Archive for the Merchant of Venice Category

Slavery in Elizabethan England

Posted in Merchant of Venice on February 23, 2009 by Saera

The Merchant of Venice is largely concerned with marginalized peoples. Race, religion, social status, and gender were all used in 16th century England (as they are still used in many places today) as reasons to to deny people basic human rights and fair treatment. Shakespeare seems surprisingly ahead of his time though, in having one of his characters, Shylock,  outline some atrocities of slavery:

You have among you many a purchased slave,

Which, like your asses and your dogs and mules,

You use in abject and in slavish parts

Because you bought them. Shall I say to you

‘Let them be free, marry them to your heirs.

Why sweat they under their burdens? Let their beds

Be made as soft as yours, and let their palates

Be seasoned with such viands.’ You will answer

‘The slaves our ours.’ So do I answer you.

Shylock wants to exact revenge on Antonio and press payment of the bond Antonio agreed to, namely, one pound of Antonio’s flesh. The ‘Christian’ people’s outrage at this seemingly blood-thirsty request is effectively answered by Shylock with the above speech through which Shakespeare basically shows slavery to be equivalent to the bloody cutting of a chunk of someone’s flesh! Not a particularly pleasant comment on slavery. So, while this speech falls short of explicit anti-slavery sentiment, it is a strong questioning of the morality of slavery and its damaging effects upon individuals and society. It also raises the question of equality – who determines human equality, and why? What gives humans the right to take the rights of other humans? Money? That is what Shylock insists upon, and although that is what the ‘Christians’ say is wrong, it is what they do, as pointed out by Shylock with the instance of slavery.

In a time when slavery was still relatively new, this was gutsy for Shakespeare to do, particularly because many of his powerful patrons (including the Queen) had invested in slave  voyages or were supportive of slavery. Also, Shakespeare’s plays were highly censored, and any perceived threat to the Queen’s rule would be severely punished.

According to the handy timeline presented at Shakespeare Online, The Merchant of Venice was first performed sometime between 1596-1597, and it was first published around 1600.  Slavery had been introduced to England by a man called John Hawkins – an explorer hero of the times – who commanded the first slave voyages to Africa around 1560. So since slavery had been going on for roughly thiry-eight years at the time of the Merchant of Venice‘s first performances, the slave trade would have been fairly well-established by the time Shakespeae wrote the play .

These first voyages were financed by London merchants and supported by the Queen and her court, according to an article published at  On these voyages, African villages were raided and their residents captured and brought to Spanish colonies where they were then sold for an incredible profit. These voyages continued, but it was not until the 17th century that the British slave trade became well-established, and some slaves were brought to England. But it would not be until the 17th century that anti-slavery views would begin to be circulated. And the abolitionist movement would not get well underway until the 18th century.

So Shakespeare essentially confronts a newly-developing social practice and presents very insightful questions (ones that would not be raised again for some time) on a relatively new practice of his time.  I’m sure it made some people squirm uncomfortably. And, by now, I should be used to him doing that. After all, he does it quite well, especially in The Merchant of Venice.

Class Notes – Overview of the Comical History of the Merchant of Venice

Posted in Merchant of Venice on February 23, 2009 by Saera

“All in all, this play has engaged me more and required more contemplation on issues raised by its reading than any other Shakespeare play that I have read so far.”


 As Dr. Gurney, my professor, noted, this play leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. It is not your typical comedy, and certainly not a comical history of the unfortunate Venetian merchant!

There are some penetratingly beautiful passages and fun quotes in The Merchant of Venice. In fact, if I had to use only one word to describe this drama, I would choose the word penetratingThe Merchant of Venice is not light-hearted, it is perhaps not as deep as some,  but it is incredibly penetrating for the very reason that is requires readers to step back, and penetrate through the characters’ words and actions to discern their true intentions or motivations. All is not as it seems in this play. Complexities compound, hypocrisy harries, and words weigh heavily.

I was unsuccessful in finding even one completely sympathetic character – they are all quite disturbing to me. Yet they are not totally inhuman villains either. Thatis one of the play’s redeeming qualities. That complexity (which requires penetration, and so provides penetration into our own souls) of characters and the constant tension between appearances and reality, truth and lies, selfishness and love. In particular, the theme of hypocrisy seems to be lurking throughout the play, surfacing frequently.

 Mercy is another prominent theme also correlating with hypocrisy in demanding mercy of others but failing to show it to others. One cannot read this play and fail to ask himself what mercy’s definition and application is. I especially appreciated the courtroom scene. The mercy vs. justice theme had a deep implication for me as relating to salvation through works (the law) or through grace (or mercy).

Although Portia herself was entirely unmerciful, she effectively shows how the law is a double-edged sword: it can be both freeing and enslaving because we can never live up to it on our own. Through we may use it to bring down others, or demand that they give retribution to us, it all comes at a price. For, according to the law, nothing is free. Portia’s courtroom speech about mercy is one of the most beautiful I have ever read. But its effect is significantly lessened by Portia’s unmerciful, greedy plot to confiscate Shylock’s property. Again, the word penetrating comes to mind. Both the mercy speech and Portia’s actions are penetrating: the former is penetrating in that its beauty permeates the audience’s ear and heart, but the latter is penetrating because it clearly contrasts with the ideals expressed in the speech and forces the reader/viewer to decide whether mercy is being shown or  not, and consequently what mercy’s definition is.

This play is also about marginalized peoples. There are people marginalized because of their race (the Moroccan prince), religion (Jews), gender (Portia), and social status (slaves). Slavery especially is mentioned by Shylock as being the same as taking flesh from other humans. This is an especially effective argument against slavery, and a rather early expression of anti-slavery arguments. But perhaps the greatest marginalization occurs (supposedly) because of religion. The tension between Jew versus the Christians is emphasized. While it is difficult to say whether Merchant of Veniceis explicitly anti-Semetic or not, it certainly presents both sides of the issue, portraying Shylock’s flaws as well as the hypocritical greediness of the nominal Christians.

All in all, this play has engaged me more and required more contemplation on issues raised by its reading than any other Shakespeare play that I have read so far.

It is not perhaps as humorously entertaining as other comedies, but it is highly evocative of thought on important spiritual and social issues, both of which are quite related, as this play illustrates. Regarding the work as a whole, I believe I would rather be a little “uncomfortable” while being stimulated to think than mindlessly entertained. Therefore, I highly recommend reading The Merchant of Venice.


The Caskets Three

Posted in Merchant of Venice with tags , , on February 22, 2009 by Saera

Some of the most important symbolism in the Merchant of Venice is that of the three caskets of gold, silver, and lead. Portia’s suitors must choose which casket contains Portia’s portrait – if they succeed, they earn the right to marry Portia; if they fail, they earn a quick trip home. These caskets illustrate the disparity between appearances and reality. The gold casket contains an outward engraving of the words, “Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire,” and the inward inscription, ” All that glisters is not gold;/ Often have you heard that told./ Many a man his life hath sold/ But my outside to behold./ Gilded tombs do worms infold./ Had you been wise as bold,/ Young in limbs, in judgement old,/ Your answer had not been enscrolled./ Fare you well; your suit is cold.”

The silver casket contains these words on the outside: ” Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.”  Inside, a mirror and the following words are found: “The fire seven times tried this;/ Seven times tried that judgement is/ That did never choose amiss./ Some there be that shadows kiss;/ Such have but a shadow’s bliss./ There be fools alive, iwis/ Silvered o’er; and so was this./ Take what wife you will to bed,/ I will ever be your head./ So be gone, you are sped.”

On its exterior, the lead casket contains the words, “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.” The inside contains the following words: “You that choose not by the view/ Chance as fair and choose as true./ Since this fortune falls to you,/ Be content, and seek no new./ If you be well pleased with this,/ And had your fortune for your bliss,/ Turn you where your lady is,/ And claim her with a loving kiss.”

While the caskets and their contents may represent several possibilities, I believe that they represent the three ways the characters can represent themselves: publicly, privately, and individually.

The gold, like many public appearances, looks attractive, is desired by many, and is very moldable, even once it is set. Like the silver, private appearances to select few are often polished, look decent, and are fairly shapeable. But the lead, like the very interior of  a person, is difficult to mold, not overly showy, and seemingly undervalued when compared to gold or silver. Yet it is the most durable, the most valuable for practical uses, and the hardest to change.

The captions on the caskets also correlate with the idea of public, private, and interior appearances and reality. “Many men desire” a public appearance, a chance to be known publicly, but does their mere desre make public appearance valuable? And who chooses private appearances “shall get what he deserves” because we can, to a large extent, determine or shape our private appearances and those we allow into our private social circles. Finally, to choose to appear true to inside, to our self, we must “give and hazard” all we have; first, in order to know ourselves and what we truly are, and second, in order to appear true to that internal reality to ourselves then ultimately, to others.

Another way to think about this is to see it as three ways we can respond to social pressures. If we are influenced only by social  group pressure, we are like the gold casket: soft, least durable, easily shaped, possessing a showy appearance, fitting in with the standard set by a few but held by many, and void of any substance or worth inside. We allow others to dictate what we should be, therefore we end up being empty replicas of something many people desire simply because they know that others desire it.

If we are influenced more by our chosen little private circles, we are like the silver: a bit more durable, but we possess little of our own values or beliefs – we merely reflect them back from the others in our circle, and we get what we deserve because we can choose which private circles we belong to.

But if we are more influenced by what we believe to be right, we are more like the lead: the most durable, possessing strength and inner worth, for which we hazard all and give all to protect in the face of social persecution or exclusion.

Money, Merchants, and Maus

Posted in Merchant of Venice with tags , on February 22, 2009 by Saera

What role does economics play in the Merchant of Venice? In keeping with the play’s theme of hypocrisy as seen in the relationships of  appearances and reality, words and actions, the theme of greed seems to be one of the primary motives for the characters’ actions and appearances.  It seems appropriate then, that a story about greed be set against the backdrop of the city of Venice, one of the primary trading cities of 16th century Europe.

In an essay published in The Norton Shakespeare on the Merchant of Venice, Kathrine Maus asserts that Venice was “the richest city in Renaissance Europe, located where the products of Asia could most conveniently be exchanged with those of western Europe.” Because of the location and commerce activity of Venice, it contained a much larger percentage of ethnic diversity among its residents than did many other western European cities. And because of the wealth brought in by the trade, Venice tolerated that diversity and offered a certain level of legal protection for fair treatment of all.

Maus makes the observation that the “laws of the marketplace seemed to have little to do with religion or nationality.” This is interesting, because in Shakespeare’s drama, religion and nationality have a lot to do with the laws of the marketplace. In fact, religion especially is related to the economics present in the play.

The tension between Shylock and Antonio is mainly business related, yet both characters blame the other’s religion and tie that in to their business tactics as reason enough to dislike each other. For example, Shylock says of Antonio, “I hate him for he is a Christian:/ But more, for that in low  simplicity/ He lends out money gratis, and brings down/ The rate of usance here with us in Venice” (1.3, lines 37-40). And Antonio repeatedly makes reference to Shylock as being a villainous Jew, even calling him a devil because he charges interest.

While Antonio believes usury to be damaging to friendships by blurring the distinction between things of the spirit and material things, Shylock refuses to differentiate between human relations and money relations. In fact, as Maus points out, “his ‘pound’ of flesh proposal, baldly insisting that flesh is convertible to ducats, demands that the Christians violate their own taboo against confusing categories of spirit and matter, flesh and money, live and dead.”

Maus then goes on in the essay to explain how Shylock appears to view people in purely economic terms, but he becomes a “moving” character when he shows his feelings about other ways to value people. Antonio and Bassanio (along with most all of the other “Christian” characters of the play) claim to value people (as long as those people are of their own belief system) as more than simply for economic gain, but their actions undermine their words’ authenticity.  Bassanio marries Portia both for love andbecause he needs her money; Antonio attempts to buy Bassanio’s friendship with his bond; Graziano and Lorenzo want Shylock to be taken advantage of because as Antonio’s business partners, they would profit off Antonio’s financial gain. Here are three types of love – love to spouse, love to friend, and love to enemy – that are rooted in economic greed. This is particularly hypocritical for persons claiming to follow Christ’s teachings about the selfless nature of love, especially as it relates to loving one’ s enemy.

Furthermore, in the courtroom, Shylock refuses to be swayed with the appeal of money –  he recognizes that human flesh is of infinitely more value than any money.  But the “Christians” continue to press for the eventual confiscation of all Shylock’s wealth, mercilessly uncaring as to his state at all. What makes this even worse is Portia’s exacting greed (if Antonio gets Shylock’s wealth, she will receive some indirectly through Bassanio) after her beautiful speech on mercy. And Lancelot’s speech in 3.5, lines 17- 20, give an appallingly economic view on the purely spiritual matter of soul’s conversion to Christianity. He says, “This making of Christians will raise the price of hogs. If we grow all to be pork eaters we shall not shortly have a rasher on the coals for money.” This is greed at its finest: complete desire for one’s own preservation and betterment with total disregard for others’ conditions or needs. If these nominal Christians had followed Christ’s teachings, they would have known that “You cannot serve both God and Money”(Matthew 6:24c).

While this play is titled the Merchant of Venice, there are many more than one merchants in this play – almost every character is out to make a profit by selling commodities at whatever price they are able to charge. But most of them fail to recognize that what is most desirable can never be bought with gold or silver, and so they end up unhappy, unfulfilled, greedy, miserable, hypocritical merchants.