Themes, Motifs & Symbols Shylock - A Jewish moneylender in Venice. Angered by his mistreatment at the hands of Venice’s Christians, particularly Antonio, Shylock schemes to eke out his revenge by ruthlessly demanding as payment a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Although seen by the rest of the play’s characters as an inhuman monster, Shylock at times diverges from stereotype and reveals himself to be quite human. These contradictions, and his eloquent expressions of hatred, have earned Shylock a place as one of Shakespeare’s most memorable characters. Bassanio, a young Venetian of noble rank, wishes to woo the beautiful and wealthy heiress Portia of Belmont. Having squandered his estate, Bassanio approaches his friend Antonio, a wealthy merchant of Venice and a kind and generous person, who has previously and repeatedly bailed him out, for three thousand ducats needed to subsidise his expenditures as a suitor. Antonio agrees, but since he is cash-poor - his ships and merchandise are busy at sea - he promises to cover a bond if Bassanio can find a lender, so Bassanio turns to the Jewish moneylender Shylock and names Antonio as the loan's guarantor. 2. What if my house be troubled with a rat, 3. You have among you many a purchased slave 5. The man that hath no music in himself, 1. Discuss Shylock’s dramatic function in The Merchant of Venice. What do critics mean when they suggest that Shylock is “too large” for the play? Does he fulfill or exceed his role? 2. In the end, how comic is The Merchant of Venice? Does the final act succeed in restoring comedy to the play? 1. What reason does Antonio give for being sad in the opening scene of the play?
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Self-Interest Versus Love
On the surface, the main difference between the Christian characters and Shylock appears to be that the Christian characters value human relationships over business ones, whereas Shylock is only interested in money. The Christian characters certainly view the matter this way. Merchants like Antonio lend money free of interest and put themselves at risk for those they love, whereas Shylock agonizes over the loss of his money and is reported to run through the streets crying, “O, my ducats! O, my daughter!” (II.viii.15). With these words, he apparently values his money at least as much as his daughter, suggesting that his greed outweighs his love. However, upon closer inspection, this supposed difference between Christian and Jew breaks down. When we see Shylock in Act III, scene i, he seems more hurt by the fact that his daughter sold a ring that was given to him by his dead wife before they were married than he is by the loss of the ring’s monetary value. Some human relationships do indeed matter to Shylock more than money. Moreover, his insistence that he have a pound of flesh rather than any amount of money shows that his resentment is much stronger than his greed.
Just as Shylock’s character seems hard to pin down, the Christian characters also present an inconsistent picture. Though Portia and Bassanio come to love one another, Bassanio seeks her hand in the first place because he is monstrously in debt and needs her money. Bassanio even asks Antonio to look at the money he lends Bassanio as an investment, though Antonio insists that he lends him the money solely out of love. In other words, Bassanio is anxious to view his relationship with Antonio as a matter of business rather than of love. Finally, Shylock eloquently argues that Jews are human beings just as Christians are, but Christians such as Antonio hate Jews simply because they are Jews. Thus, while the Christian characters may talk more about mercy, love, and charity, they are not always consistent in how they display these qualities.
The Divine Quality of Mercy
The conflict between Shylock and the Christian characters comes to a head over the issue of mercy. The other characters acknowledge that the law is on Shylock’s side, but they all expect him to show mercy, which he refuses to do. When, during the trial, Shylock asks Portia what could possibly compel him to be merciful, Portia’s long reply, beginning with the words, “The quality of mercy is not strained,” clarifies what is at stake in the argument (IV.i.179). Human beings should be merciful because God is merciful: mercy is an attribute of God himself and therefore greater than power, majesty, or law. Portia’s understanding of mercy is based on the way Christians in Shakespeare’s time understood the difference between the Old and New Testaments. According to the writings of St. Paul in the New Testament, the Old Testament depicts God as requiring strict adherence to rules and exacting harsh punishments for those who stray. The New Testament, in contrast, emphasizes adherence to the spirit rather than the letter of the law, portraying a God who forgives rather than punishes and offers salvation to those followers who forgive others. Thus, when Portia warns Shylock against pursuing the law without regard for mercy, she is promoting what Elizabethan Christians would have seen as a pro-Christian, anti-Jewish agenda.
The strictures of Renaissance drama demanded that Shylock be a villain, and, as such, patently unable to show even a drop of compassion for his enemy. A sixteenth-century audience would not expect Shylock to exercise mercy—therefore, it is up to the Christians to do so. Once she has turned Shylock’s greatest weapon—the law—against him, Portia has the opportunity to give freely of the mercy for which she so beautifully advocates. Instead, she backs Shylock into a corner, where she strips him of his bond, his estate, and his dignity, forcing him to kneel and beg for mercy. Given that Antonio decides not to seize Shylock’s goods as punishment for conspiring against him, we might consider Antonio to be merciful. But we may also question whether it is merciful to return to Shylock half of his goods, only to take away his religion and his profession. By forcing Shylock to convert, Antonio disables him from practicing usury, which, according to Shylock’s reports, was Antonio’s primary reason for berating and spitting on him in public. Antonio’s compassion, then, seems to stem as much from self-interest as from concern for his fellow man. Mercy, as delivered in The Merchant of Venice, never manages to be as sweet, selfless, or full of grace as Portia presents it.
Hatred as a Cyclical Phenomenon
Throughout the play, Shylock claims that he is simply applying the lessons taught to him by his Christian neighbors; this claim becomes an integral part of both his character and his argument in court. In Shylock’s very first appearance, as he conspires to harm Antonio, his entire plan seems to be born of the insults and injuries Antonio has inflicted upon him in the past. As the play continues, and Shylock unveils more of his reasoning, the same idea rears its head over and over—he is simply applying what years of abuse have taught him. Responding to Salarino’s query of what good the pound of flesh will do him, Shylock responds, “The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction” (III.i.60–61). Not all of Shylock’s actions can be blamed on poor teachings, and one could argue that Antonio understands his own culpability in his near execution. With the trial’s conclusion, Antonio demands that Shylock convert to Christianity, but inflicts no other punishment, despite the threats of fellow Christians like Gratiano. Antonio does not, as he has in the past, kick or spit on Shylock. Antonio, as well as the duke, effectively ends the conflict by starving it of the injustices it needs to continue.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The Merchant of Venice depends heavily upon laws and rules—the laws of the state of Venice and the rules stipulated in contracts and wills. Laws and rules can be manipulated for cruel or wanton purposes, but they are also capable of producing good when executed by the right people. Portia’s virtual imprisonment by the game of caskets seems, at first, like a questionable rule at best, but her likening of the game to a lottery system is belied by the fact that, in the end, it works perfectly. The game keeps a host of suitors at bay, and of the three who try to choose the correct casket to win Portia’s hand, only the man of Portia’s desires succeeds. By the time Bassanio picks the correct chest, the choice seems like a more efficient indicator of human nature than any person could ever provide. A similar phenomenon occurs with Venetian law. Until Portia’s arrival, Shylock is the law’s strictest adherent, and it seems as if the city’s adherence to contracts will result in tragedy. However, when Portia arrives and manipulates the law most skillfully of all, the outcome is the happiest ending of all, at least to an Elizabethan audience: Antonio is rescued and Shylock forced to abandon his religion. The fact that the trial is such a close call does, however, raise the fearful specter of how the law can be misused. Without the proper guidance, the law can be wielded to do horrible things.
Twice in the play, daring escapes are executed with the help of cross-dressing. Jessica escapes the tedium of Shylock’s house by dressing as a page, while Portia and Nerissa rescue Antonio by posing as officers of the Venetian court. This device was not only familiar to Renaissance drama, but essential to its performance: women were banned from the stage and their parts were performed by prepubescent boys. Shakespeare was a great fan of the potentials of cross-dressing and used the device often, especially in his comedies. But Portia reveals that the donning of men’s clothes is more than mere comedy. She says that she has studied a “thousand raw tricks of these bragging Jacks,” implying that male authority is a kind of performance that can be imitated successfully (III.iv.77). She feels confident that she can outwit any male competitor, declaring, “I’ll prove the prettier fellow of the two, / And wear my dagger with the braver grace” (III.iv.64–65). In short, by assuming the clothes of the opposite sex, Portia enables herself to assume the power and position denied to her as a woman.
Like Shakespeare’s other comedies, The Merchant of Venice seems to endorse the behavior of characters who treat filial piety lightly, even though the heroine, Portia, sets the opposite example by obeying her father’s will. Launcelot greets his blind, long lost father by giving the old man confusing directions and telling the old man that his beloved son Launcelot is dead. This moment of impertinence can be excused as essential to the comedy of the play, but it sets the stage for Jessica’s far more complex hatred of her father. Jessica can list no specific complaints when she explains her desire to leave Shylock’s house, and in the one scene in which she appears with Shylock, he fusses over her in a way that some might see as tender. Jessica’s desire to leave is made clearer when the other characters note how separate she has become from her father, but her behavior after departing seems questionable at best. Most notably, she trades her father’s ring, given to him by her dead mother, for a monkey. The frivolity of this exchange, in which an heirloom is tossed away for the silliest of objects, makes for quite a disturbing image of the esteem in which The Merchant of Venice’s children hold their parents, and puts us, at least temporarily, in Shylock’s corner.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The Three Caskets
The contest for Portia’s hand, in which suitors from various countries choose among a gold, a silver, and a lead casket, resembles the cultural and legal system of Venice in some respects. Like the Venice of the play, the casket contest presents the same opportunities and the same rules to men of various nations, ethnicities, and religions. Also like Venice, the hidden bias of the casket test is fundamentally Christian. To win Portia, Bassanio must ignore the gold casket, which bears the inscription, “Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire” (II.vii.5), and the silver casket, which says, “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves” (II.vii.7). The correct casket is lead and warns that the person who chooses it must give and risk everything he has. The contest combines a number of Christian teachings, such as the idea that desire is an unreliable guide and should be resisted, and the idea that human beings do not deserve God’s grace but receive it in spite of themselves. Christianity teaches that appearances are often deceiving, and that people should not trust the evidence provided by the senses—hence the humble appearance of the lead casket. Faith and charity are the central values of Christianity, and these values are evoked by the lead casket’s injunction to give all and risk all, as one does in making a leap of faith. Portia’s father has presented marriage as one in which the proper suitor risks and gives everything for the spouse, in the hope of a divine recompense he can never truly deserve. The contest certainly suits Bassanio, who knows he does not deserve his good fortune but is willing to risk everything on a gamble.
The Pound of Flesh
The pound of flesh that Shylock seeks lends itself to multiple interpretations: it emerges most as a metaphor for two of the play’s closest relationships, but also calls attention to Shylock’s inflexible adherence to the law. The fact that Bassanio’s debt is to be paid with Antonio’s flesh is significant, showing how their friendship is so binding it has made them almost one. Shylock’s determination is strengthened by Jessica’s departure, as if he were seeking recompense for the loss of his own flesh and blood by collecting it from his enemy. Lastly, the pound of flesh is a constant reminder of the rigidity of Shylock’s world, where numerical calculations are used to evaluate even the most serious of situations. Shylock never explicitly demands that Antonio die, but asks instead, in his numerical mind, for a pound in exchange for his three thousand ducats. Where the other characters measure their emotions with long metaphors and words, Shylock measures everything in far more prosaic and numerical quantities.
The ring given to Shylock in his bachelor days by a woman named Leah, who is most likely Shylock’s wife and Jessica’s mother, gets only a brief mention in the play, but is still an object of great importance. When told that Jessica has stolen it and traded it for a monkey, Shylock very poignantly laments its loss: “I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys” (III.i.101–102). The lost ring allows us to see Shylock in an uncharacteristically vulnerable position and to view him as a human being capable of feeling something more than anger. Although Shylock and Tubal discuss the ring for no more than five lines, the ring stands as an important symbol of Shylock’s humanity, his ability to love, and his ability to grieve
Portia - A wealthy heiress from Belmont. Portia’s beauty is matched only by her intelligence. Bound by a clause in her father’s will that forces her to marry whichever suitor chooses correctly among three caskets, Portia is nonetheless able to marry her true love, Bassanio. Far and away the most clever of the play’s characters, it is Portia, in the disguise of a young law clerk, who saves Antonio from Shylock’s knife.
Antonio - The merchant whose love for his friend Bassanio prompts him to sign Shylock’s contract and almost lose his life. Antonio is something of a mercurial figure, often inexplicably melancholy and, as Shylock points out, possessed of an incorrigible dislike of Jews. Nonetheless, Antonio is beloved of his friends and proves merciful to Shylock, albeit with conditions.
Bassanio - A gentleman of Venice, and a kinsman and dear friend to Antonio. Bassanio’s love for the wealthy Portia leads him to borrow money from Shylock with Antonio as his guarantor. An ineffectual businessman, Bassanio proves himself a worthy suitor, correctly identifying the casket that contains Portia’s portrait.
Gratiano - A friend of Bassanio’s who accompanies him to Belmont. A coarse and garrulous young man, Gratiano is Shylock’s most vocal and insulting critic during the trial. While Bassanio courts Portia, Gratiano falls in love with and eventually weds Portia’s lady-in-waiting, Nerissa.
Jessica - Although she is Shylock’s daughter, Jessica hates life in her father’s house, and elopes with the young Christian gentleman, Lorenzo. The fate of her soul is often in doubt: the play’s characters wonder if her marriage can overcome the fact that she was born a Jew, and we wonder if her sale of a ring given to her father by her mother is excessively callous.
Lorenzo - A friend of Bassanio and Antonio, Lorenzo is in love with Shylock’s daughter, Jessica. He schemes to help Jessica escape from her father’s house, and he eventually elopes with her to Belmont.
Nerissa - Portia’s lady-in-waiting and confidante. She marries Gratiano and escorts Portia on Portia’s trip to Venice by disguising herself as her law clerk.
Launcelot Gobbo - Bassanio’s servant. A comical, clownish figure who is especially adept at making puns, Launcelot leaves Shylock’s service in order to work for Bassanio.
The prince of Morocco - A Moorish prince who seeks Portia’s hand in marriage. The prince of Morocco asks Portia to ignore his dark countenance and seeks to win her by picking one of the three caskets. Certain that the caskets reflect Portia’s beauty and stature, the prince of Morocco picks the gold chest, which proves to be incorrect.
The prince of Arragon - An arrogant Spanish nobleman who also attempts to win Portia’s hand by picking a casket. Like the prince of Morocco, however, the prince of Arragon chooses unwisely. He picks the silver casket, which gives him a message calling him an idiot instead of Portia’s hand.
Salarino - A Venetian gentleman, and friend to Antonio, Bassanio, and Lorenzo. Salarino escorts the newlyweds Jessica and Lorenzo to Belmont, and returns with Bassanio and Gratiano for Antonio’s trial. He is often almost indistinguishable from his companion Solanio.
Solanio - A Venetian gentleman, and frequent counterpart to Salarino.
The duke of Venice - The ruler of Venice, who presides over Antonio’s trial. Although a powerful man, the duke’s state is built on respect for the law, and he is unable to help Antonio.
Old Gobbo - Launcelot’s father, also a servant in Venice.
Tubal - A Jew in Venice, and one of Shylock’s friends.
Doctor Bellario - A wealthy Paduan lawyer and Portia’s cousin. Doctor Bellario never appears in the play, but he gives Portia’s servant the letters of introduction needed for her to make her appearance in court.
Balthasar - Portia’s servant, whom she dispatches to get the appropriate materials from Doctor Bellario
Shylock, who hates Antonio because of his Anti-Judaism and Antonio's customary refusal to borrow or lend money with interest, is at first reluctant, citing abuse he has suffered at Antonio's hand, but finally agrees to lend Antonio the sum without interest upon the condition that if Antonio is unable to repay it at the specified date, he may take a pound of Antonio's flesh. Bassanio does not want Antonio to accept such a risky condition; Antonio is surprised by what he sees as the moneylender's generosity (no "usance" – interest – is asked for), and he signs the contract. With money at hand, Bassanio leaves for Belmont with his friend Gratiano, who has asked to accompany him. Gratiano is a likeable young man, but is often flippant, overly talkative, and tactless. Bassanio warns his companion to exercise self-control, and the two leave for Belmont and Portia.
Meanwhile in Belmont, Portia is awash with suitors. Her father left a will stipulating each of her suitors must choose correctly from one of three caskets – one each of gold, silver and lead. If he picks the right casket, he gets Portia. The first suitor, the luxurious Prince of Morocco, chooses the gold casket, interpreting its slogan "Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire" as referring to Portia. The second suitor, the conceited Prince of Arragon, chooses the silver casket, which proclaims "Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves", imagining himself to be full of merit. Both suitors leave empty-handed, having rejected the lead casket because of the baseness of its material and the uninviting nature of its slogan: "Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath." The last suitor is Bassanio, whom Portia wishes to succeed, having met him before. As Bassanio ponders his choice, members of Portia's household sing a song which says that "fancy" (not true love) is "engend'red in the eyes, With gazing fed.", prompting Bassanio to disregard "outward shows" and "ornament" and choses the lead casket, winning Portia's hand.
At Venice, Antonio's ships are reported lost at sea. This leaves him unable to satisfy the bond. Shylock is even more determined to exact revenge from Christians after his daughter Jessica had fled home and eloped with the Christian Lorenzo, taking a substantial amount of Shylock's wealth with her, as well as a turquoise ring which was a gift to Shylock from his late wife, Leah. Shylock has Antonio brought before court.
At Belmont, Bassanio receives a letter telling him that Antonio has been unable to return the loan taken from Shylock. Portia and Bassanio marry, as do Gratiano and Portia's handmaid Nerissa. Bassanio and Gratiano then leave for Venice, with money from Portia, to save Antonio's life by offering the money to Shylock. Unknown to Bassanio and Gratiano, Portia has sent her servant, Balthazar, to seek the counsel of Portia's cousin, Bellario, a lawyer, at Padua.
The climax of the play comes in the court of the Duke of Venice. Shylock refuses Bassanio's offer of 6,000 ducats, twice the amount of the loan. He demands his pound of flesh from Antonio. The Duke, wishing to save Antonio but unable to nullify a contract, refers the case to a visitor who introduces himself as Balthazar, a young male "doctor of the law", bearing a letter of recommendation to the Duke from the learned lawyer Bellario. The doctor is actually Portia in disguise, and the law clerk who accompanies her is actually Nerissa, also in disguise. As Balthazar, Portia repeatedly asks Shylock to show mercy in a famous speech, advising him that mercy "is twice blest: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes." (IV,i,185) However, Shylock adamantly refuses any compensations and insists on the pound of flesh.
As the court grants Shylock his bond and Antonio prepares for Shylock's knife, Portia points out that the contract only allows Shylock to remove the flesh, not the "blood", of Antonio (see quibble). Thus, if Shylock were to shed any drop of Antonio's blood, his "lands and goods" would be forfeited under Venetian laws. Further damning Shylock's case, she tells him that he must cut precisely one pound of flesh, no more, no less; she advises him that "if the scale do turn, But in the estimation of a hair, Thou diest and all thy goods are confiscate."
Defeated, Shylock concedes to accepting Bassanio's offer of money for the defaulted bond, first his offer to pay "the bond thrice", which Portia rebuffs, telling him to take his bond, and then merely the principal, which Portia also prevents him from doing on the ground that he has already refused it "in the open court." She then cites a law under which Shylock, as a Jew and therefore an "alien", having attempted to take the life of a citizen, has forfeited his property, half to the government and half to Antonio, leaving his life at the mercy of the Duke. The Duke immediately pardons Shylock's life. Antonio asks for his share "in use" (that is, reserving the principal amount while taking only the income) until Shylock's death, when the principal will be given to Lorenzo and Jessica. At Antonio's request, the Duke grants remission of the state's half of forfeiture, but on the condition of Shylock converting to Christianity and bequeathing his entire estate to Lorenzo and Jessica (IV,i).
Bassanio does not recognise his disguised wife, but offers to give a present to the supposed lawyer. First she declines, but after he insists, Portia requests his ring and Antonio's gloves. Antonio parts with his gloves without a second thought, but Bassanio gives the ring only after much persuasion from Antonio, as earlier in the play he promised his wife never to lose, sell or give it. Nerissa, as the lawyer's clerk, also succeeds in likewise retrieving her ring from Gratiano, who does not see through her disguise.
At Belmont, Portia and Nerissa taunt and pretend to accuse their husbands before revealing they were really the lawyer and his clerk in disguise (V). After all the other characters make amends, Antonio learns from Portia that three of his ships were not stranded and have returned safely after al
And I be pleased to give ten thousand ducats
To have it baned? What, are you answered yet?
Some men there are love not a gaping pig,
Some that are mad if they behold a cat,
And others when the bagpipe sings i’th’ nose
Cannot contain their urine; for affection,
Mistress of passion, sways it to the mood
Of what it likes or loathes. . . .
So can I give no reason, nor I will not,
More than a lodged hate and a certain loathing
I bear Antonio, that I follow thus
A losing suit against him. Are you answered?
When, in Act IV, scene i, Antonio and Shylock are summoned before the court, the duke asks the Jew to show his adversary some mercy. Shylock responds by reasoning that he has no reason. He blames his hatred of Antonio on “affection, / [that] Mistress of passion,” who is known to affect men’s moods in ways they cannot explain (IV.i.49–50). Just as certain people do not know why they have an aversion to cats or certain strains of music or eating meat, Shylock cannot logically explain his dislike for Antonio. The whole of his response to the court boils down to the terribly eloquent equivalent of the simple answer: just because. The speech merits consideration not only because it articulates a range of emotions that often cannot be verbally expressed, but also because Shylock’s language patterns reinforce our impression of his character. The use of repetition in the passage is frequent. Shylock returns not only to the same imagery—the “gaping pig” (IV.i.53) and the “woolen bagpipe” (IV.i.55)—but he also bookends his speech with the simple question, “Are you answered?” (IV.i.61). Here, Shylock’s tightly controlled speech reflects the narrow and determined focus of his quest to satisfy his hatred.
The speech’s imagery is of the prosaic sort typical of Shylock. Other characters speak in dreamily poetic tones, evoking images of angels and waters scented with spice, but Shylock draws on the most mundane examples to prove his point. To him, Antonio is a rat, and his dislike of Antonio no more odd than that which some men have toward pigs or cats. Shylock uses bodily functions to drive home his point, likening rage to urination in a crass turn of phrase that is unique to his character. Also, Shylock’s rage takes on an apparent arbitrariness. Originally, Shylock’s gripe with Antonio seems based on a carefully meditated catalogue of the Venetian’s crimes. Here, however, it appears little more than a whim, a swing of the pendulum that “sways” to affection’s moods (IV.i.50). By relying on the defense that his actions are justified simply because he feels like them, Shylock appears unpredictable and whimsical, and he further fuels our perception of his actions as careless and cruel
Which, like your asses and your dogs and mules,
You use in abject and in slavish parts
Because you bought them. Shall I say to you
’Let them be free, marry them to your heirs.
Why sweat they under burdens?. . .
You will answer
’The slaves are ours.’ So do I answer you.
The pound of flesh which I demand of him
Is dearly bought. ‘Tis mine, and I will have it
Again, in this passage, we find Shylock cleverly using Venice’s own laws to support his vengeful quest and enlisting society’s cruelties in defense of his own. Shylock begins his speech on a humane note, yet this opening serves merely to justify his indulgence in the same injustices he references. Shylock has no interest in exposing the wrongfulness of owning or mistreating slaves. Such property rights simply happen to be established by Venetian laws, so Shylock uses them to appeal for equal protection. If Antonio and company can purchase human flesh to “use in abject and in slavish parts,” Shylock reasons, then he can purchase part of the flesh of a Venetian citizen (IV.i.91). In his mind, he has merely extended the law to its most literal interpretation. Unlike the Venetians, who are willing to bend or break the law to satisfy their wants, Shylock never strays from its letter in his pursuit of his bond. His brand of abiding by the law, however, is made unsavory by the gruesome nature of his interpretation4. The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. . . .
It is enthronèd 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.
Even as she follows the standard procedure of asking Shylock for mercy, Portia reveals her skills by appealing to his methodical mind. Her argument draws on a careful process of reasoning rather than emotion. She states first that the gift of forgiving the bond would benefit Shylock, and second, that it would elevate Shylock to a godlike status. Lastly, Portia warns Shylock that his quest for justice without mercy may result in his own damnation. Although well-measured and well-reasoned, Portia’s speech nonetheless casts mercy as a polarizing issue between Judaism and Christianity. Her frequent references to the divine are appeals to a clearly Christian God, and mercy emerges as a marker of Christianity. Although it seems as if Portia is offering an appeal, in retrospect her speech becomes an ultimatum, a final chance for Shylock to save himself before Portia crushes his legal arguments.
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stategems, and spoils.
The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
And his affections dark as Erebus.
By Act V, with Shylock stowed safely offstage, Shakespeare returns to the comedic aspects of his play. He lightens the mood with a harmless exchange of rings that serves to reunite the lovers, and he brings Antonio’s lost ships back to port. Because Shylock has been such a large, powerful presence in the play, and because his decimation at the hands of the Venetians is profoundly disturbing, the comedy in Belmont never fully escapes the shadow of the troublesome issues that precede it. The lovers’ happiness, then, is most likely little more than a brief passing moment. This passage can be read as a meditation on the transitory nature of the comforts one finds in a wearisome world. Lorenzo, ordering music to celebrate Portia’s homecoming, reflects that music has the power to change a man’s nature. Much like a wild beast that can be tamed by the sound of a trumpet, a man can be transformed into something less “stockish, hard, and full of rage” (V.i.80). As the Venetians, all of whom have exercised “treasons, strategems, and spoils” of one kind or another throughout the play, congregate at Belmont, we imagine them as kinder and happier than they have otherwise been, but we also know that the music of Belmont will not likely survive on the streets of Venice (V.i.84
In order to ensure that we understand Shylock as a threat to the happiness of Venice’s citizens and lovers, Shakespeare uses a number of dramatic devices to amplify Shylock’s villainy. In doing so, however, he creates a character so compelling that many feel Shylock comes to dominate the play, thereby making him “too large.” Certainly, Shylock is a masterful creation. At his cruelest, he is terrifying, even more so because all of his schemes exist within the framework of the law. Seen in this light, Shylock becomes a kind of bogeyman, turning Venetian society’s own institutions on themselves. On the other hand, Shylock is also pitiable, even sympathetic, at times. He has been harshly handled by Venetian society and has seen his daughter elope with one of the same men who despise him. His passionate monologue in Act III, scene i reveals that he feels the same emotions as his opponents, and we cannot help but see him as a man. In fact, Shylock’s character is so well-rounded and intricate that many see him as the only interesting figure in a play that is not, in theory, supposed to center about him. Shylock’s scenes are gripping and fascinating, and many critics believe the play deflates every time he makes an exit.
The Merchant of Venice contains all of the elements required of a Shakespearean comedy, but is often so overshadowed by the character of Shylock and his quest for a pound of flesh that it is hard not to find in the play a generous share of the tragic as well. Lovers pine and are reunited, a foolish servant makes endless series of puns, and genteel women masquerade as men—all of which are defining marks of Shakespearean comedy. In sharp contrast to these elements, however, Shakespeare also presents Shylock, a degraded old man who has lost his daughter and is consumed with a bloody greed. The light language of the play’s comedic moments disappears for whole scenes at a time, and Antonio’s fate is more suspenseful than funny. The final act redeems the play’s claims to be a comedy, piling on the necessary humor and serendipity, but the rest of the play is overcast by the fact that Antonio may soon pay Bassanio’s debt with his life.
3. Discuss the relationship between Jessica and Shylock. Are we meant to sympathize with the moneylender’s daughter? Does Shakespeare seem ambivalent in his portrayal of Jessica?
In looking at the relationship between Jessica and Shylock, we are again forced to walk a fine line between sympathizing with and despising Shylock. For all intents and purposes, the play should label Shylock’s mistreatment by his own daughter as richly deserved. After all, he is spiteful, petty, and mean, and in his more cartoonish or evil moments, it is hard to imagine why Jessica should stay. At other times, however, Jessica’s escape seems like another cruel circumstance inflicted on Shylock, and her behavior offstage borders on heartless. Shylock is never more sympathetic than when he bemoans the fact that Jessica has taken a ring given to him in his bachelor days by his wife and has traded it for a monkey, the most banal of objects. Nor is Jessica ever able to produce satisfactory evidence that life in her father’s house is miserable. Her seeming indifference to Antonio’s fate—she and Lorenzo are more interested in the price of bacon—makes us wonder whether Jessica is actually more selfish and self-absorbed than the father she condemns. While Shylock is no saint, his resolve to collect his debt only seems to strengthen beyond reason after he discovers that Jessica has fled.
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(C) He gives no reason.
2. From what character flaw does Bassanio believe Gratiano suffers?
(B) A lack of depth
3. The caskets that Portia’s suitors must pick from are made of what materials?
(A) Gold, silver, lead
4. Which of the following is not a reason Shylock gives for hating Antonio?
(A) Antonio is in love with Shylock’s daughter, Jessica.
5. How does Shylock initially describe his demand for a pound of flesh to Bassanio and Antonio?
(C) As a harmless prank
6. Why does the prince of Morocco fear that Portia will dislike him?
(B) He has a dark complexion.
7. Whom does Bassanio agree to bring with him to Belmont?
8. What act does Jessica believe will solve the misery of life with Shylock?
(D) Marrying Lorenzo
9. According to Lorenzo’s plan, how will Jessica escape from her father’s house?
(A) She will disguise herself as Lorenzo’s torchbearer and slip out undetected.
10. How does Shylock react to losing Launcelot as a servant?
(B) He tells Launcelot that Bassanio will be a harder master
11. How does Portia react to the prince of Morocco’s failure as a suitor?
(A) She prays that no one with such dark skin ever wins her hand.
12. Who loses the opportunity to marry Portia by choosing the silver casket?
(B) The prince of Arragon
13. According to Tubal’s report, for what did Jessica trade Shylock’s most precious ring?
(D) A monkey
14. What course of action does Portia suggest when she learns that Shylock wishes to collect his pound of flesh?
(D) That the bond be paid many times over
15. Where does Portia instruct her servant Balthasar to hurry?
(B) To Padua to visit Doctor Bellario
16. What complaint does Launcelot make regarding the conversion of the Jews?
(C) He says that the price of bacon would soar.
17. In court, how does Antonio react to Shylock’s insistence on collecting his pound of flesh?
(B) He vows that he will meet Shylock’s hatred with patience.
18. Who enters the court disguised as a young doctor of Law named Balthasar?
19. What loophole in Shylock’s bond allows Portia to stop him from taking a pound of Antonio’s flesh?
(B) Shylock is entitled only to flesh, but not blood.
20. How is Shylock punished for seeking to take Antonio’s life?
(C) He must convert to Christianity and will his possessions to Jessica and Lorenzo upon his death.
21. What words does Shylock utter after accepting the court’s sentence?
(D) I am not well
22. What does Bassanio offer the young law clerk who saves Antonio?
(D) The three thousand ducats originally due to Shylock
23. What does Lorenzo order when he learns that Portia is on her way to Belmont?
24. What does Portia vow to do when she learns that Bassanio no longer has the ring she gave him?
(D) Make her husband a cuckold
25. What news does Antonio receive at the play’s end?
(B) Some of the ships he supposed were lost have arrived in port.
Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Shylock - A Jewish moneylender in Venice. Angered by his mistreatment at the hands of Venice’s Christians, particularly Antonio, Shylock schemes to eke out his revenge by ruthlessly demanding as payment a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Although seen by the rest of the play’s characters as an inhuman monster, Shylock at times diverges from stereotype and reveals himself to be quite human. These contradictions, and his eloquent expressions of hatred, have earned Shylock a place as one of Shakespeare’s most memorable characters.
Bassanio, a young Venetian of noble rank, wishes to woo the beautiful and wealthy heiress Portia of Belmont. Having squandered his estate, Bassanio approaches his friend Antonio, a wealthy merchant of Venice and a kind and generous person, who has previously and repeatedly bailed him out, for three thousand ducats needed to subsidise his expenditures as a suitor. Antonio agrees, but since he is cash-poor - his ships and merchandise are busy at sea - he promises to cover a bond if Bassanio can find a lender, so Bassanio turns to the Jewish moneylender Shylock and names Antonio as the loan's guarantor.
2. What if my house be troubled with a rat,
3. You have among you many a purchased slave
5. The man that hath no music in himself,
1. Discuss Shylock’s dramatic function in The Merchant of Venice. What do critics mean when they suggest that Shylock is “too large” for the play? Does he fulfill or exceed his role?
2. In the end, how comic is The Merchant of Venice? Does the final act succeed in restoring comedy to the play?
1. What reason does Antonio give for being sad in the opening scene of the play?
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