Shylock (SHI-lok), a rich Jewish moneylender. He hates Antonio for often lending money at lower interest than the usurer demands; hence, when Antonio wishes to borrow three thousand ducats to help Bassanio, Shylock prepares a trap. Seemingly in jest, he persuades Antonio to sign a bond stating that, should the loan not be repaid within three months, a pound of flesh from any part of his body will be forfeited to Shylock. Next, Shylock has bad news when he learns that his daughter, Jessica, has eloped with Lorenzo, taking with her much of his money. He gets good news when he learns that Antonio’s ships have been lost at sea. Antonio being ruined and the loan due, Shylock brings the case before the duke. He refuses Bassanio’s offer of six thousand ducats and demands his pound of flesh. Portia, Bassanio’s wife, disguised as a lawyer, claims that Shylock must have the flesh but can take not a single drop of blood with it. Further, she maintains that Shylock, an alien, has threatened the life of a Venetian; therefore, half of his fortune goes to Antonio, the other half to the state. Shylock is allowed to keep half for Jessica and Lorenzo if he will become a Christian. The character of Shylock has become one of the most controversial in Shakespearean drama. Is he a villain or a tragic figure? Does the author intend the audience to regard him as an example of Jewish malevolence or to sympathize with him as a persecuted man?
Portia (POHR-shuh), an heiress whose father had stipulated in his will that any suitor must win her by choosing from among three caskets of gold, silver, and lead the one containing her portrait. The prince of Morocco and the prince of Aragon choose respectively the gold and the silver caskets and find only mocking messages; Bassanio, whom she loves, selects the lead casket and wins her. Learning of Antonio’s misfortune, she offers her dowry to buy off Shylock and goes to Venice disguised as a lawyer. When Shylock refuses the money and rejects her plea for mercy, she outwits him by arguing that he is entitled to a pound of Antonio’s flesh but cannot shed any blood in obtaining it, thus saving Antonio and ruining Shylock.
Antonio (an-TOH-nee-oh), the merchant of Venice. Rich and generous, he wishes to aid his impecunious friend Bassanio to woo Portia. Having no ready money, he borrows three thousand ducats from Shylock. His ships are apparently lost at sea, and he is saved from death only by Portia’s cleverness. At the end of the play, he learns that some of his ships have returned and that he is not ruined.
Bassanio (ba-SAH-nee-oh), a friend of Antonio, in need of money to woo Portia. To help him, Antonio concludes his almost fatal bargain with Shylock. Bassanio chooses the right casket at Portia’s home and thus is able to marry her.
Gratiano (GRAY-shee-AH-noh), a friend of Bassanio. He marries Nerissa, Portia’s waiting woman.
Nerissa (neh-RIHS-uh), Portia’s clever waiting woman. She marries Gratiano.
Jessica, the daughter of Shylock. She elopes with Lorenzo, taking with her much of Shylock’s money and jewels. Her marriage is a heavy blow to her father.
Lorenzo (loh-REHN-zoh), a Venetian who marries Jessica.
The prince of Morocco
The prince of Morocco, a tawny Moor, one of Portia’s suitors. He chooses the gold casket, in which he finds a skull and some mocking verses.
The prince of Aragon
The prince of Aragon, another of Portia’s wooers. He chooses the silver casket, in which he finds the portrait of a blinking idiot.
Tubal (TEW-buhl), a Jew and a friend of Shylock.
Launcelot Gobbo (LOHN-seh-lot GOB-boh), a clown, Shylock’s comic servant. Hating his master, he changes to the service of Bassanio. He acts as a messenger between Jessica and Lorenzo.
Old Gobbo, Launcelot’s father, who is “sandblind.”