The most influential writer in all of English literature, William Shakespeare was born in 1564 to a successful middle-class glover in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. Shakespeare attended grammar school, but his formal education proceeded no further. In 1582 he married an older woman, Anne Hathaway, and had three children with her. Around 1590 he left his family behind and traveled to London to work as an actor and playwright. Public and critical acclaim quickly followed, and Shakespeare eventually became the most popular playwright in England and part-owner of the Globe Theater. His career bridged the reigns of Elizabeth I (ruled 1558–1603) and James I (ruled 1603–1625), and he was a favorite of both monarchs. Indeed, James granted Shakespeare’s company the greatest possible compliment by bestowing upon its members the title of King’s Men. Wealthy and renowned, Shakespeare retired to Stratford and died in 1616 at the age of fifty-two. At the time of Shakespeare’s death, literary luminaries such as Ben Jonson hailed his works as timeless.
Shakespeare’s works were collected and printed in various editions in the century following his death, and by the early eighteenth century, his reputation as the greatest poet ever to write in English was well established. The unprecedented admiration garnered by his works led to a fierce curiosity about Shakespeare’s life, but the dearth of biographical information has left many details of Shakespeare’s personal history shrouded in mystery. Some people have concluded from this fact and from Shakespeare’s modest education that Shakespeare’s plays were actually written by someone else—Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford are the two most popular candidates—but the support for this claim is overwhelmingly circumstantial, and the theory is not taken seriously by many scholars.
In the absence of credible evidence to the contrary, Shakespeare must be viewed as the author of the thirty-seven plays and 154 sonnets that bear his name. The legacy of this body of work is immense. A number of Shakespeare’s plays seem to have transcended even the category of brilliance, becoming so influential as to affect profoundly the course of Western literature and culture ever after.
The Merchant of Venice was probably written in either 1596 or 1597, after Shakespeare had written such plays as Romeo and Juliet and Richard III, but before he penned the great tragedies of his later years. Its basic plot outline, with the characters of the merchant, the poor suitor, the fair lady, and the villainous Jew, is found in a number of contemporary Italian story collections, and Shakespeare borrowed several details, such the choice of caskets that Portia inflicts on all her suitors, from preexisting sources. The Merchant of Venice’s Italian setting and marriage plot are typical of Shakespeare’s earlier comedies, but the characters of Portia, Shakespeare’s first great heroine, and the unforgettable villain Shylock elevate this play to a new level.
Shylock’s cries for a pound of flesh have made him one of literature’s most memorable villains, but many readers and playgoers have found him a compelling and sympathetic figure. The question of whether or not Shakespeare endorses the anti-Semitism of the Christian characters in the play has been much debated. Jews in Shakespeare’s England were a marginalized group, and Shakespeare’s contemporaries would have been very familiar with portrayals of Jews as villains and objects of mockery. For example, Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, a bloody farce about a murderous Jewish villain, was a great popular success and would have been fresh in Shakespeare’s mind as he set about creating his own Jewish character. Shakespeare certainly draws on this anti-Semitic tradition in portraying Shylock, exploiting Jewish stereotypes for comic effect. But Shylock is a more complex character than the Jew in Marlowe’s play, and Shakespeare makes him seem more human by showing that his hatred is born of the mistreatment he has suffered in a Christian society. Shakespeare’s character includes an element of pathos as well as comedy, meaning that he elicits from readers and audiences pity and compassion, rather than simply scorn and derision.