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Title page of the first quarto (1600)
The Merchant of Venice is a play by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written sometime between 1596 and 1598. Although classified as a comedy in the First Folio, and while it shares certain aspects with Shakespeare's other romantic comedies, the play isperhaps more remembered for its dramatic scenes (particularly the trial scene), and is best known for the character of Shylock.
The title character is the merchant Antonio, not the more famous villain, the Jewish moneylender Shylock, who is the play's most prominent figure. Though Shylock is a tormented character, he is also a tormentor, so whether he is to be viewed with disdain or sympathy is upto the audience (as influenced by the interpretation of the play's director and lead actors). As a result, The Merchant of Venice is often classified as one of Shakespeare's problem plays.
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 Date and text
Facsimile of the first page of The Merchant of Venice from the First Folio, published in 1623
The date of composition for The Merchant of Venice is believed to bebetween 1596 and 1598. The play was mentioned by Francis Meres in 1598, so it must have been familiar on the stage by that date, and the title page of the first edition in 1600 states that it had been performed "divers times" by that date. Salarino's reference to his ship the "Andrew" (I,i,27) is thought to be an allusion to the Spanish ship St. Andrew captured by the English at Cadiz in 1596. A dateof 1596–97 is considered consistent with the play's style.
The play was entered in the Register of the Stationers Company, the method at that time of obtaining copyright for a new play, by James Roberts on July 22, 1598 under the title The Merchant of Venice, otherwise called The Jew of Venice. On October 28, 1600 Roberts transferred his right to the play to the stationer Thomas Hayes; Hayespublished the first quartoFalse Folio. (Afterward, Thomas Hayes' son and heir Laurence Hayes asked for and was granted a confirmation of his right to the play, on July 8, 1619.) The 1600 edition is generally regarded as being accurate and reliable, and is the basis of the text published in the 1623 in the First Folio, which adds a number of stage directions, mainly musical cues. before the end ofthe year. It was printed again in a pirated edition in 1619, as part of William Jaggard's so-called
The earliest performance of which a record has survived was held at the court of King James in the spring of 1605, followed by a second performance a few days later, but there is no record of any further performances in the seventeenth century. In 1701, George Granville staged a successfuladaptation, titled The Jew of Venice, with Thomas Betterton as Bassanio. This version (which featured a masque) was popular, and was acted for the next forty years. Granville cut the Gobbos in line with neoclassical decorum; he added a jail scene between Shylock and Antonio, and a more extended scene of toasting at a banquet scene. Thomas Doggett was Shylock, playing the role comically, perhaps evenfarcically. Rowe expressed doubts about this interpretation as early as 1709; however, Doggett's success in the role meant that later productions would feature the troupe clown as Shylock.
In 1741 Charles Macklin returned to the original text in a very successful production at Drury Lane, paving the way for Edmund Kean seventy years later (see below).
 Shylock onstage
Jacob Adler and others report that the tradition of playing Shylock sympathetically began in the first half of the 19th century with Edmund Kean, and that previously the role had been played "by a comedian as a repulsive clown or, alternatively, as a monster of unrelieved evil." Kean's Shylock established his reputation as an actor.
From Kean's time forward, all of the actors who...