At a Glance:

A Venetian merchant defaults on his loan from a Jewish usurer and is saved by his best friend’s fiancee dressed as man. 

Thematic emphases on the discourse of wealth (as well as its effects on women), and the ideological conflicts between Christianity and Judaism.

Crash course in Early Modern anti-Semitism


Written between: 1596-1599 (ish)

“The Merchant of Venice was written between the summer of 1596 and the summer of 1598. The later date is certain because the play was registered for publication in July of that year, and it is mentioned as a produced play in”

First Performance: 1600, first recorded 1605

“According to the title page of the first edition of the play in 1600, The Merchant of Venice had been performed ‘divers times’ by that date, but the first performance of which a record has survived was held at the court of King James I in the spring of 1605. ”


Performed at either The Theatre or Curtain Theatre (the company moved in ’97)

See map below for locations.

Play set in Venice and Belmont [2]


Themesjew well

  • Wealth: Merchant addresses issues surrounding finances, trade, and conceptions of wealth through the lens of religion.
  • Women: Secondary issues concern Portia’s cross-dressing and the agency of women.
  • Christian v. Jew: 

NOTE: Jews were expelled from London in 1299 but a few hundred survived in London either disguised as Christians or Christian converts. Others, like Roderigo Lopez had Jewish ancestry and were considered to be Jewish in nature if not in practice and were persecuted regardless.



Possible sources include:

  1. The Jew of Malta (1589-90) by Marlowe: One of the most performed plays in Early Modern England, Marlowe’s tragedy followed the life of a murderous Jew named Barabas.
  2. A lost play, entitled The Jew (1579). Mentioned in Stephen Gosson’s The School of Abuse, the play appeared to capture the ‘bloody mindes of usurers’ (assumed to be Shylock), and ‘the worldly chusers’ (assumed to be in relation to the casket narrative) [3]
  3. Ser Giovanni’s Il Pecarone (1558) contains a narrative that is almost identical to The Merchant of Venice and was very likely the primary narrative source.



The year 1594 had two politically significant events that likely spurred the writing of the play.

lopez 2

  1. Roderigo Lopez (pictured left), Portuguese physician in chief (of Jewish ancestry) to Queen E1 was executed for treason. Considered part of both the Jewish and Catholic communities, Lopez exemplified two of the greatest fears of the English of the time. Learn more about anti-Semitism in Early Modern England here.
  2. Marlowe’s popular drama, The Jew of Malta, was revived to great success by the Admiral’s Men (the second most influential acting troupe of the time)


Recommended Reading/Listening:



Fun Fact:

The 2004 Michael Radford film version of the play is more historically accurate than the original play itself was, as it includes period/ geographically accurate costumes (which the players would not have had access to), and the Venetian Getto in which Jews were locked at night.


[1] The first book of Shakespearean criticism (as well as many other things– it was a commonplace book, a popular sort of scrapbook of thoughts), Palladis Tamia, Wits Treasury, was published in 98 and discusses Merchant of Venice. [9780820111889]

[2] Although there were no laws banning plays from being set in England, the Master of the Revels had to approve all plays being performed as not containing slander against any person of political influence in London. As such, Shakespeare often used Venice as a stand-in for London because of religious and economic similarities between the two cities. [9780714128283]

[3]  [9781611493733]

 [4] [978-0385313612]