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Merchants in Shakespeareland






       14159    Curso monográfico de literatura inglesa: Shakespeare in Performance

Curso 2006-2007

Profesor: Vicente Forés

Alumno: Alfredo Carbonell Rico
















In this paper we are going to take a look at the figure of the Merchant in Shakespearean comedies.


As a matter of fact, the word merchant occurs 29 times in 32 lines within 11 works. (4)


    Antony and Cleopatra (1)

    Comedy of Errors (9)

    Henry IV, Part II (1)

    Henry VI, Part I (1)

    Merchant of Venice (8)

    Rape of Lucrece (2)

    Romeo and Juliet (1)

    Taming of the Shrew (3)

    Tempest (1)

    Timon of Athens (3)

    Troilus and Cressida (2)


The character of the merchant was used by William Shakespeare as a stock character, for it appears in many other plays. In my opinion, it could have something to do with the historical context of that time. The reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) saw England emerge as the leading naval and commercial power of the Western world. England consolidated its position with the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, and Elizabeth firmly established the Church of England begun by her father, King Henry VIII  A rising merchant middle class carved out a productive livelihood, and the economy boomed. This atmosphere made London a leading centre of culture as well as commerce (5)


Now, we are going to take a close look at the merchants appearing in Shakespearean comedies, what their role is in the play, the view that we readers get from them and their relevance within the play. As we have seen before, the term “merchant” and consequently the concept has been used by William Shakespeare in several of his plays, but we are going to focus mainly in two of them: The Merchant of Venice and The Comedy of Errors.




Just by looking at the title we can guess that this is going to be the play where the protagonism of the concept of merchant will get its highest point. In this ‘comedy’, set in  Venice, Antonio (a merchant) and Bassanio (a noblemen) approach Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, for a loan. Shylock nurses a long-standing grudge against Antonio, who has made a habit of berating Shylock and other Jews for their usury. Shylock acts agreeably and offers to lend Bassanio three thousand ducats with no interest. Shylock adds, however, that should the loan go unpaid, Shylock will be entitled to a pound of Antonio’s own flesh. Despite Bassanio’s warnings, Antonio agrees. But later on, Antonio indeed looses his ships, so he forfeits his bond to Shylock. Bassanio and Graziano immediately travel to Venice to try and save Antonio’s life. Shylock ignores the many pleas to spare Antonio’s life, and a trial is called to decide the matter. Finally, Shylock is informed that he is guilty of conspiring against the life of a Venetian citizen, which means he must turn over half of his property to the state and the other half to Antonio. The duke spares Shylock’s life and takes a fine instead of Shylock’s property. Antonio also forgoes his half of Shylock’s wealth on two conditions: first, Shylock must convert to Christianity, and second, he must will the entirety of his estate to Lorenzo and Jessica upon his death. Shylock agrees and takes his leave.(1)


Now, we are going to take a close look at the two main characters of the play, who are both merchants, but in a slightly different way.


Shylock -  A Jewish moneylender in Venice. Angered by his mistreatment at the hands of Venice’s Christians, particularly Antonio, Shylock schemes to eke out his revenge by ruthlessly demanding as payment a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Although seen by the rest of the play’s characters as an inhuman monster, Shylock at times diverges from stereotype and reveals himself to be quite human. These contradictions, and his eloquent expressions of hatred, have earned Shylock a place as one of Shakespeare’s most memorable characters. (1)


Antonio -  The merchant whose love for his friend Bassanio prompts him to sign Shylock’s contract and almost lose his life. Antonio is something of a mercurial figure, often inexplicably melancholy and, as Shylock points out, possessed of an incorrigible dislike of Jews. Nonetheless, Antonio is beloved of his friends and proves merciful to Shylock, albeit with conditions. (1)




Egeon, a merchant of Syracuse, is condemned to death in Ephesus for violating the ban against travel between the two rival cities. As he is led to his execution, he tells the Ephesian Duke, Solinus, that he has come to Syracuse in search of his wife and one of his twin sons, who were separated from him 25 years ago in a shipwreck. The other twin, who grew up with Egeon, is also traveling the world in search of the missing half of their family. Meanwhile, unknown to Egeon, his son Antipholus of Syracuse (and Antipholus' slave Dromio) is also visiting Ephesus--where Antipholus' missing twin, known as Antipholus of Ephesus, is a prosperous citizen of the city. After a series of funny identity mistakes the situation is finally resolved by the Abbess, Emilia, who brings out the set of twins and reveals herself to be Egeon's long-lost wife. Antipholus of Ephesus reconciles with Adriana; Egeon is pardoned by the Duke and reunited with his spouse; Antipholus of Syracuse resumes his romantic pursuit of Luciana, and all ends happily with the two Dromios embracing.(2)


Now we are going to pay attention to the figures of the merchants, who are slightly different between them.


Egeon -  A Syracusan merchant, husband of the Abbess (Emilia), and the father of the two Antipholi. He is, like his Syracusan son, in search of the missing half of his family; he has been sentenced to death as the play begins. (2)


Antipholus of Ephesus  -  The twin brother of Antipholus of Syracuse and the son of Egeon; he is a well-respected merchant in Ephesus and Adriana's husband.(2)


Angelo -  A goldsmith in Syracuse and a friend to Antipholus of Ephesus.(2)


Merchant  -  An Ephesian friend of Antipholus of Syracuse.(2)


Second Merchant  -  A tradesman to whom Angelo is in debt.(2)



In conclusion, we can summarise by looking at the statements declared before that the figure of the merchant, tradesman or salesman was used by William Shakespeare many times all over his plays, not only in the comedies but also in the tragedies. And even more, that the situation of the society at that time could have had a great influence on the author.

We can also say that although it could be considered a stock character, Shakespeare made use of it in several different ways. It could be anonymous or it could sometimes be the protagonist of the play, or it could be used just as a part of the decoration, or in between this concepts, it could be used to add some more excitement to the play.



1- Douthat, Ross and Hopson, David. SparkNote on The Merchant of Venice. 8 Jan. 2007



2- Douthat, Ross. SparkNote on The Comedy of Errors. 8 Jan. 2007 <>.


3- Gardner, Patrick and Phillips, Brian. SparkNote on The Taming of the Shrew. 8 Jan. 2007 <>.


4- Shakespeare concordance: all instances of "merchant"

© 2003-2007 Bernini Communications LLC



5- Elizabethan England

Copyright © 1997–2006, the Shakespeare Resource Center


All the research was made on the 3rd of January 2006.



©Alfredo Carbonell Rico

Universitat de Valencia press

©a.r.e.a./Dr.Vicente Forés López

September 2006- January 2007

Last update: 1st February 2007