What are some improbabilities in The Merchant of Venice?

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durbanville eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare's classic plays and is recognized for its comedy. Various characters are happily wed, the wicked Shylock is effectively defeated, and Antonio ultimately receives his wealth and his freedom. A Shakespearean audience would have seen the justice in Shylock's undoing, and it would have been amusing and acceptable.

As the rivalry between the Jews and the Christians is very real to an Elizabethan audience, even the deal itself is an improbability. Shakespeare knows this and, subsequently, expertly manipulates the audience into acceptance. Antonio makes it known that he would do anything for his dear Bassanio, and Shylock makes it clear that he will deal with Antonio. Shylock feels a great deal of satisfaction in seeing Antonio humbled like that. He says of his insistence on settling for a pound of flesh, "if it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge" (III.i.45). 

It is also certain that, in reality, even in Shakespeare's day, the court would not have upheld such an unreasonable bond. Shylock's insistence on "a pound of flesh" to settle Antonio's debt may have sufficed as a gentleman's agreement, but it would not have made it to court. The biggest improbability is what happens next: it is unlikely that the court case would have resulted in a reversal of the terms and the consequent incarceration of Shylock, no matter how much the audience may have wished for it. Shakespeare again manipulates the audience into acceptance because the outcome would have satisfied any complaints. 

Were this an actual event, an improbability lies in the tragic elements of the play and the outcome from the so-called Christian treatment of Shylock. Portia reveals the injustice when she says, "Which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?" (IV.i.169). Although she is not confused by their appearance, she knows that Antonio is not behaving in a manner fitting of a Christian, but rather in a way that the audience would have expected the Jews of the time to behave. It is improbable that Antonio would have been given the last word on Shylock’s punishment, especially as Portia has recognized unchristian behavior in Antonio, and this would only be encouraging it. Shakespeare has included these elements to appease his audience who would have left the theater in high spirits.

sciftw eNotes educator| Certified Educator

For me, there are three glaring improbabilities from Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice."  I don't have a particular order or preference to them either.  

First, I find it really hard to believe that Portia was able to cross dress so effectively that nobody in the courtroom, not even her husband, recognized her.  Sure there are plenty of real historical women that cross dressed and pulled off being a man, but I just don't see it being possible with Portia.  She's supposed to be gorgeous and not look anything like a man to begin with. 

Second, I find it ridiculous that a court system would even begin to contemplate legally allowing a plaintiff to be paid with a literal pound of flesh.  

Third, I find it improbable that so many potential suitors (for Portia) all failed at choosing the correct casket.  There's only three choices.  Surely word would have gotten around as to which casket persons "A," "B," "C," etc. chose.  It wouldn't take long for somebody to take a 1 in 3 chance on the casket that's never been picked before.