There may not be a play more misnamed in Shakespeare’s entire canon than The Merchant of Venice. Though he is certainly an important character, Antonio—the merchant in question—merits, at best, fourth billing. The main lovers in the play, Portia and Bassanio, command a great deal more attention, and, as most commentators suggest, Shylock is ultimately the main attraction. Although the Jewish moneylender “appears in only five of the play’s twenty scenes, and not at all in the fifth act, everyone agrees that the play belongs to Shylock” (Barnet 193-4). His dominance is such that, in certain productions (particularly in the nineteenth century), the last act has been “omitted entirely” (Myrick, “Introduction” xxii). Yet, despite his somewhat lesser role, Antonio proves crucial to both main plots of The Merchant of Venice. His agreement to serve as collateral for Shylock’s loan to Bassanio facilitates the latter’s courtship of Portia, and the risk to his life which results from this arrangement generates much of the plot’s complications. Shakespeare’s decision to make him the title character perhaps stems from an acknowledgment of Antonio’s structural importance to all the various story lines, as well as from an effort—perhaps unsuccessful—to balance the audience’s attention equally between Shylock’s thirst for revenge and the romance of Portia and Bassanio.
Antonio’s importance as the hinge between the play’s two main...
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In this section:
- Shakespeare’s Language
- Shakespeare’s Sentences
- Shakespeare’s Words
- Shakespeare’s Wordplay
- Shakespeare’s Dramatic Verse
- Implied Stage Action
Shakespeare’s language can create a strong pang of intimidation, even fear, in a large number of modern-day readers. Fortunately, however, this need not be the case. All that is needed to master the art of reading Shakespeare is to practice the techniques of unraveling uncommonly-structured sentences and to become familiar with the poetic use of uncommon words. We must realize that during the 400-year span between Shakespeare’s time and our own, both the way we live and speak has changed. Although most of his vocabulary is in use today, some of it is obsolete, and what may be most confusing is that some of his words are used today, but with slightly different or totally different meanings. On the stage, actors readily dissolve these language stumbling blocks. They study Shakespeare’s dialogue and express it dramatically in word and in action so that its meaning is graphically enacted. If the reader studies Shakespeare’s lines as an actor does, looking up and...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Venice. Major Italian port whose commercial activities are the play’s focus. William Shakespeare’s Venice is a busy mercantile center, in which businessmen are concerned about their cargoes at sea and who are often at the mercy of usurious moneylenders, such as Shylock. A wealthy Jew, Shylock has a deep-rooted animosity toward Christians, who chronically insult him and his religion. Although Venice is dominated by money, with its foundations resting on commerce, trade, and family inheritances, there is a society of exclusiveness under its busy mercantile surface—which is symbolized by the Rialto Bridge, a common meeting place for businessmen. Venice’s people include reviled Jews and anti-Semitic Christians, and Venetian law has the inveterate power to turn individuals into scapegoats.
*Belmont. Town near Venice in which the wealthy young Portia lives. In contrast with Venice, Belmont is a place of beautiful material luxury and pleasure. Portia’s beauty, wit, and grace distinguish her home, but it is actually a world of idleness, frivolity, music, and romance. Portia and her waiting-maid Nerissa seem to do little but gossip about Portia’s eager suitors and show much anxiety about Bassanio’s chances at winning her hand. A scene in which Portia’s suitors must choose among treasure caskets to win her hand in marriage is pregnant with the symbolism of wealth and moral implications....
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Act I, Scenes 1-3: Questions and Answers
1. What causes do Salerio and Solanio suggest for Antonio’s melancholy?
2. What humorous advice does Gratiano offer Antonio?
3. Why does Bassanio want Antonio to loan him more money?
4. Why is Portia angry with her deceased father?
5. Why does Nerissa tell Portia she “need not fear” her unwelcome suitors?
6. What do Portia and Nerissa think of Bassanio?
7. According to Shylock, why does he hate Antonio?
8. Why is Shylock indignant over Antonio’s request?
9. What is Antonio’s response to Shylock’s accusation?
10. In exchange for what does Shylock agree to lend Antonio and Bassanio the money?
1. Salerio and Solanio think Antonio is distracted because his money is tied up in his ships, which are sailing on dangerous seas. When he denies this suggestion, Solanio guesses that he’s in love, an answer Antonio also rejects.
2. Gratiano tells Antonio not to be so grave about worldly affairs, but rather “With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come,/…Why should a man whose blood is warm within/ Sit like his grandsire…/…And creep into the jaundice/ By being peevish?” In other words, he suggests Antonio is acting old before his time.
3. Bassanio tells Antonio that “had [he] but the means” to compete with Portia’s suitors, he would “questionless be...
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Act II, Scenes 1-9: Questions and Answers
1. Why does Morocco fear Portia will reject him at the outset?
2. What is Bassanio’s reservation about Gratiano accompanying him to Belmont?
3. What is Jessica’s dilemma concerning her father, Shylock?
4. How does Lorenzo plan to disguise Jessica in order for her to escape from her father?
5. Before going to dine with Antonio and Bassanio, what advice does Shylock give his daughter?
6. Why does Jessica not want Lorenzo to see her when he arrives at Shylock’s house?
7. What is Morocco’s rationale for choosing the gold casket?
8. What news has Salerio heard, making him anxious?
9. How does Solanio interpret Antonio’s sadness at Bassanio’s departure?
10. Which casket does Aragon choose, and why?
1. Morocco fears Portia would not want to marry someone of his race. Upon entering the play, he pleads: “Mislike not for my complexion/ The shadowed livery of the burnished sun…”
2. Bassanio suspects that Gratiano will appear “too wild, too rude, and bold of voice” for the people of Belmont. “[W]here thou art not known,” Bassanio warns, such traits “show/ Something too liberal.”
3. Jessica believes it is a “heinous sin…/ To be ashamed to be [her] father’s child!” Although she is Shylock’s daughter by “blood,” she claims not to be by...
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Act III, Scenes 1-5: Questions and Answers
1. Why, since it won’t result in any financial gain, does Shylock insist on the terms of his bond with Antonio?
2. What news does Tubal bring Shylock?
3. Why does Portia want Bassanio to wait before facing the challenge of the three caskets?
4. Why does Bassanio select the lead casket?
5. What does the lead casket contain?
6. What does Portia claim will occur if Bassanio gives up the ring she gives him?
7. What does Gratiano reveal after Bassanio solves the riddle of the three caskets?
8. Why does Portia allow Bassanio to leave before they get married?
9. According to Antonio, why won’t the Duke be able to intercede on his behalf?
10. What does Portia decide to do at the end of Act III?
1. Shylock wishes to cut off Antonio’s flesh in order to “feed [his] revenge. [Antonio] hath disgraced [him]…laughed at [his] losses…scorned [his] nation, [and] thwarted [his] bargains” out of (so Shylock claims) pure racial hostility.
2. Tubal tells Shylock that one of Antonio’s ships has been wrecked “coming from Tripolis” and that Jessica has spent a great deal of his money.
3. Afraid that Bassanio will fail, but desirous of his company, Portia wishes to spend as much time with him as possible.
4. Bassanio distrusts attractive surfaces, for fear they contain...
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Act IV, Scenes 1-2: Questions and Answers
1. What does the Duke request of Shylock?
2. What reason does Shylock give for his wanting the pound of Antonio’s flesh?
3. Why does Antonio advise his friends to give up attempting to dissuade Shylock?
4. Why does Shylock believe the Duke must enforce the terms of the bond?
5. Why does Portia, disguised as the lawyer, initially conclude that Shylock’s bond must be adhered to?
6. Although she acknowledges Shylock’s right to a pound of Antonio’s flesh, how does Portia prevent the usurer from acting on it?
7. Why is Shylock stripped of his possessions?
8. Apart from the financial conditions, what does Antonio’s new arrangement demand of Shylock?
9. What does the disguised Portia demand from Bassanio for her services?
10. Why is Bassanio reluctant to give up the ring?
1. The Duke asks Shylock if he will “not only loose the forfeiture,/ But touched with human gentleness and love,/ Forgive a moiety of the principle,/ Glancing an eye of pity on [Antonio’s] losses.” In other words, he asks Shylock to consider Antonio’s financial predicament and not only accept money in place of the pound of flesh, but also reduce the amount of the debt.
2. Shylock claims he can “give no reason, nor will [he] not,/ More than a lodged hate and a certain loathing/ [He] bear[s] Antonio…”...
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Act V, Scene 1: Questions and Answers
1. What message does Stephano deliver to Lorenzo and Jessica?
2. What opinion does Lorenzo hold of men who don’t like music?
3. What does Portia order her household not to do?
4. To whom does Nerissa claim to believe Gratiano gave his ring?
5. What does Portia threaten when Bassanio admits he gave the ring away?
6. What does Portia claim she will do if she encounters the doctor to whom Bassanio gave the ring?
7. How does Antonio attempt to placate Portia?
8. What does Portia offer Bassanio to seal the new promise?
9. What secret does Portia reveal to the company?
10. What good news does Portia tell Antonio?
1. Stephano announces that Portia “will before the break of day/ Be here at Belmont. She doth stray about/ By holy crosses where she kneels and prays/ For happy wedlock hours.”
2. Lorenzo claims that “The man that hath no music in himself,/ Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,/ Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils” and is thus not to be trusted.
3. Portia insists that no one reveal that she and Nerissa have been away from home.
4. Nerissa claims whoever has the ring “will ne’er wear hair on’s face…” In other words, she says she suspects him of giving it to a woman.
5. Portia swears that she “will ne’er come in...
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Economics is a prime concern in The Merchant of Venice, and one major critical perspective treats the play as a clash between emerging mercantile sensibilities and religious traditions. During Shakespeare's time, usury (lending money for interest) became an accepted business practice as profits became increasingly more important than religious principles. The rivalry between Antonio and Shylock is often viewed as an example of two conflicting business ethics. Although Shylock represents usury as a pragmatic and legitimate business practice, Antonio embodies a more idealistic perspective of the profession. Following Christian precepts, the merchant generously lends his money interest-free because his wealth and means allow him to do so. This fundamental economic contention, in addition to the two characters' religious differences, establishes their enmity toward one another and creates a rivalry that reaches its climax in the trial sequence (Act IV, scene i). Bassanio's marriage to Portia demonstrates another economic dimension of the play. Due to rising costs during the Renaissance, aristocrats in many cases had to concern themselves with obtaining more wealth to maintain their expected lifestyle, and a generous dowry was considered a respectable means of achieving this end. Many critics contend that even though Bassanio is virtually penniless because of his extravagant spending, his open desire to marry Portia for her money—in addition to her charm and...
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The Merchant of Venice is considered one of Shakespeare's problem comedies in part due to its anti-Semitism. A problem play introduces moral dilemmas without offering clear-cut or comforting solutions to these dilemmas. In The Merchant of Venice, the Christian Antonio and his friends plead with the Jewish Shylock to show mercy towards Antonio, yet when the situation is reversed and Antonio and his friends are in a position to show Shylock mercy, they do not. Instead, they strip him of his worldly possessions and force him to convert to Christianity. Since there were few or no Jews in Shakespeare's England, his depiction of Shylock is probably based on stereotypes rather than the intimate knowledge acquired through contact. Shylock is depicted as a Jewish moneylender who makes his money through "usury," a practice in which exorbitant interest is charged on loans. He hates Antonio because Antonio loans money without interest and cuts into Shylock's business. It is reported by Solanio that when Shylock discovers his daughter and his money missing, he wanders the streets crying, "My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!" (II.viii.15). Solanio implies that Shylock values his daughter and his money equally, another stereotypical image of Jews in the Elizabethan age.
Shakespeare's audience would have expected this kind of stereotype and probably would have applauded Shylock's harsh treatment at the hands of the Christians in the play. But for...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Sources for Further Study
Bulman, James. Shakespeare in Performance: The Merchant of Venice. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. Provides a survey of nineteenth century productions and a critique of several major twentieth century productions, including a comparison of Jonathan Miller’s stage version (featuring Laurence Olivier as Shylock) with the BBC-TV version he produced ten years later.
Danson, Lawrence. The Harmonies of “The Merchant of Venice.” New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1978. An excellent full-length study of the play that treats everything from “The Problem of Shylock” to law and language, miracle and myth, love and friendship, and the “quality of mercy.”
Frye, R. M. Shakespeare and Christian Doctrine. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1963. Presents biblical, patristic, medieval, and early modern Christian doctrine, especially Catholic-Anglican, as background to Shakespeare’s works.
Greenblatt, Stephen. Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. New York: W. W. Norton, 2004. Provides useful information about the Roderigo Lopez affair and the current of anti-Semitism in mid-1590’s London as background to The Merchant of Venice.
Gross, John. Shylock: Four Hundred Years in the Life...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
*If available, books are linked to Amazon.com
Barnet, Sylvan. “The Merchant of Venice on the Stage.” Shakespeare 192-205.
Barton, Anne. “Introduction to The Merchant of Venice.” The Riverside Shakespeare. By William Shakespeare. Eds. G. Blakemore Evans, et al. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1974. 250-253.
Bradbrook, Muriel C. Shakespeare the Craftsman. London: Chatto & Windus, 1969.
Brown, John Russell. Discovering Shakespeare: A New Guide to the Plays. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.
Charney, Maurice. All of Shakespeare. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.
Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, The Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971.
Council, Norman. When Honour's at Stake: Ideas of Honour in Shakespeare's Plays. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1973.
Driscoll, James P. Identity in Shakespearean Drama. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1983.
Edwards, Philip. Shakespeare: A Writer's Progress. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Ericson, Peter. Patriarchal Structure in Shakespeare's Drama. Berkeley, CA: University of California, 1985.
Granville-Barker, Harley. Prefaces to Shakespeare. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1965/1978.
Jardine, Lisa. Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare. Sussex, England: Harvester Press,1983.
Levin, Harry. Shakespeare and the Revolution of the Times. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.
Muir, Kenneth. "Fifty Years of Shakespeare Criticism: 1900-1950," Shakespeare Survey, 4 (1951), pp.1-25.
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