The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare

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Act 2, Scenes 5–9 Summary and Analysis

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Scene 5

Shylock and Launcelot are speaking in Shylock’s estate. Shylock tells Launcelot that he will not be treated as well working for Bassanio, and he calls for Jessica. Launcelot also calls for Jessica. When Shylock scolds him for calling her without permission, Launcelot explains that this scolding is part of the reason for his departure. 

Jessica arrives; Shylock tells her that he will be leaving for dinner and asks her to watch the house, for he has a foreboding feeling. Launcelot tells Shylock that it will be a masquerade party, and Shylock complains that there will be too much Christian silliness in the streets if this is the case. He tells Jessica to lock the doors and windows, preventing the music entering his “sober house,” and sends Launcelot to tell Bassanio’s party he is on his way. Before leaving, Launcelot tells Jessica to be on the lookout for a Christian who will be worth observing. 

After Launcelot leaves, Shylock complains about what a terrible worker Launcelot was and reminds Jessica to lock up. After he leaves, Jessica hopes aloud that she will be able to run away from her father before he gets back. 

Scene 6

Gratiano and Salarino wait, in masks, outside of Shylock’s house for Lorenzo. They are surprised that he is late; usually those freshly in love are early because time passes quickly for them. Gratiano comments on how humans often grow accustomed to things and no longer enjoy them as much as at first. 

Lorenzo finally arrives and apologizes for being late, and Jessica comes to the window above them dressed as a boy. After confirming that it is Lorenzo outside her window, Jessica throws down a small box for Lorenzo and talks about how ashamed she is at having to dress up as a boy. Lorenzo tells her that she must serve as his torchbearer, but she balks at this, explaining that she does not wish to be seen this way. Lorenzo convinces her to come with them anyway, and she leaves the window to collect some money for her departure. Lorenzo and Gratiano briefly speak about how wonderful she is, and she arrives, ready to leave. 

They all exit except Gratiano, who stays behind. Antonio enters and tells Gratiano that there will be no time for a masquerade tonight, as the wind is just right and Bassanio is leaving for Belmont immediately. They both exit. 

Scene 7

This scene opens in Belmont, with the Prince of Morocco taking the test to win Portia’s hand. Portia has a servant open curtains that reveal the gold, silver, and lead chests. Each chest has an inscription upon it: the gold chest says, “Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire;” the silver chest says, “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves;” and the lead chest says, “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath,” meaning whoever chooses the lead chest must risk everything. 

The prince is bewildered, unsure of the right chest. Portia tells him that if he chooses correctly, the chest will contain her portrait. The prince makes a lengthy speech about how he is not willing to risk everything he owns on lead. He considers the silver chest, believing that based on all of his accomplishments, he deserves Portia. But he decides to choose the gold chest on the grounds that she is a gem that must be placed amidst gold. When he opens the chest, he finds a skull and a scroll with a poem that reads “all that glitters is not gold” and suggests that he should have chosen more wisely. The prince leaves, broken-hearted, but Portia is glad that he failed because she did not like his dark complexion.

Scene 8

Salarino and Solanio are speaking; Bassanio and Gratiano have sailed away, but Salarino is certain that Lorenzo did not go with them. Solanio tells Salarino that Shylock has complained to the duke about his daughter’s running away with a large portion of his money. The duke helped Shylock search for Bassanio’s ship, but it had already sailed away, and Antonio assured them that Lorenzo and Jessica were not aboard. 

Given Shylock’s current mood, they hope that Antonio will be able to pay him back in time. Salarino has recently heard that a ship carrying goods was wrecked outside of England, and he is concerned that it was Antonio’s ship. Salarino talks about what a wonderful person Antonio is and describes how when Antonio and Bassanio parted before the ship left, Antonio wept. Salarino and Solanio decide to visit Antonio to make him feel better, and they leave.

Scene 9

Scene 9 opens in Belmont. The Prince of Arragon is attempting to win Portia. Portia explains the rules of the game to him, and he promises not to tell any others what chest he chose—and to leave immediately and not marry anyone if he chooses incorrectly. The prince reads each inscription on the box. He rejects the lead chest because he is not willing to risk all that he owns for Portia, and he rejects the gold chest because he believes that what many men want is foolish. 

Reasoning that he deserves Portia, he chooses the silver chest. Inside is a picture of a fool holding a scroll. The writing on the scroll calls the prince a fool for making such a bad judgment, and he leaves, swearing to keep his oath. Portia comments on how the men are drawn to the precious chests like moths to a flame. Then, a messenger arrives to tell Portia a servant to a young Venetian man has arrived to deliver gifts and announce his master’s arrival. The messenger believes that this is a good sign, and Nerissa hopes that it is Bassanio. They exit to greet this Venetian. 


Much of this act is designed to set the rest of the plot in motion, but it also further illuminates the character of Shylock. For instance, scene 6 helps to develop Shylock in several ways. We learn, for instance, that he is stringently protective of his wealth, asking Jessica to keep his house locked. But we also learn that he is annoyed by the music in the streets. This is a stark contrast to the lovers Lorenzo and Jessica, who listen to music as they gaze at the stars. In Elizabethan England, many would not have had access to music, and it is possible that this is the only music patrons of the play would have heard in months. By shutting the music out, Shylock potentially becomes even more of a villain to the audience. 

When Jessica runs away with Lorenzo taking many of his possessions, we see more justification for Shylock’s rage and desire for revenge. There is an ambivalence in this scene with regards to Shylock. On the one hand, the audience understands his frustration and may well pity him, given all that he has lost. On the other hand, the fact that his ducats and his daughter occupy the same space in his mind—that of worldly possessions—makes it more difficult to sympathize with him. It is this layered character development that makes Shylock such a complicated character.

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