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Introduction to The Merchant of Venice

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The Play:

The Merchant of Venice was probably first performed around 1596 – 97 by The Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Shakespeare had become a sharer and actor in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in 1594, and so by the time of the first performances of The Merchant of Venice, was working with a well-known (to him) set of actors, which enabled him to produce a ‘relational drama’, particularly in the extended trial scene of Act 4 Scene 1. As Bart Van Es says in Shakespeare in Company, this scene “is all about the drama of persuasion: it plays upon antipathies and loyalties that have evolved over the course of the play.”

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Context:

In the Christian society of Medieval England, making money by lending it and charging interest (usury) was unacceptable, both philosophically and religiously, principally because ‘usury challenged the ethos of Christian neighbourliness’.

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When loans were required, the practice grew up of borrowing money from Jewish money-lenders, who were not under the same philosophical and religious constraints. The root of the conflict between Antonio and Shylock is Antonio’s willingness to lend money without interest, which impacts adversely on Shylock’s business.

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By Elizabethan times, with the growth of a nascent capitalism, the need for money to fund projects had grown enormously: the mechanisation of the wool industry; setting up of the colonies in Virginia; the founding of the East India Company; even the funding of Drake’s expedition to “singe the King of Spain’s beard” was partly state-funded, partly privately-funded.

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London was changing from the capital of a primarily agricultural country to becoming an international trading centre. Little wonder that attention should turn to Venice, a leading trading city, where Jews had formed the beginnings of a banking system.

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With an irony worthy of Shakespeare himself, our capitalistic society is now based on a banking system that lends money for interest, and is happy to bankrupt people, businesses, and countries that default on their debts. Where has Christian neighbourliness gone?

The Plot:

The structure of the play is quite unusual. Acts One, Two, and Three interweave the story of Antonio’s loan contract with Shylock, and his failure to replay the loan; the story of the three suitors at Belmont with the three caskets; and the elopement of Jessica with Lorenzo.

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Act Four is given over to the trial of Shylock and Act Five reunites the couples at Belmont, for ‘the trial’ of the two rings given to the lawyer and his clerk by the two husbands of Portia and Nerissa.

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The cause of the conflict between Antonio and Shylock is quite clear. Antonio follows the classic Christian view of the time, that money should be lent free of interest, to encourage the growth of bonds of friendship within the community. Shylock is a commercial money-lender and he is understandably upset by Antonio’s habit of lending money free of interest. It spoils his business. That commercial conflict has led to mutual hatred.

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“SHYLOCK.

I hate him for he is a Christian:
But more, for that in low simplicity
He lends out money gratis, and brings down
The rate of usance here with us in Venice”

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and

“SHYLOCK.

Shall I bend low, and in a bond-man’s key
With bated breath, and whispering humbleness,
Say this: Fair sir, you spat on me on Wednesday last;
You spurned me such a day; another time
You called me dog: and for these courtesies
I’ll lend you thus much moneys.”

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ANTONIO.
I am as like to call thee so again,
To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too.
If thou wilt lend this money, lend it not
As to thy friends, for when did friendship take
A breed of barren metal of his friend?
But lend it rather to thine enemy,
Who if he break, thou mayest with better face
Exact the penalties.”

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So when these two enemies agree a loan, Antonio is under no illusion about what the ‘pound of flesh’ agreement means. It is a contract between enemies, but his entrepreneurial spirit leads him to take the chance that he won’t have to pay for defaulting. His ship(s) will come in.

When his ships don’t come in, a trial takes place in which Shylock tries to enforce his contract for a pound of flesh from Antonio, which will have the inevitable consequence of Antonio’s death.

Why does Shylock want to follow this ‘losing suit’? When asked by the Duke of Venice, he replies as follows:

SHYLOCK.
So can I give no reason, nor I will not,
More then a lodged hate, and a certain loathing
I bear Antonio, that I follow thus
A losing suit against him? Are you answered?”

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In other words, he wants the legal system to give him revenge on Antonio. Part of the revulsion his demand creates in the characters of the play, and in the audience, is that the Justice System was designed to replace Revenge.

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Many of the Greek tragedies, particularly the Orestia, explore the cultural changes required when society moves from an agricultural, ‘clan’ culture, to one based on a city state. Revenge is a key component of ‘clan’-based, societies, and is a deep-rooted impulse in us all. Today Honour and Revenge killings are still covertly practiced within cultures where Justice is the accepted norm.

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In an industrial society, where people live closely together, revenge is likely to disrupt the state more than somewhat, and so the rule of law has been designed to replace the never-ending cycle of revenge. Crimes are punished by the state, and the cycle of revenge is broken.

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To this day, victims of crime or their families, plead for Justice. However, Shylock is not out for Justice but Revenge – by way of Justice – though Justice has been established to replace Revenge.

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Interwoven with this cry for revenge, is the story of Portia’s wooing. Three suitors (Prince of Morocco; Prince of Arragon; and Bassanio) each try to claim Portia’s hand by selecting one of three caskets (Gold; Silver; and Lead) – one of which contains her portrait, and so the right to marry her. Portia has no influence on her suitors. The test has been established by her father, and Portia goes along with it.

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What has this fairy-tale motif got to do with Shylock’s conflict with Antonio?

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Does this play explore anything about how we treat “The Other”? Well yes, it does. Two of the three suitors are foreigners: The Prince of Morocco and the Prince of Arragon. On entry, Morocco makes a plea for his complexion to be ignored:

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“MOROCCO.
Mislike me not for my complexion,
The shadowed livery of the burnished sun,
To whom I am a neighbour, and near bred.
Bring me the fairest creature North-ward borne,
Where Phoebus’ fire scarce thaws the icicles,
And let us make incision for your love,
To prove whose blood is reddest, his or mine.”

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This echoes Shylock’s thought:

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“SHYLOCK.
… if you prick us do we not bleed? … and if you wrong us shall we not revenge?”

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However, Portia, makes clear her own feelings once Morocco has failed the test:

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PORTIA.
A gentle riddance: draw the curtains, go:
Let all of his complexion choose me so.”

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And she doesn’t seem to have much time for Arragon, the Spanish prince either:

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“PORTIA.
Thus hath the candle sing’d the moth:
O these deliberate fools when they do choose,
They have the wisdom by their wit to loose.”

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It is quite clear that she prefers Bassanio, of the same culture as herself.

But this does not seem enough of a parallel on its own, to justify the inclusion of the caskets sub-plot.

Perhaps the three caskets provide more of a clue. These caskets are Gold, Silver, and Lead. Bassanio chooses correctly in chosing Lead. Why does he do so?

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BASSANIO.
Therefore then thou gaudy gold,
Hard food for Midas, I will none of thee,
Nor none of thee thou pale and common drudge
‘Tween man and man: but thou, thou meagre lead
Which rather threat’nest than dost promise ought,
Thy palenesse moves me more then eloquence,
And here choose I, joy be the consequence.

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This gives us a clue. Gold and Silver are symbols of richness, of wealth, of trade, and business. Lead is not. The inscription on the Lead casket tells us more:

“Who chooses me, must give and hazard all he hath.”

In the language of fairy-tale this tells us quite clearly that choosing lead acknowledges that love and marriage requires complete commitment to ‘the other’.

How does this relate to Shylock? He has chosen wealth and riches, in gold and silver, in ducats and jewels. Throughout the play we see little sign of love in Shylock, not even with his daughter Jessica who he treats as a possession or servant which encourages her to leave him.

This lack of love, and focus on money, is not exactly unusual. The world is filled with men who choose power and wealth rather than love, who treat daughters, women, and dependants as possessions.. There is much of John Gourlay from ‘The House with the Green Shutters’, or the eponymous Gillespie in Shylock, to take two Scottish anti-heroes from my own culture, and we can find this choice in stories from all cultures.

Which brings us to Shylock and his daughter Jessica. Not only does Shylock fail in his attempt at revenge; not only does he lose his court case and have to embrace the religion of his enemies, but he loses his daughter. Why does she leave him?

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“JESSICA.
Alack, what heinous sin is it in me
To be ashamed to be my Father’s child,
But though I am a daughter to his blood,
I am not to his manners:”

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Of course she is in love, which fires her up with the energy to act. So she leaves, taking some, at least, of her father’s ducats and jewels.

And how does Shylock respond to her loss?

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“SHYLOCK.
I would my daughter were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear: would she were hearsed at my foot, and the duckets in her coffin:”

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And so the bitter, revengeful, love-less old man is forced to give up his desire for revenge, adopt the religion of his oppressors – Christianity; and leave his wealth to his traitorous daughter and her Christian husband.

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This sounds like the end of the story, but no, there’s another act still to go, and another sub-plot to explore.

Portia and Nerissa, have given rings to their new husbands, Bassanio and Gratiano, and made them swear to keep them:

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“PORTIA.
This house, these servants, and this same myself
Are yours, my Lord, I give them with this ring,
Which when you part from, lose, or give away,
Let it presage the ruin of your love,
And be my vantage to exclaim on you.”

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They disguise themselves as lawyer and clerk, and save Antonio from his bond with Shylock. As payment they demand the same rings of their husbands, and are given them, even if with some reluctance.

And now in Act Five, the newly-weds are reunited and the undisguised Portia and Nerissa ask to see the rings given at their weddings. Bassanio and Gratiano find it difficult to explain their absence, and much fun is had at their expense, with Portia and Nerissa promising to sleep with the lawyer and his clerk until the rings are returned.

Of course all is happily resolved – this is a comedy. Portia and Nerissa explain they were the lawyer and his clerk and have their rings; Antonio receives news from Portia that some of his ships have come safely to harbour; and Lorenzo and Jessica receive news that Shylock has made a will leaving them his money.

The play is called The Merchant of Venice, and so it is not surprising that it explores the implications of the contracts and financial arrangements which support trade, as well as the personal contracts between husbands and wives.

It also explores the way love, money, power, and the law affects relationships between human beings of different cultures.

It is as relevant in our multi-cutural, global world, as it was in sixteenth century London.

But I leave you with a question. The first scene of a Shakespeare play often sets the tone for the whole play, and monosyllabic lines are often of added significance. The Merchant of Venice famously starts with a monosyllabic line as follows:

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“Antonio.
In sooth I know not why I am so sad.
It wearies me: you say it wearies you;”

I don’t know why Antonio is so sad. Do you? Is something to do with him being too busy with business, or something deeper than that? Our play-reading group will be reading the play sometime next autumn, and I’m hoping that we may find out more then. (We’ve held the play-reading and are shave not discovered why Antonio is sad, but we have noticed that Act Once Scene Two starts with Portia also expressing sadness: ‘By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is weary of this great world.’, so it seems clear that melancholia has some significance to the play.

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