The Merchant of Venice was written by William Shakespeare sometime between 1596 and 1598. It was first printed in quarto in 1600. Though it is classified as a comedy in the First Folio, it is quite dramatic. The play is most famous for the character of Shylock, a Jewish moneylender who loans money to Antonio on the condition that should he fail to re-pay, Shylock will extract from him a pound of flesh. Both the name Shylock (as a pejorative for loan shark) and the term ‘pound of flesh’ (referring to a harsh obligation) were soon solidly established in the English lexicon, a use which continues through this day.
The play has often been associated with anti-semitism, which was certainly a long set tradition in Shakespeare’s day. Jews had been expelled from England in 1290 via the Edict of Expulsion and hundreds of years later, in the Elizabethan age in which Shakespeare wrote, it was common that Jews were nearly always caricatured as greedy and evil. So, with the time period in mind, it is not surprising to read Antonio thinking Shylock evil:
The divell can cite Scripture for his purpose,
An evill soule producing holy witnesse,
Is like a villaine with a smiling cheeke,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart.
O what a goodly outside falsehood hath.
Yet, Shakespeare’s characters and insight into human nature are nearly always extremely complex, so just broadly labeling the play as anti-semitic is certainly incorrect and intellectually lazy. Shakespeare includes various thematic elements which allow the reader to see Shylock as a sympathetic character, or at least justified in his thirst for revenge. As Rene Ben Sussan, the artist who illustrated this edition, says:
Shylock lives under odious regulation, he is obliged to wear a red cap, a gabardine, he lives in a ghetto. Higher professions are forbidden to him…..It is but too human that such unjust, odious conditions will give rise to a thirst of revenge.
In fact, Shakespeare gives the best lines of the play to Shylock when responding to Salarino, a friend of Antonio, when asked for what good would be the taking of Antonio’s flesh. Shylock answers:
To bite fish withall, if it feede nothing else, it will feede my revenge; he hath disgraced me, and hindred me halfe a million, laught at my losses, mockt at my gaines, scorned my Nation, thwarted my bargaines, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies, and what’s his reason? I am a Jewe: Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dementions, sences, affections, passions, fed with the same foode, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same meanes, warmed and cooled by the same Winter and Sommer as a Christian is: if you pricke us doe we not bleede? if you tickle us, doe we not laugh? if you poison us doe we not die? and if you wrong us shall we not revenge? if we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that…The villanie you teach me I will execute, and it shall goe hard but I will better the instruction.
Certainly an outstanding diatribe against bigotry and a fair warning to those who act on such bigotry. It is clear that Shylock, and what he represents, is quite complicated. Yes, he does comes across as heartless and wicked, but his history of being persecuted certainly justifies at least part of what drives his actions. Yet his inability to rise above his hatred clouds his ability to show mercy, which ultimately leads to his downfall. As Charles Knox Pooler, in the Preface to the play (in the prospectus), tells us:
Like some of the heroes of Greek tragedy, he labours for his own destruction.
Pooler comes to a similar conclusion that Shakespeare does not use Shylock as a reason to paint a caricature of a greedy Jew; Shakespeare allows Shylock many opportunities for sympathy while highlighting less than pure actions of his Christian tormentors. Ultimately it is Shylock’s actions that undermine the sympathy his persecution had begun to birth.
We may dismiss…the notion that Shylock is a type of his race. The Merchant is no mere study of Jewish character, with or without a plea for toleration….So far as he is persecuted for his religion, he may be taken as typical of his great nation, but he leaves its ranks when he plans a murder.
Shylock’s desire for revenge, which certainly springs not from the provence of Jewishness, is unfortunately an all too human condition. The role of revenge in the story, the friendship of Antonio and Bassanio, Bassani’s suiting of Portia, Portia’s plea for mercy (famously saying showing mercy “is twice blest: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes“), and Portia and Nerissa’s role in saving Antonio and destroying (or is it saving?) Shylock — these are all complexities that make this play hard to generalize. As Pooler says:
The excellence of the plot and truth of the characterization have caused the play to be regarded by one critic as a comedy of intrigue and by another a comedy of character. With respect to the aim of its author and its central motive, it has been called a study of friendship, a study of Christian love, a study of the relation of man to wealth, and of law to equity…It is, in fact, a study of life, and life has more than one lesson.
The Merchant of Venice is part of the marvelous 1939/1940 thirty seven volume The Plays of William Shakespeare by the Limited Editions Club (LEC), which was designed by the great Bruce Rogers. Like all editions in this set, it uses the text of the First Folio, with Quarto insertions, edited and amended where obscure by Herbert Farjeon. The type is an 18 point close facsimile of Janson, made by the Lanston Monotype Company, with the italic used being a creation of the Monotype Company since Bruce Rogers did not like the Janson 18 point italic; italic small capitals were made by re-cutting the Italic capitals of the Monotype Garamond Bold in a special size and with slight alterations of a few of the characters with a close new type face. It is bound with gilt tops and uncut edges in backs of American linen, with the titles stamped in gold on the spine. The cover design is based on a decorative wall design in a house that that Shakespeare was thought to have stayed at frequently. A different artist was used for each of the 37 volumes in this set. For The Merchant of Venice, artist/illustrator Rene Ben Sussan provided water-colors to illustrate the play. In the Monthly Letter (ML), Sussan tells of his challenge in portraying characters:
The appearance of characters is often minutely described in novels, in plays they are not for the reason that they are incarnated by different actors. In the first case the description is a hindrance to the illustrator’s imagination, in the second he is too much at liberty.
Sussan was a somewhat frequent contributor to the LEC, having illustrated seven other editions besides this one. His first was for the 1934 edition of Richard Sheridan‘s The School for Scandal while the last came 38 years later with 1972’s Memoirs of Casanova. His work here, while not amongst the best of this 37 volume series, is certainly competently done. I think it difficult to convey the mixture of comedy, drama and tragedy that the play involves; illustrations need to toe a line of not being too light and not being too dark, while highlighting the intensity of the characterizations. Nearly an impossible task, I would guess. Here Sussan manages to not err; though I think he perhaps took too safe of a route, leaving out a sense of presence and intensity. Certainly the water colors are reproduced nicely, as the LEC almost always successfully pulled off. At an inexpensive price of $50-100 for a near fine or better copy, it is money well worth spending.
About the Edition
- Part of the 1939/1940 thirty seven volume The Plays of William Shakespeare by the Limited Editions Club
- Designed by Bruce Rogers
- Text of the First Folio, with Quarto insertions, edited and amended where obscure by Herbert Farjeon
- Illustrations from water-colors by Rene Ben Sussan
- Note concerning the play (in the prospectus) by Sir Paul Harvey, from The Oxford Companion to English Literature
- Preface to the play (in the prospectus) by Charles Knox Pooler, from his edition of The Merchant of Venice (Methuens)
- Printed at the Press of A. Colish in New York
- Type is an 18 point close facsimile of Janson, made by the Lanston Monotype Company, with the italic used being a creation of the Monotype Company since Rogers did not like the Janson 18 point italic; italic small capitals were made by re-cutting the Italic capitals of the Monotype Garamond Bold in a special size and with slight alterations of a few of the characters with a close new type face
- New paper created for this edition by the Worthy Paper Company of Springfield
- The binding was done by Russell-Rutter Company in New York
- Bound with gilt tops and uncut edges in backs of American linen, with the titles stamped in gold on the spine
- Cover design based on a decoration wall design in a house that that Shakespeare was thought to have stayed at frequently (a friend of his)
- 8 3/4″ x 13″, 91 pages
- Limited to 1950 copies
Pictures of the Edition
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