The Merchant of Venice – Background Information



The Queen:

The Merchant of Venice was written between1596 and1600. At this point Queen Elizabeth I is queen

·         The first real English queen to have stayed in power for a long time

·         Commonly she was seen as a woman doing a man’s job but doing it well

·         But she did have to sacrifice a lot of ‘female’ things to do the job – she never married or had kids



Shylock is a Jew

·         Jews have suffered horrible persecutions – starting in earnest 1500 years ago

·         The Romans chased the Jews out of Israel because they were not Catholic – this is called the Diaspora

·         Throughout history Jews have frequently been prevented from doing certain businesses or owning land – so few money making options were open to them. They were, however, allowed to lend money and charge interest on it, sometimes called usury. Christians were forbidden the charging of interest by the New Testament and thought of usury as sinful. Public perception of the Jews was not helped by the fact that many Jews became rich through money lending thus creating the impression that they were making money out of other people’s debts / misfortunes.

·         In addition many Christians believe that Jews are responsible for Jesus’ death for a number of reasons:

    1. There are sections in the bible which show the Jews as having a key role in his death
    2. Many of Shakespeare’s audience would have been familiar with ‘Passion Plays’, as in The Passion of the Christ. These were violent depictions of Jesus’ crucifixion that blamed the Jews for his death
    3. Many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries would have been aware of the legend of Little St Hugh, a child allegedly ‘crucified’ by a Jew in 1255. A boy was indeed found dead and a Jew, under threat of torture, confessed to the murder. However, Henry III by helped exacerbated the scandal by arresting 90 Jews and sending them to the Tower of London where 18 were killed. It is no small coincidence that he confiscated the land and wealth of the arrested Jews
    4. Subsequently, Edward I expelled all Jews from England in 1290. At least 300 were arrested and executed in the Tower of London followed by probably thousands more elsewhere in the country. Jews were not officially allowed back into England until 1655, a date considerably after Shakespeare’s death. However, Jews were allowed to stay if they pretended to be Christian
    5. Shakespeare’s audience would definitely have been aware of Dr. Lopez, Queen Elizabeth’s doctor, who was executed for trying to poison her in 1594
    6. Many of Shakespeare’s audience would also have seen Marlowe’s play The Jew of Malta, performed in about 1578, which is about a unrepentantly evil Jew called Barabas

·         Only in 1965 did the Vatican officially declare that Jews were not responsible for Jesus’ death

·         Obviously Nazism is the most extreme example of Anti-Semitism in recent history. During the holocaust an estimated 5 - 9 million Jews were killed. Anti-Jewish discrimination began in 1935 with the Nuremburg Laws which prevented Jews from marrying Germans. Subsequently, Jews were not allowed to hold professional jobs in 1936 or attend school in 1938.

·         However, in Shakespeare’s time, Jews were not really people to fear in England; they were more like bogey monsters that could be held up as ready made villains in much the same way that Hollywood movies used Russians during the height of the Cold War or the Bush Administration could be said to be using Arabs these days.



Puritans are another enemy of the theatre-goers

·         They were very strongly religious Christians who did not attend theatre and in fact thought that theatres were sinful and tried to shut them down.

·         Many Puritans felt unable to practice their religion in England and, eventually, many emigrated to the New World to start a new life there.

·         Once again Puritans were a ready made villain for Shakespeare’s audience and many theatre-goers would associate Shylock’s strict religious behaviour with Puritanism


Male Power – Patriarchy:

Men are the powerful figures in the family and in society, which is why Queen Elizabeth is so unusual. We see many examples of the restriction of women in this play:

·         Portia and Nerissa are confined to Belmont – we never see women in Venice

·         When Portia and Nerissa leave they have to dress up as men

·         Venice, and by association the business world, is a male world

·         Portia is restricted by her father’s will - when she marries all her land goes to Bassanio

·         Jessica is restricted by Shylock

·         Similarly Jessica has to dress up as a man to break free from Shylock but in so doing she simply puts herself in the control of another man - Lorenzo



Shakespeare set his play here because it is a romantic and foreign location. Despite our concern with Shylock’s villainy it is actually a love story and is viewed as one of Shakespeare’s works of Comedy, although a Comedy doesn’t actually have to be funny; it just means a play with a happy ending. As such, setting the play in Venice would have allowed the audience to suspend their beliefs about reality in order to facilitate the telling of the romantic story. In the same way classic romance films such as Casablanca or are set in far away, exotic locations


Given the legal absence of Jews from England, it was also a place where the ‘bogey man’ Jew, Shylock could live. Additionally, Venice is famous for trading and a likely setting for rich merchants. Furthermore, although this is not a reason that you should include in your coursework, Shakespeare loved to show off his Classical learning and setting his play in Europe, especially Italy, would have been a way of doing this. It would also have given the wealthier members of the audience a similar opportunity to be flattered that they were equally educated. Finally, Shakespeare could hardly set his play in France or Spain because England had been periodically at war with both of those countries for hundreds of years.