top of page

The Merchant of Venice

Shakespeare wrote two plays set in Venice, and in many ways the two plays are companion pieces. Shakespeare is going to return to the same issues of difference and religion in Othello. There are a lot of issues going on in The Merchant of Venice, so much so that I doubt we will cover all of it. But I want to start off by acknowledging how controversial this play is. It was indeed performed in 1930s Germany by the Nazis as a celebration of anti-Semitic sentiments. On the other hand, many read this play as deeply sympathetic to Shylock. And it is responding to, either as an affirmation of or a rebuttal (what I want us to explore today), earlier discourses about and representations of the dispersed Jewish nation.


I’m going to talk about the pre-history of anti-Semitic thought specifically in England in a moment, but I also want to point out that many Jewish individuals, and many Jewish scholars, have embraced the play. For example, Joseph Bovshover translated Merchant into Yiddish in 1899. Jewish actors and actresses have been drawn to Shylock and Jessica’s characters. Others have considered this play to be really Shylock’s tragedy, even though the merchant only appears in five (albeit five critical) scenes in the play. Perhaps, that is, we remember this play not for Bassanio or Antonio but rather because of Shylock, and such poignant recollection arises from Shakespeare’s deliberate point that we should be uncomfortable with how Shylock is treated by the supposed Christians in the play. It is certainly the case that the Christians are only hollow or performative religious men in the play, whereas we see Shylock deeply familiar with the Old Testament. Think, for example, about the Salerio’s lines about why Antonio might be anxious:


Should I go to church

And see the holy edifice of stone

And not bethink me straight of dangerous rocks

Which, touching but my gentle vessel’s side,

Would scatter all her spices on the stream,

Enrobe the roaring waters with my silks,

And, in a word, but even now worth this,

And now worth nothing? (1.1.29-36).


Despite the beauty of Salerio’s speech, he is describing the very opposite of devotion: he might go to church not to pray, but to think on his finances. These are not pious Christians, as we can see too from their ready willingness to celebrate and party. Nonetheless, they feel they have both a theological and racial superiority to the Jewish individuals living in Venice, who are not citizens but live in the city under the category of “strangers.” The Merchant of Venice points to this inevitable unease with which the Christian framework is one that supersedes, but requires, a Jewish heritage. What is known as supercessionist Christianity seeks to mark the gentiles as the true heirs of Abraham, but they cannot in the course of that justification ignore their identification with the Jewish heritage. The idea that the New Testament usurps the strict letter of the law in the Old Testament is borne out in this play through the divergent interpretations of Scripture by both Shylock and his Christian interlocutors.


From the mystical and supernatural setting of Midsummer, then, we arrive at the cosmopolitan Italian city in The Merchant of Venice. Once again, place matters for our reading of Shakespeare, and the city of Venice held many cultural associations and fantasies for Elizabethans. It was in many ways “exotic” and featured a more democratic political structure that was so radically different from those living under Elizabeth’s reign. It was also a place famous for its courtesans, and many stories circulated about the vices and pleasures the mercantile city afforded. As editor John Drakakis writes, “[I]t is the exotic, and politically questionable, Venice of the Elizabethan imagination enmeshed within its existence historically as an imperial maritime power that is the complex driving force behind Shakespeare’s Venetian plays” (Arden 6). In bringing together so many individuals in this cosmopolitan marketplace, however, Venice was also in the Elizabethan imagination a site where heterogenous ethnic and religious groups lived and traded together.


            The Merchant depicts the conflicts that might arise from such a setting in its contrast of the Christians and the Jewish merchant Shylock. Many scholars have focused on the play’s treatment of Shylock, and it remains a provocative and yet difficult question for us: does the play condemn how others treat Shylock, or is this play a piece of anti-Semitism? I want us to explore such a question through the idea of two terms that feature prominently in the play: flesh and blood. Both words are highly charged, particularly in a play so focused on not only theological but also racial difference. My reading of this play is highly influenced by several scholars, notably Janet Adelman’s Blood Relations: Christian and Jew in The Merchant of Venice (Chicago 2008). I recommend this and James Shapiro’s Shakespeare and the Jews (Columbia rpr. 2016) for a deeper understanding of the paradoxes of race, history, and subjectivity in this play.


Often Merchant will conflate theology and race, and yet at other moments it works to elide the differences between Shylock and the Christians in the play. The figure of Jessica is interesting in this respect, and critics have variously contended that she never escapes her Jewish past (and thus her future as a converted Jew is not without its problems), or that she represents a conversionary fantasy on the part of Christians that is only perfunctorily enacted by the end of the comedy. We will explore these and related issues regarding identity in Merchant, which stages not just Jewish characters but also Moors and emphasizes the many fractures in identity and community in the cosmopolitan setting of Venice.

Venice’s reputation as a global market is something Shakespeare makes much of in this comedy. The Merchant of Venice focuses also on issues of risk. I want us to explore how the Christians in the play figure financial risk, and how their understanding of money and possessions differs from Shylock’s. The entire plot focuses on risk, literally on risking one’s own flesh and the spilling of blood. We learn in the very opening that Antonio’s ships are all at sea—they at risk amid the elements. As Salerio reminds the merchant, he may be melancholy because


Your mind is tossing on the ocean,

There where your argosies with portly sail,

Like signors and rich burghers on the flood,

Or as it were the pageants of the sea,

Do overpeer the petty traffickers

That curtsy to them, do them reverence,

As they fly by them with their woven wings. (1.1.8-14).


It’s a fanciful image that Salerio conjures here, one that beautifies a harsher reality—Antonio is not of the same class or background as his beloved Bassanio, and thus he must work to make a living. Whatever fantasy of his ships “overpeer[ing]” others, Antonio is bound by his need to make a living, something that the unthoughtful Bassanio does not seem to consider too deeply. In fact, the gentility’s need for both Antonio the merchant and the Jewish merchant Shylock crystalizes the conflict in the play. Bassanio does not realize what such a dependency on Shylock means, and it is clear that both he and Antonio resent the fact that they require Shylock’s help for Bassanio’s romantic venture. 


And of course there is the other setting in the play, the somewhat mystical and fairy-tale-like Belmont. I compare it to a fairy-tale because the casket test derives from other folkloric narratives and the test of character is a common element of fairy-tales. And of course Belmont is the place where questing suitors resort to win the hand of the rich Portia. But before we turn to the casket test, I want us to question how distinct Belmont and Venice truly are. Belmont is the space of unlimited wealth, of melodious music. It is where the Venetians flee to escape the cruder realities of buying and selling that is Venice’s lifeblood. Nonetheless, in moving to Belmont, characters are not free of Venice. Before Bassanio or Gratiano can consummate their lucky (and profitable) marriages, they are called back to the city. And Belmont is not free from the world-weariness that we find from several characters in the play. Antonio’s first lines “In sooth, I know not why I am so sad. / It wearies me, you say it wearies you” (1.1.1-2) sound so similar to Portia’s own dilemma at the beginning of 1.2: “By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is aweary of this great world” (1.2.1-2). Belmont is not entirely a place of rest and refuge, and later in the play we will discuss Jessica’s potential discomfort (and perhaps the less-than-welcoming greeting she receives) in such a setting. Bassanio, of course, believes that he can only enter the supposedly non-commercial Belmont through gaining new capital in his presentation of wealth.    


There are many relationships in this play that deserve our attention. One of the most troubling is that of fathers and children. We not only have Shylock and Jessica, but also the clown Lancelot and his father Old Gobbo, and I think we are meant to view Antonio as a type of father-figure to Bassanio as well. And Portia is bound by her dead father’s will. In this Portia adheres to rather than rebels against a dead father’s plan for her, with the irony that the dead father is exactly right in designing the casket test, which does indeed provide Portia with the suitor she desires. Jessica, however, openly defies her father and her Jewish heritage. Let’s start, however, with Antonio and Bassanio, and let me explain why I tend to figure Antonio as a father-like figure. There is the possibility in this play that Antonio and Bassanio share a bond based in desire. Following Eve Sedgwick, we might call this a homosocial bond, one in which male-male relationships are defined by desire rather than strictly sexual acts. Nonetheless, other scholars have taken this further, suggesting that Antonio and Bassiano have what we would today (though they would not in the early modern period) call a homosexual relationship. To turn again to Antonio’s opening lines, perhaps his disaffection is in the realization that his beloved Bassiano is not entirely his own:


            In sooth, I know not why I am so sad.

            It wearies me, you say it wearies you;

            But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,

            What stuff ’tis made of, whereof it is born,

            I am to learn;

            And such a want-wit sadness makes of me

            That I have much ado to know myself (1.1.1-7).


Antonio does not truly know or understand himself, or maybe he lacks the language to articulate why he feels a certain way. He responds negatively to the interchangeable Salerio and Solanio’s suggestions that he is melancholy due to financial worry. But to their imputation that Antonio is in love, he responds with simply “Fie, fie!” (1.1.46), which some have interpreted as an over-eager protestation. But however we understand Antonio’s desire for Bassanio, he is undoubtedly a spoilsport. Remember that the comedic form Shakespeare inherited was known as New Comedy, in which young couples are blocked or prevented in their love by older generations who protest the lack of care and the freedom of the younger folk. So even without a son, Antonio is one of those who is of “such vinegar aspect / That they’ll not show their teeth in way of smile / Though Nestor swear the jest be laughable” (1.1.54-56). Nestor is the old man in the Iliad known for his wisdom and gravity. Antonio is one of those, in other words, who would not laugh even if the grave Nestor admitted the moment was a merry one. Antonio goes against the very things Venice is known for—Venice is the place of carnival, of free sexual license, of partying. But Antonio, like Shylock, does not participate in such games. He is the money behind Bassanio’s frivolity, but not a partaker. The uneasy alignment of Antonio and Shylock is something to which we should also return. 


            Bassanio is the prodigal son to Antonio, and I say this because he understands risk as a game, as a sport in which he willingly plays. He asks Salerio and Solanio, “when shall we laugh?” (1.1.66), or when will they party more. We learn that Bassanio has spent all his money, primarily it seems on clothes: “’Tis not unknown to you, Antonio, / How much I have disabled mine estate / By something showing a more swelling port / Than my faint means would grant continuance” (1.1.122-125). He openly uses the language of the prodigal son, admitting that “my chief care / Is to come fairly off from the great debts / Wherein my time, something too prodigal, / Hath left me gaged” (1.1.127-130). Antonio’s unfettered response to Bassanio is one of excess—he will give everything to his dear friend: “be assured / My purse, my person, my extremest means / Lie all unlocked to your occasions” (1.1.137-139). Bassanio’s response is one that we should read suspiciously for its commentary on risk-taking and his ready use of Antonio’s “extremest means”:


            In my schooldays, when I had lost one shaft,

            I shot his fellow of the selfsame flight

            The selfsame way with more advised watch

            To find the other sort, and by adventuring both

            I oft found both. I urge this childhood proof

            Because what follows is pure innocence.

            I owe you much, and, like a willful youth,

            That which I owe is lost; but if you please

            To shoot another arrow that self way

            Which you did shoot the first, I do not doubt,

            As I will watch the aim, or to find both

            Or bring your latter hazard back again

            And thankfully rest debtor for the first. (1.1.140-152).


The language is conditional: he “oft” discovered both arrows, but not always. This is a gamble, a likely bet that nonetheless is one that is childish, the “childhood proof” that Bassanio offers to the father-like Antonio as a plea for even more capital. He needs such capital because his aim is a wealthy wife, and The Merchant will often confuse bodies (particularly female bodies) for money itself. Portia is the “golden fleece” (1.1.170) to which Bassanio will be a Jason, questing for the bounty offered by this “lady richly left” (1.1.161). Later, Shylock will also conflate a female body with money, when Jessica steals his gold and absconds with her father’s gold. As Solanio describes Shylock’s reaction:


            As the dog Jew did utter in the streets:

            “My daughter! Oh, my ducats! Oh, my daughter!

            Fled with a Christian! Oh, my Christian ducats!

            Justice! The law! My ducats, and my daughter!

            A sealed bag, two sealed bags of ducats,

            Of double ducats, stol’n from me by my daughter!

            And jewels, two stones, two rich and precious stones,

            Stol’n by my daughter! (2.8.14-21).


The women in the play will have to push back against this conflation, as Portia does with the rings and the test of fidelity at the end of the play. We will return to this idea on our second day of discussion. But I want to see now if you’ve noticed what I’m seeing here.  


            The “lady richly left” is also beholden to a father figure. Her father has died, leaving her all his possessions and wealth in Belmont. As a result, many suitors flock to her estate, but they are all required to undergo the casket test or to depart. As Portia complains: “I may neither choose who I would nor refuse who I dislike; so is the will of a living daughter cured by the will of a dead father” (1.2.22-25). And yet the test is designed to reward specifically a Christian suitor, one versed in the same language of Christian distrust of worldly signifiers as the caskets indicate. Nerissa comforts her mistress:


Your father was ever virtuous, and holy men at their death have good inspirations; therefore the lottery that he hath devised in these three chests of gold, silver, and lead, whereof who chooses his meaning chooses you, will no doubt never be chosen by any rightly but one who you shall rightly love. (1.2.27-32).


Bassanio, of course, will fit this bill, though perhaps with some additional promptings from Portia. Though maybe we should find this will of a dead father more problematic: Portia, despite the vast wealth and beauty she possesses, is constrained by this will, and she is forced to, like Penelope, host so many unwelcomed suitors. The casket test features three separate containers, one made of gold, one of silver, and the other of lead. The Prince of Morocco relates what each says:


Morocco:         The first, of gold, who this inscription bears,

                        “Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire”;

                        The second, silver, which this promise carries,

                        “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves”;

                        The third, dull lead, with warning all as blunt,

                        “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.” (2.7.4-9).  


Morocco opts for the golden chest, while Aragon will select the silver one. Only Bassanio reads the “test” correctly, though he may have assistance. As he stands before the caskets, Portia calls for music to play. The song ends with the rhyme “bred,” “head,” “nourished,” and obviously rhyme with the correct casket of lead.


Belmont is not free from the racism endemic to Venice. Portia herself, as much as we and subsequent productions have admired her, is not free from this sense of racial superiority. Before even meeting the Prince of Morocco, a Moor, she sneers at the possibility of miscegenation: “If he have the condition of a saint and the complexion of a devil, I had rather he should shrive me than wive me” (1.2.127-129). He, like we will see with Othello, acknowledges his racial difference but also maintains that such a difference does not exclude him as a rightful suitor to Portia’s hand:


Morocco:         Mislike me not for my complexion,

                        The shadowed livery of the burnished sun,

                        To whom I am a neighbor and near bred.

                        Bring me the fairest creature northward born,

                        Where Phoebus’ fire scarce thaws the icicles,

                        And let us make incision for your love

                        To prove whose blood is reddest, his or mine. (2.1.7).


Portia pretends as if Morocco’s skin color does not bother her in this scene, and this is only the first of several times that Portia will be duplicitous. It is odd that despite this entry of the Prince of Morocco, the actual casket test does not occur until several scenes later. We are, in a way, primed to anticipate the possibility that Portia could end up with the Prince, though the play has worked to discount that possibility as well through signaling that Portia truly desires Bassanio.


            If the treatment of miscegenation briefly surfaces and then is quelled by the end of Act 2 when Morocco and Aragon select the wrong caskets, the elopement of Jessica and Lorenzo realizes this intermingling of different races and religions. The play works to establish Jessica’s conversion insistently, though it also returns pointedly to her parentage. Lancelot’s first farewell to his mistress conflates her many subject positions: “Most beautiful pagan, most sweet Jew! If a Christian did not play the knave and get thee, I am much deceived” (2.3.10-12). In Lancelot’s fantasy, to which he will return, Jessica is not indeed the daughter of Shylock. But he confuses categories here, calling her now only sweet Jew, but also pagan, one without the Judeo-Christian God. Jessica figures her rebellion from her father, religion, and people much more seriously:


Jessica:             Alack, what heinous sin is it in me

                        To be ashamed to be my father’s child!

                        But though I am a daughter to his blood,

                        I am not to his manners. O Lorenzo,

                        If thou keep promise, I shall end this strife,

                        Become a Christian and thy loving wife. (2.3.16-21).


Others work to re-write Jessica as Christian. Lorenzo refers to her as “gentle Jessica” (2.4.19), playing on the homology of Gentile/Gentle. He goes on to assert her status as gentle:


            If e’er the Jew her father come to heaven,

            It will be for his gentle daughter’s sake;

            And never dare misfortune cross her foot,

            Unless she do it under this excuse,

            That she is issue to a faithless Jew. (2.4.33-37).


“The Jew her father” conveniently glosses over another way to identity Jessica, as “the Jewess Jessica.” But what I’m suggesting is that this gloss, as a rhetorical strategy, is not a neutral one, and it should point us to the inherent tensions in the play.


Okay, let’s now finally turn to Shylock. As I suggested above, there are some ways in which Shylock and Antonio are aligned, and that similarity frightens Antonio. Shylock is known for his divergent use of language, and he does literally sound different than the other characters in the play. He also understands/uses terms differently from his Christian interlocutors, who are ready to read insult into Shylock’s words:


Shylock:           Antonio is a good man.

Bassanio:         Have you heard any imputation to the contrary?

Shylock:           Ho, no, no, no, no! My meaning in saying he is a good man is to have you understand me that he is sufficient. (1.3.12-17).


In a sense, Bassanio and Shylock do not speak the same language, and Shylock is careful to clarify. Perhaps he is so careful to make his meaning known because Bassanio and Antonio are so willing to misread him. This misunderstanding is obvious in Bassanio’s invitation to eat with them, to which Shylock initially refuses based on religious difference:


Yes, to smell pork, to eat of the habitation which your prophet the Nazarite conjured the devil into. 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. (1.3.31-35).


The lines are the more painful in that the end of the play forces Shylock to do these things that go against his Jewish identity: his forced conversion is an act that will require him to pray with the Christians, to become one of them..


            In our introduction to Shylock we learn of his motives, of why he hates specifically Antonio. The conflict arises because Antonio has a different conceptual model of lending and of finances than Shylock does. In his first of several asides, Shylock reveals his motives and also appears villainous here: certainly that’s how Elizabethan audiences would have understood this first moment of hatred:


            How like a fawning publican he looks!

            I hate him for he is a Christian,

            But more for that in low simplicity

            He lends out money gratis and brings down

            The rate of usance here with us in Venice.

            If I can catch him once upon the hip,

            I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him.

            He hates our sacred nation, and he rails,

            Even there where merchants most do congregate,

            On me, my bargains, and my well-won thrift,

            Which he calls interest. Cursed be my tribe

            If I forgive him! (1.3.38-49).


Perhaps the earlier disinclination to eat pork with the Christians motivates Shylock’s desire to “feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him.” He later uses the same language when he does agree to eat with the Christians, but he will “go in hate, to feed upon / The prodigal Christian” (2.5.15-16). But his motives are more deep-rooted: Antonio has been openly antagonistic to Shylock’s very livelihood and person. Shylock may in this moment believe that his act of revenge is one that has more than personal ramifications: he conjures the image of his “tribe” as the others who have been subjected to Antonio’s (and the Christian nation’s) blatant hatred. This is apparent in the speech of Shylock’s that I want us to really focus on:


Shylock:          Signor Antonio, many a time and oft

                        In the Rialto you have rated me

                        About my moneys and my usances.

                        Still have I borne it with a patient shrug,

                        For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe.

                        You call me misbeliever, cutthroat 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.

                        Go to, then. You come to me and you say,

                        “Shylock, we would have moneys”—you say so,

                        You, that did void your rheum upon my beard

                        And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur

                        Over your threshold. Moneys is your suit.

                        What should I say to you? Should I not say,

                        “Hath a dog money? Is it possible

                        A cur can lend three thousand ducats?” Or

                        Shall I bend low, and in a bondman’s key,

                        With bated breath and whispering humbleness,

                        Say this:

                        “Fair sir, you spit on me on Wednesday last,

                        You spurned me such a day, another time

                        You called me dog, and for these courtesies

                        I’ll lend you thus much moneys”?

Antonio:          I am as like to call thee so again,

                        To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too.

                        If thou wilt lend this money, lend it not

                        As to thy friends, for when did friendship take

                        A breed for barren metal of his friend?

                        But lend it rather to thine enemy,

                        Who, if he break, thou mayst with better face

                        Exact the penalty.

Shylock:           Why, look you how you storm!

                        I would be friends with you and have your love,

                        Forget the shames that you have stained me with,

                        Supply your present wants, and take no doit

                        Of usance for my moneys, and you’ll not hear me.

                        This is kind I offer. (1.3.104-140).


There’s a lot going on here, but first let’s address the fact that Antonio’s treatment of Shylock is much more vindictive than we might have originally assumed. We know from the earlier aside that Shylock is pretending to wish to “be friends with you and have your love,” and his protestation is impossible because of his very next lines, in which Antonio has stained him with shames.


            This staining brings us to the Elizabethan period’s understanding of the Jewish nation and the Jewish religion. As I mentioned earlier, there is rampant unease with the fact that Christianity shares a heritage with the Jewish religion. And the play forefronts this discomfort and attempted displacement through its many conversions, both forced or otherwise. The Elizabethans lived in a nation that did not host openly practicing Jews. We know that William the Conqueror brought Jews with him in 1066, and under medieval law Jews were not servants to lords, but rather to the King directly. This put them in a precarious political position. Under Jewish law, too, Jews can lend with interest to non-Jews, in what is known as the practice of usury. Christians, on the other hand, could not under Canon law lend with interest, and thus Jews served a crucial function in medieval and early modern economic systems. This ability to lend with interest, however, also furnished a deep-seated mistrust of Jews, and many stereotypes of the Jew as the anti-Christian emerged. Popular among these was the idea of the blood libel, in which Jewish individuals were thought to have kidnapped and murdered Christians (usually children) in a perverse religious ritual to make matzah.


            Then, in 1290, Kind Edward I mandated the expulsion of Jews from England. Many emigrated to Scotland, France, and other European nations. In 1657, Oliver Cromwell, the Protector of England, allowed Jews reentry into England. But in the interim, Jews who practiced their religion openly were officially barred from England. This did not mean, of course, that England was without Jews. Instead, many were conversos, those who had converted to the Christian religion. Conversos were always suspected of secretly harboring a residual Jewish allegiance, and thus they were never fully integrated into English society. Instead, like Shylock, they were strangers in England, primarily in the urban center of London. We do have evidence, then, that Shakespeare would have potential access to those who had grown up in the Jewish faith (see the British Library’s page on this for more details).  


            Jewish individuals could never, like Shylock, be free from the religious and racial prejudice they experienced from Christians. Many scholars made efforts to describe Judaism as not merely a religious practice, but a racial marker as well. They worked to establish an inherent inferiority in the bloodlines of Jews, and such attempts to cordon off the Jewish nation from others furthered their persecution. We see this in particular in Lancelot’s jest with Jessica that she is of Shylock’s blood:


Lancelot:         Yes, truly, for look you, the sins of the father are to be laid upon the children; therefore, I promise you, I fear you. I was always plain with you, and so now I speak my agitation of the matter. Therefore be o’ good cheer, for truly I think you are damned. There is but one hope in it that can do you any good, and that is but a kind of bastard hope, neither.

Jessica:             And what hope is that, I pray thee?

Lancelot:         Marry, you may partly hope that your father go you not, that you are not the Jew’s daughter.

Jessica:             That were a kind of bastard hope, indeed! So the sins of my mother should be visited upon me.

Lancelot:         Truly, then, I fear you are damned both by father and mother. Thus when I shun Scylla, your father, I fall into Charybdis, your mother. Well, you are gone both ways.

Jessica:             I shall be saved by my husband. He hath made me a Christian. (3.5.1-18).


What is open to debate is how fully integrated Jessica can ever be in a Christian society so careful to guard its boundaries. Shylock too will be “saved” at the end of the play, but in a painful, forced manner that should make us question whether this comedy offers us any type of harmonious end. The “blood” of the Jewish individuals in The Merchant has a resilient quality that works to mark them as racial “others,” and perhaps no length of conversion and assimilation will ever erase that fact for the Christians in the play. Lancelot, the clown, seems fixated on Jessica’s heritage, and it’s hard to forget the insults thrown at her father for his Jewish race when we think about Jessica’s potential “happy” ending with the Christian Lorenzo.


            Jessica, however, is also unfair in attempting to disown her father. Although she claims that she is not of her father’s “manners,” her reported behavior after she elopes establishes a distance from her past and points to her full adoption into a Christian ethos of risk-taking and prodigality. This is most visible in the first of several symbolic rings in the play: her mother Leah’s ring that she takes from Shylock’s home. The description of her betrayal both highlights the separate worlds that she inhabited or inhabits and her inability to entirely leave her heritage behind. Shylock, in a fit of anger, relates the trouble he has gone to in order to find Jessica:       


Shylock:           Why, there, there, there, there! A diamond gone, cost me two thousand ducats in Frankfort! The curse never fell upon our nation till now; I never felt it till now. Two thousand ducats in that, and other precious, precious jewels. I would my daughter were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear! Would she were hearsed at my foot, and the ducts in her coffin! No news of them? Why, so—and I know not what’s spent in the search. (3.1.79-86)


Tubal relates what he has heard, namely, Antonio’s ruin and Jessica’s prodigality.

Tubal:              One of them showed me a ring that he had of your daughter for a monkey.

Shylock:           Out upon her! Thou torturest me, Tubal. It was my turquoise; I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor. I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys. (3.1.111-116).


Mothers are absent from this play, and I think it’s significant that we learn the name of Jessica’s mother and get a glimpse into an emotional bond that Shylock shared with the mother of his child. One production showed Jessica with the ring later in the play, showing that this discussion is mere rumor. But we could also read it as a genuine rejection of not only her Jewish family, but the values of such a familial bond—a total rejection in order to effect Jessica’s transformation into the “gentle [gentile] Jessica.” What do you make of Jessica’s trade of such a ring for a pet monkey?


            It is a transformation or conversion that sits uneasily in the play. Even when she has eloped with Lorenzo, Jessica is uncomfortable in the company of the Christians. When the pair arrives in Belmont, Gratiano marks the couple’s difference: “But who comes here? Lorenzo and his infidel?” (3.2.218). No one greets Jessica besides this acknowledgement on Gratiano’s part, and the welcomes are directed toward the familiar Christian men who have arrived. Gratiano, perhaps recognizing the separateness of Jessica from the crowd, enjoins his new bride Nerissa to greet her, urging “Nerissa, cheer yond stranger, bid her welcome” (3.2.237). Does this suggest that the mistress of the house, Portia, has failed to do so? If Belmont is a site that so readily ejects racial others from its land (i.e., the Princes of Morocco and Aragon), does this suggest that it is also less than open to a converted Jew?

            There are two other related contexts for our play’s representations of Jews that we should take into account. The first, most immediate, is the playwright Christopher Marlowe’s earlier drama The Jew of Malta. In this play, the Jew of the title is named Barabbas, and he is clearly a villain: he poisons an entire nunnery and brings about the death of most of the actors in the tragedy. This representation is clearly xenophobic. Shakespeare’s play, on the other hand, is much more ambiguous, much more open to polarizing interpretations of whether or not we should pity Shylock. Another, historical, context for the play was the hanging of Roderigo Lopez, the Jewish physician to Queen Elizabeth.































In 1594, Lopez was hanged on the suspicion that he intended to poison the Queen. Lopez had ostensibly converted to the Church of England, but his Jewish background was fodder for his accusers. On the scaffold, Lopez purportedly claimed that he “loved the Queen as well as he loved Jesus Christ,” a protestation that drew mockery from the crowd. Certainly, the case would have been on the audiences’ minds as they watched another duplicitous Jew, Shylock, enter and claim to hate Antonio because he is a Christian. Nonetheless, as we have already seen, Shylock’s hatred stems not simply from theological rivalry, but rather from a long history of antagonism that Antonio has initiated. So Shakespeare’s representation is less straightforward than we might initially assume.  


            One of the most poignant moments that brings these questions to the fore is Shylock’s speech to Salerio and Solanio on the lack of difference between the Jews and Christians. It points outwards to the audience, reminding them that they have “taught” villainy to the Jews—they have invited it. So it’s an expression of both extreme similarity and difference, and critics have noted the many ironies and slippages in the passage. But I want to hear what you think. Shylock justifies his determination to see the bond fulfilled and then turns to this question of persecution and identity:


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. (3.1.50-67).


I encourage you to watch some performances of this speech, and to see how evocative it truly is when delivered by different actors. See this video for several representations. The lines also sound somewhat similar to a moment in Shakespeare’s other Venetian play. Emilia, the mistress to Desdemona and the wife of the duplicitous Iago, recounts how women too are so mistreated by men that they have resource to the same type of behavior they witness the men performing:


But I do think it is their husbands' faults
If wives do fall: say that they slack their duties,
And pour our treasures into foreign laps,
Or else break out in peevish jealousies,
Throwing restraint upon us; or say they strike us,
Or scant our former having in despite;
Why, we have galls, and though we have some grace,
Yet have we some revenge. Let husbands know
Their wives have sense like them: they see and smell
And have their palates both for sweet and sour,
As husbands have. What is it that they do
When they change us for others? Is it sport?
I think it is: and doth affection breed it?
I think it doth: is't frailty that thus errs?
It is so too: and have not we affections,
Desires for sport, and frailty, as men have?
Then let them use us well: else let them know,
The ills we do, their ills instruct us so. (Othello 4.3.89-106).


Both the Jew and the woman are disenfranchised, and they learn their behavior from the Christian men who rule over them.




To return to the philological approach I hope to take to guide the rest of our discussion, I’ve gathered here the many references to blood and flesh from the first half of the play, and I’d like to see if you can help me craft a narrative or come to a type of argument about what these charged terms are doing in the play.


Portia: The brain may devise laws for the blood, but a hot temper leaps o’er a cold decree” (1.2.17-19).


Gratiano:         Why should a man, whose blood is warm within,

                        Sit like his grandshire cut in alabaster?


Portia:              The brain may
devise laws for the blood, but a hot temper leaps
o'er a cold decree



Shylock:           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

                        Expressed 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. (1.3.142-150).


Shylock:           A pound of man’s flesh taken from a man     

                        Is not so estimable, profitable neither,

                        As flesh of muttons, beefs, or goats. (1.3.164-166).


Prince of Morocco:      And let us make incision for your love

                                    To prove whose blood is reddest, his or mine. (2.1.6-7).


Old Gobbo:                 I’ll be sworn, if thou be Lancelot, thou art mind own flesh and blood. (2.2.87-88).


Shylock:           My own flesh and blood to rebel!

Solanio:           Out upon it, old carrion! Rebels it at these years?

Shylock:           I say my daughter is my flesh and my blood.

Salerio:            There is more difference between thy flesh and hers than between jet and ivory, more between your bloods that there is between red wine and Rhenish. (3.1.32-38).


Jessica:             When I was with him I have heard him swear

                        To Tubal and to Chus, his countrymen,

                        That he would rather have Antonio’s flesh

                        Than twenty times the value of the sum

                        That he did owe him (3.2.284-288)


Antonio:          These griefs and losses have so bated me

                        That I shall hardly spare a pound of flesh

                        Tomorrow to my bloody creditor (3.3.32-34).

Merchant Image One.jpg

The Trial Scene

For our second day of Merchant of Venice, I hope to return to many of the issues that were raised in class on Tuesday, particularly those circulating around flesh and blood. In Act IV, Scene I we encounter the famous trial scene, which brings to the fore many related questions, without necessarily resolving all of them. The way I’ve structured our discussion for today is topically: we will look at the issues of Shylock’s representation, mercy, sacrifice and desire, and the supposed “comedic” ending to the play in turn.

Before we get into the text, I want to revisit the question of whether or not you feel that this is an anti-Semitic play? Is Shakespeare relying on xenophobia and stereotypes to denigrate Shylock and the Jewish nation? Or is he suggesting something else about how the Christians in the play (whom I’ve characterized as quite hollow and superficial) treat not only Shylock but also Jessica?

I think the trial scene in particular makes these questions all the more difficult to parse. We learn that not only Antonio, but even the Duke is prejudiced against Shylock, calling him “A stony adversary, an inhuman wretch / Uncapable of pity, void and empty / From any dram of mercy” (4.1.4-6). This quote leads us to one of the topics that I want us to consider today, the idea of mercy.


The Duke addresses Shylock, hoping that he will show mercy to Antonio. But both the Duke and later Portia-as-Balthasar misunderstand that Shylock does not possess the same specifically Christian understanding of mercy that they own:

            Make room, and let him stand before our face.—

            Shylock, the world thinks, and I think so too,

            That thou but leadest this fashion of thy malice

            To the last hour of act, and then ’tis thought

            Thou’lt show thy mercy and remorse more strange

            Than is thy strange apparent cruelty;

            And where thou now exacts the penalty,

            Which is a pound of this poor merchant’s flesh,

            Thou wilt not only loose the forfeiture,

            But, touched with human gentleness and love,

            Forgive a moiety of the principal,

            Glancing an eye of pity on his losses

            That have of late so huddled on his back—

            Enough to press a royal merchant down

            And pluck commiseration of his state

            From brassy bosoms and rough hearts of flint,

            From stubborn Turks and Tartars never trained

            To offices of tender courtesy.

            We all expect a gentle answer, Jew. (4.1.16-34).

Again we hear the gentle/gentile in that last line. The Duke’s reference here to Turks and Tartars, groups known as barbarians to Elizabethan audiences, also has a particular racialized resonance, one that highlights once more Shylock’s exclusion from this Venetian society: the Duke is threatening to align Shylock with these other groups if he refuses to show this mercy.

            Essentially, the Duke is asking Shylock to go against the letter of the law and to read instead the spirit of the law. This is the source of misreading/misunderstanding throughout the trial scene. The Christians understand the law (both legal and theological) as labile, as negotiable. Shylock, however, follows the letter of the law quite strictly. The Duke will later ask Shylock, “How shalt thou hope for mercy, rendering none?” (4.1.88), but the question makes no sense to the Jewish man: he does not seek the mercy of Christ and His sacrifice, so why should such a question hold water in a legal court? This question, then, also prompts one of Shylock’s most poignant speeches, which deflects the question right back at the Christian society so bent on labeling him as vicious:

            What judgment shall I dread, doing no wrong?

            You have among you many a purchased slave,

            Which, like your asses and your dogs and mules,

            You use in abject and in slavish parts,

            Because you bought them. Shall I say to you,

            “Let them be free, marry them to your heirs!

            Why sweat they under burdens? Let their beds

            Be made as soft as yours, and let their palates

            Be seasoned with such viands”? You will answer

            “The slaves are ours.” So do I answer you:

            The pound of flesh which I demand of him

            Is dearly bought, is mine, and I will have it.

            If you deny me, fie upon your law!

            There is no force in the decrees of Venice.

            I stand for judgment. Answer: shall I have it? (4.1.89-103).

Shylock, in following the letter of the law, has technically done no wrong, and his initial question is apt. To bring in slavery at this moment is a forceful reminder that the Christians are not the self-contained society that they imagine: they rely on the labor of slaves to live in prosperity. It’s an image of financial transactions and wealth that they play refuses to show explicitly, though it hints at it here and with the female Moor that Lancelot has supposedly impregnated. The Christians, then, treat others as animals, and we can look at this through the many animal insults they hurl at Shylock. In evoking miscegenation here, too, Shylock is perhaps recalling his daughter Jessica. We talked on Tuesday about how Shylock conflates his daughter with possessions and wealth. Remember his line “My own flesh and blood to rebel!” Here, he is demanding another’s flesh, perhaps in revenge for the loss of his own flesh and blood Jessica.

            When Portia-as-Balthasar arrives, she too has the same perspective as the Duke—Shylock should show mercy. In an oft-quoted speech, Portia appeals to a sense of shared humanity among the Jew and the Christians. But note that the leveling impulse in Portia’s speech sounds so similar to Shylock’s—who is she really speaking to here? And does Shylock’s ultimate punishment show mercy to him? Have we learned the lessons of mercy by the end of this play?

            The quality of mercy is not strained.

            It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

            Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:

            It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

            ’Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes

            The throned monarch better than his crown.

            His scepter shows the force of temporal power,

            The attribute to awe and majesty,

            Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings.

            But mercy is above the sceptered sway;

            It is enthroned in the hearts of kings;

            It is an attribute to God himself;

            And earthy power doth then show likest God’s

            When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,

            Though justice be thy pea, consider this,

            That in the course of justice none of us

            Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy,

            And that same prayer doth teach us all to render

            The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much

            To mitigate the justice of thy plea,

            Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice

            Must needs give sentence ’gainst the merchant there. (4.1.182-203).

Shylock’s response echoes deliberately the response of the crowd at Jesus’ crucifixion I Mathew 27:25, thus furthering this image of Antonio as Christ-like: “My deeds upon my head! I crave the law, / The penalty and forfeit of my bond” (4.1.204-205). If, as I’ve been suggesting, Shylock and the Christians speak a different language throughout the play, the question of mercy is at the forefront of this issue. Once again, we see that Shylock, in following the letter of the law, is then punished by this literalism because it is not the same framework that the Christians possess.

Portia:             Tarry a little; there is something else.

                        This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood;

                        The words expressly are “a pound of flesh.”

                        Take then thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh,

                        But in the cutting it if thou dost shed

                        One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods

                        Are by the laws of Venice confiscate

                        Unto the state of Venice (4.1.303-310).

Portia extends this literalism to its utmost, despite Bassanio’s willingness to give Shylock all or part of this money. It is almost as if, because he did not heed her beautifully crafted argument about mercy, Portia is punishing Shylock—no longer is Shylock in the hands of a larger court of justice, but in her hands alone, in her ability to interpret cleverly the law. That interpretation hinges on Shylock’s status as a “stranger” as we discussed on Thursday. Because he has, as an alien to the Venetian state, threatened the life of one of its citizens, the penalty must rely on the mercy of the court. Antonio is given the power to determine Shylock’s fate, in the most painful moment of the play: “What mercy can you render him, Antonio?” (4.1.376). The mercy Antonio chooses to enact is one that we are not likely to read as merciful today:

            So please my lord the Duke and all the court

            To quit the fine for one half of his goods,

            I am content, so he will let me have

            The other half in use, to render it,

            Upon his death, unto the gentleman

            That lately stole his daughter.           

            Two things provided more: that for this favor

            He presently become a Christian;

            The other, that he do record a gift

            Here in the court of all he dies possessed

            Unto his son Lorenzo and his daughter. (4.1.378-388).

Notice that Antonio might be acknowledging some of the pain that Shylock has experienced—Lorenzo “stole” his daughter. But Antonio also does not name Jessica in this speech, excluding her by formal name from the line of inheritance. It is a fantasy in which Shylock will now work and earn to supply the Christian Lorenzo. Shylock has become, in a sense, just like those slaves he mentioned earlier in the scene. And the forced conversion attempts to gloss over this fact, to rewrite Shylock as no longer a threat because no longer a Jew.

            Of course, such rewriting is violent and unwelcomed. Shylock’s last lines in the play highlight this so vividly: “I pray you, give me leave to go from hence; / I am not well” (4.1.392-393). Ultimately, I want to hear from you on this final view of Shylock.


One of Antonio’s most famous lines is one that may hint at his willingness to be a sacrifice for Bassanio. It circles around the possibility that Antonio, in some way, welcomes this role as a martry, as a Christ-like figure who cannot fit into the comedic ending of happy pairs. Let’s look at it:

            I am a tainted wether of the flock,

            Meetest for death. The weakest kind of fruit

            Drops earliest to the ground, and so let me.

            You cannot better be employed, Bassanio,

            Than to live still and write mine epitaph. (4.1.114-118).

A wether is a castrated ram. Given that Shylock is so focused on the pound of flesh and the threat of circumcision haunts this play, we might understand this moment as an acknowledgement on Antonio’s part that he no longer belongs in this society, that he will undergo the circumcision/sacrifice for the lover he cannot have. But I also tend to read Antonio as a bit too fascinated with serving as this sacrifice, as demanding some emotional response from Bassanio. Such a sacrifice, that is, calls for recognition, and it occurs at an opportune moment: remember that Bassanio and Portia have not consummated their marriage when Antonio’s letter arrives in Belmont:

“Sweet Bassanio, my ships have all miscarried, my creditors grow cruel, my estate is very low, my bond to the Jew is forfeit; and since in paying it, it is impossible I should live, all debts are cleared between you and I if I might but see you at my death. Notwithstanding, use your pleasure. If your love do not persuade you to come, let not my letter” (3.2.315-222).

How could Bassanio refuse such a request? The letter demands for Bassanio’s love, for his acknowledgement of the threat that Antonio is under, all for Bassanio’s sake. Back in the trial scene, Antonio refers to the wife of Bassanio that he has not met, turning the scene into one that demands Bassanio continually “write mine epitaph.” It is not, in this case, the demand for a single event of recounting, but a narrative interjection of Antonio into Bassanio and Portia’s relationship. To see what I mean, look at the following passage:

            Give me your hand, Bassanio; fare you well!

            Grieve not that I am fall’n to this for you,

            For herein Fortune shows herself most kind

            Than is her custom. It is still her use

            To let the wretched man outlive his wealth

            To view with hollow eye and wrinkled brow

            An age of poverty; from which ling’ring penance

            Of such misery doth she cut me off.

            Commend me to your honorable wife.

            Tell her the process of Antonio’s end,

            Say how I loved you, speak me fair in death;

            And, when the tale is told, bid her be judge

            Whether Bassanio had not once a love.

            Repent but you that you shall lose your friend,

            And he repents not that he pays your debt.

            For if the Jew do cut but deep enough,

            I’ll pay it instantly with all my heart. (4.1.262-279).

Antonio is quick to point out that he does not belong in this world. And to some extent he is right: in the comedic couplings that must occur by the end of the play, Antonio is an outcast. Antonio, however, wishes for a lingering hold on life through story, without paying the “ling’ring penance” of a long life. Of course, there is also the humorous “bid her be judge” in which Portia is actually the judge, overhearing this protestation of Antonio’s love for Bassanio. Bassanio, for his part, responds to this charge with hyperbole:

Bassanio:         Antonio, I am married to a wife,

                        Which is as dear to me as life itself;

                        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.

Portia:             Your wife would give you little thanks for that,

                        If she were by to hear you make the offer. (4.1.280-287).

Portia’s response can be read two different ways. Perhaps this is simply humorous, and she knows that her earnest husband speaks feelingly but not truly. Or, maybe Portia finally discovers the real relationship between Bassanio and Antonio, one in which she is a commodity that Bassanio has gained but not a true companion. She could be deeply hurt here, and this could be an explicit confrontation with the ways in which desire is always conditional in this play—determined by casket tests, haunted by one’s past, and uncertain of its future. Gratiano also imagines a dead wife, and these protests prompt Shylock’s just observation: “These be the Christian husbands. I have a daughter; / Would any of the stock of Barabbas / Had been her husband rather than a Christian!” (4.1.293-295).

Act V

Speaking of the husband Shylock would rather have for Jessica, the final Act of the play excludes Shylock entirely. It’s an incredibly short act, and I want us to frame it through our discussion of which individuals are excluded from the comedic model. We will start with Lorenzo and Jessica’s exchange, which is quite dour and perhaps ominous. And then I want to hear from you what you make of Antonio’s awkward place in this comedic resolution. Does Portia essentially buy Antonio off? Does she orchestrate an ending that ensures the success of her marriage?

bottom of page