Places: The Merchant of Venice

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1600

First produced: c. 1596-1597

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Tragicomedy

Time of work: Sixteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Venice

*Venice. Merchant of Venice, TheMajor Italian port whose commercial activities are the play’s focus. William Shakespeare’s Venice is a busy mercantile center, in which businessmen are concerned about their cargoes at sea and who are often at the mercy of usurious moneylenders, such as Shylock. A wealthy Jew, Shylock has a deep-rooted animosity toward Christians, who chronically insult him and his religion. Although Venice is dominated by money, with its foundations resting on commerce, trade, and family inheritances, there is a society of exclusiveness under its busy mercantile surface–which is symbolized by the Rialto Bridge, a common meeting place for businessmen. Venice’s people include reviled Jews and anti-Semitic Christians, and Venetian law has the inveterate power to turn individuals into scapegoats.


*Belmont. Town near Venice in which the wealthy young Portia lives. In contrast with Venice, Belmont is a place of beautiful material luxury and pleasure. Portia’s beauty, wit, and grace distinguish her home, but it is actually a world of idleness, frivolity, music, and romance. Portia and her waiting-maid Nerissa seem to do little but gossip about Portia’s eager suitors and show much anxiety about Bassanio’s chances at winning her hand. A scene in which Portia’s suitors must choose among treasure caskets to win her hand in marriage is pregnant with the symbolism of wealth and moral implications.

Shylock’s house

Shylock’s house. Venetian home of Shylock the moneylender. Shylock’s daughter Jessica and his servant Launcelot Gobbo complain about the hellishness of the place, where thrift is practiced, where doors and windows are shut against the masked Christian revelers whom Shylock regards as threats to his religion and his property.

Shakespeare also uses generalized street scenes or scenes in front of Shylock’s to demonstrate the anti-Semitism of Solario, Salerio, and Gratiano, and to contrast the shallowness of these men and of Launcelot Gobbo with the wisdom of Portia and the considered judgment of Antonio, the rich and generous merchant of the play’s title.


Court. Venetian court of justice that is the setting for the all-important trial scene, in which the problem of Shylock’s bond is resolved by Portia’s ingenious cleverness and a bargain that Shylock is forced to make with Venetian law in a crystallization of opposite forces: lofty Jewish concept of right and Christian “mercy.”

Sources for Further StudyBulman, James. Shakespeare in Performance: The Merchant of Venice. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. Provides a survey of nineteenth century productions and a critique of several major twentieth century productions, including a comparison of Jonathan Miller’s stage version (featuring Laurence Olivier as Shylock) with the BBC-TV version he produced ten years later.Danson, Lawrence. The Harmonies of “The Merchant of Venice.” New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1978. An excellent full-length study of the play that treats everything from “The Problem of Shylock” to law and language, miracle and myth, love and friendship, and the “quality of mercy.”Frye, R. M. Shakespeare and Christian Doctrine. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1963. Presents biblical, patristic, medieval, and early modern Christian doctrine, especially Catholic-Anglican, as background to Shakespeare’s works.Greenblatt, Stephen. Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. New York: W. W. Norton, 2004. Provides useful information about the Roderigo Lopez affair and the current of anti-Semitism in mid-1590’s London as background to The Merchant of Venice.Gross, John. Shylock: Four Hundred Years in the Life of a Legend. London: Chatto & Windus, 1992. Gross traces Shylock’s role and that of the play’s in the history of anti-Semitism in the Western world. Also discusses the stage history of The Merchant of Venice, including several adaptations.Hall, Jonathan. Anxious Pleasures: Shakespearean Comedy and the Nation-State. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1995. In addition to an overview of Shakespeare’s political world, this book contains valuable commentary on capitalism in The Merchant of Venice and on Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (pr. c. 1589, pb. 1633).Levin, Richard A. Love and Society in Shakespearean Comedy. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1985. Levin devotes one chapter to The Merchant of Venice and focuses on one of the play’s central problems: the ambiguity of Shylock’s conflicting motives in Act I, scene iii: The bond proposed may have been “a vicious and deceptive offer” or it may have been an incentive for better treatment from Antonio and others.Rabkin, Norman. Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981. In a superb essay on The Merchant of Venice, Rabkin notes the many significant inconsistencies and contradictions in the play and shows the impossibility of imposing easy, reductivist interpretation on it.Shaheen, Naseb. Biblical References in Shakespeare’s Comedies. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1993. Examines Shakespeare’s knowledge of English Bibles (Geneva and others), details his textual references, and corrects an earlier misattribution of a text in The Merchant of Venice.Shapiro, James. Shakespeare and the Jews. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996. Shapiro examines English identity and Jewish identity in the Elizabethan age; recounts myths, histories, and historical anecdotes; and includes a chapter titled “A Pound of Flesh.”
Categories: Places