A fairly standard brief description of the play’s provenance might run thus: written about 1596–7, published in quarto form in 1600 with the title page: ‘The most excellent History of the Merchant of Venice. With the extreme cruelty of Shylock the Jew towards the said Merchant, in cutting a just pound of his flesh: and the obtaining of Portia by the choice of three chests. As it has been diverse times acted by the Lord Chamberlain his servants. Written by William Shakespeare.’ While there is nothing out of order in this description, it achieves little by way of telling us about the cultural context of this play’s making, the play’s cultural sources, the kind of historical distance between us and the play, or, indeed, why we still perform a play that is over 400 years old. The next stage in our exploration of The Merchant of Venice will afford us the opportunity to observe the intellectual and cultural context of the play’s making, and the subsequent historical distance that has engendered the continuous remaking of the play.
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