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Antonio, a rich Venetian merchant, has lent a good deal of money to his best friend Bassanio, a charming and carefree young man with a tendency to live beyond his means. Bassanio has fallen in love with a beautiful heiress, Portia of Belmont, and he has reason to believe that she loves him too. If only he could marry Portia, Bassanio tells Antonio, his money problems would be solved, and he would be able to pay back all the money he owes. But Bassanio needs still more money to travel to Belmont and court Portia in suitable style. Antonio is not particularly worried about being repaid, and he wants to help Bassanio for friendship's sake. Since all of his capital is invested in ships' cargoes, he has no cash on hand at the moment, and therefore suggests that Bassanio borrow the money. Antonio promises to put up the collateral for the loan.
Bassanio strikes a deal with Shylock, a rich Jewish moneylender, to borrow three thousand gold ducats for three months. Shylock proposes an unusual contract: He will charge no interest on the loan, but if the money is not repaid in time, Antonio will have to give Shylock a pound of his own flesh! Shylock pretends that he means this part of the bargain as a joke. In reality, since he has been the victim of Antonio's prejudice, he is nursing a deep and bitter grudge against the merchant. Antonio, a generous and optimistic man, does not understand the depths of Shylock's hatred and cannot imagine that his business would fail and that he would have to pay this bond. Besides, he will have more money than he needs within a few weeks. He agrees to the bizarre terms of the loan.
In the meantime, we see Portia of Belmont with her maid Nerissa, discussing the arrangements for her marriage that have been set up under her late father's will. Portia, we learn, will not be allowed to choose a husband for herself. Instead, her suitors will have to choose among three small chests, or caskets- one made of gold, one of silver, and one of lead. The first suitor to pick the chest with Portia's picture in it will win her hand in marriage and her entire fortune. The losers must promise to remain single for the rest of their lives, not to reveal to anyone their incorrect choice, and to leave immediately.
In Act II of the play, two suitors try their luck with this test. The first, the proud and exotic Prince of Morocco, picks the gold casket. Inside the casket, he finds a skull and a scroll which warns that "all that glisters is not gold." Obviously, he has made the wrong choice. A second suitor, the haughty Prince of Arragon (Arragon = arrogant?), chooses the silver casket. He has won nothing but a portrait of a grinning idiot.
Back in Venice, Bassanio is planning a dinner party to celebrate his upcoming departure for Belmont. During the course of the preparations, his friend Lorenzo manages to elope with his secret sweetheart, Shylock's daughter Jessica. Jessica runs away from her father's house on the same night that Bassanio leaves Venice, taking with her as much of her father's gold and jewelry as she can carry.
Upon arriving in Belmont, Bassanio learns of the test of the three caskets and willingly tries his luck. Reasoning that outward appearances are often deceiving, he chooses the lead casket, and so wins Portia's hand. Portia is delighted. She gives Bassanio a gold ring as a token of her love, making him promise never to give it away as long as their love lasts.
While Bassanio was courting Portia, his friend Gratiano has fallen in love with Portia's maid, Nerissa. This couple also decides to marry and Nerissa gives Gratiano a ring similar to the one Portia gave Bassanio.
The two pairs of lovers have little chance to enjoy their newfound happiness. Shortly after their betrothal, news arrives from Venice that all of Antonio's merchant ships have been lost at sea. Suddenly impoverished, Antonio is unable to repay on time the money Bassanio borrowed from Shylock. Shylock demands that Antonio fulfill the terms of the contract by giving up a pound of his own flesh. After a hasty double marriage ceremony, Bassanio and Gratiano hurry back to Venice to save their friend Antonio, leaving their brides behind in Belmont.
Lorenzo and Jessica, now married, show up in Belmont at the same time Antonio's bad news arrives from Venice. Portia asks the young couple to take care of her house while she and Nerissa go on a retreat to pray for their husbands' safe return. In reality, however, Portia has a secret plan. She and Nerissa arrive in Venice, disguised as a doctor of laws and his page boy, just in time for the trial which will decide whether or not Antonio must honor the terms of his agreement with Shylock.
At the trial, Shylock stubbornly insists that the law must award him his pound of Antonio's flesh. Bassanio, now wealthy, thanks to his marriage to Portia, offers to repay three times what he originally borrowed, but Shylock has no interest in the money. He wants revenge for the way he had been abused- and if the loss of a pound of flesh costs Antonio his life, so much the better. Shylock is also angry over his daughter's elopement with a Christian. Portia, disguised as a young male lawyer, argues that while Shylock is entitled to his "bond" under the law, in the interest of true justice he ought to be willing to show mercy towards his enemy Antonio. Shylock rejects this plea.
Just at the moment when it seems Shylock has won his case and Antonio will have to die, Portia brings up another objection. Under the terms of the loan, Shylock is entitled to exactly one pound of flesh, but not a drop of blood. Moreover, Shylock could be found guilty of a capital crime for breaking a law that forbids conspiring to take the life of a citizen of Venice. The Duke of Venice, acting as judge at the trial, spares Shylock's life but orders him to convert to Christianity and give half his wealth to Antonio, who will manage it on behalf of Lorenzo and Jessica. In addition, Shylock must agree to leave his own money to Jessica and Lorenzo in his will.
Having saved Antonio, Portia decides to play a trick on her new husband Bassanio- who still does not recognize her in her disguise. Portia says that the only reward she will accept for rescuing Antonio from certain death is the gold ring that Bassanio is wearing. Bassanio hesitates, but when Antonio urges him to give it, he feels he cannot refuse. Later, Nerissa manages to get her ring back from Gratiano under the same pretense.
When Bassanio, Gratiano, and Antonio return to Belmont, Portia and Nerissa pretend to be very jealous. They accuse their husbands of giving away the gold rings to women- which, in fact, is true although Bassanio and Gratiano don't know it. Portia then produces the ring and hands it to Antonio. He, in turn, hands it to Bassanio who recognizes it as the same ring he gave the young lawyer in Venice. After more teasing, Portia finally admits that she and the male "doctor of laws" are one and the same person. Nerissa shows her ring and tells Gratiano that she was the lawyer's boy servant. Bassanio and Gratiano are delighted to learn that their new wives are as clever as they are beautiful. Portia, meanwhile, has one more piece of good news. A letter has arrived from Venice with word that Antonio's ships were not destroyed at sea after all. They have returned to port bearing rich cargoes, making him once again a wealthy man.
HIGH POINTS IN THE PLOT OF THE MERCHANT OF VENICE
- Antonio Cannot Repay the Loan - Bassanio Picks the Right Casket - Morocco & Shylock Pound of Arragon Wants His Antonio is Unfolding Flesh Fail to Win Pound of About to Lose of the Contract Portia Flesh His Life Ring Plot - Usurer's Portia Upsets Happy Portia's Daughter Portia Will the Contract Ending for Father's Elopes with Try to Save ----- All but Will a Christian Antonio Shylock Loses Shylock - ACT I ACT II ACT III ACT IV ACT V -
The physical action of The Merchant of Venice is divided between two settings: Venice and Belmont. The first of these locales is real, the second imaginary- a split that emphasizes the tension in the play between real-life problems and fairy-tale solutions.
The Italian city-state of Venice exercised a powerful hold on the imaginations of Englishmen in Shakespeare's time. In many ways, Venice was what England aspired to become. It was a major commercial hub and a center of international trade. Although geographically small, the city-state had a tradition of independence and orderly government the English admired. The cosmopolitan character of Venice was especially alluring. In the English imagination, at least, the well-traveled citizens of Venice were witty and sophisticated, enjoying as a matter of course such oriental luxuries as fine silks, sugar and exotic spices which were still relatively expensive in England.
On the negative side, there was a feeling that Venice's internationalism, and its devotion to making money through trade, represented trends threatening the traditional character of English society. For example, Venice- unlike England- had a substantial population of Jews and other alien elements. It is noteworthy that in The Merchant of Venice Shakespeare makes use of the traditional image of the Jew as an alien, plotting against the welfare of citizens.
Belmont, the second locale of the play, is an imaginary world of music, laughter, and domestic bliss. The scenes of the play set in Venice take place in public spaces, in the streets, and in the courtroom. The action in Belmont is relegated to Portia's house and garden. Venice is governed by a set of laws that bind even the Duke; Belmont is ruled by the fairy-tale illogic of Portia's father's will. Portia's father, of course, is dead before the play begins. Even the generation gap is absent from the idealized world of Belmont, as are the social restrictions that would have prevented a sixteenth-century heiress from acting as independently as Portia.
Some readers feel that Shakespeare intended Venice and Belmont to represent opposite sets of values. Another view is that the two worlds are complementary; Venice stands for the public side of life where business, law, and manly friendship predominate- Belmont represents the private treasures of the heart, including romantic love and an appreciation of the merciful side of God's nature. You might be able to think of still another way to express the contrast between these two places.
If you associate the word "comedy" with movies or TV shows filled with slapstick humor and snappy one-liners, then you may be surprised to learn that The Merchant of Venice is considered a comedy. In dramatic terms, however, a comedy can be a play that makes a light, basically optimistic comment on romantic relationships.
As it happens, The Merchant of Venice touches on some serious social issues, particularly the problem of anti-Semitism. Because of this, some readers are tempted to forget that the form of the play is a romantic comedy. There have even been a few readers, the same ones who see Shylock as a tragic hero, who have tried to argue that the play is not a true comedy at all, but a tragedy disguised as comedy.
If you look at the plot devices used in The Merchant of Venice, however, you will find that they are quite typical of romantic comedies, particularly the romantic comedies of Shakespeare's time. For example, the lovers in the play are kept apart by external forces, not by shortcomings in their own characters or incompatibility. As in other Shakespearean comedies, these forces include arbitrary laws and restrictions (the conditions of Portia's father's will) and cases of mistaken identity, often involving the wearing of disguises.
Another common feature of comedies is that the original problem is often less important and complex than the eventual solution. This is certainly true in The Merchant of Venice. At the beginning of the play, Bassanio's "problem" is supposedly that he wants to repay the debt he owes Antonio- even though Antonio does not care very much about getting his money back. Bassanio's "solution" to this problem, courting and marrying a beautiful heiress, promises to be pleasant enough for him but requires turning Antonio into a debtor himself and even endangering his very life. Only in the world of comedy would the logic of this sequence of events be accepted without question.
THE FIVE-ACT STRUCTURE. The following diagram may help you to visualize how the action of the play is structured around the "problem" of Bassanio's debt:
ACT II: RISING ACTION. Complications ensue. Other suitors arrive to compete for Portia's hand; the elopement of Shylock's daughter strengthens his desire for vengeance.
ACT III: RISING ACTION. Bassanio wins Portia, but the problem of the debt is more urgent than ever.
ACT IV: CLIMAX. Portia's unexpected appearance at the trial enables Bassanio to repay his debt of friendship.
ACT V: CONCLUSION. The "interest" on the debt is tallied up in the form of Antonio's restored wealth and the lovers' happiness.
Another view of the structure of The Merchant of Venice is that the action is circular: Antonio helps Bassanio to borrow money... which Bassanio uses to win Portia... which causes Portia to go to Venice to save Antonio. In this interpretation, the circle is completed at the end of Act IV of the play. Act V also serves to reemphasize the theme of circularity through the episode of the rings.
Another way of looking at the structure of the play might be to see it as a two-stranded braid. Woven together are events in two settings, Belmont and Venice, as well as threads of two different stories- the tale of the three caskets and that of the pound of flesh. Here, too, the knot between the two strands is tied in Act IV, when Portia comes to Venice and resolves Antonio's dilemma. Act V might be compared to the decorative tassel at the end of the braid- finishing off the play neatly and happily.
You can visualize the structure of the play by paying attention to the locales of the succeeding scenes:
- BELMONT VENICE - ACT I: Scene I Scene II Scene III - ACT II: Scene I Scenes II through VI Scene VII Scene VIII Scene IX - ACT III: Scene I Scene II Scene III Scenes IV & V - ACT IV: Scenes I & II are both in Venice, but with Portia and Nerissa present there. - ACT V: The single scene of Act V takes place in Belmont, but with Antonio present. -
HISTORICAL AND SOCIAL BACKGROUND
Two major issues raised by The Merchant of Venice are anti-Semitism and usury (which meant, in Shakespeare's time, loaning money at any rate of interest, not just at an excessive rate- as we define usury today). The following background information will help you understand these issues.
The Merchant of Venice is one of several Shakespearean plays that create problems for modern readers because they are based on assumptions that we may find unpleasant and even repugnant. Many theatergoers today, especially women, have trouble enjoying performances of The Taming of the Shrew because the happy ending of this comedy is based on the heroine's acceptance of the principle that a good wife ought to submit to the authority of her husband. Some audiences and readers dislike the history play Henry V because of the manner in which it glorifies war and conquest. In the case of The Merchant of Venice, the troublesome issue is the anti-Semitic portrayal of the character of Shylock. There is no way to ignore the fact that Shylock's character reflects some very nasty stereotypes about Jews. Not only is Shylock portrayed as being money mad, to the point of having lost touch with his natural feelings for his only daughter, but the motivation of his actions also draws on the belief, common in Shakespeare's time, that Jews were constantly plotting in the most bloodthirsty ways against Christians.
Of course, if The Merchant of Venice were merely an anti-Semitic propaganda play there would be no reason to continue to read and study it today. The play's continued popularity depends not just on other factors- such as the beauty of the language and the treatment of such timeless themes as love, mercy, and justice- but on the very way in which Shakespeare managed to rise above the anti-Semitism of his times to make Shylock a fully developed, even sympathetic character. One way in which modern readers come to terms with the anti-Semitic assumptions in The Merchant of Venice is to stress these counterbalancing factors. A few readers go so far as to deny that Shylock is the villain of the play at all.
Another way to come to terms with the value system of the play is to try to understand it in the social context of Shakespeare's times. In sixteenth-century Europe Jews were a despised and persecuted minority. England, in fact, went beyond mere persecution and harassment by banning Jews from the country altogether. In theory at least, there were no Jews at all in England in Shakespeare's time, and there hadn't been since the year 1290 when they were officially expelled by King Edward I.
For some time it was thought that Shakespeare had never actually met a Jew and must have created the character of Shylock entirely from his imagination. We now know that this was not necessarily the case. Despite what the law said, there was a small community of Spanish Jews living in London during Shakespeare's time. These exiles from Spain managed to evade the intent of the law by nominally converting to Christianity. Shakespeare may have been aware of this community, and possibly even have known some of its members. However, there is no reason to believe that either he or his audience viewed the existence of Jews in London as a major social problem.
One theory about Shakespeare's motivation for writing The Merchant of Venice is that he intended to capitalize on anti-Semitic public opinion aroused by the well-publicized trial in 1594 of Roderigo Lopez. Lopez, a Portuguese Jew who had converted to Christianity, had been the personal physician of the very popular queen, Elizabeth I. He was convicted and executed for supposedly plotting to murder his royal patient. We cannot be sure that Shakespeare had the Roderigo Lopez case in mind. Most likely, he did. However, a few historians doubt that this was so. They point out that during Shakespeare's time the English people viewed the Portuguese and the Spanish, their national enemies and rivals in trade, with great distrust. The popular hatred of Roderigo Lopez may have had more to do with his being Portuguese than with his being Jewish.
In any event, the most influential models for the character of Shylock were no doubt drawn from literature, not real life. The Jewish villain was a stock character in medieval literature. Medieval passion plays, reenactments of the story of the crucifixion of Jesus, invariably portrayed the disloyal disciple Judas Iscariot as a stereotypical Jew. (Of course, historically, Jesus and all of his disciples were Jewish, but this was ignored.) The part of Judas was usually played for comedy, by an actor wearing an outrageous red wig and a false nose. Subsequent authors, when they portrayed Jewish characters at all, always cast them as villains.
A more immediate model for the character of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice was probably the character of Barabas in the play The Jew of Malta by Christopher Marlowe. In Marlowe's play, which was first performed in 1591, Barabas is a very wealthy Jewish merchant who lives on the Mediterranean island of Malta. Like Shylock, Barabas has an only daughter who is in love with a Christian. Barabas also has a rational motive for hating Christian society. In the play, he is angered by the passage of a law requiring all Jews to either convert to Christianity or give up one half of their wealth. Nevertheless, Barabas is a thoroughly evil character. He resorts to murder and treason to gain his revenge and enjoys watching the pain and suffering he has caused.
When we compare The Merchant of Venice to a play such as The Jew of Malta we can see just how far Shakespeare rose above the prejudices of his times. Shylock may be a comic villain, a stereotypical figure to some extent, but the play also insists that the audience accept him as a human being. It is no accident that many readers today find Shylock the most fully realized, even the most sympathetic character in the play.
The contemporary issue that Shakespeare had in mind when he set out to write The Merchant of Venice was not so much anti-Semitism as usury. Today, the word usury means lending money at excessively high rates of interest. In Shakespeare's time, any loan made for interest was usury, regardless of the rate charged. Nowadays, usury in this sense of the word is not a social issue, except in a very few countries. It may be true that no one enjoys owing money, but the average American, for instance, takes payment of interest completely for granted.
During the Middle Ages, however, most European countries had laws against usury. These laws were based on the Christian church's view that usury was forbidden by the Bible. Churchmen called attention to a passage in Deuteronomy: "Thou shalt not lend upon usury to thy brother; usury of money, usury of victuals, usury of any thing that is lent upon usury: Unto a stranger thou mayest lend upon usury." Since in the New Testament Jesus had chased moneylenders out of the temple, most Christian theologians felt that the prohibition against usury carried over to Christians as well. All Christians were brothers in theory; therefore they could not charge each other interest. Jews, however, according to Deuteronomy, could charge interest to Christians, though not to other Jews. Laws which kept Jewish minorities from entering into many occupations encouraged Jews in many countries to take advantage of this interpretation of the law and go into the business of moneylending.
By Shakespeare's time, changing economic conditions had made the Church's traditional position on usury impractical to say the least. In medieval times, the typical individual borrowed money only in cases of dire need. By the sixteenth century, however, the economy had developed to a point where businessmen needed to borrow money in the everyday course of conducting their affairs. It was no longer reasonable to expect that anyone would advance them money purely for friendship's sake.
Usury became legal in England in 1551, four decades before The Merchant of Venice was written. However, it was still a controversial social issue, and not just among the poor. By the sixteenth century, however, anyone who wanted to live well needed a constant flow of cash. There were more luxury goods available than ever before, but their prices were constantly rising. The young noblemen of The Merchant of Venice, cheerfully striving to live above their means, were all too familiar to Shakespeare's audiences.
In making the character of Antonio an international merchant, Shakespeare seems to recognize and accept certain social changes. Antonio professes to be against the practice of usury. Yet he himself makes a living by buying goods on a large scale and selling wherever he can make a profit. What is the difference between profiting from, say, a cargo of wheat and profiting from a loan of money?
However, the play does seem to be taking the traditional position of the Church that usury and brotherhood are mutually exclusive. It is Shylock's practice of lending money at interest, as much as his Jewishness, which sets him apart from the rest of society. Antonio and Bassanio seek out the moneylender Shylock of their own free will. They aren't driven to borrow by any desperate personal need, but by Bassanio's belief that he can use the borrowed money to make a good impression on Portia. At the end of the play, Bassanio escapes economic reality by marrying the heiress Portia and going to live in Belmont. However, Antonio is left in Venice where, we suppose, he will continue doing business as before. Shylock, of course, has been condemned for trying to turn usury into a weapon of revenge, for scheming to get his "pound of flesh." Yet at the same time he has been given a speech which reminds us forcefully that moneylenders, and Jews, are human beings like anyone else.
Ultimately, you will have to decide for yourself what The Merchant of Venice is trying to say about the social issues of Jews vs. Christians and moneylenders vs. debtors. Remember, just because a work of literature is a classic, there is no requirement that you have to approve or agree with every message it contains. On the other hand, the more you learn about the play and its social context, the more you may come to discover and appreciate the complexities of its views of human nature and social relationships.
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