Merchant of Venice - GCSE Edexcel English Literature notes

Note: I got these notes from SparkNotes and my own class notes. What I don’t like about SparkNotes is that their analysis is not organised into themes which would be a lot more useful, so I did it for them and added more good points. Enjoy!



Why Venice?

       In Shakespeare’s time, Venice was the most important trading centre in the world.

       Goods from the Far East were traded in Venice and with them came new ideas and discoveries.


Jews in England

       There weren’t really any Jews living in England at this time.

       They had been taxed to the point of poverty and finally banished, 300 years before Shakespeare.

       The idea of a Jew is used in The Merchant of Venice is not based upon observations of real Jews. By the time the play was written, only the old, medieval idea of a Jew existed for people in England. The word ‘Jew’ had come to be applied to hard-hearted , unscrupulous moneylenders, even though the people were referred to were not Jewish.

       The main reason for the toleration of the Jews was their contribution to England’s financial well-being.

       A group of comparatively wealthy Jews therefore established themselves as money lenders, providing a valuable service to society.

       Common views at that time were to blame Jews for things that went wrong e.g the belief that the plague originated from the Jews ‘poisoning the wells’, this belief was strong in England

       An Elizabethan audience would have been quite happy at the misfortunes of a Jew, a Spaniard and a Moor because they were from other cultures. Shakespeare was clearly giving the public what it wanted.


Shakespeare’s Use of Sources

       Most of the plot elements of The Merchant of Venice appear in stories translated from French and Italian.


Different audiences will react differently

       The reactions of Elizabethan vs Modern audiences counts as context and is an easy point to make

       The key knowledge is that in the 16th-17th centuries, Jews were blamed for everything (eg diseases), while Christians were seen as the superior religion, so the old audience would support Shylock’s punishment and abuse because they don’t like Jews

       Now we have more tolerance for religion and race, so modern audience will view Shylock as a victim and feel bad for him, as well as be disappointed with the ending because they will feel that his punishment was too harsh

       You can say similar things about the rights of women/minorities etc



Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

Self-Interest vs Love

       On the surface, the main difference between the Christian characters and Shylock appears to be that the Christian characters value human relationships over business ones, whereas Shylock is only interested


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