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Merchant of Venice

Written: 1596-1597; Texts: Quartos 1600, 1619, 1637; First Folio 1623 (Comedy)
Sources: The story of Giannetto in Il Pecorone by Ser Giovanni Fiorentino; Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533). Orlando Furioso (1516)(The English translation by John Harington in 1591); Bandello, Matteo (1485-1561) Novelle (1554-73) 22th story.; Edmund Spenser (c.1552-99). The Faerie Queene (1590); Francois de Belleforest (1530-83). Histories Tragiques (1568) Book 3; Whetstone, George The Roke of Regard (1576) – Claudio's rejection of Hero at her own wedding; Castiglione, Baldassare (1478-1529) The Book of the Courtier (1528)
Characters: Portia, Bassanio, Shylock, Antonio, Gratiano, Lorenzo, Salerio, Prince of Morocco, Jessica
Setting: Venice
Time: c. 1595

Shylock raises an ugly question. Was Shakespeare anti-semitic? Scholar George L. Kittredge wrote, “Shakespeare was not attacking the Jewish people when he gave Shylock the villain's role. If so, he was attacking the Moors in Titus Andronicus, the Spaniards in Much Ado, the Italians in Cymbeline, the Viennese in Measure for Measure, the Danes in Hamlet, the Britons in King Lear, the Scots in Macbeth, and the English in Richard the Third.” Others would find that reasoning specious at best. Ron Rosenbaum, who sees Shylock as an anti-semitic creation, cuts Shakespeare a little slack by writing, “I think, in his defense, it can certainly be said Shakespeare wasn't consumed by anti-Semitism; nothing like this shows up elsewhere in his other plays”but that does not vitiate the ineradicable ugliness of its appearance in The Merchant of Venice.” Does it matter that Kittredge wrote his observation before the Holocaust and Rosenbaum wrote his after? Or does that question spur us to ask what the Elizabethan mindset was at the time Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice? Whatever the answers to those questions, most scholars of Shakespeare know better than to conclude too much about Shakespeare's biography or personal beliefs based on the characters he created in his plays or the topics he explored. For example, scholars of this play, which deals explicitly with conflicts of Christians and Jews – in fact, scholars of his entire corpus of works – still do not know whether Shakespeare was Catholic, Protestant, atheist or agnostic. Anti-semitism is unquestionably a topic of this play. Shakespeare addresses it head-on. The notes on the passages below explore some of the themes, including anti-semitism, that this play addresses.

Christians and Jews

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Despite the sarcasm, the audience as well as father Abram are led to consider Shylock’s exclamation:

–what these Christians are,
Whose own hard dealings teaches them suspect
The thoughts of others!

Shylock more than implies the old adage that it takes one to know one.
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The Sadness of the Merchant

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In the opening lines of The Merchant of Venice, the young merchant Antonio is questioned by his friends about his sadness. His friends Salarino, Solanio and Gratiano attempt to determine why Antonio is sad. Antonio denies that his sadness is about his concern for his investments in merchandise at sea. When asked if his melancholy is because he is in love,
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Blood and Humanity

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In the Merchant of Venice, the Prince of Morocco’s “And let us make incision for your love To prove whose blood is reddest, his or mine,” introduces the theme of superficial differences masking intrinsic similarities, the most intrinsic being that we share a common humanity. It foreshadows Shylock’s “If you prick us, do we not bleed” 
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Appearance and Prejudice

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One of Shakespeare’s most frequent themes is appearance versus reality. This theme manifests itself in different ways for different purposes. In Merchant of Venice (2.2.181), Bassanio says to Gratiano:

Thou art too wild, too rude and bold of voice—
Parts that become thee happily enough,
And in such eyes as ours appear not faults.
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Christians and Jews

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The first exchange between Antonio and Shylock in The Merchant of Venice (1.3.116) reveals much about their characters, their motivations and the themes of the play. For example, Shylock is clearly less motivated by money and greed, the typical ingredients of antisemitic prejudice, than by anger at having been personally and publicly insulted by Antonio. And Antonio, who was previously shown to be a generous,
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Blind Fortune

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In The Merchant of Venice (2.1.23) the Prince of Morocco introduces the theme of blind Fortune, which plays in the fate of Antonio’s merchandise on the seas. It also plays into the question of being born a Christian or a Jew, fair-skinned or dark hued. The theme of fortune is also central to As You Like It (1.2.31),
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In sooth I know not why I am so sad

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Antonio
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,Epistrophe
What stuff ’tis made of, whereof it is born,Parallelism
I am to learn.
And such a want-wit sadness makes of meHyperbaton
That I have much ado to know myself.
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The Sadness of the Merchant

You look not well, Signior Antonio

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Gratiano
You look not well, Signior Antonio.
You have too much respect upon the world.
They lose it that do buy it with much care.
Believe me, you are marvelously changed.
Antonio

I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano,
A stage where every man must play a part,
And mine a sad one.

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Gratiano speaks an infinite deal of nothing

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Gratiano speaks an infinite deal of nothing, more than any man in all Venice.Adynaton His reasons are as two grains of wheat hid in two bushels of chaff: you shall seek all day ere you find them, and when you have them, they are not worth the search.Simile
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And if it stand, as you yourself still do

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And if it stand, as you yourself still do,
Within the eye of honor, be assured
My purse, my person, my extremest meansAnaphora
Lie all unlocked to your occasions.Alliteration
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By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is aweary of this great world

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Portia
By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is aweary
of this great world.
Nerissa
You would be, sweet madam, if your miseries
were in the same abundance as your good fortunes
are. And yet, for aught I see, they are as sick that
surfeit with too much as they that starve with
nothing.

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Whiles we shut the gate upon one wooer

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Whiles we shut the gate upon one wooer, another knocks at the door.
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The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose

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The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
An evil soul producing holy witness
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart.Simile

O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!Personification
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Signior Antonio, many a time and oft

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Shylock
Signior Antonio, many a time and oftHendiadys
In the Rialto you have rated me
About my moneys and my usances.
Still have I borne it with a patient shrug
(For suff’rance is the badge of all our tribe).
You call me misbeliever, cutthroat dog,
And spet upon my Jewish gaberdine,
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Christians and Jews

O father Abram, what these Christians are

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O father Abram, what these Christians are,
Whose own hard dealings teaches them suspect
The thoughts of others! Pray you tell me this:
If he should break his day, what should I gain
By the exaction of the forfeiture?
A pound of man’s flesh taken from a man
Is not so estimable, profitable neither,
As flesh of muttons,
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Christians and Jews

Mislike me not for my complexion

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Mislike me not for my complexion,Alliteration and Hyperbaton
The shadowed livery of the burnished sun,Metaphor
To whom I am a neighbor and near bred.Alliteration
Bring me the fairest creature northward born,Hyperbaton
Where Phoebus’ fire scarce thaws the icicles,Metaphor
And let us make incision for your love
To prove whose blood is reddest,
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Blood and Humanity