The Merchant of Venice

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Comedies

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Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. (Norton Comedies, 2nd ed. 425-89).

Act 1, Scene 1 (435-39 Antonio as exemplar of generosity, charity; sorrow/betrayal shadow him, friendship with Bassanio)

Antonio sets himself up to play the willing victim: “In sooth, I know not why I am so sad” (435, 1.1.1).  He seems certain only that his melancholia doesn’t stem from anxieties about commerce or love (436, 1.1.41-46) — though the latter seems to us the obvious reason since modern directors tend to assert a deep bond between Antonio and Bassanio.  Graziano and other Christians would prefer to play the fool and be merry, while Antonio luxuriates in his moodiness: “I hold the world but as the world, Graziano– / A stage where every man must play a part, / And mine a sad one” (437, 1.1.77-79).  He aligns himself with the dimension of Christian practice that has earned it a reputation as a “religion of sorrow.” 

There seems to be an absolute trust between Antonio and Bassanio in this first scene. They engage in rather excessive oath-making and promising, a process Antonio begins.  Informed of Bassanio’s quest, Antonio declares, “be assured / My purse, my person, my extremest means / Lie all unlocked to your occasions” (438, 1.1.137-39).  Bassanio first names Portia as “a lady richly left” and “fair” (439, 1.1.161-62), but his comparison of her to Brutus’ Portia also alludes to her moral excellence.  Antonio ends the scene by hazarding all he has, as will Bassanio later on: “Try what my credit can in Venice do; / That shall be racked even to the uttermost / To furnish thee to Belmont, to fair Portia” (439, 1.1.180-82).  The impulse here is generous, but the hyperbolic quality of the men’s oaths, we should note, will eventually cause them some trouble in this play.

Act 1, Scene 2 (439-41, Portia’s father’s plan for her; her strength to be exerted against limits.)

Portia is the active agent in this play; she is constrained but not a passive sufferer with respect to her departed father’s marriage arrangements for her.  This is true in spite of her lament when we first meet her: “I may neither choose who I would nor refuse who I / dislike; so is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will / of a dead father” (440, 1.2.20-22).  Along with Nerissa, Portia trusts her father’s wisdom: “I will die as chaste as Diana unless I be obtained by the manner of my father’s will” (441, 1.2.89-90), but she doesn’t leave aside her own judgment.  Witness her snide but perceptive remarks about the men who are pursuing her (440, 1.2.35-83), all of whom are shallow poseurs, fools, or narcissists: the Neapolitan prince, County Palatine, Monsieur le Bon, the English nobleman Falconbridge, the Scottish lord, and the Duke of Saxony’s nephew hardly sound like great catches.

Act 1, Scene 3 (441-45, Shylock’s personal and collective grudges; his cunning, not generosity.  Sympathy?  Wager itself – literalist bond.)

The scene is partly about the different understanding of terms between Christians and Jews—to be a “good” man, in Shylock’s view, is to have sufficient funds; to “be assured” is to acquire the necessary information about a person’s finances: “My meaning in saying he is a good / man is to have you understand me that he is sufficient” (442, 1.3.13-14). The play’s Christians use these words mainly as moral terms. We see Shylock’s resentment almost from the outset: “How like a fawning Publican he looks. / I hate him for he is a Christian; / But more, for that in low simplicity / He lends out money gratis …” (442, 1.3.36-39).  His “ancient grudge” (442, 1.3.42) is both individual and collective; the personal insults are insults to his “sacred nation” as well (442, 1.3.43).  He considers it a duty not to forgive Antonio.

Around (443, 1.3.73ff), cunning appears to be Shylock’s main attribute when he alludes to the story in Genesis 30:25-43 of how Jacob (Esau’s brother, and son of Isaac and Rebekah and grandson of Abraham and Sarah; he was subsequently renamed by an angel “Israel” and is ancestor to the tribes of Israel) got the better of his uncle Laban, a man he served for seven years for the hand of Rachel, only to be given Leah instead and required to work another seven years for Rachel (who eventually gave birth to Joseph).  At the end of his second service period, Laban asked Jacob to stay on, and Jacob asked as his wages Laban’s speckled, spotted sheep and goats, and the dark-colored lambs.  These supposedly inferior creatures were to be his own flock.  Then he took some poplar branches and peeled the bark to expose the white inside: he placed these in the animals’ watering troughs.  To make a long story short, Jacob bred the stronger animals in the presence of these branches and their young were born spotted, so his flocks increased greatly.  “And thrift is blessing,” says Shylock, “if men steal it not” (443, 1.3.86).  Antonio finds the story inappropriate, and by no means a justification of Shylock’s moneylending practices: Jacob’s increase, insists Antonio, wasn’t really due to his own efforts but was “fashioned by the hand of heaven” (443, 1.3.89).

Be that as it may, Shylock wryly rehearses his grievances, reminding Antonio how poorly he has treated him in the past: “many a time and oft / In the Rialto you have rated me / About my moneys and my usances …” (444, 1.3.102-04) and “You call me misbeliever, cut-throat, dog, / And spit upon my Jewish gabardine” (444, 1.3.107-08).  How can a Christian who is wont to speak that way ask a Jew for such a favor?  But Shylock proceeds to accept his role as moneylender on his own terms: the infamous deal “Go with me to a notary …” (444, 1.3.140-47) is cast by Shylock as “a merry sport” and “friendship” (445, 1.3.164).  A chance to injure Antonio has come his way, and he takes it up gleefully.  This is a high-stakes wager, like Christian salvation.  Antonio seems self-assured and dismissive, which may be hubristic. He has no doubts about his ability to pay his debts, so Shylock’s absurd conditions don’t trouble him: “The Hebrew will turn Christian; he grows kind” (445, 1.3.174). Those conditions certainly trouble Bassanio: “I like not fair terms and a villain’s mind” (445, 1.3.175), but Antonio dismisses the younger man’s worry.  He should have listened, of course – the audience is better positioned to see the dark side of Shylock’s admission that “A pound of a man’s flesh taken from a man / Is not so estimable, profitable neither, / As flesh of muttons, beeves, or goats” (445, 1.3.161-63).  Of course it isn’t – this is about revenge, not money.

Act 2, Scene 1 (445-46, Morocco makes his entrance)

Morocco joins Aaron from Titus Andronicus as one of Shakespeare’s “Moorish” characters, as will Othello in subsequent years.  Morocco has none of the gravity of the other two: he’s a comic figure and cultural outsider who isn’t in a position to get the joke behind Portia’s polite dismissal: his exuberant “Mislike me not for my complexion” (445, 2.1.1) nets him only Portia’s agreement that the prince stands “as fair / As any comer I have looked on yet” (446, 2.1.20-21).  Of course, we have already been acquainted with the wretched suitors who have already made their way to Belmont.

Act 2, Scene 1 (446-50, Lancelot decides to abandon Shylock; comic scene with his father Old Gobbo; Bassanio accepts Lancelot’s suit)

Servant Lancelot Gobbo accepts the “fiend’s” counsel (447, 2.2.24) to abandon Shylock, running against his own conscience. Should we therefore accept treatment of Shylock as comic raillery, something easy to do?  Gobbo sees Shylock as a stock figure, “a kind of devil” (447, 2.2.19), but the play as a whole doesn’t reduce him to that. Consider the conversation between Lancelot Gobbo and his father, which alludes to the biblical story about Jacob stealing Esau’s birthright and tricking father Isaac into giving him Esau’s blessing as the first-born son (Genesis 25:29-34).  “Give me your blessing” asks Lancelot towards the end of his talk with the half-blind father who doesn’t recognize him (448, 2.2.68).  Lancelot’s father has brought a present for Shylock, but Gobbo wants the present to go to Bassanio (448, 2.2.96-98). 

The comic spirit overcomes all, accomplishing something like “grace,” which at 150-51 Gobbo attributes to Bassanio: “you have the grace of God, sir, / and he hath enough” (449, 2.2.135-36).  Bassanio cheerfully accepts Gobbo’s inept suit to become his servant 448, 2.2.137-40).  In general, the process of abandoning Shylock begins right after the bargain of flesh has been struck.  First Gobbo, then Jessica makes her decision in the next scene. What binds people? Well, the binding is supposed to be effected by generosity and love, but Shylock refuses these commands.  In the Christian context of the play, abandoning him seems to be cast as the “natural” result of his refusal.

Act 2, Scenes 3-5 (450-53, Jessica’s anguish; Shylock’s isolation)

Jessica is torn about what she is about to do: “Alack, what heinous sin is it in me / To be ashamed to be my father’s child!” (451, 2.3.15-16)  But she makes Lancelot carry a letter to Lorenzo, sighing to herself, “O Lorenzo, / If thou keep promise I shall end this strife, / Become a Christian and thy loving wife” (2.3.18-20). 

In 2.4, we hear Lorenzo confiding his elopement plan to Graziano: “She hath directed / How I shall take her from her father’s house, / What gold and jewels she is furnished with, / What page’s suit she has in readiness …” (451, 2.4.29-32).  The plot will take advantage of the disguise made possible by Christian festivities – Bassanio is holding a masque (a masked ball) that night, which Shylock takes for a reminder that it is indeed Carnival season in Venice, which occurs just before the austere, fasting forty days of Lent are ushered in and capped by Easter, which of course commemorates the resurrection of Christ after his crucifixion and death on Good Friday.

Lancelot had spoken of Shylock with contempt in Act 2, Scene 1, but in the fifth scene, Shylock’s interaction with his daughter doesn’t seem cruel: he tells her to keep the doors shut against Christian revelers: “Let not the sound of shallow fopp’ry enter / My sober house” (452, 2.5.34-35).  Taking the dismissal of Lancelot as a good break, he winds his reflections up with a proverb: “Fast bind, fast find — / A proverb never stale in thrifty mind” (453, 2.5.52-53)  Shylock prefers to remain isolated and to maintain the purity of his household.  Increasingly, he will be an isolated figure whose situation and attitude invite Christian characters’ mockery: tracing the intensification of that isolation is in large part the task of the play’s remaining acts, and Jessica to herself advances the process on the spot: “Farewell; and if my fortune be not crossed, / I have a father, you a daughter lost” (453, 2.5.54-55).

Act 2, Scene 6 (453-54, Jessica absconds with ducats; Christians free to change)

Shylock (not present in this scene) now loses both his daughter and a portion of his ducats. Graziano makes pleasantries about how people fail to meet their love obligations: “All things that are / Are with more spirit chasèd than enjoyed” (453, 2.6.12-13); this mention is a setup for the weightier wrangling between Portia and Nerissa later on.  Jessica joins the Christians and absconds with some of Shylock’s wealth (454, 2.6.49-50).  It’s comically grotesque that Shylock loses his daughter and money to Christian masquers, presumably, as mentioned earlier, during Venice’s carnival season: a time of liberty and temporary overturning of conventional morality.  Freedom to change is the key here, and the quality to transform one’s identity in a felicitous way seems to be a Christian prerogative in this play.  Shylock’s change will be forced upon him cruelly, and no doubt he will remain isolated ever after.

Act 2, Scenes 7-9 (454-59, Morocco’s choice; reports of Shylock’s confusion; Aragon’s choice; news that Bassanio is nearing Belmont)

Morocco chooses between desert, desire, and hazard.  He chooses gold, what “many men desire,” on the assumption that outward appearances correspond to inward qualities (455, 2.7.37-38).  In the next scene, Salerio and Solanio report and mock Shylock’s confused babbling about his daughter and his ducats: “I never heard a passion so confused, / So strange, outrageous, and so variable / As the dog Jew did utter in the streets. / ‘My daughter! O, my ducats!  O, my daughter! …’” (2.8.12-15), in contrast to the generous relations between Antonio and Bassanio: “I think he only loves the world for him” (457, 2.8.50).  Prideful, falsely self-sufficient Aragon (a stock Spanish nobleman) assumes silver “desert,” and is rewarded with the portrait of “a blinking idiot” (458-59, 2.9.50, 53).  The scene closes with news that Bassanio is at Belmont’s gates.

Act 3, Scene 1 (460-62, Shylock teaches Christian hypocrites revenge)

Shylock assumes that Antonio, now bankrupt, will be easily isolated: the cash nexus is the only tie Shylock seems to recognize as binding, and the law will prevail: “let him look to his / bond” (460, 3.1.40-41).  At lines 53-73, Shylock makes his noteworthy “Hath not a / Jew eyes?” declaration (461, 3.1.49-50): Jews are part of a common humanity, but he and his entire people have been scorned and mocked.  Revenge is the law of his being: he will repay Christian injustice with “usury,” with increase.  To Tubal (461, 3.1.67ff), Shylock constantly brings up money and expense along with his grief about losing his daughter.  He is painfully confused about priorities.  But for the last few hundred years, this scene has generally been played by most actors with sympathy.  After all, some of Shylock’s lines are powerful, especially when you isolate them from the ones most concerned with money: “no satisfaction, no / revenge, nor no ill luck stirring but what lights o’ my shoulders, / no sighs but o’ my breathing, no tears but o’ my shedding” (461, 3.1.79-81).  Today, it’s common knowledge that Jews were forced to take on the role of moneylenders thanks to Christian hypocrisy about the accumulation of interest on loans. 

At this point, Shylock is more than a stage villain.  He is a stage villain, but Shakespeare’s genius is that he can represent a villain as that and something more.  When Tubal informs him about seeing a turquoise ring Jessica sold for a monkey, Shylock laments, “I would not / have given it for a wilderness of monkeys” (462, 3.1.191-92).  The line is comically grotesque, but given the context, how could it be played with anything less than deep feeling?  Meditating on his revenge to come, Shylock tells us what part of Antonio’s flesh he has nominated: “I will have the heart / of him if he forfeit” (462, 3.1.105-06).

Act 3, Scene 2 (462-68, Bassanio chooses rightly; Portia declares her loyalty and promises to help Antonio)

Some strain shows between Portia and her departed father: “these naughty times / Puts bars between the owners and their rights” (462, 3.1.18-19).  What does the song that follows mean?  “Tell me where is fancy bred, / Or in the heart, or in the head? / How begot, how nourishèd?” (463, 3.2.63-65)  We are told that “fancy dies / In the cradle where it lies”  (463, 3.2.63-68-69).  This may be a warning to Bassanio: love begins with the eyes, so we had better not trust them too much.  Bassanio understands the warning, evidently: he chooses the threatening lead container rather than the attractive silver or golden one: “meagre lead, / Which rather threaten’st than dost promise aught, / Thy paleness moves me more than eloquence” (464, 3.2.104-06). 

The correct choice made, Portia makes a fine speech about her qualities and shortcomings as “an unlessoned girl, unschooled, unpractisèd” (465, 3.2.159), and offers a condition: she’s all his, unless he gives away the ring, in which case she will have the upper hand (465, 3.2.170-73).  Bassanio admits that Portia’s words have all blended together for him (466, 3.2.177-83), but he seems to understand her words about the ring, and even takes things up a notch (again the excessive, exuberant rhetoric) by swearing that death will take him before he gives away the golden keepsake: “But when this ring / Parts from this finger, then parts life from hence. / O, then be bold to say Bassanio’s dead” (466, 3.2.183-85).  Portia didn’t condemn him to death, just distrust! 

Bassanio is soon informed by Salerio of Antonio’s disastrous commercial loss, and must admit to Portia that he is in a bind: “I have engaged myself to a dear friend, / Engaged my friend to his mere enemy, / To feed my means” (467, 3.2.260-62).  Portia will take the part of Bassanio’s friend: “Pay him [Shylock] six thousand and deface the bond. / Double six thousand, and then treble that, / Before a friend of this description / Shall lose a hair thorough Bassanio’s fault” (468, 3.2.298-301).  Bassanio, we note, uses the language of Roman honor in referring to Antonio’s friendship: Antonio is “one in whom / The ancient Roman honour more appears / Than any that draws breath in Italy” (468, 3.2.293-95).  The two men somewhat over-talk their bond, as becomes increasingly apparent, but that’s not to disparage its genuine integrity.

Act 3, Scene 3 (469-69, Shylock stays implacable; Antonio near despair)

Here Shylock is implacable: “I’ll have my bond.  I will not hear thee speak” (469, 3.3.12-13).  Antonio says Shylock’s hatred stems from resentment of Christian interference in his harsh dealings with benighted creditors: “His reason well I know: / I oft delivered from his forfeitures / Many that have at times made moan to me” (469, 3.3.21-23).  But that’s obviously not the whole story: it’s hard to sustain the notion that Shylock’s revenge is simply about money. Antonio also points out that Venice must take up an attitude that is nearly as hard-hearted as Shylock’s: a bargain struck is a bargain struck. Venice depends on the cash nexus, too: “The Duke cannot deny the course of law, / For the commodity that strangers have / With us in Venice, if it be denied, / Will much impeach the justice of the state” (469, 3.4.26-29).  Antonio is a man exhausted; his commercial and other losses have wasted him almost to the bone, and he would rather suffer than fight: “Pray God Bassanio come / To see me pay his debt, and then I care not” (469, 3.4.35-36).

Act 3, Scene 4 (469-71, Portia devises her lawyerly scheme)

Portia is drawn to Antonio because friends are so much alike (470, 3.4.10-18), and then she springs her “lawyer’s clerk” scheme: with the assistance of her learned cousin Dr. Bellario, she will play the role of a male who can wield the weapon of law against Shylock and the Venetian commercial state.  To accomplish this task, she must play fast and loose with her own gender, since a woman of Shakespeare’s time (leaving aside Queen Elizabeth) was in no position to take on such authority.  She puts great faith in the power of disguise and cunning understanding of male imposture: “I have within my mind / A thousand raw tricks of these bragging Jacks / Which I will practice” (471, 3.5.76-78).

Act 3, Scene 5 (471-73, Jessica and Gobbo argue wittily about salvation)

Jessica and Gobbo dispute comically over salvation and damnation; Jessica says to Lorenzo, “Lancelot and I are / out.  He tells me flatly there’s no mercy for me in heaven / because I am a Jew’s daughter, and he says you are no good / member of the commonwealth, for in converting Jews to Chris- / tians you raise the price of pork” (472, 3.5.26-30).  This quarrel is a precursor of a more serious argument during the trial about how mercy is granted, and to whom.  Gobbo stands accused of egregious quibbling: “How every fool can play upon the word!” (472, 3.5.37)  Lancelot Gobbo’s misstatements and quibbles are the light-hearted version of the play’s weightier regard for terminological and spiritual misinterpretation, equivocation, and hypocrisy.  Here, Lancelot’s “wit” takes the place of Shylock’s literalism and cunning.

Act 4, Scenes 1-2 (473-83, Trial scene: Shylock’s literalism countered with “mercy” punished; Bassanio and Graziano give away their rings)

Antonio again appears resigned: why bother with a man the Duke calls a “stony adversary” (473, 4.1.3)?  At this point, the anti-Jewish invective is severe. But Shylock shows great harshness in this scene, by Christian lights.  He isn’t claiming to be better than his adversaries: “I give no reason, nor I will not, / More than a lodged hate and a certain loathing / I bear Antonio” (474, 4.1.58-60).  We the audience may have some insight into what Shylock’s grounds for this hate are, but how is the play’s internal court audience to know that?  Shylock has cunningly purchased the flesh of a Christian hypocrite at great personal cost, and he will not give it up: “The pound of flesh which I demand of him / Is dearly bought.  ‘Tis mine, and I will have it. / If you deny me, fie upon your law: / There is no force in the decrees of Venice” (475, 4.1.98-101).  Money isn’t the issue, though Venetian commercial interests make up part of his justification: the law he invokes can’t be ignored lest the republic’s status suffer with international merchants.  Revenge personal and collective is Shylock’s issue, not the ducats Antonio owes him. 

The Duke makes no headway with Shylock, and Antonio seems prepared to give up the ghost: “I am a tainted wether of the flock, / Meetest for death” (475, 4.1.113-14).  That’s where Portia disguised as Balthasar comes in: the culmination of her moral argument is, “The quality of mercy is not strained. / It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven / Upon the place beneath” (477, 4.1.178-81).  The very fact that Shylock had to ask, “On what compulsion must I?” show compassion condemns him (477, 4.1.178).  But the state can’t help here, and Shylock, ever the literalist, protests that he has “an oath in heaven” (478, 4.1.223) to stick to the bond.  Portia goes out of her way to demonstrate the callous attitude of Shylock: witness his refusal to keep a surgeon nearby because no such thing is mentioned in his contract with Antonio (478, 4.1.255-57). 

Antonio is ready to go out with a reaffirmation of his love for Bassanio (478, 4.1.268-72), which leads Bassanio to make an extreme utterance, wishing his wife and goods to heaven to redeem the situation: “life itself, my wife, and all the world, / Are not with me esteemed above thy life, / I would lose all, ay, sacrifice them all / Here to this devil, to deliver you” (479, 4.1.279-82).  Even Shylock picks up on the outrageousness of this remark: “These be the Christian husbands” (479, 4.1.290). 

Portia promptly insists that the bond must be read even more literally than Shylock can conceive. She has already advanced her moral argument and met with defiance: Shylock is ready to carve up his Christian rival.  Now comes the legal argument: “This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood” (479, 4.1.301).  The penalty for spilling Christian blood is forfeiture of one’s goods and property to the state (479, 4.1.314-15).  Furthermore, says Portia, “If it be proved against an alien … / He seek the life of any citizen, / The party ’gainst the which he doth contrive / Shall seize one half his goods; the other half / Comes to the privy coffer of the state, / And the offender’s life lies in the mercy / Of the Duke” (480, 4.1.344-51).  Shylock has sought the death of a Venetian citizen.  The Duke pardons his life and Antonio asks the Duke to allow Shylock to keep half his wealth, willing it to his Christian son-in-law Lorenzo and his daughter Jessica (480-81, 4.1.363-65, 377-80).  Furthermore, he must convert to Christianity (481, 4.1.382).  Shylock is forced to say that he is “content” with his lot (481, 4.1.389), now that he has been commanded to convert to Christianity and give away much of his fortune. The word can hardly mean what it usually would, given the context: he has simply given up, confronted as he is with the full power of Venice and a religion alien to him.

Portia (still disguised) responds to Bassanio’s offer of a gift that she wants his ring (482, 4.1.423), and to his rather feeble protest, she importunes, “if your wife be not a madwoman, / And know how well I have deserved this ring, / She would not hold out enemy for ever / For giving it to me” (482, 4.1.441-44).  The point of this episode is that Portia will exercise mercy with respect to the decree she had previously issued. She didn’t mean the decree of faithfulness in the deadly fashion understood by Bassanio. She interprets her own words liberally rather than literally, and in Act 5 she will be generous enough to forgive Bassanio since at least he put up a struggle, however brief, over the loss of the ring. That doesn’t amount to full merit of pardon, but under Portia’s dispensation, perfection isn’t necessary.  In the second scene, Nerissa says she will get her ring from Graziano (482-83, 4.2.13-14).

Act 5, Scene 1 (483-89, Lorenzo on sphere-music 483-85; Portia’s lecture on absol. oaths v. generosity -488; Shylock stays outcast, Antonio a charitable outsider)

Lorenzo and Jessica discuss faith and faithlessness by referencing disappointed lovers such as Troilus, Thisbe, and Dido (483, 5.1.3-12) and about the power of music to transform the soul: redemption and transformation are the theme here. Lorenzo says that music (even earthly music as opposed to the heavenly harmonies lost to us because of our sin-induced mortality will soften Jessica if she will only listen intently enough, and open herself to the experience: “There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st / But in his motion like an angel sings … / Such harmony is in immortal souls, / But whilst this muddy vesture of decay / Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it” (484, 5.1.59-64).  The whole scene is in comic contrast to Shylock’s hard-heartedness, his inability to change, as Lorenzo may insinuate when he says, “The man that hath no music in himself, / Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds, / Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils” (485, 5.1.82-84). 

Portia appreciates the fine music (485, 5.1.101-07), but at line 109 she makes it stop because she has another vehicle of transformation: the playfully stern lecture she’s about to deliver.  The extremeness of Antonio and Bassanio’s oath-taking must be tempered.  Mercy doesn’t like extremes: to swear excessively is to take one’s responsibilities lightly.  Bassanio in particular has shown a willingness to break an oath to his intended wife to satisfy a male-centered demand—that of giving a gift to the “man” who helped Antonio win his case.  He and Graziano trivialize the marriage bond when, after making such a show of their fidelity, they break their excessive oaths at will.  So Bassanio must be schooled by Portia about his responsibilities towards her as a faithful husband.  She asserts that this marriage bond entails reciprocity and generosity, an accommodation that he has not yet fully acknowledged: “If you had known the virtue of the ring, / Or half her worthiness that gave the ring …” (487, 5.1.198-205).  Portia may be obedient to her father, but she is not a fool, a slave, or a child.  In fact, her actions show her to be far more mature than most of the men in The Merchant of Venice.

Antonio finds out that he isn’t a pauper after all (489, 5.1.275-76), and we hear that Shylock, upon his death, will “gift” the remaining half of his estate to Lorenzo and Jessica (489, 5.1.290-92).  Bassanio, with Antonio’s help, gets the chance to make a second affirmation of his constancy towards Portia: “Pardon this fault, and by my soul I swear / I never more will break an oath with thee” (489, 5.1.246-47).  It’s probably worth noting that the oath is just as extreme as the previous ones he and Antonio have made.  Even so, a generous understanding of speech and act is the essential contrast in the play between Christians and Jews.  The former have the flexibility to transform and to be transformed, while Shylock remains implacable and experiences his enforced change as nothing short of torture; he remains outside the circle of happiness that concludes the play—this inference is represented very explicitly in Michael Radford’s production.  But Antonio also remains outside that charmed comic circle, so I suppose his self-understanding is only ratified: his part in life is a sad one, just as he had said in the first act.  Jessica, however, seems to hold out the possibility of redemption for all; she’s a Jewish woman whose free conversion for the sake of love stands in comic defiance against the spiteful Christian saying “till the Jews be converted” as a way of saying “never.”

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake

The Merchant of Venice

Questions on Shakespeare’s Comedies

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Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. (Norton Comedies, 2nd ed. 425-89).


1. In Act 1, Scene 1, what sense of community is affirmed between the Venetian merchant Antonio and his several gentile (non-Jewish) friends? Antonio is sad without knowing why — what kind of atmosphere does that fact set up for this comic play?

2. In Act 1, Scene 1, what seems to be the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio — what has led to the latter man’s need for Antonio’s help?

3. In Act 1, Scene 2, what constraint lies upon Portia’s future, thanks to her father’s will? What complaints does she have about her suitors?

4. In Act 1, Scene 3, Antonio and Shylock discuss the former’s need for a loan. Why doesn’t Antonio take Shylock’s terms seriously? What grievances does Shylock set forth against Antonio and other Christians whom he has come upon in the Rialto (the financial district of Venice)?


5. In Act 2, Scenes 1 and 7, and 9, respectively, the Princes of Morocco and Arragon choose amongst the gold, silver, and leaden caskets for Portia’s hand in marriage. Why do they make the choices they make, and what explanation of their error is provided in the enclosed scrolls?

6. In Act 2, Scenes 2-3, Lancelet (Shylock’s servant) and Jessica (Shylock’s daughter) decide to abandon him. Why is Lancelet disaffected from his master, and why is Jessica determined to run away? Does she do so with a clear conscience? Explain.

7. In Act 2, Scenes 4-6, Jessica, Lorenzo, and his companions Gratiano and Salarino plot Jessica’s escape, and then make good on it. What important concern arises from the fact that the Venetian custom of donning masques figures in their plans? Moreover, what can we make of Jessica’s disguising herself as a boy?

8. In Act 2, Scene 5, what forebodings does Shylock reveal as he prepares to dine with his gentile debtors? What are his concerns about his daughter Jessica and the possibility that she might come into contact with Christians?

9. In Act 2, Scene 8, how does Shylock react to the awful news that Jessica has run away and, to make matters worse, stolen his golden ducats and jewels? Would it be fair to say (see also 3.1) that he confuses the two losses, as the Christians suggest by their mockery — or is something else going on here?


10. In Act 3, Scenes 1 and 3, what good does Shylock say insisting on his bond will do — how does he justify what Christians in the play would call “Jewish” hard-heartedness?

11. In Act 3, Scene 2, what accounts for Bassanio’s success in choosing the leaden chest rather than the golden and silver ones? How might the song “Tell me where is fancy bred?” be a way of describing Bassanio’s choice?

12. In Act 3, Scene 3, how does Antonio, who stands within Shylock’s power, understand his predicament — why can’t the Duke help him, and what irony resides in that fact?

13. In Act 3, Scene 5, is there any significance in Lancelet’s theological quibbling with Jessica over her religion? How might we connect this comic scene with the play’s more serious events?


14. In Act 4, Scene 1, what lesson about mercy underlies the disguised Portia’s defense of Antonio? How does Saint Paul’s injunction that “the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life” apply to Portia’s final destruction of Shylock’s demand for a pound of flesh? (2 Corinthians 3:6)

15. In spite of Portia’s Christian lesson in Act 4, scene 1, do the Christians engage in some conduct that is less than charitable towards Shylock? Explain.

16. At the end of Act 4, Scene 1 and then in Scene 2, why does Bassanio (although grudgingly) set aside his oath regarding the ring Portia has given him and award it to the supposed Doctor? What does this act suggest about his understanding of the relative value of relationships between men and relationships between men and women?


17. In Act 5, Scene 1, what is the thematic significance of Lorenzo’s remarks about the heavenly music we can’t hear because of our fallen nature — i.e. because of “the muddy vesture of our decay”?

18. In Act 5, Scene 1, what allows for resolution of the controversy over the loss of Bassanio and Gratiano’s rings, given them by Portia and Nerissa, respectively? How do the two women assert a kind of power that the men didn’t know they possessed?

19. General question: this dark comedy about Christians and Jews has troubled many Shakespeare scholars and theater-goers. Shakespeare’s plot favors the Christian theological framework, not Shylock’s Judaism. But in what sense might we be doing Shakespeare an injustice if we take Shylock for a one-dimensional, stock ethnic character? In what ways is he more complex than that?

20. General question: similarly, in what sense does Shakespeare’s representation of Christian characters such as Antonio, Bassanio, Lorenzo, and Gratiano complicate what might otherwise be a straightforward victory for Christianity over Shylock’s principles?

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake