The Merchant of Venice Characters
The main characters in The Merchant of Venice are Antonio, Shylock, Portia, and Bassanio.
- Antonio is a merchant who helps his friend Bassanio win Portia’s hand in marriage by borrowing money from Shylock.
- Shylock is a Jewish moneylender who lends Antonio the money that Bassanio needs to woo Portia.
- Portia is an heiress whose fortune attracts an array of suitors.
Bassanio is Antonio’s friend and Portia's favored suitor.
Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1568
In William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Antonio is the Venetian merchant for whom the play is titled. He is Bassanio’s wealthy, loyal, and anti-Semitic friend. Bassanio asks Antonio to help him secure the funds he needs to woo Portia, a wealthy heiress. Antonio agrees to borrow the money on Bassanio’s behalf. The Jewish moneylender Shylock, with whom Antonio shares a mutual animosity, agrees to lend Antonio the money. However, he asks that Antonio forfeit “a pound of flesh” if he defaults on the loan. Antonio’s conflict with Shylock animates the primary action of the play. (Read extended character analysis of Antonio.)
Bassanio is the merchant Antonio’s “intimate friend” and the wealthy heiress Portia’s favored suitor. A young nobleman of Venice, Bassanio admits to living beyond his means. This has forced him to borrow money from Antonio on numerous occasions. At the start of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Bassanio asks Antonio to lend him money so that he can travel to Belmont and court Portia as a man of means. Antonio instead suggests that Bassanio secure a loan through a moneylender and offers to be the guarantor for the loan. Antonio indebts himself to the Jewish moneylender Shylock on Bassanio’s behalf. (Read extended character analysis of Bassanio.)
Portia is a beautiful, intelligent, and wealthy heiress from Belmont. Her father’s will stipulates that she can only marry the man who manages to solve a riddle involving three caskets made of different metals. The caskets are made of gold, silver, and lead. The person who successfully chooses the casket with Portia’s portrait in it wins her hand in marriage. Due to her wealth and beauty, Portia has many suitors. However, her father’s will has left her powerless to decide which one she weds. Portia resents this, and subtly helps Bassanio, her favored suitor, solve the riddle so that they can marry. (Read extended character analysis of Portia.)
Shylock is a wealthy Jewish moneylender from Venice and Jessica's father. He lends Antonio and Bassanio the 3,000 ducats that Bassanio needs to pursue Portia. However, Shylock stipulates that if Antonio defaults on the loan, he will owe Shylock a pound of his flesh. This contract spurs the central plot of the play. When Antonio defaults on the loan, Shylock attempts to extract his pound of flesh. However, thanks to Portia’s intervention, Antonio is saved and Shylock is forced to relinquish half of his fortune. He is also forced to convert to Christianity. Shylock is left humiliated after being robbed of his money, his faith, and his dignity. (Read extended character analysis of Shylock.)
Jessica is Shylock’s daughter. In a bid to escape her unhappy family home, she elopes with Lorenzo, a penniless Christian. She converts to Christianity as a consequence of marrying Lorenzo. Before leaving Shylock’s house, she steals a chest full of ducats and family heirlooms. Among those heirlooms is a turquoise ring given to Shylock by his late wife, Leah. After eloping, Jessica and Lorenzo travel to Belmont and eventually arrive at Portia’s estate. When Portia leaves to attend Antonio’s trial, she leaves Jessica and Lorenzo in charge of her estate. (Read extended character analysis of Jessica.)
Lorenzo is a penniless Christian who weds Shylock’s daughter, Jessica. After eloping, Jessica and Lorenzo travel to Belmont. Their marriage is initially unacknowledged by Shylock. However, after the trial, Antonio forces Shylock to formally acknowledge Lorenzo as his son-in-law. Antonio does so by stipulating that Shylock’s entire estate will be transferred to Lorenzo upon Shylock’s death.
Gratiano is Antonio and Bassanio’s friend and Nerissa’s suitor. He accompanies Bassanio to Belmont. Gratiano is described as “wild,” “rude,” and “bold.” He is ill-mannered to the point that Bassanio orders him to behave himself if he wants to come to Belmont. Gratiano is one of the most openly anti-Semitic characters in the play. During the trial in act IV, scene I, Gratiano is hostile towards Shylock, going so far as to tell Shylock to “hang” himself. He taunts and jeers at Shylock as Portia makes her declarations, dispensing with any pretense of the Christian “mercy” that the other characters lay claim to.
Gratiano’s courtship of Nerissa closely mirrors Bassanio’s courtship of Portia. Just as Bassanio privileges his relationship with Antonio over his relationship with Portia, Gratiano also prioritizes other men over his wife. However, Nerissa teaches Gratiano to prioritize his promises to her. After the trial in act IV, scene I, Nerissa, disguised as a law clerk, asks Gratiano for his wedding ring as tribute. He gives it to her, not recognizing the test he is taking—and failing. Nerissa later teases Gratiano by saying that she has slept with the law clerk he gave the ring to. Gratiano, humbled by his wife’s trick, promises to privilege “Nerissa’s ring” above all else.
Nerissa is Portia’s “woman-in-waiting.” After Bassanio successfully completes the casket test, Nerissa weds Bassanio’s friend Gratiano. Throughout the play, Nerissa serves as Portia’s closest friend, ally, and co-conspirator. She supports Portia’s desire to wed Bassanio and commends him highly. However, Nerissa does not shy away from speaking her mind. When Portia laments the unfairness of the casket test, Nerissa reminds Portia to be grateful that her father cared enough about her future to plan for it.
Much like Portia, Nerissa is playful and manipulative. While disguised as a male law clerk after Antonio’s trial, she asks her husband, Gratiano, to give her his wedding ring. She later reveals the trick and scolds her husband for giving away a symbol of their devotion so easily. This test allows her to assert power over her husband and ensure that he remains faithful to her.
Launcelot Gobbo begins the play as Shylock’s servant and ends it as Bassanio’s servant. He is a bright young man who enjoys wordplay. He resents the treatment he receives from Shylock and helps Jessica elope with Lorenzo. Launcelot’s testimony helps create contrast between Shylock and Bassanio: whereas Shylock is described as miserly and devilish, Bassanio is hailed as a generous and kind master.
Old Gobbo is Launcelot’s aged, blind father. He cares deeply for his son, going so far as to bring gifts to Shylock, Launcelot’s master. When Launcelot wants to become Bassanio’s servant instead, Old Gobbo agrees to help him.
The Duke of Venice
The Duke of Venice is responsible for upholding Venetian law. Since Shylock’s bond is legally binding, the Duke is unable to deny his right to a pound of Antonio’s flesh. However, he is clearly displeased with Shylock and attempts to convince Shylock to take mercy on Antonio. After Portia dismantles Shylock’s suit against Antonio and accuses Shylock of breaking the law, the Duke makes a show of pardoning Shylock. However, the Duke’s insistence that Shylock humble himself before the court is vindictive and spiteful. Furthermore, by taking Shylock’s money, the Duke takes away his livelihood. This highlights the Duke’s anti-Semitism and his desire to maintain the social status quo in Venice.
The Prince of Morocco
The Prince of Morocco is one of Portia’s suitors. He is described as having dark skin, which Portia disdains. During the casket test, he chooses the gold casket after assuming that Portia is what “many men desire.” Upon opening it, he finds a skull with a note that reads “not all that glisters is gold.” Morocco’s incorrect choice represents the tendency of suitors to treat Portia like an object of desire rather than a human being.
The Prince of Arragon
The Prince of Arragon is one of Portia’s suitors. During the casket test, he chooses the silver chest because he assumes that he deserves Portia. Upon opening the chest, he finds a picture of a fool. The note attached to the picture disparages Arragon for assuming he deserves anything at all. Arragon’s incorrect choice represents the entitlement of Portia’s suitors, who believe they deserve her based on their wealth or station.
Salerio and Salanio
Salerio and Salanio are Venetian merchants and friends of Bassanio and Antonio. They are very materialistic and assume that Antonio’s melancholy stems from worry over the status of his investments. They share Antonio’s anti-Semitism and show contempt for Shylock. They help Jessica and Lorenzo escape from Shylock’s house. After Shylock declares his intent to collect his pound of flesh, Salerio travels to Belmont to deliver the news to Bassanio.
Salerio and Salanio primarily exist to add exposition to the play through their roles as messengers and conspirators in the plot to help Jessica escape. When they report news to other characters, they are also reporting that news to the audience.
Tubal is a wealthy Jewish man and a friend of Shylock’s. After Jessica elopes with Lorenzo, Tubal follows the couple to Genoa. He reports back to Shylock about their activities. Tubal also informs Shylock of Antonio’s impending bankruptcy.
Balthasar is one of Portia’s servants. Portia sends Balthasar to Padua with a letter for her cousin Bellario, a lawyer. Balthasar delivers the letter and returns with disguises for Portia and Nerissa to use in court. Portia adopts Balthasar’s name while in disguise as a lawyer.
Leonardo is one of Bassanio’s servants.
Stephano is one of Portia’s servants.
Unlock This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.
- 30,000+ book summaries
- 20% study tools discount
- Ad-free content
- PDF downloads
- 300,000+ answers
- 5-star customer support