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The Merchant of Venice
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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on December 5, 2005
Format: Mass Market Paperback
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.
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24 of 29 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon September 11, 2008
Format: Kindle Edition
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.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
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.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on August 19, 2004
Format: Paperback
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.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
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.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on July 7, 2010
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
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
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on October 20, 2001
Format: Mass Market Paperback
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.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Format: Mass Market Paperback
The New Folger Library of Shakespeare's Tragedies and Comedies are among the best pocket editions available for the student and the journeyman lover of the Bard.

Before the actual text of the play which is wisely presented on the right hand page with explanatory notes (metaphors, allusions, similes, etc.) facing on the left hand page (words and phrases are defined by scholars based on their usage during Shakespeare's time; if scholars are inconclusive as to meaning, the word `uncertain' is used to connote this disagreement), the usual `Reading Shakespeare's Language', `Shakespeare's Life', `Shakespeare's Theatre', `Publication of Shakespeare's Plays' and `Introduction to the Text' introduce the reader to the Shakespearean world. Following the text, an essay by Alexander Leggatt follows illuminating `The Merchant of Venice' for the modern reader. In addition, an eleven page `Further Reading' list pinpoints books and essays on topics like the play itself, Shakespeare, the time in which he lived and the Globe Theatre. Rounding out the vital information is a three page "Key to Famous Lines and Phrases" complete with speaker and verse notation.

As far as the play itself, I will keep my remarks limited, saying only that for the modern audience, Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" borders on the provocative. All with politically correct upbringing or today's cultural sensitivity training cannot help but focus on the reigning prejudice of the early Medieval and Renaissance time period, namely the exclusion of Jews from all forms of normal life since mainstream thought withheld that this race was primarily responsible for Christ's crucifixion.

Indeed, today's reader will pose the question as to whether or not this play should be deemed more tragedy than comedy and must remember that as a comedy, "The Merchant of Venice" focuses on marriage, couples (Bassanio/Portia, Lorenzo/Jessica, Gratiano/Nerissa) and their emotional and financial interrelationships and uses sly humor and innuendo to poke fun at Venice's societal `outsiders'(Shylock, Morocco, Aragorn and in a lesser sense Antonio) who do not form a Shakespearean couple per se. Looked at from this perspective, the character of Shylock becomes simply the play's foremost societal outcast, in spite of the famous speech where he asks seemingly so poignantly, "If you prick us, do we not bleed?"

Bottom line: Shakespeare is Shakespeare. If your modern sensibilities are offended by Shakespeare's treatment of Shylock the Jew, the Prince of Morocco and the Prince of Aragorn and question the unhappy and solitary Antonio's intense feelings for Bassanio, simply keep in mind that the world at that time looked at such things differently. Within the definition of comedy, this play with its multitude of lovely speeches and images works well indeed. The New Folger Library edition simply makes the play more easily accessible and understood on the various levels of language and scholarship. I recommend this series wholeheartedly.

Diana F. Von Behren

"reneofc"
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on March 21, 2002
Format: Mass Market Paperback
I really enjoyed this play, but then again I always enjoy Shakespeare's plays. The man is a genius. Anyway, The Merchant of Venice follows the story of Antonio, a merchant who loans money to his friend Bassanio so that Bassanio may woo the heiress Portia. In order for Bassanio to gain the lady's hand, however, he must correctly choose the right gilded casket, a riddle given to Portia by her late father. He picks the lead casket, which just happens to be the right one. Meanwhile, in order to get the money Antonio asks the help of a Jew named Shylock who is out for revenge because Antonio is a Christian. He makes Antonio promise to give him a pound of his flesh if he does not pay Shylock back. Shylock's daughter Jessica elopes with Lorenzo and this also makes Shylock angry, mostly because Lorenzo is a Christian. Portia and Bassanio get married as do Portia's assitant Nerissa and Antonio's friend Gratiano. When he fails to pay back the forfeit, a trial is held to find out if Antonio deserves to have a pound of his flesh taken out of him and at this trial Portia and Nerissa dress up as a doctor and a clerk to fool their husbands and the other men by asking for their own wedding rings. They succeed in letting Antonio get away with his life and say that the life of Shylock is in the hands of the Duke, who makes the Jew give all his money to Bassanio and Antonio.
I recommend this play to others and also all of Shakespeare's other plays. If you can get into them they are good reads.
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on February 28, 2003
Format: Paperback
As another reviewer mentioned it is a totally different experience to read a play (especially Shakespeare) when you haven't seen it performed. Yet I decided to do just that with Merchant of Venice, and though my opinion would undoubtedly be different if I had seen it performed, as it stands I can only offer my opinion on it as a written work. As I read the work itself I had a difficult time seeing past the blatant anti-Semitism to analyze the work itself. After reading the play however I went back and read the introduction [...] and the introduction pointed out several things that if they are to be believed would help alleviate my dislike of the treatment of the character of Shylock the Jew. First apparently Shakespeare's prime target in making Shylock a sort of villain was really moneylenders in general, people mostly disliked by those making up much of Shakespeare's audience. The fact that Shakespeare made his moneylender Jewish is more of an exotic touch having to do with the play's setting in Venice. Apparently Jews were incredibly rare in England in Shakespeare's time and though the audience would of course know of them the chance that any of the commoners in the general admission area of the Globe had ever seen a Jew themselves is about as likely as them having seen a Moorish prince like the one courting Portia. As to Shakespeare's cruel treatment (or rather the other characters' cruel treatment) of Shylock's faith, Kenneth Myrick explains that during Shakespeare's time Jews were known particularly for their love for the letter rather than spirit of the law, and were disliked for that attitude. Apparently the characters in Merchant of Venice showing animosity towards Shylock and his faith would be similar to characters in a modern day tv sitcom making fun of a fundamentalist right-wing Christian. Which is not to say that that makes the behavior of either group acceptable, but for myself it puts it into a different light than if people were saying the same thing to a Jew today. Anyway when I was able to look past the anti-Semitism of the play and look at its other qualities here is what I thought: Shakespeare is creating with this play a kind of fairy tale. The caskets that challenge the various suitors to Portia, so that only the noble Bassanio might marry her; the villain who in a jealous and vindictive rage plots to end the life of Bassanio's true friend; and the deus ex machina appearance of Portia in drag to save the day and make the villain pay. This last bit is what makes it more interesting than the classic fairy tale, as it is the fairy princess that swoops in to save the hopelessly trapped knights. And in that it has strong and liberating roles for the female characters, Merchant of Venice succeeds. However I must admit that even without the anti-Semitism holding me back a bit, I just didn't find this work as humorous or as well written in general as some of Shakespeare's other play. Certainly his tragedies surpass it in writing skill, and of his comedies that I have read, this is the least humorous. I must qualify that however by saying that this is Shakespeare nonetheless, and even if it can't compare with his other work, he still is one of the greatest playwrights in the English language.
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