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• The Plays
The Merchant of Venice

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The Merchant of Venice

In sooth I know not why I am so sad.
Act 1, scene 1, line 1

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?
Act 3, scene 1, lines 57–59

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath.

Act 4, scene 1, lines 190–193

In The Merchant of Venice, the path to marriage is hazardous. To win Portia, Bassanio must pass a test prescribed by her father's will, choosing correctly among three caskets or chests. If he fails, he may never marry at all.

Bassanio and Portia also face a magnificent villain, the moneylender Shylock. In creating Shylock, Shakespeare seems to have shared in a widespread prejudice against Jews. Shylock would have been regarded as a villain because he was a Jew. Yet he gives such powerful expression to his alienation due to the hatred around him that, in many productions, he emerges as the hero.

Portia is most remembered for her disguise as a lawyer, Balthazar, especially the speech in which she urges Shylock to show mercy that "droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven."

Shakespeare is believed to have written The Merchant of Venice in 1596–97. It was published in 1600 as a quarto. He drew on several works as sources, but chiefly on a story from Ser Giovanni Fiorentino's Il Pecorone (The Dunce).

Adapted from the Folger Library Shakespeare edition, edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. © 1992 Folger Shakespeare Library


Further reading
Janet Adelman. Blood Relations: Christian and Jew in the Merchant of Venice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

John Gross. Shylock: A Legend and Its Legacy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.

Graham Holderness. Shakespeare and Venice. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2010.

John W. Mahon and Ellen Macleod Mahon, eds. Merchant of Venice: New Critical Essays. New York: Routledge, 2002.

James Shapiro. Shakespeare and the Jews. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

Laura Tosi and Shaul Bassi, eds. Visions of Venice in Shakespeare. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011.

The Merchant of Venice (2004, Spice Factory Limited with UK Film Council). Cast includes Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, and Joseph Fiennes.

Related movie
The Great Role (2004, First Run Features). Directed by Steve Suissa. Cast includes Stéphane Freiss, Bérénice Bejo and Peter Coyote.
Friedrich Brockmann. Portia and Nerissa. Oil on canvas, 1849


Shakespeare Bas-Reliefs

Inside the Collection

Folios and Quartos from the Collection: The Merchant of Venice

Read the Play

Folger Digital Texts:
The Merchant of Venice

Teacher Resources

Lesson Plan: Can't Buy Me Love?

Lesson Plan: Welcome to Venice

Lesson Plan: Money for Something

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