The Merchant of Venice

The English Renaissance

The English Renaissance, spanning from the late 15th to the early 17th century, was a period of significant cultural and artistic rebirth in England. This era, influenced by the broader European Renaissance, marked a departure from the medieval period's religious and feudal constraints, leading to a flourishing of literature, arts, and sciences.

Central to the English Renaissance was the rediscovery of classical learning and ideals, including a renewed interest in the works of ancient Greek and Roman authors. This period saw a surge in humanist thought, emphasising individualism, reason, and empirical evidence, contrasting with the previously dominant scholastic and theological perspectives.

In literature, the English Renaissance is best exemplified by the works of William Shakespeare, whose plays and sonnets displayed mastery of the English language and profound understanding of human nature. Other notable figures include Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, and Edmund Spenser, each contributing to the rich tapestry of Renaissance literature with their distinctive styles and themes.

The era was also marked by significant developments in the visual arts, with artists such as Nicholas Hilliard and Hans Holbein the Younger bringing Renaissance influences to England. Their work reflected the period's broader trends towards realism and humanism, often portraying individuals with an emphasis on complexity and detail.

The English Renaissance was a transformative period that profoundly impacted English culture and society. It was characterised by a revival of classical learning, the emergence of humanist thought, and a remarkable outpouring of literary and artistic talent, laying the foundation for the modern age.

The Merchant of Venice - William Shakespeare

The Merchant of Venice is a play by William Shakespeare, written around 1596. It is often classified as both a comedy and a problem play due to its complex themes and tone. The narrative unfolds in Venice, Italy, a prominent mercantile city-state during the Renaissance period.

The main plot revolves around a Venetian merchant named Antonio, who borrows money from Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, to assist his friend Bassanio in courting Portia, a wealthy heiress. Antonio agrees to a bond that allows Shylock to take a pound of his flesh if he fails to repay the loan on time.

Parallel to this storyline is the romantic subplot involving Bassanio and Portia. Bassanio wins Portia’s hand in marriage through a test set by her deceased father, which involves choosing correctly among three caskets.

Shylock's character is central to the play's dramatic tension. He is portrayed with both sympathetic and villainous traits, reflecting the play's complex treatment of prejudice and mercy. After Antonio's ships are reported lost at sea, Shylock insists on the fulfillment of their bond. The climax occurs in a court scene where Portia, disguised as a male lawyer, pleads for mercy on Antonio’s behalf. She outwits Shylock, arguing that the bond allows him to remove only the flesh, not the blood, of Antonio. Shylock loses his case and is forced to convert to Christianity.

The Merchant of Venice is rich in themes such as mercy, justice, revenge, and the contrast between love and wealth. It also critically examines the social and cultural attitudes of the time, especially anti-Semitism. The play is celebrated for its complex characters, intricate plot, and moral dilemmas, making it a subject of extensive study in literature.

The Merchant of Venice (Act 3: Scene 1)

Source: Royal Shakespeare Company 

Salerio: Why, I am sure if he forfeit, thou wilt not take his flesh. What’s that good for?

Shylock: To bait fish withal. If it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies, and what’s the reason? 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, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled 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? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.

Discussion questions