Shakespeare Quarterly 54.4 (2004) 451-453
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The Merchant of Venice: Texts and Contexts. Edited by M. Lindsay Kaplan. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2002. Illus. Pp. xvi + 379. $55.00 cloth.
The Bedford Texts and Contexts Shakespeare series reflects the current prevalence of historicist methodologies in Renaissance studies, and M. Lindsay Kaplan's Bedford Merchant of Venice remains true to this orientation. Kaplan seeks to recover the intellectual contexts within which Shakespeare's work would have been generated and received by its earliest audiences, and she pursues this end primarily by offering students a judicious selection of contemporary texts on themes relevant to the play. Kaplan's introduction and the text of Shakespeare's play together occupy 120 pages of the volume, leaving well over 200 pages more for a spread of readings grouped under four general headings: "Venice," "Finance," "Religion," and "Love and Gender." These readings comprise the meat of the work; Kaplan argues that they provide a means of "imagining what kind of assumptions and opinions an early modern audience might [End Page 451] bring to a performance of the play as well as what kind of views might encourage a modern audience to reexamine its initial response to the play" (1).
The attitudes that emerge from these readings vary widely, yet they also sound common themes and voice recurring concerns. Thomas Coryate admires the cosmopolitanism of Venice's merchant community; William Thomas inveighs against the Venetians' greed; Dudley Carleton analyzes the apparent decline of their mercantile empire in the early-seventeenth century. Central to each of these texts, as Kaplan observes, is a conflicted awareness of Venice's reputation as the kind of trading center that London could, in the 1590s, only hope to become. Nor was this reputation confined to matters of overseas commerce. From Coryate and Fynes Moryson, Kaplan chooses accounts of the courtesans for which Venice was notorious in Shakespeare's day, and whose own business dealings paralleled the economic troping of Bassanio's relations with Portia and Lorenzo's relations with Jessica. As for Shakespeare's much-vexed representation of Judaism, Kaplan explores it in readings that document the vibrancy of the Jewish community in early-seventeenth-century Venice; the expulsion of the Jews from England; English associations of Judaism with usury; and the opinions of contemporary Jewish authors on the practice of lending money at interest. These last passages represent a particular strength of Kaplan's volume, and they demonstrate the extraordinary complexity of Portia's seemingly simple question to the Venetian court: "Which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?" (4.1.169).
The categories into which Kaplan has organized her readings prove to be less definitive than suggestive. The travelers' accounts of Venice, for instance, record a cultural diversity that transcends both race and nationality while also telling readers at least as much about England as they do about the Mediterranean. Likewise, they segue more than once into a discussion of the relative merits of Judaism and Protestantism—a topic obviously appropriate for inclusion in the "Religion" section. Again, the readings in the section titled "Finance," focusing as they do on the morality of usury under varying spiritual dispensations, repeatedly infringe on aspects of religious doctrine. As for "Love and Gender," the passages grouped under this heading speak directly to the prominence of wives and courtesans discussed in the section on Venice, which gestures in turn toward the section on finance. Coryate's description of the beautiful Jewish women he saw in Venice—"'so gorgeous in their apparel, jewels, chains of gold, and rings adorned with precious stones, that some of our English Countesses do scarce exceed them'" (141)—appears among other discussions of the Venetian state, but it suggests just how deeply interrelated the topics of geography, finance, and religion tend to be.
Given the overall focus of the Texts and Contexts series, Kaplan rightly makes no effort to situate The Merchant of Venice in an author-centered narrative of Shakespeare's work and career. On the other hand, it may be more of a fault that her...