Understanding The Merchant of Venice: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents

Understanding The Merchant of Venice: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents

Understanding The Merchant of Venice: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents

Understanding The Merchant of Venice: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents

Synopsis

The Merchant of Venice, even in its own time, was considered Shakespeare's most controversial play. Now, one of the most popularly read and performed works, the play raises even more important issues for our day, particularly anti-Semitism and the treatment of Jews. Shakespeare scholar Jay Halio brings together his fascinating literary insights and his considerable knowledge of Shakespeare's world to this student casebook. His analysis of the play helps students interpret Shakespeare's plot and interwoven subplots, the sources that helped shape the play and the characters, and the thematic issues relating to justice, mercy, and the myriad bonds of human relationships. These themes serve as starting points for a broader understanding of the issues discussed and documented: Elizabethan marriage and women's matrimonial rights; Renaissance concepts of male friendship; legal, moral, and religious views of usury; and the treatment of Jews in Venice and beyond. The concerns raised by the play are put into context with historical materials including Sir Francis Bacon's essay "Of Friendship," excerpts from Henry Smith's 1591 A Preparative to Marriage, extracts from Phillip Stubbes' 1583 Anatomy of Abuses, and Travel Accounts by Fynes Moryson that describe Venice and how Jews lived there in the early 1600s. This casebook also considers contemporary applications, with essays and editorials on current hate groups in the United States, the treatment of women, and male bonding. This section, culminating with a poignant interview in which actor Hal Halbrook discusses his stage portrayal of Shylock, will leave readers with an appreciation for how profoundly relevant The Merchant of Venice remains forour time.

Excerpt

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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