The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616) The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616) Type of Work: Comedic drama Setting Renaissance Venice and Belmont Principal Characters Antonio, the merchant Bassanio, his young friend, in love with Portia Portia, a beautiful and wealthy young woman Shylock, a rich Jew Jessica, Shylock’s lovely daughter Story Overveiw Whenever Bassanio needed money he would go to his older friend Antonio, a wealthy Venetian merchant. Now Bassanio needed a sizable loan for a certain “enterprise.
” When questioned concerning this enterprise, Bassanio admitted he had fallen in love with Portia, a wealthy and famous lady. Unless Bassanio had money, he could never hope to compete with the myriad of rich noblemen and princes who vied for Portia’s favor. Antonio would have gladly supplied his friend with the money, but he had no cash on hand; all of his capital was tied up in ships, not due to return from foreign ports for several weeks. So Antonio and Bassanio found their way to Shylock, a rich Jewish moneylender who had made his fortune by charging exorbitant interest rates. Though they despised Shylock, the two managed to swallow their pride long enough to petition him to loan them three thousand ducats, to be paid back as soon as Antonio’s ships returned to port. Shylock bitterly rebuked them for having the temerity to come crawling to him for a loan after publicly disdaining him: You call me a misbeliever, cut-throat dog, And spit upon my Jewish gabardine .
.Well then, it now appears you need help .. What shouId I say to you? Should I not say: .
. “Fair sir, you spat on me on Wednesday last; You spurned me such and such day, another time You call’d me dog, and for these courtesies I’ll lend you thus much moneys?” Finally, though, glowing and rubbing hi, hands together as if he would “get to the bone” of his petitioners, Shylock agreed to lend the money, but on this condition: if the full sum were not repaid within three months, he could lawfully cut one pound of flesh from Antonio’s body. Bassanio was shocked at the proposal, but Antonio assured him there was no need to worry; his ships were expected home a full month before the debt would come due. Reluctantly, Bassanio accepted the terms of the loan.Meanwhile, the lovely Portia had been receiving visits from prospective husbands and she disliked them all. To make matters worse, she wasn’t allowed to choose her husband for herself. Her late father had left a provision in his will that Portia’s husband would be chosen by lottery. Three caskets one of gold, one of silver, and one of lead – had been laid out, and only one of these contained a portrait of the lady.
Any potential suitor must choose one of the caskets. If the casket he chose contained the portrait, he could marry Portia; if not, he would be compelled to leave and never woo another woman again. Fortunately for Portia, none of the suitors who had sought her had as yet guessed the right casket. Elsewhere, Launcelot, Shylock’s comical servant, decided he would finally escape from his master’s employ; Shylock was simply too cruel to endure.
Launcelot paused long enough to break the news to Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, who was heartbroken to see him go. “Our house is a hell,” she said, “and thou, a merry devil, Didst rob it of some taste of tediousness.” Before he left, Jessica gave Launcelot a letter to deliver to Lorenzo, a friend of Bassanio’s with whom she had fallen in love. The letter instructed Lorenzo to meet her at her house, where she would escape in disguise and elope with him. That night, Jessica and Lorenzo carried out their lovers’ plan, fleeing the city in a gondola filled with Shylock’s ducats. When Shylock learned that his daughter had run away to marry a Christian, he was at once crushed and furious, and grew all the more fervent in his hatred of Antonio and his Christian friends.
In the meantime, Bassanio had made his way to Portia, ready to hazard a try at the caskets. Portia immediately fell in love with him and feared lest he should choose the wrong box. But, guided by Portia’s sea-blue eyes, Bassanio avoided the temptation to choose the gold or silver caskets, and, wisely declaring, “All that glitters is not gold,” correctly selected the unassuming lead. Both Portia and Bassanio were elated. But no sooner were their wedding plans underway than they were interrupted by horrifying news from Venice: every one of Antonio’s ships had been shipwrecked in a storm, leaving him penniless and unable to pay his debt to Shylock. Shylock would now obtain the revenge he sought.In a pathetic letter to Bassanio, Antonio resigned himself to his fate and bade farewell to his friend. Bassanio and Portia postponed their marriage and rushed to Venice to aid their benefactor.
But what could they do? Antonio had agreed to the contract of his own free will; and Shylock would surely insist on carrying out the penalty. The law was on his side. It was Portia, after deep thought, who hatched a plot to save her husband’s friend.Knowing that he would have to appear in court to either pay his debt or announce his default, Portia decided to masquerade herself as a young lawyer sent to act in Antonio’s defense. The day of the trial finally arrived.
Antonio confessed to the Duke, acting as judge, that he could not pay his debt, and that he was prepared to allow the moneylender to exact his pound of flesh. The Duke and all those present at the court begged Shylock to spare Antonio, but he refused. Bassanio – now a rich man because of his betrothal to Portia offered Shylock twice the amount of Antonio’s debt, but still Shylock preferred that Antonio should die. The Duke, bound by law, sadly admitted that the penalty was valid. At that moment, Portia, pretending to be “Balthasar,” a lawyer sent by the respected but ill Doctor Bellario, entered the court to defend Antonio.In an elegant speech, she encouraged Shylock to lay aside the letter of the law in favor of mercy: The quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath; it is twice blessed, it blesseth him that gives, and him that takes ..
But Shylock would have none of it. “I crave the law!” he raved. Next Portia asked if anyone would pay Antonio’s bond, and this time Bassanio offered to pay ten times the debt.
But once more Shylock refused, and insisted that justice be carried out.Portia now changed her stance. She craftily pretended to agree with the Jew.
If he insists on the letter of the law, it must be carried out, she said. Then she ordered a knife be brought. Shylock was ecstatic to find this defender in agreement with him, and raised his knife to inflict the fatal wound to his enemy’s breast.But just then, Portia interjected to remind Shylock of one detail: the words in the contract stated that Shylock was to extract “a pound of flesh” – but mentioned nothing about blood. Therefore, if in cutting into Antonio’s heart Shylock should shed even one drop of blood, he would violate the contract, and, by the laws of Venice, he must be executed and his lands confiscated. Astonished and trembling, Shylock dropped the knife and scowled. The court rang with laughter. Shylock offered to let Antonio go in peace, but Portia refused.
After all, since he insisted on the letter of the law, he must have it. Now it was Shylock who pled for mercy. The court decided to spare his life, but to confiscate his lands (reserving half for his daughter after his death) and to force him to adopt Christianity. Shylock slumped from the courtroom, humiliated and bitter.
Jubilant, Antonio and his friends were soon made aware of Portia’s cunning disguise. All returned to Belmont, where Bassanio and fair Portia established their new household.Commentary As with many of Shakespeare’s plays, the titular protagonist of The Merchant of Venice (Antonio) plays a relatively minor role in the action. Bassanio and Portia are more central characters, but even they are upstaged by the brilliant and perplexing character of Shylock. How is the audience or reader meant to react to Shylock? He ought to strike us as thoroughly loathsome – he is a usurer, an abusive parent, violent, legalistic, bitter, unsociable and greedy. In spite of all these faults, though, one cannot help feeling some sympathy for him. After all, he is forced to live among neighbors who neither understand nor respect his religious beliefs; “Christians” who treat him with cruelty.
Forced into his money-lending by legal restrictions on Jewish professions, he remains highly intelligent and capable of great eloquence, as in this passionate complaint against Antonio’s abuses: He hath ..laughed at my losses, mocked 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 few eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, sense, affections, passions? [Is not a Jew] 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 Christians? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us ,do we not die? Marvelous lines, and in some respects a more compassionate speech than uttered by any of the Christian characters. So, Shylock is an ambiguous villain.
But the play is not Shylock’s story; it is a comedy, and the triumph of mercy over unyielding justice is the theme that finally brings The Merchant of Venice to its happy resolution.