The Merchant of Venice Introduction
In A Nutshell
You know big Willy Shakespeare, the guy who wrote in three modes—comedy, tragedy, and history?
Well, he also wrote The Merchant of Venice, a play that is kind of none of the above. It's also kind of all of the above.
If it's a comedy, it's a pitch-black, deeply problematic comedy. If it's a tragedy, it's still pretty dang happy for most of the characters. And if it's a history… well, it's one of the better-known and better-liked.
Officially, The Merchant of Venice is a comedy. A comedy about a bitter and detested Jewish moneylender (Shylock) who seeks revenge against a Christian merchant who has defaulted on a loan. Woo! That's a real knee-slapper!
Merchant's controversial subject matter has earned it a reputation as a "problem play" (y'think?) that continues to ask a series of difficult questions 400 years after it was first staged:
- Does the play endorse the anti-Semitic attitudes of its Christian characters?
- Does it critique the kinds of prejudices it portrays on stage?
- Or does it merely dramatize intolerance without taking a stance one way or the other?
Before we can even address these questions, it's important to know some historical background. Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy history lesson.
For Shakespeare, writing to an English audience about a Jewish moneylender would have been totally foreign. That's because there were approximately zero Jews in 16th-century England… because they had been kicked out in 1290 under the Edict of Expulsion. The Jews who were left had to practice their religion in secret.
Still, Jews were a popular target of hatred in Shakespeare's England in large part due the trial of Queen Elizabeth's personal physician, Rodrigo Lopez, a converted Portuguese Jew. In 1594 Lopez was convicted of plotting to poison Queen Elizabeth I and was executed as a traitor—meaning he was hanged, cut down (while still alive), and mutilated before a crowd of spectators.
Shakespeare, with his pulse on the popular interest, presented The Merchant of Venice around 1597, hot on the heels of the Lopez trial. What's interesting about Shakespeare's Jewish merchant, Shylock, is that—depending on how you read the story—he is not a caricature of all things evil.
Shylock is deeply flawed, but he's also complex and deeply human. When he famously asks, "if you prick us [Jews] do we not bleed?" (3.1.63-64), he insists on the fact that Jews and Christians share a common humanity, despite the fact that he's been spit upon, kicked, and railed against for being different.
Are you laughing uproariously at this comedy yet? Or are you feeling like it might be a tragedy? And, given the amount of (insanely bigoted and shameful) history that needs to be covered in order for you to get the gist of The Merchant of Venice, maybe we should refer to this bad boy as a history?
The point is: this play defies characterization. We like to think that maybe, just maybe, this is Shakespeare's way of telling us that plays—and people, dagnabbit—can't be characterized by a few elements (like religion, or genre) alone.
Why Should I Care?
Let's say that you, circa your kindergarten days, make a deal with your younger brother that if the Tampa Bay Rays ever won the World Series, he had to stick his finger in a light socket. He's fine with the deal because, hey, the Tampa Bay Rays will never, ever win the World Series. And you're okay with the potentially devastating results, since he recently put glue in your macaroni and cheese.
Then somebody in Florida sells his soul to the devil and, before you know it, your little brother is facing a pretty lively light socket. He insists that you let him off easy because it's the merciful thing to do, but you counter that the two of you had a bargain... and you want justice.
Interesting word, justice. What does it mean, exactly? Justice according to the law? What if there were a law saying, for example, that white men were allowed to own black men? Or that a man could beat his wife, who, incidentally, wasn't allowed to vote. Since those laws actually existed in United States history, does that mean they were just?
Okay, not so much. "Justice" is clearly tied to something other than the law. Perhaps it's based in religion? Are we talking about divine law? Because that never leads to bad stuff (ahem the Crusades ahem).
So there's obviously something else going on in our heads when we think about justice, something like ethics or morality. But what do you do when justice according to the law is not the same as justice according to religion, which is not the same as justice according to morals or human decency?
The point is, "justice" is not a word you can throw around like "glue" or "light socket." And yet "justice" has been used to justify a slew of actions—like cutting a pound of flesh from a man's chest. Is this the new Tarantino gorefest film?
No, it's The Merchant of Venice. A play that will make you writhe in discomfort even while you laugh, snicker even while you get weepy, contemplate the evilness of men even while feeling kinda warm and fuzzy inside when they do the right thing, root on one of the fiercest heroines in all of drama... and, because this is Shakespeare, gawp in amazement at the language acrobatics, wit, and poetry of this dang masterful play.