The Merchant of Venice

Definition

Theater

  • Shakespeare's tragicomedy about the attempted revenge of the Jewish usurer Shylock. It was written c. 1596 - 98 but the date of its first performance is unknown. Shakespeare's main sourceswere Giovanni Fiorentino's Il Pecorone (1558) and Marlowe'sThe Jew of Malta (1589). In the story Antonio, a Venetian merchant,borrows money from Shylock to help his friend Bassanio woo the heiressPortia. As security he is obliged to offer a pound of hisown flesh, assuming that this is a friendly joke. When Antonio findshimself unable to return the money, Shylock, enraged by the constantinsults of the Christians, demands his pound of flesh. In the play'sclimactic court scene Portia, disguised as a lawyer, saves Antonio'slife by arguing that Shylock is entitled to a pound of the merchant'sflesh but not to a drop of his blood. Shylock is stripped of his estateand compelled to become a Christian.

    Between them Charles Macklin and Edmund Keanrevolutionized the interpretation of Shylock by turning him into afigure of tragic dignity. In 1889 Henry Irving and Ellen Terry presentedthe trial scene at Sandringham for the reclusive Queen Victoria. Othernotable Shylock - Portia pairings have included Redgrave - Ashcroftin 1953 at Stratford and Olivier - Plowright in 1970 at the OldVic.

    Charles Macklin was so precise in his interpretation of thepart that he once instructed Bobby Bates, playing Tubal, not to speakuntil Macklin had placed his right foot on a particular nail in thestage floor. Bates dutifully marked the spot with chalk, but Macklinforgot all about it once into his performance. When Bates missed hiscue, Macklin growled under his breath, "Why the devil don'tyou speak?" "Sir," replied Bates, "put yourright foot upon the nail."

    In the 20th century the question of whether or not the playis anti-Semitic (and, if so, how this should affect our response toit) has received much anguished attention. In 1976 Arnold Wesker,himself a Jew, rewrote the story from Shylock's perspective as TheMerchant.

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