edited by John Drakakis
The Merchant of Venice, technically a comedy, has proven controversial in its portrayal of the complex figure of the money-lender Shylock. Debate continues over the presence of distressing anti-Semitism, and the extent to which Shylock can be considered victimised or villainous. Shylock as a character has in some ways gradually disengaged from the play as a whole, becoming a famous topic of study that stands independent from Shakespeare’s original text.
Like Othello, The Merchant of Venice is a play which has evolved dramatically since its creation due to the changing contexts in which it is now read and performed. Although the texts themselves stay the same, the societal significance of an issue like anti-Semitism, as well as racism more generally, give greater weight to those elements within the play. Therefore, modern productions and interpretations must carefully consider these changes in attitude along with the original contexts of the plays.
Apart from the complicating presence of Shylock and various other anti-Semitic elements, scholars traditionally classify The Merchant of Venice as a comedy because it includes a number of classical comedic conventions, such as a complicated courtship process, mistaken identities, and transvestism. Bassanio needs 3,000 ducats in order to woo a wealthy heiress, Portia. His best friend, the merchant Antonio, is waiting on some ships he has invested in to return to Venice; in the meantime, he arranges a short-term loan with Shylock, a Jewish usurer. Shylock hates Antonio for his past insults, but agrees that the merchant can have 3,000 ducats, but they must be repaid within three months; if not, he may take a pound of Antonio’s flesh. When Antonio’s ships go missing and he defaults on the loan, Shylock demands his flesh. Hearing of her husband’s best friend’s dilemma, Portia disguises herself as a lawyer and defends him in court, overturning the bargain with her own logic. Various other love stories and hijinks ensue amongst the supporting characters while the main action takes place, and as in most comedies, the difficulties faced by the main characters (with the exception of Shylock) are resolved by the close of the play.
The Arden Third Series edition of The Merchant of Venice is based on the first quarto text printed in 1600.