The Merchant of Venice Act III, Scenes 1-5: Summary and Analysis
by William Shakespeare

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Act III, Scenes 1-5: Summary and Analysis

Act III, Scene 1
New Character:
Tubal: a Jewish friend of Shylock

In Venice, Salerio and Solanio discuss Antonio’s financial state. Salerio has received confirmation that one of Antonio’s merchant vessels was wrecked in the English channel. As the two lament this ill news, Shylock enters. He is bitter with both men for their knowledge of Jessica’s elopement before the fact, but they simply mock him in return. The conversation turns to Antonio, on whom Shylock is intent on wreaking his revenge according to the terms of the bond. Salerio asks Shylock what good a pound of Antonio’s flesh will do him, but Shylock dismisses this line of questioning as irrelevant. He is after vengeance, not reimbursement.

Salerio and Solanio learn from a messenger that Antonio awaits them at his house. As they leave, a friend of Shylock’s, Tubal, arrives with news concerning both Jessica and Antonio. In Genoa, Tubal learned that another of Antonio’s ships was lost coming away from Tripoli. Shylock rejoices at the news, but this is soon tempered by the knowledge that Jessica has been frivolously spending his money. He is dismayed to find that she has traded (for a monkey) a ring given him by his wife, but Tubal comforts him by reminding him of Antonio’s bad luck. Shylock asks Tubal to arrange to have an officer arrest Antonio, and they part, making plans to meet later at their synagogue.

The plot thickens for Antonio, threatening to make him a pound thinner. Not one, but two, of his ships, the audience learns, have come to ruin, throwing his finances into chaos and bankruptcy. Shylock already feels he has grounds to detain the merchant, in order to insure his adherence to the terms of their bond. The next time Antonio appears on stage (Act III, Scene 3), he will be in the custody of a jailer.

As is the case in most scenes in which he appears, however, Shylock steals the show here. He utters one of the most famous speeches of the play, if not of Shakespeare generally, the “Hath not a Jew eyes?” monologue (lines 55-69). This speech may initially strike a reader or audience member as an eloquent plea for racial and religious harmony, climaxing in the dramatic lines, “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?” (lines 61-63). There is, however, a sinister undercurrent running throughout the speech; Shylock follows the above lines with “And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” (line 63). In this line, the plea for harmony explicitly spills over into the harsher “eye-for-an-eye” sentiments of Mosaic Law. Keep in mind that the tension in this speech is between its forceful eloquence and its purpose as a justification for performing brutal violence against Antonio. The skilled talkers in Shakespeare’s plays—be they as silly as Polonius in Hamlet or as repulsive as Caliban in The Tempest—always command an audience’s attention and consideration. One must acknowledge a certain righteousness in Shylock’s position. He has been abused at the hands of the Christians before, and now he has just cause to suspect Antonio’s complicity in his daughter’s flight.

One interesting detail which perhaps does more than any other to humanize Shylock and enlist audience sympathy is his grief over the loss of a ring given him by his wife (whose absence from Shylock’s household throughout the play may indicate that he is a widower). Shylock’s outrage over his daughter’s theft moves from the economic to the personal, as he wouldn’t have parted with this item for any price. The audience may be more perplexed than ever at the end of this scene, as both Shylock’s venom and his humanity increase.

Act III, Scene 2
Act III, Scene 2 contains the first major climactic moment in the play, as one of its two main plots—Bassanio’s quest for Portia and the challenge of the three caskets—comes to a resolution. The scene opens with Bassanio and his attendants at Portia’s...

(The entire section is 2,526 words.)