The Merchant of Venice
The Merchant of Venice is one of William Shakespeare’s most famous comedies. Written some time between 1596 and 1598, the play’s most famous and controversial character is Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, who delivers one of the most famous speeches in Shakespearean canon: “Hath not a Jew eyes? If you prick us, do we not bleed?”
The earliest known performance of the play dates to 1605, at the court of King James I. An adaptation, called The Jew of Venice, was successfully played on the London stage for 40 yeas during the 18th century. American actors Edwin Booth and Junius Brutus Booth, the brother and father of Abraham Lincoln's assassin John Wilkes Booth, both played Shylock on stage.
The Merchant of the title is Antonio. His friend Bassanio wished to wed the beautiful Portia, and asks Antonio for a loan. However, because Antonio is short of cash, he guarantees the loan with Shylock. Shylock and Antonio are enemies, but agrees to the loan on one condition: if Antonio cannot repay then Shylock gets a pound of flesh.
Antonio wins Portia’s heart, but Antonio’s ships are lost at sea, making him unable to repay Shylock. At the court of the Duke of Venice, Antonio offers Shylock twice the amount of the loan, but Shylock demands his pound of flesh. A lawyer, who is actually Portia in disguise, forces Shylock to agree to flesh only, and not blood, making the entire attempt futile.