The Merchant of Venice

by

William Shakespeare

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The Merchant of Venice: Allusions 2 key examples

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Definition of Allusion
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals, historical events, or philosophical ideas... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to... read full definition
Act 1, scene 3
Explanation and Analysis—Biblical References:

Characters in Merchant reference the Bible on numerous occasions. One of the most notable examples occurs in Act 1, Scene 3, as Shylock and Antonio debate the lawfulness of usury. Shylock defends the practice, citing the story of Jacob from the Book of Genesis. Shylock reminds Antonio how Jacob, working as a shepherd for his uncle Laban, made an agreement in which he could keep all of the sheep born with streaks and spots. Jacob then cast a spell so that all of the ewes birthed streaked and spotted lambs, which he got to keep per his contract. Shylock defends Jacob's actions, which he equates with his own business of collecting interest: 

This was a way to thrive, and he was blest

And thrift is blessing if men steal it not. 

While Christians believe that breeding money from money is unnatural (and, thus, that usury is immoral), Shylock argues that breeding money is the same as Jacob breeding animals—an act that Christians would interpret as natural. Nevertheless, Antonio refutes Shylock's claim, saying that God brought about this occurrence, not Jacob. Ultimately, this moment demonstrates how, in this play, interpretative differences lie at the heart of Jews' and Christians' conflict. Though Shylock and Antonio share a sacred text, they read it very differently, leading to tension.

Another important allusion arises in Act 4, Scene 1, when Portia, disguised as the lawyer Balthazar, signals that the law is on Shylock's side. Shylock praises Portia, exclaiming,

A Daniel come to judgment! Yea, a Daniel.

O wise young judge, how I do honor thee! 

Here, Shylock references Daniel—the esteemed prophet of the Hebrew Bible, who was exiled in non-Jewish Babylon—and bases his actions in a specifically Jewish set of beliefs. Later, though, Shylock's fate is reversed when Portia rules against him, and Gratiano calls out,

A second Daniel! A Daniel, Jew!

Now, infidel, I have you on the hip.

Gratiano uses Shylock's religion again, showing how his Jewish identity works against him in Venice.

Act 4, scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—Biblical References:

Characters in Merchant reference the Bible on numerous occasions. One of the most notable examples occurs in Act 1, Scene 3, as Shylock and Antonio debate the lawfulness of usury. Shylock defends the practice, citing the story of Jacob from the Book of Genesis. Shylock reminds Antonio how Jacob, working as a shepherd for his uncle Laban, made an agreement in which he could keep all of the sheep born with streaks and spots. Jacob then cast a spell so that all of the ewes birthed streaked and spotted lambs, which he got to keep per his contract. Shylock defends Jacob's actions, which he equates with his own business of collecting interest: 

This was a way to thrive, and he was blest

And thrift is blessing if men steal it not. 

While Christians believe that breeding money from money is unnatural (and, thus, that usury is immoral), Shylock argues that breeding money is the same as Jacob breeding animals—an act that Christians would interpret as natural. Nevertheless, Antonio refutes Shylock's claim, saying that God brought about this occurrence, not Jacob. Ultimately, this moment demonstrates how, in this play, interpretative differences lie at the heart of Jews' and Christians' conflict. Though Shylock and Antonio share a sacred text, they read it very differently, leading to tension.

Another important allusion arises in Act 4, Scene 1, when Portia, disguised as the lawyer Balthazar, signals that the law is on Shylock's side. Shylock praises Portia, exclaiming,

A Daniel come to judgment! Yea, a Daniel.

O wise young judge, how I do honor thee! 

Here, Shylock references Daniel—the esteemed prophet of the Hebrew Bible, who was exiled in non-Jewish Babylon—and bases his actions in a specifically Jewish set of beliefs. Later, though, Shylock's fate is reversed when Portia rules against him, and Gratiano calls out,

A second Daniel! A Daniel, Jew!

Now, infidel, I have you on the hip.

Gratiano uses Shylock's religion again, showing how his Jewish identity works against him in Venice.

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Act 5, scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—Star-Crossed Lovers:

Act 5, scene 1, opens with Lorenzo musing aloud to Jessica and making some classical allusions:

The moon shines bright. In such a night as this,

When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees

And they did make no noise, in such a night

Troilus, methinks, mounted the Trojan walls

And sighed his soul toward the Grecian tents / Where Cressid lay that night.

The couple continue to flirt, comparing themselves to other famous lovers of classical legend: Pyramus and Thisbe, Dido and Aeneas, and Medea and Jason. While the moment at first appears idyllic, a closer read proves otherwise, as things end poorly for each of the mentioned mythical couples: Cressida is seduced by another man, a misunderstanding leaves both Pyramus and Thisbe dead, Aeneas abandons Dido to found the city of Rome, and Jason deserts Medea for another woman. This moment with Lorenzo and Jessica therefore alludes to the perils of love, as well as solidifies Merchant as satirical and filled with tensions (e.g., between comedy and tragedy, love and hate, outward appearances and inner truths). Shakespeare intends for his audience to pick up on these allusions, bringing a note of satiric humor to what might first seem like a conventional love scene.

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