The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare

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Figurative language and poetic devices in The Merchant of Venice


The Merchant of Venice employs various figurative language and poetic devices, including metaphors, similes, and personification. Shakespeare uses these elements to enhance the emotional impact and thematic depth of the play. For instance, Shylock's famous speech "Hath not a Jew eyes?" uses rhetorical questions and vivid imagery to emphasize his humanity and plea for justice.

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What figures of speech are in Act 1, Scene 2 of The Merchant of Venice?

Act 1, scene 2, of The Merchant of Venice contains many different figures of speech that display Portia’s wit as well as her disdain for her suitors. Examples of various figures of speech include the following.


Portia does not want to marry, even if it is her late father’s wish. If it weren’t for her father’s will, she believes, “If I live to be as old as Sibylla, I will die as chaste as Diana.”

Sibylla is a prophetess famous for her extreme old age; Apollo granted her as many years of life as there are grains in a handful of sand. Diana is the Roman goddess of virtue and chastity.


Portia describes the Neapolitan prince through an extended metaphor:

Ay, that's a colt indeed, for he doth nothing but talk of his horse; and he makes it a great appropriation to his own good parts, that he can shoe him himself. I am much afeard my lady his mother played false with a smith.

Portia compares him to a colt, a young, uncastrated male horse; he talks only about his horse and wears accessories like a horse (“he can shoe himself”), and Portia jokes that perhaps his mother had an affair with a blacksmith to result in his character.

In another metaphor, Portia compares a wild hare to youthful irrationality that jumps over and escapes the net (“meshes”) of reason:

such a hare is madness the youth, to skip o'er the meshes of good counsel the cripple.

Finally, Portia declares to Nerissa, “I will do anything, Nerissa, ere I'll be married to a sponge.” Any suitor she has met up to this point is as dull and lifeless as a sponge.


Nerissa advises Portia, “superfluity comes sooner by white hairs, but competency lives longer.” White hairs represent an elderly person; Nerissa tells Portia that excess ages a person quickly, while sufficiency and moderation lead to a longer life.


This figure of speech contains two parts. Words, grammatical constructions, or ideas of the first part are repeated in reverse order in the second part. This balanced construction illustrates a clever opposition of closely related ideas. Portia demonstrates her wit and intelligence with a statement like the following:

I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done, than be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching.

She later describes Falconbridge, the young baron of England with a short chiasmus: “he understands not me, nor I him.”

Finally, she characterizes the Duke of Saxony's nephew this way:

when he is best, he is a little worse than a man, and when he is worst, he is little better than a beast ...


Portia describes the frustrating fluctuations of youthful emotions:

The brain may devise laws for the blood, but a hot temper leaps o’er a cold decree ...

While the brain is personified as a lawmaker, one’s temper is personified as a law-breaker who “leaps” over an order or decree.


Portia uses two meanings of the word will (a person’s desire versus a legal document declaring a deceased person’s wishes) when she says, “so is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father.”


When rejecting the Neapolitan prince and the County Palatine, Portia exaggerates (or maybe illustrates accurately) her desire not to wed them with a hyperbolic statement:

I had rather be married to a death's-head with a bone in his mouth than to either of these.

In other words, she would rather be married to a corpse than to either of them.

Another hyperbole is Portia’s characterization of Monsieur Le Bon’s multiple personalities:

if I should marry him, I should marry twenty husbands.


Portia emphasizes how awful the Duke of Saxony’s nephew is by describing him as behaving

Very vilely in the morning, when he is sober, and most vilely in the afternoon, when he is drunk.

The repetition of v sounds creates a rough and unpleasant effect.


Nerissa uses this figure of speech (where words are repeated at the beginning of successive clauses, phrases, or sentences) to stress to Portia actions she should take with regard to the Duke of Saxony's nephew:

If he should offer to choose, and choose the right casket, you should refuse to perform your father's will, if you should refuse to accept him.

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What are the poetic devices in Act 1, Scene 3 and Act 4, Scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice?

The Merchant of Venice revolves around the polarity between the avarice for gold and the Christian qualities of mercy and compassion that lie beneath the flesh. Of course, Shakespeare's manipulation of language is extraordinary, providing humor and shock, both.

In what is considered the most complicated scene in the development of Act I, Scene 3 introduces the focal point of the play: the proposal that Antonio borrow three thousand ducats from the usurer Shylock, a Venetian Jew who charges interest and is loathed by the Christians for his unethical conduct. But, Shylock is a comic villain as he rails against Antonio, using a simile: "How like a fawning publican he looks!" (l.36), and a metaphor "I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him" (l.42) in which "feed fat" is an unstated comparison of fueling/increasing his hatred for Antonio. He then draws a comparison between his ways of making money and Jacob's method of obtaining sheep from another man, one that Antonio ridicules.  Antonio advises Bassanio to be wary of Shylock's specious argument as he metaphorically compares Shylock to the devil and then employs a simile using "like":

The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
An evil soul producing holy witness
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek;
A goodly apple rotten at the heart;
O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath! (1.3.97-101)

Of course, Shylock's monolgue in retaliation for the insults of Antionio contains figurative language. You call me,—misbeliever, cut-throat dog, [metaphor](l.110) ....

You, that did void your rheum upon my beard,
And foot me, as you spurn a stranger cur [simile] (ll.116-117)

Shall I bend low, and in a bondman's key,
With 'bated breath, and whispering humbleness,[metaphors for being humble] (ll.122-124)

In Act IV, Scene 1, after a humorous scene, the climax of the play comes.  In this scene are what are considered Shylock's two greatest achievements. Both directed at Venice--the "gaping pig" rhapsody and the oration on Venetian slavery.  In lines 51-53, Shylock uses personification, 

...for affection,
Master of passion, sways it to the mood
Of what it likes, or loathes.

Then, in his speech on slavery, Shylock uses similes:

You have among you many a purchas'd slave,
Which, like your asses, and your dogs, and mules,
You use in abject and in slavish parts, (ll.91-93)

let their beds
Be made as soft as yours, and let their palates
Be season'd with such viands? (ll.94-96)

Antonio, too, uses figurative language as his expresses his plight with a metaphor:

I am a tainted wether of the flock,
Meetest for death; the weakest kind of fruit
Drops earliest to the ground, and so let me: (ll.116-118)

Despite the vituperations and conflicts between Shylock and Antonio, there is a certain ambivalence where there really are no victories. 

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What figurative language is used in Act 2, Scene 7 of The Merchant of Venice?

Engraved on all three of the caskets are the riddles or conundrums Portia's suitors have to solve in order to win her hand in marriage. Because they are riddles, their language is figurative, not literal: the suitors have to figure out the underlying meaning of the words.

When the Prince of Morocco asks to see again "this saying graved in gold" (meaning the engraving on the gold chest, which reads "Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire"), Shakespeare uses both imagery and alliteration. We can visualize the saying engraved in gold on the casket, which is imagery. The repetition of the "g" at the beginning of "graved" and "gold" is alliterative, as is the repetition of the same "g" sound when the prince reads the words "all that glitters is not gold."

The prince uses hyperbole, or exaggeration, when he declares that all the world desires Portia and when he refers to her as a "saint." This shows that he is not the right match for her, as he idealizes her and puts her on a pedestal.

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What figurative language is used in Act 2, Scene 7 of The Merchant of Venice?

This scene is relatively short, featuring only Portia, the Prince of Morocco, and their trains, with the majority of the dialogue afforded to the Prince. However, there is significant use of figurative language, revolving around the literal symbols of the caskets the Prince must choose between for Portia's love. The caskets themselves are engraved with statements which personify them, such as "Who chooseth me."

"A golden mind stoops not to shows of dross," the Prince says; he is not speaking of a literally golden mind but of one figuratively pure enough to be above "dross." Later, he says, "never so rich a gem was set in worse than gold," referring to Portia as a gem too beautiful to have been set in silver or lead.

Portia, however, questions the Prince's judgment: "All that glitters is not gold." She is saying both that beautiful things are not always pure, as gold is, and that pure things do not always appear as gold.

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