“The Merchant of Venice” is essentially two quite separate plays forged into one. In Venice – urban, cosmopolitan, overwhelmingly male – conflict and competition are routine, resolved by law if you’re lucky, by violence otherwise. It’s a world where people are degraded for their racial background, where money is protected by blood, where punishment can mean loss of wealth, even life.
By contrast, Belmont is rural, feminine, mysterious and magical, a place of love, music and fairy-tale romance. Here Portia is visited by a sequence of exotic suitors, but when love appears in the shape of Bassanio, Gratiano and Lorenzo, it is reassuringly light-hearted and familiar. By the time the sound of music drifts across the summer night in Act Five, the world of the courtroom seems happily remote.
The link between the two worlds is Portia, who cheerfully dominates both. Resilient (and self-restrained) while the issue of her marriage is cleared up, she reveals unsuspected talents in resolving Antonio’s legal problems, then an engaging light-heartedness in the way she winds up Bassanio over the ring.
She isn’t Shakespeare’s most striking female character (Lady Macbeth probably qualifies here), certainly not his most tragic (Juliet, Ophelia, Desdemona), nor the most prominent in terms of lines (Rosalind in “As You Like It”). But she quietly dominates a play that is at times as gruesome as she is kind, and there is no more appropriate character to discourse (as she does in 4.1) on mercy.
Scene by scene
Act One Scene One
Antonio is in a sad mood – his friends say because a lot of his money is tied up in merchandise at sea.
But Antonio says his mood is not because of business, nor because he is unhappily in love.
Bassanio and Gratiano arrive, and Gratiano says he would prefer to enjoy life while he is still young.
Alone with Antonio, Bassanio reveals that he intends to woo Portia if he is rich enough to do it.
Antonio says all his money is “at sea”, but if he can borrow money he will lend it to Bassanio.
Act One Scene Two
In Belmont, Portia is sad, perhaps because of the marriage conditions imposed by her late father.
Her suitors will have to choose one of the three chests “of gold, silver and lead” to win her hand.
So far she has been visited by suitors from far and wide, but they all fall short of what she desires.
The only suitor to win her approval was Bassanio. But now the Prince of Morocco has arrived.
Act One Scene Three
Shylock knows Antonio’s wealth is in the balance because of “the perils of waters, wind and rocks”.
Because of his religion, Shylock will do business with Bassanio – but not socialise with him.
A network of debt is created: Tubal will fund Shylock (line 380) to lend to Antonio to fund Bassanio.
Shylock tells the story of Jacob, who borrowed sheep to increase his own stock, then returned them.
He reminds Antonio he has often treated him with shocking disdain, and now asks for this favour.
Shylock agrees to lend the money, but if Antonio defaults, he will demand a pound of his flesh.
Antonio reassures Bassanio that his ships will return in good time, and money will be plentiful then.
Act Two Scene One
Portia reminds the Prince that the choice of her husband is effectively “the lottery of my destiny”.
A further condition is that those suitors who “choose wrong” must renounce marriage altogether.
Act Two Scene Two
Launcelot Gobbo debates whether to quit his present employment with Shylock to seek a new post.
He runs into his estranged father who, hoping to meet his son, asks for directions to Shylock’s house.
Old Gobbo is blind and Launcelot plays and toys with him before revealing his own identity.
Launcelot reveals he has decided to leave Shylock’s household and offer his services to Bassanio.
Bassanio accepts him and tells him to go to Shylock to “take leave of thy old master”.
Gratiano appears and asks Bassanio whether he may accompany him to Belmont to visit Portia.
Bassanio agrees but cautions Gratiano to behave in a calm way and temper his “wild behaviour”.
Act Two Scene Three
Shylock’s daughter Jessica asks Launcelot to deliver a letter to her lover Lorenzo.
She reveals that she is ashamed of being related to Shylock, and wishes to marry Lorenzo.
Act Two Scene Four
Lorenzo outlines the preparations for helping Jessica escape from Shylock’s house this evening.
Launcelot arrives with her letter for Lorenzo and he responds that he will not let her down.
Act Two Scene Five
Shylock responds to Launcelot’s news that he is leaving by rehearsing complaints about his work.
He tells Jessica to lock up the windows because this evening there will be parades in the street.
Jessica reflects that as of this evening, Shylock has lost his daughter and she her father.
Act Two Scene Six
Lorenzo’s friends are surprised he is late to Jessica’s, since lovers are normally enthusiastic and early.
Jessica, disguised as a boy and equipped with a “casket” of jewels, closes up the windows and leaves.
Antonio announces that Gratiano must hurry to join Bassanio who is leaving for Belmont tonight.
Act Two Scene Seven
In Belmont, the Prince of Morocco reads aloud the three slogans attached to the various caskets.
Believing himself to be worth the best, he chooses gold – only to discover that his “suit is cold”.
Act Two Scene Eight
Shylock, hunting for his daughter, has enlisted the Duke of Venice’s help to search Bassanio’s ship.
She wasn’t found, and Shylock has been reported lamenting the loss of his jewels as much as Jessica.
Ominously, reports have emerged of a Venetian boat being shipwrecked in the English channel.
Meanwhile, Antonio has wished Bassanio a heartfelt farewell, begging him to enjoy his courtship.
Act Two Scene NIne
In Portia, the Prince of Arragon disdains the gold casket (he is not “many” men) and the lead.
The silver promises to reward on merit, and his self-esteem dictates that this is the right option.
Defeated by his choice, he leaves at once, while reports suggest Bassanio has arrived in Belmont.
Act Three Scene One
News emerges that “the good Antonio, the honest Antonio” has lost a ship on the Goodwins.
Shylock reveals that he is bitterly angry about Jessica, but is mocked by Salanio and Salarino.
He is also angry towards Antonio, and reiterates his threat to insist on his pound of flesh.
He insists on his common humanity with Christians, and says he also learned revenge from them.
Left alone, he is joined by Tubal, who reports he has heard nothing about Jessica’s whereabouts.
Shylock wishes her “dead at my foot” – but rejoices to hear that Antonio has lost an “argosy”.
But it pains him to hear that Jessica has swapped “for a monkey” a ring once given him by his wife.
Act Three Scene Two
Portia tells Bassanio she would like to identify the right casket for him, but this would break her vow.
Comparing him to Hercules, she says she is both more confident and more anxious about his choice.
Revealing a deep-seated suspicion of appearances, Bassanio rejects gold and silver in favour of lead.
Portia announces that everything she owns is his, and symbolises her love in a ring he must not lose.
Gratiano and Nerissa then reveal that they too are in love and are promised to one another.
Lorenzo and Jessica arrive along with Salerio, who brings a letter from Antonio for Bassanio.
Bassanio reveals to Portia the full extent of his debt, now that all of Antonio’s ships have been lost.
Salerio reports that Shylock intends to go through with the bond, and Jessica confirms this.
Portia promises to redeem the bond twelve times over once she and Bassanio are married.
Act Three Scene Three
Shylock will “have his bond”, says Antonio, because in the past he has helped Shylock’s debtors.
Antonio admits there is nothing the Duke of Venice can do to “deny the course of law”.
Act Three Scene Four
Portia believes that Antonio must be as fine a man as Bassanio to be his friend and companion.
Lorenzo is to look after her house while she takes to a nearby monastery in Bassanio’s absence.
Portia sends to acquire various garments from her cousin Dr Bellario before setting off for Venice.
She tells Nerissa they will prove very convincing when disguised as men, boasting and lying.
Act Three Scene Five
In Belmont, Launcelot clumsily commiserates with Jessica for being “the Jew’s daughter”.
After some banter with Launcelot, Jessica tells Lorenzo how much she admires Portia.
Act Four Scene One
In court, The Duke of Venice denounces Shylock as “an inhuman wretch / Uncapable of pity”.
Then in addressing Shylock face to face, he enjoins him to act with “human gentleness and love”.
Shylock responds that he is entitled to exact his pound of flesh and does not need to explain why.
Antonio suggests that it is pointless to expect to persuade “the Jew” to change his mind.
Shylock reminds the court that the law is not negotiable, and in this case is on his side.
Bassanio offers himself to Shylock’s knife but Antonio insists that he is “meetest for death”.
Gratiano, shocked by Shylock’s intransigence, accuses him of being “currish” and “wolvish”.
Meanwhile Dr Bellario, disabled by illness, has recommended a young lawyer: Portia, disguised.
Portia says that justice and mercy are different things, and that occasionally all “pray for mercy”.
Bassanio says he is willing to pay ten times the bond – or the law itself must be suspended.
Portia disagrees: she tries to persuade Shylock to be merciful but agrees he is within his rights.
Bassanio tells Antonio he would sacrifice everything – his “wife”, even his “life” – to save Antonio.
However Portia repeats the court must award the pound of flesh. But “there is something else”.
To Gratiano’s enthusiastic support, Portia dictates that if the flesh contain blood, it breaks the law.
Shylock retreats, and asks to be given his bond, but as an “alien” there are further legal issues.
He must give half his wealth to Antonio and half to the state – and then beg for his life to be spared.
Mercy is extended to Shylock: he will be spared, but must pay a fine, and convert to Christianity.
Shylock begs to be released, and leaves; Portia refuses the Duke’s offer to join him “to dinner”.
Leaving for Padua, Portia asks for payment: Antonio’s gloves, Bassanio’s ring. But Bassanio refuses.
Bassanio explains himself to Portia. Then later he relents and despatches the ring to the lawyer.
Act Four Scene Two
Gratiano catches Portia and produces the ring; Nerissa decides to ask him for the ring she gave him.
Act Five Scene One
In Belmont beneath the moon, Lorenzo and Jessica swap examples of iconic lovers from history.
News of the imminent return of Portia and Bassanio as Lorenzo praises “the sweet power of music”.
Portia and Nerissa approaching home take delight in the sound of music in the night.
Bassanio arrives with Antonio and Gratiano – who is rebuked by Nerissa for giving away her ring.
Nerissa maintains her “deception” of Gratiano by hinting that the ring’s recipient was female.
Portia joins in the joke, rebuking him and suggesting that Bassanio would never give away her ring.
Gratiano reveals Bassanio gave his ring to the “judge” – which he admits, saying he had no choice.
Now Portia rebukes Bassanio, suggesting “some woman had the ring”, much to his distress.
Bassanio says it was given to the legal “doctor” – to whom Portia will extend any favour or courtesy.
Bassanio begs forgiveness, but Nerissa announces that last night she “did lie with” the doctor’s clerk.
Finally Portia reveals via a letter from Bellario that she was the legal doctor and Nerissa her clerk.
Portia announces that three of Antonio’s argosies have “richly come to harbour suddenly”.
Lorenzo and Jessica are told that they are to inherit Shylock’s remaining fortune on his death.
Antonio’s melancholy at the start of the play echoes Romeo’s – though perhaps for different reasons. In “Romeo and Juliet” the principal boy is lovesick. Here, Antonio’s motives are harder to gauge: “In sooth,” he confesses, “I know not why I am so sad”. Curiously, 1.2 opens in a similar spirit, with Portia admitting “my little body is aweary of this great world”. Spirits will lift before the play is over.
This is a play about money. Or, as the Shakespearean critic Emma Smith puts it: “Mercantilism and its twin, credit or moneylending form the connective tissue of ‘The Merchant of Venice’”. The financial basis of the play is established in the opening scene, when Bassanio describes Portia to Antonio for the first time: she is, he says, “a lady richly left”, and the implication is that money borrowed to finance his suit will be money wisely invested.
Once again, the theme of fathers and daughters is explored – familiar ground for Shakespeare. Often in Shakespeare’s plays, the relationship between the genders and generations is troubled but ongoing. Here, as in the closing scene of “Love’s Labour’s Lost”, the father is dead, but extends his influence from the grave. This leads Portia to complain that “the will of a living daughter [is] curbed / by the will of a dead father.”
But Portia’s relationship with her father is not the only father / daughter relationship in the play. In Act Two we meet Shylock’s daughter Jessica, and her attempts to cope with her father’s demands (she deceives him and disobeys them) are familiar fare in Shakespeare’s plays. Often this ends in tragedy (Juliet, for example). Here there is a different outcome.
“The Merchant of Venice” is a radically divided play, a combination of opposites. Part comedy, part tragedy, part Belmont, part Venice, the play gives as much prominence to romance as to the weightier themes of money, law, punishment and revenge. The conventional ingredients of comedy are in place from the first scene: a young man in Bassanio who wants to marry Portia, and a young woman in Portia who is drawn to Bassanio. The only obstacle is the father’s caskets game.
In 1.3, Bassanio extends an invitation – “If it please you to dine with us” – but Shylock turns him down. Food is symbolic of the cultural divide the play explores. For example, Shylock says he will happily associate with Christians, “but I will not eat with you”. He famously claims that both Christians and Jews are “fed with the same food”, but his servant Launcelot hints at a deeper divide when he describes Christians as “pork-eaters”. Launcelot, incidentally, is subject to a debate about food all of his own. He complains of being ill-fed by Shylock, while Shylock complains of him being a “huge feeder”.
It’s interesting that Shylock knows about Antonio’s ships – his wealth – and knows how risky his situation might be. Nonetheless, 1.3 suggests that a network of debt is being created on the back of this risk, in which Tubal lends to Shylock, who lends to Antonio, who lends to Bassanio. Even so, Antonio is surely reckless to accept the terms Shylock offers, the pound of flesh. He’s confident all will be well, but clearly there’s a colossal risk.
Shylock is immediately cast as a divisive presence, a villain, as he declares his hatred for Antonio purely on the basis that “he is a Christian.” This is hardly likely to endear this character to audiences at the Globe, most of whom (as W.H. Auden observes) had never seen a Jew. But equally soon, Shylock is supplied with a perfectly good excuse as to why he feels distanced from the Christians: namely their contemptuous treatment of him in the past, and their promise to continue to treat him with contempt in the future.
Shylock’s status as a money-lender or usurer – an accusation Antonio levels at him, as we learn in 3.1 – does not endear him to the audience, especially when contrasted with Antonio himself, who does not charge interest on the loans he makes. How far is our view of Shylock influenced by the fact that Shakespeare’s own father was a usurer, prosecuted for the crime in the 1570s, when Shakespeare was growing up?
A reminder of the important difference between “thou” and “you” occurs near the end of 1.3. Shylock addresses Antonio as “you” throughout (“You, that did void your rheum upon my beard” etc). This is the respectful form, and at first Antonio and Bassanio use it routinely with Shylock (“Shylock, do you hear?”). As the scene progresses, the two friends begin to use the more familiar “thou” form (“I am as like to call thee so again / To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too”), indicating that their respect for Shylock is ebbing. An Elizabethan audience would have been alive to this nuance, and we should be too.
A further vivid example of these nuances occurs in the trial scene, 4.1. Here the Duke of Venice addresses Shylock as “thou” (“thou but lead’st this fashion of thy malice” etc), whereas Shylock, conscious of his low status in relation to the Duke, uses the formal / polite form (“I have possess’d your grace of what I purpose”).
The play might be summarised as a tale of two fathers and two daughters: one daughter who follows the instructions of her dead father to the letter, and one who disobeys a father who is still very much alive. As such, the Lorenzo / Jessica scenes are reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet – a love affair conducted against the parent’s wishes and under the radar.
On Shakespeare’s stage, all actors were male, whichever gender they played. In Act Two, Jessica (a young woman played by a young man, therefore) escapes her father’s home disguised as a young man. This eventually becomes a fairly familiar trope in Shakespeare’s plays but this is the first time that Shakespeare takes a male actor playing a female and disguises him (her?) as a male. Still more complex combinations of gender arise in “As You Like It”, in which a male actor plays a female character disguised as a male imitating a female.
Portia’s plan to participate in the trial is rich with dramatic irony, in that only the audience know of her disguise, and observe her success with some pleasure. The playwright is perhaps suggesting that gender laws and conventions are quite unnecessary when they can be outmanoeuvred so easily and effectively.
Shylock represents, like Caliban in “The Tempest”, a minority culture facing a majority, learning its lessons there and imitating what it sees and learns. So as Caliban abuses the language he has learnt for swearing (“You taught me language, and my profit on’t / Is, I know how to curse”), so Shylock turns another instinct on its head: “The villany you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction”. Macbeth has the same thought before murdering Duncan, recognising that “we but teach / Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return / To plague the inventor”.
When in 3.2 Bassanio goes to choose his casket, he begins his ruminations with a comment that “The world is still deceived with ornament”. So he chooses lead. Oddly, Portia has just finished singing a song in which she asks “where is fancy bred?” and replies that “It is engender’d in the eyes”. In some ways this play is about appearances – Jessica’s disguise, Portia’s transformation. By the same token, this is a play full of jewels: the ring Portia gives to Bassanio; the ring Shylock’s wife Leah gave him once, now stolen by Jessica; other jewels stolen by Jessica; the golden casket.
Although Shylock is given lines that evoke sympathy for him from the audience (“doth not a Jew bleed?” etc), his actions and decisions are all liable to have the opposite effect and provoke antipathy towards him from the audience. Nevertheless his presentation is complex and nuanced, though it is worth reminding ourselves that usury (lending money for profit) was a live issue in the sixteenth century and was firmly disapproved of.
Portia’s game with rings (4.1, 5.1) implies, perhaps, that men are more pliable than women, weak and easily persuaded. At the same time, Bassanio is behaving quite altruistically in handing over the ring, and Portia’s trickery seems a touch gratuitous. In 5.1, Bassanio defends his actions in handing over the ring with considerable eloquence. Even so, the rings do help to reinforce Portia’s otherwise unlikely story about the trial and the learned doctor.
The Merchant of Venice, who risks his life for his friend in a way that seems reckless but generous. His initial melancholy informs his behaviour later in the play as Shylock’s forfeit closes in on him – he lacks the spirit to fight his corner, but surrenders to self-pity. Guilty, it seems, of some grotesque behaviour towards Shylock in the past, he is nonetheless well regarded by his peers. Legend has it that Shakespeare played this part.
At first Bassanio seems a well-meaning if lightweight character, drawn to romance as his friend is drawn to business. But his choice of the lead casket suggests he has some depth, and his support for Antonio throughout the trial and beyond speaks well for him. It is hard to blame him for giving his ring to the learned legal doctor, even if he has later to defend this action with some resilience. Essential to the narrative but not perhaps the most distinctive character in Shakespeare.
Shakespeare’s original audiences knew little about Jews except what anti-semitism taught them, and little about usurers (or money-lenders) beyond the religious prohibition that disapproved of them. Shylock only appears in five scenes in this play: in his opening appearance (1.3) his anger towards Christians is a rejoinder to their shocking treatment of him, and seems justified; in 3.1, when he is mocked by Salanio and Salarino for Jessica’s escape, he delivers the unanswerable speech beginning “Hath not a Jew eyes?” which must surely elicit sympathy; in 4.1, his punishment seems out of proportion to his “crime”. But despite these cautions, Shylock is never an attractive character, deliberately crafted by the playwright to escape our sympathy.
At first she is melancholy, and doesn’t know why, though the fact that her future hangs on the lottery of the caskets might help to explain. Still, she obeys her father’s instructions – her great strength, perhaps – and is rewarded with the partner she wants. Thereafter her resourcefulness emerges: generous to a fault – she offers to pay Antonio’s debt many times over – and dynamic in taking on the court case, her insight spots the gap in the argument that wins the day. Her trick with the rings serves to remind Bassanio that for all her lateral thinking, she believes in following rules to the letter.
- What is the local name for the Venetian stock exchange?
- What name does Shylock give for his long coat?
- Who is the “unthrifty knave” who has been left in charge of Shylock’s house?
- From whom does Shylock propose to borrow the money to lend Antonio?
- Give the name of the first of Portia’s suitors we meet in person.
- Where near England has “a ship of rich lading” been wrecked and lost?
- What was the name of Shylock’s wife?
- What value of gold does Portia offer to Bassanio to repay Antonio’s debt?
- What does Launcelot say is the result of converting Jews to Christianity?
- Why does Portia visit Shylock’s house after the trial is over?
From “Twelve Angry Men” to “Kramer Versus Kramer”, the criminal trial has been a familiar ingredient of cinema. It works well: like fiction itself, a criminal trial sets up a mystery (broadly, who done it?) and provides a solution. Its very structure echoes and imitates the conventional structure of narratives: equilibrium disrupted, equilibrium restored.
“The Merchant of Venice” has a number of strands, or narratives, but to modern eyes the fate of Shylock is central, and the trial is the climax of the play. Given what’s at stake, and how late the solution arrives, and the drama of the verdict, this narrative has an inherently dramatic intensity. It shapes and closes the drama, and Act Five is something of a post-script.
Given the success of the trial scene in “The Merchant of Venice” it is somewhat surprising that Shakespeare used this prop only one more time in the two dozen plays he wrote after 1596. In “The Winter’s Tale” (c. 1611), Leontes, King of Sicily, labouring under a spell of madness, puts his wife Hermione on trial for infidelity – an act which kills their son and seems to account for her too. Penitent, Leontes vows to spend his days atoning for his mistake.
Once again, it’s a dramatic scene, but this trial is a source of problems rather than (as in “The Merchant of Venice”) a solution to them, and much of the rest of the play is invested in putting right what the trial got wrong. Antonio’s trial by contrast brings matters to a head and to a close – however unsatisfactory (to modern eyes) the judgement against Shylock might seem.