The play refers to a real-life capture of a Spanish ship in the Bay of Cádiz: news of this had reached London by 30th July 1596. The play is mentioned in a list by Francis Meres of Shakespeare’s works in 1598, and was registered at the Stationers’ Company on 22nd July 1598. The play can be dated within this period.
The play was first printed as a quarto in 1600, possibly from Shakespeare’s manuscript. A second quarto in 1619 was typeset from the first, with amendments. The First Folio version was typeset from the first quarto, with act divisions and new stage directions added – possibly by Heminge and Condell, using the acting company’s prompt-book.
‘This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood;
The words expressly are a pound of flesh.’
The Merchant of Venice, IV i
Brief synopsis of the play
In a controversial exploration of tolerance, justice and mercy, Bassanio needs money to woo the wealthy heiress Portia. He asks his friend, the merchant Antonio, for a loan. With all his ships at sea, Antonio, in turn, borrows from the Jewish moneylender Shylock, foolishly agreeing to a ‘merry bond’ – the loan must be repaid within three months, or Shylock will take a pound of Antonio’s flesh. When the ships fail to return to Venice, Shylock demands his ‘bond’.