The play begins with the wealthy title character, Antonio, depressed. “I know not why I am so sad” is his famous opening line. His friends Salerio and Solanio attempt to comfort him. “Your mind is tossing on the ocean” (8), observes Salerio, foreshadowing the sinking of Antonio's fleet in 3.1. Solanio wonders if he might be in love, though Antonio quickly dismisses the notion (46-8). But, as we'll see (and as is played up in many modern productions), there is a strong current of homoeroticism between Antonio and Bassanio throughout Merchant (and many other Shakespeare plays) that cannot be so easily refuted. Might Antonio's quick denial of being in love mask homosexual desires that he doesn't want to admit?
Shortly after Solanio's amorous inquiry, Bassanio, Antonio's “most noble kinsmen” (57), enters along with friends Lorenzo and Gratiano, who invite Antonio to dinner later that evening (70-71). A moment later, Antonio and Bassanio are left alone on stage. “To you, Antonio,” Bassanio admits, “I owe the most in money and in love,” (130-1). There is no explicit evidence that “love” in this case means anything other than “Platonic friendship”, though it's not difficult to infer implicit intimacy into this scene. However, Bassanio then reveals his romantic interest in Portia, a wealthy heiress in Belmont. It is unclear to what extent Bassanio's interest in Portia is genuine affection vs. gold digging – is he sincerely in love, or just after her fortune? We learn in the following scene (1.2.112-21) that they have met at least once before, and recall each other fondly. But Bassanio also frames his courtship as a plan for “How to get clear of all the debts I owe.” (130-4).
Straightforwardly or otherwise, if Bassanio is to pursue Portia, he'll need more money to compete with her many other suitors. “[B]e assur'd”, consoles Antonio, “My purse, my person, my extremenst means / Lie all unlock'd to your occasions” (137-9). However, “all my fortunes are at sea / Neither have I money nor commodity / To raise a present sum; therefore go forth / Try what my credit can in Venice do.” (177-80)
The scene switches to Belmont, where Portia and her attendant, Nerissa, discuss her marital situation. “I may neither choose who I would, nor refuse who I dislike”, she complains. “[S]o is the will of a living daughter curb'd by the will of a dead father.” (23-5) Before his death, Portia's father devised a game in which potential spouses must guess between three caskets – one gold, one silver, one lead. Hidden in one of them is Portia's portrait (note the similarity between those words). If guessed correctly, he wins Portia as a wife.
Nerissa lists several suitors from all over Europe, whom Portia mocks mercilessly, until Nerissa asks, “Do you not remember, lady, in your father's time, a Venetian, a scholar and a soldier[?]” (113). “Yes, yes, it was Bassanio”, Portia responds enthusiastically. “I remember him worthy of thy praise.” (115-6 & 120-1) Why does Nerissa mention Portia's father in this context? Might Bassanio have been Portia's father's choice to marry her?
But Portia's momentary relief at the mention of Bassanio is short-lived, for just then a servant enters to notify Portia that “the Prince of Morocco … will be here to-night.” (125-6) Reminded again of her lack of marital choice, she hangs her head in disappointment and sulks off stage.
Back in Venice, Bassanio negotiates with Jewish moneylender Shylock. They agree to a loan of “Three thousand ducats for three months, and Antonio bound.” (9-10). The term “bound” in this case has multiple meanings: Not only is Antonio agreeing to pay back the money, but it also foreshadows his physical binding in 4.1 after he fails to pay.
Antonio enters, prompting an aside from Shylock. “I hate him for he is a Christian[.] …He hates our sacred nation[.] … Cursed be my tribe if I forgive him!” (42, 48, 51-2). Clearly they have a history of animosity, as Antonio is extremely antisemitic. “You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog, / And spet [spit] upon my Jewish gaberdine”, he accuses Antonio. But “now it appears you need my help.” (111-4)
What is going through Shylock's mind in this scene? His easiest and safest choice would be refusing to lend the money in the first place. After all, he admits “I cannot instantly raise up the gross[.] … Tubal, a wealthy Hebrew of my tribe, / Will furnish me.” (55-8) Shylock's lack of immediate access to the money results in a chain of borrowing: Bassanio borrows from Antonio, who borrows from Shylock, who borrows from Tubal. But Shylock does accept the bond – and the extra work that comes along with it. Why? What's in it for him? The obvious answer is revenge.
At what point does revenge dawn on Shylock? Is it right away, at the start of the scene? Or might Antonio inadvertently instigate this vengeance? “I am as like to call thee so again,” Antonio retorts sardonically to Shylock's accusations, “To spet on thee again, to spurn thee too.” (130-1) One way or the other, Shylock responds with insincere amity. “I would be friends with you, and have your love,” he insists. “Forget the shames that you have stain'd me with” (138-9). Only when Antonio defaults do we come to realize that Shylock's friendly words were deceptive – he never had any friendly intent, only retribution.
Under the guise of humorous absurdity, Shylock suggests as most unusual and cruel punishment should Antonio fail to reimburse:
If you repay me not on such a day,
In such a place, such sum or sums as are
Express'd in the condition, let the forfeit
Be nominated for an equal pound
Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken
In what part of your body pleaseth me. (146-51)
And Antonio is more amused than fearful at the proposition. “Content, in faith, I'll seal to such a bond,” he assents, “And say there is much kindness in the Jew.” (152-3) Antonio will be much less jovial in 4.1, when Shylock actually sharpens his knife!
Shylock has been the most dynamic character in the long history of performances of The Merchant of Venice. The Royal Shakespeare Company details that history, and how Shylock has been portrayed over the centuries. What started as a comedic role assumed more dramatic and compelling interpretations, especially after the horrors of the Holocaust in the mid-twentieth century.
Back in Belmont, the Prince of Morocco arrives. “[L]ead me to the caskets / To try my fortune” (23-4), he confidently proclaims. (Ironic that he uses the word “lead”, when the correct casket is the one made of “lead”!) But before she does so, Portia raises the stakes of the game. “[I]f you choose wrong,” she warns, “Never to speak to lady afterward / In way of marriage” (40-1) Undaunted, the Prince proceeds.
The clown Launcelot Gobbo appears on stage, alone. He speaks of “this Jew my master” (2), meaning Shylock, who consistently mistreats him. When his father, Old Gobbo enters, they together discuss the pros and cons of abandoning his master. “Certainly the Jew is the very devil incarnation,” Launcelot concludes. “I will run … for I am a Jew if I serve the Jew any longer.” (27-8, 31, 112-13) From now on, he will work as Bassanio's servant, instead.
Meanwhile, Gratiano wishes to travel with Bassanio to Belmont. Bassanio consents, though not without a stern warning “To allay with some cold drops of modesty / Thy skipping spirit, lest through thy wild behavior / I be misconst'red in the place I go to, / And lose my hopes.” (186-9)
Shylock's daughter, Jessica, is the last major character to be introduced. Apparently she and Launcelot have been talking candidly off-stage, for her scene-opening line expresses sorrow over his decision that “thou wilt leave my father so. / Our house is hell, and thou, a merry devil, / Didst rob it of some taste of tediousness.” (1-3) Launcelot's abandonment of Shylock might inspire Jessica's own, for she gives him a letter to deliver to Lorenzo, her secret lover. “O Lorenzo,” she pleads in a brief scene-ending monologue, “If thou keep promise, I shall end this strife, / Become a Christian and thy loving wife.” (19-21)
Launcelot dutifully delivers Jessica's letter to Lorenzo. “She hath directed”, he explains upon reading it, “How I shall take her from her father's house” (29-30).
Shylock, having been invited to dinner by Bassanio, leaves Jessica home alone, with strict restrictive orders:
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 casement 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 sound of shallow fopp'ry enter
My sober house. (29-36)
Shylock's anti-music proclivities correlate him with other anti-music Shakespearean characters, most notably Cassius from Julius Caesar, who “loves no plays, … hears no music; [and] Seldom he smiles” (1.2.203-5). This will resurface in 5.1. “Farewell,” Jessica bids her father in a scene-concluding couplet, “and if my fortune not be cross'd / I have a father, you a daughter, lost.” (56-7)
Lorenzo, with assistance from Gratiano and Salerio, arrives at Shylock's house, where Jessica, disguised in boys' clothing, is awaiting rescue. She takes a “casket” full of her father's most precious valuables as she flees.
In one of the most interesting passage of the whole play, she comments, “I am glad 'tis night, you do not look on me, / For I am much asham'd of my exchange.” (34-5) But what does she mean by “exchange”? She could be referring to her eloping – the illegitimate exchange of her residence. Or perhaps to her theft of her father's jewels. Or maybe to her “gender exchange”, being a female character dressed as a male. Or possibly all of those things at once. “But love is blind, and lovers cannot see / The pretty follies that themselves commit,” she continues. “For if they could, Cupid himself would blush / To see me thus transformed to a boy. (36-9) Jessica is self-conscious about her love for Lorenzo while cross dressing, as they would appear to be a gay male couple to any unknowing observer. This gender bending and homophobia reinforces the homoerotic tension already present between Antonio and Bassanio.
Portia presents the Prince of Morocco with the three caskets, instructing him to make his choice. Each is adorned with an inscription. The gold reads, “Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire” (5); the silver reads, “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves” (7); the lead, “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath” (9). He chooses gold, but departs in agony when it turns out to be incorrect.
Salerio and Solanio mock Shylock's misfortunes and discuss “A vessel of our country richly fraught” (30) that “miscarried” (29) in the English Channel, foreshadowing the fate of Antonio's own ships.
Yet another suitor, the Prince of Arragon, arrives in Belmont. He selects the silver casket, and departs disappointed. The scene closes with news of Bassanio's arrival, with “Gifts of rich value” (91), which brightens Portia's mood considerably.
Solanio and Salerio are talking once more, this time “that Antonio hath a ship of rich lading wrack'd on the Narrow Seas” (1-3), fulfilling the foreshadowing we saw in 1.1 and 2.8.
Shylock enters, lamenting the loss of his daughter. “She is damn'd for it”, he wails, “My own flesh and blood to rebel!” (31, 34) It's hard for an audience not to feel sympathy for him, especially as Solanio and Salerio ridicule him ruthlessly. “There is more difference between thy flesh and hers than between jet and ivory,” the latter taunts, “more between your bloods than there is between red wine and Rhenish [white wine].” (39-42)
Their conversation quickly moves on to Antonio and his recently lost ship. “I am sure if he forfeit thou wilt not take his flesh”, Salerio proclaims. “What's that good for?” (51-2) “[I]f it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge” (53-4), Shylock responds ominously, before launching into one of the most famous speeches of the play, and one of the most poignant speeches in all of Shakespeare:
He hath disgrac'd me, and hind'red me half a million, laugh'd at my losses, mock'd at my gains, scorn'd my nation, thwarted my bargains, cool'd my friends, heated mine enemies; and what's his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hat not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal'd by the same means, warm'd and cool'd 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 (54-72).
It's this scene – and this passage specifically – that precludes a completely comedic or thoroughly villainous interpretation of his character.
Fellow Jew Tubal (who, you'll recall, Shylock mentioned in 1.3) arrives with news of Jessica. “Your daughter spent in Genoa, as I hard, one night fourscore ducats,” he relates, as Shylock cringes. “One of them show'd me a ring that he had of your daughter for a monkey” (108-9, 118-9). It's unclear if the term “monkey” refers to a literal animal, for which she exchanged the ring, or if that is a metaphor – perhaps Elizabethan slang, the significance of which is lost on modern audiences. In any case, the only comforting news Tubal bears to Shylock is confirming that Antonio's ships have indeed sunk, and thus “Antonio is certainly undone.” (124)
Having witnessed the Prince of Morocco choose the gold casket in 2.7, and the Prince of Arragon select silver in 2.9, we the audience know the correct casket must be the lead one. But Bassanio doesn't know that, as he prepares to make his decision.
As he deliberates, Portia orders, “Let music sound while he doth make his choice” (43). Curiously, the song sung while Bassanio deliberates opens with three lines, all of which rhyme with the correct answer:
Tell me where the fancy bred,
Or in the heart of in the head?
How begot, how nourished? (63-6)
Portia made no such command for either of the previous suitors, and she clearly wishes to marry Bassanio, so might this be her way of tilting the odds in her favor? Whether or not Bassanio heeds her hint, he correctly selects the lead casket, and thus wins Portia's hand in marriage. Ecstatic, Portia gives Bassanio a ring, “Which when you part from, lose, or give away, / Let it presage the ruin of your love” (172-3).
Gratiano, meanwhile, has developed a parallel affection for Nerissa. “My eyes, my lord, can look as swift as yours”, he asserts. “You saw the mistress, I beheld the maid.” (197-8) Nerissa happily reciprocates his ardor, and at some point gives him a ring, too (it comes up in 4.2), though apparently off stage.
But their celebration is cut short when a telegram arrives notifying Bassanio that Antonio has failed to pay back their loan. “Here are a few of the unpleasant'st words / That ever blotted paper!” (251-2), he bemoans to Portia. When she realizes the amount is only three thousand ducats, she's shocked that it's so low. “What, no more?”, she asks. “Pay him six thousand, and deface the bond. … First go with me to church and call me wife, / And then away to Venice to your friend” (298-9, 303-4).
Meanwhile, back in Venice, Antonio attempts to reason with Shylock to avoid the harsh penalty for failing to pay back the loan. But Shylock will have none of it. “I'll have my bond”, he insists, “I will not hear thee speak.” (12) And Antonio realizes that Shylock's friendly face from 1.3 was just a facade.
Portia gets the zany and legally dicey idea to impersonate the judge adjudicating between Shylock and Antonio, thereby saving Antonio's life. She sets her plan in motion by lying to Lorenzo:
I have toward heaven breath'd a secret vow
To live in prayer and contemplation,
Only attended by Nerissa here,
Until her husband and my lord's return.
There is a monast'ry two miles off,
And there we will abide. (27-32)
She also instructs her servant Balthazar to deliver a letter she has written to one Doctor Bellario in Padua.
In perhaps the most unnecessary scene of the play, Launcelot warns Jessica that she might have trouble getting into heaven because “the sins of the father are to be laid upon the children” (1-2), despite her conversion to Christianity. Lorenzo arrives and tells Launcelot to back off, rebuking him for impregnating a black woman out of wedlock. After Launcelot exits, Jessica speaks of her deep admiration for Portia, though they have only met once (in the previous scene).
In a Venetian courtroom, the Duke encourages Shylock to “show thy mercy” (20), yet he refuses. When Bassanio also encourages mercy, Shylock answers, “I am not bound to please thee with my answers.” (65) And when Bassanio offers six thousand ducats – double the original amount – Shylock still declines. “How shalt thou hope for mercy, rend'ring none?” (88), asks the Duke, foreshadowing that the tables will soon turn on Shylock. But again he refuses. “What judgment shall I dread,” Shylock responds, “doing no wrong? … If you deny me, fie upon your law!” (89, 101)
Meanwhile, Nerissa, disguised as a lawyer's clerk, brings a letter from Doctor Bellario “commend[ing] / A young and learned doctor to our court. … His name is Balthazar.” (143-4, 154). But Balthazar (not to be confused with Portia's servant of the same name) is actually Portia impersonating a legitimate lawyer. She, too, first attempts to talk Shylock into mercy, then into accepting several times the loan amount. But Shylock refuses every offer. “There is no power in the tongue of man / To alter me” (241-2), he maintains.
Quickly realizing that any such attempts to talk sense into Shylock will fail, Portia changes tactics, instead adopting a paralyzing hyper-literal interpretation of the contract: Since the bond makes no mention of blood, she says, should Antonio bleed “one drop” during the flesh-ectomy, “thy lands and goods / Are by the laws of Venice confiscate” (310-1) on the grounds that Shylock has failed to follow the contract. Furthermore, she continues, since the contract explicitly states “a pound of flesh”, should Shylock should remove any more or less than exactly one pound, “Thou diest, and all thy goods are confiscate.” (332)
Realizing his sticky situation, Shylock reluctantly agrees to accept the reimbursement of the original three thousand ducats. But Portia shoots him down again. “He shall have merely justice and his bond.” (339), she declares.
Shylock, defeated and dejected, prepares to leave. But Portia intervenes yet again.
If it be proved against an alien,
That by direct or indirect attempts
He seek the life of any citizen,
The party 'gainst the which he doth contrive
Shall seize one half his goods; the other half
Comes to the privy coffer of the state.
And the offender's life lies in the mercy
Of the Duke only. ...
Thou hast contrived against the very life
Of the defendant. …
Down therefore, and beg mercy of the Duke. (347-63)
In an ironic twist, Portia forces Shylock to do precisely what she begged of him only moments earlier.
Shylock is stunned at the sudden and severe change of events. “You take my house when you do take the prop / That doth sustain my house”, he complains. “[Y]ou take my life / When you do take the means whereby I live.” (375-8) But the back-breaking blow comes a moment later, when Antonio adds “He [must] presently become a Christian” (387). Having lost his daughter, his valuables, and his loan, he now looses his religion, too. He loses everything dear to him. In short, he loses his integrity and reasons for living.
It appears that Shakespeare intended this scene (indeed, the whole play) to be funny. After all, it was listed as a comedy when published in the First Folio in 1623. Moreover, Judaism was illegal in England at the time this play was written (ca. 1596-97), and had been since King Edward I's Edict of Expulsion in 1290 – one reason why the play is not set in England. There are reports of Jews living (or at least practicing) secretly in England at this time, but it seems unlikely that Shakespeare ever met any Jewish people, much less sympathized with their struggles, though no concrete evidence exists to either confirm or deny that.
Courtroom drama over, Antonio and Bassanio meet with Balthazar (whom they still don't realize is actually Portia) to thank him (her), and offer gifts in thanks (nevermind the obvious conflict of interest). At first he (she) refuses any gifts, saying, “He is well paid that is well satisfied” (415). But after reconsidering, he (she) requests Antonio's gloves, and Bassanio's wedding ring. At first, Bassanio refuses to part with the ring, and Balthazar (Portia) exits. But Antonio coerces him into changing his mind. “Let his [Balthazar's] deservings and my love withal”, he coaxes, “Be valued 'gainst your wive's commandement.” (450-1) And so Bassanio gives the ring to Gatiano, with instructions to deliver it to Balthazar (Portia).
Gratiano catches up with Balthazar (Portia) and hands over the ring. Seeing Portia's manipulative power, Nerissa wonders if she can pull off the same stunt. “I'll see if I can get my husband's ring,” she confides to Portia, “Which I did make him swear to keep for ever.” (12-13) We find out in the next and final scene that she was indeed successful, albeit off stage (as was her giving of the ring in the first place).
Back in Belmont once last time, Lorenzo and Jessica sit together in the moonlight, comparing their love to famous couples throughout history. (Oddly, all the lovers mentioned end in tragedy!) Lorenzo calls for music, and declares, “The man that hath no music in himself / Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds, / Is fit for treasons[.] … Let no such man be trusted” (83-5, 88). This is a clear reference to Shylock's diatribe against music in 2.5.29-36.
Portia and Nerissa (no longer in disguise) enter and comment favorably on the music. When Bassanio, Gratiano, and Antonio arrive a moment later, Nerissa pranks her husband by asking what happened to the ring she gave him. “I gave it to a youth,” Gratiano stammers, still not realizing the joke. “No higher than thyself, the judge's clerk, / A prating boy, that begg'd it as a fee. / I could not for my heart deny it him.” (161-5) Portia joins the ironic marital fun by saying that her man would never part with his ring. To which Bassanio sheepishly confesses, also not realizing the joke. Portia and Nerissa give “new” rings to Bassanio and Gratiano, who are shocked to find they are the same rings in question. In one final joke, the two women claim that they obtained back the rings by having sex with the doctor and his clerk, rendering both men cuckolds. But enough is enough, and they finally reveal the truth: That Portia was the doctor, and Nerissa the clerk. Finally recognizing the gag, Gratiano takes the play's final lines: “[W]hile I live I'll fear no other thing”, meaning another man, “as keeping safe Nerissa's ring.” (306-7)
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