Detailed Synopsis of ‘The Merchant of Venice’

Act One: Antonio, the merchant of Venice, tells Salerio and Solanio that he feels sad and wearied for reasons he can’t understand.  His friends suggest that he’s worried about the ships carrying his money and goods: what if they’re lost at sea?  He says he isn’t worried about that.

Solanio imagines Antonio could be in love: he rejects the idea as absurd.

Bassanio and Gratiano enter.  Gratiano, a well-meaning, though rather rude and tactless fellow, prates about nonsense with Antonio until Bassanio stops him and apologizes for him.

Then Bassanio tells Antonio of his wish to marry a beautiful, wealthy heiress named Portia; he says she, having all the virtues of Brutus’ wife (see my synopsis and analysis of Julius Caesar), is aptly named.  Bassanio, however, has spent all his money, and ever in debt, hopes Antonio will lend him some for the trip to Belmont, which is about ten miles from Venice, in Villa Foscari, in Mira.

Antonio would gladly lend his friend all he needs (and without interest), but he himself has none, for he’s waiting for his ships to arrive.  He will, however, be a guarantor to any money-lender Bassanio can find in Venice; so they’ll look for a usurer to lend Bassanio 3,000 ducats.

In Belmont, Portia complains to Nerissa, her lady-in-waiting, about the predicament her late father has put her in.  Suitors from all over the Mediterranean and Europe hope to marry her, but she likes none of them (except for a handsome young man named Bassanio!).  She must marry the suitor who chooses the correct one of three caskets, each made of gold, silver, or lead.

What if one of the undesirables chooses the correct one?  She cannot, by oath, refuse him.  What if a desirable man chooses incorrectly?  She cannot, by oath, marry him.  Nor can she aid or deceive any suitor in his choice.

Nerissa comforts her by reminding her of her father’s wisdom; surely his system of three caskets will yield Portia a worthy husband.  Nerissa then asks what Portia thinks of the various suitors: Portia contemptuously dismisses all of them…except Bassanio.

The ladies must go meet a suitor–the prince of Morocco.

Back in Venice, in a public place, Bassanio finds Shylock, a Jewish usurer, to lend him the money.  Knowing Antonio will be Bassanio’s guarantor, Shylock considers the merchant a man of good credit (though not of good character); so Shylock agrees to lend Bassanio 3,000 ducats.  Bassanio invites Shylock to dine with him and Antonio; the Jew says he will do business with them, but neither eat nor pray with them.

When Antonio arrives to cement the deal, Shylock speaks to himself of how much he hates Antonio, not only because he is a Christian, but also because he scorns Shylock’s Jewish faith and lends out money gratis, thus hurting Shylock’s profits.  He hopes he can get an opportunity to trip Antonio up.

Shylock and Antonio begin discussing the deal with polite smiles to mask their mutual hate.  Shylock refers to the story in Genesis of how Jacob cleverly tricked Laban into letting him have the best sheep and goats, and that this was shrewd commerce.  Antonio considers such an interpretation of the Bible story to be a devilish advocacy of taking interest (see Quote #1 of my ‘Analysis of The Merchant of Venice‘), and says instead that God had intended this transaction for divine purposes.

Shylock mentions how Antonio spat on him the previous week, and how he’s often spoken disparagingly of Shylock’s Judaism; now Antonio needs money from a Jew!  Antonio proudly says he’d gladly spite the usurer again, and if Shylock won’t lend the money as a friend, he may do so as an enemy, taking as much interest from Antonio as he pleases if the debt isn’t paid on time.

Shylock pretends that he wishes he and Antonio could be friends; he offers not to require any interest from Antonio if he defaults, and instead–supposedly in jest–would have a pound of Antonio’s flesh, cut from whatever part of his body Shylock chooses.

Antonio happily agrees to this arrangement; he will follow after Shylock to the notary public and sign the bond.  Shylock leaves.  Antonio imagines the Jew is growing kind, and that he may even convert to Christianity one day.

Bassanio, fearing danger to his friend, urges Antonio not to sign the bond.  Antonio reassures him that his boats will arrive well before the due date, with more than enough money to pay the debt.

Act Two: In Portia’s house in Belmont, she and Nerissa meet the prince of Morocco and his followers.  He tells her not to dislike him for his darker skin, since many of the best-regarded virgins of his land have liked his hue.

Still, his aggressive manner frightens Portia, who hopes he’ll choose from the wrong caskets.  He is led to them.

In Venice, Launcelot Gobbo, a comical Christian, doesn’t enjoy working for Shylock.  Gobbo imagines a devil tempting him to end his services to Shylock and work for Christians instead, while his conscience tells him to stay in the Jew’s employ.  He sees his blind father, Old Gobbo, approaching, and for fun, briefly tricks him into thinking he isn’t his son.

Old Gobbo wishes to find and give a present to Shylock, and after Gobbo has had his fun, he takes his father to Bassanio instead of the Jew.  Then Gobbo tells Bassanio he wishes to work for him instead.  Bassanio agrees to hire him.

Gratiano wishes to join Bassanio on his trip to Belmont.  Bassanio tells Gratiano to be tactful in Belmont, so as not to endanger Bassanio’s hopes of winning Portia.  Gratiano promises he’ll watch his words.

In Shylock’s home, Gobbo knows of how Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, secretly wishes to elope with and marry the Christian Lorenzo.  Arrangements have been made to get her out of Shylock’s house that night, while he’s at dinner with Antonio and Bassanio, to give the latter the 3,000 ducats.

Jessica knows it’s shameful to scorn her own father, but she yearns to convert to Christianity and be Lorenzo’s wife.  Shylock commands her to keep the windows of his house closed while he’s out, since he doesn’t want her “to gaze on Christian fools.”  He doesn’t want to go out, for he knows the Christians aren’t his true friends; still, he leaves anyway.

That night, Lorenzo, Salerio, and Solanio come to Shylock’s house to get Jessica, who is disguised as a boy and embarrassed about it (see Quote #2 from my ‘Analysis’).  She steals small caskets of Shylock’s ducats and leaves with the men.

Back in Belmont, the prince of Morocco looks over the three caskets.  On the gold casket an inscription says, “Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.”  The inscription on the silver casket says, “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.”  That of the lead casket says, “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.”  Portia tells the prince that the correct casket has her picture in it.

The prince refuses to risk everything for mere lead.  He looks over all three inscriptions again after asking for divine guidance in his choice.  He looks at the gold casket’s inscription again, and, noting how many men desire Portia, he assumes her picture must be in such a beautiful casket; so he chooses gold.

He gets the key to the casket and opens it.  To his chagrin, he sees a skull and a scroll.  He reads it (Quote #3): many men desire gold, some getting killed in their quest for it.  Since this is a foolish thing to desire, the prince’s “suit is cold”.

He sadly leaves with his followers.

In Venice, Salerio and Solanio discuss the eloping of Lorenzo and Jessica, and Shylock’s rage over it.  They speak gloatingly about Shylock’s misfortunes: the Jew has been going all about Venice complaining about his disloyal daughter and stolen ducats.  They mock his ranting and raving, as have all the boys in Venice following him about.

They also mention a rumour that a ship, possibly Antonio’s, may have been lost at sea.  They fear for their friend.

In Belmont, the prince of Aragon, a pompous, foppish sort, arrives to try his fortune with the caskets.  He reads the inscriptions on each, scoffing at the “base lead” casket; and insisting he’s better than the lowly multitude, he assumes the gold casket is wrong too, for what he values is better than what “many men desire”.

He feels that the inscription on the silver casket is “well said”, for we can have things only with “the stamp of merit”.  Assuming he deserves Portia, he imagines her picture will be in the silver casket.  He asks for its key, and opens it.

Instead of seeing Portia’s picture, however, he sees that of “a blinking idiot”.  The accompanying scroll has a poem that says the picture is a representation of arrogant fools like him.  As disappointed as the prince of Morocco was, he leaves in annoyance.  Portia, of course, is relieved.

Act Three: On a street in Venice, Salerio and Solanio have confirmation that Antonio has lost a ship at sea; they both worry about their friend.  They give antisemitic scowls to Shylock, who is approaching and still ranting about Jessica.

When he speaks of how shocking it is for his own flesh and blood to have betrayed him by marrying a Christian, Salerio speaks of how she is more dissimilar to her father than red wine is to Rhenish, or than jet and ivory.

Shylock says Antonio should “look to his bond”.  Salerio asks Shylock what he could possibly want with a pound of Antonio’s flesh: Shylock gives all his reasons for wanting revenge on his Christian persecutor (Quote #4).

Shylock says Jews share all the same human qualities as Christians do, including vulnerability to pain, disease, and death; Jews can also be as villainous and vengeful as Christians.  Shylock will soon prove this last point.

Tubal, Shylock’s Jewish friend, appears; not willing to tolerate the presence of any more Jews, Salerio and Solanio leave.  Tubal has good and bad news for Shylock: Antonio’s ships are indeed lost, so Shylock can get his pound of flesh; but Jessica was seen having sold a turquoise ring (Shylock’s wife’s, therefore having sentimental value for him) in exchange for a monkey.  She also spent 80 ducats in one night, Tubal says.  This breaks Shylock’s heart.  He has Tubal find an officer to arrest Antonio.

Bassanio and Gratiano have arrived in Belmont, and Portia and Nerissa are with them.  (Gratiano and Nerissa quickly take a liking to each other.)  Since Portia likes Bassanio, she wishes he would wait and talk with her for a day or two before choosing from the caskets; for if he chooses incorrectly, he’ll have to leave immediately, and they’ll never see each other again.  Still, he cannot bear the suspense of waiting, and must make his choice and get it over with.

As he looks over the caskets and their inscriptions, a love song is sung during the comments he makes.  Knowing that outer appearances are often deceptive of inner reality, Bassanio wisely imagines the dull-looking lead casket, whose inscription threatens rather than promises, has Portia’s picture in it.

He gets the key, unlocks the casket, and finds her picture.  He and Portia are overjoyed.  When he reads the congratulating poem in the casket, he says, “A gentle scroll.”

Along with their imminent marriage, Gratiano and Nerissa tell of their having fallen in love and plan to be married.  The women give their men a ring, and make them swear an oath never to lose the rings or give them away.

Salerio has arrived in Belmont, and he enters with Lorenzo and Jessica with bad news from Venice: since Antonio’s boats are lost and he has no money to pay Shylock the 3,000 ducats, Shylock wants the pound of flesh.

Jessica knows of her father’s lust for revenge, and that no amount of money will deflect him from getting that pound of Antonio’s flesh.  Wealthy Portia considers any friend of Bassanio’s to be a friend of hers, so she will gladly pay twice the amount so the debt may be forgiven.

The two couples will be quickly married, then everyone, except Lorenzo and the ladies, is to make plans to hurry back to Venice and help Antonio in any way he can.

Back in Venice, Antonio tries to reason with Shylock, who has a gaoler arrest the merchant.  Shylock refuses to yield to Christian intercessors.  Antonio must accept the fact that the Jew hates him and seeks his life.

In Belmont, Lorenzo commends Portia for her patience in enduring the absence of her husband while he is in Venice trying to help his friend.  She has a servant go to Padua to see Bellario, a great lawyer, to get whatever notes and clothing he can give her.

Portia has devised a plan of her own to save Antonio: she will learn what she can of law from Bellario, then disguise herself as a man (Nerissa will be disguised as ‘his’ clerk).  The two faux lawyers will then go to Venice and help Antonio.

Gobbo jokes with Jessica about how her conversion to Christianity will raise the price of pork.  She shares the joke with Lorenzo.

Act Four: Back in Venice, the Duke of Venice enters a courtroom.  Shylock, Antonio, Bassanio, Gratiano, Salerio and Solanio are there.  The duke speaks to Shylock, hoping he’ll show mercy and forgive the debt.  Shylock refuses, insisting he has a legal right to a pound of Antonio’s flesh.

Why does he want it?  The desire for the pound of flesh is just a part of his disposition, Shylock says, as it is the disposition of others to dislike a pig or a cat.  He has “a certain loathing” of Antonio, and that is sufficient reason for him.

No one accepts this reasoning, though Shylock isn’t moved by their rejection of his attitude.  Antonio says nothing will move the Jew any more than telling the water not to reach its height on the beach.  Nothing will inspire pity in his hard “Jewish heart.”  Sentence should be quickly given, and one should just get this whole ordeal over with.

Shylock says that the slaves of many Venetians are legally the rightful property of their masters, who have paid dearly for them–we don’t ask the masters to free their slaves.  Similarly, the pound of flesh he has bought rightfully belongs to him.

Though the duke realizes that his refusal of Shylock’s legal right to the pound of flesh will render invalid the law of Venice, he will wait for Bellario to determine the case.  The duke is told of the famous lawyer’s inability to attend; he has, however, recommended a young lawyer named ‘Balthazar’ (Portia in disguise), whose wisdom with the law belies ‘his’ youth.  The duke wholeheartedly will have ‘Balthazar’ take the case.

‘He’ and ‘his clerk’ (Nerissa in disguise) enter.  ‘Balthazar’ being already thoroughly acquainted with the case, ‘he’ looks over the document allowing Shylock a pound of Antonio’s flesh if he defaults.  ‘He’ then says Shylock must show mercy; the Jew asks what compels him to.

‘Balthazar’ explains that nothing in the nature of mercy involves compulsion (see Quote #5).  Mercy blesses the giver as well as the receiver; this virtue is most becoming of kings, for it is an attribute of God’s.  We must remember that justice, strictly applied to all of us without mercy, would damn every one of us sinners.  Therefore, when we ask for God’s mercy, we are likewise well advised to show mercy to those who’ve wronged us.

None of this speech moves Shylock, who craves the law and will gladly accept all responsibility for his misdeeds.  He is offered twice the original amount; he refuses it, sharpening his knife.

When ‘Balthazar’ sees that Shylock will not be moved to mercy, ‘he’ says the law of Venice must be upheld, and Antonio must prepare his breast for Shylock’s knife.  Shylock praises ‘Balthazar’ for his learned understanding of the law.

Bassanio and Gratiano brace Antonio, and each of them says he’d gladly give up his beloved wife to save Antonio.  Little do these husbands know, of course, that the wives they’ve just proven disloyal to have heard their words, and are frowning at the sound of them.

Shylock similarly frowns, assuming this disloyalty to be typical of Christian husbands.  He’d prefer Jessica had married the worst of Jews rather than a Christian!  He says time is being wasted, and wishes the duke would pass sentence promptly.

As Shylock’s knife is being brought near Antonio’s breast, ‘Balthazar’ suddenly interrupts, saying that the law allows Shylock not one drop of blood–only Antonio’s flesh (Quote #6).  Technically, nothing in the bond says Shylock is to be awarded anything other than an exact pound of flesh–no more or less, by even the weight of a hair.

Shocked Shylock is immobilized; Gratiano mocks Shylock’s words of “learned judge”, and gloatingly thanks the Jew for teaching him such expressions as “a second Daniel”.

Shylock asks if he can at least take the 6,000 ducats, but ‘Balthazar’ reminds everyone that he rejected the money in open court; he cannot even have the principal.  The Jew, wanting only a pound of flesh, must take his legal property, at the risk of shedding Christian blood.

Demoralized, Shylock wishes to leave the courtroom, but ‘Balthazar’ says the Venetian law, so fetishized by Shylock, ironically has a further hold on him.  For a foreigner’s attempt, direct or indirect, on a Venetian’s life, the law can penalize the foreigner by seizing all of his property: half goes to the victim, the other half to the state, in the form of a fine.  Shylock’s life, on top of these punishments, is at the mercy of the duke.

Gloating Gratiano says Shylock should beg to hang himself; though he, now totally expropriated, hasn’t even the money to buy a rope.

The duke, demonstrating ‘Christian mercy’ over ‘Jewish mercilessness’, grants Shylock his life before he even asks it; nonetheless, all his money and possessions are to be claimed by Antonio and the state.  Shylock prefers death, knowing that he cannot live without any money or property.

‘Balthazar’ asks Antonio what mercy he can give Shylock.  Antonio asks the duke not to seize the state’s lawful half of Shylock’s assets; Antonio’s half will be reserved until Shylock’s death, then given to Lorenzo and Jessica.  Shylock groans at this.

Moreover, Antonio has another, more crushing condition for this ‘mercy’: Shylock must immediately convert to Christianity.  The Jew-no-longer is thus both materially and spiritually destroyed.

He tearfully accepts the terms, and will sign the requisite documentation at his home.  Not feeling well, he asks to leave.  The duke allows him to go; Gratiano continues to gloat as Shylock exits the courtroom.

The duke tells Antonio and Bassanio that they are most beholden to ‘Balthazar’ for saving Antonio’s life; they agree.  They approach the ‘lawyer’ and offer ‘him’ anything ‘he’ wishes for ‘his’ service to them.  At first ‘he’ says such gifts of gratitude are unnecessary, but they insist.  ‘He’ therefore asks Antonio for his gloves, which are promptly given him.

Not forgetting Bassanio’s willingness to give up his wife for Antonio, ‘Balthazar’ then asks for Bassanio’s ring.  Though he would gladly give the ‘lawyer’ the most valuable ring he can find, he cannot part with his wife’s gift.  ‘Balthazar’ makes him feel guilty for not giving ‘him’ the ring, and thus manipulates him into giving it to ‘him’.

Nerissa whispers in Portia’s ear that she’ll use the same tactics to get Gratiano to give her the ring she gave him.  The ‘clerk’ asks Gratiano to show ‘him’ where Shylock’s home is.

Act Five: In Belmont, Lorenzo and Jessica share a romantic moment together at night.  Launcelot Gobbo comes looking for Lorenzo.  Gobbo tells Lorenzo that Bassanio will be back soon.

Portia and Nerissa arrive, back in women’s clothes (see Quote #7); Portia would have none of the servants tell Bassanio or Gratiano, who they know will arrive soon, that she and Nerissa were absent.

Their husbands arrive and share a few words; then a quarrel begins between Nerissa and Gratiano over his having given up her ring.  He insists a clerk, about her height, insisted on having the ring as gratitude for having helped save Antonio.  She says, feigning jealousy, that Gratiano gave it to a girl he’s enjoyed.

Portia says Nerissa’s anger is justified; Portia gave Bassanio a ring, and says he’d never give it away.  Gratiano says Bassanio gave it to the lawyer who defended Antonio.  Now Portia is angry with her husband.

Bassanio tries to explain that his hand was forced in giving away the ring, but Portia will hear none of his excuses.  Antonio feels he is to blame for these quarrels, and asks how he can help resolve this fighting.

Portia gives Antonio an apparently new ring to give to Bassanio, who must now swear never to give it away; Antonio will be his guarantor again.  As Bassanio is about to swear his oath, he recognizes the ‘new’ ring as the original he gave ‘Balthazar’.  Portia claims to have slept with the lawyer, and to have gotten it from him.  She asks Bassanio’s forgiveness.

Nerissa similarly produces her ring, claiming she slept with the ‘clerk’ to get it.  She asks for Gratiano’s pardon, but he is furious about being made a cuckold.

Portia says she’ll explain everything soon enough, and that she and Nerissa were Balthazar and the clerk.  She then gives Jessica and Lorenzo a document that gives them Shylock’s property on his death.  She also gives Antonio a letter, which says all his ships have safely arrived in Venice after all.

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Analysis of ‘The Merchant of Venice’

The Merchant of Venice is a tragi-comedy probably written between 1596 and 1598.  It is one of the ‘problem plays’, as it’s difficult to classify this play in either the tragedy or comedy category.  A controversial play, it deals with religious intolerance towards the Jewish faith, and thus, by extension, with antisemitism.  It is an open question whether the play openly promotes bigotry against Jews, or merely comments on such bigotry.  Both positions will be discussed below.

Here are some famous quotes:

1. “The devil can cite scripture for his purpose.” –Antonio, Act I, scene ii, line 93

2. “I am glad ’tis night, you do not look on me,/For I am much asham’d of my exchange;/But love is blind, and lovers cannot see/The pretty follies that themselves commit,/For, if they could, Cupid himself would blush/To see me thus transformed to a boy.” –Jessica, Act II, scene vi, lines 34-39

3. “All that glisters is not gold.” –Prince of Morocco, Act II, scene vii, line 65

4. “To bait fish withal.  If it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge.  He hath disgrac’d me and hind’red me half a million; laugh’d at my losses, mock’d at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies.  And what’s his reason?  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 villainy you teach me I will execute; and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.” –Shylock, Act III, scene i, lines 45-62

5. “The quality of mercy is not strain’d;/It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven/Upon the place beneath.  It is twice blest:/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.” –Portia (as Balthazar), Act IV, scene 1, lines 179-200

6. “This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood;/The words expressly are ‘a pound of flesh’./Take then thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh;/But, in the cutting it, if thou dost shed/One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods/Are, by the laws of Venice, confiscate/Unto the state of Venice.” –Portia (as Balthazar), Act IV, scene i, lines 301-307

7. “How far that little candle throws his beams!/So shines a good deed in a naughty world.” –Portia, Act V, scene i, lines 90-91

One important theme in The Merchant of Venice is outer appearance versus inner reality.  This is best and most easily seen in the matter of the three caskets.  The gold and silver caskets may be pleasing to the eye, but what’s inside them is utter ruin for the suitors who are superficial enough to choose them.  Bassanio, however, can see past the dull-looking lead casket, whose message threatens rather than promises; accordingly, he finds Portia’s picture in it, and may marry her.

Another example of this theme is how Lorenzo, in his love for Jessica, can see past her Jewish upbringing, so hateful to Christian bigots, to see the lovely girl she is inside.  Similarly, when she’s disguised as a boy during her eloping with Lorenzo, she feels foolish, “But love is blind,…” (See Quote 2)

Furthermore, in Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech (see Quote 4), he shows us how, underneath the surface differences between Christian and Jew, members of both traditions are equally human, reacting the same way to stimuli of pleasure or pain, with the Christian just as capable of vindictiveness as the Jew.

Indeed, the ‘mercy’ shown Shylock by the Christians is hardly mercy at all: he’s allowed to live, but he’s financially and spiritually ruined, giving up his money and property to the state and to Antonio, with Antonio’s half reserved for Shylock’s hated Christian son-in-law and disloyal daughter after Shylock dies.  To top his humiliation off, he’s forced to convert to Christianity.  Gratiano cruelly gloats as Shylock leaves the courtroom in near despair.

During that same courtroom scene, the Duke of Venice is advised to see beyond the physical youth of ‘Balthazar’ and see the age of ‘his’ wisdom.  Of course, neither he nor the husbands of Portia and Nerissa can see beyond the ladies’ disguises to realize who the ‘lawyer’ and ‘his clerk’ really are.

Materialism is a constant preoccupation in this play.  Bassanio spends money as fast as he borrows it, and needs it of Antonio to marry the wealthy Portia (Is this the real reason he loves her?).  Antonio, the merchant of the play’s title, waits for his ships to return from such distant places as Mexico to get his money, and he’s delighted that they’ve safely returned at the play’s end.

Usurer Shylock hates Antonio not only because he’s a Christian bigot against Jews, but because he lends money without interest, hurting Shylock’s business by lessening his profits.  Worse, his daughter Jessica steals from him when she elopes with Lorenzo.

The princes of Morocco and Aragon show their materialism when they choose the gold and silver caskets, only then to lose all hope of having Portia on not choosing the right casket.  The Moroccan prince thus bitterly learns, “All that glisters [i.e., glistens, glitters] is not gold.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Shylock is one of the least materialistic characters in the play, going against the Jewish stereotype at a time when one would assume playwrights were free to exploit prejudicial attitudes without fear of politically correct censure.  Shylock is angry with Antonio for lending out money gratis because this generosity hurts his very livelihood, not merely his ability to get rich.  (We must remember how pre-Enlightenment Jews in Europe were hardly allowed any livelihood other than that of usurer, a hated occupation.)

Jessica’s marriage to Christian Lorenzo upsets Shylock more than her stealing of his ducats; and a turquoise ring of his wife’s, also stolen by Jessica, has more sentimental than monetary value for Shylock.

Indeed, when offered, in the courtroom, twice the amount Antonio owes him, Shylock doesn’t accept it, preferring revenge to money.  The useless, valueless pound of flesh he wants is a possession wanted from malice, not materialism.  This malice is something he returns to the Christians for persecuting him with the same spite.

This brings us to the next theme: religious bigotry.  Shylock’s dislike of Christians is as apparent as their intolerance of Jews, which is not to say that Christians have actually suffered as much from Jewish bigotry as vice versa, but just that Shakespeare has thoroughly explored this theme from both points of view.

Before the story has begun, Antonio spat on Shylock; when he confronts Antonio with this abusiveness, Antonio proudly says he’d do it again.  When Shylock says he’ll take a pound of Antonio’s flesh instead of interest if he defaults on the loan, Antonio–assuming confidently that he’ll easily pay Shylock back in time–calls him a “gentle Jew”, then imagines “This Hebrew will turn Christian: he grows kind.”  Apparently, Jews can’t be kind–only Christians can.

Jessica can tolerate neither her own Jewishness, nor her father’s; thus, she eagerly wishes to leave him, marry Lorenzo, and convert to Christianity.  Often in the play, Christians use the word Jew as if it were synonymous with devil.  In fact, the explicit comparison of Shylock, or Jews in general, to devils is frequently made (see Quote 1 above, referring to Shylock’s ‘devilish’ interpretation of the Genesis story of Jacob’s dealing with Laban over sheep).

Two more examples of such antisemitism come from the mouth of Solanio in Act III, scene i: “Let me say amen betimes, lest the devil cross my prayer, for here he comes in the likeness of a Jew.” (lines 18-19); then, shortly after Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech, when Shylock’s friend Tubal (another Jew) appears, Solanio says, “Here comes another of the tribe; a third cannot be match’d, unless the devil himself turn Jew.” (lines 66-67)

Because Shylock has suffered so much from Christian hate, he understandably returns their bigotry to them.  He says, of Antonio and Bassanio, “I am not bid for love; they flatter me;/But yet I’ll go in hate, to feed upon/The prodigal Christian.” (Act II, scene v, lines 13-15)

Later in the same scene, he says to Jessica, “Lock up my doors, and when you hear the drum,/And the vile squealing of the wry-neck’d fife,/Clamber not you up to the casements then,/Nor thrust your head into the public street/To gaze on Christian fools with varnish’d faces;/But stop my house’s ears–I mean my casements;/Let not the sound of shallow fopp’ry enter/My sober house.  By Jacob’s staff, I swear/I have no mind of feasting forth to-night:/But I will go.” (lines 28-37)

In the courtroom scene, when Bassanio and Gratiano show the limits of their love for their wives, in their willingness to sacrifice them to save Antonio, Shylock bitterly notes, “These be the Christian husbands!  I have a daughter–/Would any of the stock of Barrabas/Had been her husband, rather than a Christian!” (Act IV, scene i, lines 290-292)

Another theme in The Merchant of Venice is the breaking and keeping of oaths.  Portia has sworn an oath to obey her late father’s wish to abide by the conditions he’s stipulated in her suitors’ choosing of the three caskets.  If a suitor chooses silver or gold, she cannot marry him even if she wishes to.  If a man chooses lead, she must marry him, even if she doesn’t love him.  She keeps her oath, and is lucky to get Bassanio for a husband.

Similarly, the suitors swear an oath: if they choose of the wrong caskets, they are forbidden to marry Portia or any other woman, and mustn’t reveal what’s in the casket they’ve chosen.

The document giving Shylock legal permission to a pound of Antonio’s flesh, if he defaults, is essentially a legal oath.  Shylock says, “An oath, an oath!  I have an oath in heaven./Shall I lay perjury upon my soul?/No, not for Venice.” (Act IV, scene i, lines 223-225)  Thus, Antonio is legally bound to give Shylock that pound of flesh.

When Bassanio and Gratiano marry Portia and Nerissa, the women give the men rings, making them swear never to give the gifts away to anyone, under any circumstances.  After Antonio’s trial, Bassanio and Gratiano feel indebted to ‘the lawyer Balthazar’ (Portia in disguise) and ‘his clerk’ (Nerissa in disguise); the disguised women morally bind the men to give them the rings as proof of their gratitude.  This breaking of the original oath gives the women an excuse to be cross with the men–their revenge for Bassanio’s and Gratiano’s willingness to give their wives up to save Antonio.

With the breaking of oaths comes the choice to show mercy, or strictly and stone-heartedly adhere to law.  Here we come to certain stereotypical assumptions made about the difference between Judaism and Christianity.

Christian traditionalists tend to assume, as do the Christians in The Merchant of Venice, that the Mosaic law is stern, rigid, and unforgiving to those who transgress it.  Actually, Pharisaic law shows much leniency and mercy to those who study thoroughly all its nuances; but the average Elizabethan Christian would only have known the Jewish law as it’s more bluntly given in the Torah.  Hence the misunderstanding.

In light of this, we can see how Shylock is portrayed as an unbending advocate of the law, while Antonio and all the Christians urge forgiveness of the default on the loan.  Shylock asks ‘Balthazar’, “On what compulsion must I?  Tell me that.” (Act IV, scene i, line 178)  Then the ‘lawyer’ answers with the famous speech on the “quality of mercy”, assumed to be an exclusively Christian virtue, given through the blood of Christ on the Cross.

When Shylock has sharpened his knife and is ready to cut out his pound of flesh from Antonio’s vital organs, however, ‘Bathazar’ uses the rigidity of legal wording to stop the Jew.  Shylock is not permitted one drop of blood, for this is never given in the legal document he and Antonio have signed.  Nor does the document allow Shylock any more, or any less, than an exact pound of flesh.

Now that Shylock is finally cornered, the Christians use more of the Venetian law against him; for the punishment for a foreigner’s seeking of a Venetian man’s life is to forfeit the victimizer’s property, giving half to the victim, and half to the state.  The victimizer’s life is now at the mercy of the Duke of Venice.

The Duke, in an act of seeming generosity, grants Shylock mercy before it is even begged for; but what mercy is it to be allowed to live when one has had everything taken away?  Knowing this, Shylock himself would prefer death.

Christian ‘mercy’ is extended by allowing Shylock to keep the state’s half, and when Shylock dies, Antonio’s half would be given to Lorenzo and Jessica.  This of course humiliates the father of an already disloyal, thieving daughter.  The most humiliating condition of this ‘mercy’, however, is Shylock’s forced conversion to Christianity, all to the gleeful Schadenfreude of his enemies in the courtroom.

Knowing all that we do about this Christian ‘mercy’ versus the ‘Jewish’ nature of Shylock’s cruelty, we must now address a difficult question: is the play antisemitic, or is it merely an exploration of anti-Jewish hate?  The answer perhaps depends on the attitude of the viewers of the play, as well as its producers.

In productions up to the early 19th century, Shylock was portrayed as a grotesque, even comical villain, the actor wearing a red wig and a hook nose.  One can easily visualize the Christian audience booing him whenever he entered the stage.  These obviously would have been antisemitic productions.

Sympathetic portrayals of Shylock, however, began with Edmund Kean in the early 19th century, and most famous portrayals of Shylock since then were sympathetic.  (Some of the major exceptions to this sensitivity, of course, were the productions staged in Nazi Germany.)

Next, we must examine audience opinions of the play.  Conservative Christians would have little sympathy for Shylock and all the bigotry he’s endured; they would regard his “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech as him justifying his blood-lust.  They would also disregard his humiliation and losses and the end of the play as a just punishment for his violent attempt on Antonio’s life, and his forced conversion to Christianity would be seen as a joyous occasion, the winning of a Jew’s soul to Christ.

This conservative audience would also consider every antisemitic slur against Shylock as a statement of simple fact, whereas a sympathetic audience would consider the source of the bigoted remarks.  Sympathizers with Shylock will regard the slurs as a defect of their speakers, not as an attitude Shakespeare was necessarily trying to promote.

Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech would thus be understood as a legitimate expression of his grievances against his Christian persecutors; and while his thirst for revenge is assuredly going too far, it is seen as the understandable act of a man tragically pushed over the edge, not just an example of his ‘wicked Jewishness’.

In today’s more tolerant world, that the sympathetic interpretation is preferred to the antisemitic one is so obvious as not to need elaboration; there is, however, an artistic as well as humane reason for preferring the former.

The antisemitic reading results in one-dimensional characterizations that are not borne out in Shakespeare’s text–Christians thus would be stupidly good and the Jews dully evil.  The clean-cut happy ending of such an interpretation, with Jews converted to Christ, is also blandly simplistic.

The sympathetic reading, on the other hand, allows for a more complex, nuanced characterization that is evident in the text, with a subtler mix of good and evil in both Jew and Christian; this also accords with Shakespeare’s usual colourful development of his characters. Furthermore, the resulting tragicomic ending, where Antonio is saved, but Shylock is pitifully ruined, agrees with our more morally ambiguous sense of reality, and is thus more artistically satisfying.

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