The Merchant of Venice Critical Commentary - Essay

William Shakespeare

Act I Commentary

Scene i: Scene 1 introduces one of the major plot points of the play as well as several of the key characters. When Antonio, Salerio, and Solanio enter at the beginning of the scene, they are in the midst of a discussion about why Antonio is depressed. This "sadness," which Antonio claims to not know the source of, becomes clear when he reveals to Bassanio that all of his fortunes are tied up to his ships out at sea. It should also be noted that Antonio lies to Salerio and Solanio, who both assume that Antonio is worried about his trade until Antonio reassures them that "My ventures are not in one bottom trusted//Nor to one place...Therefore my merchandise makes me not sad" (ll. 42-45). Antonio is well aware that the practice of placing all of one's fortunes on sea trade is treacherous, and because of this is unwilling to admit his situation to anyone but Bassanio.

Antonio's willingness to admit his troubles to Bassanio also indicates the closeness of their relationship. Antonio not only confides in Bassanio, but he often reciprocates by helping Bassanio with his problems, especially the financial ones:

"To you, Antonio,
I owe the most in money and in love,
And from your love I have a warranty
To unburden all my plots and purposes
How to get clear of all the debts I owe" (ll. 130-134).

Bassanio, then, has depended on Antonio several times before for both financial and emotional support. It is because of this history that the main plot of the play is set into motion. Bassanio comes to Antonio in this scene in order to borrow more money so that he can pursue Portia. Unfortunately, Antonio has no money to give him, but tells Bassanio to borrow upon Antonio's credit to get the sum that he needs. This is the first example of Antonio's willingness to sacrifice himself for Bassanio, and it is what leads Antonio into the bond that jeopardizes his life.

Scene ii: There are some key comparisons between characters that are made in this scene. Like Antonio in scene 1, Portia begins the scene by discussing her "sadness," which is attributed to her marital situation. Another parallel between the two characters is that, like Antonio, Portia cannot take action—she must accept the suitor who chooses the right box, much like Antonio can do nothing but wait until his ships return. Portia also shows a preference for Bassanio, whom she has seen once before. However, unlike Antonio, Portia displays a good deal of wit in this scene in order to alleviate her sadness, and while she is distressed at the situation, she also takes the opportunity to ridicule her suitors. Her insults show her great intelligence, a trait that will...

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Act II Commentary

Scene i: The Prince of Morocco, who is African, begs Portia to not be prejudiced against him because of his complexion. While Portia indicates that she does not dislike him any more than any of the other suitors who have come to call, we know from her statements in Act I, scene 2, that she does not like any of the suitors so far, making this a misleading statement that will become clear later in Act II.

Scene ii: This scene functions as comic relief. Launcelot Gobbo, who is about to leave Shylock's employment and attempt to work for Bassanio, first argues with himself as to whether or not he should run away from Shylock. He decides to follow the "fiend" and run, despite the loyalty that he should owe to his master. On the way to Bassanio, Launcelot encounters his blind father and decides to trick him by telling him that his son is dead. These two actions show that although Launcelot, although Christian, does not necessarily act like one. However, since he is one of the clowns of the play, he will not be condemned for it.

Meanwhile, the other "clown" of the play, Gratiano, begs Bassanio to take him along on the trip to Belmont. Bassanio, knowing Gratiano's temper and playfulness, warns him that he had better behave and not interfere with Bassanio's pursuit of Portia. This is another example of the comic Christian who, although he does not behave the way he is expected to, will not be punished because he is a clown.

Scene iii: This scene introduces Jessica, Shylock's daughter, who is about to elope with Lorenzo, a friend of Antonio and Bassanio. This scene demonstrates some aspects of Shylock's character as well as furthering the subplot of the Jessica-Lorenzo relationship. Jessica expresses both her sorrow at losing Launcelot and her hatred of living with her father by commenting that her home is "hell" and that Launcelot alleviated some of the problems with his humor. She also reveals that she is ashamed to be her father's daughter and that she is nothing like him. All of this would indicate that the Venetian dislike of Shylock is justified, because his own daughter does not like him. Jessica even goes so far as to plan on becoming Christian when she elopes with Lorenzo.

Scene iv: The plans for the elopement of Jessica and Lorenzo are solidified in this scene. Lorenzo, while planning with Gratiano, Salerio, and Solanio, receives Jessica's letter from Launcelot, which explains how to get her out of the house. The irony of the plan is that Jessica must break some rules in order to succeed: she must dress as a torchbearer (or cross dress, as torchbearers are male), and she will participate in a masque, which her father will forbid her to even watch in the next scene. Jessica, then, will act like a Christian in order to marry and actually become one.

Scene v: This...

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Act III Commentary

Scene i: Act III is typically the turning point of Shakespeare's plays, and this play is no exception. Scene 1 is the turning point in the Antonio-Shylock plot. The first part of the scene is an exchange of insults between Salerio, Solanio, and Shylock. Salerio and Solanio, like Antonio, feel no need to spare Shylock's feelings over the loss of his daughter and part of his fortune, and take the opportunity to tease Shylock over his misfortunes. This is typical treatment for Shylock in the Venetian business world because of his religion. Shylock bemoans this treatment in one of the famous speeches from this play:

"Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands,
organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?—fed
with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means...
If you prick us, do we not bleed? And
If you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you
In the rest, we will resemble you in that" (ll. 51-59).

Shylock expounds the hypocrisy of the Christian treatment of Jews, who are just as human despite being of a different faith. Salerio and Solanio's reminder to Shylock of Antonio's misfortunes at sea provide Shylock with the means of revenge for the ill treatment that he has suffered in the name of his religion.

Shylock is not, however, completely sympathetic in this scene. Upon receiving the report from Tubal about Jessica, Shylock fervently wished that his daughter were dead instead of spending his money. Although the loss of his daughter appears to hurt Shylock, it is clear in this scene that the loss of his jewels and money bothers him more. Enraged at the report and sustained by Tubal's news of Antonio's last ship becoming shipwrecked near Tripoli, Shylock chooses to arrest Antonio and exact his forfeiture as his revenge for his losses.

Scene ii: This scene is the turning point in the Portia-Bassanio plot of the play. Having spent time with Bassanio, Portia, who is now in love with him, begs him to delay his choice so that she may spend more time with him. Bassanio, however, lives "upon the rack" in a state of impatience, partially because he is in love with Portia and longs to have the matter resolved once and for all, but also because he knows he must repay Antonio as quickly as possible.

During Bassanio's examination of the caskets, Portia provides her lover with a vital clue to the correct box through the song. The song's meaning indicates that...

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Act IV Commentary

Scene i: This is the climax of the play. Although every character in the room, except Antonio, attempts to persuade Shylock to be merciful, the treatment of Shylock is no better than it has been throughout the entire play. Gratiano constantly insults him, Bassanio criticizes him, the Duke constantly refers to him as "Jew," and even Antonio, who needs Shylock's mercy, calls him hard-hearted. In fact, the only character in the scene that treats Shylock in a respectful manner is Portia.

Respectful or not, Shylock is determined to have his bond. When Shylock explains why, he merely says that it is what he desires because he does not like Antonio and the law is on his side. He has no other reason for demanding the...

(The entire section is 753 words.)

Act V Commentary

Scene i: This final scene, which is often viewed as comic because of the resolution of the rings, begins with Jessica and Lorenzo, who appear to be in the middle of a disagreement. Jessica is upset and depressed, and claims that Lorenzo stole her soul with false vows. A messenger comes to temporarily disrupt this argument to notify Lorenzo of Bassanio's impending return. However, even when Lorenzo orders music, Jessica's spirits are still not lifted, and her last comment in the play is that she is not merry when she hears music. The last impression of Jessica, then, is one of depression and anger, which does not fit with the lightness of the rest of the scene.

Once the other characters enter, the mood shifts....

(The entire section is 292 words.)