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The Merchant of Venice

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The Merchant of Venice

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  1. The Merchant of Venice

  2. Comic Harmony . . . • Fairy Tale Qualities • Simple oppositions with stock characters (the clown, the “blocking figure”) • Happy ending with multiple marriages • Triumph of mercy over law

  3. . . .or Tragic Dissonance? • Imposing, grand central figure of Shylock • Considered Anti-Semitic by some • Shades of sexism, racism and implied homosexuality • Ends with humiliation and mockery

  4. About this most controversial of plays: • Written by Shakespeare ca. 1596 • Source: Il Pecorone (meaning “The Simpleton”) • No play other than Hamlet has been staged more frequently

  5. Setting: Venice • A politically independent state • Relaxed sexual morals & love of pleasure • Tolerance of different nationalities & religions • A place of great wealth where trade and exploration was center

  6. Historical Context: • Shylock, who is Jewish, highlights historical contradictions of the time • The Jewish race seen as “a necessary evil” • Necessary for trade, capital ventures, and loans to the state and to kings for exploration & wars

  7. . . .but also considered evil • They practiced usury, which was forbidden • They were wrongly blamed for the crucifixion of Christ • They were seen as foreign, exotic, threatening: • The Prioress’s Tale

  8. What about usury? • From Latin usus, uti, meaning use: a sum paid for the USE of money • (Interest!!) • Could we live without it? • Against the law of nature for money to beget money • Biblical injunctions against it (Luke 6:30-31) • Likened to prostitution, another “necessary evil”

  9. Nonetheless, 16th Century Europe desperately needed this practice of usury • It was a time of great exploration and expanding trade • The growing nation-states and kings were always in need of money • It was absolutely essential for the growth of a capitalistic economy • There was a debate raging over usury at the time Shakespeare wrote the play

  10. The question remains: Was Shakespeare anti-Semitic? • His audience probably was, even though they could not have known any Jews: • Jews were expelled from England in 1290 and did not return until after Shakespeare’s day • Critics cite the character of Shylock as evidence both for and against the proposition • Look closely at this portrait by Chandos • We will revisit this question!

  11. In 1864, the critic J. Hain Friswell wrote in his Life Portraits of William Shakespeare: “One cannot too readily imagine our essentially English Shakespeare to have been a dark, heavy man, with a foreign expression, of a decidedly Jewish physiognomy, thin curly hair, a somewhat lubricious mouth, red-edged eyes, wanton lips, with a coarse expression, and his ears tricked out with ear-rings.”