The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare

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Act I Commentary

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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 become critical in Act IV, scene 1, and her playfulness, which also appears later on in the play. Also, Portia's desire to act, which is in direct contrast to Antonio's sad resignation to his situation, gives her the impetus to solve the problem of the bond.

Another character parallel that occurs in this scene is that of Nerissa and Gratiano. In scene 1, Gratiano gives a great deal of advice to Antonio to cheer him up, and Nerissa does the same in order to comfort her mistress. Nerissa's advice, much like Gratiano's, do not necessarily make much sense, and we begin to see by the end of the scene why it is that these two characters will become engaged by the end of Act II.

Scene iii : Shylock, the antagonist of the play, makes his first appearance...

(This entire section contains 1116 words.)

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in this scene. Bassanio, in an effort to secure the 3,000 ducats he needs in order to woo Portia, resorts to borrowing from Shylock. The Christian community of Venice hates Shylock because he is a Jew and because he charges interest when he lends money. Antonio in particular demonstrates a great deal of contempt for Shylock in this scene, despite the fact that Bassanio is attempting to convince Shylock to lend him money. When Shylock reminds Antonio that Antonio has insulted him frequently in the Rialto, often calling him a dog, Antonio replies:

"I am as like to call thee so again, To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too. If thou wilt lend this money, lend it not As to thy friends... But lend it rather to thine enemy, Who if he break, thou mayst with better face Exact the penalty" (ll. 126-133).

Antonio's dislike of Shylock, although they have never met until this scene, will not be abated even if Shylock agrees to lend money to Bassanio. This hatred of Jews by Christians was typical in Shakespeare's day, and would not have been questioned by an Elizabethan audience.

The religious prejudice in this play is not, however, one-sided. Shylock also hates Antonio, as he reveals in an aside in the scene:

"I hate him for he is a Christian; But more, for that in low simplicity He lends out money gratis and brings down The rate of usance here with us in Venice" (ll. 37-41).

Shylock, then, has two reasons for hating Antonio—his religion and, more importantly to Shylock, his status as a competitor. Antonio's refusal to lend out money for interest has damaged Shylock's business, which is why Shylock hopes to use this opportunity to avenge himself upon Antonio. With that vengeance and the insults of Antonio in mind, the bond proposed in this scene becomes extremely problematic. Shylock proposes that Antonio give him a pound of flesh if he fails to fulfill his part of the contract—a proposition which horrifies Bassanio but amuses and relieves Antonio. It is not clear whether or not Shylock actually intends to exact this payment at this point in the play. Shylock wants revenge for the damage to his business and for the ill treatment he receives, and he knows that a good deal of Antonio's wealth is at sea, which can be a great risk. However, Antonio does have three months to repay the debt, and Shylock does not know that all of Antonio's fortunes are dependent upon his sea trade. This topic is also complicated by the evolving ideas of the role of Shylock over the centuries. Shylock has been portrayed as a buffoon and stock character, but has more recently been seen as a victim of racism and cruelty. Critics who support the latter view have often argued that it is unlikely that Shylock expects that Antonio would forfeit the contract at this point. However, if Shylock is a buffoon, then he may most certainly expect to secure a pound of Antonio's flesh. Shakespeare, of course, does not give us a clear answer on the subject.

Act II Commentary

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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 scene draws contrasts between the Jewish mindset, as represented by Shylock, and the dominant Christian behaviors in Venice. Shylock, who prefers not to dine with Christians, has agreed to eat with Bassanio and Antonio in order to seal the bond. Shylock, who believes in omens, has a dream about moneybags, which he considers bad luck, and does not want to go to dinner, although he chooses to. Meanwhile, Shylock orders Jessica not to participate in the masque that will come, and to lock herself away from the Christians, because he wants to maintain a "sober" house, as opposed to the Christian frivolity about to occur. Not only is Jessica planning on participating in the frivolity, as we know from the previous scene, but she will become a member of the community by marrying Lorenzo.

Scene vi: Love is not always as devoted as it should be in this scene. Lorenzo, who has ordered his friends to meet him at Shylock's house, is late, which Gratiano notes as odd because lovers are usually early. Jessica, on the other hand, tests Lorenzo's love one last time before leaving. She also is embarrassed to be seen as a boy, which should not be her primary thought while she is eloping with her lover. However, both get underway despite this with a good deal of Shylock's money and jewels.

Scene vii: In this scene, the prince of Morocco makes his choice of the caskets. The inscriptions on the caskets display what love means to different people. To some, love is gaining one's desire, and this is embodied in the gold casket. However, desire is not necessarily love, and those who confuse the two are doomed to unhappiness. It is for this reason that gold is the wrong choice, and Shakespeare warns us with this casket that we should not be fooled by appearances, nor should we be led by our desires, which will only bring death and corruption.

Portia's last comment in this scene is critical. When the prince leaves, Portia says: "A gentle riddance. Draw the curtains, go./Let all of his complexion choose me so" (ll. 78-79). This statement shows Portia's racism, which she attempted to hide in scene 1. Although Portia is arguably the most intelligent and rational character in the play, she is also prejudiced. However, this would have been accepted as normal in Shakespeare's day.

Scene viii: Racism and concern for their friend color this conversation between Salerio and Solanio. Solanio makes fun of Shylock by mimicking his cries for his daughter and his money, and even remarks that the boys of Venice mimicked him as well. It is clear that Solanio and Salerio believe that what bothers Shylock most about the situation is the loss of his money, not his daughter. Because of this, both characters know that Shylock will avenge himself upon Antonio if he can. Salerio and Solanio also recount the parting of Antonio and Bassanio. In their descriptions of the event, both note that Antonio loves Bassanio tremendously, even so far as to "only love the world for him" (l. 50). Expecting Antonio to be depressed once again, the two go off in order to cheer him up.

Scene ix: It is now the Prince of Aragon's turn to choose one of Portia's caskets. He immediately disregards the gold one for the reasons discussed in scene 7. Aragon instead chooses the silver casket, which is engraved with the words "Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves." The problem with this casket is that people too often assume that they deserve more than they actually do, especially in cases of love, where intense feelings often override good judgment. This is the case with Aragon, who believes that he deserves to be rewarded with Portia's hand. His foolishness in believing that he deserves more than he has received is reflected in the blinking idiot's picture found in the casket. Aragon's mistake has provided Portia with the answer to the caskets, which she can then "guide" the right suitor (Bassanio) toward.

Act III Commentary

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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 love should not be an issue of appealing to the senses, but something internal. While this may have been good enough to provide Bassanio with the correct answer, Portia gives him more direct clues through the sounds of the song. The first two lines of the song, which end in "bred" and "head," both rhyme with "lead," which is the correct casket. The mention of the bell in the last line is also meant to recall the idea of lead, which is what bells are made of. This line is repeated in order to reinforce the idea of lead.

Bassanio does indeed choose the lead box, as he determines that appearances or empty promises should not fool him. The lead box, which threatens that "He who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath," is the definition of true love. Love is the willingness to sacrifice oneself for someone else, without the expectation of a reward. Bassanio has learned this lesson twice in the play, not only from Portia's song, but from the actions of Antonio as well. Bassanio lays claim to his nervous love, who then gives him a ring. Portia then exacts a promise from Bassanio that he will never lose the ring, unless he intends to signal the end of their love. This promise will become important at the end of Act IV.

Scene iii: Antonio's arrest in this scene displays more of both his and Shylock's characters. Although Antonio attempts to speak to Shylock, Shylock refuses to hear any of what Antonio has to say. Shylock's excuses for this are that he has sworn an oath on the Sabbath to have the bond, and that, since Antonio has always referred to him as a dog, he will simply fulfill Antonio's expectations. During this exchange, Shakespeare creates a link between Christianity and mercy. The suggestion here is that if Shylock had been Christian, he would have had mercy on Antonio. Since he is not, he will not "yield to Christian intercessors" (ll. 15-16).

Antonio's character is further developed in this short scene as well. Antonio first assumes that the only reason Shylock insists on the bond is that Antonio has hurt him financially in the past. He does not see that his treatment of Shylock influences Shylock's motives in any way. Antonio also gives up on the idea of living in this scene, and allows his depression and resignation to take over. It is Antonio's friends (especially Portia) who save him, as he will do nothing to save himself.

Scene iv: Portia and Nerissa choose to assist in the problems of Antonio in this scene. Like Jessica in Act II, they will both cross dress in order to accomplish what they desire, but unlike Jessica, Portia and Nerissa are not in the least embarrassed about it. Portia especially chooses to put herself at risk in order to help the person who has helped her fiancé.

Scene v: After all of the seriousness of the Antonio-Shylock plot, Shakespeare arranges for more comic relief in this scene. Launcelot teases Jessica by insisting that she is damned for the sins of her parents, especially her father. While he is most certainly joking, Launcelot's comments are typical of the Elizabethan attitude toward non-Christians. However, Jessica has become Christian by marrying Lorenzo, which is a vast "improvement," although it will raise the price of pork.

There is also a small hint of the issue of racism in this scene. Lorenzo informs Launcelot that one of the servants, a Moor (African), is pregnant with Launcelot's child. Instead of being concerned, Launcelot laughs and jokes about the situation. The intimation here is that he need not take the Moor's pregnancy seriously because she is African.

Act IV Commentary

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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 pound of flesh, nor does he feel that he needs further justification. When the duke asks him how he dares to expect mercy when he gives none, Shylock's response is that he has done nothing wrong:

"What judgment shall I dread, doing no wrong?... The pound of flesh which I demand of him Is dearly bought, is mine, and I will have it" (ll. 89, 99-100).

Shylock's argument, then, is that he has the law on his side, and he does not need to concern himself with issues of morality or the true nature of justice. Shylock's error here is that he insists on the law as words, but not intent. He also rejects the notion of mercy, which will become problematic for him later on in the scene.

When Portia determines that the only way out of the bond is for Shylock to be merciful, she delivers another of Shakespeare's famous speeches. Shylock asks why he must be merciful, and Portia replies that mercy cannot be compelled, but must be given freely, as it is given freely by kings and by God because it is a royal attribute. Portia also points out that although Shylock asks for justice, he should consider that if God only considered justice and not mercy, no one would ever be saved. Because of this, we should show mercy as well. However, Shylock is bent upon revenge, and refuses to hear Portia's arguments.

Without the mercy of Shylock, Portia must find a legal way to help Antonio out of his predicament. When Bassanio begs her "to do a great right" in releasing Antonio by doing "a little wrong" by bending the law, Portia refuses because it will set a precedent that could destroy the Venetian legal system. She then carefully examines the bond, and stalls by allowing Antonio to say farewell to his friend. This gives Portia time to notice that the bond does not mention blood (although Shylock intended to have blood along with the flesh), nor does it allow for more or less than one pound of flesh. Because Shylock insists on the letter of the law, Portia insists upon it as well, and Shylock is incapable of exacting his penalty because he cannot do so without taking blood or cutting exactly one pound. Then, in accordance with the law, Portia informs Shylock that any alien seeking the life of a citizen loses all of his possessions and his life is forfeit. Thus Portia's warning about being merciful for the sake of needing mercy comes true, and it is Shylock who requires mercy by the end of the scene.

The last section of the scene might be viewed as Portia's revenge for a comment Bassanio makes about her. When Antonio makes his farewell speech to Bassanio, Bassanio states that he would sacrifice Portia in order to save Antonio, clearly showing that his affections for Antonio are stronger than those for his wife. Portia, as the judge, asks for the ring she gave Bassanio in Act III, scene 2 as a reward for helping his friend. This is a test of Bassanio's love for Portia, and he fails it by giving up the ring at Antonio's behest. Portia will use the ring to teach Bassanio a valuable lesson about love in Act V.

Scene ii: While Portia finishes the final paperwork for the case, Nerissa decides that she will test her husband, Gratiano, by attempting to gain his ring from him, which he promised to keep just as Bassanio had done. During the previous scene, Gratiano expressed a wish that his wife were dead so that she could ask God to help Antonio—a comment that Nerissa did not appreciate. Nerissa decides to join in on Portia's, and does succeed in obtaining Gratiano's ring.

Act V Commentary

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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. Bassanio arrives and introduces Portia to Antonio. The ring plot then comes to the surface when Nerissa and Gratiano fight over the loss of Nerissa's ring. Gratiano first attempts to dismiss the situation by calling the ring worthless and trite, but Nerissa dismisses that by reminding him that it is not the material value of the ring, but the emotional value, that is important. She then insists that a girl has it (which we know to be true). Portia then blames Gratiano for the quarrel, stating that she knows that her husband would never make the same mistake. Of course, Gratiano tells Portia that Bassanio has given up the ring, most likely to absolve himself of some of the blame. After some jokes about the ladies sleeping with the so-called "doctor" and "clerk," Bassanio and Gratiano learn their lesson and promise to properly value their wives. Antonio finds that his ships have come to harbor, and everyone, except the Jews of the play, have a happy ending.


The Merchant of Venice


Critical Evaluation