Understanding The Merchant of Venice: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents

By Jay L. Halio | Go to book overview

Introduction

The Merchant of Venice is Shakespeare most controversial play. Its alleged anti-Semitism continues to engage both literary critics and theatrical reviewers every time the play is staged or a new edition is published. Although Shylock appears in only five scenes, he dominates the action. Nonetheless, the casket scenes are also important and provide much of the play's color and suspense. In fact, the play raises many important issues today, perhaps even more than in the 1590s, when it was first produced and printed.

Among the many issues that merit discussion, besides the central one of anti-Semitism, are the relationships between parents and children (there are three sets of them in the play), particularly involving permission to marry, the position of women in society generally, justice and mercy, friendship, matrimony, and the various kinds of bonds that connect human beings with each other. Another important issue, one raised by the very existence of a moneylender, Shylock, in the play, is the problem of usury. Christian doctrine generally opposed lending money at interest and exerted tremendous political pressure to prohibit it in England during the sixteenth century. Venice, as a center of world trade during this period and a place where many tourists flocked, then as now, was an exotic and intriguing locale--as were other cities in Europe-- that attracted the interest of playwrights and their audiences. These

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