Shylock and Portia by Thomas Sully (1835), from Act IV, Scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice. Wikimedia Commons.

Following some interesting conversations on Twitter, I thought I should try to put some thoughts down about The Merchant of Venice. I studied the play as a student in the 1990s, have seen countless performances: in the theatre and on TV, so know it well. Or do I?

In truth, The Merchant of Venice is a complex and multi-layered play, and I think harder to get a handle on now because of the way the performance history has changed. After the play’s initial performance, it was only revived twice at court in 1605. Its first seismic shift occurred in 1741, when the Irish actor Charles Macklin turned Shylock from a low comedy role into that of a terrifying villain. Thereafter, it became a popular play with many top actors choosing to play Shylock.

I have not dealt too much with Shylock here because I think the emphasis has shifted gradually on to him over the years, which has had the effect of distorting the play’s themes. The Merchant of Venice is not (though we wish it were!) a play about racial intolerance, although I’m not saying that Shakespeare didn’t want to explore the effects of racial hatred and show how hatred breeds violence. It’s just not the theme of the play. Sorry.

I should say, because I’m a theatre historian, I’m less interested in what people think now about the play and more how people in Shakespeare’s time viewed it. My sense is that Jacobeans would have held views that would shock us today as antisemitic. After all, The Merchant of Venice is classed as a comedy in the First Folio; by the 18th century, actors playing Shylock came on in a red wig and false nose and audiences probably looked forward to Shylock’s comeuppance.  But of all Shakespeare’s plays, it seems to me that The Merchant of Venice has most shifted its meaning over time, not least because of the Holocaust, but also because Shylock is far more interesting than Antonio: the character for whom the play is named.

I’m fine with people using the play to explore racial intolerance, but how can I get a sense of what the play meant to Shakespeare and his audiences? Firstly, I went back to the sonnets – specifically, Sonnet 4 – which I remembered had some interesting imagery about money (you can read the whole sonnet here).  Addressed to the beautiful youth, the poem uses finance and accounting as an extended metaphor; the argument is that the youth is wasting the gifts of nature by self-admiration, when he should be getting married and having a child. The opening line (“Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend/Upon thyself thy beauty’s legacy?”) has a masturbatory air, and later, Shakespeare calls him “Profitless usurer”.

It’s that latter reference that reminded me of The Merchant of Venice. Shylock is, of course, a usurer (because he lends money at a high interest rate) and his speech about Jacob grazing Laban’s sheep (Act I, Scene III) is his defence of the practice. He hates Antonio precisely because he lends money “gratis” to his friends, thus denying him business. In the play there is a clear contrast between the idea of love – the generous use of nature’s gifts between friends; the increase of progeny through marriage – and its opposite: usuary, which is a kind of negation of love, friendship and community.

Shakespeare is not idealistic in his way of presenting relationships – even the loving ones involve exchange – but it’s the spirit in which the exchange occurs that’s important. Compare these two remarks:

Portia to Bassinio: Bid your friends welcome, show a merry cheer – Since you are dear bought, I will love you dear (Act III, Scene III).


Shylock to the Duke: The pound of flesh which I demand of him is dearly bought, ‘tis mine and I will have it (Act IV, Scene I).

There’s a clear distinction between the loving openness of Portia, and Shylock, the usurer, who grapples the wealth unto himself. Similarly, Shylock keeps his daughter, Jessica, immured in his house and urges her to lock the doors, whereas Portia leaves her whole estate at Belmont in the safekeeping of Lorenzo and Jessica: two people whom she hardly knows.

A connected and important theme is appearance versus reality, which we see in the central caskets plot, and which also plays out through Shylock himself, who pretends the “merry bond” is all a joke but is soon whetting his knife in court, ready to take his pound of flesh. Even Shylock’s question about whether Antonio is a good man or not I think we are supposed to see as a perversion of the natural order:

Ho no, no, no, no: my meaning in saying he is a good man, is to have you understand me that he is sufficient (Act I, Scene III).

This is a world in which the word “good” has changed its meaning to refer to money and credit, nothing more.

The end of the play presents a nexus of relationships, in which people are indebted to one another in different ways; there is Shylock’s bond, of course, but the court-scene switches to the generous community at Belmont, with a second exchange of rings and Antonio’s promise, yet again, to stand surety for Bassanio:

I once did lend my body for his wealth,
Which but for him that had your husband’s ring
Had quite miscarried. I dare be bound again,
My soul upon the forfeit, that your lord
Will never more break faith advisedly (Act V, Scene I).

The message of the lead casket (“Who chooseth me, must give and hazard all he hath”) takes us to the heart of the play: love involves openness and risk. To keep everything to yourself, to let money breed money, is a state against nature – it negates life.

Following the events of the 20th century, it’s hardly suprising that this play seems to speak to us on another level, showing us the terrible consequences of dehumanising people who are different from ourselves. However, it’s testament to Shakespeare’s brilliance that its central message – love one another – remains unchanged.