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The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare – review
The Merchant of Venice, another one of the books I had to endure while doing my English Literature GCSE. I was already tired of Shakespeare, after having to do Much Ado About Nothing for Year 9 Sats. Of course the word "endure" makes it sound like it was a painful experience. I guess when being forced to read it and make notes on it, instead of just reading it and being able to interpret it in my mind was somewhat tough and annoying. Now though, I can look at the book and appreciate it for what it really is.
Racism, love, secrets and loans. The play strikes true to certain parts of the modern world as well as the time it was set and written. It is compelling that Shakespeare was able to write about such things in a way that fitted into the comical manner of the era. To a modern reader, it isn't so much comical but instead a tragedy and something that shows all the things that are wrong with the world.
Racism is wrong and shouldn't be tolerated at all. However, in the book it shows how those that face prejudice just let it happen and don't even try to stop or overcome it. At the start of the book it reads as if Shakespeare is also one of those racists by making Shylock look like the baddie. He appears somewhat like the modern banker. Willing to give money to anybody whether its against their policy or not and wanting it back at the exact time agreed or there are huge consequences. Shylock takes the chance to get the people that have constantly abused him back, but instead they are able to turn it against him because of the society they live in. While we acknowledge this is wrong as an onlooker, we forget to be grateful that our society is just a little better than presented. How much better it is, is somewhat questionable. There are those rogue bankers not caring about circumstance or rules because of their lack of compassion. There are still racists and people that let it carry on without caring. However, society is more balanced and accepting in general. Luckily.
The reason of the money borrowing pulls on the heartstrings somewhat. The money is wanted so that a guy can go see a girl to try and sway her heart. Of course, it isn't because he loves her but because he loves her money. At this point I'm starting to see a capitalist trend. Putting money before love and the feelings for people and trying to achieve a higher social status seems to be something done often in the society presented. Something I still see people doing around me right now, because they care more about physical objects than any sign of affection. So really, it pulls on the purse strings and to somebody that has more self-respect than to be a capitalist it makes them feel rather sick that all this pain, false actions of affection and putting aside the racism for five minutes just to get what is wanted come from the desire for money and gold.
While it is meant to be all about morals and explaining that trying to get at somebody is not a good thing to do because everybody ends up with tarnished reputations and opinions. When looking at it from an economic stance, however, it seems to be much more just a breeding ground for uncaring capitalists leading to the somewhat sad modern world.
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BOOK REVIEW: The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
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This story hinges on the (now proverbial) pound of flesh. Bassanio is a poor gentleman in love with a rich lady, Portia. While Bassanio is upfront with Portia about his poverty — and she could care less — he can’t bring himself to propose to her without a few coins to his name. So, he goes to Antonio, the titular merchant of Venice and a close friend, and asks for a loan. Antonio is free and easy about making loans without requiring interest payments. Antonio says he’d gladly hand over the money to Bassanio, but all his money is tied up in his ships at sea. He, furthermore, tells Bassanio that if anyone will make him loan, the merchant can easily cover it. Antonio has tons of merchandise arriving in the next couple months from all around the world. The loan amount is small compared to what Antonio intends to earn from selling his goods.
The problem is that the only other game in town for loans is a Scrooge-esque lender named Shylock. Shylock is hard enough to deal with as it is, but he has it in for Antonio, in particular. Besides the fact that Antonio frequently offers interest-free loans — cutting into Shylock’s business — Antonio has also kept Shylock from collecting collateral by paying off other people’s loans before said loans went into default. (Maybe that’s why there were no other lenders in all of Venice?) To be fair, Shylock claims that his gripe with Antonio is that the latter is always leveling antisemitic slurs and other insults at the lender. At any rate, Shylock says he’ll make the loan of 3,000 Ducats, but, instead of ship or merchandise, he requires a pound of flesh as bond. Antonio, for reasons of friendship and the fact that he believes he will have a windfall by then, agrees to Shylock’s terms. If he doesn’t repay the 3,000 ducats in three months, Antonio will have a pound of flesh cut from his chest.
[Spoilers follow.] Bassanio takes the cash and goes traveling to make his proposal. First, he is required to play a “Let’s Make a Deal” game in order to earn the opportunity to wed Portia. The game involves three boxes (i.e. caskets): one of gold, one of silver, and one of lead. Inside one of them is a portrait of Portia, but the others are losers. All a prospective suitor has to go by is a brief inscription. By the time Bassanio arrives the reader has seen two Princes’s failed attempts at this courtship game. The inscriptions with the gold and silver boxes flatter Portia and the suitor, respectively. The inscription on the leaden box acknowledges that the marriage will not be all sunshine and roses, and that is the box Bassanio has the wisdom to choose. Unfortunately, shortly after he does so, he learns that a couple of Antonio’s ships wrecked at sea and the others haven’t been heard from, and – by now – the loan is in default.
Bassanio heads out to Venice with triple the Shylock’s money from his generous and wealthy new wife, planning to dispose of the situation. However, Shylock won’t budge on the terms of the bond. A drama plays out in the courtroom. Portia, anticipating the Shylock might not take the lucrative offer, has her butler take a letter to a legal expert and has said servant return with the lawyer’s reply posthaste. Portia and her handmaid disguise themselves as men – a lawyer and legal clerk, respectively – and catch up with the legal proceedings in Venice. After no one (i.e. the Duke, Bassanio, nor Portia-in-disguise as lawyer) is able to reason with the Shylock, Portia-as-lawyer tells him that he may proceed with cutting away the pound of flesh. However, the bond document says nothing about blood. So, if Shylock spills any of Antonio’s blood, he will be guilty of assault (at the least) and murder in the likely event that Antonio dies. Not to mention, going an ounce over a pound would be a breach of contract to be severely countered. This turns the tables, and Antonio and friends end up exploiting the situation to force the Shylock to convert religion as well as dictating the disposition of the lender’s estate (not to mention he’s still out his 3,000 ducats.)
[Spoiler end.] This play has a tense story line, particularly for a comedy, and is a gripping read. However, it’s also one of the most controversial Shakespearean works for its antisemitic and racist comments. On the other hand, there are reasons to believe that Shakespeare might have been engaging in satire. First, I mentioned that Shylock doesn’t cite loss of business as his quarrel with Antonio, but rather that the merchant has repeatedly insulted and slandered him. While we don’t see direct evidence of this behavior, the fact that Antonio rapes Shylock with his religion (by that I mean forcing a conversion using the threat of State force,) makes it ring true. Second, but continuing on this theme, there are a number of points during which the Shylock is sympathetic, most notably the famous “If you prick us, do we not bleed?…” monologue. Third, we learn that Shylock has a delightful daughter named Jessica, leading the reader to the conclusion that perhaps Shylock isn’t a jerk because he’s a Jew, but is a jerk who happens to be a Jew. Finally, the degree to which Antonio and his friends rake Shylock over the coals at the end of the court scene tarnishes Antonio’s virtue and makes Shylock sympathetic once again. The “turn the other cheek” approach of Christianity gives way to Old Testament vengefulness.
Like many of Shakespeare’s plays (notably “The Taming of the Shrew”,) accusations of sexism are also common, but if there were an award for BOSS of this play it would go to Portia, hands down. True, she has to pretend to be a man to get it all done, but those were those the times. The need for disguise also facilitates a prank that she and her handmaid play on their new husbands, regarding their wedding rings. While they are forced to comply with the dictates of the age, the women in this play certainly hold their own as strong characters. Still, I can’t say the degree to which Shakespeare was a satirist versus an anti-Semite / racist / sexist, but it’s a testament to the richness of his stories and the depth of his characters that his works can be interpreted so diversely.
It’s a masterpiece. Read it.
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26 thoughts on “ BOOK REVIEW: The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare ”
Better still, go see a prodution of it!
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Thank you for visiting and liking my post today on writing a Haiku. I am delighted to see your blog – and I plan to read many of your reviews. This is a stellar FIND for me today – I took as many courses in Shakespeare as I could during my academic training – the classes always went to Stratford on Avon in Canada to see them in person. AWESOME plays. Awesome place to go.
I liked your book review! I had acted in a ‘Merchants of Venice’ play, and I was Nerissa.
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As a former long-time teacher of British Literature, your book review caught my attention. Thank you for the review and for stopping by my blog. 📚 😊
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It’s very dangerous to apply twenty-first century values to medieval writing. Remember at the time Shakespeare was writing women did not even appear on stage. My personal opinion is after sitting through several classes on various plays, we are probably better served by seeing any performance. As literature, I think they fall flat. In spite of glimmers of deathless prose. “Men now safely tucked in bed will rue the day & wish they were here….”
I agree, it’s always good to see plays acted although there is some evidence to suggest that playwrights wrote plays for the literate members of families to read aloud to their families.
Better than Cliff Notes, but nothing is like reading the words of the Bard. Be well, stay safe.
I agree that this play should be seen as satire of antisemitism; the sexism is however completely unconscious and routine for its time. The irony of seeing about playing a woman pretending to be a man should not be discounted. Thanks for drawing my attention to your very well written and thoughtful blog.
I like the Al Pacino film version of this play.
You might have a series here to be entitled “Shorts on Shakespeare”. Educational and entertaining -well done.
I saw a Royal Shakespeare Company version of this play set in modern day Las Vegas. A brilliant production that showed most of the charaters as feeling in control of their own destinies and yet it had a wonderfully ambiguous ending that still, over 10 years later, prompts me to think about what the play is saying.
Thank you for giving my blog a read! 😀 I just finished reading the review of Merchant of Venice by you. It is adequately well-explained. This reminded me of a skit I performed on one of a scene of this amazing play.!
Try Hamlet next. It’s amazing. I saw Rosencrantz and Guildenstern off Broadway years ago and was blown away. But you have to at least read Hamlet first. I took an entire class on Hamlet in college and was amazed how much I had missed merely by reading it one time. There is so much in every line in that play.
I’ve read it. One of his best, no doubt.
A very well written book review. It brings back memories of my university days when we studied Shakespeare. We adored those classes wherein our teacher used to read out the plays in a dramatic manner. I plan to read all your reviews. Thanks for connecting.
Thank you very much.
Nice review. I have often wondered whether the plot device around the pound of flesh (but no drop of blood) is an ironic reference to kosher meat. But I can’t remember ever reading any commentary on the Merchant of Venice which refers to this.
I studied this in college and today I am taking the same for tenth graders. I am so happy and fortunate to read your splendid review.
Great play choice, Portia’s is quick witted, her potency comes from her ability to make the law work for her – for a woman now it is often difficult, then virtually impossible, high five to that woman!
I studied this play for O levels. Portia is boss (hahaha). I still remember her speech: “Take then thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh, but in the cutting of it…” etc.. From the island of Barbados which was parisitised by Christians, I always related more to Shylock. Ill-treatment can make anyone a Shylock and morality clearly doesn’t require religion. It requires empathy.
Thank you for this review. I certainly agree with you about Portia. Her quality of mercy is not strained.
I taught Merchant many times to high school kids. Shakespeare saw too deeply into the human character to be a racist. He gives Shylock a voice that can’t be ignored: his “hath not a Jew” speech testifies to this. Thanks for this post!
Your review made for entertaining reading but I try never to apply twenty-first century values to writing from a past century. This applies as much to the 19th and 20th, as to Shakespeare’s day. It’s enough to note the differences and then just read the play or book to engage with the ideas, something Shakespeare had in abundance. It was stimulating to read your take on the play.
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A Summary and Analysis of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice
By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, and is widely studied and has been subject to considerable analysis. Contrary to what many people think, the ‘merchant’ of the title isn’t Shylock (of whom more below) but the far less famous character, Antonio. So how well do we know The Merchant of Venice ? Below, we offer some words of analysis, but first, it might be worth recapping the plot of the play.
There are two main plot strands to The Merchant of Venice , both closely intertwined. The first involves Portia, the wealthy heiress of Belmont, who decides that she will marry whichever suitor picks the right casket when faced with a choice of three (made of gold, silver, and lead).
The second involves a loan the Jewish moneylender, Shylock, makes to Antonio, the merchant of the play’s title. These two plot lines are connected because Antonio borrows money from Shylock in order to help out his friend, Bassanio, who wishes to finance a trip to Belmont to try his hand at Portia’s ‘three caskets’ trial. (The princes of Morocco and Aragon both choose the wrong caskets, but Bassanio correctly guesses that the lead casket, and the two are engaged.)
The terms of the loan are as follows: Antonio will repay the money to Shylock when his ships return from their voyage; if he fails to pay up then, Shylock will be entitled to a pound of Antonio’s flesh. When Antonio’s ships are declared lost at sea, he cannot repay the debt to Shylock, who promptly demands his pound of flesh.
These two threads run through the play, becoming united towards the end of the play, when Portia disguises herself as a male lawyer in order to defend Antonio against Shylock’s knife. She is aided by her maid, Nerissa, who is engaged to Bassanio’s friend, Gratiano; Nerissa is also disguised as a man (Portia’s clerk).
After trying, unsuccessfully, to appeal to Shylock’s ‘quality of mercy’ (a famous speech which we have analysed here ), Portia changes tack, and saves Antonio on a legal technicality: whilst his agreement with Shylock allows the Jewish moneylender a pound of Antonio’s flesh, it does not entitle him to a drop of the merchant’s blood – and if he tries to remove a pound of his flesh and makes him bleed, he will be liable. Shylock is defeated, and Antonio saved.
And Shylock is well and truly defeated: he has to pay ‘damages’ to Antonio – half of his entire wealth – and is also forced to convert from Judaism to Christianity. However, Antonio gives the money he gets from Shylock immediately to Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, who had earlier eloped with Lorenzo, against her father’s wishes.
There is one last, romantic, twist to the plot: before the trial, Portia and Nerissa had made gifts of rings to their betrotheds, Antonio and Gratiano. After the trial is over, to express their gratitude to the lawyer and clerk for saving Antonio’s skin (literally), they both give their rings to the lawyer and ‘his’ clerk as tokens of thanks.
To test (and have a bit of fun with) the two men, Portia and Nerissa, back in Belmont and out of their male disguises, ask the returning Antonio and Gratiano where the rings are which they gave them. The two men say they have lost them, and the two women produce new ones – which are really, of course, the originals. As a final piece of good luck, Antonio learns that not all of his ships were lost at sea, and the two couples celebrate their upcoming wedding.
Venice has a long-standing association with trade, commerce, and money. The materialistic world of this city-state regards people only in terms of their financial worth, and Shylock embodies this cold materialism in the extreme. To him, Antonio is only a debtor, so much flesh, from whom he can extract his pound if Antonio is unable to repay his loan. The great clash in The Merchant of Venice is between money and love, as both Shylock’s trial and Portia’s very different ‘trial’ – the test of the three caskets – demonstrate.
Against this heartlessly materialistic worldview is set the world of mercy and compassion, expressed in the two most famous speeches from The Merchant of Venice : Portia’s ‘The quality of mercy is not strained’ and Shylock’s own ‘Hath not a Jew eyes? If you prick us, do we not bleed?’
The valorisation of wealth and gold above all else is also famously rejected and criticised in Portia’s three caskets: gold and silver seem to promise the suitor wealth (in the form of Portia’s inheritance), but it is only by rejecting these in favour of the relatively worthless lead that Bassanio proves his worth as a potential husband to her.
However, the plot of The Merchant of Venice doesn’t entirely reject the world of money: Antonio borrows money from Shylock in an act of friendship (to help his relatively poor friend Bassanio travel to Belmont to undertake Portia’s three caskets test), but it’s also a financial reality that money is needed to be in the ‘race’.
And it’s worth noting that mercy doesn’t triumph over materialism at the trial: Shylock is deaf to Portia’s appeals, and his contract with Antonio can only be defeated on a technicality which speaks the only kind of language Shylock recognises.
And Shylock is the key to the whole play, as the confusion over him being mistaken for its title character demonstrates. For Harold Bloom, in a persuasive analysis of The Merchant of Venice in his book Shakespeare: The Invention Of The Human , The Merchant of Venice presents a number of difficult problems.
First, there’s no denying it is an anti-Semitic play; second, for Bloom, Shylock should be played as a comic villain and not a sympathetic character for the play to have ‘coherence’ and make full sense; third, to play Shylock this way would no doubt exacerbate the play’s anti-Semitic properties.
Many recent productions of The Merchant of Venice have certainly depicted Shylock more sympathetically than he was probably played when the play was first staged, in the 1590s which gave London not only Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (whose title character, Barabbas, is a cartoon villain too exaggerated to be taken with complete seriousness) but also the execution of the Portuguese Jewish immigrant Roderigo Lopez, physician to Queen Elizabeth I, who was accused of plotting to kill the Queen (he was, almost certainly, innocent).
If the casual anti-Semitism that was widely tolerated as recently as the early twentieth century is anything to go by, Shakespeare’s original audience would probably have viewed Shylock as a money-grubbing villain.
But as is so often with Shakespeare’s characterisation, the character can be interpreted more sympathetically (his famous ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed?’ speech is one example of where we can find evidence for this interpretation), and this is the line most modern productions of the play have taken. And it must be a hard-hearted reader or spectator who can watch Shylock being forced to convert to Christianity (by Antonio) and not feel a twinge of uneasiness.
What’s more, the parallels between Antonio and Shylock arguably don’t end with that popular misconception over who the title character is. Antonio is just as money-driven as Shylock, and – as his insistence that Shylock be made to convert to Christianity shows – not exactly overflowing with Christian charity. This is the mentality that Venice seems to engender: a world of financial interests, account books, and hatred and mistrust of others.
The Merchant of Venice has become Shylock’s play, eclipsing all else, and whilst there may not be much else besides him that makes the play interesting, the one exception here is Portia, who is one of Shakespeare’s finest female roles from the 1590s.
4 thoughts on “A Summary and Analysis of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice”
Definitely one of Shakespeare’s problematic plays. I view it more as a tragi-comedy and believe Shakespeare provided ambiguity towards Shylock in that he did not lampoon him but gave him full characterization. Perhaps Shakespeare wanted the audience to see beyond the culture and see a person.
Problematic indeed! Thank you for your most interesting exploration of the issues.
VERY CLEAR SUMMARY AND ANALYSIS. THANK YOU FOR ALLOWING ME TO READ IT AS ONE PART OF MY READINGS
Wouldn’t thou allow such mercy to Shylock if he show an ounce of pennant thought, or would it rather be rendered he suffer the harsh justice he demanded upon Antonio that you, in your fraudulent identity, chastised him for. You ask that Shylock grant mercy, but you refuse him such the like. Surely, you present him the harshest of consequences. Perhaps, opportune his chance of recompense and change of heart. Allow the man his beliefs and as well an example to present to his like minded. Allow him at least the the humane existence, some mere portion of fortune. There must be thoughts and consistency of mercy , although through consequential reasoning, placed upon both arguments.
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Book Reviews · August 6, 2021
Book Review: The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
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If you like drama and a revenge plot, “The Merchant of Venice” by William Shakespeare is a great play to read!
- Date finished: January 29th, 2017
- Format: Paperback
- Language read in: English
- Series: Standalone
- Genre: Classics | Play | Drama
Buy “ The Merchant of Venice “
As the citizens of Venice compete for advantageous marriages, wealth, and status, a moneylender is intent on a deadly revenge. Mistrust and resentment thrive in Shakespeare’s dark comedy “The Merchant of Venice.”
I don’t know if my excitement to read this play had any impact on my reading of it… but even if it did… expectations usually lead to disappointments with rarely some exceptions of success. (Such is the case with The Merchant of Venice.)
The play starts and I already relate and sympathize with one of its main characters: Antonio. I highlighted some quotes about his indescribable sadness. He’s a great merchant and has a good nature with loaning money to honest men (and friends) in need without interest. Although he is a morally virtuous Christian there’s still a flaw in his view of Jewish people, which brings in themes of racial and religious injustices. Sure, his nemesis, a Jew named Shylock has no mercy and no good moral virtue. (FOR ME, NOT BECAUSE HE IS JEWISH BUT BECAUSE HE IS AN INTEREST RATE COLLECTOR / MONEYLENDER AND WANTS TO SHED ANTONIO’S INNOCENT BLOOD! for a deed he can and will be able to pay back in double anyways.)
I personally think that the plot of this play is more complex than Shakespeare’s other plays, which is always a plus. There were a lot of parallels and oppositions (seen in most of his plays but whatever) between the two female leads: Portia and Jessica. They’re both heirs from a rich father, seeking for a worthy husband to share their wealth with. One steals from her father’s casket and the other obeys the rules of her deceased father for marrying a man that opens the right casket of the three presented.
In this play, money and love seem to go hand in hand. On the one hand, there’s a state bond concerning a money lending contract between the merchant Antonio and the moneylender Shylock. On the other hand, there’s a marital bond formed through a ring between Bassanio and Portia, and her servant Nerissa with Gratiano. I’d also like to suggest a third bond with the friendship and sacrifices between Antonio and Bassanio.
Back to the females. Women in Shakespeare are, often than not, silenced or wrathful. In this case, both female characters were clever, strong, and deceptive. Jessica, for escaping her horrible father to marry the man she loves and Portia for disguising herself and conducting a genius plan to save her the life of her husband’s friend (Antonio) while making Jessica’s father have a taste of his own medicine (Shylock).
The resolution of the play was lacking but that’s a trend in Shakespeare’s plays. We are left with three happy couples but Antonio is still alone and single but is also saved and happy(?) Although Shylock deserved what he got, it does not change the fact that he did not deserve to convert his Jewish faith to a Christian one. Again, this is the most unfair and unresolved part of the play…
Overall, a great and enticing read with important themes and characters raised up for discussion in our modern-day world.
“Those we love never truly leave us, Harry. There are things that death cannot touch.”
“In every shining moment of happiness is that drop of poison: the knowledge that pain will come again. Be honest to those you love, show your pain. To suffer is as human as to breathe.”
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The Merchant of Venice
William shakespeare, everything you need for every book you read..
Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice . Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.
The Merchant of Venice: Introduction
The merchant of venice: plot summary, the merchant of venice: detailed summary & analysis, the merchant of venice: themes, the merchant of venice: quotes, the merchant of venice: characters, the merchant of venice: symbols, the merchant of venice: literary devices, the merchant of venice: quizzes, the merchant of venice: theme wheel, brief biography of william shakespeare.
Historical Context of The Merchant of Venice
Other books related to the merchant of venice.
- Full Title: The Merchant of Venice
- When Written: 1596–8
- Where Written: England
- When Published: 1623
- Literary Period: The Renaissance
- Genre: Comedy/tragicomedy; Revenge tragedy
- Setting: Venice, and the nearby country estate of Belmont
- Climax: The trial of Antonio, the merchant, and Shylock, the Jewish moneylender
- Antagonist: Shylock
Extra Credit for The Merchant of Venice
"Which is the merchant here? And which the Jew?" Modern audiences of Merchant of Venice often mistake Shylock for the "merchant" of the title—which actually refers to Antonio.
By William Shakespeare Probably written between 1595-1598
General Note: In January 2009 I decided that I�d like to go back and read all the plays of William Shakespeare, perhaps one a month if that works out. I hadn�t read a Shakespeare play since 1959, 50 years ago! But I had read nearly all of them in college. I wanted to go back, start with something not too serious or challenging, and work my way through the whole corpus. Thus I began with The Two Gentlemen of Verona. At this time I have no idea how the project will go, nor if it will actually lead me through the entire corpus of Shakespeare�s plays. However, I will keep a separate page listing each play I�ve read with links to any comments I would make of that particular play. See: List of Shakespeare�s play�s I�ve read and commented on
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE
"I am a Jew/ Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs/ dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with/ the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject/ to the same diseases, heal'd by the same means/ warm'd and cool'd by the same winter and summer/ as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?/ If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you/ poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?"
�Even such a husband Hast thou of me as she is for a wife. [Jessica] Nay, but ask my opinion too of that. [Lorenzo] I will anon. First let us go to dinner. [Jessica] Nay, let me praise you while I have stomach. [Lorenzo] No, pray thee, let it serve for table talk; Then howsome�er thou speak�st, �mong other things I shall digest it. [Jessica] Well, I�ll set you forth.
'The Merchant of Venice 1936' review – Tracy-Ann Oberman battles fascism in this urgent, inspired update
Read our review of The Merchant of Venice 1936 , now in performances at the Criterion Theatre to 23 March.
Tracy-Ann Oberman has confessed that, as a child, she hated Shakespeare’s play and its depiction of Shylock the Jewish moneylender. But she has remarkably reclaimed it in The Merchant of Venice 1936 , an inspired reworking that transfers the action to 1930s London – and, tragically, its climactic passionate plea for tolerance and solidarity only feels more crucial thanks to recent events.
Oberman has based her Shylock on her great-grandmother, Annie, who fled Belarus and made a new life in the East End – only to become the target of antisemitic hatred once again via Oswald Moseley and his fascist Blackshirts.
For the most part, Oberman and director Brigid Larmour’s use of the 1930s setting works extremely well (this production previously toured the UK last year). They have judiciously trimmed the play, and added an opening Hebrew blessing to establish Shylock’s household, but otherwise it’s all in the context: Antonio becomes a Blackshirt, his friends are prejudiced toffs, and Portia is a dead ringer for Moseley’s wife Diana Mitford.
But lines jump out you with this new framing – like Portia’s rejection of a Moroccan suitor with “the complexion of a devil”. Shylock’s daughter Jessica is styled as a schoolgirl, making her flight with Lorenzo feel more like grooming than romance, but she is still out by his viciously snobbish friends because of her Jewish heritage.
Though Oberman’s Mitteleuropean-accented Shylock is no pushover, you feel the threat much more overtly when Antonio looms over her and sneers that he will spit on her in the street. You also readily believe Shylock when she says that she’s only executing the villainy that she’s been taught by others.
Oberman gives a riveting central performance: partly savvy survivor, who revels in her prowess as a deal-maker, partly terrorised woman who exhibits real anguish when Jessica betrays her, and who is left completely isolated by a corrupt system, with just her burning vengeance to sustain her.
Hannah Morrish is excellent too as a sardonic socialite Portia, who charms us with her wit, then shocks us with her utterly merciless treatment of Shylock in court – especially her crowing use of the word “alien”. Jessica Dennis is memorably venomous as Shylock’s turncoat servant, Mary, nastily mocking her former employer along with a racist policeman.
Raymond Coulthard is an icy Antonio, who only thaws when in the presence of his beloved Bassanio. We first meet them in their privileged members’ club, champagne and cigars in hand. Xavier Starr is effective as a Bullingdon-esque Gratiano, a drunken thug who, while draped in a Union Jack, pisses on the doorstep of a Jewish house.
That presages an escalating campaign of intimidation. We hear breaking glass and screams, and see Shylock’s building transformed via boarded-up windows and horrifying graffiti (noir-ish atmospheric design by Liz Cooke). Projections show us the real history: Moseley’s Blackshirts on the march, along with their vile antisemitic quotes.
Unfortunately the ending doesn’t fit at all, as we lurch from Shylock’s downfall to suddenly her East End neighbours standing up for the Jewish community during the Battle of Cable Street. It’s a shame their camaraderie isn’t seeded earlier, so that it makes dramatic sense. Likewise, Portia’s subplots involving caskets and rings, which are always pretty silly, now seem nonsensical by comparison.
But, given the number of gasps I heard at dark plot twists like Shylock’s forced conversion, Oberman has brought plenty of new audiences to Shakespeare and made a problematic play feel accessible and urgent. She also makes us face our own history – and entreats us not to repeat it.
The Merchant of Venice 1936 is at the Criterion Theatre through 23 March. Book The Merchant of Venice 1936 tickets on London Theatre.
Photo credit: The Merchant of Venice 1936 (Photo by Marc Brenner)
Originally published on Feb 26, 2024 10:36
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THE MERCHANT OF VENICE
by William Shakespeare & adapted by Gareth Hinds & illustrated by Gareth Hinds ‧ RELEASE DATE: May 1, 2008
Of late, there have been many unsuccessful attempts to adapt Shakespeare into the graphic-novel format; Hinds’s beautiful new offering now sets the standard that all others will strive to meet. Presenting readers with deftly drawn characters (based on live models) and easily read dialogue that modulates over the course of the work from adapted prose to the original Shakespeare, he re-works the classic Shakespeare play of deception, greed and revenge. Though located in a modern setting, readers will easily follow the premise and find themselves lost in the intricately lovely Venetian backdrop. While this adaptation may leave purists sniffing at the omission of entire scenes and characters, Hinds carefully explains to his readers in a note why and how he made those choices. A deceptively simple graphic novel on the surface, this volume begs for multiple readings on a closer level, at the same time acting as a wonderful introduction to the original. Easily on a par with his stellar adaptation of Beowulf (2007), it’s a captivating, smartly executed work. (Graphic novel. 12+)
Pub Date: May 1, 2008
Page Count: 80
Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2008
GENERAL GRAPHIC NOVELS & COMICS | GENERAL GRAPHIC NOVELS & COMICS | TEENS & YOUNG ADULT FICTION
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More by William Shakespeare
by William Shakespeare ; adapted by Crystal S. Chan & Michael Barltrop ; illustrated by Julien Choy
by William Shakespeare ; adapted by Crystal Chan ; illustrated by Julien Choy
by William Shakespeare ; adapted by Crystal S. Chan ; illustrated by Julien Choy
IF ONLY I HAD TOLD HER
by Laura Nowlin ‧ RELEASE DATE: Feb. 6, 2024
A heavy read about the harsh realities of tragedy and their effects on those left behind.
In this companion novel to 2013’s If He Had Been With Me , three characters tell their sides of the story.
Finn’s narrative starts three days before his death. He explores the progress of his unrequited love for best friend Autumn up until the day he finally expresses his feelings. Finn’s story ends with his tragic death, which leaves his close friends devastated, unmoored, and uncertain how to go on. Jack’s section follows, offering a heartbreaking look at what it’s like to live with grief. Jack works to overcome the anger he feels toward Sylvie, the girlfriend Finn was breaking up with when he died, and Autumn, the girl he was preparing to build his life around (but whom Jack believed wasn’t good enough for Finn). But when Jack sees how Autumn’s grief matches his own, it changes their understanding of one another. Autumn’s chapters trace her life without Finn as readers follow her struggles with mental health and balancing love and loss. Those who have read the earlier book will better connect with and feel for these characters, particularly since they’ll have a more well-rounded impression of Finn. The pain and anger is well written, and the novel highlights the most troublesome aspects of young adulthood: overconfidence sprinkled with heavy insecurities, fear-fueled decisions, bad communication, and brash judgments. Characters are cued white.
Pub Date: Feb. 6, 2024
Page Count: 416
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Review Posted Online: Jan. 5, 2024
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2024
TEENS & YOUNG ADULT SOCIAL THEMES | TEENS & YOUNG ADULT FICTION | TEENS & YOUNG ADULT ROMANCE
More by Laura Nowlin
by Laura Nowlin
by Daniel Aleman ‧ RELEASE DATE: May 4, 2021
An ode to the children of migrants who have been taken away.
A Mexican American boy takes on heavy responsibilities when his family is torn apart.
Mateo’s life is turned upside down the day U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents show up unsuccessfully seeking his Pa at his New York City bodega. The Garcias live in fear until the day both parents are picked up; his Pa is taken to jail and his Ma to a detention center. The adults around Mateo offer support to him and his 7-year-old sister, Sophie, however, he knows he is now responsible for caring for her and the bodega as well as trying to survive junior year—that is, if he wants to fulfill his dream to enter the drama program at the Tisch School of the Arts and become an actor. Mateo’s relationships with his friends Kimmie and Adam (a potential love interest) also suffer repercussions as he keeps his situation a secret. Kimmie is half Korean (her other half is unspecified) and Adam is Italian American; Mateo feels disconnected from them, less American, and with worries they can’t understand. He talks himself out of choosing a safer course of action, a decision that deepens the story. Mateo’s self-awareness and inner monologue at times make him seem older than 16, and, with significant turmoil in the main plot, some side elements feel underdeveloped. Aleman’s narrative joins the ranks of heart-wrenching stories of migrant families who have been separated.
Pub Date: May 4, 2021
Page Count: 400
Publisher: Little, Brown
Review Posted Online: Feb. 22, 2021
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2021
TEENS & YOUNG ADULT FICTION | TEENS & YOUNG ADULT FAMILY | TEENS & YOUNG ADULT SOCIAL THEMES
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by Daniel Aleman
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The Merchant of Venice 1936
- Theatre, Shakespeare
- Criterion Theatre, Piccadilly Circus
- 27 Feb 23 Mar 2024
- 3 out of 5 stars
Time Out says
Tracy-Ann Oberman’s East End-set attempt to confront the antisemitism in Shakespeare’s play is thrillingly bold
Nothing points to how obstinately alive Shakespeare is within our culture than the fact we can’t – or won’t! – simply ditch a play like ‘The Merchant of Venice’.
While far less antisemitic than contemporary works like Marlowe’s ‘The Jew of Malta’ – by Elizabethan standards it was perhaps even mildly progressive – there is no other playwright whose patently problematic play about a devious Jewish moneylender would remain front and centre of the theatrical canon in 2024.
Which brings us to ‘The Merchant of Venice 1936’. A passion project of its star and co-adaptor, the Jewish actor Tracy-Ann Oberman, it doesn’t so much reclaim Shakespeare’s play for the Jewish community as aggressively repurpose it.
Directed by Brigid Larmour, it relocates the action to the East End of London in 1936, where Oberman’s moneylender Shylock is a proud Jewish matriarch and emigree from Eastern Europe. Around her corner of London, Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists are stirring, gearing up for the infamous/ignominious march that culminated in the Battle of Cable Street. Here, many of the gentile characters are explicitly black-shirted Mosley supporters, and the ones who aren’t are happily pals with the racists.
Let‘s be real here: this doesn’t entirely make sense. Oberman’s shtetl-accented Shylock is far more sympathetic than her tormentors, but Shylocks generally are these days. Her insistence on having her ‘pound of flesh’ from Antonio – the titular merchant, who defaults on a loan to her – is clearly somewhat mitigated by the fact he’s a big old Nazi, but the fact she’s essentially asking for his death means you can only make her look so reasonable. Even not taking that bit literally (I mean we’re not taking the ‘Venice’ bit literally), the rabble-rousing finale set at the Battle of Cable Street is a truly bold move – in its way the equivalent of shoving in an epilogue to ‘Hamlet’ where you discover the Danish prince is actually fine. And the context is now so specific that while the text has been heavily edited, there is stuff that feels totally off-topic, notably the whole major plot line about Portia (Hannah Morrish) and her suitors.
But again, this production isn’t trying to make nice with Shakespeare. Directors can bend over backwards to discern modern nuance in this play. Here it feels more like Oberman and co have decided to tell a story about creeping fascism in ‘30s Britain – clearly with some intended parallels to today – and ‘The Merchant of Venice’ has simply been hijacked as their medium, possibly as an act of penance. It’s a truly gutsy move, and even if it doesn’t always make sense, it largely holds together through its sheer self-belief. You can sometimes become numb to characters referring to Shylock as things like ‘the Jew’, but here it stings every time. The Cable Street finale makes questionable dramatic sense… but it’s spine-tingling nonetheless.
It’s a production that doesn’t exactly work… but it doesn’t not work either.
Dates and times
Tue, 27 Feb 2024 19:30 Criterion Theatre £19.25-£96.25. Runs 2hr
Wed, 28 Feb 2024 14:30 Criterion Theatre £19.25-£96.25. Runs 2hr
Wed, 28 Feb 2024 19:30 Criterion Theatre £19.25-£96.25. Runs 2hr
Thu, 29 Feb 2024 14:30 Criterion Theatre £19.25-£96.25. Runs 2hr
Thu, 29 Feb 2024 19:30 Criterion Theatre £19.25-£96.25. Runs 2hr
Fri, 1 Mar 2024 19:30 Criterion Theatre £19.25-£96.25. Runs 2hr
Sat, 2 Mar 2024 14:30 Criterion Theatre £19.25-£96.25. Runs 2hr
Sat, 2 Mar 2024 19:30 Criterion Theatre £19.25-£96.25. Runs 2hr
Tue, 5 Mar 2024 19:30 Criterion Theatre £19.25-£96.25. Runs 2hr
Wed, 6 Mar 2024 19:30 Criterion Theatre £19.25-£96.25. Runs 2hr
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Merchant Of Venice Book Review
The Merchant of Venice is a play by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written in 1596-97. The play is set in the late 15th century and tells the story of a merchant, Antonio, who borrows money from a Jewish moneylender, Shylock, to help his friend Bassanio win the hand of Portia.
When Antonio can’t repay the loan, Shylock demands that he be given a pound of Antonio’s flesh as payment. The play has been controversial since it was first performed due to its depiction of Jews and has been banned on numerous occasions.
Despite this, The Merchant of Venice is considered to be one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. It is full of memorable characters, powerful dialogue and is a masterclass in dramatic tension. The play has been adapted for film and television numerous times and is still popular today.
One of the many characteristics of a classic is that the book, novel, or play may be read in any generation, decade, century, or part of the world at any time and have relevance to its audience. The themes of this work should be timeless so that the reader can apply them to his or her own life. Although The Merchant of Venice is not regarded by many as Shakespeare’s finest play, it still has aspects that qualify it as a classic. In The Merchant of Venice , Shakespeare addresses various contemporary issues.
The two main themes in The Merchant of Venice are racism and love. Racism is a big theme in The Merchant of Venice. Shakespeare did not shy away from this difficult topic. The play is set in Venice, Italy during the Renaissance period. The Jew, Shylock, is discriminated against because of his religion.
He is forced to live in a ghetto and wear a red hat to signify that he is Jewish. Throughout the play, there are many references to Shylock’s nose and how it is different from the noses of Christians. This difference is used to make fun of Shylock and to further emphasize that he is an outsider.
Even though Shylock is treated poorly, he still tries to help his Christian friends when they are in need. He loans money to Antonio when Antonio cannot get a loan from anyone else. This selfless act is repaid with even more prejudice and hate. In the end, Shylock is forced to convert to Christianity and give up all of his possessions. The treatment of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice is a clear example of the racism that was present during the Renaissance period.
The other main theme in The Merchant of Venice is love. The play is full of love triangles and unrequited love. The character Bassanio is in love with Portia but he cannot marry her because he does not have enough money. In order to raise the money, Bassanio asks his friend Antonio for a loan. Antonio agrees to the loan but only if he can have Shylock’s pound of flesh if he cannot repay the loan.
The love triangle is further complicated when Portia disguises herself as a lawyer and saves Antonio’s life. She does this by quoting the law that says a Christian cannot shed blood. In the end, all the couples are happily married except for poor Shylock who has lost everything.
The Merchant of Venice is a classic because it has themes that are still relevant today. The themes of racism and love are still very important in our society. The treatment of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice is an example of the racism that is still present in our world today. The love triangles in The Merchant of Venice are also a common occurrence in our society. The Merchant of Venice is a classic because it has themes that we can all relate to.
Jessica and Lorenzo, Bassanio and Portia, Gratiano and Nerissa, and other couples of love all fall under the category of male/female relationships that are important to today’s environment. When you look deeply into these connections, you’ll notice many parallels to today’s situations.
The notion that none of the marriages would last indefinitely is a parallel to the number of divorce cases now going through the court system. More divorces are taking place every year, with numbers from previous years proving to be stunning!
The characters in The Merchant of Venice also experience a number of problems that are still relevant to people today. The issue of religion is a big one, as there are many different religions and not everyone agrees with each other’s views.
The prejudice against Jews is another problem that is still occurring today, even though it has gotten better since Shakespeare’s time. The treatment of women was also a big issue in The Merchant of Venice and it is something that is still being fought for today. Women are not seen as equals to men and they are still fighting for their rights.
Overall, The Merchant of Venice is a play that is still relevant to society today. The themes and issues that are present in the play are things that people are still struggling with. It is important to understand these issues in order to try and solve them. The play provides a lot of food for thought and it is definitely worth reading.
The more people get married too quickly, the more prevalent this problem is becoming. This happens in many of the relationships. Gratiano and Nerrissa married after knowing one another for only a few hours, whereas Bassiano and Portia got married before they got to know each other (but you can’t blame Portia for this, because strict rules were imposed on her). For other reasons, Jessica and Lorenzo’s marriage might come apart.
The play is set in Venice and follows the story of Antonio, a merchant, who borrows money from his friend Bassanio in order to help him court Portia. Antonio’s ships are then lost at sea, and he is forced to default on his loan. He turns to Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, for the money. Shylock agrees to lend Antonio the money, but only if he can have a pound of Antonio’s flesh if he defaults on the loan.
The play focuses on the themes of friendship, love, sacrifice, and betrayal. It also deals with issues of prejudice and antisemitism. The Merchant of Venice is considered one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays.
If you’re looking for a classic play that is both funny and thought-provoking, then The Merchant of Venice is a great choice.
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- Shylock Is More Sinned Against Than Sinning
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The Merchant of Venice - Entire Play
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Antonio, the merchant in The Merchant of Venice , secures a loan from Shylock for his friend Bassanio, who seeks to court Portia. Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, recalls past insults from Antonio and, instead of asking interest on the loan, asks instead—in what he calls a “merry sport”—that if the loan is not repaid, Antonio will owe a pound of his own flesh.
Bassanio sails to Belmont, where the wealthy heiress Portia is being courted by suitors from around the world. Her father’s will requires that the successful suitor solve a riddle involving chests of gold, silver, and lead. Where others have failed, Bassanio succeeds by selecting the right chest. Portia marries Bassanio; her waiting woman, Nerissa, marries his friend Gratiano.
Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, has eloped with Bassanio’s friend Lorenzo, taking her father’s money with her. Shylock is devastated. When Antonio cannot repay the loan, Shylock demands the pound of flesh. When the news reaches Belmont, Bassanio returns to Venice. Portia and Nerissa also travel to Venice, disguised as a lawyer and his clerk. Portia uses the law to defeat Shylock and rescue Antonio.
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The Merchant of Venice 1936 at Criterion Theatre
The Merchant of Venice 1936
15 th February - 23 rd March 2024
Shakespeare’s play returns once again to the West End, this time in a slightly different guise. But despite this difference, The Merchant of Venice 1936 is still very much the show that all will be familiar with.
When Bassanio wishes to marry Portia, he turns to his long-time friend and benefactor, Antonio, for the cash to woo her. Antonio borrows the money from the Jew, Shylock, agreeing to pay her back in three months or else face a peculiar penalty that she has stipulated: she may take a pound of his flesh.
As events unfold, what begins as a rather jovial deal ultimately descends into drama, fear, rage and revenge by the end of the play.
It is a story of religious persecution against Jewish people, highlighting an unjust social system and what that can do to a person. A woman is scorned, ridiculed, threatened for no reason other than the fact that she is Jewish. It’s a timely and important portrayal as antisemitism finds itself on the rise, and also a reminder that this country is not immune to fascism, that it once all too recently knocked on our door – not via the threat of invasion but coming from within.
Other than a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it nod that the characters are in fact in the UK and not Venice when Bassanio is announced to Portia as a suitor from England, the script is entirely unchanged. Set in 1936, it does look somewhat different, with 1930s costumes and a dreary brick building set blemished with fascist posters and vandalism.
There is a unique addition at the end: Oberman breaks character and gives an impassioned account of the Battle of Cable Street where British Jews and their neighbours stood against marching fascists. It’s hard-hitting but all too brief.
The show occasionally seems torn between wanting to be true to the Bard’s original words and wanting to tell a story of British fascism. As a result, the latter is merely a motif, relegated to the background, to theme the play but not define it, and it feels like somewhat of a lost opportunity to do more with the events and rhetoric of the 1930s.
Regardless, this is a fine retelling of The Merchant of Venice . Oberman is a powerful and moving Shylock, while Raymond Coulthard and Hannah Morrish are flawless as Antonio and Portia respectively.
Jim Compton-Hall Images: Marc Brenner
The Merchant of Venice 1936 is at Criterion Theatre from 15 th February until 23 rd March 2024. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here .
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