Classified as a comedy, The Merchant of Venice can be seen as being part of the group of Shakespearean plays which stand on the borderline between comedy and tragedy. It is not a true tragedy as none of the characters actually die, but it is a dark comedy which deals with some very controversial problems and it is best remembered for the character of Shylock, the Jewish moneylender who is portrayed as a greedy, wicked and revengeful individual. Without the Shylock character, however, The Merchant of Venice might be considered a minor Shakespearean play. No other character (excluding, perhaps, Hamlet) in any of Shakespeare's plays has received as much dispute and commentary about his meaning and interpretation as Shylock.
Shakespeare is believed to have written The Merchant of Venice in 1596-1597. It was first printed in 1600 as a quarto, of which nineteen copies survive. This was followed by a printing in 1619, and later an inclusion in the First Folio in 1623. Shakespeare drew on several works as sources, but chiefly on a 14th-century story by Ser Giovanni Fiorentino’s Il Pecorone (The dunce or The simpleton). The play was written shortly after Christopher Marlowe's immensely popular play The Jew of Malta (1590), in which a Jew named Barabas plays an exaggerated villain. The representation of Shakespeare's Jew was and remained comic until the late 1700s when he was first played as a true villain. In 1814 Shylock's role was depicted as a character to be pitied, and in 1879 he was first portrayed as a tragic character. Since World War II he has commonly been conceived of as a tragic hero and as a man "more sinned against than sinning".
Here you can read the plot of the play.
The Merchant of Venice has been considered a great commentary on the nature of racial and religious interactions. The title itself is deceptive, and is often misinterpreted as a reference to Shylock, the Jew. However, in reality, it describes the Christian merchant Antonio. This misinterpretation has led scholars to continue debating whether Shakespeare meant to be anti-Semitic or critical of anti-Semitism. His representation of Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, causes the audience to both hate and pity the man, and has left critics wondering what Shakespeare was really trying to achieve.
There is no doubt that there was strong anti-Semitism in Shakespeare’s time. The entire Jewish community had been expelled from England in 1290 and they were re-admitted in the middle of the 17th century. Therefore, at the time of writing his play there were no Jews in Shakespeare’s England. The Venice of Shakespeare's day was well-known for its wealth and variety of cultures, for it was a cosmopolitan market where Eastern goods made their way into the West. Although people from all kinds of nationalities and religious backgrounds did business in Venice, Shakespeare's setting is full of religious strife, especially between Christians and Jews. It should also be pointed out that, although 16th-century Venice was more tolerant of foreigners than Elizabethan England, Jews in Venice were confined to ghettos at the time Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice - Shakespeare, however, doesn't ever acknowledge this in the play. Jews also had to wear a red hat at all times in order to be identified, otherwise they would be punished by death.
However, the figure of Shylock is not entirely negative and, although Shakespeare initially depicts him as the Elizabethan caricature of a Jew, he gradually gives him a more human dimension while also illustrating the defects of the Christian characters in the play - Shakespeare shows that Shylock’s hatred is born of the ill-treatment he has suffered in a Christian society, indeed he has been abused in the past, he has been spit upon, called a dog, and worse. Shylock arouses compassion from readers and audiences, rather than simply scorn and derision, yet his coldly calculated attempt to avenge the wrongs done to him by murdering his persecutor, Antonio, prevents us from viewing him in a wholly positive light.
The modern tendency is to see the play as a call for tolerance. The climax of the court scene ironically shows how those who accused Shylock of trickery managed to turn the case around against him by their own deceitful means. In this way Shakespeare seems to portray Christian virtues in a rather ambiguous light. Ultimately, when Shylock must convert to Christianity, it sounds as if Shakespeare is making the play end happily also for him - redeeming him from his “unbelief”. In point of fact, Shylock’s final conversion is no redemption, but rather a humiliating punishment – he is a lonely, joyless man who appears to be a victim, as he cannot remain a Jew and live.
In the 2004 romantic drama film based on Shakespeare's play Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons and Joseph Fiennes give wonderful performances.