The Merchant of Venice By William Shakespeare



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The Merchant of Venice By William Shakespeare


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The Merchant of Venice By William Shakespeare

The Merchant of Venice By William Shakespeare
Play Summary
Antonio, a leading merchant of Venice, is a wealthy, respected, and popular man. Among his many friends is a young man named Bassanio, who owes Antonio a good deal of money. Bassanio would like to repay his friend, but so far he has been unable to do so. However, he now feels that he may have found a way - but he will again need a loan from Antonio. In Belmont, Bassanio tells Antonio, there lives a beautiful and young and wealthy heiress. Bassanio feels sure that he can win her hand in marriage, but he cannot go courting "hands-hanging." If he is to make a good impression, he has to appear at least as well off as her other wealthy suitors. Antonio tells his young friend that he would gladly lend him whatever amount of money he needs, but at the present time he himself is short of cash. All of his money is tied up in his merchant ships, which are still at sea. However, Antonio will not disappoint Bassanio. He knows of a moneylender who will probably lend him the necessary amount, and Bassanio can use Antonio's good name as security for the loan.
At Belmont, Portia speaks to Nerissa, her confidante, telling her how tired she is of the constant stream of suitors, and how she wishes to be free of the perverse obligation of her father's will: Portia cannot choose her own husband; she can marry only the man who chooses the correct one of three caskets - one gold, one silver, and one lead; one contains her portrait and that one is the lucky casket. So far, none of her suitors has decided to risk choosing one of the caskets, which is all for the good, because Portia has no liking for any of them. However, when Nerissa mentions the name of Bassanio, a possible suitor, Portia's mood brightens. He was once a visitor at Belmont, and Portia was impressed with him.
Meanwhile in Venice, Shylock, a rich Jewish moneylender who harbors a secret hatred for Antonio, has agreed to lend Bassanio three thousand ducats for three months, on Antonio's bond. Foregoing his usual high interest rate, Shylock demands instead that if the day for payment falls due and the money is not returned, he may cut off one pound of flesh from Antonio's body. Antonio agrees because all of his ships are due back in Venice a full month before the bond falls due.
A romantic subplot develops when Lorenzo, a close friend of Antonio and Bassanio, falls in love with Shylock's daughter, Jessica. He manages to elope with her by disguising her as a boy, and she manages to take with her a goodly amount of her father's ducats. Of course, this infuriates Shylock, and he vows revenge. Shortly thereafter, Bassanio and Gratiano leave for Belmont, where the "fair Portia" has just sent away the Prince of Morocco and the Prince of Arragon, two more disappointed, unsuccessful suitors. When Bassanio asks to choose one of the caskets, Portia falls immediately in love with him, and she begs him to wait a few days before choosing one of the caskets. He has fallen in love with Portia and insists on taking his chances. He rejects the gold one, then the silver one; he chooses, finally, the lead casket, and on opening it, he finds a portrait of Portia. Both he and Portia are overjoyed, and they make plans to be married at once, along with Nerissa and Gratiano, who have also fallen in love. Happiness reigns in Belmont until Bassanio is brought a letter from Antonio bidding him farewell since his ships have been lost at sea and since it is impossible that he will live after Shylock collects his pound of flesh. Horrified, Bassanio leaves instantly for Venice with money which Portia gives him to pay the bond.
In Venice, Shylock is no longer interested in the mere payment of the money due him. He wants revenge. A Christian stole his daughter (and she took his money), and nothing will satisfy Shylock except the legal fulfillment of the bond. In the court of justice, presided over by the Duke of Venice, Shylock faces his enemy, Antonio. Antonio is surrounded by his friends and is quietly resigned to death. On all sides, Shylock is surrounded by enemies. Bassanio pleads with Shylockto accept double the money due him, but Shylock refuses.
At this point, Portia, disguised as a lawyer, and Nerissa, dressed as her law clerk, enter the court and tell the Duke that they have been sent from Padua by a learned attorney, Doctor Bellario, to plead the defendant's case. Portia entreats Shylock to be merciful, but he will not listen. She offers the moneylender triple the amount owed him, but again Shylock will have none of it. She then solemnly informs the court that Shylock is entirely within his lawful rights. She then informs Shylock that he must be very careful. He must cutoff exactly one pound of flesh, and he must not spill one drop of Antonio's blood. If he fails, all of Shylock's lands and goods will be confiscated. Shylock hastily decides that he will accept the triple payment of the bond, but Portia says no; Shylock then offers to take only the original three thousand ducats, but again Portia refuses, reminding him that it was he himself who demanded the strict interpretation of the law. Furthermore, she says, the law has another hold on him. Since he is an alien in Venice and since he tried to "seek the life" of a Venetian citizen, all his wealth can be divided between the citizen whom he attempted to destroy and the public treasury; in addition, Shylock's own life is in peril because of what he attempted to do.
The Duke decides to spare Shylock's life, but he does give half of Shylock's money to Antonio, and he gives the rest of it to the state. Antonio says that he will not accept the money if Shylock will agree to become a Christian and if, in his will, he will agree to leave his money to his daughter, Jessica, and her new husband, Lorenzo. Shylock, broken and defeated, agrees to all these conditions and leaves the court. Overjoyed, Antonio and his friends offer to pay the young lawyer whatever they can, but, oddly enough, the lawyer wishes only a certain ring which Bassanio is wearing. Bassanio is embarrassed because his wife gave this ring to him and asked him to wear it always. But the lawyer insists and, finally, Bassanio reluctantly gives away Portia's ring. Nerissa likewise cleverly manages to get from Gratiano a ring she gave him. The two ladies then hasten back to Belmont to tease their husbands about the rings.
When Bassanio and Gratiano, along with Antonio, return to Belmont, their wives inquire about the missing rings. Portia and Nerissa insist that the men no doubt gave the rings away to two other women. The husbands swear that it is not true, and it is not until Portia and Nerissa have put their husbands through some long, comically agonizing moments of discomfort that they confess that they themselves were the "learned doctor" and the "clerk" to whom the rings were given. Thus all ends happily, as Portia gives Antonio a letter informing him that three of his ships have arrived safely in port.
Character List
Antonio A wealthy Venetian merchant who occasionally lends money, but never charges interest. Since his main source of income is from his merchant ships, he is the "merchant" of the play's title.
Bassanio He is a typical Elizabethan lover and nobleman who is careless with his money; hence, he has to borrow from Antonio so that he can woo Portia in style.
Portia As one of Shakespeare's most intelligent and witty heroines, she is famous for her beauty and for her wealth, and she is deeply anguished that she must marry only the man who chooses the single casket of three which contains her portrait.
Shylock Shylock is an intelligent businessman who believes that, since he is a moneylender, charging interest is his right; to him, it makes good business sense.
The Duke of Venice He presides as judge over the court proceedings in Shylock's claim on Antonio.
The Prince of Morocco One of Portia's suitors; he loses the opportunity to marry her when he chooses the golden casket.
The Prince of Arragon He chooses the silver casket; he is another disappointed suitor for Portia's hand in marriage.
Gratiano He is the light-hearted, talkative friend of Bassanio, who accompanies him to Belmont; there, he falls in love with Portia's confidante, Nerissa.
Lorenzo He is a friend of Antonio and Bassanio; he woos and wins the love of Shylock's daughter, Jessica.
Jessica She is the young daughter of Shylock; she falls in love with Lorenzo and, disguised as a boy, she elopes with him.
Nerissa Portia's merry and sympathetic lady-in-waiting.
Salarino He is a friend who believes that Antonio is sad because he is worried about his ships at sea.
Salanio He is another friend of Antonio; he thinks Antonio's melancholy may be caused because Antonio is in love.
Salerio A messenger from Venice.
Launcelot Gobbo He is a "clown," a jester, the young servant of Shylock; he is about to run away because he thinks Shylock is the devil; eventually, he leaves Shylock's service and becomes Bassanio's jester.
Old Gobbo The father of Launcelot, he has come to Venice to seek news of his son.
Tubal He is a friend of Shylock's; he tells him that one of Antonio's ships has been wrecked.
Leonardo Bassanio's servant.
Balthasar The servant whom Portia sends to her cousin, Dr. Bellario.
Dr. Bellario A lawyer of Padua.
Stephano One of Portia's servants.
Summary and Analysis Act I: Scene 1
Walking along a street in Venice, Antonio (the "merchant" of the title) confesses to his friends Salarino and Salanio that lately he has felt unaccountably sad. They have noticed it, and they suggest that Antonio is probably worried about the safety of his merchant ships, which are exposed to storms at sea and attacks by pirates. Antonio denies this and also denies that he is in love, a possibility that both of his friends think might explain Antonio's pensiveness. Salarino concludes that Antonio's moodiness must be due simply to the fact that Antonio is of a naturally melancholy disposition. At this point, their friends Bassanio, Lorenzo, and Gratiano join them, and after an exchange of courtesies, Salarino and Salanio excuse themselves. Gratiano takes a long look at his old friend Antonio and playfully chides him for being so solemn and so unduly silent. Gratiano says that he himself never has "moods"; in contrast to Antonio, Gratiano is determined to always "play the fool." Lorenzo intimates that sometimes Gratiano is too much the fool - that is, he is too loquacious. He and Gratiano depart, promising to meet the others at dinner.
Left alone with Antonio, Bassanio assures him that he should not worry about Gratiano's critical remarks. Antonio then changes the subject abruptly; he asks Bassanio for more information, as promised, about the certain lady to whom Bassanio has sworn "a secret pilgrimage." Bassanio does not answer Antonio directly; he begins a new subject, and he rambles on about his "plots and purposes" and about the fact that he has become so prodigal about his debts that he feels "gag'd."
Antonio tells his friend to get to the point; he promises to help him if he can. Bassanio then reveals his love for the beautiful and virtuous Portia, an extremely wealthy young lady who lives in Belmont. He says that her beauty and her fortune are so well known, in fact, that she is being courted by "renowned suitors" from all parts of the world. Bassanio, however, is confident that if he could spend as much money as is necessary, he could be successful in his courtship. Antonio understands Bassanio's predicament, but Antonio has a problem of his own. Since all the capital which Antonio possesses has been invested in his ships, his cash flow is insufficient for any major investments at this time. As a solution, however, Antonio authorizes Bassanio to try to raise a loan using Antonio's good name as collateral for credit. Together, they will do their utmost and help Bassanio to go to Belmont in proper style.
The first task confronting any playwright in his opening scene is his "exposition" of that play - that is, he must identify the characters and explain their situation to the audience. Shakespeare accomplishes this task of informative exposition very subtly in the opening fifty-six lines of dialogue between Antonio, Salarino, and Salanio. We learn that Antonio is a wealthy merchant; that he is worried for some obscure reason which makes him melancholy; that he is a member of a group of friends who arrive later - Bassanio, Lorenzo, and Gratiano - who represent the lively, convivial life of Venice. And perhaps most important for the purposes of the plot, we are told that Antonio has many shipping "ventures" - mercantile risks - and although he is not worried about them now, the idea is subtly suggested to us that his business ventures on the high seas may miscarry. We should recall this matter when Antonio finally decides to indebt himself to Shylock on Bassanio's behalf.
In this opening scene, Shakespeare begins to sketch in some of the characters and some of the atmosphere of the play. Antonio, for example, is presented as being "sad," afflicted with a melancholy which he himself does not appear to understand. Critics have puzzled over this: is Antonio to be viewed as a normally melancholy character? Is his sadness caused by his knowledge that he may shortly lose the companionship of his old friend Bassanio, who has told him of embarking on a "secret pilgrimage" to woo a beautiful and wealthy woman in Belmont? Or is his mood to be put down simply to an ominous foreboding which he has of some approaching disaster? For all dramatic purposes, in this scene Antonio's gravity serves, foremost, as a contrast to the lightheartedness of his friends.
Despite its dark and threatening moments, one should always remember that The Merchant of Venice is a romantic comedy and, like most of Shakespeare's romantic comedies, it has a group of dashing, if not very profound, young men. For example, Salanio and Salarino are not terribly important. Their lines are interchangeable, and they are not really distinguishable from one another. They represent an element of youthful whimsy. Salarino begins, typically, with a flight of fancy in which Antonio's ships are described as being like "rich burghers on the flood" and like birds, flying "with their woven wings." He continues into a delightfully fantastic series of imaginings; on the stage, of course, all this would be accompanied with exaggerated gestures, intended to bring Antonio out of his depression.
Thus, through the presentation on the stage of the sober, withdrawn Antonio, surrounded by the frolicsome language and whimsy of the two young gallants, Shakespeare suggests in compressed form two of the elements of the play - the real dangers that the merchant of Venice will face and the world of youth and laughter which will be the background to the love stories of Bassanio and Portia, Lorenzo and Jessica, and Gratiano and Nerissa.
This same note of gentle raillery is carried on when we see the entrance of three more young courtiers - Bassanio, Gratiano, and Lorenzo. Again, Antonio's mood is remarked on. Here again, Shakespeare is using Antonio as a foil for the spirited byplay of the others. Gratiano, especially, is ebullient and talkative, yet he is quite aware of his effervescence; he announces that he will "play the fool"; Gratiano talks, Bassanio tells Antonio, "of nothing, more than any man in all Venice," and his willing accomplice is Lorenzo; significantly, both of these characters are more distinctly drawn than Salanio or Salarino, and they will play more major roles in the development of the romantic plot and subplot of the play - Gratiano with Nerissa, and Lorenzo with Jessica.
One of the major purposes of this opening scene is to introduce Bassanio and his courtship of Portia, which will constitute the major romantic plot and also set the "bond story" in motion. Antonio's question concerning Bassanio's courtship of Portia is turned aside by Bassanio; he goes directly to the question of money, in order that the basis for the bond story can be laid. Some critics have seen in Bassanio's speeches some evidence of a character who is extremely careless of his money and very casual about his obligations; he seems, furthermore, to have no scruples about making more requisitions of a friend who has already done much for him. Yet clearly Shakespeare does not intend us to level any harsh moral judgments at Bassanio. According to the Venetian (and Elizabethan) view, Bassanio is behaving as any young man of his station might be expected to behave; he is young, he is in love, and he is broke. The matter is that simple. Antonio's immediate reassurance to his old friend reminds us of the strong bond of friendship between the two men. Interestingly, neither of them seems to be unduly concerned about money at this point; one is a wealthy merchant and the other, a carefree young lover.
This is a quality which we shall notice throughout the play in connection with both Bassanio and Portia; both of them recognize the necessity of money, but neither of them considers money to be of any value in itself. In their world of romantic love and civilized cultivation, they feel that they don't need to be unduly concerned with money. Shakespeare is setting up this point of view to contrast later with Shylock's diametrical point of view. For Shylock the moneylender, money constitutes his only defense against his oppressors.
Considering again Bassanio's problem with money and Antonio's reaction to it, note that Bassanio is straightforward in this scene with Antonio. His request is made "in pure innocence," and we take it at its face value. Those critics who decry Bassanio read more into his frank confession of poverty and his attempt to borrow money than is really there. We must recall that when Shakespeare wants to make us aware of some defect in one of his characters, he is always able to do so. The absolute and unconditional friendship between Antonio and Bassanio is one of the assumptions of the play, and we must never question it.
Summary and Analysis Act I: Scene 2
At Belmont, Portia discusses the terms of her father's will with her confidante, Nerissa. According to the will of her late father, Portia cannot marry a man of her own choosing. Instead, she must make herself available to all suitors and accept the one who chooses "rightly" from among "three chests of gold, silver and lead." Nerissa tries to comfort Portia and tells her that surely her father knew what he was doing; whoever the man might be who finally chooses "rightly," surely he will be "one who shall rightly love." Portia is not so certain. None of her current suitors is the kind of man whom she would choose for herself if she could choose. She cannot, however, for she gave her word that she would be obedient to her father's last wishes.
Nerissa asks her to reconsider the gentlemen who have courted her, and she names the suitors who have come to Belmont - a Neapolitan prince; the County Palatine; a French lord, Monsieur Le Bon; a young English baron, Falconbridge; a Scottish lord; and a young German, the Duke of Saxony's nephew. Portia caustically comments on their individual faults, finding each one of them undesirable as a husband. Fortunately, all of them have decided to return home, unwilling to risk the penalty for choosing the wrong casket - which is, remaining a bachelor for the rest of their lives.
Nerissa then reminds her mistress of a gentleman who came to Belmont while Portia's father was living - his name was Bassanio, a Venetian, a scholar and a soldier. Portia recalls him and praises him highly: "He, of all the men that ever my foolish eyes looked upon, was the best deserving of a fair lady." A servant interrupts the conversation and announces that a new suitor, the Prince of Morocco, will arrive that evening.
First off, the opening of this scene is deliberately reminiscent of the opening of Scene 1. Like Antonio, Portia announces her sadness, but unlike Antonio's, Portia's sadness is clearly due to the conditions imposed on her by her dead father's will: in the matter of her marriage, she must abide by the test of the choice of the three caskets; she can "neither choose who I would nor refuse who dislike [as a husband]."
We had been led to expect that Portia would be a woman who was very beautiful and very rich, but what we have now before us is a woman who is not only fair but quite impressive for her wit, for her agility of mind and for her sharp, satiric intelligence. It is, in fact, Portia's satiric flair that provides this comedy with most of its sparkle; here, it is displayed brilliantly when Nerissa urges Portia to reconsider her various suitors thus far, and Portia offers her wry and droll comments on each one.
It is at this point that Shakespeare is giving his audience the conventional Elizabethan satiric view of the other European nations. Portia's dismissal of each of her suitors corresponds to her age's caricatures of the typical Italian, Frenchman, German, and so on. The Neapolitan prince "does nothing but talk of his horse," a characteristic of only the southern Italian; the "County Palatine" (from the Rhineland) is a pure, unadulterated dullard; he is unable to laugh at anything; "Monsieur Le Bon" is "every man in no man" - that is to say, he has many superficial and changeable characters but no single, substantial one. (To marry him, as Portia says, would be "to marry twenty husbands.") The English suitor, on the other hand, affects European fashions in clothing but gets all of the various national fads - in clothes, music, literature, etc. - completely confused, and refuses to speak any language except his own. And then there is the Scot - defined by his anger at the English; and finally, there is the German who does nothing but drink. Portia sensibly refuses to be married to a "sponge."
Basically, we can say that this scene has three major purposes. First, it outlines the device of the caskets for us, which will provide the dramatic basis for the scenes in which the various suitors "hazard" their choice of the proper casket for Portia's hand in marriage. Second, it introduces us to Portia - not simply as the "fair" object of Bassanio's love, but as a woman of powerful character and wit, perceptive about the people around her and quite able to hold her own in verbal combat with anyone in the play. This is a very important quality, given Portia's subsequent importance in the development of the plot. Her brilliance much later in the play, as a result, will not come as a surprise to the audience, especially when she superbly outwits the crafty Shylock. Finally, there is a minor but significant touch toward the end of the scene, when Nerissa asks Portia whether or not she remembers a certain "Venetian, a scholar and a soldier" who had earlier visited Belmont. First, we hear Portia's immediate recall of Bassanio, indicating her vivid memory of him and implying an interest in him. This scene reminds us that, despite the obstructions to come, this is a comedy, and that because of Bassanio's attempt to win Portia and her affection for him, both of them will be finally rewarded.
Summary and Analysis Act I: Scene 3
Bassanio seeks out Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, for a loan of three thousand ducats on the strength of Antonio's credit. Shylock is hesitant about lending Bassanio the money. He knows for a fact that Antonio is a rich man, but he also knows that all of Antonio's money is invested in his merchant fleet. At the present time, Antonio's ships are bound for distant places, and therefore vulnerable to many perils at sea. Yet he says finally, "I think I may take his bond." He refuses Bassanio's invitation to dinner, however; he will do business with Christians, but it is against his principles to eat with them.
When Antonio suddenly appears, Shylock (in an aside) expresses contempt for him, saying that he hates Antonio because he is a Christian, but more important, he hates Antonio because Antonio lends money to people without charging interest; moreover, Antonio publicly condemns Shylock for charging excessive interest in his moneylending business. Finally, though, Shylock agrees to lend Bassanio the three thousand ducats. Antonio then says that he - as a rule - never lends nor borrows money by taking or giving interest. Yet because of his friend Bassanio's pressing need, Antonio is willing to break this rule. The term of the loan will be for three months, and Antonio will give his bond as security.
While Bassanio and Antonio are waiting to learn the rate of interest which Shylock will charge for the loan, Shylock digresses. He tells them about the biblical story of how Jacob increased his herd of sheep. He calculates the interest which he will charge and announces: "Three months from twelve; then, let me see; the rate." Shylock then accuses Antonio of having repeatedly spit upon him and called him a dog. And now Antonio and Bassanio come asking him for money. Yet they pride themselves that Antonio is a virtuous man because he lends money to friends, with no interest involved. Is this loan, Shylock inquires, a loan to be arranged among "friends"? On the contrary; this is not to be regarded as a loan between friends, Antonio asserts. In fact, Antonio says, Shylock may regard it as a loan to an enemy if he wishes. Then, surprisingly, Shylock says that he wants Antonio's friendship, and to prove it, he will advance the loan without charging a penny of interest. But in order to make this transaction "a merry sport," Shylock wants a penalty clause providing that if Antonio fails to repay the loan within the specified time, Shylock will have the right to cut a "pound of flesh" from any part of Antonio's body. Bassanio objects to his friend's placing himself in such danger for his sake, but Antonio assures him that long before the loan is due that some of his ships will return from abroad and that he will be able to repay the loan three times over. Shylock insists, at this point, that the penalty is merely a jest. He could gain nothing by exacting the forfeit of a pound of human flesh, which is not even as valuable as mutton or beef. The contract is agreed to, and despite Bassanio's misgivings, Antonio consents to Shylock's terms.
This scene has two important functions. First, it completes the exposition of the two major plot lines of the play: Antonio agrees to Shylock's bond - three thousand ducats for a pound of flesh; and second, and more important dramatically, this scene introduces Shylock himself. In this scene, Shakespeare makes it clear at once why Shylock is the most powerful dramatic figure in the play and why so many great actors have regarded this part as one of the most rewarding roles in all Shakespearean dramas.
Shylock enters first; Bassanio is following him, trying to get an answer to his request for a loan. Shylock's repetitions ("Well . . . three months . . . well") evade a direct answer to Bassanio's pleas, driving Bassanio to his desperately impatient triple questioning in lines 7 and 8; the effect here is similar to an impatient, pleading child badgering an adult. Throughout the whole scene, both Bassanio and Antonio often seem naive in contrast to Shylock. Shylock has something they want - money - and both Antonio and Bassanio think that they should get the loan of the money, but neither one of them really understands Shylock's nature.
In reply to Bassanio's demand for a direct answer, Shylock still avoids answering straightforwardly. Shylock knows what he is doing, and he uses the time to elaborate on his meaning of "good" when applied to Antonio. Only after sufficient "haggling" does he finally reveal his intentions: "I think I may take his bond." At Antonio's entrance, Shylock is given a lengthy aside in which he addresses himself directly to the audience. Shakespeare often uses the devices of asides and soliloquies to allow his heroes and, in this case, his "villain," a chance to immediately make clear his intentions and motivations to the audience - as Shylock does here.
Shylock's declaration of his hatred for Antonio immediately intensifies the drama of the scene; the audience now waits to see in what way he will be able to catch Antonio "upon the hip" and "feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him." Then Shylock is called back from the front of the stage by Bassanio, and he pretends to notice Antonio for the first time. Their greeting has ironic overtones for the audience, which has just heard Shylock's opinion of Antonio. There then follows a debate between An...

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The Merchant of Venice By William Shakespeare

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