Historical Context in The Merchant of Venice
In 1290, King Edward expelled anyone of the Jewish faith from England. While some converted to Christianity to stay in England, most of the Jewish population moved out of the country. This means that by the time Shakespeare wrote this play in 1596, there were few to no Jews living in London. Due to lack of exposure, irrational fear of religious difference, and the general prevalence of racist ideology, anti-Semitism was rampant in early modern England. Many plays featured despicable Jewish characters to perpetuate this unfounded hatred. Shakespeare’s play was largely a rebuttal to rival playwright Christopher Marlowe’s then famous play The Jew of Malta. Marlowe’s play features Barabas, a Jewish man who is portrayed as scheming, sinister, and villainous. Many critics have read Shakespeare’s Shylock as a similarly despicable character. However, unlike Marlowe, Shakespeare humanizes Shylock and gives him the most famous lines of the play. While the play contains anti-Semitic sentiments, Shylock’s complexity and how the Christian characters treat him provide modern readers with a look at the ethics in Shakespeare’s time. Such ethics and beliefs clash with today's perceptions, and understanding the difference in these views is important to modern readings of the play.
Historical Context Examples in The Merchant of Venice:
Act I - Scene I
"Jasons..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Jason was the son of Aeson and rightful king of Iolcos in Greek mythology. He leads the Argonauts, a band of heroes, in search of the golden fleece, a symbol of authority and kingly rights. Jason finds the fleece with the help of his wife Medea. In this metaphor, Bassanio compares Portia to the golden fleece, a prize pursued by many Jasons.
"four winds..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
The four winds, or Anemoi in Greek mythology, were gods associated with the four cardinal directions and thought to bring the seasons and weather conditions. Boreas was the north wind that brought winter; Zephyrus was the west wind that brought spring and summer; Notos was the south wind that brought late summer and autumn and was responsible for storms; Eurus was the east wind thought to bring rain and unluckiness. Bassanio uses this reference to show how widely known Portia is.
"Cato's..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Porcia was the daughter of Roman statesman Cato the Elder and the second wife to Brutus, one of the treacherous statesmen who killed Julius Caesar. Portia was an extremely loyal wife. When Brutus did not tell her about the plot to kill Caesar, for fear that she would reveal the truth if tortured, she inflicted a wound on her leg and endured the pain for a day to prove to her husband that she could keep a secret. Brutus then shared everything with her. She eventually committed suicide when she believed that Brutus had been killed in battle.
"Janus..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Janus is a Roman god with two faces who commanded entrances. One face looks forward while the other looks backwards. Here he functions as a symbol of beginnings and endings.
"silks..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Spices and silks from Asia became important commodities in the Medieval and Renaissance eras. Coming into Europe primarily via the silk road, spices and silks stimulated economic growth in major port cities such as Venice. Salerio mentions spices and silks to tell the audience what Antonio's ships are carrying and characterize him as someone who profits off of trade with Asia.
Act I - Scene II
"Diana..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
Diana is the Roman goddess of the hunt and chastity. She never took a lover or a husband to preserve her autonomy.
"Sibylla..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
Sibylla, or the Cumean Sybil, was a prophetess who asked Apollo for eternal life. Apollo granted her as many years of life as the grains of sand that she could hold in her hand. However, Apollo did not give her eternal youth. Over a thousand years, Sybil grew more decrepit and small until nothing was left of her but her voice.
"nephew..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
The "young German" is based on John Casimir, the Duke of Saxony's actual nephew during Shakespeare's time. Casimir was known infamously throughout Europe as the leader of soldiers who were often drunk and partied excessively. Shakespeare probably intended to make a joke out of this well known figure by making the "young German" a vile drunkard.
"surety..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
Because France and England were rivals, France would often financially support Scotland in its efforts against England. This is another way in which Shakespeare uses the description of the suitors to make fun of France and Scotland, two of England's political rivals.
"able..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
After Henry VIII's break with the Catholic Church tensions between Catholic Scotland and Protestant England became incredibly high. Scotland refused to join England's religious movement and England launched a series of raids and attacks on its neighboring country. "Box of the ear" means to punch someone in the side of the head. Here, Shakespeare uses the term to refer to English attacks on Scotland, and Scotland's inability to "repay" the hit on England's much larger military force.
Act I - Scene III
"spet..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
Shylock catalogues particularly despicable behavior on Antonio's part. He not only calls him names, he spits on him in the street. It is unclear whether or not Shakespeare intended this to be funny or heart wrenching to his audience; whether this speech was supposed to endear them to Shylock or to Antonio. However, it is worth noting that other plays of this time, including Shakespeare's source text, did not give Jewish characters the chance to speak against their treatment in this manner.
"Cursed be my tribe..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
Catholics were explicitly prohibited from lending money and collecting interest by Catholic Church law in this time. Because Jews were essentially universally hated across medieval and Early Modern Europe, moneylending became one of few positions open to them. Even though the practice of loaning money was essential to Venice's merchant economy, collecting debts led to more Christian resentment towards the Jewish community.
"feed fat..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
Metaphors of consumption and devouring reoccur throughout this play, especially in relation to Shylock. One explanation could be the wide-held Early Modern belief in "blood-libel," the anti-semitic belief that Jews used Christian blood to prepare their Passover bread. Another explanation is that Shylock "feeds" or "consumes" in a different way than the Christians. While the Christians consume material items and obsess over money, Shylock "feeds" his beliefs, feelings, and internal motivations.
"Rialto..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
Rialto is a Venetian island that served as the mercantile quarter in medieval Venice. In 1591, the Rialto Bridge was completed and connected Rialto to the San Marco Islands.
"Jew..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
The Merchant of Venice is controversial because of its anti-semitic treatment of Shylock, the Jewish character in the play. After King Edward's Edict of Expulsion in 1290, anyone practicing the Jewish faith in England had to do so secretly or face persecution. When Shakespeare wrote this play in 1605, his audience would have only known about Jewish people from stories and stereotypes associated with them. Thus, Shylock can be read (and probably was intended) as a comedic caricature of Jewish stereotypes. Many modern scholars have chosen to read Shylock sympathetically, as a victim of his circumstances rather than a straightforward villain.
"ducats..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
A ducat was currency of the Venetian Republic from 1284 through the Renaissance. They were small, valuable gold coins. Three thousand ducats was an extremely large amount of money; it roughly equals about 500,000 dollars by today's standards.
Act II - Scene I
"Hercules and Lichas..." See in text (Act II - Scene I)
Lichas was Hercules's servant who gave him a poisoned shirt that eventually killed Hercules. When Hercules realized what Lichas had done, he used his strength to throw him into the sea. Here, Morocco uses this story to show that if left to luck, symbolized by dice, it would not have mattered who was stronger in this fight. In this way he touches on a main theme of the play: whether one's fate should be decided by fortune and luck or skill and ability.
"Phoebus' fire..." See in text (Act II - Scene I)
Phoebus is another name for Apollo, the Roman god of the sun. Morocco references Roman mythology when he refers to light skinned suitors of the north in order to show off his education. Like all of her other suitors, Morocco has been educated in ancient stories.
"caskets..." See in text (Act II - Scene I)
The trial of the three caskets is taken from an ancient myth in which a princess must choose correctly from a gold, silver, and iron casket to marry her prince. The gold chest has the inscription, "whoever chooses me shall find what he deserves"; the silver chest reads, "whoever chooses me shall find what he desires"; the lead says, "whoever chooses me shall find what God intends for him." The gold contains bones, the sliver contains worms, and the iron contains jewels. The princess chooses the iron casket and is allowed to marry the prince.
Act II - Scene II
"sister three..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Launcelot refers to the three fates from Greek and Roman mythology called the Moirai. The Moirai were incarnations of destiny that metaphorically controlled the thread of each life on earth. Clotho spun the thread, Lachesis measured the thread, and Atropos cut the thread to end someone's life.
Act II - Scene IV
"masque..." See in text (Act II - Scene IV)
A masque was a form of courtly entertainment. It generally consisted of music, dancing, costumes, and elaborate stage machinery. Members of the audience were often allowed to participate, especially the owner of the house's children.
Act II - Scene V
"Hagar's..." See in text (Act II - Scene V)
Hagar was a concubine who gave Abraham a son named Ishmael. Hagar and Ishmael were expelled from Abraham's house when Sarah, Abraham's wife gave birth to a son of their own. This is an insult that means foolish non-Jew, or indicates someone who has been expelled from Judaism, ie. Christians.
"Black-(25) Monday ..." See in text (Act II - Scene V)
On Easter Monday in 1360, a sudden hail storm opened up on a battalion of English soldiers and killed over 1,000 men. The losses were so bad that English troops lost more soldiers on this day than any previous battle in the Hundred Year's War. The event is referred to as Black Monday.
Act III - Scene II
"Midas..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
King Midas is a character from Greek mythology who turned everything he touched into gold. He prayed for this "golden touch" without thinking through the implications of his wish. Midas turns his own daughter into a golden statue before starving to death surrounded by his gold. Midas's story is a classic example of be careful what you wish for.
"Alcides..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
In mythology, Alcides, or Hercules, saved Hesione, the princess of Troy, from a sea monster sent by Poseidon to punish Hesione's father for breaking a bond. Hesione was stripped naked and tied to a rock to await the monster when Hercules came across her. He promised her father to rescue her in exchange for a herd of magical horses. Portia compares Bassanio to Hercules and herself to Hesione. She claims that Bassanio intends to rescue her because he loves her instead of for monetary. However, this metaphor is slightly ironic as Bassanio could, like Hercules, intend to rescue Portia for the reward.
"rack..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
"The Rack" was an Early Modern torture device used to get prisoners to confess to political treason. This is a hyperbolic way in which to say one suffers.
Act III - Scene V
"cover is the word...." See in text (Act III - Scene V)
Shakespeare uses "— is the word" multiple times throughout his plays. Launcelot's use of it here is the earliest example. It's frequency suggests that Shakespeare based this saying off a proverb that was popular at his time. However, it could also be something that he invented which he grew fond of an used often.
"Scylla..." See in text (Act III - Scene V)
Scylla was a sea monster in Greek mythology that lived in a narrow channel of water. His counterpart, Charybdis the whirlpool, resided in the same narrow passage. Adventurers would have to carefully navigate between the pair in order to return home safely.
Act IV - Scene I
"Barrabas..." See in text (Act IV - Scene I)
Barabbas and Jesus were imprisoned and sentenced to death at the same time. Barabbas was released when a crowd demanded his salvation over Jesus. Historically, Barabbas and the Jews who protested for his release instead of Jesus's have been blamed for the crucifixion. With this reference Shylock declares that he would rather have his daughter married to a descendant of the man responsible for anti-Semitic hatred than one of these Christian husbands who do not value their wives.
"A Daniel come to judgment! yea, a Daniel! ..." See in text (Act IV - Scene I)
In the Book of Daniel from the Old Testament, Daniel rescues virtuous Susanna from slander and execution. In the story, two lecherous voyagers threaten to accuse Susanna of promiscuity unless she sleeps with both of them. Because she refuses, she is accused, arrested, and sentenced to death for lechery. Daniel asks the elders to independently question the voyagers about the events they claim to have witnessed, and when their testimonies are vastly inconsistent, Susanna is released. Virtue triumphs over falsehood, and the two men are put to death.
"Pythagoras..." See in text (Act IV - Scene I)
Pythagoras was a Greek philosopher and mathematician who believed in the transmigration of souls. This belief held that the soul was immortal and would transfer itself from one vessel to another when the physical matter, the body, died. This theory contradicts Christian philosophy, which believes that soul transcends the earth to enter the afterlife.
"sole..." See in text (Act IV - Scene I)
Shoe soles used to be made of leather, wood, and sometimes iron braces. Shylock could use the sole of his shoe to sharpen the knife he would use to cut Antonio's pound of flesh.
"a purchas'd slave..." See in text (Act IV - Scene I)
England and Venice both heavily profited from the 16th century slave trade. Since Antonio and his friends are rich merchants, it is likely that they either owned slaves or transported slaves along the triangle trade.
"Argus;..." See in text (Act V)
Argus is a mythological beast that had a hundred eyes. He was tasked with keeping watch over Io, one of Zeus's mortal lovers.
"Antipodes..." See in text (Act V)
In Shakespeare's time, many people believed that on the opposite side of the world there were people who walked on their hands with their feet in the air.
"the moon sleeps with Endymion,..." See in text (Act V)
Endymion was a handsome shepherd who was half mortal and half god. In the myth, Selene, the Greek goddess of the moon, falls madly in love with Endymion. She asks his father, Zeus, to give him eternal life so that he can remain ever beautiful. However, in granting her request Zeus also gives his son eternal slumber.
"Erebus..." See in text (Act V)
Erebus was a dark place in Greek mythology that lay between Earth and Hades, life and death. Lorenzo equates a descent from life into Hades to not liking music. Because Jessica has just said that she does not like music, this criticism seems to be directed at her.
"Orpheus..." See in text (Act V)
Orpheus is a musician from Ovid's Metamorphosis who played such beautiful music that even the stones and the floods paid attention to him.
"Sola, sola..." See in text (Act V)
"Sola, sola" is a vocal expression used to imitate the sound of a horn that announces a messenger's arrival.
"Medea..." See in text (Act V)
Medea is a character from Greek mythology who creates a potion that makes Aeson, her lover Jason's father, young again. She later murders her children after Jason abandons her to marry King Creon's daughter Glauce.
"Dido..." See in text (Act V)
Dido is a character from Virgil's Aeneid. Aeneas delays his journey to find a second home after the fall of Troy when he falls in love with Dido and stays in Carthage. When Mercury is sent to remind Aeneas of his mission, he abandons Dido. Heartbroken, Dido commits suicide atop a funeral pyre.
"Thisbe..." See in text (Act V)
Pyramus and Thisbe are lovers from an Ovidian myth separated by a wall and their family's feud. They fall in love through a crack in the wall and agree to meet each other outside their houses under the Mulberry tree. Thisbe arrives first and is scarred off by a lion. Pyramus arrives to find his love's scarf and the lion, and fearing she has been eaten, kills himself out of grief. When she returns to meet her lover, Thisbe finds Pyramus dead and commits suicide as well.
"Troilus..." See in text (Act V)
Troilus and Cressida is a medieval story by Chaucer and later retold by Shakespeare that takes place during the Trojan War. As punishment for mocking love, Troilus is struck by Cupid's arrow and falls madly in love with Cressida, a Trojan woman. They exchange love letters and eventually spend the night together. When Cressida is traded to the Greeks for a Trojan prisoner of war, she promises to return to her lover. But when this becomes impossible, she takes up another lover in the Greek camp and betrays her promises to Troilus.