Introduction: The Merchant of Venice
The Merchant of Venice contains some of Shakespeare’s most memorable and complex characters. While Antonio is central to this play — after all, he is normally considered the person for whom it is named — audiences are inevitably fascinated by Shylock, the Jew who sues Antonio for a lethal “pound of flesh” in return for unpaid loans, and by Portia, the wealthy heiress, who marries Antonio’s friend Bassanio and saves Antonio’s life in a dramatic courtroom scene.
Although Shylock is the villain of this play, Shakespeare departs from the Elizabethan caricature of the cruel, hated Jew, as exemplified by Marlowe’s Barabas in The Jew of Malta (1589-90). His creation is more complex, fusing humanity with unrelenting cruelty and a strict adherence to the letter of the law. In this way, the Jew-figure becomes something impossible to define, performable as the clownish, evil, red-haired Elizabethan devil (a precursor to Dickens’ Fagin), or as the sympathetic Jew of our modern, post-holocaust view. Whether his ultimately cruel punishment is his redemption or his humiliation just does not matter when a broken Shylock murmurs his last line: “I am not well.”
Despite being on a more comic trajectory, Portia, like Shylock, is also bound by strict adherence to the law. First, she faithfully submits to the terms of her father’s will, which force her to select her future husband according to their choice of gold, silver or leaden casket (a passage famously discussed by Freud in 1913). Second, once Bassanio has chosen the correct box, she displays a brilliant understanding of the law to free Antonio from Shylock on a technicality. Yet for all her brilliance in the courtroom, Portia must dress as a man there, and, again like Shylock, this rich heiress’ actions demonstrate the prejudices and limitations of Venetian society.
Set in Venice and Portia’s home in Belmont, the play moves from a fraught mix of cosmopolitan bustle and casual antisemitism to a fairytale land of riddles, music and poetry. At the play’s conclusion, all the main characters (save Shylock) enter the idyllic world of Belmont in a happy ending, which is nevertheless tainted by memories of Portia’s rejected suitors and Shylock’s earlier exit. Such ambiguity was brought out notably in a 2010 performance at New York’s Shakespeare in the Park, just one of many performances of this popular Shakespeare play, perhaps now best known through the Al Pacino film of 2004.
Originally contributed by Richard Rose Adapted for publication by James Harriman-Smith