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The Merchant of Venice. Background Information. The Merchant of Venice. Written some time around 1597 Written as a romantic comedy since it is about love and ends happily

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The Merchant of Venice

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The Merchant of Venice

Background Information

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The Merchant of Venice

  • Written some time around 1597

  • Written as a romantic comedy since it is about love and ends happily

  • Fuses many dramatic elements: romantic courtship, riddling love tests, eloping lovers, comic confusions, a gripping courtroom trial, and a seemingly harmonious final act

  • At the core of the play is Shylock, the Jewish moneylender. He only appears in five of the 20 scenes, but his presence dominates the play.

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Theatrical Traditions of Jews

  • Roots of Shakespearean drama begin with mystery and miracle plays of the Middle Ages, which were performed by the church for a largely illiterate audience about Old and New Testament stories. Jews were often viewed as responsible for Christ’s crucifixion.

  • Jews became the evil villains of Elizabethan drama. They were one-dimensional stereotypical characters.

  • The Jew of Malta, written in 1589 by Christopher Marlowe, is one suchwork.Marlowe was Shakespeare greatest rival.

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The Jew of Malta

The Merchant of Venice

Both money-lenders

Both have daughters who leave home with father’s money

Both despicable characters

Shylock is presented as a complex man, whose every action can be understood, and who ultimately elicits sympathy from the modern audience.

Barbaras is a villain who steals, cheats, and indulges in murder until he finally meets a gruesome end, boiling in oil.

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Jews in England

  • 1075 in Oxford: Jews were not confined to ghettos as many of their European counterparts, but they were not allowed to be citizens. Because Christians could not lend money with interest, many Jews earned lucrative livings as usurers. In trying to regain debt owed to them, Jews became the target of resentment.

  • Late 12th Century: Anti-Semitic sentiment culminated in two massacres, one at the coronation of Richard I in 1189 (30 Jews killed), and the other in the city of York in 1190 (150 Jews killed).

  • In fact, the Magna Carta, is a testament to growing Anti-Semitic feelings—two clauses state that if a debtor dies debt is paid, neither heir or widow is responsible for paying it.

  • 1275: Jews forbidden to be money-lenders as well as other edicts implemented: taxation of Jews over 12 years old and wearing badges that identified them as Jews.

  • 1290 (until 1655): Expelled from England

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Jews in Elizabethan Society

  • Threat of Civil War

  • Staved off threat of rebellion by dealing ruthlessly with threat of treason, real or perceived

  • Climate of religious intolerance against Christians

  • Jews who converted living quietly in England during Elizabeth’s reign

  • In 1593 Rodrigo Lopez, the Queen’s physician, was accused of trying to poison her, allegedly in league with the King of Spain. He was convicted of treason and hung in 1594, and because he was one of the above Jews, yet another outbreak of anti-Jewish sentiment occurred.

  • Therefore, it isn’t known whether Shakespeare ever came into contact with anyone who was Jewish.

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Shakespeare’s Intent?

  • Given the anti-Jewish climate in Elizabethan England and Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock as a negative stereotype, it would be reasonable to assume Shakespeare was an Anti-Semite.

  • However, the rest of the details of the play do not support this.

  • It has been suggested that the real evil is the corrupt value system of the principal Christian characters.Antonio, the merchant of the title, is the worst bigot Portia is also a racist, but not only were Jews her only victims.

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Contrasts Presented in the Play

  • Jew against Christian

  • Love against hate

  • Usury against venture trading

  • Mercy against justice

  • Appearances are rarely what the seem: gold and silver prove worthless, identities are mistaken, women disguised as men trick their husbands.

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  • Bond Plot

  • Casket Plot

  • Elopement Plot

  • Ring Plot

  • These plots are interwoven throughout the play.

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Reading Shakespeare: A Review

Unlocking Shakespeare's Language, by Randal Robinson

  • Unusual Word Arrangements

    I ate the sandwich.I the sandwich ate.Ate the sandwich I.Ate I the sandwich.The sandwich I ate.The sandwich ate I.

    Robinson shows us that these four words can create six unique sentences which carry the same meaning.  Locate the subject, verb, and the object of the sentence.  Notice that the object of the sentence is often placed at the beginning (the sandwich) in front of the verb (ate) and subject (I).  Rearrange the words in the order that makes the most sense to you (I ate the sandwich). 

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  • PoetryWe speak in prose (language without metrical structure).  Shakespeare wrote both prose and verse (poetry).  Much of the language discussion we will have in this guide revolves around Shakespeare's poetry.  So, it is important that you understand the following terms:

    Blank Verse:  unrhymed iambic pentameter.

    Iambic Pentameter:  five beats of alternating unstressed and stressed syllables; ten syllables per line.

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  • OmissionsAgain, for the sake of his poetry, Shakespeare often left out letters, syllables, and whole words.  These omissions really aren't that much different from the way we speak today.  We say:

    "Been to class yet?""No.  Heard Albrecht's givin' a test.""Wha'sup wi'that?“

    We leave out words and parts of words to speed up our speech.  If we were speaking in complete sentences, we would say:

    "Have you been to class yet?""No, I have not been to class.  I heard that Mrs. Albrecht is giving a test today.""What is up with that?"

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  • A few examples of Shakespearean omissions/contractions follow:

    'tis ~ it isope ~ openo'er ~ overgi' ~ givene'er ~ never

    i' ~ ine'er ~ everoft ~ oftena' ~ hee'en ~ even

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