The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice - Alexandre Cabanel

The Play’s the Thing: Antonio, a merchant in Venice, is a bit depressed but is more than happy to help his best friend, Bassanio, when he asks him. Bassanio needs money so that he can go and woo Portia, a rich heiress in Belmont. Antonio has no ready money as he has a multitude of ventures currently in the works, but he tells Bassanio that he can use Antonio’s name when speaking with potential creditors. Meanwhile, Portia and her maid, Nerissa, chat about the many men who have come to court Portia and the likelihood that they’ll be foiled by the conditions laid out in Portia’s father’s will for any man to be able to marry her. Back in Venice, Bassanio convinces Shylock, a Jew, to lend him three thousand ducats with Antonio as guarantor. Antonio and Shylock detest each other, but Shylock agrees to lend the money with the proviso that in the contract it be laid out that if Antonio cannot repay him in three months’ time, Shylock will be repaid with a pound of flesh to be cut from Antonio’s body by Shylock himself. Antonio agrees, believing that he will have the money from his various ships by then.

Back in Belmont, the Prince of Morocco comes to court Portia and we learn that in order to marry her, a suitor must choose to open one of three caskets. If he chooses the casket with Portia’s portrait inside, he gets to marry her. Back in Venice, Bassanio is planning his trip to Belmont and agrees to take his friend, Gratiano, with him. They also agree to help their friend Lorenzo elope with Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, before they leave. Jessica takes money and jewels from her father’s house and leaves with Lorenzo to be married. In Belmont, the Prince of Morocco is making his choice. One casket is gold and engraved with “Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.” The second is silver and engraved with “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.” The third casket is lead and is engraved with “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.” While all of us who are even vaguely familiar with folk tales know which casket he should choose, the Prince of Morocco chooses the golden one and, of course, does not find the portrait. Back in Venice, the first rumour that one of Antonio’s ships has been lost is being heard. Meanwhile, another suitor, the Prince of Arragon has come to pursue Portia and chooses the silver casket. He likewise, does not find the portrait.

In Venice, Shylock is outraged that his daughter has left him and stolen some of his money. News has also reached him that Antonio has lost another two ships and the likelihood that he’ll be able to pay appears slim. Asked if he’ll be merciful, Shylock swears that he’ll get his pound of flesh rather than the money as he’s desperate for revenge for the slights Antonio has made against him. Bassanio finally makes it to Belmont where he chooses the lead casket, and he and Portia are both thrilled that they will soon be married. Gratiano announces that he plans to marry Nerissa at the same time as the other couple. However, a letter arrives from Venice, letting Bassanio know that Antonio is likely going to have to give Shylock a pound of his flesh as he’s gone broke and all his ships are reported lost. With his wife’s money in hand, Bassanio heads back to Venice with Gratiano in order to try and save Antonio. Portia and Nerissa plan to disguise themselves as men and follow after them, with a brief pit stop to visit  Doctor Bellario. Portia leaves Lorenzo and Jessica in charge of her household while she’s gone.

In Venice, Antonio has been brought before the Duke so that Shylock can exact his entitlement. Although Bassanio has tried to pay the debt on Antonio’s behalf, Shylock has refused it, preferring revenge. The Duke has desperately hoped to find a way to get Antonio out of this contract and is thrilled when two representatives of Doctor Bellario arrive to serve as interpreters of the law. Portia, disguised as a man, presides as judge and tells Shylock that the contract fairly entitles him to a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Shylock exults, but his joy is cut short when she tells him that there is a law in the books that prohibits the willful shedding of a Venetian’s blood. So he must get his pound of flesh without shedding Antonio’s blood or he will be forced to forfeit half his estate to Antonio and the other half to the state. Shylock admits defeat and Antonio refuses his share of Shylock’s wealth instead demanding Shylock be forced to convert to Christianity and he must stipulate in his will that his wealth go to Lorenzo and Jessica. There’s then a comic bit with Portia, Bassanio, Gratiano, and Nerissa back in Belmont. Antonio receives word that three of his ships, originally thought lost, have come into port. And then everyone goes to bed.

Heroes and Villains: I’m very fond of Antonio as he really is a wonderful man and his friendship with Bassanio is truly touching. But despite being the focal point of the play, he doesn’t actually say or do much. Thus, Portia is my favourite character of the play because she does what all of the men in the play are incapable of doing: saves Antonio. And she does it with her wits which makes her even more awesome.

Pick-up Lines with Style:

“I would out-stare the sternest eyes that look,
Out-brave the heart most daring on the earth,
Pluck the young sucking cubs from the she-bear,
Yea, mock the lion when he roars for prey,
To win thee, lady.” (II.i)

Wordsmith:

  • I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano -/ A stage, where every man must play a part,/ And mine a sad one. (I.i)
  • the doing of the deed (I.iii)
  • with ‘bated breath (I.iii)
  • it is a wise father that knows his own child (II.ii)
  • in the end, truth will out (II.ii)
  • in the twinkling of an eye (II.ii)
  • all that glisters is not gold (II.vii)
  • There is no vice so simple but assumes/ Some mark of virtue on his outward parts (III.ii)
  • a pound of flesh (III.iii)

Speech to Know: There are several really brilliant speeches in this play, but Shylock’s speech about his desire for revenge against Antonio is full of thought-provoking questions and a fascinating level of rage.

“He hath disgraced me and hindered me of half a million; laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies! and what’s his reason? I am a Jew! Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. – If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufference be by Christian example? why, revenge. The villany you teach me I will execute; and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.” (III.i)

View from the PitThe Merchant of Venice is a play I wish I’d had the opportunity to study in school. The play is full of rich speeches, it is intriguingly about the merchant class rather than the very rich and the nobles whom we usually encounter in Shakespeare’s plays, and most impressively, the resolution of the major conflict in the play is actually brought about by a woman (disguised as a man, but still). The central threat in the play, of course, is a cultural touchstone, as references to someone wanting or getting his “pound of flesh” are ubiquitous. But it is Shylock that truly fascinates me. Antisemitism is rampant in literature from the 17th century through to the early 20th century and while it rightly makes a modern audience uncomfortable, I am left to wonder whether the conflict in the play is really about good Christians versus a bad Jew. The speech I quoted above seems to make the case for Shylock that he is simply an outraged human being part of a marginalized group. The play does not lead us to dislike all Jews, as Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, marries Lorenzo and is respected and treated well by all of the other characters (although, admittedly, she does convert to Christianity). The central question this play leaves us with is whether Shylock is the villain because he is a Jew or is he the villain because he is an unkind human being who shows no mercy towards Antonio when given the opportunity? The play, despite its rather fluffy ending, is ultimately thought-provoking and a thoroughly fascinating exploration of prejudice, anger, and mercy.

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