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The Merchant of Venice

A scene from The Merchant of Venice

Introduction to the play

In The Merchant of Venice, the path to marriage is hazardous. To win Portia, Bassanio must pass a test prescribed by her father’s will, choosing correctly among three caskets or chests. If he fails, he may never marry at all.

Bassanio and Portia also face a magnificent villain, the moneylender Shylock. In creating Shylock, Shakespeare seems to have shared in a widespread prejudice against Jews. Shylock would have been regarded as a villain because he was a Jew. Yet he gives such powerful expression to his alienation due to the hatred around him that, in many productions, he emerges as the hero.

Portia is most remembered for her disguise as a lawyer, Balthazar, especially the speech in which she urges Shylock to show mercy that “droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.”

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Cover of the Folger Shakespeare edition of The Merchant of Venice

The Folger Shakespeare

Our bestselling editions of Shakespeare's plays and poems

… Hath not
a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions,
senses, affections, passions?

Act 3, scene 1, lines 57–59

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath.

Act 4, scene 1, lines 190–193

The Merchant of Venice in our collection

A selection of Folger collection items related to The Merchant of Venice. Find more in our digital image collection

Scene from the Merchant of Venice. By Fortunino Matania.
Miss Ellen Terry as Portia. By Howard Chandler Christy.
Merchant of Venice, Drury Lane Playbill

Essays and resources from The Folger Shakespeare

The Merchant of Venice

Learn more about the play, its language, and its history from the experts behind our edition.

About Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice
An introduction to the plot, themes, and characters in the play

Reading Shakespeare’s Language
A guide for understanding Shakespeare’s words, sentences, and wordplay

An Introduction to This Text
A description of the publishing history of the play and our editors’ approach to this edition

Shakespeare and his world

Learn more about Shakespeare, his theater, and his plays from the experts behind our editions.

Shakespeare’s Life
An essay about Shakespeare and the time in which he lived

Shakespeare’s Theater
An essay about what theaters were like during Shakespeare’s career

The Publication of Shakespeare’s Plays
An essay about how Shakespeare’s plays were published

Related blog posts and podcasts

Teaching The Merchant of Venice

Early printed texts

The Merchant of Venice was first printed as a quarto in 1600 (Q1). That text seems to have served as the basis for the 1619 quarto (Q2), the 1623 First Folio (F1), and the 1637 quarto (Q3). Most editions of the play, including the Folger, are based on Q1.