No play by Shakespeare is more problematical and subject to controversy than "The Merchant of Venice". Its portrayal, in its most memorable figure, of a Jewish money-lender who is full of bitterness and hatred, unrelenting in his pursuit of revenge against those he considers his enemies, can stir up feelings of unease and guilt in Jews and non-Jews alike, confronted in performance or in the printed text with this threatening embodiment of the Other. By examining the critical and stage history of the play, this study shows how directors, actors, and literary critics have sought by various strategies to exorcise the demon of anti-semitism. As the many different versions of Shylock, of the no less problematical figure of Portia, and of the contrasting locations of Venice and Belmont illustrate, there can be no single correct interpretation of a literary text, especially of a dramatic text which must, over and over again, be realized in performance.
"The Merchant of Venice" is a play which speaks directly to a 21st-century audience in its treatment of the Jew as 'stranger' or alien in a mercantile society which both needs and rejects him, and in the way it treats the options open to women in a world ruled by men, as well as the way in which it combines comic and tragic elements, testing conventional generic boundaries.
Professor Warren Chernaik came to England from the USA in 1972 and has taught at a number of American and British Universities. He is visiting Professor of English at King's College London, Emeritus Professor of English at the University of London and a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of English Studies. He has written widely on Renaissance Literature and poetry and is a specialist in this field.