..."

In the film OSS 117: Lost in Rio, the final speech of Von Zimmel parodies Shylock's tirade.

In the Brazilian film A Dog's Will, the marriage bargain involving a lump-sum payment or the skin off Chicó's back is foiled by reference to the legal contrivance familiar from the play — that is, the skin may be owing but not a drop of blood must be taken with it.

In Hey Arnold! episode, "Eating Contest / Rhonda's Glasses," Rhonda, becoming fed up with the treatment toward the geeks, yells “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?,” a direct quote from Shylock's famous speech.

In David Fincher's 1995 film, Seven, John Doe coerces the lawyer, Eli Gould, to remove a pound of flesh and place it on a scale (symbolizing the scales of justice) prior to murdering him.


  1. ^Bloom, Harold, ed. (2009). William Shakespeare: Comedies. Infobase Publishing. p. 1. ISBN 1604136316. 
  2. ^ abThe Three Sallies – Salarino, Solanio, and Salerio
  3. ^Merchant of Venice: Act 3, Scene 2, Lines 67–68
  4. ^ abMuir, Kenneth (2005). "The Merchant of Venice". Shakespeare's Sources: Comedies and Tragedies. New York: Routledge. p. 49. ISBN 0-415-35269-X. 
  5. ^Bloom (2007: 112–113)
  6. ^Stanley Wells and Michael Dobson, eds., The Oxford Companion to ShakespeareOxford University Press, 2001, p. 288.
  7. ^Philipe Burrin, Nazi Anti-Semitism: From Prejudice to Holocaust. The New Press, 2005, p. 17. ISBN 1-56584-969-8.
  8. ^The Virtual Jewish History Tour – Venice
  9. ^Hales, John W. "Shakespeare and the Jews", The English Review, Vol. IX, 1894.
  10. ^Beauchamp, Gorman (2011). "Shylock's Conversion"(PDF). Humanitas. 24: 55-92. Retrieved October 26, 2017. 
  11. ^Lecture by James Shapiro: "Shakespeare and the Jews".
  12. ^Newman, Louis I. (2012). Richard Cumberland: Critic and Friend of the Jews (Classic Reprint). Forgotten Books. 
  13. ^Armin, Robert (2012). Sheva, the Benevolent. Moreclacke Publishing. 
  14. ^David Mirsky, "The Fictive Jew in the Literature of England 1890–1920", in the Samuel K. Mirsky Memorial Volume.
  15. ^Scott (2002).
  16. ^Bloom (2007), p. 233.
  17. ^Bloom (2007), p. 24.
  18. ^Bloom, Harold (2010). Interpretations: William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. New York: Infobase. p. 27. ISBN 978-1-60413-885-6. 
  19. ^Reuters. "Was the Merchant of Venice gay?", ABC News Online, 29 December 2004. Retrieved on 12 November 2010
  20. ^Charles Boyce, Encyclopaedia of Shakespeare, New York, Roundtable Press, 1990, p. 420.
  21. ^Warde, Frederick (1915). The Fools of Shakespeare; an interpretation of their wit, wisdom and personalities. London: McBride, Nast & Company. pp. 103–120. Archived from the original on 2006-02-08. Retrieved 28 April 2015. 
  22. ^F. E. Halliday, A Shakespeare Companion 1564–1964, Baltimore, Penguin, 1964; pp. 261, 311–12. In 2004, the film was released.
  23. ^Information about Sullivan's incidental music to the playArchived 25 November 2009 at the Wayback Machine. at The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive, accessed 31 December 2009
  24. ^Adler erroneously dates this from 1847 (at which time Kean was already dead); the Cambridge Student Guide to The Merchant of Venice dates Kean's performance to a more likely 1814.
  25. ^Adler (1999), p. 341.
  26. ^Wells and Dobson, p. 290.
  27. ^Adler (1999), pp. 342–44.
  28. ^Adler (1999), pp. 344–50.
  29. ^Granach (1945; 2010), pp. 275–9.
  30. ^Guy, Randor (29 March 2014). "Blast from the Past: Shylock (1941)". The Hindu. Retrieved 22 September 2016. 
  31. ^"The Merchant of Venice – World premiere", Bregenzer Festspiele.Archived 2 December 2013 at the Wayback Machine.
  32. ^"André Tchaikowsky – Composer".
  33. ^"Bated breath". The Phrase Finder. 
  34. ^"Bated breath – Shakespeare Quotes". 
  35. ^"Word Origin and History for bate". 
  36. ^Nectoux, Jean-Michel (1991). "Gabriel Fauré: A musical life". Cambridge University Press: 143–46. ISBN 0-521-23524-3 
  37. ^Sammond, Nicholas; Mukerji, Chandra (2001). Bernardi, Daniel, ed. Classic Hollywood, Classic Whiteness. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. pp. 15–27. ISBN 0-8166-3239-1. 
  38. ^[1]


  • Abend-David, Dror, "Scorned My Nation": A Comparison of Translations of The Merchant of Venice into German, Hebrew, and Yiddish, New York: Peter-Lang, 2003. ISBN 978-0-8204-5798-7.
  • Adler, Jacob, A Life on the Stage: A Memoir, translated and with commentary by Lulla Rosenfeld, New York: Knopf, 1999. ISBN 0-679-41351-0.
  • Bloom, Harold (2007). Heims, Neil, ed. The Merchant of Venice. New York: Infobase. ISBN 0-7910-9576-2. 
  • Caldecott, Henry Stratford: Our English Homer; or, the Bacon-Shakespeare Controversy (Johannesburg Times, 1895).
  • Drakakis, John, ed. (2010). The Merchant of Venice. The Arden Shakespeare, third series. Bloomsbury. doi:10.5040/9781408160398.00000006. ISBN 9781903436813 – via Bloomsbury Drama Online. (Subscription required (help)). 
  • Gross, John, Shylock: A Legend and Its Legacy, US: Touchstone, 2001. ISBN 0-671-88386-0; ISBN 978-0-671-88386-7.
  • Short, Hugh (2002). "Shylock is content". In Mahon, John W.; Mahon, Ellen Macleod. The Merchant of Venice: New Critical Essays. London: Routledge. p. 201. ISBN 978-0-415-92999-8. 
  • Smith, Rob: Cambridge Student Guide to The Merchant of Venice. ISBN 0-521-00816-6.
  • Yaffe, Martin D.: Shylock and the Jewish Question.

Further reading[edit]

Gilbert's Shylock After the Trial, an illustration to The Merchant of Venice.
A depiction of Jessica, from The Graphic Gallery of Shakespeare's Heroines
The title page from a 1565 printing of Giovanni Fiorentino's 14th-century tale Il Pecorone
The first page of The Merchant of Venice, printed in the Second Folio of 1632
The playbill from a 1741 production at the Theatre Royal of Drury Lane.
A print of Edmund Kean as Shylock in an early 19th-century performance.

Below you will find five outstanding thesis statements / paper topics for “The Merchant of Venice” by William Shakespeare that can be used as essay starters. All five incorporate at least one of the themes found in “Merchant of Venice” and are broad enough so that it will be easy to find textual support, yet narrow enough to provide a focused clear thesis statement. These thesis statements for “The Merchant of Venice” by William Shakespeare offer a short summary of different elements that could be important in an essay but you are free to add your own analysis and understanding of the plot or themes to them. Using the essay topics for “Merchant of Venice” below in conjunction with the list of important quotes at the bottom of the page, you should have no trouble connecting with the text and writing an excellent paper.

Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #1: The Meaning of the Pound of Flesh in “The Merchant of Venice”

The money-lender Shylock in Shakespeare's “The Merchant of Venice” demands a pound of flesh from the merchant Antonio, who vouches for Bassanio, his dear friend and the man who has borrowed money from Shylock. Shylock (click for an in-depth character analysis of Shylock) is portrayed as a greedy character in “The Merchant of Venice,” but the pound of flesh must represent something more symbolic, as it obviously does not have the equivalent value of money. At the hearing before the court, Shylock says “it is my humour" in response to the question why he wants a pound of flesh, yet his persistence and insistence are so intense that it is clear that the debt owed to him is more symbolic than money. In building your argument about what that debt is, and what its payment represents, look to Shylock’s experiences and words for clues as to his underlying motives.

Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #2: The Role of the Law in Society in Shakespeare's “Merchant of Venice”

One of the goals of law is to maintain social order by applying a set of standards to be followed by all citizens of a society. Yet, laws often have unintentional loopholes, for they are limited by the fact that they cannot anticipate all possible violations of the behaviors they seek to prevent. Nor are punishments always congruent with the crime committed. The interpretation of the law during the court hearing is a clever one, and Shylock is not only prevented from exacting the pound of flesh, but he is also forced to strike a deal according to the terms of which he must convert to Christianity and surrender his fortunes. Develop an argumentative essay on “The Merchant of Venice” in which you defend this decision or contest it. Be certain to note the differences between justice and fairness as legal and moral concepts.

Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #3: The Roles of Women in The Merchant of Venice

Women of the late 16th century were not exactly paragons of social empowerment, yet two of the women in The Merchant of Venice play significant roles in the fates of all characters. Portia and Nerissa cleverly disguise themselves as an esteemed lawyer and clerk, respectively, and interpret the law in such a way that Antonio and Bassanio are let off the hook, while Shylock is forced into a position of utter humiliation. Analyze the roles of these women, and indicate what factors made it possible for them to influence the outcome of the play as they did. For a shorter essay on the role of women in “The Merchant of Venice” do a character analysis of Portia or Nerissa in terms of their status as women.

Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #4: Shakespeare’s Evocation of the Reader’s Sympathy in “The Merchant of Venice”

Shylock is a man who is despised by many, and he certainly has moments of extreme irrationality and inflexible insistence that make him a rather unappealing and even deplorable character. Yet, there are many moments in which Shakespeare prevails upon the reader to consider the multidimensionality of this most complex character. Analyze those passages in which Shylock demonstrates his humanity and his emotional vulnerability, and offer a persuasive argument as to whether the reader should sympathize with Shylock.

Thesis Statement/Essay Topic #5: Religious Lessons in The Merchant of Venice

Clearly, religious issues are of central importance in The Merchant of Venice; they are the foundation from which the primary conflict emerges, and they serve as the plot propellants. The religious issues are not limited to the conflict between the Jewish Shylock and the other Christian characters, however. Religion also plays a central role in the sub-plot of the wooing of Portia. Consider what religious and spiritual lessons Shakespeare conveys by examining some of these sub-elements of the plot, focusing especially on the messages that appear on the caskets.

*For academic essays / articles on Merchant of Venice, visit the literature archives at Article Myriad or click here for a comparison of Othello and Merchant of Venice. The archives here have several other essays / articles on Shakespeare's works *

This list of important quotations from “The Merchant of Venice” will help you work with the essay topics and thesis statements above by allowing you to support your claims. All of the important quotes from “Merchant of Venice” listed here correspond, at least in some way, to the paper topics above and by themselves can give you great ideas for an essay by offering quotes about other themes, symbols, imagery, and motifs than those already mentioned. All quotes contain page numbers as well. Look at the bottom of the page to identify which edition of “The Merchant of Venice” by William Shakespeare they are referring to.

“To you, Antonio,/ I owe the most, in money and in love;/And from your love I have a warranty/To unburden all my plots and purposes/How to get clear of all the debts I owe." (Act I, Scene I, ll. 130-134, p. 6)

“I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you,/ walk with you, and so following; but I will not eat/ with you, drink with you, nor pray with you." (Act I, Scene III, ll. 32-34, p. 14)

“Signior Antonio, many a time and oft…/you have rated me/About my moneys and my usuances:/Still have I borne it with a patient shurg,/For sufferenace is the badge of all our tribe./You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,/And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,/And all for use of that which is mine own. Well then, it now appears you need my help…." (Act I, Scene III, ll. 102-110, pp. 16-17)

“Go with me to a notary, seal me there/Your single bond; and, in a merry sport,/If you repay me not on such a day,/In such a place, such sum or sums as are/Express’d in the condition, let the forfeit/Be nominated for an equal pound/Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken/In what part of your body pleaseth me." (Act I, Scene III, ll. 140-146, pp. 17-18)

All that glisters is not gold;/Often have you heard that told:/Many a man his life hath sold/But my outside to behold:/Gilded tombs do worms infold./Had you been as wise as bold,/Young in limbs, in judgment old,/Your answer had not been inscroll’d./Fare you well, your suit is cold." (Act II, Scene VIII, ll. 65-73, p. 37)

“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? If you poison us, do we not die?" (Act III, Scene I, ll. 54-62, p. 45)

“If you wrong us,/shall we not revenge?/If we are like you in the rest,/we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a/Christian, what is his humility? Revenge!/If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance/ be by Christian example? Why, revenge! The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction." (Act III, Scene I, ll. 62-69, p. 45)

“I never did repent for doing good,/Nor shall not now: for in companions/That do converse and waste the time together,/Whose souls do bear an equal yoke of love,/There must be needs a like proportion/Of lineaments, of manners, and of spirit….If it be so,/How little is the cost I have bestow’d/In purchasing the semblance of my soul…." (Act III, Scene IV, ll. 10-15; 18-20, p. 59)

“Yes… the sins of the father are/ to be laid upon the children; therefore, I promise/you, I fear you." (Act III, Scene V, ll. 1-3, p. 61)

“You’ll ask me, why I rather choose to have/A weight of carrion flesh than to receive/Three thousand ducats. I’ll not answer that,/But say it is my humour…." (Act IV, Scene I, ll. 40-43, p. 65)

Reference: Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Ed. Roma Gill. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.


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