THE MERCHANT OF VENICE
One of Shakespeare's darkest comedies, and a play that puts a light upon the matters of Anti-Semitism and the constructs of Truth and Justice in medieval Venice, Italy.
This play takes a place by itself, midway between the group of Shakespeare's early comedies abd that more brilliant group of comedies which clusters about the year 1600. With the early comedies it is allied by the frequent rhymes, the occasional doggerel verse, and the numerous classical allusions; with the later group it is connected by its centering the interest of the drama in the development of character, and by the variety, depth, and beauty of the characterization.
No person depicted in any preceding comedy can compare in vigor of drawing and depth of color with Shylock; and Portia is the first of Shakespeare's women who unites in beautiful proportion, intellectual power, high and refined, with unstrained ardor of the heart.
The story of the caskets and the story of the pound of flesh had been told separately many times and in various countries. The greediness of worldly choosers seems to point to the casket incident, and the bloody minds of usurers to that of the pound of flesh; we therefore infer that a pre-Shakespearian play existed which combined these two incidents.
Although the play is named after the merchant, Antonio, he is not the chief dramatic person; he forms, however, a center around which the other characters are grouped: Bassanio, his friend; Shylock, his erring and would-be murderer; Portia, his savior. Antonio's part is rather a passive than an active one; he is to be an object of contention and a prize; much is to be done against him and on his behalf, but not much is to be done by him; and therefore, although his character is very firmly conceived and clearly indicated, his part is subdued and kept low, lest it might interfere with the exhibition of the two chief forces of the play-- the cruel masculine force of Shylock, which hold the merchant in its relentless, vice-like grip; and the feminine force of Portia, which is as bright as sunlight and as beneficent.
The distinction of Portia among the women of Shakespeare is the union in her nature of high intellectual powers and decision of will with a heart full of ardor and susceptibility to romantic feelings. She has herself never known trouble or sorrow, but prosperity has left her generous and quick in sympathy. Her noble use of wealth and joyous life, surrounded with flowers and fountains and marble statues and music, stands in contrast against the hard, sad, contracted life of Shylock, one of a persecuted tribe, absorbed in one or two narrowing and intense passions -- the love of money bags he clutches and yet fails to keep, and his hatred of the man who had scorned his tribe, insulted his creed, and diminished his gains.
Shylock is not like Marlowe's Jew, Barabas, a preternatural monster. Wolf-like as his revenge shows him, we pity his joyless, solitary life; and when, ringed round in the trial scene with hostile force, he stands firm upon his foothold of law, there is something sublime in his tenacity of passion and resolve. But we feel that it is right that his evil strength should be utterly crushed and quelled, and when Shylock leaves the court a broken man, we know it is needful that this should be so.
Cast of Characters
More than a comic villain, Shylock is also a sympathetic figure. A Jewish money-lender who seeks to kill the title figure, Antonio, by claiming a pound of his flesh, as provided forfeiture in their loan agreement.
His stereotype is shaped by the Anti-Semetic notions that were prevalent in Shakespeare's England. He accordingly possesses two virtues standardly ascribed to Jews at the time: (1) a vicious hatred of Christians; and (2) the practice of usury, the latter entailing an obsessive miserliness.
Shakespeare makes no attempt to promote these views; he simply took the character from another sources an used it for comical purposes. But his genius also transformed the character into something grander. Shylock so fascinated people few can avoid feeling sympathy for the villain.
He is a schemer, is repeatedly associated with the devil throughout the play, is hypocritical, and is representative of a killjoy against whom pleasure-loving characters unite.
This complex and powerful character dominates the play, despite his relatively small part: appearing in only five (5) scene and speaking less than 400 lines. His nature complicates the work substantially, and its multi-faceted layers have inspired criticism on the grounds that it upsets the graceful development of a romantic comedy. We are forced to recognize the moral cost involved in his defeat, and to acknowledge is not easily overcome.
She is the lover of Bassanio and defender of Antonio. Initially a passive woman at the mercy of her father's odd match-making device, the lottery of caskets, she emerges as an affectionate and mature woman.
Portia is a fine example of the frank and fearless young women who appear in many of the plays; she seems to embody an ideal of femininity that Shakespeare held and has often put forth. Spirited and capable, she is willing to enter a man's world -- in this case, that of the law -- in pursuit of her aims, yet she ultimately accepts the conventional Elizabethan woman's status, that of a wife, at least theoretically subservient to her husband.
Her address to Shylock on the virtues of mercy (4.1.180-198) is renowned as one of the finest passages that Shakespeare wrote; it is also certainly his most effective presentation of Christian ideals. This speech is set against her unattractive feature: that she clearly partakes in the racial prejudice and Anti-Semitism reflected in the time.
Lady-in-waiting to Portia.
She is a pert and lively companion to her mistress, usually assuring the uneasy heiress that all will be well, and she seconds Portia in the practical joke of the betrothal rings in 5.1.
Her courtship to Gratiano echoes that of Portia; such symmetrical couples were quite popular in Elizabethan theater.
Jessica's behavior has often been criticized, and, if Shylock is viewed as a sympathetic or tragic character, his daughter can only be seen as immoral. Moreover, her desertion and theft seem to be related to the anti-Semitism that infects the play. However uncomplex her character in this simple role, she is a girl fleeing to romantic love from the prison that is her father's miserly home, which she describes as a 'hell' (2.3.2). In fleeing, she illustrates a bold example of the opposition between love and greed that lies at the heart of the play.
She is essentially a secondary character, graceful but uncomplicated. Only her relationship to Shylock inspires comment.
Antonio, the Merchant of Venice
The title character, who borrows money from Shylock to help his friend and vows to let the usurer cut away a pound of his flesh if he default on his payment.
Antonio represents the ideal of selfless generosity that the play advocates, borrowing only to help his spendthrift friend, who wishes to appear wealthy when he woos Portia. This willingness to risk his money and his life stands in opposition to Shylock's calculating greed.
He is a passive, melancholy, somewhat colorless man, stoical in the face of death and lonely amid the lovers' happiness at the plays end.
The person who is indirectly responsible for the peril which his friend Antonio faces.
He is an important figure who wins Portia in the casket lottery, and in doing so, demonstrates a 16th century ideal of romantic love. He is distrusting of the gold and silver caskets, selecting the lead one instead. He finds value in reaching for the greatest happiness, and is placed in opposition to Shylock's stinginess.
He is a good-hearted spendthrift, giving what he has, unable to refuse a request. But he is sometimes seen in a different light. To some, he is an irresponsible, heiress-hunting playboy whose lack of tact subjects those around him to dangers.
For Shakespeare's audience, he was surely intended as a romantic hero, a personification of good fortune in love.
He is a crude and frivolous companion. As put by Bassanio, he "speaks an infinite deal of nothing" (1.1.114). He can be tactless, and his bluff heartiness turns ugly in the trial scene, when he baits the desperate Shylock and his lewd remarks mark him as a lesser person than the gentlemanly Bassanio.
His courtship with Nerissa is simply an echo of Bassanio's wooing of Portia and seems to have no point but symmetry; such doubling was very common and popular among Elizabethan audiences.
Lorenzo's musing on the music of the spheres presents an idea of universal harmony that is appropriate to the play's conclusion, in which the oppositions that have been principal substance--love versus greed, justice versus mercy--are resolved.
The Prince of Morocco
An African prince and unsuccessful suitor of Portia. His long speech of the casket selection presents a viewpoint that the play as a whole validates. He fails because he equates appearance with inner worth and because he cannot imagine giving up everything in the pursuit of happiness.
The Prince of Arragon
Launcelot carries messages and announces impending arrivals, but his role in the action is otherwise unimportant. His humor is clever and resourceful, but often broad and laced with standard devices. He frequently misuses words and he engages Lorenzo in a battle of puns and deliberate misunderstandings in 3.5.
Although plainly intended as comical, Launcelot's attitude surely indicates something of the spirit in which Shakespeare's audience received Shylock--as an obvious villain, at least in part because of his religion.
A minor character, he is a deliverer of news to Shylock in Act 3.
Tells Shylock he is unable to find Jessica, and has heard reports of her spending 'all' Shylock's money; than discloses the information of Antonio's ships, that he has suffered commercial losses and will be unable to repay the debt, in this grimly humorous scene.
Salanio and Salerio
Nearly interchangable characters. Their conversation in elegant verse reflects a position as cultured gentlemen. They present certain facts to the audience about both Antonio and Jessica. They also discuss the despair and rage Shylock feels at the elopement of his daughter Jessica with a Christian, speculating Shylock will vent his anger on Antonio if at all possible. They are conventional characters whose role is to further the development of more significant characters.
Allusion, Aside, Comic Relief, Double Entendre, Foreshadowing, Internal Rhyme, Irony (Dramatic, Structural, Verbal), Malapropism, Metaphor, Pun, Soliloquy, Theme
The Complete Script (if you forget your book!)
Study Guide Questions (please prepare ahead of time)
1. Antonio, the merchant of the title, is sad but he tells us he does not know why. What two reasons do his friends offer for Antonio's sadness, and what is his response?
2. Upon the entrance of Bassanio and his companions, the freindship motif is raised in a backhanded fashion by Salanio and Salerio. What is the main point of their comments?
3. In Antonio's comment about the world being a stage, how does he explain his sadness?
4. A major theme, the relationship between love and money, is first raised by Bassanio in the line which begins, "I owe the most, in money and in love..." What is Bassanio's point in this comment?
5. What is Bassanio's plan for getting money to pay off his debts? What is Antonio's response?
1. Nerissa's idea of happiness is similar to that of the ancient Greeks. According to Nerissa, where does happiness lie?
2. What is the meaning of Portia's comment about the brain devising laws for the blood?
3. Why can Portia not choose her own husband?
4. In her assessment of suitors, what qualities of mind and spirit does Portia show?
5. Near the end of the scene, Nerissa tells us that the suitors have decided to return home without choosing a casket. Why?
6. Which former visitor to her father's palace does Portia remember as a praiseworthy, prospective suitor? What does her comment, "I remember him well, and I remember him worthy of thy praise," foreshadow?
1. Is Shylock's refusal to have dinner with Antonio and Bassanio based on religious or societal grounds?
2. In the aside that follows, what do we learn of Shylock's real feelings towards Antonio? For what three (3) reasons does he feel this way?
3. When Shylock makes the following comments, what is he meaning?
"If I can catch him once upon the hip, I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him."
4. What is Antonio's meaning in the following passage?
"Shylock, albeit I neither lend nor borrow / By taking nor by giving of excess..."
Why is Antonio's position on lending money different from that of Shylock's?
5. As Antonio presses for Shylock's answer, Shylock reveals what he considers are some insults he has received from the hand of Antonio. What are they?
6. What is Antonio's response to Shylock's claims?
7. How can we account for Antonio's generosity concerning Bassanio, but his discourteous behavior toward Shylock?
8. Shylock rejects Antonio's notion that he views Antonio as an enemy. Shylock says he will lend the money out of friendship, without charging any interest. What bond does Shylock propose that Antonio fulfill if the loan is not repaid in ninety days? In what spirit does he claim he makes the proposal?
9. What is Antonio's reaction to this? Bassanio's reaction?
10. What does Shylock say in response to Bassanio's objection to the bond?
11. Why is the following line an example of an ellipsis?
"My ships come home a month before the day."
1. Of what condition does Portia inform the Prince of Morocco, and what is his response?
1. By what decision is Launcelot Gobbo torn? Which way is his conscience pulling him?
2. Usually servants and other lower-class people are comic figures in a Shakespearean play. Their language is always in prose, not verse; frequently they muddle their words and engage in word play and puns. Does Launcelot Gobbo seem to fit this picture?
3. As father and son speak to Bassanio, Bassanio becomes exasperated. What makes this scene comic?
4. What are some of the malaprops you note in Old Gobbo's comments?
5. When Gratiano asks Bassanio if he may accompany him to Belmont, what is Bassanio's response?
1. A frequent subplot in comedies is that of lovers who defy a parent and elope. What further twist to this subplot is there in Jessica's proposed elopement?
2. In this regard, contrast Portia and Jessica. Why do you suppose Shakespeare's audience would not have thought less of Jessica?
1. The conversation at the opening of this scene seems to make little sense until we learn that the young men are preparing for a masque. What is a masque, and what do they need a torchbearer for?
2. What further action do we learn Jessica plans to take when she leaves her father's house? What is Lorenzo's reaction to the news.
3. In what two senses may we take Lorenzo's comment that tonight Jessica will be his torchbearer?
1. Who is "the prodigal Christian," and why does Shylock accept a dinner invitation that he has previously declined?
2. What sense of foreboding does Shylock have about leaving the house?
3. What final instructions does Shylock give Jessica? How do these comments seem to aid in justifying Jessica's behavior and decision?
4. What message does Launcelot pass to Jessica?
1. From the window, Jessica throws the casket to Lorenzo; it contains Shylock's wealth. As she does, she says that she is glad it is night because she is ashamed of her exchange:
"But love is blind and lovers cannot see / The pretty follies that themselves commit..."
What becomes clear only in the last line of that speech? To what exchange is she referring?
1. The Prince chooses the gold casket. What message does he receive?
1. Why do Shylock and the Duke, the chief legal official, go to search Bassanio's ship?
2. Shylock's reaction to his daughter's elopement is probably a comic scene for the Elizabethans. How does he behave?
3. What ominous comment does Salanio make about this development and how will it affect Antonio?
4. In this regard, what news has Salerio heard that worries him? Why?
5. How is a bond of friendship, love, and money further developed in this scene?
1. We finally learn all three conditions that a suitor agrees to when he makes a choice of caskets. What are the three conditions?
2. What is Arragon's choice? What does he find in the casket, and how does he seem to respond?
3. What news does the servant girl bring, and what is Portia's witty response?
1. At the beginning of this scene, what is foremost in Shylock's mind?
2. What does Salerio mean when he says of Jessica:
"That's certain [she will be damned] if the devil may judge her."
3. In response to Salerio's comment about Antonio's bond of a pound of flesh, Shylock makes one of the most famous speeches in the play. What is the main point of this speech and what is your reaction to it?
4. How justified do you think Shylock is for wishing to seek his "pound of flesh"?
5. Tubal tells Shylock of a second ship lost by Antonio and of Jessica's extravagant spending almost in the same breath. For what reason do you suppose Shakespeare presents these two items in this mixed fashion?
1. Why does Portia not want Bassanio to rush into making a choice?
2. While Bassanio ponders over the three caskets, he makes a speech. State the main point of the speech and Bassanio's action at the conclusion of the speech.
3. As he addresses the casket, Bassanio says,
"thou meager lead,/ Which rather threat'nest than thou dost promise aught,/
Thy plainness moves me more than eloquence..."
To what is Bassanio referring?
4. Upon opening the casket, Bassanio is overjoyed at seeing the picture and reading the scroll, yet he is anxious. Why?
5. With her response, some critics believe that Portia emphasizes the motif of "love as a form of money." What could be pointed out in this respect?
6. What is the significance of the ring that Portia gives to Bassanio?
7. What information do Gratiano and Nerissa give to Portia and Bassanio?
8. Lorenzo, Jessica and Salerio enter. What news does Salerio bring?
9. What is Portia's response to this news?
10. What is Antonio's one request of Bassanio?
1. Shylock, repeating several times that he will have his bond, appears intent on getting revenge on Antonio. Given his strong feelings, do you think he will settle for twenty times the amount of the debt?
2. Explain Antonio's point in the passage that begins, "The Duke cannot deny the course of law..."
1. After commending the care of her house to Jessica and Lorenzo and telling them that she plans to seclude herself and Nerissa in the country and await their husbands' return, what does Portia tell her servant?
1. This scene does not seem to advance any of the plots. What is its apparent purpose?
1. What do the Duke and the others expect of Shylock?
2. What reason does Shylock give for not showing mercy to Antonio?
3. What is the point Shylock makes about the Venetian slaves?
4. Why has the Duke sent to Padua for an opinion, and what answer does he receive?
5. What is the main point of Portia's comments in her "quality of mercy" speech?
6. Why does Portia say she cannot, as Bassanio suggests, "do a great right [by doing] a little wrong"?
7. Shylock rejoices by saying of Portia, "a Daniel! O wise young judge." This is an allusion to the biblical story of Daniel and Susanna; how can this statement be ironic?
8. After Shylock once again demands justice, the court prepares the knife and the scales. What comment does BAssanio make that Portia hears? What does Portia say?
9. As Shylock prepares to get his pound of flesh, what condition does Portia put on him?
10. How does Portia defend this decision?
11. What does Portia mean by this line?
The Jew shall have all justice;...
He shall have nothing but the penalty."
12. As Shylock prepares to leave the court with nothing, Portia stops him. Why does she say that Shylock must beg mercy from the Duke?
13. What prompts Shylock to say,
"You take the house, when you do take the prop that doth sustain my house"?
14. When his and Shylock's positions are reversed, what mercy does Antonio show?
15. At the end of this scene, what happens regarding the rings of Bassanio and Gratiano?
16. Throughout this scene, the Christians ask Shylock to be merciful toward Antonio. When the situation is reversed, how merciful do you think the Venetians are toward Shylock?
1. At the end of this scene, what does Portia's aside to Nerissa portend for Act V?
1. What sense do you get of Lorenzo and Jessica in this scene? How do you feel about Jessica at this point?
2. Earlier, Nerissa spoke of the harmonious life as a life of moderation. What does Lorenzo suggest is the relationship of music, harmony and life?
3. What is Lorenzo's response when Jessica says, "I am never merry when I hear sweet music"?
4. As Portia approaches, what is her comment on music and how does that comment fit in with the comment about the brightly shining candle?
5. Without stage directions that tells us that Gratiano and Nerissa are arguing in the background, Gratiano's comment about the ring seems to have no motivation. What are they arguing about? Of what does Nerissa accuse him?
6. Playing the outraged wives to their advantage, Portia and Nerissa threaten to be unfaithful to their husbands if they ever meet up with the lawyer and his clerk. With this, Gratiano threatens the clerk. Is there a double meaning in Gratiano's comment? If so, what is it?
7. What does Portia reveal at the end of the play?
Potential Discussion and Essay Questions
1. Some critics have said that in this play, love is another form of wealth. Point out comments or incidents in this play that would support this idea.
2. Discuss Shylock's character, pointing out how within one play Shylock can be a comic figure, a villain, and additionally, a character for whom we can feel sympathy.
3. Launcelot Gobbo and his father are comic figures that are not unlike comic figures seen in other plays of Shakespeare. What aspect of the Gobbos' characters or actions do you suppose might be seen in other Shakespeare characters?
4. Sum up what you think this play has to say about friendship and love.
5. Consider what has been discussed about ahrmony and write a short paragraph in which you indicate what this play seems to say about a happy life.
6. One of the subplots in The Merchant of Venice is the ring subplot. Identify where it appears in the play, and state what function you think this subplot has in the play.
7. A theme in this play is that reality is not always what it appears to be. Discuss the incidents with the three caskets and at least two other times in this play that the theme appears.
8. Some critics have pointed out that this play contrasts the Old Testament view of God as a stern lawgiver with the New Testament picture of God as the dispenser of divine mercy. Do you agree with this? Identify and discuss at least two other marked contrasts that appear in the play.
9. In your opinion, is Shakespeare condemning usury in The Merchant of Venice?
10. Sum up what you think this play is saying about the use and abuse of money.
11. Some critics label The Merchant of Venice a "problem play" since it deals with the problem of usury in Elizabethan society. In what terms might the modern reader see this drama as a "problem play"?
12. Support or refute the thesis that this play is a tragedy and Shylock is a tragic figure. What is Shylock's tragic flaw?
13. Point out the familiar elements of a Shakespearean comedy that are found in The Merchant of Venice.
14. Sum up what the play seems to say about mercy and justice.
15. Identify the main plot and the three subplots in this story and briefly state how all are linked.
16. What do you think might be Shakespeare's opinion of courtship and marriage?
17. Compare and contrast the following sets of characters:
a. Antonio and Shylock b. Bassanio and Gratiano c. Jessica and Portia
18. Define the terms "inversion" and "ellipsis" and cite examples of both from this play.