36 of 41 people found the following review helpful
on September 27, 2004
"Merchant" is categorized among Shakespeare's comedies, primarily because of the romantic subplot that ends --as most of the Bard's comedies do-- in serial weddings. But, of course, it is far more than a typical romantic comedy. Shakespeare ostensibly intended to write about the complicated theme of exterior versus interior. The value of gold and money against the value of friendship and loyalty. Shylock, the Jewish moneylender is portrayed as greedy and more concerned about his money than he is about his own daughter.
But modern readers have a hard time sympathizing with Antonio the Merchant and his superficial and hateful friends, Bassanio, Gratiano, et al. They are racist, quick to judge, wasteful, and unconcerned about others. They are delighted to treat Shylock like a dog and to invent phony excuses for their own nasty behavior. Shylock is no innocent victim. Indeed, he brings about his own ruin. But in a play whose key passage is Portia's courtroom discourse on the quality of mercy, mercy and justice are hard to find in any character. Shakespeare's language is as powerful as ever in this play, but the unlikeable Shylock and the venom doled out to him by his sordid persecutors makes this play a stomach-churning challenge.
18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on December 5, 2005
Shylock is the only sympathetic character in the play. Modernity has altered the villain in "The Merchant of Venice" from Shylock to the entire cast of characters EXCEPT for Shylock. Any sense of comedy in the play died for those with a sense of religious tolerance, and Shylock comes off as merely oppressed. I found Act 5 almost nauseating after the forced conversion. That, coupled with the happy racism makes a perversion of decency and happy endings. This play is a tragedy. The recent movie version done starring Al Pacino turned it into a tragedy, and amazingly, a play written as a comedy seems to work very well as a tragedy.
Antonio gladly spits upon Shylock and calls him a dog, but stunningly, when Antonio finds himself in a financial pinch he goes to Shylock for money. More brash is Antonio's promise to act the same in the future: "I am as like to call thee so again, / To spet on thee again, to spurn thee, too." (1.3.127-28) From this point on, sympathy for Antonio is paralyzed in a modern reader's mind, from reminders of past images, from slavery and anti-Semitism, where the dehumanizing of a group of people is accepted by a society. The entire text afterward reads like an indictment of humanity, as if Shakespeare is making the Elizabethans laugh at their own behavior.
In perhaps the best argument in Shylock's defense in the trial, he point out the fact that those who speak of mercy own slaves. "What judgment shall I dread, doing no wrong? / You have among you many a purchased slave." (4.1.89-90) Shylock, as fanatical as he is over the pound of flesh, is asking for only a pound of a man, when the slaveholders own the entire person. The play is littered with prejudiced remarks that clearly show how animalistic Shylock was to them.
Every conversation involving Shylock has ridicule from the Christians, without remorse or a feeling of comedy. The Christian children are taught to mock Shylock, they run after him in the street. The merchants spit on him, the Duke reviles him, his daughter renounces her religion and robs him.
Still an amazing story, with a few of the best on mercy and prejudice ever written.
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
I'm not entirely sure how one should set about reviewing a Shakespeare play. I recently reread "The Merchant of Venice" in order to reacquaint myself with the story so that I could read a related book. Despite many critics' beliefs that the play is anti-semetic, "The Merchant of Venice" is a timeless look at the role that material desires can play in our lives.
As one of Shakespeare's comedies, there is sure to be the sub-plots that include romantic intrigue and women in disguise. The play begins with the title merchant Antonio and his friend Bassiano making a deal with Shylock, a rich Jew. The deal is that Shylock will sponsor their merchant ships; if their ships should fail, Shylock can enact his revenge on Antonio by procuring one pound of his flesh. Meanwhile, Bassiano has fallen in love with Portia, a rich heiress, and tries to win her hand, while ultimately making sure that his friend Antonio doesn't lose his to Shylock.
Granted there is mistreatment of Shylock that is rooted in his Jewishness; but the jibes that are directed toward him deal more so with his attitude toward money than to his heritage. For Shylock is more concerned with his money than he is with his daughter; and when she runs away to marry a Christian, his sole concern is the jewels and money she stole from him. Shylock is a hateful man, not because he is a Jew, but because of his actions (and many seem to miss that). When Bassiano and Antonio's venture fails, Antonio is doomed to die at the hand of Shylock. But in typical Shakespearean comedy fashion, a woman in disguise wins the day and defeats Shylock's supposedly ingenous scheme.
I truly believe that some of the best scenes are not those that Shylock is in, yet whenever anyone speaks of "The Merchant of Venice" he is the main name mentioned. The scenes between Portia and her various suitors as they try to solve the riddle to winning her hand tells the reader much about the ways of man's thinking; it is the men who chose gold and silver that cannot court Portia. Rather it is the man who recognizes the worth in all that doesn't glitter who wins the prize.
25 of 31 people found the following review helpful
I clicked on the "Kindle Version" link from the paperback "The Merchant of Venice (Folger Shakespeare Library)" since I had purchased several of the Folger hard-copy editions and found the full facing page annotations a huge help in getting the most from the plays. I was worried that the alternating pages of annotations and text would be a bit cumbersome on the Kindle. I need not have worried, as the annotations, and all other extra features, are MISSING. The product description, however, of the Kindle edition does state that the extra features are present on this eBook. Amazon, please convert the Folger Shakespeare Library to the Kindle including all extra features with annotations. In the meantime, please clean up the descriptions for this product line.
edit 9/12/2014: There is an actual properly annotated version now, the RSC Shakespeare in Modern Library Classics editions, such as The Merchant of Venice (Modern Library Classics). The complete Shakespeare is not yet available but is scheduled for Feb 2015.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
What scholars today call "The Problem Plays" seem to me to be problems more for us because of our changed sensibilities from those of Elizabethan London rather than problems in the plays themselves. "The Merchant of Venice" is called anti-Semitic by eminent scholars such as Harold Bloom. In our post-Holocaust age and our sensitivity to stereotypes of all sorts, Shylock bothers us in a way not dissimilar to watching the great Al Jolson perform in blackface. That is, it is clearly the work of a great entertainer, but it jars us, makes us wince, and we are (justly) unable to watch with the same enjoyment as the audience for whom the work was created.
Still, this is Shakespeare and Shylock is immortal. When I read through the play, I place Shylock as "the other" rather than as a caricature of the Jewish race. More than that, he is simply a vicious person irrespective of his ethnic ties and origins. I do like Bloom's insistence that this play was written as a dark comedy and was performed as such for centuries. The editor of this edition, John Russell Brown also states this. At some time around the 19th century, Shylock acquired pathos and the play has been performed as a drama ever since.
Does it work as a drama? You will have to answer that for yourself. However, if you insist on a moral drama you will have a great many moral contradictions to settle that do not matter as much if the play is done more for simple cleverness and laughs. Can we really take seriously the casket game that Portia's late father left her as the way she must select her spouse? Does Antonio (the Merchant of Venice) seem a proper embodiment of Christian values?
To me, the play does seem awfully light hearted with all of its darkness given to Shylock. He is a villain with infinitely more substance than Snidely Whiplash, but provides much the same function. He must be hated; he must be spat upon and jeered by the audience to fill his role. And he must lose in the end. Not because others are more virtuous (any serious analysis of the play shows everyone in the play wanting in virtue), but simply because he is the bad guy.
Portia is the wonder of the play. Her glow is so bright that it is obvious she is light to Shylock's darkness. Her defeat of Shylock is acceptable in a comedy, in a serious drama she seems to have gone too far considering what is really involved.
In any case, this play has delighted audiences for centuries and will continue to do so. It is a great read and this critical edition aids the reader's understanding. The opening essay is fine and the appendices showing the various sources of the tale are also interesting in helping us see the genius of Shakespeare in what he developed on his own and how he wove the various components into this masterpiece.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on August 19, 2004
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE is a perfect play, a romantic comedy with a memorable tragic hero and a fairy tale element, as well. Venetian merchant Antonio and his best friend, Bassanio, find themselves in trouble with the Jewish moneylender Shylock over a sizeable unpaid debt. Bassanio had borrowed the money on his friend's credit, and Antonio had been confident that he would be able to repay Shylock. But when Antonio's ships miscarry at sea, and when Shylock's daughter, Jessica, elopes with Lorenzo, a Christian, taking much of her father's gold with her, the moneylender vows revenge: he will insist on his right to extract, in court, "a pound of flesh" from Antonio. Bassanio had used the money to woo Portia, a witty and beautiful lady who lives in idyllic Belmont and who must, according to her late father's wishes, marry whichever suitor chooses the one casket out of three that contains her portrait. One of the caskets is made of gold, another of silver, and the third of lead. Bassanio's realization that the leaden casket is the one with Portia's picture in it proves the old maxim that appearances are deceiving and that "[a]ll that glisters is not gold." In the end, it is Portia who saves the day by impersonating a lawyer in court and using the letter of the law itself to defeat Shylock and save Antonio's life.
Considering the general anti-Semitism of his era, Shakespeare gives Shylock marvelous depth that itself repudiates any charge of anti-Semitism on his part. Shylock's greatest moment is, of course, his speech beginning "Hath not a Jew eyes?" and continuing, "If you prick us, do we not bleed?...If you poison us, do we not die?" Furthermore, Shakespeare makes it clear that the Christians in the play - even including the honorable Antonio and the likeable Bassanio - have publicly insulted Shylock by spitting on him and calling him a "dog." As a consequence, we understand Shylock's hatred of Christians and sympathize with him, even as he mercilessly prepares to take Antonio's life. Only Shakespeare could have so successfully placed such a complex tragic figure at the center of a comedy.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on June 20, 2012
The Merchant of Venice
(Written and performed in 1596)
In studying this wonderful play, readers make many decisions for themselves. Is it anti-Semitic? Is Bassanio worthy of Portia? Why is Antonio, the protagonist, so reprehensible in many ways to people today?
As with the majority of his other plays, Shakespeare borrowed from sources to create The Merchant of Venice. He interwove them seamlessly, and to some critics, flawlessly, creating a perfect plot. The two Italian short stories he used are "Il Pecorone," the hate story, and "Gesta Romanarum," the love story.
Just as we see and enjoy films with ridiculous and unlikely events, so must we approach The Merchant of Venice with an open mind and eye. A romantic comedy, the play is riddled with events that would not take place in real life. We must willingly accept the suspension of disbelief. In such a play, what should one expect? Romantic carries two meanings: romance for lovers, moonlight and music; but also romance in the other sense of unrealistic, an illusion. It is a comedy. From the introductory lecture you know what that means: no one dies no matter how dire the circumstances. All the lovers marry. And even armed with this knowledge going in, Shakespeare still creates marvelous suspense!
To understand the play, we must first look at the setting. The play is not set in the year it was written. Instead, Shakespeare looks back in time to the beginning of the Renaissance. Venice, a city-state in Italy, was richer than many other countries. It had fallen from this glory by Shakespeare's lifetime.
Venice was a crossroads for Crusaders, a money-lending center of Europe. Only the Jews could loan money for interest since usury is restricted by the New Testament. Thus, Jewish moneylenders were rich and probably notorious for greed, yet by Christian law, usury was the only profession open to Jews, with all others prohibited.
Jews lived apart in the ghetto (the word originates from Italian, gheto, meaning a foundry). They were hated for their isolationism even though this isolation was required by Christian law. Jews wore uniforms even in this time long ago; Hitler did not originate the idea of identifying Jews. They were also hated when bubonic plague swept across Europe, decimating populations. Kosher laws kept Jewish communities relatively cleaner than their Christian neighbors' homes. When the Jewish people did not die in such huge numbers as the Christians, the Christians said that the Jews had caused the plague.
A second setting of the play transports us to Belmont, which contrasts with Venice in its sunny outlooks and musical interludes. It is in Belmont that love blooms.
The characters of the play are relatively straightforward. We should remember the presence of allegory in reading the play, however.
Shylock, the allegory of vengeance, is a Jewish money lender. People associate this play with Shylock although he is not the Merchant of Venice. Shakespeare has given him humanity beyond his allegorical status. Shylock is hated because he is hateful. He is someone who cannot bend for mercy. He insists on the letter of the law; nevertheless, he carries scenes of great sympathy as we watch his treatment at the hands of his Christian neighbors.
Portia, the female protagonist, is the allegory of mercy and a suitable foil to Shylock. She is intelligent and strong, witty and loving. That she falls in love and gives herself in marriage to Bassanio may baffle the women of our era. Bassanio, Portia's suitor, is something of a wastrel, a man with money problems, who will take all of what is Portia's as his own upon marriage. Does he deserve this?
The Merchant of Venice is Antonio, who fits in as the final point of the allegorical triangle. He is the allegory of noble friendship in his willingness to give all he has for his friend, Bassanio. His melancholy temperament and his ill treatment of Shylock make him a rather dark hero.
Other characters in the play include two pairs of lovers. The Christian Lorenzo loves the Jewish Jessica, daughter of Shylock. Jessica is a beautiful girl, one who utters the famous line, "Love is blind." This love affair gives Shylock another reason to hate the Christians. Nerissa, Portia's lady-in-waiting, is suitably quick and warm. Her instantaneous love and marriage to a lout, Gratiano, is simply part of the play.
We come to the question that pervades the play today, causing some to choose not to teach the play at all. Is this play anti-Semitic? Harold Bloom argues yes, by all the standards of Shakespeare's time. I disagree with Bloom as noted below.
The play has a happy ending, an ending we might not agree with, but happy nonetheless. Shakespeare has humanized Shylock, earning our sympathy and understanding. He does not parade Shylock as his contemporaries paraded their Jewish villains, as comic characters with red beards and wigs and red, huge noses.
Christianity is the norm. Shylock is outside the norm. Shakespeare himself knew no practicing Jews, for they had been expelled from England by edict in 1290 under Edward I and did not return until Cromwell's Commonwealth if 1655. Though there were non-practicing Jews in England, Shakespeare had no personal ax to grind with them.
One last note, the motifs. Motifs unify each play. The Merchant of Venice includes motifs of music (who has it is good, who lacks it is bad), good and bad gold, nature and animals. Most important are the motifs of the meaning of justice and vengeance and also the dictum that one must give and hazard all for love. With these in mind, happy reading!
I taught Shakespeare online for several years. This play was one of the students' favorites. This lecture, posted to Amazon by the writer, will be part of my introductory book about Shakespeare, anon.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on November 15, 2007
One cannot read Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice without realizing the significance that religion takes in the play, specifically the portrayal of the Jewish and Christian characters. When we first encounter the play's principal Jew, Shylock, we can only feel resentment towards him for the way he carries himself and conducts his business. Then, when first exposed to the play's principal Christian characters--Antonio, Bassanio, and Portia--the audience likely feels sympathetic towards them because of their unfortunate run-ins with the villainous Shylock. But I wonder if this is a truly accurate reading of the play. It appears that critics are divided on whether Shakespeare was further advancing anti-Semitism existent at the time by depicting Shylock in denigrating stereotypes throughout the play or whether he was actually condemning anti-Semitic behavior by turning Shylock into a sympathetic figure by the play's end. It is my contention that Shakespeare is merely reflecting societal norms at the time as he indicts religion altogether.
Though we cannot forget Shylock's appeal to humanity in his "Hath not a Jew eyes" speech, nor Portia's appeal for mercy at the court trial, there is far too much evidence of misdeeds and hypocrisy by all of these characters to think Shakespeare is "picking sides" in this battle of religions. Shylock's greed and need for revenge are certainly damning portrayals of his faith given how religious he claims to be. But given the "holier-than-thou" attitude's of Venice's Christians and their hypocritical actions to the contrary of their religion, it is clear to me Shakespeare has a major problem with Christians who "talk the talk" but do not "walk the walk." I will discuss the villainous representation of Shylock, then analyze the hypocrisy of the play's primary Christian characters and will question if these Christians embody the righteous example of which they speak.
The portrayal of Shylock is paramount throughout the play, mainly because we are torn between disliking him for his cruelty on one hand and empathizing with him because of the abuse he suffers on the other. When Shylock enters the play in the Act 1, Bassanio is trying to get a loan from him using Antonio's credit because he needs a large sum of money so he can appropriately woo Portia. There is certainly no denying Shylock's passion for accumulating wealth. The other characters frequently comment on Shylock's greed throughout the play, and he even tells his daughter that he dreams about moneybags. Shylock suffers ridicule from the Christian community because he charges high interest rates on loans, but also because he is a Jew, comparable to a dog or the devil in their eyes. As Shylock considers the loan, he seems more interested in having Antonio bound to him than with the loan itself, and we soon learn of Antonio and Shylock's mutual resentment. Shylock is hesitant to help Antonio out because Antonio has hurt his own business dealings in the past by lending money at no charge, but also because he is a Christian. The evidence of Shylock's greed continues to mount. In Act 2, Solanio describes "the dog Jew" running through the streets of Venice and crying more earnestly for his lost ducats than for his lost daughter (who has ended their relationship, married a Christian and converted to Christianity, further enraging her estranged father).
Beginning in Act 3 and continuing into the first parts of Act 4, Shylock repeats statements like "I will have my bond"--the dubious "pound of flesh" from Antonio's body. Shylock's repetitions of his claim turn into a death chant of sorts for Antonio since he is now unable repay the loan. When asked what he plans to do with Antonio's piece of flesh since it's obviously worthless to him Shylock replies, "To bait fish withal...if it will feed nothing else it will feed my revenge" (Act 3, Scene 1, lines 45-46). We can now see Shylock eagerly awaiting his chance to kill Antonio and get his symbolic revenge on all the town's Christians, whom he despises.
Despite Portia's famed speech at the dramatic trial in Act 4, in which she lectures about Christian goodness and "the quality of mercy," Shylock refuses to show Antonio mercy. He claims he "craves the law" (Scene 1, line 203) and will not be merciful and forgiving to Antonio, and no one can change his mind. All of these incidents are constant reinforcements of Shylock's bitterness and cold-heartedness, which has been shown throughout the play, and which are clearly not in line with the virtuous nature of Judaism.
Of course we know that there is an unexpected change of events about to happen to Shylock. Instead of having his bond, we find that Shylock's bond with Antonio is impossible to recover since he may not shed a drop of Antonio's Christian blood in the process. Portia then orders Shylock's property seized and "mercifully" allows him to convert to Christianity rather being executed for attempting to take the life of a fellow Venetian, seemingly "delivering" him from his Jewishness. But up until Shylock's sentencing, we might be somewhat content with the depictions of the evil Jew and the righteous Christians. But as we examine Act 4 (and the entire play) more closely, we are forced to recognize that perhaps Shylock is actually a victim of the hypocritical Christian society in which he lives. Being able to read this play in a post-Holocaust and post-Civil Rights Movement world, we cannot help but have some empathy towards Shylock for the way he is treated, though clearly he is not a very virtuous man in his own right.
To analyze Christian hypocrisy in this play, it is necessary to go back to Portia's dramatic speech given at the trial, discussed previously. Portia preaches about the blessings of showing mercy, almost playing the role of a preacher. But if we retrace her steps back to Act 1, we hear Portia confessing to Christian hypocrisy. "Portia alludes to the familiar commonplace of the breach between Christian precept and practice" (Hassel, 117). This assertion comes from the following passage spoken by Portia:
"If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches, and poor men's cottages princes' palaces. It is a good divine that follows his own instructions. I can easier teach twenty that were good to be done than to be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching" (Act 1, Scene 2, lines 11-15).
The primary Christian characters of this play are representative of the people living at the time. Antonio, the merchant of Venice himself, has a great reputation among his fellow Christians who see him as a righteous and self-sacrificing citizen and friend. His bigotry towards Jews is not frowned upon because all of the others share his belief. Behind Shylock's back, Antonio ridicules him as a moneylender, but then enters into a loan agreement with him anyway. Antonio shows no mercy to Shylock when Portia pronounces his sentence. If Antonio were a genuine Christian, would he not have humbly accepted his acquittal then tried to reconcile his differences with Shylock? Instead, Antonio agrees to take half of Shylock's possessions without objection, thus eliminating his main business rival. These actions (along with Antonio's berating of Shylock) are not of Christian compassion and mercy but of selfishness and religious hypocrisy.
Now I briefly turn to Bassanio. Bassanio is portrayed as a bit of a playboy--squandering all he has, refusing to work and willing to beg for financial assistance. He is more than willing to marry Portia for financial gain. He certainly has a tendency toward materialism and consumption, which are not Christian values. Although Bassanio does not really victimize Shylock in the same way the others do, his lifestyle does tarnish the religious credibility of the Christian community.
Now I turn to Portia, who embodies this hypocritical Christian nature and does not practice what she preaches. We are clued in to her racism as she complains about one of her suitors for marriage, the dark-skinned Prince from Morocco. Portia makes the comment "If he have the condition of a saint and the complexion of a devil, I had rather he should shrive me than wive me" (Act 1, Scene 2, line 33). "Portia knows it is a sin to be a mocker, but she mocks her suitors anyway" (Hassel, 114). Portia instead settles for the gold-digging Bassanio.
Although Portia's "quality of mercy" speech sounds like a wonderful description of Christian values, it is really an ironic display of Christian talking points versus actual practice. As I mentioned earlier, Portia's words do not correlate with her deeds. She tricks Shylock in this scene, first by disguising her character, then by turning the perceived law against him, leaving him a shell of his former self while enriching her friends. Shylock's life is completely ruined and she makes an even bigger mockery of his religion. Portia appears spiteful, not compassionate, and certainly does not come off as a merciful Christian.
Though Shakespeare is a tough read for me, I think I finally came to an understanding about what this play was really trying to convey. At first glance, you find yourself hating Shylock and admiring Antonio, Bassanio, and Portia. Later, you find yourself empathizing with Shylock because of the hypocrisy of the Christian characters. While the critics have argued it both ways, I truly feel that Shakespeare is merely commenting on society as he then saw it, which turns out to be a strong indictment of both religions--or at least how their virtues are carried out by their followers.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on July 6, 2010
For our 5th Form (11th grade) Lit class our Lit teacher recommended that we all use this book to help us with the drama. The original books which were given to us were difficult for many of us to understand. However, with No Fear Shakespeare and our wonderful Lit teacher we all passes Lit, most of us passed with B+ and up and I received 100 % on my English Lit exam as well as a 98% year average in Lit for that year !!! Recommended by me, my Lit teacher and my entire Lit class
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on October 20, 2001
This play can be read as anti-semitic. In fact, it's pretty hard to defend it from such charges. Shylock is a pretty rotten character and the fact that he is jewish is difficult to overlook (particularly since the other characters mention it on pretty much EVERY page). However, I think it is important to mention that the "heroes" of this play do not necessarily have to be interpreted as heroes. They are by no means perfect and there are many subtle (and some not-so-subtle) instances within the text in which their biases against ANYONE unlike them is illustrated. If one reads the play this way, then Shylock becomes more of a tragic figure rather than an absolutely heartless villain. I don't know. My feelings about this are mixed. There are a few funny parts of this play and the language is, as always, beautiful. The theme of putting a price on human beings is one which has been explored numerous times since. Overall, it is enjoyable, but perhaps not so much so as some of the other comedies. Do not read this play without having read a few others by Shakespeare first. It is an excellent play, but not his best and not his most enjoyable either.