First Impressions: The Merchant of Venice

Look at that title. Crazy, isn't it?
Look at that title. Crazy, isn’t it?

Yes, I’ve started yet another book. I had been missing Shakespeare ever since I finished Hamlet a few months ago, so I decided to add this play to my list.

It’s an odd one, I know. It’s not terribly well-known like Hamlet or Macbeth and among those who do know it, it’s rather infamous. That’s part of the reason why I want to read it: The Merchant of Venice has long been attacked in schools and universities for being anti-Semitic, however, I’ve also heard it argued (by a Jew, of all people!) that Shakespeare could not have been anti-Semitic and still include the monologue in which Shylock proclaims that Jews and Christians are and should be treated as equals. I’m familiar with the story, but I figured that the only way I could really know what the play is like is to read it myself. So I will.

I’ve read up to Scene 4 in Act 2 and so far, I’m rather enjoying it. That is, I enjoy parts of it. I once read an essay by Ray Bradbury where he said that all of the good lines in Shakespeare go to the men; apparently, he was forgetting Portia, TMV’s leading lady. Portia is what you might call a “strong heroine.” I usually don’t like to describe characters that way because often when people call a character “a strong heroine,” they mean that she uses or cheats other people and isn’t sorry for it (case in point, Scarlett O’Hara). But Portia is different. Her father is trying to control her from beyond the grave, demanding in his will that her choice of a husband be decided by a lottery. She can’t go against her father’s wishes, but all the while she tries desperately to find some way out of it. She’s witty and amusing, but never spiteful or catty. She’s exactly what I’ve been wanting from a heroine!

And once again, we have those great Shakespearean quotes. Below are just a few of the lines I’ve found so far that struck me:

“With mirth and laughter, let old wrinkles come.”

Act I, Scene I


“Gratiano speaks an infinite deal of nothing, more than any man in all Venice. His reasons are as two grains of wheat hid in two bushels of chaff: you shall seek all day ere you find them, and, when you have them, they are not worth the search.”

Act I, Scene I


“Sometimes from her eyes, I did receive fair speechless messages.”

Act I, Scene I


“My little body is aweary of this great world.”

Act I, Scene II

Of course, some of the play is a bit off-putting: for instance, the terms of Shylock’s loan. That’s enough to make me wonder what Shakespeare was thinking, no matter what the character’s ethnic background is. I can also see how Shylock seems to embody many of the stereotypes about Jews that were common in that era (and ours, for that matter). I want to agree with those who say that TMV is nothing more than an example of the anti-Semitism that ran rampant in Shakespeare’s time, but part of me thinks I should hold off until I’ve finished the book. We’ll see where it goes from here.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

4 thoughts on “First Impressions: The Merchant of Venice

  1. I like to look at the portrayal of Shylock as Shakespeare saying, “Even the most stereotypical Jew you can imagine is still as human as any Christian.”

    Have you gotten to Act IV and Portia’s speech about mercy? Beautiful and brilliant.


  2. I LOVE “The Merchant of Venice”! You picked out some of my favorite quotes. 🙂

    Portia has always been one of my most-loved Shakespeare characters. She, like all of his best, is witty and clever in conversation. She’s got attitude and is independent and intelligent, but she’s graceful, understanding, and respectful.

    And then there’s Shylock, who’s one of the best Shakespeare villains.

    Have you finished reading yet? I too would love to hear your final thoughts on the end!


  3. Yes, Portia and Shylock made the play for me. Portia is exactly what I wanted in a heroine: smart, headstrong, kind, and resourceful. I love her.

    Shylock has got to be not only Shakespeare’s best villain but one of the best villains in anything. 🙂

    I have finished reading the play, but I still haven’t finished my review yet. I might have gotten it done sooner but my internet service has been on the blink for weeks. Hopefully, I’ll get that done before long.


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