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The Merchant of Venice: Annotated

Season 4

Episode 3


The Merchant of Venice: Annotated

All actors: The Merchant of Venice. Act 1, scene 1.

Actor 1: Antonio, a Merchant of Venice, speaks:

Actor 2: In sooth I know not why I am so sad.

It wearies me, you say it wearies you.

But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,

What stuff ’tis made of, whereof it is born,

I am to learn.


Host Aaron Henne: Welcome to the third episode of the fourth season of theatre dybbuk’s The Dybbukast. This episode is presented in collaboration with the Department of History at George Washington University. I'm Aaron Henne, artistic director of theatre dybbuk. This is the final episode in a three-episode series connected to theatre dybbuk's most recent production, The Merchant of Venice (Annotated), or In Sooth I Know Not Why I Am So Sad. That production, a section of which you heard at the top, combines text from Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, with Elizabethan history and news from 2020-2023. Throughout the episode, you will hear readings from that play. It should be noted that actors are often playing roles that do not necessarily align with their gender identities, and some parts, such as Shylock and Queen Elizabeth, are played by multiple actors over the course of the production.

Dr. Jennifer Wells, Assistant Professor of History and International Affairs at George Washington University, served as historical consultant on the play and, here, joins us to share about the scholarship present in the work. You will also hear me, as the writer/director of the work, talking about the dramaturgical choices we made and how the history that Dr. Wells is discussing came to be explored in our piece, and the ways in which that history might speak to contemporary concerns.

And now: “The Merchant of Venice: Annotated”.


Dr. Jennifer Wells: One of the things that strikes me whenever I teach, like, Elizabethan England is just how radically different that world was from that of Elizabeth’s father. It's truly when the English Renaissance, you can say, takes off. There's sort of all these things that really start to look like an identifiably modern society and a distinctly English one. And I think that that probably flavors so much of how Shakespeare writes too; that he's being influenced by all of these connections through trade and exploration that just weren't even a thought 30 or 40 years earlier.

Actor 2: In sooth I know not why I am so sad.

It wearies me, you say it wearies you.

But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,

What stuff ’tis made of, whereof it is born,

I am to learn.

And such a want-wit sadness makes of me,

That I have much ado to know myself.

Aaron: When we were developing the play, we were struck by the fact that Antonio talks about his "sadness" right at the beginning. It's seemingly free floating and without a particular reason for being, but it's there in a way that felt familiar and got the play's development team thinking about the sadness that is present in our world now. And so, we wanted to understand what was going on at Shakespeare's time, and in what ways it might speak to the things that are happening today.

Jennifer: Late 16th century England is sort of a mixed bag, I think, economically, is how I would describe it. There have been a series of bad harvests. There has been the plague in different years, the sweating sickness, which is some sort of mysterious illness that nobody really fully understands, but it seemed to strike periodically throughout the 16th century, and, in particular, affected people from the nobility. During the mid 16th century, Henry VIII and then his son, Edward, began to debase the coinage. Back then, coins actually did contain metal within them, and precious metals. Often it was silver. And when England went through hard times in the mid 16th century, the response from the government was to basically debase the amount of silver within those coins. And so they put in other metals such as copper or tin. When people went to purchase things, they would weigh coins, and they'd find they didn't actually have the right weight because there wasn't the right amount of silver in them. And this really created widespread problems for the English economy for decades. And it's corrected ultimately by Elizabeth's reign, but you still have sort of these lingering economic effects because of some of the policies undertaken during the reign of her father and her brother, to a certain extent, her elder sister, Mary.

Aaron: As we thought about the economic concerns of Shakespeare’s time, we noted that in the third scene of Merchant, we witness a financial negotiation taking place. And this is really what sets the plot in full motion. Bassanio, a young man, needs money to be able to woo Portia, a wealthy heiress. In a previous scene, his friend Antonio had committed to helping him, but Antonio’s own wealth is tied up in his ships, and so he offered to let Bassanio use his credit. This is the proposal that Bassanio has brought to a moneylender.

Actor 3: Shylock the Jew, a moneylender, is introduced by having him state a monetary amount, the total of the loan requested by Bassanio.

Actor 1: Three thousand ducats; well.

Actor 4: Ay, sir, for three months.

Actor 1: For three months; well.

Actor 4: For the which, as I told you, Antonio shall be bound.

Actor 1: Antonio shall become bound; well.

Aaron: We also considered the negative stereotypes that still often come up around Jews and money; these stereotypes, which could be, at least in part, associated with the fact that when Merchant was written, money lending was one of the limited number of jobs that Jews, such as Shylock, were allowed to hold in parts of continental Europe. Given all these considerations, we decided that in our production it was important to put the position of the Jewish moneylender in its proper context:

Actor 5: Money lending for interest, or usury, was illegal for Christians, but not for Jews. And thus, usury could occur without damning the souls of the faithful. The Catholic Church’s Third Council of the Lateran in 1179 decreed that persons who accepted interest on loans could not receive a Christian burial.

Actor 3: We therefore declare that notorious usurers should not be admitted to communion of the altar or receive Christian burial if they die in this sin.

Jennifer: There are very few Jews in England. The estimate is just a few hundred, and they were practicing their faith covertly. But Jews had been expelled by Edward I in 1290 in England. He's a really bad guy. He’s — he's all over. He’s conquering the Scots, the Welsh, expelling Jews, and he's just like a really reprehensible king.

Aaron: And so, with there being practically no Jewish presence in the country for centuries, along with what came to be a growing need for moneylending, in the mid- to late-16th century, after various acts or bills were passed and repealed, Christians in England were finally allowed to lend for interest. And this helped us to understand how Merchant may have been revealing the anxieties associated with all of this. The play really leans into England’s uneasiness with usury when Shylock spells out the terms of the deal he is willing to offer Antonio for the loan, which are pretty brutal, if taken at face value.

Actor 1: Go with me to a notary, seal me there

Your single bond; and, in a merry sport,

If you repay me not on such a day,

In such a place, such sum or sums as are

Express'd in the condition, let the forfeit

Be nominated for an equal pound

Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken

In what part of your body pleaseth me.

Jennifer: This is a society that's just deeply, deeply unequal. And with that obviously come financial hardships and problems. Vagrancy is actually a huge issue in England at this time. It has been a problem since the Reformation, and, in part, because a lot of the duties of abbeys and monasteries at the time were to care for the poor. And after the Reformation, which starts in the late 1520s and then culminates, you could say, by the time of Elizabeth's reign, when it's very firmly a Protestant country — but one of the many effects of this is that it actually removes the social safety net that the Catholic Church had provided for the poor.

Actor 3: The government dissolved the monasteries, confiscating their lands and wealth. And since the Church was no longer providing for certain people, particularly the rural poor, there resulted a large number of wandering vagrants.

Jennifer: And with that comes increases in crime and concerns about what they're going to do to a local parish and things of that nature. And so, it's a complex society. It looks very different from the society that would have existed in 1500. It is a society that you and I would be able to probably identify with more, because so many of the issues that you're seeing there are things that still pervade to this day.

Aaron: We came to realize that while the parallels between then and now might be apparent, it could be worthwhile to put them truly side by side on stage. So our play makes the connections clear by presenting news from our world that might help us understand that present sadness I talked about earlier. We did this, for example, in a scene that involves Lancelet, Shylock’s servant, debating whether or not he should leave his master.

Actor 4: My conscience says, No. Take heed, honest Lancelet. Take heed, honest Gobbo, or as aforesaid, Honest Lancelet Gobbo, do not run. Scorn running with thy heels.

Actor 3: The United States offers some of the lowest wages in the industrialized world. A larger share of workers in the United States make “low pay” — earning less than two-thirds of median wages  — than in any other country belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and  Development.

Aaron: Now, as we considered topics like antisemitism and inequity connected to economics, we couldn’t ignore gender issues, especially given the ongoing questions around equal treatment of women. Portia, the heroine of Shakespeare’s play, is a figure who, much like Elizabeth, has both certain privileges and particular restrictions.

Actor 5: Enter Portia, heiress of Belmont, as she speaks to her waiting woman, Nerissa.

Actor 1: By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is aweary of this great world.

Actor 5: They discuss the lottery devised by Portia’s father before his death to determine her husband. Any suitor wishing to marry Portia must pick one of three caskets. One is made of lead, one of silver and one of gold. If the suitor chooses the casket that holds a portrait of Portia, then he wins her hand in marriage.

Actor 1: I may neither choose who I would nor refuse who I dislike. So is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father. Is it not hard, Nerissa, that I cannot choose one, nor refuse none?

Jennifer: Elizabeth, from the moment she becomes queen — she's always placed in this very difficult position because, as a woman, she is meant to be subordinate to her husband. And yet, as queen of England, she can't allow any man to supersede her. She has one lover that's particularly famous — Robert Dudley — and this is probably the true love of her life. But he's an English subject, and, therefore, he is beneath her. So they cannot marry.

Actor 5: Any man vying for Portia agrees to abide by three conditions if he fails. First, he will never reveal which casket he chose; second, he promises never to court another woman; and lastly, he will leave Belmont immediately. In spite of the potential consequences, many men have come to woo her.

Jennifer: Conversely, other sort of suitors include various princes and kings in what are today the Netherlands and France, and even in Spain. The problem there is that if Elizabeth is to marry one of them, she will be beneath them, and, moreover, subordinate England to another country's interests, and that just can't be done either. And so she ultimately remains single throughout the rest of her reign.

Aaron: We even found this really interesting manual or guidebook that seemed to illuminate the gendered expectations of women during the 16th century, so we wove it into the scene where we first meet Portia.

Actor 4: The Education of a Christian Woman: A Sixteenth-Century Manual.

Actor 2: A widely read document in both Catholic and Protestant communities.

Actor 4: Chapter 6: On Virginity. What will be the sorrow of her relatives when they sense that they are all dishonored because of the base conduct of one girl? What will be their grief? Is this the reward for your upbringing?

Aaron: But once again, we felt that hearing this document from the 16th century could feel irrelevant or dismissible without offering something that would cause the audience to consider how women are being restricted and their choices are being limited currently.

Actor 2: Need abortion care? Contact Las Cruces Women’s Health Organization in Las Cruces, New Mexico at (575) 888-4623. From the website of Mississippi’s last abortion clinic, posted after it closed in the wake of the  Supreme Court decision found not in their favor — Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization, decided June 24, 2022.

Aaron: As we discussed earlier, so much of the world surrounding the play and the work itself deals with money. Even Portia’s situation is really about who can win not only her hand, but her estate. And the play is called, “The Merchant of Venice,” and centers around a debt. All of this makes sense when one thinks about the often violent conflict between two major economic powers, Spain and England, that occurred in the 16th century. And, as is the case in certain conflicts today, religion plays a significant role in it as well.

Jennifer: The conflict with Spain has been an issue really since the Reformation, because Spain is the largest power that is Catholic on the continent. And since that time, there have been anxieties about Spain potentially funding missions and working in league with the Catholic Church to overthrow the Reformation.

Aaron: And I was amazed to see how the history of the conflict between Spain and England could be showing up in Shakespeare's work in a variety of ways, even in some of the scenes that, to our modern ears, might not seem to be expressing anything more than the story of an heiress being pursued.

Actor 3: Another suitor, the Prince of Arragon the Spaniard has arrived in Belmont to try to win Portia’s hand.

Actor 1: Behold, there stand the caskets, noble prince.

Actor 3: Arragon the Spaniard contemplates the silver casket.

Jennifer: Elizabeth's very savvy in her religious policy, and she famously says she will not make windows into men's souls, which basically means you are welcome to worship inwardly how you feel. Outwardly, you all need to be members of the Church of England. So you never see religion become a huge issue domestically within her reign. But what is going on is this kind of growing conflict, especially in the Atlantic, with Spain. And this is where it's kind of fun, because you get names that everybody's familiar with, like Sir Francis Drake, that are coming into the mix, and these are actually licensed pirates that were given letters of marque by the queen to sail around. And she wants them to plunder Spanish ships; in particular, those that are laden with silver and other riches from the New World as they're trying to come back across the Atlantic.

Actor 1: Sir Frances Drake, privateer and slave trader, was key to gaining much of England’s riches and to its naval triumphs. He would attack Spanish ships, taking their treasure for himself and, I suppose, for England.

Jennifer: And obviously Spain is infuriated by this. And so, ultimately, it all comes to a head in the summer of 1588. And that is when the Spanish decide, once and for all, they're going to try to stop England and they send their armada. And it leaves Lisbon on May 20th, 1588 with 130 ships. 17,000 soldiers are aboard these ships, and then 7,000 sailors. And they wanted to make landfall and invade. This is completely cloaked in the Counter Reformation that's being spearheaded by the Catholic Church. There is a papal blessing that is given. There's a mass that is said, and they really do view this as kind of a crusade. On July 28th, the armada sort of parked in the English Channel, intending to make landfall, and the English sent out fire ships. And what it does is it scuttles the armada because they were not expecting this. But England has also benefited, I suppose, for once, by its terrible weather, and a storm blows up. And the ships are sort of in disarray because of the fire ships, but the storm blows the armada completely off course. It sends them way up around Scotland and then down and around Ireland.

Actor 2: Speech said to have been delivered by Queen Elizabeth to the troops at Tilbury in 1588.

Actor 4: I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm.

Jennifer: And this is such a devastating defeat to the Spanish. They can never quite recover from it.

Actor 3: Arragon the Spaniard is then sent upon his way, unable to take hold of Portia and her Belmont and now also unable to woo anyone else and gain access to their money either.

Aaron: So, Arragon fails, having chosen the wrong casket, the silver one, and, later in the play, Bassanio does make his way to Portia’s home. We came to think of Bassanio, in contrast to the Spanish Arragon, as a kind of stand-in for England and therefore, who the audience of Shakespeare’s time would be rooting for. And he, of course, does succeed.

Actor 3: Bassanio, that upright citizen of Venice, has arrived at Belmont to try to win Portia (and all that she has, but that’s beside the point in a love story). Bassanio chooses the lead casket, the one with the least outward showing of wealth and finds there a likeness of Portia.

Actor 4: What find I here?

Fair Portia’s counterfeit! What demigod

Hath come so near creation?

Aaron: Given that the play defeats its Spanish figure and rewards the character that, as I said, could be interpreted as a representative of the “home team,” so to speak, we felt that it made sense to bring together this scene with a speech by Queen Elizabeth where she praises herself and her country.

Actor 2: I do assure you there is no prince that loves his subjects better, or whose love can countervail our love. There is no jewel, be it of never so rich a price, which I set before this jewel: I mean your love. For I do esteem it more than any treasure or riches;  for that we know how to prize, but love and thanks I count invaluable.

Jennifer: England really avoids a lot of the warfare that's endemic across Europe during the 16th century due to the Reformation. And what you do have in both France and then the Holy Roman Empire, which, as people always say, is neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire — it's basically the Germanic lands of modern day Germany and Austria battling over whether they will follow Protestantism or Catholicism. You are getting people who are displaced one way or another from their lands.

Aaron: Shylock, who would certainly be seen as an outsider or usurper in the world of the play, could, we felt, operate as a metaphor for other outsiders, such as refugees and immigrants. Keeping all that in mind, in Act Three, Antonio has defaulted on the loan from Shylock and so he manages to get a jailer to arrest Antonio, thus making sure that Shylock’s own rights are upheld, even if that harms a "proper" citizen such as Antonio.

Actor 4: Shylock the Jew speaks to a Jailer, asking for Antonio to finally be taken away.

Actor 5: Jailer, look to him: tell not me of mercy;

This is the fool that lent out money gratis:

Jailer, look to him.

Jennifer: Where you do get hostility would be in really the southeast of England, where mostly people are initially making landfall just across the channel. And this is also where really the bulk of laborers are going to be, because this is London and the southeast still today; this is kind of the heart of England, and where most industry and commerce takes place. So you do get these people — merchants, to a certain extent, but even husbandmen, local farmers, artisans, people lower down the social scale, you could say, who would be concerned about people coming in, perhaps with more skills that might be able to take their jobs or their professions, or alternatively could potentially outperform them.

Aaron: Given that Shylock, again, seems, in this moment, to be able to use the state’s power, in the form of this jailer, against Antonio, The Merchant of Venice himself, we thought that we could really drive home the point that there were those citizens who felt disempowered by the presence of immigrants or refugees by putting the scene together with the story of an anti-immigrant pamphlet that was posted on a church in England.

Actor 3: On May 5, 1593, a poem was affixed to the Stranger Church on Broad Street in London, threatening violence against the congregations of the Dutch Protestant Church and the neighboring French Protestant Church. These churches were for the merchants and refugees of the religious wars between the Catholics and Protestants on the Continent.

Actor 1: Ye strangers that do inhabit in this land

Note this same writing do it understand

Conceit it well for safeguard of your lives

Your goods, your children & your dearest wives

Your Machiavellian Merchant spoils the state,

Your usury doth leave us all for dead

Your Artifex, & craftsmen works our fate,

And like the Jews, you eat us up as bread

Aaron: And this history really connected for us with the commentaries and pieces of propaganda, often fundamentally racist and antisemitic, that certain people in the media are sometimes putting forth now, especially in relation to immigrants in the United States. So, when the scene ended, we heard a clip from 2021, featuring former Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson, that demonstrated this clearly.

We hear audio of Tucker Carlson speaking:

…an unrelenting stream of immigration. But why? Well, Joe Biden just said it: to change the racial mix of the country. That's the reason, to reduce the political power of people whose ancestors lived here, and dramatically increase the proportion of Americans newly arrived from the third world. And then Biden went further. He said that non-white DNA is the "source of our strength." Imagine saying that. This is the language of eugenics. It’s horrifying. But there's a reason Biden said it. In political terms, this policy is called "the great replacement," the replacement of legacy Americans with more obedient people from far-away countries.

Aaron: In addition, we look at how Shakespeare’s play deals with those, not just Jewish or Spanish, who also aren't seen as part of the dominant culture, for lack of a better term. I already mentioned two suitors, Arragon and Bassanio, but the first suitor who comes to Portia is actually the prince of Morocco.

Actor 5: The Prince of Morocco, the Moor enters. He has come to woo Portia. In Merchant, the text here describes him as “A Tawny Moor, all in white.”

Actor 2: Mislike me not for my complexion,

The shadow'd livery of the burnish'd sun,

To whom I am a neighbour and near bred.

Jennifer: Our sort of concept of race is a construct that comes about much later. And with the Moors, this is particularly true because they're not viewed as Black, as you and I might think of it today. They are simply Moorish, these Berber and Africans from North Africa. So the view of most English people would have been suspicious, but that is not necessarily born out of their skin color. It's more born out of these wider European ideas that were circulating about people from North Africa. And it's also bound up again in religion in terms of they’re Muslim as opposed to Christian.

Aaron: We really wanted to process the ways in which the different, but intersecting, concerns in England around those who are considered “other” show up and are embedded in that society. And so, as we meet Morocco, we hear some of the history and the scholarship connected to the term “Moor” and its usage.

Actor 4: Etymology of the descriptor, “Moor”: One of the race dwelling in Barbary, late 14 century, from the Latin, “Maurus,” inhabitant of Mauritania, Roman Northwest Africa. Also applied to the Arabic conquerors of Spain. Being a dark people in relation to Europeans, their name in the Middle Ages was a synonym for “Negro". In the 16th and 17th centuries, it was often used indiscriminately of Muslims.

Jennifer: And so it goes way back to the Crusades. And so that is sort of the context in which you may see these sort of suspicions kind of arising. There are tons of pamphlets that use Moor as a slur and they'll talk about Moorish dogs or Moorish suspicions. It becomes more pronounced in English society over the course of the 16th and into the 17th century. It also gets into this commerce that England is trying to pursue both in North Africa, the wider Mediterranean, and even into the Ottoman Empire.

Actor 4: Queen Elizabeth and her advisors struck up a trading alliance with parts of the Ottoman Empire, whose resources were of great importance in England’s ongoing conflict with Spain.

Jennifer: And in those sorts of cases, they were having to deal with the Moors in order to access trade routes and certain goods that they wouldn't be able to get otherwise or procure otherwise. And the Moors would charge stiff taxes. So a lot of the slurs of Moors are bound up in this resentment over their hold on the trade. And that's something that bleeds into the Ottoman Empire too, where they also will attack the Turk, and they'll go on about the Turks also being these dastardly people. And it's because they're controlling the trade and England desperately wants into that eastern trade. So I think that, seen in that context — is really useful. England is expanding at this time, obviously, with its exploratory efforts in the Atlantic and the Caribbean, and more and more encountering Africans. But so much of the things that we associate with slavery is really a development that occurs in the 17th century. And that's when race, for the first time, and skin color starts to define freedom versus un-freedom. And that is not something that's on the minds of Elizabethans at this time.

Actor 3: Morocco the Moor is to show his worthiness by choosing between the three caskets, one of gold, one of silver, and one of lead. Again, if he selects the right one, he will win Portia and all that goes with her, land and wealth.

Actor 1: Now make your choice.

Aaron: And Morocco, of course, chooses the incorrect casket, the gold one, and is sent on his way. What’s telling though, given all that we have been discussing, are Portia’s lines after Morocco exits.

Actor 1: A gentle riddance! Draw the curtains, go.

Let all of his complexion choose me so.

Jennifer: I think — and this is, in my opinion, a bit of a disturbing element — you see this — this sort of — the curiosity of the English where they put all these unique things that they've never encountered before, because this world is rapidly expanding, on display.

Actor 4: During the Elizabethan period, the employment of Africans became increasingly common in England. They served in wealthy households as footmen or musicians, and the queen herself retained a black maidservant.

Jennifer: And so the queen having a black servant, and wealthy households having black servants — it's almost sort of like this ornament in a way of, of “look at this,” because it's so unusual. And I think in some senses, that's why they don't actually expel people, like black servants or Moors, even though there are proclamations to do so.

Actor 5: 11th, July 1596. Her Majesty, understanding that there are of late diverse Blackamoors brought into the Realm, of which kind of people there are already here too many, considering how God hath blessed this land with great increase of people of our own Nation as any Country in the world, whereof many for want of Service and means to set them on work fall to idleness and to great extremity; Her Majesty’s pleasure therefore is, that those kind of people should be sent forth of the land.

Jennifer: And the other much more kind of practical way of thinking of it too, is that they're already relying upon them for labor and they want to keep their labor. So I can see it as sort of a duality with that, and they just won't bother enforcing that proclamation.

Aaron: Now, while we explored myriad ways that Merchant deals with the "other", whomever that other may be, we understood that the nature of its relationship with its Jewish characters is central to how people think of the play. I'm not just talking about Shylock, but about his daughter Jessica as well. In particular, we looked at the discussion that comes up in Act 3 Scene 5 about her marriage to Lorenzo and her conversion to Christianity. We investigated how this scene might speak to the questions about Jewish identity that are present in Shakespeare's world; questions that, at least in their broad strokes, still haunt us, about belonging, "passing", acceptance, and so forth.

Actor 1: Lancelet and Jessica the Convert are in discussion about whether she can truly begin a new life with Lorenzo.

Actor 4: There is but one hope in it that can do you any good, And that is but a kind of bastard hope neither.

Actor 3: And what hope is that, I pray thee?

Actor 4: Marry, you may partly hope that your father got you not, that you are not the Jew’s daughter.

Jennifer: Most Jews in England at this time were probably Spanish or Portuguese, who had come into the country. They're called Marranos, and they had escaped the Spanish Inquisition. And we know that they are in England, these small communities, kind of practicing, worshiping underground. And we know this too because the Spanish ambassador keeps very good records and is writing back to Spain, and he says he can see these people who are clearly celebrating Passover and Yom Kippur and observing these traditions. For those that are there, there's a few that are quite famous. One is Roderigo Lopes, who was Elizabeth's personal physician, and he's accused of trying to poison her. And for that, he is hanged, drawn, and quartered. There isn't evidence that he was intending to, and the fact that he was also her physician is quite interesting, because he was incredibly close then to the queen's body. But he pays the ultimate price for that. And people say it is because of the fact that he was Jewish.

Actor 2: June 7, 1594, a doctor named Roderigo Lopes, the queen’s physician-in-chief, is executed for conspiring against Her Majesty, supposedly playing an important role in a plot to poison her. He, baptized and raised Catholic, was suspected of being a practicing Jew, since he was known to have Jewish blood, one of many “New Christians.”

Jennifer: What we today would say antisemitism was certainly rife in England at the time, to the extent that those few people who were Jewish most certainly wanted to hide this for their own safety. The last real big thing to note, though, is that English people are becoming more and more aware — and perhaps I don't want to over-stress or exaggerate the term — but perhaps more tolerant because they are encountering Jews in the big mercantile ports. In Antwerp and Amsterdam, there are larger Jewish communities, the same thing in Venice and in various Italian port cities. And so there is starting to be more awareness of Jewish people and perhaps some of these hostilities that were prevalent in the 1570s and 1580s are dispelled to a certain degree.

Aaron: I want to loop back to the first scene in which Shylock appears. Because even as we look at the various ways that Shakespeare’s play gives voice to the anxieties of its time about, as I’ve said, immigrants and others, it still somehow also names the kind of inhumanity that is experienced by these figures, even the kind that’s coming from those the audience is meant to identify with. So, in this early scene when Antonio asks if Shylock is willing to agree to the deal to lend him money, Shylock responds by pointing out how he has been berated and degraded by Antonio.

Actor 1: Signior Antonio, many a time and oft

In the Rialto you have rated me

About my moneys and my usances:

Still have I borne it with a patient shrug,

For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe.

You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,

And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,

And all for use of that which is mine own.

Well then, it now appears you need my help:

Jennifer: The three big slurs at the time are: you're a Jew, a Moor, or a Turk. And then I think they say Jew, Moor, Turk, dog. If you go Google it and, like “early modern England,” you'll start to turn up pamphlets that have that in it. So it was a definite othering.

Actor 1: Go to, then; you come to me, and you say

'Shylock, we would have moneys:' you say so;

You, that did void your rheum upon my beard

And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur

Over your threshold: moneys is your suit

What should I say to you? Should I not say

'Hath a dog money? is it possible

A cur can lend three thousand ducats?'

Aaron: I’ve alluded to this, but now I'll say it even more plainly: all of our investigations of the history of Shakespeare’s play and how it relates to us are influenced by the fact that we live in a world that has now been impacted by COVID and the Trump presidency; factors that we perhaps couldn't have imagined coming together a few years or months earlier. And these factors have contributed to us hearing and seeing overtly antisemitic, racist, supremacist statements and actions. Things that perhaps used to be unspoken are now said aloud, and activities that used to happen in the shadows are now in the light. So, in our play, after having spent so much time sharing about Elizabethan history and recent news, we let all of our pointing out the inequities and issues in our world crescendo, which Shakespeare’s play makes easy to do. In Act 4 of Shakespeare's work, Shylock, the primary minority marginalized figure, is at a trial. This trial is meant to determine if, since Antonio can’t pay his debt, Shylock can collect his pound of flesh. We juxtaposed the trial with what has been occurring in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Actor 5: Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! All persons having business before the Honorable, the Supreme Court of the United States, are admonished to draw near and give their attention, for the Court is now sitting. God save the United States and this Honorable Court!


The Duke of Venice speaks.

(as Duke)

What, is Antonio here?

Actor 2: Antonio answers.

(as Antonio)

Ready, so please your Grace.

Aaron: And so, it’s in this setting, where we have mashed together our Supreme Court with the court of Venice, that we hear from Portia, who has inserted herself, disguised as a man who is a kind of prosecutor or judge, into the trial. She points out a technicality that could prevent Shylock from taking the pound of flesh.

Actor 1: This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood.

The words expressly are “a pound of flesh.”

Aaron: And so Shylock loses the case, and Portia, telling the court that the proper punishment for his crime of threatening the life of a citizen is that Shylock, who she calls an alien, be left penniless — and she also points out that, at the court’s discretion, he could lose his life as well.

Actor 1: Tarry, Jew.

The law hath yet another hold on you.

It is enacted in the laws of Venice,

If it be proved against an alien

That by direct or indirect attempts

He seek the life of any citizen,

The party ’gainst the which he doth contrive

Shall seize one half his goods; the other half

Comes to the privy coffer of the state,

And the offender’s life lies in the mercy

Of the Duke only, ’gainst all other voice.

In which predicament I say thou stand’st,

Down, therefore, and beg mercy of the Duke.

Aaron: Antonio offers an alternative to these punishments, one which spares Shylock’s life but which requires that he leave money for his estranged and now Christian daughter and her husband, and, perhaps even more significantly, that he convert to Christianity as well.

Actor 2: Two things provided more: that for this favour

He presently become a Christian;

The other, that he do record a gift,

Here in the court, of all he dies possessed

Unto his son Lorenzo and his daughter.

Aaron: So, what are we left with? This outsider, or, as Portia says, “alien,” who is crushed by a system that supports those who already have some measure of financial or cultural privilege or both. And what we see in that Venetian court is also an overlapping of religious and economic concerns and desires. After all, Shylock is made to join the dominant religion and is also compelled to participate in the stripping of his wealth to fulfill the wishes and purposes of those who have the power. And that really reminded us of some things we are seeing today. So, when Shylock is asked if he accepts his punishments, we shared some recent Supreme Court decisions where religious and financial considerations are at play or, at the very least, where issues of state and individual power are present. And those who lost these particular cases could certainly be considered marginalized to different extents in our society.

Actor 1: Art thou contented, Jew? What dost thou say?

Actor 5: Creative LLC v. Elenis. Decided in 2023. The U.S. Supreme Court determines that certain services can be denied when the person compelled to offer the services would be violating their own constitutionally protected right to freedom of speech. Lorie Smith of 303 Creative, LLC claimed that it would have been against her Christian faith to make websites for same-sex marriages. The case was found in 303 Creative LLC’s favor and the company is not required to accommodate same-sex clients.

Actor 1: Art thou contented, Jew? What dost thou say?

Actor 5: Arizona v. Navajo Nation. Decided in 2023. The U.S. Supreme Court determines that the Treaty of Bosque Redondo is a stipulation of property rights rather than an obligation of the Federal Government to fulfill any of the proposed purposes of the treaty. Arizona and other entities intervened in a case originally brought by the Navajo Nation which contended that the federal government has a duty to protect the Navajo Nation's claims to water on the Arizona portion of their reservation. The court states that although the treaty established the Navajo Reservation, it did not require the United States to take affirmative steps to secure water for the tribe.

Actor 1: Art thou contented, Jew? What dost thou say?

Actor 3: I am content.

Actor 5: The United States Supreme Court stands in recess.

Actor 3: Shylock the Jew exits.


Aaron: Thank you for listening to this episode of The Dybbukast, “The Merchant of Venice: Annotated.” Actors featured in this episode were Joe Jordan, Adam Lebowitz-Lockard, Julie Lockhart, Diana Tanaka, and Inger Tudor. Thank you to Dr. Jennifer Wells for sharing her insights. Story editing was led by Julie Lockhart with support from me, Aaron Henne. This episode was edited by Gregory Scharpen. Our theme music is composed by Michael Skloff and produced by Sam K.S.

Please visit us at, where you will find links to a wide variety of materials which expand upon the episode’s explorations. And if you want to know more about theatre dybbuk’s work in general, please sign up for our mailing list on that same website.

This is the third and final episode in our three episode series that intersects with theatre dybbuk's production, The Merchant of Venice (Annotated), or In Sooth I Know Not Why I am So Sad. This episode was presented in collaboration with the Department of History at George Washington University. This season of The Dybbukast is generously supported by a grant from Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah. 

The Dybbukast is produced by theatre dybbuk.


Actor 4: It is a time of great change. The weather is ever shifting, and floods kill fields and the crops that grow within them.

Actor 5: The price of goods is rising, a situation determined by forces beyond our individual control.

Actor 3: The gap between the average worker and those who “own” land or have a title or control the means of production is ever growing.

Actor 2: The system of government is moving from one era to the next, with an aging leader’s legacy in question, and there is fear that the transition could result in collapse or being overtaken.

Actor 1: Migrants have fled their lands, due to persecution, and come to this country. There are many who view them as a threat to their security, their way of life. I should also mention that we are not that far off from our last great illness which killed so many — thousands, for example, in this city alone.

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