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Merchant of Venice

Title Page for the Merchant of Venice

Title Page for the Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare

The Merchant of Venice was probably written as early as 1596 or as late as 1598.  It is classified as an early Shakespearean comedy and as one of the Bard's “problem” plays. The play addresses issues of prejudice against “the other.”  Great symbolism is included in which good triumphs over evil, however other serious themes are examined and some remain unresolved. The Merchant of Venice is filled with ambiguity; between what one says and who one is. Some feel that Shakespeare wove together two ancient folk tales; one involving a vengeful, greedy creditor trying to literally exact a pound of flesh, and the other a trial for marriage suitors.  

Gilbert Stuart Newton, Merchant of Venice

Shylock and Jessica from the 'Merchant of Venice,' Act II, scene ii, by Gilbert Stuart Newton 1830

There are three suiters involved in three interrelated plots. They emphasize the racial prejudice of Venice. The suitors are Prince of Morocco, Prince of Arragon and Bassiano.  They each must interpret the riddle “who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.” The dominant theme is complex in The Merchant of Venice. It is much more universal than specific religious or racial hatred; it centers on the polarity between the surface attractiveness of gold and the intrinsic and religious values such as mercy and compassion that should stir the soul of man. The play is also filled with many beautiful quotes. "The quality of mercy is not strained;" is one such quote stated by Portia as she alerts the audience to what is at issue. 

Merchant of Venice by Maurycy Gottlieb

Merchant of Venice by Maurycy Gottlieb

Portia is an orphaned Venetian woman of high birth. She is bound by the results of the trial set forth in her father's will, which gives potential suitors the chance to choose between three caskets composed of gold, silver and lead. If they choose the right casket – the casket containing what her father’s has stipulated all suitors will undergo a test of character.  The contents are not disclosed except for a riddle. We come to find out that gold meaning pride, silver signifying vanity, and lead indicating humility.  Portia is partial to Bassiano, a young Venetian noble but cannot provide clues to indicate her choice. Portia obeys her father’s instructions and she develops a strategy to let him know of her choice that does not break the guidelines established by her father. Portia delivers one of the most famous speeches of the play.


Moorish Ambassador to Elizabeth I

The Moor, the Prince of Morocco, is the first to attempt to solve the riddle.  He chooses the casket that holds gold, not the choice that leads to Portia. While Antonio, the prince of Morocco, is of noble birth and has his own base of power, his skin color is not acceptable in Venetian society.  The Prince apologizes for his complexion. He is both ashamed for the color of his skin but also proud of it since it is attractive to Venetian women. He challenges prejudice by arguing his blood is as noble as any Venetian’s. While he doesn’t easily accept defeat, his exit is short and dignified. Although Antonio is not referred to as a Moor, the assumption is made because he serves as a mediator for ongoing tensions between Europe and the Ottoman Empire. 

The Moorish Ambassador Painting by Jacopo Robusti

The Moorish Ambassador Painting by Jacopo Robusti

Prince Aragon’s entrance does not create any action and/or comments on the part of Portia. His arrogance and pride are shown through his choice of the caskets and his choice of the wrong one.  The silver casket is the one that appeals to him the most but he comes out being observed as a hypocrite. He feels he is naturally worthy of Portia’s hand simply because of who he is. 

Bassanio, is Antonio’s young Venetian friend of so called nobility who owes him lots of money but wishes to borrow from him once again because he desires to pursue a beautiful young heiress by the name of Portia of Belmont. Having squandered his family’s wealth, he needs an additional 3,000 ducats to subsidize his exploits as a suitor. On the other hand Portia is overwhelmed with the number of suitors who are available to call on her.

Earle Hymen

Earle Hyman, (1926- 2011), Shakespearean actor, played the role of the Prince of Morocco in the Merchant of Venice early on in his career. Now best known as Grandpa Russell “Slide” Huxtable on “what was known as The Cosby Show.” Before becoming a member of the Cosby cast he was a member of a Norwegian sitcom and appeared on stage in Shakespearean roles in Norway.  Like his predecessors he experienced discrimination and rejection for Shakespearean roles here in the United States.  Mr. Hyman joins a long and distinguished roster of African American actors who, going back as far as the 1820’s, met the challenge of a society that had consistently denied actors to play leading roles and found greater opportunities in other countries.


William Shakespeare in Art: A Desire for Diversity Introduction

More about Shakespeare

Timeline: Significant Dates in the Life of Shakespeare

Further Reading on Shakespeare and Race

List of People of Color in Shakespearean Roles

Titus Andronicus


Antony and Cleopatra