Introduction

Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt (John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities) guides learners through an exploration of Shakespeare’s unforgettable character Shylock in The Merchant of Venice and his historical origins.

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In the first act of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, the Jewish moneylender Shylock proposes a “merry sport” to the merchant Antonio: he will lend Antonio the money he needs if Antonio agrees to let Shylock take a pound of his flesh should he default. Shylock calls this contract a “merry bond,” and Shakespeare’s First Folio calls the play a comedy. But what does Shylock want from the bond, and how merry does the play ultimately prove? 

This course introduces learners to Jewish history both in Venice and in England, to the ways in which Shakespeare’s own audience might have responded to the play and its genre, and to the history of the play’s production through the twenty-first century. 

Learners will also be invited to share their own theatrical interpretations of The Merchant of Venice and to ask how the meaning of a work of art may change in different times, contexts, and cultures. 

What you'll learn:

  • Appreciate Shakespearean dramaturgy and language
  • Identify historical contexts that illuminate Shakespeare’s artistic choices
  • Explore the implications of different theatrical and performance interpretations

Meet The Faculty

Stephen Greenblatt

Stephen Greenblatt

Cogan University Professor of the Humanities, Harvard University

Stephen Greenblatt is Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University. He is the author of twelve books, including The Swerve: How the World Became Modern; Shakespeare's Freedom; Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare; Hamlet in Purgatory; Marvelous Possessions; and Renaissance Self-Fashioning. He is General Editor of The Norton Anthology of English Literature and of The Norton Shakespeare, has edited seven collections of criticism, and is a founding editor of the journal Representations.

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