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The Merchant of Venice is a play written by Shakespeare around 1597, before the great tragedies of Shakespeare’s later years. It is set in Venice, and it is likely that the author drew inspiration from various Italian stories when he chose his characters, such as the merchant, the fair lady and her poor suitor. The play consists of five acts, and it deals with two different situations at the same time: the main plot is the dispute on money matters between Antonio and a Jewish moneylender, Shylock, while the subplot focuses on the rich lady Portia, who lives in Belmont and who must choose a husband.
The play starts with Antonio, a merchant, who’s walking through the streets of Venice while he talks to his friends, Bassanio, Gratiano and Lorenzo, about a foreign trade in which he has invested all of his money. Bassanio needs to obtain a loan, and he intends to ask Shylock, a moneylender, but Antonio suggests him not to do so, because according to him, Shylock is nothing more than a greedy usurer. This is when the character of Shylock comes into play, and after expressing all of his contempt for Antonio, he agrees to supply Bassanio with three thousand ducats for three months, at the condition that if Bassanio fails to repay him in time, Antonio is to give a pound of his flesh to Shylock. Antonio agrees, and the deal is made.
The reason why Bassanio needs the money is that he wants to travel to Belmont in order to woo Portia. Portia’s recently dead father had arranged a marriage plan for her: according to his will, Portia’s suitors must undergo a test which involves choosing among three caskets or chests, one made of gold, one of silver and one of lead.
In Belmont, two of the suitors take the test. The Prince of Morocco chooses the golden chest, and finds an image of Death inside it, while the Prince of Arragon chooses the silver chest and finds a picture of a blinking idiot. When it’s Bassanio’s turn, he chooses the lead chest and inside it he finds a portrait of Portia. The lady agrees to marry him.
Meanwhile, Antonio’s ships have been wrecked, and this means that he cannot repay Shylock. For this reason, he is imprisoned and while he is in jail, Portia decides to disguise herself as a lawyer and defend Antonio. A trial takes place, in which Portia first asks Shylock to drop the charge against Antonio in change of a huge sum of money, but the usurer refuses. Portia then points out to the Court that it was Shylock who committed a crime: he, a non-citizen of Venice, has threatened the life of a citizen, Antonio, and therefore he is subject to the death penalty. In the end, the Duke of Venice spares Shylock’s life and allows him to retain part of his wealth if he converts to Christianity. Antonio is free of all charges, and the play ends on a happy note.
Many critics have debated for years whether Shakespeare supported the anti-Semitism of his characters in this play. During the period in which the author lived, Jews were marginalised, and they were seen as villains and were objects of mockery. Still, Shylock’s character is complex: Shakespeare makes him human by making the audience understand that he acts like he does because of all the injustice he has received from the Christians, who have always considered him an outsider, never a citizen. For this reason he elicits pity and compassion from the readers and audiences, but he still can’t be seen in a totally positive light, as he plotted to murder Antonio.
In this play, the main difference between the Christian characters and Shylock is that the formers regard human relationships as more valuable than business ones, while Shylock is only interested in money. For example, Antonio, who is a merchant, lends his money free of interests, and accepts to repay Shylock for Bassanio’s loan, because they’re really close friends.
In his “Lectures on Shakespeare” at Princeton University, W.H. Auden, a well-known literary critic, said in 1946: “With memories of the horrors of the last ten years and forebodings about anti-Semitism, it is difficult to look objectively at a play in which the villain is a Jew. But we must in order to understand it. In England in Shakespeare’s day, English writers didn’t know Jews, who had been expelled by Edward I in 1290 and not readmitted until the time of Cromwell. A few years before the play was written, there had been a law case in which Dr. Roderigo Lopez, a Portuguese Jew who was physician to the Queen, was tried and executed for treason – it was a frame up. Whatever prejudice against the Jews existed among Elizabethans, it was not racial. Religious differences in the play are treated frivolously: the question is not one of belief but of conformity. The important thing about Shylock is not that he is a Jew or a heretic, but that he is an outsider”