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The Merchant of Venice
William Shakespeare


THE STORY

ACT I, SCENE I

LINES 1-56

The Merchant of Venice begins on a street in Venice where Antonio, the title character, is walking with two friends, Solanio and Salerio. Antonio complains to his friends that he is feeling very sad but has no idea why. Solanio and Salerio try to be helpful by suggesting reasons for Antonio's glum mood: Perhaps, they suggest, he is worried about the fate of his "argosies" (merchant ships) out on the high seas.

If he were in Antonio's place, Salerio adds, he would be very worried about storms at sea. If you have ever had friends try to cheer you up, only to end up reminding you of all reasons you have to be really depressed- reasons you haven't even thought of on your own- you will be ready to appreciate the subtle humor of this scene. Instead of drawing Antonio out, his "helpful" friends force Antonio to defend himself.

Antonio denies that he is worried about his business. He has no need to, he says, since he never risks all of his money in one place. Solanio next suggests that Antonio must be in love. Antonio dismisses this possibility at once.

In that case, Solanio says, Antonio must just be sad by nature. Forgetting for a moment that he started out trying to lift Antonio's spirits, he comments unhelpfully that some people are just born with a "vinegar aspect"- a sour disposition.

NOTE: Antonio's very first sentence- "In sooth, I know not why I am so sad"- is one of many often-quoted lines in this play. In part, the line is remembered because it used to be taught to English students as an example of Shakespeare's main verse form- iambic pentameter. Each line in this form has ten syllables, with every two syllables equal to one foot (iamb). Every second syllable gets the strong accent:

In sooth', | I know' | not why' | I am' | so sad'. |

It is also memorable because it neatly sums up Antonio's mood. But why is Antonio sad? He dismisses all the obvious reasons his friends suggest.

Many different possibilities have been suggested to explain Antonio's sadness. A simple explanation is that Shakespeare is using Antonio's mood to set the scene. Although Antonio has no reason that he knows of for feeling depressed, his mood foreshadows the troubles that are about to begin. It tips off the audience that some development in the plot is going to interrupt Antonio's carefree existence.

LINES 56-190

Three more of Antonio's friends- Bassanio, Lorenzo and Gratiano- show up just as Salerio and Solanio are leaving. Gratiano also notices Antonio's melancholy mood. He advises Antonio to do as he does- "play the fool," talk and be merry.

After Lorenzo and Gratiano go on their way, Antonio and Bassanio become involved in more serious conversation. Bassanio admits that for some time he has been enjoying a standard of living puffed up beyond what he can afford. He already owes Antonio a good deal of money. Now he has a plan that would solve his financial problems and allow him to pay Antonio back. Of course, there is one small hitch. To put his plan into action he needs to borrow still more money.

Bassanio explains that he wants to court a beautiful heiress named Portia. He has reason to believe that Portia cares for him- she has been sending him "speechless messages" with her eyes. Nevertheless, there are many other wealthy suitors vying for Portia's favor. Bassanio needs money so that he can compete with his rivals.

NOTE: Bassanio compares Portia's lovely hair to the golden fleece, a treasure in Greek mythology. In the myth, the treasure was eventually won by Jason, the captain of a ship called the Argo. It is appropriate that Antonio's money, earned by merchant ships traveling the high seas, will be used to finance Bassanio's courtship.

Antonio readily agrees to Bassanio's plan. Unfortunately, he does not happen to have any cash on hand at the moment since all of his money is tied up in ships already at sea. He suggests, however, that Bassanio try to borrow money in his name.

You will notice in this scene that neither Antonio nor Bassanio appear to take money very seriously. It has even been suggested that Bassanio is a fortune hunter, taking a risky loan from a friend in order to make himself appear much wealthier than he actually is. But listen to Bassanio talk about Portia. He certainly sounds like a young man in love and not just a cold-hearted fortune hunter.

ACT I, SCENE II

The location of the action now shifts to Belmont and the home of Portia.

Portia's first words include "my little body is aweary of this great world," a complaint that echoes Antonio's in Scene I. Like Antonio, Portia seems to have more than her share of blessings. She is young, good looking and wealthy. And she, too, is chided for admitting that she is less than completely happy with her situation. In this case, the lecture is delivered by Portia's lady-in-waiting, Nerissa, who remarks that those who have too much good fortune often seem to be as unhappy as those who have too little.

Nerissa suggests that perhaps the secret of happiness is to be "seated in the mean," or to be average. "Superfluity comes sooner by gray hairs," she adds, meaning that people who have more money than they need may end up worrying so much about it that they age prematurely.

NOTE: What do you think of Nerissa's suggestion? Is it really easier to be happy if you are average? And even if this happens to be true, is this kind of happiness worth settling for?

Considering what this play has to say in favor of the virtues of harmony and balance, Nerissa's philosophy may be taken to represent the point of view of the playwright. You might notice, however, that she and the other characters who speak in favor of the balanced, moderate approach to life happen to do rather well for themselves, both financially and romantically. Do you agree that too much money is likely to be a source of unhappiness? Or is this just a sentimental notion?

Unlike Antonio, Portia knows very well what is bothering her. She is unhappy about the terms of her father's will which prevent her from choosing the man she will marry. Instead, the will specifies that any man who wants to wed Portia must choose among three chests- caskets- one of gold, one of silver and one made of lead. The first suitor to pick the chest which has Portia's picture in it will win her hand.

This is just the kind of situation that you would expect to encounter in a fairy tale. In fact, Belmont is an imaginary place governed by fairy-tale rules. Shakespeare does not even bother to supply a logical reason why Portia's father might have set up this test for his daughter's suitor. Nerissa merely comments that since her father was a wise man he must have had some "good inspiration" for the arrangement.

Portia goes on to discuss her many suitors in terms that leave no doubt that she is a witty woman with very definite opinions of her own. As Nerissa reviews the names of the suitors, Portia reminds her of the faults of each one:

The prince from Naples cares about nothing but his horse. The Count Palatine is unbearably gloomy. The Frenchman, Monsieur Le Bon, is so shallow that he changes from minute to minute; "he is every man and no man." The Englishman, Falconbridge, has picked up his clothes and his customs from every country in Europe but can't speak any language but his own. The cowardly Scotsman is memorable only because of his hatred for his English rival. The German is a drunkard, and who, asks Portia, would want to be married to a sponge?

NOTE: Portia's witty characterizations of her suitors reflect certain prejudices about foreigners that were prevalent in Shakespeare's England. The playwright teases his audience, however, by including Portia's views on Falconbridge, one of their own countrymen. The English Lord has traveled widely and collected souvenirs indiscriminately, yet he has never bothered to learn a foreign language.

Fortunately, none of the suitors Portia so dislikes has been willing to accept the terms of her father's will, which are that any suitor who picks the wrong chest must promise never to marry as long as he lives. He may not reveal which casket he chose, and he must leave immediately. Portia does recall one young man whom she liked, a certain Venetian, "a soldier and a scholar" named Bassanio. But of course, as she tells Nerissa, her own preferences make no difference. She is a prisoner of her father's will. As if to emphasize this, the scene ends with the announcement that still another suitor, the Prince of Morocco, has arrived.

ACT I, SCENE III

Back in Venice, Bassanio has approached the moneylender Shylock with a request for a loan of three thousand ducats for three months, to be secured on Antonio's credit.

Shylock agrees to make the loan, but he tells Bassanio that he will want to speak personally to Antonio. Bassanio then invites Shylock to his house, so that the three men can discuss the deal over dinner. Shylock, a Jew, refuses. He will not go to dine where he has to "smell pork." Doing business together is one thing, but, he tells Bassanio, "I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you."

NOTE: On one level, Shylock's refusal seems to be based on the simple fact that in dining with gentiles he might be forced to violate Jewish dietary laws. In the context of the play, however, the refusal seems to reflect a common Elizabethan view that anyone who refuses to share your food, as Shylock does, is hostile and untrustworthy. Later on, we will see Shylock set aside his scruples and go to Bassanio's after all, but for reasons that are not at all friendly.

At that moment, Antonio appears. In an aside- a speech heard by the audience but not by the other characters onstage- Shylock confesses his deep hatred for Antonio. "I hate him for he is a Christian," Shylock begins. Furthermore, Antonio lends money without charging interest, thus undercutting Shylock's business. Shylock calls Antonio an enemy of "our sacred nation" (the Jewish people) and mentions, as evidence of this, that Antonio has publicly denounced Shylock for practicing usury.

NOTE: The author of a novel can tell us directly what his characters are thinking. A dramatist does not have quite the same freedom. The audience must judge the characters in a play solely by their actions and their speech. The aside gives the playwright a chance to get around this limitation to some extent by allowing the character to "think out loud." Shylock's aside tells us a good deal about his motivations for wanting to make trouble for Antonio. But does it tell us enough? In a very few lines, Shylock gives a number of different reasons for his grudge. If you were in Shylock's shoes, which reason would trouble you the most? Why?

Speaking directly to Antonio and Bassanio, Shylock defends the charging of interest by citing the Biblical story of Jacob and Laban (Genesis 30:31-43). In this story, Laban promises Jacob that as payment for his work in guarding Laban's sheep Jacob will be allowed to keep all the spotted lambs that are born. Jacob used cunning to increase the number of speckled lambs in the herd.

Shylock then reminds Antonio that in the past Antonio has spit on him and called him a "cut- throat dog." Does Antonio now expect Shylock to give him an interest-free loan, as between friends? Antonio assures Shylock that he has nothing of the kind in mind. He is ready to pay.

NOTE: Again, your opinion of Shylock will depend a good deal on which of his reasons for his hatred of Antonio you take most seriously. In his aside, it seems at first that Shylock was motivated by a hatred of all Christians. Next, Shylock added a more practical, even selfish, reason: Antonio has interfered with his ability to make a living. Now, when we hear that Antonio actually spat on Shylock in public, the balance of our sympathies might tilt in Shylock's favor.

At this point, Shylock suddenly becomes very friendly and assures Antonio that he doesn't intend to charge him interest at all. He wants to make friends, and so will lend the money out of kindness. Just for fun, he says, he wants to put a provision into the loan agreement that if Antonio fails to repay the money he will have to give Shylock a pound of his own flesh. Shylock innocently insists that he has no particular desire ever to collect this penalty. After all, he only cares about money. What profit is there in human flesh?

Bassanio, horrified, urges Antonio not to accept. However, Antonio insists that he has no worries about his ability to repay the loan. He agrees to the bargain.

Antonio even comments that Shylock "will turn Christian; he turns kind." This remark is apparently not meant to be ironic. Antonio, assuming that only Christians are capable of kindness, is naive as well as unthinkingly intolerant.

Perhaps you know some individuals from your own experience who, like Antonio, are simply not given to searching for hidden motives, either other people's or their own. If we are to believe Salerio and Solanio, Antonio's naivete on this score is evidence of his goodness; he is too virtuous himself to suspect that Shylock might be plotting against him. As you read on, however, notice what the play has to say about the conflict between external appearances and inner reality. Perhaps being too trusting is not a sign of innocence, but of shallowness. Perhaps Antonio is even a bit of a masochist- a man who unconsciously enjoys playing the martyr role. What do you think?

ACT II, SCENE I

At Portia's home in Belmont, a fanfare of trumpets announces the arrival of her latest suitor, the Prince of Morocco. The Prince is an exotic, physically imposing man, tall and dark-skinned and dressed from head to toe in white. No one, however, could accuse the Prince of being humble. He immediately informs Portia that she mustn't hold his blackness against him- his blood is as red as that of any white- skinned northerner. And, he adds boastfully, women love his dark skin.

NOTE: The prince proudly calls his dark skin "the shadowed livery of the burnished sun," a beautiful phrase. Livery is a uniform, often very elaborate or showy, worn by the servants of the aristocracy. So the prince is saying that a dark complexion is the uniform of those who live close to the tropical sun.

Portia agrees that the Prince is as fair as any suitor she has yet seen, but under the terms of her father's will the Prince will have to take his chances like anyone else.

The Prince is not very happy with the nature of the test that he will have to face but he's willing to take his chances. He has plenty of courage, he tells Portia. With his scimitar, he has killed a Persian king (sophy) and a prince, and done battle with the army of the great "Solyman," the Turkish sultan.

The scene ends with Portia inviting the Prince to have dinner with her before he tries his luck with the three chests.

ACT II, SCENE II

On a street in Venice, Launcelot Gobbo, Shylock's servant, is debating out loud with his conscience about whether he should leave Shylock or seek a new master. Launcelot is the clown of this play, a character whose appearance is the signal for an interlude of low comedy relief. Launcelot's reasons for wanting to leave Shylock at this particular moment are left vague. His speech is, for the most part, an excuse for broad comic acting.

NOTE: Launcelot describes his conscience as "hanging about the neck of my heart"- in other words, holding back his desires in the same way that a clinging woman might hold back her reluctant lover. On the stage, actors playing this scene typically use a high-pitched, falsetto voice for the lines "spoken" by Launcelot's conscience. The clown's conscience and his desires have created almost a split personality which struggles visibly for control of his body.

Launcelot's debate with himself is interrupted by the appearance of Old Gobbo, his nearly blind father. Launcelot describes his father as "sand-blind," a twisted version of an old English word "samblind" which means half-blind. Old Gobbo is not only practically sightless, but he's as silly as his son. He does not recognize Launcelot's voice, and is totally confused by the nonsensical directions that Launcelot gives him for getting to Shylock's house. Launcelot even teases Old Gobbo by hinting that his son is dead. "It is a wise father who knows his own child," Launcelot says. In the context of Launcelot's speech it is just another absurd, throwaway line. You may recall it later, however, as we learn more about the relationship of Shylock and his only daughter Jessica.

No sooner has Old Gobbo finally recognized Launcelot, than Bassanio appears. Launcelot begs Bassanio to take him on as a servant.

Again, there would be no point in asking why Bassanio wants to have the muddleheaded Launcelot as a servant. Launcelot exists in the play purely for the sake of humor and as a direct link between Shylock and Bassanio.

At the close of this comic scene Gratiano appears and asks Bassanio to take him along to Belmont. Bassanio agrees, provided that Gratiano curb his "wild behaviour" and constant talking.

ACT II, SCENE III

Returning to Shylock's house to pick up his belongings, Launcelot says goodbye to Jessica, Shylock's only child. Jessica complains that "our house is hell" and adds that she will be sorry to see Launcelot go, for at least he has been a "merry devil." Jessica gives Launcelot a letter to be delivered to a certain Lorenzo, who will be a guest at the banquet Bassanio is planning to give that very evening. Apparently, Shylock's loan is already being spent to maintain Bassanio's gracious style of living.

After Launcelot leaves, Jessica remarks to herself that she is her father's daughter by blood, but not in manners. If her plans work out, she will soon be escaping Shylock's house to marry Lorenzo and become a Christian.

NOTE: The young couple in love who foil parental opposition by eloping together were a standard feature of Elizabethan drama. Audiences were prepared to take the lovers' side and did not normally waste much sympathy on the father who was deceived. In this case, there is the added complication that Jessica will reject her father's religion and convert to Christianity. Jessica mentions in passing that it's a "sin" for a daughter to be ashamed of her own father. However, she does not seem to be agonizing very deeply over her own disloyalty.

ACT II, SCENE IV

Bassanio is preparing a festive dinner party to celebrate his departure for Belmont. Discussing his plans with his friends- Gratiano, Salerio, Solanio and Lorenzo- Bassanio reveals that the entertainment will include a masque.

NOTE: The masque was a popular form of entertainment during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The participants wore fancy dress and disguised their identity with masks. The evening included dancing, pantomime skits and, often, a parade through the streets. The best-known equivalent of a masque nowadays is probably the annual Mardi Gras celebration held in New Orleans.

Launcelot arrives with Jessica's message, informing Lorenzo that she is ready to elope. She's bringing with her all the gold that her father has in his house. Delighted with Jessica's plan to steal Shylock's gold and jewels when she leaves the house, Lorenzo adds that if Shylock ever gets into heaven it will be thanks to his "gentle" daughter.

If you are like most modern readers, you may find it hard to share Lorenzo's satisfaction over this development. It's one thing for him and Jessica to plan an elopement, quite another for them to cheerfully conspire to rob Jessica's own father! Audiences in Shakespeare's day probably had fewer qualms about the morality of this plan. Shylock, the Jew, was assumed to be in the wrong, and his daughter's desire to convert to Christianity was proof of her virtue. Notice, too, that these characters have absolutely no sympathy for Shylock's sober, frugal style of living. In an age when wealth and social position were expected to go hand in hand, to have money and not spend it freely was considered suspect, almost evil in itself. Wealthy aristocrats were expected to live in accordance with their status in society and to spread their money around. Businessmen, who became wealthy through hard work and thrift, were not necessarily admired. It is interesting to compare this outlook with the view that it is in bad taste for the rich to flaunt their position by "conspicuous consumption." Which philosophy of spending do you think is in style today?

ACT II, SCENE V

Bassanio had previously invited Shylock to dinner. Shylock suspects that he is not being invited out of friendship, but he decides to accept the invitation anyway. He will, he says, "go in hate to feed upon the prodigal Christian." In other words, Shylock plans to attend the dinner in order to savor the sight of Bassanio foolishly spending his borrowed money.

Before he leaves, Shylock warns his daughter to lock herself up in the house. He has dreamed about money bags, a bad omen. Also, he does not want Jessica to be exposed to the sight of the foolish revelry of the Christians' masque.

The very language Shylock uses emphasizes his materialism. He talks about his house almost as if it were a person. Ordering Jessica to shutter the windows, he tells her to "stop my house's ears" to keep out the sounds of the masque.

Launcelot, meanwhile, manages to pull Jessica aside long enough to deliver a cryptic message:

There will come a Christian by
Will be worth a Jewess' eye.

Jessica recognizes that this is a signal from Lorenzo. The elopement is on for that evening.

ACT II, SCENE VI

It is now evening and Gratiano and Salerio, dressed in their costumes for the masque, have slipped away from Bassanio's dinner party to meet Lorenzo on the corner near Shylock's house. The two men comment rather cynically that most people get more enjoyment out of chasing happiness than they do from the happiness itself.

NOTE: This is one of several scenes in the play where the young Venetians compare themselves to merchant ships. Gratiano says that when a young man sets out from home he is like a ship departing from its home port, pennants flying. Later, after being hugged by the "strumpet wind" the same ship returns home looking worn and bedraggled, like a prodigal son.

Lorenzo arrives and leads his friends to Shylock's house where Jessica appears in an upstairs window, dressed as a page boy. Jessica, embarrassed by the way she looks in boys' clothes, consoles herself with the thought that:

Love is blind, and lovers cannot see
The pretty follies that they themselves commit.

You may wonder, at this point, whether Jessica's remark applies to more than just her clothes. Stealing money from Shylock is another "pretty folly"- at least in the terms of the play.

Jessica and Lorenzo escape, in the company of Salerio. Gratiano, meanwhile, runs into Antonio who brings the news that the masque has been canceled. The wind has changed to favor sailing, and Bassanio's ship is going to leave port very soon. Gratiano hurries to join his friend.

ACT II, SCENE VII

The setting is again Belmont, where the Prince of Morocco is about to try his luck at winning Portia's hand.

Portia pulls aside a curtain and shows the Prince the three chests, or caskets, among which he must choose. The first chest, made of gold, has an inscription which reads: "Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire." The second chest is made of silver. Its inscription reads: "Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves." The third chest is made of lead. Its inscription warns: "Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath." Portia tells the Prince that if he chooses the right chest he will find her portrait inside.

The prince immediately dismisses the lead chest. His "golden mind" would not stoop to risking so much for mere lead. He is tempted by the silver chest, since in his own opinion he very much deserves the fair Portia. But it is the third casket, the gold one, that pleases him most. Obviously, he reasons, Portia is desired by the whole world. It would be an insult to her beauty to think that her portrait would be anywhere but in the most valuable and showy of the three caskets.

Receiving the key from Portia, the Prince opens the gold chest and finds... a skull! Inside the hollow eye socket of the skull is a scroll. The prince unfolds this paper and reads a verse which says, in part:

"All that glisters is not gold
Often have you heard that told...
Gilded tombs do worms infold."

NOTE: Most likely you foresaw that the Prince's choice would be the wrong one. In fairy tales, for some reason, the most obvious choice never turns out to be correct. Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, wrote an interesting essay in which he compared this scene with various folk tales in which a suitor has to choose among three daughters. Invariably, the youngest and, seemingly, the least pretty of the daughters is the correct choice. Different writers have advanced many reasons why the homeliest daughter invariably turns out to be the right choice. Freud thought that the plain sister originally represented death. Storytellers over the years, in effect, reversed the meaning of the fable. By making the plain girl the choice that brought good luck, they were wishing death out of existence. A more obvious explanation is that such tales simply seek to warn us against superficial values. A flashy appearance is not necessarily evidence of inner worth.

ACT II, SCENE VIII

Salerio and Solanio, on a street in Venice, engage in a conversation that brings us up to date on Shylock's reaction to his daughter's elopement.

Salerio tells his friend that on learning of Jessica's elopement Shylock made a fool of himself by going through the streets wailing, "O my ducats! O my daughter!" The implication is that Shylock is a heartless man who thinks of his daughter as just another possession- like his horde of gold ducats.

Also, in the course of this conversation, Salerio mentions hearing some ominous news. An Italian merchant ship has been reported sunk in the English Channel. He fervently hopes that the ship will not turn out to be one of Antonio's.

ACT II, SCENE IX

At Portia's house, another suitor has arrived to face the test of the three caskets. This suitor, the Prince of Arragon, is just as proud as the Prince of Morocco. Instead of being outgoing and boastful, however, he is cold and haughty. The Prince of Morocco at least admitted that when it came to a test of luck he would be on the same plane as any other man. The Prince of Arragon is sure that his intelligence and superior taste will lead him to the right choice. He passes over the lead casket without a second thought, remarking that he wouldn't stoop to risking all he had for mere lead. He also dismisses the gold casket. Anything that "many men desire," he reasons, must be for the common herd, not for him. Arragon concludes that the silver casket must be the right choice. He has no qualms at all about the inscription's promise that he will get what he deserves. This is a man who feels certain that he deserves to win.

Unlocking the chest Arragon finds... a picture of a grinning idiot! The Prince accepts this rebuke with remarkably good grace. Taking the idiot's picture with him, he says that he came to Belmont with one fool's head but will leave with two.

NOTE: Most readers have no trouble accepting that the gold chest, the choice dictated by greed, should be the wrong one. But why should the "wise" choice also be wrong? Doesn't this seem unfair? One possible explanation is that the Prince of Arragon's wisdom is not guided by love. The Prince of Morocco wanted Portia as a sort of accessory to his own dazzling image. Arragon wanted Portia because he thought he was supposed to want her. His very attitude towards losing suggests that he is not terribly disappointed at the thought of not being able to marry Portia- or, for that matter, any woman at all, according to his promise. One senses that love does not play a very large role in Arragon's scheme of values.

After the Prince departs, a messenger arrives with the news that yet another suitor has appeared- a young Venetian so courteous and so laden with rich gifts for Portia that he is a very promising "ambassador of love." Both Portia and Nerissa hope that the newcomer will turn out to be Bassanio.

THE STORY, continued

THE PLAY


ECC [The Merchant of Venice Contents] [PinkMonkey.com]

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