William Shakespeare

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William Shakespeare

Excerpt from The Merchant of Venice (1596)

Edited by Brents Stirling
Published in 1987

The playwright William Shakespeare (1564–1616) is considered the greatest of English writers and one of the most talented creators in history. Today he is the most quoted author in the English language. Shakespeare had established his career in London by 1592, when theater was flourishing in England. He was popular with audiences from a wide range of social classes, who flocked to see his plays. At the time of his retirement in 1613 he had made important innovations in all the major dramatic genres, or forms, of the Renaissance period—comedy (depiction of humorous characters and situations), romance (love story), chronicle (history play), and tragedy (drama portraying the downfall of a good man).

Shakespeare's earliest plays were comedies, which entertained audiences while depicting social issues of the day. One of his best-known comedies is The Merchant of Venice, which he wrote as a "comicall history," that is, a play with a happy ending. The central character is Shylock, a greedy, scheming Jewish banker who cares only about money. Shylock is meant to be a comic figure, and in the "happy" ending is his conversion to Christianity. (Conversion is the act of rejecting one's religion and accepting another.) From the perspective of the twenty-first century, the portrayal of Shylock may not seem amusing and his forced conversion may be considered morally offensive. Yet Shakespeare was reflecting commonly held sixteenth-century attitudes toward Jews, who were intensely mistrusted by Christians. In fact, as a result of anti-Semitic, or anti-Jewish, prejudices Jews had been subjected to expulsions (forced exits) from European countries for centuries. When The Merchant of Venice was first performed in 1596 (published 1600), thousands of Jews had been driven out of many areas and they were allowed to live only in certain places.

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, a market town in Warwickshire, England, in 1564. Historians know little about his early life. His father, John, was a successful leather merchant and prominent citizen in Stratford. His mother, Mary Arden, was the daughter of a prosperous landlord in a nearby village. William most likely learned to read and write either at home or in a "petty" (elementary) school. Around the age of seven he probably enrolled at King's New School in Stratford, where he would have read ancient Latin works. He never attended a university. Instead, in November 1582 at age eighteen he married Anne Hathaway (c. 1556–1623), a Stratford woman who was eight years older than he. They had a daughter, Susanna, six months later. William and Anne may not have been happy together, but they did have two other children, twins named Hamnet and Judith, in 1585. Shakespeare had to rely on his own resources to support his family, though his occupation is not known. It is certain, however, that by 1592 he was in London, evidently without his family. He gained a reputation as a playwright and actor, and when he retired in 1613 he had made major innovations in all the dramatic forms of the Renaissance period. He died in 1616, at age fifty-two. Shakespeare's value to his own age is suggested by the fact that, in 1623, two fellow actors gathered his plays together and published them in a form known as the Folio edition. Without their efforts many of the plays would not have survived, since Shakespeare was not interested in publication.

Jews confined to northern and central Italy

Jews arrived in western Europe around a.d. 300, and over the next several centuries Christians became increasingly hostile toward them. This attitude was heavily influenced by the image of the Jews as murderers of Christians and the killers of Jesus Christ, the founder of Christianity. It was called the blood libel. According to the blood libel, Jews killed Christian boys to use their blood for "magical" rituals such as circumcision (removal of the foreskin of the penis) and the baking of unleavened (without yeast) bread called Passover matzos, which were eaten during the celebration of the ancient Hebrews' liberation from slavery in Egypt. Circumcision and the baking of unleavened bread were ancient practices of the Jewish religion, but Christians associated these rituals with sorcery (use of magic to activate evil spirits). Although there was no basis for believing in the blood libel, Christians throughout Europe intensely feared Jews. Between 1290 and about 1655, Jews were not legally allowed to live in England. After riots against Jews in Spain in 1391, Jews were massacred and all survivors were forced to convert to Christianity. These New Christians (conversos; the converted) were commonly called Marranos, the Spanish word for pigs.

By the 1400s Jews were living in Spain, Portugal, Italy, the Low Countries (Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands), and Germany, yet they were under extreme pressure either to convert to Christianity or to leave Europe. In 1492, during the Spanish Inquisition (a Catholic Church court established to seek out and punish non-Christians), all unconverted Jews were expelled from Spain. In 1497 the Jews of Portugal were converted, then forced out of the country by the Portuguese Inquisition in the 1530s. The Jews of Sicily, which was under Spanish rule, were forced to flee, and those of the Kingdom of Naples were ousted by 1541. Jews living in Germany were either driven out or subjected to constant attack. Jews of the Low Countries lived under cover as Christians until the seventeenth century. Any Jews remaining in Europe lived exclusively in northern and central Italy.

Jews valued as merchants, traders, and bankers

The threat of expulsion was not the only factor that affected the lives of Jews. They were not permitted to practice most professions, such as law and medicine. There was a widely held belief that they wanted to take over the world and were seeking to dominate important professions as a way to stamp out Christianity. Since the Middle Ages (c. 400–1450), Jews had been limited to working as merchants (those who sell goods) and traders (those involved in buying and selling goods), yet many became quite wealthy. During the Renaissance successful Jewish merchants and traders served on the courts of Italian rulers. Through their connections with Jewish traders in the Ottoman Empire, European Jews were ideally suited to supply armies with grain, timber, horses, and cattle. They also supplied Italian rulers with diamonds, precious stones, and other luxury items. Jews were valued for their organizational skills. Rulers turned to individual Jews who were able to offer reliable, speedy, and extensive supplies of foodstuffs, cloth, and weapons for the army, the central instrument of a ruler's power. Court Jews were often employed as tax administrators and court minters (those who made coins), and they engaged in secret and delicate political negotiations. Having formed strong personal bonds with rulers, court Jews were entrusted with arranging transfers of credit for them as well as providing financial assistance.

During the Renaissance, Jews gained prominence as bankers in the major cities of northern and central Italy. They formed communities based on a condotta, a limited contract that allowed small groups of Jews to settle in a city and establish banks for providing loans to the poor. Jews settled in Venice, Italy, in 1516, but only within an area long known as the Ghetto Nuovo (new ghetto; the origin of the term "ghetto"). In the 1530s the pope (head of the Roman Catholic Church) issued a condotta that permitted Portuguese Jews to settle in Venice and Ferrara in order to promote commerce and international trade. These Jewish communities were essentially collections of individuals who were given authority by outside rulers to administer Jewish internal affairs—and to collect taxes. They were allowed to base their communities on Jewish law, but their autonomy, or right to self-rule, was limited. For instance, the pope was constantly interfering in the work of Jewish tribunals, or courts, even to the point of instructing these tribunals how to interpret Jewish law. In 1631 Venetian authorities discovered that Jewish laws held the threat of excommunication (being expelled from the community) for any Jews who turned to non-Jewish courts. The Venetians then accused the Jews of trying to operate their own republic within the Republic of Venice.

The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice is set in Venice, and the main plot (story line) revolves around the attempts of two young Italians, Antonio and Bassanio, to convince Shylock to give them a loan. Shylock drives a hard bargain, however, and demands harsh terms. The play opens with Antonio, a merchant in Venice, talking with his friend Bassanio. Bassanio was once rather wealthy, but he is no longer rich because he made poor financial decisions. He owes quite a bit of money, particularly to Antonio. Bassanio thinks the best way to regain his wealth is to marry a wealthy woman. He has recently received word that a woman named Portia, who lives in Belmont, has been left with a great deal of money after her father's death. She is continually visited by a great many suitors, but Bassanio is convinced he can win her heart and her money. However, he needs money to make the trip. Antonio wants to help, but all of his funds are tied up in merchandise that is being shipped throughout Europe. Antonio tells Bassanio the solution to his problem is to borrow money on credit from a lender in Venice.

Winning Portia's hand in marriage will not be a simple task. She is not permitted to choose a husband herself. Her father's will states that her future husband will be the man who makes the correct choice among three chests: one filled with gold, one with silver, and one with lead. Upon picking the chest, the man must give the reason for his choice. The man who picks the right chest for the right reason wins Portia and her inheritance. Portia is dismayed that she can neither dismiss any of her suitors nor accept one of them based on her own preferences.

"An equal pound"

As Portia laments her fate, Bassanio and Antonio attempt to secure a loan from Shylock, the Jew. In Act I, scene iii, Antonio and Bassanio try to convince Shylock to lend them the money. Shylock does not want to, saying that Antonio and Bassanio call him names behind his back and spit upon him in public. He asks why he should then turn around and give them something they need. Finally, Shylock agrees to lend the money on one condition: if Antonio and Bassanio have not made full payment in three months, Shylock can take one pound of flesh from any part of Antonio's body that he, Shylock, wishes. Shylock's "pound of flesh speech" is an important part of the play, as well as one of the best-known passages in English drama. He says:

This Kindness will I show:
Go with me to a notary; seal me there
Your single bond, and—in a merry sport—
If you repay me not on such a day,
In such a place, such sums as are
Expressed in the condition, let the forfeit
Be nominated for an equal pound
Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken
In what part of your body pleaseth me.

Antonio agrees to these conditions because ships carrying his merchandise will soon land at their designated ports and he will be immensely wealthy. Bassanio then sets out for Belmont to try to win Portia. In the next scene, Portia is visited by a number of suitors. One picks the golden chest, for gold is the greatest of all precious metals, much like Portia is the greatest of all beauties. This choice is incorrect, so Bassanio has a good chance of winning her. He continues his journey while another suitor picks the chest of silver. This choice too is incorrect. As Portia's suitors continue to unravel the riddle of her father's will, Shylock is facing a tragedy of his own. His daughter Jessica has run away with a Christian man, Lorenzo, and has taken with her a fair amount of Shylock's money. Shylock believes she is on the ship chartered by Antonio and Bassanio, although people in town tell Shylock she is not. Dismissing their advice, Shylock is determined to find Jessica.

Act III, scene i, which is reprinted below, opens after one of Antonio's ships has been shipwrecked.

Things to Remember While Reading an Excerpt from The Merchant of Venice:

  1. Salerio and Solanio, friends of Antonio and Bassanio, inform Shylock of the recent events and attack him for his business practices. They claim that Shylock has none of the virtues possessed by his daughter Jessica. Shylock retorts with the now famous speech beginning with the line "Hath a Jew not eyes," in which he argues that Jews are just as human as Christians. Shylock's friend Tubal then enters and tells Shylock he has been unable to find Jessica, yet he has heard that she is spending all of the money she stole. Tubal also informs Shylock that another of Antonio's ships has been wrecked. This brings Shylock much joy. He is certain that Antonio is now destitute and cannot repay his bond. At the end of the scene, Shylock eagerly departs, bent on taking a pound of flesh from Antonio's body.
  2. Shakespeare's plays are always complicated and intricate. Twenty-first-century readers find the language difficult to understand, and some of the cultural references are no longer relevant to present-day society. It might be helpful to think of Shakespeare's plays as being similar to some television comedies we watch today. An example is Saturday Night Live. Like Shakespeare, the writers of this popular program create exaggerated situations and characters. They use satire (criticism expressed through humor) as a way of making fun of politicians, celebrities, and recent events in the news. Yet the humor of Saturday Night Live often has a serious side, giving the viewer insight into human weaknesses and absurd behavior.
  3. Christian forgiveness and mercy are represented by Antonio, Bassanio, and Portia. Shylock, on the other hand, fits the sixteenth-century stereotype of Jews as cold-hearted people who had no sense of mercy or forgiveness. This is evident in the play when the Christian characters constantly ask Shylock to show mercy or forgiveness, especially in regard to the debt owed to him by Antonio. Many scholars have interpreted this as Christian characters trying to force Shylock to convert to Christianity and forsake his own religion.
  4. Shylock's "Hath a Jew not eyes" speech, in the middle of Act III, scene i, has frequently been interpreted as Shakespeare's plea for tolerance toward Jews. Scholars believe this interpretation is inaccurate, saying that Shylock was not meant to be a sympathetic character. Throughout the play he is ridiculed for being Jewish, and the stereotypes associated with Jews are personified in his character. By having Shylock insist on having a "pound of flesh" from Antonio, Shakespeare made a comment on usury, or charging extremely high interest rates (percentage of the amount of money borrowed). At that time the practice of usury was part of the stereotype of Jewish money lenders. Whether the interest rates charged by Jews were any higher than those charged by Christians is still being debated by scholars.
  5. Notice that Shylock does not seem concerned that Jessica has gone missing. He is more worried about the loss of his money. The only thing that makes him feel better is knowing that Antonio will be unable to repay the debt. In Jewish culture, family is the center of life and Shylock would not be expected to act this way. Shakespeare was again using the Jewish stereotype by having Shylock show a lack of concern about his daughter yet great love for his money.

Excerpt from The Merchant of Venice

[Act III, scene i]

[Enter] Solanio and Salerio

SOLANIO Now what news on theRialto ?

SALERIO Why, yet it lives thereunchecked that Antonio hath a ship of richlading wracked on the narrow seas—the Goodwins I think they call the place, a very dangerous flat, and fatal, where thecarcasses of many a tall ship lie buried as they say, if mygossip Report be an honest woman of her word.

SOLANIO I would she were as lying a gossip in that as everknapped ginger or made her neighbors believe she wept for the death of a third husband. But it is true, without any slips ofprolixity or crossing the plain highway of talk, that the good Antonio, the honest Antonio—O that I had a title good enough to keep his name company!—

SALERIO Come, the full stop!

SOLANIO Ha, what sayest thou? Why the end is, he hath lost a ship.

SALERIO I would it might prove the end of his losses.

SOLANIO Let me say amen betimeslest the devilcross my prayer, for there he comes in the likeness of a Jew.

Enter Shylock.


Rialto: Street in Venice.


Unchecked: Unrestrained.


Lading: Cargo.


Wracked: Ruined.


Carcasses: Bodies.

Gossip Report

Gossip Report: Dame Rumor.


Knapped: Nibbled.


Prolixity: Wordiness.


Lest: In case.


Cross: Cancel.

How now, Shylock? What news among the merchants?

SHYLOCK You knew, none so well, none so well as you, of my daughter's flight.

SALERIO That's certain. I for my part knew the tailor that made the wings she flewwithal.

SOLANIO And Shylock for his own part knew the bird wasfledge, and then it is the complexion of them all to leave thedam.

SHYLOCK She is damned for it.

SALERIO That's certain, if the devil may be her judge.

SHYLOCK My own flesh and blood rebel!

SOLANIO Out upon it, oldcarrion ! Rebels it at these years?

SHYLOCK I say my daughter is my flesh and my blood.

SALERIO There is more difference between thy flesh and hers than betweenjet andivory, more between your bloods than there is between red wine andRhenish. But tell us, do you hear whether Antonio have had any loss at sea or no?

SHYLOCK There I have another bad match! Abankrout, aprodigal, who dare scarce show his head on the Rialto, a beggar that was used to come sosmug upon themart ! Let him look to hisbond. He waswont to call meusurer. Let him look to his bond. He was wont to lend money for a Christiancursy. Let him look to his bond.

SALERIO Why, I am sure if he forfeit thou wilt not take his flesh. What's that good for?


Withal: With.


Fledge: Ready to fly.


Dam: Mother.


Carrion: Dead and rotting flesh.


Jet: Velvet-black coal often used for jewelry.


Ivory: Creamy white substance from the tusk of an animal such as an elephant.


Rhenish: From the Rhine River region in Germany.


Bankrout: Bankrupt; lacking funds to pay bills and expenses.


Prodigal: Reckless, extravagant.


Smug: Self-satisfied.


Mart: Market.


Bond: Agreement to repay borrowed money.


Wont: Accustomed.


Usurer: One who charges an extremely high fee for loaning money.


Cursy: As a Christian courtesy.


Hind'red: Hindered.


Thwarted: Prevented.


Dimensions: Physical traits.


Sufferance: Patient endurance.


Villainy: Evil or vile behavior.

SHYLOCK To bait fish withal. If it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me andhind'red me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation,thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies—and what's his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs,dimensions, senses, affections, passions?—fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should hissufferance be by Christian example? Why revenge! Thevillainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.

Enter a Man from Antonio.

MAN Gentlemen, my master Antonio is at his house and desires to speak with you both.

SALERIO We have been up and down to seek him.

Enter Tubal.

SOLANIO Here comes another of the tribe. A third cannot be matched, unless the devil himself turn Jew.

Exeunt [Solanio, Salerio, and Man].

SHYLOCK How now, Tubal! What news from Genoa? Hast thou found my daughter?

TUBAL I often came where I did hear of her, but cannot find her.

SHYLOCK Why there, there, there, there! A diamond gone cost me two thousandducats inFrankford ! The curse never fell upon our nation till now; I never felt it till now. Two thousand ducats in that, and other precious, precious jewels. I would my daughter were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear! Would she werehearsed at my foot, and the ducats in her coffin! No news of them, why so?—and I know not what's spent in the search. Why thou loss upon loss! The thief gone with so much, and so much to find the thief!—and no satisfaction, no revenge! Nor no ill luck stirring but what lights o' my shoulders, no sighs but o' my breathing, no tears but o' my shedding.

TUBAL Yes, other men have ill luck too. Antonio, as I heard in Genoa—

SHYLOCK What, what, what? Ill luck, ill luck?

TUBAL Hath anargosy cast away coming fromTripolis.

SHYLOCK I thank God, I thank God! Is it true? is it true?

TUBAL I spoke with some of the sailors that escaped the wrack.

SHYLOCK I thank thee, good Tubal. Good news, good news! Ha, ha! Heard in Genoa?

TUBAL Your daughter spent in Genoa, as I heard, one nightfourscore ducats.

SHYLOCK Thou stick'st a dagger in me. I shall never see my gold again. Fourscore ducats at a sitting, fourscore ducats!

TUBAL There camedivers of Antonio's creditors in my company to Venice that swear he cannot choose but break.

SHYLOCK I am very glad of it. I'll plague him; I'll torture him. I am glad of it.


Ducats Italian coins.


Frankford: Frankfort, Germany.


Hearsed: Placed in a coffin.


Argosy: Merchant ship.


Tripolis: Tripolitania; former province in northwest Libya.


Fourscore: Four times twenty; eighty.


Divers: Various.

TUBAL One of them showed me a ring that he had of your daughter for a monkey.

SHYLOCK Out upon her! Thou torturest me, Tubal. It was myturquoise; I had it of Leah [his wife] when I was a bachelor. I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys.

TUBAL But Antonio is certainly undone.

SHYLOCK Nay, that's true, that's very true. Go, Tubal, fee me an officer; bespeak him afortnight before. I will have the heart of him if he forfeit, for were he out of Venice I can make what merchandise I will. Go, Tubal, and meet me at oursynagogue; go, good Tubal; at our synagogue, Tubal.

What happened next…

Bassanio confesses his love to Portia, who tells him to choose the proper chest. He selects the leaden one, which contains a portrait of Portia and a note permitting him to marry her. Bassanio then learns that all of Antonio's ships have been lost and he has been jailed for bankruptcy. Bassanio tells Portia of the contract with Shylock. She gives Bassanio six thousands ducats, twice the amount owed to Shylock, to free Antonio. She tells him to return home quickly before they are to be married. Meanwhile Shylock visits Antonio in jail and refuses to listen to his pleas. Shylock again emphasizes that he will "have his bond" and will not agree to a compromise.


Turquoise: Bluish-green mineral used for jewelry.


Fortnight: A period of two weeks.


Synagogue: Jewish house of worship.

Antonio and Shylock then appear before the Duke of Venice to plead their cases. The Duke tells Shylock to show mercy on Antonio and not insist on collecting his bond. Shylock argues that it is not up to the court to determine if the bond is fair, nor is it up to the court to decide if he, Shylock, is cruel. Shylock argues that Antonio made the agreement and should he held to it, or else the laws of Venice mean nothing. As the duke, Antonio, and Shylock argue, Portia arrives at the court. She demands that Shylock be merciful. Shylock continues to argue that he has an agreement that must be honored, even if Portia offers him three times the money he is owed. Portia is allowed to act as a judge, and she agrees that Shylock is owed the bond. Shylock rejoices and prepares to take flesh from Antonio. Portia asks Shylock if he has a surgeon nearby to stop the bleeding, for the bond does not say that Shylock may kill Antonio. She then adds that if Shylock spills one drop of Christian blood, he will lose not only the bond but also his entire estate.

Shylock now realizes that he cannot get his bond, so he asks for the nine thousand ducats in place of the flesh. Portia refuses, saying that Shylock wanted his bond when he thought he could cut a pound of flesh from Antonio, and should be made to honor it now even though he cannot take the flesh. She tells him to cut without spilling blood and to take exactly one pound, for any less or any more would violate the contract. Shylock asks for the three thousand ducats he loaned Antonio. Bassanio is prepared to pay but Portia stops him. Portia tells Shylock he is subject to Venetian law because he planned to take the life of a Venetian citizen. Half of his money therefore goes to Antonio, and the other half goes to the state. Shylock is to be killed. His only chance for survival is to beg mercy from the duke. The duke automatically spares his life, but Shylock asks the duke to kill him, saying that it is better to be dead than bankrupt. Antonio offers a compromise, saying he will not take half of Shylock's estate on two conditions: first, Shylock must convert to Christianity, and, second, upon his death his money goes to Lorenzo and Jessica, who have been secretly married. Shylock agrees to both conditions. According to most scholars Shakespeare uses this scene, which is Shylock's final appearance in the play, as a way to show the triumph of Christian law over Jewish law.

Did you know…

  1. Most Christians during the Renaissance period knew little about the Jewish religion. Many thought Jews had horns on their heads, claiming that Jewish men wore the skullcap called a yarmulke in synagogue to cover up the horns. Others continued to believe in the blood libel and thought that Jews practiced human sacrifice. Shylock's demand for a pound of flesh from Antonio capitalizes on this belief.
  2. In 1589, seven years before the first performance of The Merchant of Venice, the English playwright Christopher Marlowe wrote The Jew of Malta. This play features a Jewish merchant named Barabas, who is unjustly persecuted by Christians. As the play progresses, however, Barabas becomes obsessed by his desire for gold and he turns into a stereotype of the greedy Jew like Shylock. Barabas murders his daughter and an entire convent of nuns (Catholic women who devote their lives to the church) by feeding them poisoned porridge. After committing other atrocities, he himself meets a horrible fate by falling into a boiling caldron (large pot).

For More Information


Dobson, Michael, and Stanley Wells, eds. The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Dommermuth-Costa, Carol. William Shakespeare. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Co., 2002.

Garfield, Leon. Shakespeare Stories II. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1995.

Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Edited by Brents Stirling. New York: Penguin Books, 1987.

Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. Edited by G. Blakemore Evans and J. M. M. Tobin. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.

Thrasher, Thomas. William Shakespeare. San Diego, Calif.: Lucent Books, 1999.

Web Sites

"Shakespeare, William." The Annex. [Online] Available http://web.uvic.ca/shakespeare/Annex, April 10, 2002.

"Shakespeare, William." MSN Encarta. [Online] Available http://encarta.msn.com/find/Concise.asp?z=1&pg=2&ti=761562101, April 10, 2002.

The Shakespearean Homework Helper. [Online] Available http://hometown.aol.com/liadona2/shakespeare.html, April 10, 2002.

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