Dating the play
Rebecca Brown explains how we know when Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice.
On 22 July 1598 an entry was made in the Stationers' Register for 'a booke of the Marchaunt of Venyce or otherwise called the Iewe of Venyce'. At this time, only members of the Stationer's Company were permitted to publish material for sale: any member wishing to print a book had to enter its title in advance in the Register.
In September that same year, Francis Meres's Palladis Tamia was also entered in the Register. Meres's book includes a list of Shakespeare's plays, as examples of the excellence of English drama - The Merchant of Venice in one of the six comedies listed.
Antonio's reference in the play to 'my wealthy Andrew' has been interpreted as an allusion to the St Andrew or San Andres, the rich Spanish galleon captured in Cadiz harbour by the Earl of Essex in the summer of 1596. This captured prize was much in the news; it brought great wealth to the Queen's coffers and became one of the largest ships in her service. This allusion means that the play cannot have been written before the late summer of 1596.
1596-7 seems the likeliest dates for the composition of The Merchant of Venice, at which time Shakespeare was also working on King John and Henry IV, Part I. The play was first printed in a quarto edition in 1600.
Written by Rebecca Brown © RSC
Photo by Angus McBean shows Peter O' Toole as Shylock in the RSC's 1960 production of The Merchant of Venice © SBT