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The Merchant of Venice: Q & A

Please also see Aesthetic Examination Questions on The Merchant of Venice for more.

When was The Merchant of Venice written?

The play has been dated as early as 1594 and as late as 1598, but 1596 seems to be the most plausible date of composition. In September 1598, Francis Meres published his Palladis Tamia, in which he mentions Shakespeare and, specifically, The Merchant of Venice. Shakespeare makes a reference to a ship called the St. Andrew (I.i.27) - a real Spanish ship captured in the sack of Cádiz in 1596. Salerio says, "See my wealthy Andrew docked in sand, veiling her high-top lower than her ribs to kiss her burial" (1.1.27). So it seems logical that the play was written in 1596 or shortly after.

Was The Merchant of Venice performed during Shakespeare's lifetime?

Yes. The only two recorded performances of The Merchant of Venice in the 17th century were staged in the spring of 1605, before King James I at Whitehall Palace.

In Act 1 Shylock says: "Yes, to smell pork; to eat of the habitation which your prophet the Nazerite conjured the devil into" (1.3.35). What does Shylock mean? Is he referring to Jesus as a Nazerite?

Yes, Shakespeare is referring to Jesus in this line, but many scholars agree that he made a mistake in applying this title to Christ, because 'Nazarene' is the correct term for a person from Nazareth. Shylock's comment about the habitation refers to Matthew 8:28, where Jesus cast the devils possessing two men into a herd of swine. Shylock is expressing his dislike of Christian practices as Bassanio asks him to dinner.

Does Jessica face discrimination like her father, Shylock?

Actually, although Jessica is herself Jewish, her character is more a perpetrator of discrimination rather than a victim of it. If anything, Jessica's behavior towards her father reinforces the anti-Semitism that pollutes the play. When Gratiano says that Jessica is a "gentle and no Jew" (2.6.51) he says so because Jessica has behaved like a "good Christian" by stealing from the licentious Shylock. Moreover, Jessica says:
When I was with him I have heard him swear
To Tubal and to Chus, his countrymen,
That he would rather have Antonio's flesh
Than twenty times the value of the sum
That he did owe him. (3.2.284-88)
Here we see Jessica's own words supporting the stereotype that Jews are immoral. She describes Shylock's house as "hell" (2.3.2) - explicitly connecting Shylock to the devil himself. And Shakespeare's contemporary audiences were likely left with the impression that Jessica's theft of Shylock's funds is deserved - that the Jew is finally getting what he deserves. This is a large topic worthy of further investigation. For more information, see the "Essays" section of Shakespeare Online.

The Merchant of Venice could easily be classified as a tragedy. Do you agree?

Absolutely. The play is currently classified as a comedy because it shares the basic elements typical of all Shakespeare's comedies. However "there appears in [The Merchant of Venice] such a deadly spirit of revenge, such a savage fierceness and fellness, and such a bloody designation of cruelty and mischief, as cannot agree either with the style or characters of comedy." (Nicholas Rose. Shakespeare. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1939 (83)).

Did Shakespeare know any Jewish people?

Jewish communities were first established in England with the arrival of William the Conqueror in 1066. Although Jews soon began to play key roles in English economic development and flourished as doctors and tradesmen, they could not escape the rampant anti-Semitism that swept Europe. Jews were subjected to vicious persecutions, including charges of the ritual sacrifice of Christian children, which culminated with their expulsion in 1290 by Edward I. The exile lasted until 1655, when Jewish scholar Manasseh ben Israel obtained Oliver Cromwell’s assent for Jews to return to London. Thus, the Elizabethan people knew little about Jews, other than the false information handed down through years of propaganda. Please click here for more information.

How to cite this article:
Mabillard, Amanda. The Merchant of Venice Q & A. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. (date when you accessed the information) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/faq/merchantfaq.html >.
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Related Articles

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 Introduction to Shylock
 Shakespeare Sisterhood: Exploring the Character of Portia
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 How to Pronounce the Names in The Merchant of Venice

 The Character of Antonio
 The Merchant of Venice: Q & A
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 The Merchant of Venice: Plot Summary
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 Quotations About William Shakespeare

 Why Shakespeare is so Important
 Shakespeare's Language
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 Shakespeare Timeline: Part 1 (1558-1599)
 A Shakespeare Timeline: Part 2 (1600-1604)
 A Shakespeare Timeline: Part 3 (1605-1616)

In the Spotlight

Points to Ponder

The dog Jew did utter in the streets:
'My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!
Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats!
Justice! the law! my ducats, and my daughter!
              The Merchant of Venice (2.8), Salanio

"Notice that in this scene the passionate outburst of Shylock on learning of Jessica's unfilial conduct is reported by the unsympathetic gallants, Salarino and Salanio, and not represented directly. Are we to believe Salanio's intimation that Shylock was more grieved at the loss of his ducats than that his daughter should have married a hated Christian? And would a direct representation of Shylock in his despair have drawn too deep a draft on our sympathies for the Jew? The gallants also mention the rumors that Antonio's ventures may have miscarried, and apprise us of his loving, hearty leave-taking of Bassanio, now well on his happy way to Belmont." [Felix E. Schelling] Read on...

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