The Merchant of Venice

The play and the Jews.

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The Merchant of Venice is a play by William Shakespeare believed to have been written between 1596 and 1598. The play is best known not for the "merchant" Antonio, but for his rival Shylock, the tormenting and tormented Jewish moneylender.

The Story

The drama of the play begins after Bassanio, in need of money to woo the heiress Portia, asks his friend Antonio for a loan. Antonio has bailed Bassanio out several times before, and is happy to do it again. But this time, because his ships are at sea and have not yet returned with their riches, Antonio has to ask Shylock for a loan.
Jewish Shylock in Merchant of Venice
Shylock hates Antonio because he is a Christian, and because, on one occasion, Antonio spat on Shylock for being a Jew. To take a measure of revenge, Shylock forgoes charging any interest on Antonio’s loan and instead sets the bond at one pound of Antonio’s flesh. When Antonio's ships are lost at sea and he is unable to pay, Shylock demands that pound of Antonio's flesh and brings him to court in order to be repaid.

The trial in the court of the Duke of Venice contains the great climax of the play. Unwilling to simply nullify a contract, the Duke calls upon Portia, disguised as a male lawyer, to argue on behalf of Antonio. When Shylock refuses to show mercy, she finds a flaw in the contract: Shylock’s agreement with Antonio mentioned flesh--but said nothing about blood. If, in the process of collecting Antonio’s flesh, Shylock were to be guilty of shedding Antonio’s blood, then Shylock’s property would have to be confiscated by the state of Venice. 

Portia even goes a step further, and points out that Shylock is a Jew (therefore an alien) who has attempted to take the life of a Venetian citizen, and this crime is punishable by death. While the Duke pardons Shylock's life, he forces him to convert to Christianity and leave his entire fortune to Jessica, Shylock's daughter, who had recently converted to Christianity.

Shylock's Characterization

Generosity appears to be the core difference between Christian and Jewish moneylenders in the play. On the one hand, Antonio thinks it is his Christian duty to lend money to friends interest-free: "For when did friendship take / A breed for barren metal of his friend?" (1.3.128-29) In other words, how can a person profit off his friend’s need? Shylock, on the other, is brazen enough to demand a pound of flesh as payment--and he does not relent when actual money cannot be handed over.

But Shylock is not so simple a character. On the surface, he is cruel, stubborn, and greedy--and he has a grotesque fixation on redeeming Antonio's flesh bond. But Shylock also has emotional weight, expressing his angst in one of Shakespeare's most eloquent speeches:

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Elana Roth

Elana Roth is a graduate of Barnard College and the Jewish Theological Seminary, where she earned degrees in English Literature and Bible. She currently works as a literary agent in New York City.