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.

shylock-merchant-of-venice3. 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.

If you enjoyed this fascinating trivia about The Merchant of Venice, we recommend our book crammed full of 3,000 years of interesting bookish facts, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

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.


  1. The merchant of Venice was my favorite of all Shakespeare’s play ‘s while doing literature in high schools, ii was always moved by the poem the quality or Mercy is not strained; and sometimes thinks of it as inspiration I think William Shakespeare was one of their best writer of all time’s.

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  3. Pingback: Five Fascinating Facts about Romeo and Juliet | Interesting Literature

  4. Reblogged this on kalimat2016.

  5. Is the Merchant antisemitic? It certainly paints a Christian viewpoint ; mercy is a Christian quality to which there is much secular objection today. Are Jews different or perhaps more relevant can we split mankind into tribes? ‘ If you prick us do we not bleed’ could be said by the tyrant or the racist. Once we take humanity in block we are in dire trouble every good German is a dead one I heard frequently in my youth.
    That Jews like Shylock exist is doubtless true but Jews utterly unlike him also exist, let’s take each as we find them.

  6. Reblogged this on newauthoronline and commented:
    I went to see the Merchant of Venice with friends a month or so ago. It is a wonderful play and raises interesting questions regarding antisemitism. On the one hand Shylock is a very unpleasant character demanding his “pound of flesh” which he knows will lead to the death of Antonio. On the other hand he is insulted due to his jewishness (the antisemitism in the play makes one feel deeply uncomfortable and, in my view Shakespeare does have some sympathy for Shylock).

  7. Interesting. School always made it clear to me that the merchant was Antonio.

  8. Great post! The Merchant of Venice was my school girl beginning to my life long love of the Bard. 😊

  9. So many famous quotes and lines from this play that get repeated today…but most do not know they are quoting Shakespeare. :)

  10. I love this play.. “all that glisters is not gold” comes from this play misquoted often as glitters 🤔😀☘