Five Fascinating Facts about The Merchant of Venice
Fun facts about Shakespeare’s play
1. Contrary to popular belief, the ‘merchant of Venice’ in the title of Shakespeare’s play isn’t Shylock. In the popular consciousness – i.e. among those who are aware that Shakespeare’s play contains a character named Shylock but who haven’t read or seen the play – Shylock is the merchant of Venice referred to in Shakespeare’s title. But of course the merchant is really Antonio, and Shylock the Jewish man who makes him a loan; as the scholar Stephen Greenblatt has observed, this popular misunderstanding says a great deal about how Shylock comes to dominate the play in which he appears, eclipsing all other characters.
2. But this foregrounding of Shylock as the principal character of the play appears to have been there from the start. When The Merchant of Venice was entered into the Register of the Stationers Company in 1598, it was listed with both its familiar title and the alternative title, The Jew of Venice. Shylock, it would appear, was already seen as the main attraction – or at least one who could give Antonio a run for his money (as it were) – in performances of Shakespeare’s play.
3. What’s more, that alternative title points up a possible inspiration for Shakespeare’s play: Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta. In the early 1590s, Christopher Marlowe had written a play which had depicted a Jewish character, Barabas, in a rather less than sympathetic light, as an avaricious villain. By contrast, Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice was altogether more nuanced, and biographers of Shakespeare have speculated that The Merchant of Venice was Shakespeare’s conscious attempt to create a more sympathetic Jewish character for the London stage.
4. A 1914 film adaptation of the play provided one of the most notable ‘firsts’ in American cinema. The 1914 silent movie The Merchant of Venice was co-directed by Lois Weber and Phillips Smalley, with Weber playing the role of Portia in the film. This makes Weber, who has been called one of the first genuine auteurs in American cinema, the first woman to direct a full-length feature film in America.
5. The play has given us some very famous phrases. Whether it’s the ‘pound of flesh’ Shylock demands from Antonio when the latter is unable to pay back the loan Shylock made, or Portia’s speech beginning ‘the quality of mercy is not strained’, The Merchant of Venice has left a considerable mark on the language. The phrase ‘with bated breath’ also appears in the play, and was a possible coinage of Shakespeare’s. Shylock himself has a memorable speech (‘Hath not a Jew eyes? If you prick us, do we not bleed?’), in which the Jewish outsider defends his common humanity with the Italians he lives among.
Image: English actor Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree (1853-1917) as William Shakespeare’s Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. Artist: Karl August Büchel, 1914. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Posted on January 6, 2017, in Literature and tagged Books, Classics, English Literature, Facts, Plays, Shylock, The Merchant of Venice, Theatre, William Shakespeare. Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.