The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare
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In The Merchant of Venice in act 2, scene 5, why does Shylock accept the invitation to dinner? On what grounds did Shylock refuse to accept an invitation to dinner earlier in the play? Give the significance of the word “prodigal.”

In The Merchant of Venice act 2, scene 5, Shylock accepts the invitation to dinner because he will gain some satisfaction from witnessing at first hand what he regards as the shocking extravagance of Christians. This is what he means by “prodigal,” a word used to describe recklessness and excess.

Shylock initially refused to accept an invitation to dinner earlier in the play because it would mean being in the presence of food that wasn’t kosher.

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It may seem strange that Shylock would accept a dinner invitation from Bassanio. After all, he turned down a similar invitation earlier on in the play. This was largely on religious grounds. As a Jew, with very specific dietary requirements, Shylock didn’t want to have to break bread with someone he knew would be eating food like pork, which in the Jewish religion is strictly prohibited. Shylock will do business with Christians—after all, he has to in order to make ends meet—but that’s about it. He won’t sit down to eat with them.

But that was then, this is now. Since then, Bassanio and Antonio have become Shylock’s customers. This puts him in the rare position of having an advantage over Christians, the very people he despises for having subjected him to so much indignity and prejudice over the years. Assured of his moral and religious superiority over the hated Christian, Shylock accepts Bassanio’s invitation, if only to witness the prodigal—that is to say, wasteful and extravagant—behavior of his host.

It should also be pointed out that Shylock has most probably realized that Bassanio has invited him to dinner in order to flatter him, to soften him up so that he won’t demand the payment of a pound of Antonio’s flesh as a forfeit. As Shylock has no intention whatsoever of changing the terms of his “merry bond,” he will gain some warped satisfaction from seeing Bassanio try so hard to change his mind.

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Shylock himself gives Jessica (his daughter) the reason why he has decided to go to supper with the Christians:

...I am not bid for love; they flatter me:
But yet I'll go in hate, to feed upon
The prodigal Christian....

He admits that he does not go out of love because the only reason he has been invited by the Christians is to humor him. Their supposed desire to gratify him is only because he has agreed to lend them money. He therefore only goes because of his hatred for them. He will indulge them because he would feed on their food, and he will find pleasure in seeing how wasteful they are. Shylock is obsessively stingy and materialistic. To see the Christians' flagrant and excessive imprudence, contrasted to his thrift, would provide him much joy, for it means that he would always, in a materialistic sense, be their superior.

His initial rejection of Bassanio's invitation is also clearly explained by him:

Yes, to smell pork; to eat of the habitation which
your prophet the Nazarite conjured the devil into. I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you,
walk with you, and so following, but I will not eat
with you, drink with you, nor pray with you....

His sarcastic remark at the beginning of the extract indicates Jewish belief that pork is not kosher. He finds it despicable that Christians could ingest meat into which Jesus banished a demon. His disgust for this particular dining habit symbolizes what he thinks of them. He states that he is prepared to have limited and superficial social contact with Christians but that he does not desire any deeper association.

The word "prodigal" means wasteful, excessive, uneconomical, imprudent, etc. This signifies carelessness on the part of those to whom the word refers. Shylock believes that Christians seem to take things for granted and are wasteful. They, unlike him, wantonly spend or give away their possessions. He actually takes pleasure in what he believes is a despicable habit, for it gives him an advantage over them.

This is obviously the case in this situation, since they have approached him, someone they despise, for a loan. It is profligate spending that has put them, especially Bassanio, in such an embarrassing situation, which is clearly a source of much pleasure to Shylock.

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Shylock refused to go and dine with Bassanio and Antonio earlier on in the play because he stated that it was impossible for Jews and Christians to dine together because of the various religious differences that they have. Here, in this scene, it is clear that Shylock has changed his mind now that he has made a deal with Bassanio and Antonio and agreed to lend them money. It is obvious, however, that his change of mind has nothing whatsoever to do with politeness as the following quote describes:

I am bid forth to supper, Jessica:
There are my keys. But wherefore should I go?
I am not bid for love; they flatter me:
But yet I'll go in hate, to feed upon
The prodigal Christian.

Shylock recognises that he is invited not out of "love," but only because they desire to "flatter" him because he is the one lending them money. He determines therefore to go "in hate," so that he can benefit from the "prodigal" or wasteful Christians that he despises so much. For a moneylender such as Shylock, who is so careful with his money, he cannot understand by Christians are so wasteful. His act of going to dinner with Bassanio is therefore something he does out of hatred, determined to profit from the Christians and their prodigal and wasteful ways.

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