The merchant of venice
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The Merchant of Venice. William Shakespeare. Dr. Gavin Richardson. Usury. Critical Terms: usury : Loaning money at exorbitant rates of interest, a practice condemned by Christian society during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. EXODUS 22:25

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The merchant of venice

The Merchant of Venice

William Shakespeare

  • Dr. Gavin Richardson



  • Critical Terms: usury: Loaning money at exorbitant rates of interest, a practice condemned by Christian society during the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

  • EXODUS 22:25

  • If thou lend money to my people, that is, to the poor with thee, thou shalt not be as an usurer unto him: ye shall not oppress him with usury.

  • LEVITICUS 25:35-37

  • Moreover, if thy brother be impoverished and fallen into decay with thee, thou shalt relieve him and as a stranger and a sojourner, so shall he live with thee. Thou shalt take no usury of him nor vantage, but thou shalt fear thy god, that thy brother may live with thee. Thou shalt not give him thy money to usury, nor lend him thy victuals for increase.

  • [all quotations are from the Geneva Bible (London, 1560)]

Of Usury, from Brant’s StultiferaNavis (the Ship of Fools) Author: attributed to Albrecht Dürer

Backgrounds medieval english anti semitism

  • The Blood Libel. The (false) accusation that Jews ritually killed (often crucified) Christian children. Sometimes the Blood Libel involved Jews using Christian blood to make ritual foods for the Passover.

  • Shylock’s cruelty may be designed to invoke this anti-Semitic imagery.

Backgrounds: Medieval English Anti-Semitism

A woodcut of the ritual murder, by Jews, of the Christian boy Simon of Trent, 1453

Backgrounds medieval english anti semitism1

1180s: Attempts at expulsion.1190: The massacre/mass suicide at York. A mob, incited by Crusade-era Anti-Semitism and a desire to destroy evidence of debts, traps York’s Jewish community in Clifford’s Tower.1200s: Heavy royal taxation of Jews; landholding restrictions.1290: Jews expelled from EnglandShakespeare’s first-hand knowledge of Jews?

“…Jews in small numbers had begun returning to England not long after their expulsion in 1290 . . . The total number of Jews in England during the Tudor and Stuart reigns at any one time probably did not exceed 150 or so.” Oxford Companion to Shakespeare 223-4.

Backgrounds: Medieval English Anti-Semitism

Jews being persecuted; Chronicles of Offa, 13th c.

Two ways of reading shakespeare

Two Ways of Reading Shakespeare:

  • The thoroughly Renaissance Shakespeare: A man of his time in his acceptance and promotion of anti-Semitic attitudes.

  • The postmodern Shakespeare: A man whose play exposes the flaws of his society; his play show the evils of his age and he knows it. We should apply the dramatic principle. Shakespeare is not anti-Semitic, the Venetian culture is.

  • Which one is correct?

Act 1

Act 1

  • Why is Antonio so sad?

  • The conflict unfolds: read 1.1.122 ff.

  • 1.3 The crucial loan scene. DVD Chapter 5. Is Shylock serious about the pound of flesh? 1.3.40: What is the basis of Shylock’s hatred of Antonio? Is this ill will justified in the text?

  • Michael Radford DVD Special Features

  • Al Pacino on why he stayed away from Shylock.

  • Script adaptation.

  • Michael Radford on this complex world.

  • Jeremy Irons on Antonio 4:00.

  • Ralph Fiennes on Bassanio5:00.

  • Jeremy Irons on homoeroticism and male friendship 7:00-7:40.

Shylocks a gallery what does each shylock say about the character s interpretation

Shylocks: A Gallery. What does each Shylock say about the character’s interpretation?

For more, see:

Love risk

Love & Risk

  • The wooing of Portia: Act 1.2.

  • The casket test and the theme of appearance vs. reality.

  • Odd mix: a most independent woman still governed by rules of a dead man. This is a play about authority; about who is at the center and who is placed on the margins. Christian/Jew; Male/Female. Patriarchy, Anti-Semitism, & Racism. And Antonio?

  • Act 2.1. Morocco and the racial element. Theme of appearances and judgment again. See also 2.7 ff.; DVD chapter 8.

Shylock jessica

Shylock & Jessica

  • 2.3. Jessica and conversion. Does Jessica’s desertion create sympathy for Shylock? Or do we cheer her action? Is her “conversion” an uplifting one?

  • DVD chapter 7 and Act 2.5: the exchanges between Shylock and Jessica. Jessica steals away in 2.6, 2.8.

  • In 2.8.12-22 Solanio “quotes” Shylock’s outrage at losing both daughter and ducats as Jessica runs away with Lorenzo. It is tempting to take Solanio’s recounting of Shylock’s exclamations at face value. But we should remember that we are hearing this speech second-hand.

  • In 3.1 Shylock seems more upset about the loss of his money than his daughter. Do you believe this to be the case, or is he transferring/displacing his grief from one object to another?

O my christian ducats

“ O my Christian ducats….”

O: Christ; R: The Doge kneeling before St. Mark;

Doge’s Palace, Venice

Excursus radford s venetian prostitutes

Excursus: Radford’s Venetian Prostitutes

  • Radford’s film implies that Venice is holy and Christian on the outside, but morally corrupt on the inside, again furthering the theme of appearance vs. reality.

If you prick us do we not bleed

“If you prick us do we not bleed?”

  • Shylock’s speech in 3.1.58–73 may be the most famous of the entire play, and has been repeated in many different contexts. After reading this speech, review Ann Barton’s comments on the performing of Shylock in The Riverside Shakespeare. Barton writes, “Shakespeare’s text suggests a truth more complex than any of these extremes.” Write a paragraph on what you think Shylock means to Shakespeare.

Shylock is a closely observed human being, not a bogeyman to frighten children in the nursery.  In the theatre, the part has always attracted actors, and it has been played in a variety of ways.  Shylock has sometimes been presented as the devil incarnate, sometimes as a comic villain gabbling absurdly about ducats and daughters.  He has also been sentimentalized as a wronged and suffering father nobler by far than the people who triumph over him.  Roughly the same range of interpretation can be found in criticism on the play.  Shakespeare’s text suggests a truth more complex than any of these extremes.”

– Ann Barton, The Riverside Shakespeare, 285.

The ring of turquoise. Sympathy for Shylock? Foreshadows another ring and its loss (cf. Portia’s ring test of Bassanio).

The world is still deceived with ornament bassanio the casket test

“The world is still deceived with ornament”:Bassanio & the Casket Test

  • Portia’s song and its rhymes; 3.2.65 ff.

  • 3.2 Bassanio chooses correctly.

  • Can we feel good about the clever Portia becoming subjugated to the prodigal Bassanio? 3.2.166. Note curious use of converted. Portia // Jessica

PORTIA: … Happiest of all is that her gentle spiritCommits itself to yours to be directed,As from her lord, her governor, her king.Myself and what is mine to you and yoursIs now converted: but now I was the lordOf this fair mansion, master of my servants,Queen o'er myself: and even now, but now,This house, these servants and this same myselfAre yours, my lord: I give them with this ring;Which when you part from, lose, or give away,Let it presage the ruin of your loveAnd be my vantage to exclaim on you. 3.2.166-77

Love risk1

Love & Risk

  • Why are Antonio and Portia "sad" as the play begins? The word carried more specific gravitas in Shakespeare's period than perhaps it does in our own, deriving as it does from the same word as "satiated" or "sated," having had one’s fill. They are rich, they are well attended, and yet their lives seem empty. … Antonio and Portia have to leave the prison of the self-sufficient self and commit themselves to the world, and to human relationships, friendship, passion, and love. The common feature of such relationships in this play is risk. In fact, the message of the leaden casket is, in a way, the most crucial theme of the play: "Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath" (2.7.9). Giving and hazarding are, in a way, the opposite of Shylock's usury, security, and interest. Antonio begins to lose his melancholy when Bassanio appeals to his friendship and seeks to borrow money from him. Since he does not have the money on hand he has to borrow it, to go into debt to Shylock. Taking on this debt is what, in an odd way, revitalizes him, giving him a purpose for living, a purpose of love and friendship toward Bassanio. The Antonio we see in the trial scene, ready to give his life in payment of the debt, is strangely happier and more alive than the Antonio of the play's opening lines. And Antonio's willingness to risk is promoted, in part at least, by Bassanio’s own risk-taking. Garber, 286-7.

Prologue to a trial

Prologue to a Trial

  • 3.2.265. All of Antonio’s ventures have failed.

  • 3.3 The law of Venice and economic stability depends on exacting the pound of flesh.

  • 3.4 Portia’s and Nerissa’sdisguises. Again, appearance and reality.

ANTONIO The duke cannot deny the course of law:For the commodity that strangers haveWith us in Venice, if it be denied,Will much impeach the justice of his state;Since that the trade and profit of the cityConsisteth of all nations. Therefore, go:These griefs and losses have so bated me,That I shall hardly spare a pound of fleshTo-morrow to my bloody creditor.Well, gaoler, on. Pray God, Bassanio comeTo see me pay his debt, and then I care not!

The Trial: DVD Chapters 18-24; 1:23-1:49 (26 mins).

Shylock s pound of flesh in context

Shylock’s “Pound of Flesh” in Context

  • An allusion to the Blood Libel

  • A parody of Jewish Ritual Circumcision and Pauline discourse.

  • See Romans 2:27-29:

  • “For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither [is that] circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he [is] a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision [is that] of the heart, in the spirit, [and] not in the letter; whose praise [is] not of men, but of God.”


New Testament language. Cf. Mark 8.

Act 4 i stand for law

Act 4: “I stand for law…”

  • CQ: Why won’t Shylock take the 6,000 ducats Bassanio offers? He even pledges 30,000 more later!

  • Portia’s role as judge: the actor would’ve been a boy playing a girl playing a boy. Exteriors vs. interiors.

  • Shylock on Venetian hypocrisy:

  • SHYLOCKWhat 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 burthens? let their bedsBe made as soft as yours and let their palatesBe season'd 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; 'tis 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?

Portia and Shylock, Thomas Sully (English, 1783-1872)

Act 4 the quality of mercy is not strained

Act 4: “The quality of mercy is not strained…”


  • 4.1.204: Shylock says that the sin be upon his head.

  • Shylock is instructed to go hang himself. 4.1.375.

  • CQ: In Act 4 of this play, Shylock is forced to convert to Christianity.  Is this forced conversion of Shylock an act of Christian charity or an act of hatred and intolerance?

Barbara lewalski on shylock s conversion

Barbara Lewalski on Shylock’s Conversion

  • “Shylock’s ‘forced conversion’ (a gratuitous addition made by Shakespeare to the source story in Il Pecorone) must be viewed in the context of the symbolic action thus far described. Now that Shylock’s claim to legal righteousness has been totally destroyed, he is made to accept the only alternative to it, faith in Christ . . . Thus the stipulation for Shylock's conversion, though it of course assumes the truth of Christianity, is not antisemitic revenge: it simply compels Shylock to avow what his own experience in the trial scene has fully ‘demonstrated’—that the Law leads only to death and destruction, that faith in Christ must supplant human righteousness. In this connection it ought to be noted that Shylock’s pecuniary punishment under the laws of Venice precisely parallels the conditions imposed upon a Jewish convert to Christianity throughout most of Europe and also in England during the Middle Ages and after. All his property and goods, as the ill-gotten gain of usury, were forfeit to the state upon his conversion.”

  • “Biblical Allusion and Allegory in The Merchant of Venice” (1962), p. 341. Click here for full article in JSTOR.

Was shakespeare anti semitic shakespeare as everything and nothing

Was Shakespeare Anti-Semitic? Shakespeare as Everything and Nothing

  • Jonathan Bate in The Genius of Shakespeare writes:

  • Shakespeare’s greatest cunning is never to give too much away. He lets his characters speak for themselves, while keeping his own counsel. There is a whiff of crypto-Catholicism about some of the plays, but no firm evidence. He knows that there is more drama in a complex question than a pat answer. So it is that he leaves space for us to project our opinions on to him. For radical theatre directors in the 1960s, the plays were joyously anarchic and contemptuous of authority: for Tory politicians in the 1980s, Shakespeare was spokesman for national pride and hierarchical social order. According to Jorge Luis Borges, literary sage of South America, the key to Shakespeare is that he is at one and the same time “Everything and Nothing.” (354)

The ring test 4 2 5 1

The Ring Test: 4.2, 5.1

  • Antonio’s pressure to pay the scholar Portia’s ring: 4.1.62 ff. DVD Chapter 25: 4 mins.

  • Portia’s ring test and threats of infidelity. (Gratiano and Nerissa also have a test of their own.)

  • Bassanio’s gift and the theme of love and risk (“venture”). See Lewalski on the ring test.

  • Bros before … Wives?

  • Does the conclusion of the play disrupt the homosocial emphasis of the preceding act, or is the talk of marriage and its consummation an anticlimax to the intense love the men have pledged to one another during the trial scene?


With the ring test, Bassanio can fulfill pledge to give his all to save Antonio. If he loses it, he loses Portia and all he’s worked for.

Act 5: Portia taunts Bassanio for giving her ring away, but “Belmont is the land of the spirit, not the letter.”

“Bassanio’s comic trial suggests the judgment awaiting the Christian soul as it presents its final account and is found deficient. But Love, finally, is the fulfillment of the Law and covers all defects…” 343

The Comedic Ending: Antonio’s ships come in; the lovers married.



  • See the fine essay on MV in Shakespeare After All, by Marjorie Garber

  • Primary texts on the Internet:



  • Selected websites:




Emma smith s oxford podcast

Emma Smith’s Oxford podcast.

The merchant of venice1

The Merchant of Venice

William Shakespeare

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