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Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice

3. Sources

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In this module, we think about Shakespeare’s sources for the play, how Shakespeare changes and adapts them, and what the implications of those changes are. In particular, we focus on: (i) Shakespeare’s main sources for the play, Il Pecorone (Italian, 14th century) and the Gesta Romanorum (Latin, late 13th or early 14th century), and the extent to which Shakespeare innovates within this tradition; (ii) Shakespeare’s use of motifs from European folklore (e.g. the modest choice motif, the pound of flesh plot, etc.); (iii) how knowledge of these motifs might impact how we think about the genre of the play; (iv) the question of when Portia comes up with the ‘drop of blood’ solution to the ‘pound of flesh’ problem. Is it a sudden stroke of genius or does she have everything worked out from the beginning of the scene? If the latter, why does she wait so long before she says anything?; (iv) the Duke in Measure for Measure, who delays revealing a crucial piece of information and his explanation for doing so (“To make her heavenly comforts of despair / When it is least expected”, 4.3.118-19); (v) a second delayed revelation by Portia, where waits almost three hundred lines before telling Antonio that his ships have made it back to Venice. How does she know this information? Why does she wait so long before telling Antonio?


In this course, Dr Sophie Duncan (University of Oxford) explores Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. We begin in the first module by thinking about Venice as a key setting for the play and its significance at the time Shakespeare was writing. After that, we consider the presentation of same-sex desire in the play, focusing in particular on the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio, before turning in the third module to Shakespeare’s sources for the play, how he changes and adapts them, and what the implications of those changes are. In the fourth module, we think about the three female characters of the play – Portia, Nerissa and Jessica – before moving in the fifth module to consider the Jewish identity and anti-Semitism in both the play and its performance history.

Note: We used the Arden edition of the play (Third Series, ed. John Drakakis) unless otherwise specified. Students using a different version of the play may encounter slight differences in both the text and line numbers.


Dr Sophie Duncan is Fellow in English at Christ Church, University of Oxford. She is an expert on Shakespeare in performance, and in the broader fields of theatre history and the performance of gender and race. Her books include SHAKESPEARE’S WOMEN AND THE FIN DE SIÈCLE (Oxford University Press, 2016), described as "extraordinary .... a welcome antidote to prevailing assumptions" (Times Literary Supplement), and SHAKESPEARE’S PROPS (Routledge, 2019).

She has also published extensively on Victorian theatre and culture, from Jack the Ripper to the suffragettes, via Oscar Wilde and Ira Aldridge (the first African American actor to perform in Europe). With Rachael Lennon, she co-wrote WOMEN AND POWER: THE STRUGGLE FOR SUFFRAGE (National Trust Books: 2018). Her new edition of Henrik Ibsen’s A DOLL’S HOUSE will be published by Methuen early in 2020.

Sophie read English at Oriel College, Oxford, and received her doctorate from Brasenose, Oxford in 2013. In 2018, she was the National Trust’s advisor on their national programme marking the first hundred years of women’s suffrage in Britain. She has worked extensively in theatre, radio and television as a historical advisor, including the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company, the Kiln, the New Vic, BBC Studios and Radio 4. She presented an episode of The Essay for BBC Radio 3 and has appeared on Woman’s Hour as well as numerous podcasts.

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APA style

Duncan, S. (2020, January 24). Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice - Sources [Video]. MASSOLIT.

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Duncan, S. "Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice – Sources." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 24 Jan 2020,

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