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The Merchant of Venice /

An Introduction to This Text: The Merchant of Venice

By Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine
Editors of the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions

The Merchant of Venice was first printed in 1600 as a quarto. Then in 1619 someone used a copy of the 1600 quarto as the basis of a second quarto-edition of the play. But whoever produced this 1619 quarto does not seem to have had access to either an author’s manuscript or one from the theater and does not seem always to have understood the play. In 1623 the play was again printed, this time as a part of the collection of Shakespeare’s plays now known as the First Folio. Like the Second Quarto of 1619, the First Folio text is based on an edited copy of the First Quarto of 1600 (Q1). Some scholars think that whoever edited The Merchant of Venice for the First Folio must have referred to a manuscript of the play that had been used in the theater, but this theory is not well founded.

Explore the First Quarto of The Merchant of Venice (1600) in the Folger’s Digital Collections.

The present edition is based directly on the 1600 quarto.1 For the convenience of the reader, we have modernized the punctuation and the spelling of the quarto text. Sometimes we go so far as to modernize certain old forms of words; for example, usually when a means “he,” we change it to he; we change mo to more, and ye to you. It is not our practice in editing any of the plays to modernize words that sound distinctly different from modern forms. For example, when the early printed texts read sith or apricocks or porpentine, we have not modernized to since, apricots, porcupine. When the forms an, and, or and if appear instead of the modern form if, we have reduced and to an but have not changed any of these forms to their modern equivalent, if. We also modernize and, where necessary, correct passages in foreign languages, unless an error in the early printed text can be reasonably explained as a joke.

Whenever we change the wording of the First Quarto (Q1) or add anything to its stage directions, we mark the change by enclosing it in superior half-brackets ( ). We want our readers to be immediately aware when we have intervened. (Only when we correct an obvious typographical error in Q1 does the change not get marked.) Whenever we change either the wording or the punctuation of Q1 so that meaning changes, we list the change in the textual notes, even if all we have done is fix an obvious error.

We correct or regularize a number of the proper names in the dialogue and stage directions, as is the usual practice in editions of the play. For example, the first time Lancelet Gobbo comes on stage, he calls himself “Launcelet Iobbe.” Then his father enters under the name “old Gobbo.” Like most editors before us, we think that the father and son had the same last name, which we spell “Gobbo.” Unlike all editors since Rowe (1709), however, we retain Q1’s name “Lancelet” rather than changing it to “Lancelot.” Editors and readers have often had trouble distinguishing among three characters with closely similar names: Salarino, Solanio, and Salerio. Ever since 1926, when John Dover Wilson argued that Shakespeare had intended Salarino and Salerio to be the same character, most editors have collapsed the three characters into two named Salerio and Solanio. We acknowledge that in one scene (Act 3, scene 3) there is a confusion involving the name Salerio, but we do not think that this single confusion is enough to warrant collapsing the three roles into two. We do, however, regularize the name Salarino, which in Q1 is sometimes spelled “Salaryno” or “Salerino” as well as “Salarino.”

This edition differs from many earlier ones in its efforts to aid the reader in imagining the play as a performance. Thus stage directions and speech prefixes are written and arranged with reference to the stage. For example, at the very end of the play Nerissa says that she is giving Lorenzo “a special deed of gift” (5.1.313), and so she is in the fiction of the play. Yet on stage the actor playing Nerissa would hand over not a “deed” but simply a piece of paper. Therefore, instead of printing the traditional stage direction that reads “Handing him a deed,” we print “Handing him a paper.” Whenever it is reasonably certain, in our view, that a speech is accompanied by a particular action, we provide a stage direction describing the action. (Occasional exceptions to this rule occur when the action is so obvious that to add a stage direction would insult the reader.) Stage directions for the entrance of characters in mid-scene are, with rare exceptions, placed so that they immediately precede the characters’ participation in the scene, even though these entrances may appear somewhat earlier in the early printed texts. Whenever we move a stage direction, we record this change in the textual notes. Latin stage directions (e.g., Exeunt) are translated into English (e.g., They exit).

We expand the often severely abbreviated forms of names used as speech headings in early printed texts into the full names of the characters. We also regularize the speakers’ names in speech headings, using only a single designation for each character, even though the early printed texts sometimes use a variety of designations. Variations in the speech headings of the early printed texts are recorded in the textual notes.

In the present edition, as well, we mark with a dash any change of address within a speech, unless a stage direction intervenes. When the -ed ending of a word is to be pronounced, we mark it with an accent. Like editors for the last two centuries, we display metrically linked lines in the following way:

 Is your name Shylock?
SHYLOCK  Shylock is my name.


However, when there are a number of short verse-lines that can be linked in more than one way, we do not, with rare exceptions, indent any of them.

  1. We have also consulted the computerized text of the 1600 quarto provided by the Text Archive of the Oxford University Computing Centre, to which we are grateful.