The Merchant of Venice

Another Sunday night post. I blame my tardiness on the weather. This isn’t an excuse, it’s a legitimate reason; it’s so hot in New York right now that I think I would have died of head exhaustion if I turned on my computer before the sun went down. Seriously, I think I started to melt today. I’m also one of those heathens who lives without air conditioning.

More confessions, friends: I’ve never read The Merchant of Venice before. Don’t ask me how I got to the age of 33 without experiencing this play, just know that I did. But! That meant I got to experience this play for the first time this week.

My feelings? I really liked it. It’s extremely anti-Semitic, which I have major problems with, but again with my modern sensibilities. Still, the story was good and some of the lines are iconic. Also, it’s rife with layers. You can view it as a comedy, which it technically is, but if you look at Shylock this play is more tragic than comedic. But more on that below.


Antonio is a wealthy merchant of Venice (hence the title) and he’s a bit depressed at the moment, possibly because all his money is invested in shipments that have yet to make their way to harbor. His friend Bassanio, a noble, wants to marry the beautiful (and rich) Portia. Problem: Bassanio’s lost all his money and needs Antonio to front him (which Antonio has done in the past) so he can afford to woo Portia. Further problem: with all his money currently invested Antonio is essentially broke for the moment. Antonio tells Bassanio not to worry and to get some money from a bondsman and Antonio will be the guarantor.

Meanwhile in Belmont, Portia is beset by suitors. Her late father left a test for any man who wants to marry his daughter: a choice between three caskets filled of either gold, silver, or lead; if the casket contains Portia’s picture then the suitor’s won her hand in marriage, but if it doesn’t they’re sworn to never marry another and must leave immediately. (There’s also a stipulation that they never tell anyone which casket they chose, so no one can cheat.) So far no one’s won. Portia is rather done with the whole thing and can’t find a suitor she likes, but she remembers Bassanio fondly.

Bassanio meets with Shylock to get a loan in Antonio’s name. Shylock is…a rather insulting caricature of a Jewish man. He’s greedy, dislikes Antonio because Antonio gives out loans without charging interest (thus cutting into Shylock’s profits), and he doesn’t like Christians. Antonio is just as insulting towards Shylock, looking down his nose at the money lender and comparing him to the devil. But Shylock agrees to give Bassanio and Antonio the loan of 3,000 ducats without interest on one condition: should Antonio not be able to pay the loan back by the end of three months Shylock will get a pound of Antonio’s flesh from whatever part of Antonio’s body he wishes. Antonio agrees to the deal.

Launcelot, a servant of Shylock’s, and his father convince Bassanio to take Launcelot as a servant. Bassanio’s friend Gratiano requests to come with Bassanio to Belmont, to which Bassanio agrees. However, Gratiano is known to be rather rude and rowdy at times so Bassanio requests that he comport himself civilly while they’re in Belmont so Gratiano’s behavior won’t reflect badly upon him.

In another thread, Shylock’s daughter Jessica is in love with Bassanio’s friend Lorenzo, to whom she wants to get married after converting to Christianity. As Launcelot takes his leave of Shylock’s house Jessica asks him to give a letter to Lorenzo, which Launcelot agrees to do. Launcelot happens upon Lorenzo in discussions with Gratiano, Salarino, and Salanio. Lorenzo sends word to Jessica through Launcelot that he will not fail her. He plans to make Jessica his torch-bearer for that night and then elope.

Launcelot heads to Shylock’s to request he come to dinner at Bassanio’s house. As Shylock leaves he orders Jessica to not let the sound of the partying enter his sober house. Jessica, though, means to steal away with Lorenzo that night disguised as a boy, bringing with her what money and jewels she can. Gratiano is with the group that goes to fetch Jessica that night and, after doing so, he is approached by Antonio: Bassanio is leaving for Belmont that night and he (Gratiano) needs to hasten to join him.

The next day Salanio and Salarino discuss the events of the previous night: Shylock returned home and was apparently beside himself with the loss of his daughter and the money and jewels she took with her. He couldn’t seem to figure out which loss dismayed him more: his daughter or the money. (Shylock soon after appears far more upset at the fact that Jessica rebelled against him, not at the loss of her itself, as well as his monetary loss and the loss of a ring that his late wife gave him.) Lorenzo and Jessica apparently made a clean escape. However, Salanio and Salarino also heard about an Italian merchant ship that was lost at sea. They fear it was Antonio’s. Shylock is very happy when he hears this news and plans to take out his frustrations and anger on Antonio.

Meanwhile in Belmont, Portia has had two suitors take the casket test and both have failed. The Prince of Morocco reads the inscriptions on the caskets and chooses the gold. Rather than Portia’s picture the casket contains a poem that basically says, “Nope!” He leaves. The Prince of Arragon chooses the silver, which contains a poem essentially saying, “You’re a fool!” Then a servant comes and tells Portia that another suitor’s herald is at the gates with fine gifts; he is, of course, Bassanio’s man (most likely Gratiano).

Bassanio chooses the lead casket and wins Portia, and Gratiano in turn wins Portia’s maid Nerissa. But then Lorenzo, Jessica, and Salarino arrive with a sad letter from Antonio: all his ships were lost and his bond to Shylock is forfeit. He absolves all debt between him and Bassanio but would like to see Bassanio once more before his death. After marrying their respective brides, Bassanio and Gratiano depart for Venice with money from Portia to pay Antonio’s bond.

Shylock refuses to speak with Antonio, insisting upon his bond payment (a pound of Antonio’s flesh). Apparently Antonio would lend money (without interest) to people who were in debt to Shylock, thus cutting in on Shylock’s profits. Between this and Jessica’s betrayal in stealing a portion of Shylock’s wealth and converting, Shylock wants to take out his revenge on Antonio in place of all Christians.

Portia, meanwhile, leaves Lorenzo and Jessica in command of her household. She says that she and Nerissa will spend their time in silent contemplation at a nearby monastery until their husbands return, but in truth she plans to head to Venice dressed as men. She sends a message to her cousin Bellario, a lawyer in Padua, with her servant Balthazar. The two set off.

In the Venice court Shylock refuses to take Bassanio’s offer to pay for double Antonio’s loan, intent upon receiving his pound of flesh. The Duke urges Shylock to show mercy, but Shylock will have none of it. So the Duke refers to a visitor commended by Bellario in Padua, a lawyer named Balthazar (Portia in disguise), and his law clerk (Nerissa).

Portia states that justice is indeed on Shylock’s side but urges him to show mercy, but he’ll have none of it. Multiple times she asks if he’ll take payment instead, if he’ll show kindness, and he refuses anything but what the bond states: that he can cut a pound of Antonio’s flesh from wherever he wants it.

So, Portia grants that Shylock must have his pound of flesh, but then she deftly maneuvers the situation. The bond, she says, states that Shylock may have a pound of flesh, but that nothing is stated about any blood. So, Shylock will have to remove his pound of flesh without shedding any of Antonio’s blood. If he does, Shylock’s lands and goods would be seized by the state. In addition, Shylock must remove exactly one pound of flesh, no more and no less, or he will lose his lands and goods as well as his life

Shylock realizes he’s been defeated and states that he’ll take the 6,000 ducats Bassanio offered him. Portia denies this, though, telling him that he insisted on his bond in open court and can’t take anything else. Shylock requests to at least be reimbursed the sum of the loan (3,000 ducats) and is again refused. Portia then goes further, stating that Shylock’s status as an alien (he’s Jewish, and they were excluded from full citizenship) and this stunt, which he well knew would cost Antonio (a citizen) his life, means that half of Shylock’s property will go to Antonio, half to the state, and Shylock’s life is in the hands of the Duke alone.

The Duke pardons Shylock, but Shylock insists that to take all his wealth means to effectively take his life. At Antonio’s request, the Duke allows Shylock to keep the state’s half of his property on two conditions: that Shylock converts to Christianity and his property goes to Lorenzo and Jessica upon his heath. Antonio states that he’ll keep his half of Shylock’s property “in use” until Shylock’s death, when he’ll give the principle to Lorenzo and Jessica as well. Shylock agrees.

Bassanio doesn’t recognize Portia in her disguise and offers her the 3,000 ducats in repayment for saving Antonio’s life. Portia declines and Bassanio insists that she allow them (Bassanio and Antonio) to repay her somehow. She relents and asks for a token from each man: Antonio’s gloves and a ring from Bassanio. Bassanio refuses at first; it’s a ring that Portia gave him and made him swear to never sell, gift, or lose. With Antonio’s persuasion, however, Bassanio eventually gives the ring to Portia. Gratiano also doesn’t recognize his wife and Nerissa succeeds in getting him to give her the ring he had also sworn to never give away.

Portia and Nerissa arrive at Belmont not long before Bassanio, Antonio, and Gratiano. When the others arrive Portia and Nerissa accuse their respective husbands of giving away the rings they swore to keep. After some ribbing on the ladies’ part and apologizing on the men’s Portia and Nerissa admit their ruse: that they were the doctor and the clerk. Portia also tells Antonio that she happened up on a letter that stated that three of his ships miraculously arrived safely in the harbor. Nerissa then tells Jessica and Lorenzo of their new status as benefactors of Shylock’s estate upon his death. Everyone ends up happy. Well, everyone but Shylock.

Of Interest

The Merchant of Venice is, at first glance, a tale about Christian mercy juxtaposed with Jewish vengefulness. Shylock is portrayed as bloodthirsty, demanding his pound of flesh even when he’s being offered twice or trice the sum of the defaulted loan. And indeed, Shylock has been viewed as a negative character for centuries since Shakespeare wrote the play. In fact, the Nazis broadcast The Merchant of Venice soon after Kristallnacht in 1938 as propaganda. Elizabethan audiences would have expected Shylock to be a villain. But is he, really?

We have to take into account the differences in the religious views between Christians and Jews regarding the nature of God. Jews follow the Old Testament while Christians follow both the Old and the New Testament (with an emphasis on the latter). In the Old Testament, God is strict and unyielding, demanding adherence to the laws on pain of punishment. In the New Testament, by contrast, God is forgiving and merciful, promoting adherence to the spirit of the law rather than the letter. Shylock, then, is emulating adherence to the letter of the law. Additionally, Shylock was very upset at the loss of a ring that his late wife gave him, proving that he doesn’t value money above all relationships. It also brings Jessica’s character into question because she sells her late mother’s ring in exchange for a monkey.

While the Christian characters seem to preach mercy and charity they don’t always display this; just look at how Gratiano acts at the end of the trial scene, displaying a hatred that Shylock had been verbally condemned for moments before. In addition, Bassanio and Antonio are extremely rude to Shylock when they ask him for a loan while Shylock is rude in asides rather than to their faces. Also, Bassanio marries Portia not because he loves her but because she comes with a great deal of wealth; greed was his motivation, at lest initially. Shylock is shown “mercy” but forced to convert to Christianity at the end of the play. While Elizabethan audiences would have seen this as a very happy ending (it’s done against Shylock’s will, but it’s for his own good and the good of his immortal soul) it’s not happy to Shylock. Not only is he forcibly stripped of his faith, converting to Christianity means he can no longer lend money (theoretically, at least). Thus, Antonio stops Shylock from doing the very thing that Antonio berated and spat upon Shylock for doing. This certainly isn’t real mercy.

Portia in the trial scene refers to Shylock as an “alien”, which shows that Jews were “other”. They were removed from the general citizenry, allowed to interact with society but never fully assimilated as a part of society. Jews were removed, somewhat literally at one point: in 1290 England expelled almost all Jews and they weren’t allowed back until after Shakespeare’s death. So, there weren’t many Jews in Elizabethan England at all, which is good because this play couldn’t incite violence against Jewish communities when it was written.

This removal from society is one reason the stereotype about Jews being greedy came about: Christians weren’t allowed religiously to take part in usury (lending money for profit), but Jews had no such limitation (although this was a myth everywhere except England, where Jews were tax exempt and allowed due to how profitable their lending was to the crown). Lending money was necessary to keep economies going, though, so money lenders were important. So, society both needed and condemned the practice.

But perhaps the best defense for Shylock comes from Shylock himself:

He [Antonio] hath disgraced me and hindered me 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 sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.

— Act III, scene I

Nota Bene

Interestingly, in the high comedies it’s the ladies who dominate, not the men. Viola, Rosalind, Portia, and Helena embody the grace and wit necessary for the protagonists of the high comedies. The male counterparts pale by comparison and never take the lead and it’s a bit of an issue to show the hero’s worth. So, Bassanio shows his worth by choosing the correct casket and then giving choice back to Portia.

Antonio actually fills the hero role better than Bassanio since he takes on the risk of bodily harm to help his friend, but this might indicate something else. Antonio’s depression in the beginning of the play and his unfailing loyalty to Bassanio suggests possible homosexual feelings; Antonio is upset because Bassanio will soon want to marry a woman (which indeed he does), which will remove Bassanio from Antonio. It’s uncertain whether Bassanio’s loyalty to Antonio is a responsive loyalty to a trusted and dear friend or an answer to Antonio’s romantic feelings. Further supporting this are lines within the play itself: Portia’s lead casket reads “Who chooseth me, must give and hazard all he hath.” And Antonio hazards everything, even a pound of flesh, for Bassanio’s happiness.


2 thoughts on “The Merchant of Venice

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