The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare

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Essential Passage by Character: Antonio

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Give me your hand, Bassanio: fare you well!
Grieve not that I am fallen to this for you;
For herein Fortune shows herself more kind
Than is her custom: it is still her use,
To let the wretched man out-live his wealth,
To view with hollow eye, and wrinkled brow,
An age of poverty; from which lingering penance
Of such misery doth she cut me off.
Commend me to your honourable wife:
Tell her the process of Antonio's end,
Say, how I lov'd you, speak me fair in death;
And, when the tale is told, bid her be judge
Whether Bassanio had not once a love.
Repent not you that you shall lose your friend,
And he repents not that he pays your debt;
For, if the Jew do cut but deep enough,
I'll pay it instantly with all my heart.
Act 4, Scene 1, Lines 272-288


Shylock, upon learning that Antonio’s ships have been lost at sea and all his wealth with them, has brought Antonio to trial to force him to pay the forfeit on his loan. The forfeit is a pound of Antonio's flesh, taken from that nearest his heart. Although Bassanio, newly married and with access to his wife Portia’s wealth, has offered to pay double or triple the amount of the loan, Shylock refuses. At this point, Shylock is not out for money: he is out for revenge. In the past, Antonio has looked down upon Shylock as a Jew and condemned him for usury (lending money and profiting by charging interest). This humiliation, coupled with the humiliation he has suffered as a Jew at the hands of a Christian, makes Shylock want to see Antonio die.

On top of this hatred, Shylock is bitter because his only child and daughter, Jessica, has eloped with Lorenzo, a friend of Antonio and also a Christian. This desertion by his child to join the realm of the Christians has made him more than eager to inflict punishment on the first Christian he can legally get his hands on—in this case, Antonio.

At the trial, Portia arrives disguised as a male lawyer (doctor of the law), to speak on Antonio’s behalf. The trial is held in the court overseen by the Duke of Venice, who has no choice but to try Antonio for his breaking of the contracted agreement that he willingly made with Shylock. Yet Portia pleads for mercy. Agreeing that the Duke cannot intercede because of the implications such interference would have on the legal system of Venice, Portia appeals to Shylock’s better nature. Yet Shylock refuses and the court is forced to grant Shylock his request.

The time has come for Antonio to pay the forfeit. He bares his chest, since according to their agreement, the pound of flesh must come from the area closest to his heart. This will mean almost certain death. Portia calls for a surgeon to be standing by, but Shylock objects because this was not detailed in the contract. Shylock has made sure to word the contract in such a way that there will be no room for Antonio to wriggle out of the punishment.

Knowing he is meeting his death, Antonio prepares to say good-bye. His first farewell is to Bassanio, his dearest friend. He tells Bassanio not to grieve that Antonio is dying for Bassanio. He states that Fortune in this case is kind by letting him die at the moment he becomes poor. Many men live long past the moment when poverty overtakes them, suffering want and deprivation. Antonio is mercifully spared that. He also commends himself to Bassanio’s wife, Portia. He wants his friend to tell her of the deep friendship that her husband and Antonio had shared.

Antonio, out of his friendship, does not regret dying for Bassanio. To the last, he maintains his sense of humor, saying that will pay it “with all his heart,” a double meaning of paying willingly as well as literally with his heart.


As he says good-bye to his friends, Antonio is grateful that he will not have to suffer the deprivations of his newly acquired poverty. In one sense, he seems to love money more than life. What is life without wealth? In this, he mirrors Shylock. Shylock is presented as a stereotype of the “money-loving Jew.” Shylock thinks more of the money missing with his daughter Jessica than his daughter herself, and Antonio would rather face death than poverty.

Antonio’s wealth has made him overconfident of his stability. He had been secure in knowing that all his finances had been invested in three separate ships. Therefore, he believes, the loss of one would not devastate him. He could not imagine the possibility of losing all three, as now appears to be the case. This trust in the security of his money parallels Shylock’s trust in the security of money that he is owed.

Yet more than money, Antonio has staked his life on a different commodity, namely friendship. His relationship with Bassanio mirrors the ancient biblical definition of friendship. In the Bible, Jesus says, “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Also, the Stoic Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger states, “What is my object in making a friend? To have someone to be able to die for, someone I may follow into exile, someone for whose life I may put myself up as security and pay the price as well” (Letters From a Stoic, Letter IX). In a very literal sense, Antonio is the personification of Seneca’s definition of a friend.

In this way, Antonio serves as a Christ-figure. He willingly lays down his life for that of another. His self-sacrifice in the place of Bassanio presents him as a redeemer, someone who, according to the legal definition, purchases the debt of another. The pound of flesh being near his heart is symbolic of the emotional and spiritual price that is paid for another out of friendship.

However, unlike a strict Christ-figure, Antonio is “resurrected” not by the fulfillment of the law, but because of Shylock’s inability to fulfill it in the strictest interpretation, which he has insisted on. Because blood will be shed, the contract cannot be fulfilled. The legalism of the contract that binds Shylock and Antonio is his undoing. He is unable to receive the pound of flesh, but he also loses his wealth and his religion because he is forced to “officially” become a Christian.

Antonio is thus returned to life, so to speak, and like Job in the Old Testament, he has his wealth restored to him as it is revealed that his ships were not in fact lost. Through his offering himself for the redemption of his friend, Antonio receives the reward for his devout friendship.

Essential Passage by Character: Shylock

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I am a Jew: 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,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as 
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you
tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not
die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are
like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew
wrong a Christian, what is his humility? revenge. If a 
Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by
Christian example? why, revenge. The villany you teach
me I will execute; and it shall go hard but I will better
the instruction.
Act 3, Scene 1, Lines 51-63


Solanio and Salarino, two friends of Antonio, have received news that the ship Antonio owns has wrecked in the English Channel. It is a rumor that they hope will prove unfounded (which it will be eventually, but almost too late). As they are discussing the consequences of this loss for Antonio, Shylock approaches. The elopement of his daughter Jessica with Lorenzo, a Christian and a friend of Antonios, has upset him.

Solanio, always eager to provoke the Jew, brags that he knows the tailor who made the page boy disguise that Jessica used to escape from Shylock’s home and onto the boat bound for Belmont. He also taunts Shylock, claiming that he had to know that his daughter was bound to leave home eventually. In reply to Solanio’s jests, Shylock says that Jessica is damned for her desertion. Salarino’s reply is that she will be so only if it is the devil that condemns her. He notes the vast difference between Shylock and his daughter.

To change the subject, Salarino asks Shylock if he has heard of the loss of Antonio’s ship. Shylock’s response is a complaint that this is yet another bad deal he has thrust upon him, one for which he will hold Antonio accountable. As for Antonio’s financial setback, Shylock sees this as a type of divine justice on Antonio, who has lent money without interest, thus taking business away from the Jew.

Seeing that Shylock is chiefly concerned about money, Salarino protests that there is little value in a pound of flesh for Shylock. But Shylock states that he will have that pound of flesh, for Antonio has humiliated him repeatedly in the past. The cause of Antonio’s animosity is simply because Shylock is a Jew.

Shylock then defends himself as both a Jew and as a human being. He compares himself to a Christian and finds little difference between the two. Both have the same physical characteristics (“Hath not a Jew eyes?”), the same emotions, and the same needs. A Jew, like the Christian, is subject to both pain and pleasure. More ominously, the Jew has the same desire for revenge if born out of a righteous anger. Thus Shylock promises to return the revenge he has experienced at the hands of Christians, but it will be of a greater degree than what Christians have meted out.


Shylock is presented in a fairly strict stereotype that was common in Europe at the time (and continued up through the World War II). Money—the gaining and keeping of money—is presented as the primary goal in the life of a Jew. This acquisition of money is usually presented as through less than honorable means, an unfair characterization that was based on the restrictions placed on Jews in the business world. One of the few areas open to Jews (and closed to Christians) was money-lending for interest, otherwise known as usury. For Christians, ursury was restricted because the practice was considered “unbiblical.” However, it was safe for Jews to practice usury because it was believed that they were going to hell anyway.

Anti-Semitism was a standard prejudice in Europe for centuries. Jews were subjected to the same discrimination that African Americans (among others) were in the United States prior to the Civil Rights era. Persecution was legal, accepted, and desirable. Shylock naturally resents the public humiliation that he has been subjected to by the Christians of Venice, especially by Antonio.

At this point, Shylock is faced with an attack on his Jewish heritage from two sources: Antonio and his daughter, Jessica. As a Christian, Antonio has joined with Venetian society in anti-Semitism. This is more understandable to Shylock than his daughter's actions are. By marrying Lorenzo, Jessica is required to renounce her family and her heritage and become a Christian by baptism. This double betrayal of his daughter and his faith increases his resentment and anger against Christian society, personified by Antonio.

In his rage against anti-Semitism, Shylock asserts his humanity and his equality with Christians. In the most famous passage from the play, Shylock bit by bit proclaims himself just as good, and just as bad, as any Christian. Physically he is the same. He is not a “lower order” of creature. He is subject to the same emotions, having the same hopes, dreams, and values as a Christian. His needs are identical, thus requiring him to be able to earn his living by one of the few avenues left to him by the Christian legal system. And most of all, he has the same power for revenge.

The Old Testament, which Shylock as a Jew clings to, provides for revenge in the form of the adage “an eye for an eye.” Yet Shylock means to go beyond the belief system that he holds as the reason for his discrimination. Shylock wants “a life for an eye.”

Shylock is portrayed as desiring money more than life, be it the life of his daughter or that of Antonio. Yet in this passage, he holds his personal honor and dignity of higher worth. Because he has been deprived of these, Antonio must pay with his life. To Shylock, this is not the extravagant payment for a debt. It is an affair of honor. After repeated insults and humiliations, Shylock is calling Antonio out. Yet rather than resorting to the code duello, he is turning to the legal system. Antonio, proclaiming himself a Christian and thus a man of honor, has failed in that honor by not abiding by his word. Shylock feels justified, on the basis of honor, for requiring Antonio to forfeit his life.

Essential Passage by Theme: Racial Enmity

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How like a fawning publican he looks!
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. 
If I can catch him once upon the hip,
I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him.
He hates our sacred nation; and he rails,
Even there where merchants most do congregate,
On me, my bargains, and my well-won thrift, 
Which he calls interest. Cursed be my tribe
If I forgive him!
Act 1, Scene 3, Lines 36-47


Bassanio is in need of 3,000 ducats in order to court the rich heiress Portia. Having lived beyond his means, he turns to his friend Antonio for a loan. Antonio, a rich merchant, is more than happy to help his friend, but Antonio does not have that much money available in cash at the moment. He does, however, have three ships returning to Venice with goods that should more than cover that amount. Though he does not regularly borrow or lend money at interest, he will do so out of his friendship for Bassanio.

Bassanio, with an attempt at good will, acts friendly to Shylock. However, Shylock resists his advances. Shylock has a built-up resentment against Antonio, both for business and personal reasons.

As Antonio approaches the two, Shylock lets his feelings be known in an aside. Addressing the invisible audience, he tells how he hates Antonio first and foremost because he is a Christian. He also hates him as a competitor in a business that Shylock is almost forced into and in which he has an unfair disadvantage. Shylock acknowledges that, in his turn, Antonio hates Shylock because he is a Jew. In fact, according to Shylock, Antonio hates not only him but also the whole Jewish nation. It is for this humiliation that Shylock ultimately refuses to forgive Antonio.

In calling Antonio a “publican,” Shylock is making a reference to a Jewish citizen in the Roman Empire who collected taxes for Rome from his fellow Jews. As recorded in the New Testament, such people were looked upon as traitors to their people. Shylock sees smugness rather than humility in Antonio, and he feels it is not out of kindness that Antonio has lent money interest-free. By doing so, Antonio has lowered the rate of interest that Jews may charge for a loan, thus hurting their livelihood. Antonio’s principles concerning the lending of money is not born out of goodwill but the law. Christians were not allowed to charge interest, which left the practice to the Jews. Because indebtedness was so frowned upon yet so common, Jews were looked upon as cheats and swindlers for the interest that they charged. It is for this reason, as well as for Antonio's hatred of the Jewish people, that Shylock is open to an opportunity for revenge.


The animosity between Shylock and Antonio is a small portrait of the much bigger picture of racial hatred that had been present for centuries, if not millennia. From both sides, a deep-seated distrust of the other race set the stage for cultural collision that finally resulted in World War II in the twentieth century, 350 years after the first performances of this play.

From the Jewish point of view, this enmity and separateness had predated Christianity. By Jewish law, Jews were to consider themselves separate from Gentiles (non-Jews). The identity of the Jews was a focus of protection, with laws in place to shield the people as much as possible from the influence of Gentile nations. First with the Greeks, and then with the Roman conquest of Israel, the Jews ardently protected themselves from the encroachment of Gentile culture on their distinctive way of life.

From the Christian point of view, Jews were blamed for the crucifixion of Jesus. According to the New Testament, Jesus was executed by the Romans for blasphemy because Pontius Pilate, the ruler in Jerusalem, was asked to do so by the Jews. Christians used this reasoning to persecute Jews for their religion throughout history. With the rise of the Roman Catholic Church and its widespread influence over Europe, Jews were routinely banished, imprisoned, forced to convert, or massacred. Jews were banned from England in 1290, France in 1396, Austria in 1421, and Spain in 1492 during the Spanish Inquisition. Few professions, let alone areas, were available or safe for Jewish communities.

While there were racial tensions and a history of hatred on both sides, Christian persecution and subjugation of Jewish populations was enduringly more violent because they were the dominant group in the social and political makeup of Europe.

Shakespeare’s characterization of Shylock can be read as a straightforward stereotype from his time period of the “money-grubbing,” dishonest, swindling, tight-fisted, and miserly Jew who loves money more than everything else. However, one of the major themes in this play is the difference between something’s perceived exterior and its internal reality. The Christians consistently use monetary metaphors to describe relationships and feelings to suggest they are in fact the ones who value money above relationships and religion.

Shylock and the play can be read as straightforward stereotypes and examples of racism in Shakespeare’s time. But the play can also be read as writing against and undermining that stereotype. Shakespeare reminds the audience, however ineffectually during his time period, that Jews are human beings, and that it is important to pay attention to who is in control of the narrative in order to understand how they are shaping the perception of reality.

Essential Passage by Theme: Mercy

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The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth, as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice bless'd;
It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes: 
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway,
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this—
That in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer, doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much,
To mitigate the justice of thy plea,
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence 'gainst the merchant there.
Act 4, Scene 1, Lines 187-208


Antonio appears in court before the Duke of Venice, brought there by Shylock in his attempt to extract the forfeit that Antonio owes for defaulting on his debt. Though Bassanio has three times the amount of the loan to repay Shylock, the moneylender desires instead his revenge by taking the prescribed pound of flesh. Because the contract stipulates that the flesh is to be extracted from “that region closest to his heart,” this will most likely mean Antonio’s death.

Disguised as a male doctor of the law, or attorney, Portia has come to the court. She has acquired not only the clothes of a lawyer but also some legal insight into the case from her acquaintance, Bellario, who is a noted attorney. Bellario has sent a note, at Portia’s instigation, stating that he is not able to attend the court, so he is sending his young but learned associate to take his place.

Portia, pretending ignorance of the participants, asks for the identification of the two principal players. Speaking to Shylock, Portia informs him that, though his case is unusual, it is not against Venetian law and thus must proceed.

Next addressing Antonio, Portia determines that Antonio willfully entered into this agreement, knowing the terms that would apply should he fail to repay the debt at the appropriate time. On these qualifications, Portia in the disguise of the lawyer pronounces that Shylock must be merciful.

Shylock objects, asking why he should be forced to be merciful. Portia replies that mercy cannot be forced. It must be given willingly and gracefully. Such mercy is a benefit to both the one who receives it and to the one who grants it.

The nature of mercy is such that it shows itself greatest in the most noble of people. While a king has power, it is ruled by mercy. Mercy is a gift from God and thus shows people in their best light when they are merciful.

Portia tells Shylock that, though he seeks justice, he should be very careful in its execution. If justice were enforced as much as Shylock himself insists upon, no one would escape its power, she says. All would fall condemned. Therefore, each person seeks mercy from God and should willingly give it to his fellow creatures.

Portia states that her purpose is to attempt to mitigate Shylock’s call for justice that, should he insist, must be enacted against Antonio. Shylock replies that he does insist that the law be carried out. Calling down the consequences of the deeds on his own head, he demands the forfeit that is prescribed by the contract he and Antonio signed.


This passage speaks to the question of the justification of justice. Antonio accepted the terms of the contract, knew full well the consequences, and yet now would like to be released from them. The question of “fairness” arises, as Shylock seeks to get back what is rightfully his.

By rights, the law is on Shylock’s side, as Portia willingly admits. She cannot deny the legality of his case, nor can the Duke interfere except at a terrible consequence to the standing of the Venetian legal system. The notion of “equal justice under law,” despite the fact that Shylock is a “despised Jew,” plays a significant role here. The objective “blind” justice shall judge the validity of the case. It does, and it finds in Shylock’s favor.

And yet Portia pleads for mercy. In this, there is a confrontation between the two “qualities.” Which holds greater weight: justice or mercy? As Portia points out, mercy is an attribute of God himself, and thus has the scent of the divine. Yet justice too falls in the realm of God. Both are at His command, according to the Renaissance understanding of the Bible, so either could be used to justify each position.

As the case is between Jew and Christian, the interplay of justice versus mercy is also paralleled between the two religious bases of the different faiths. The Jews holds to the Old Testament, which is a rule of law. Through sacrifices, tithes, and offerings, the Jew holds himself accountable to the law as dictated by God to Moses. Through a strict adherence to the letter of the law, the individual Jew can be “righteous” before God. Thus Shylock’s position is an appropriate representation of the Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament.

Portia, however, holds to mercy, which is more akin to the teachings of the New Testament. The Christian position is that Christ set people free from the strictures of the law and thus they are able to receive God’s mercy. It is not through a rigid following of a set of laws that the Christian is considered “righteous,” but by the mercy and grace of God. He is saved not because he deserves it, but because God has removed the consequences of his sin. This then is Portia’s defense. It is beyond the mere trial of a legal contract. It is a battle between the Old Testament and the New Testament.

Paradoxically, it is not through mercy that Antonio is freed but through the legal wrangling of Portia. By sticking to the letter of the law and to justice, she presents to Shylock the choice of whether to demand that the law be followed, at the cost of all his wealth, or that he drop his claim. Shylock chooses to drop his demands for the pound of flesh. However, rather than show mercy, Portia brings up the law again, which demands that anyone who makes an attempt on another person’s life forfeit his wealth. This Shylock is forced to do, as well as become a Christian. But the manner in which he embraces the faith is a purely legalistic manner, since it is an outward compliance when it should be a matter of the heart. Thus by appealing to the Christian doctrine of mercy, Portia descends back into the Jewish viewpoint of the justice of the law.

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