To put The Merchant of Venice into perspective, you'll need to know a little about William Shakespeare, the city of Venice during the 16th century, and attitudes towards Jews in Shakespeare's England.
William Shakespeare was born in Stratford upon Avon in 1564. His father was a glove merchant and a prominent local dignitary. William, one of eight children, was the oldest son. He was probably educated at the local grammar school.
He married Anne Hathaway in 1582, aged18; his wife was eight years older than him. They had a daughter, followed by twins two years later. Their only son, Hamnet, died aged 11.
Nobody knows how Shakespeare began to write or when he entered the theatre. At some point he joined an acting company called the Queen's Men and then became a leading member of the Lord Chamberlain's Men. They developed into London's top theatre company, performing at the Globe Theatre from 1599 and becoming the King's men when James I came to the throne in 1603.
Shakespeare probably began writing plays in the 1580s and went on to write more than thirty. These would all have been performed by his theatre company: he may have acted some of the roles himself and certain parts would have been written with particular actors in mind. Certainly his work was very popular: by 1597, Shakespeare was wealthy enough to buy New Place, the grandest house in Stratford! The Merchant of Venice was written between 1596 and 1598 and first published in written form in 1600. He also wrote poems, including many love sonnets [sonnet: A 14-line poem, usually written in iambic pentameter. Most sonnets conform to one of the following rhyme schemes: A-B-A-B C-D-C-D E-F-E-F G-G (English sonnet); or A-B-B-A A-B-B-A C-D-E C-D-E (Italian sonnet). ] which are mysteriously dedicated to a Mr W H.
Shakespeare died in 1616 on his 52nd birthday. He is known the world over as the greatest playwright [playwright: A writer or maker of plays. (Note the spelling: it comes from the same derivation as 'wheelwright', a maker of wheels, and has nothing to do with the word 'write'!) ] ever.
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