In Shakespeare’s plays, the first scene in which a principal character appears is often very revealing about that character and their situation. In particular, much can be understood about the character through their lines, and the cues for those lines.
There is a good reason for this. In Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre companies, including The Lord Chamberlain’s Men and The King’s Men (the theatrical companies Shakespeare was a member of) there was very little rehearsal time. Instead the actors had to characterize the parts they were playing as they learned their lines – from a script which only had their lines, their cues, and important stage directions. This parts and cues script was the main instrument for the playwright to instruct the player about the character. Shakespeare’s scripts use the words; the verse format; and the cues to help the player find their character.
In The Merchant of Venice, Act One Scene Three is the first scene in which Shylock appears, and, as we will discover, we learn a lot about him in this scene.
We have met Antonio in Act One Scene One were we are informed that he is sad, or melancholic; that he is a merchant – a trading entrepreneur and so a risk-taker – and has a friend Bassanio who Antonio wants to help financially. We will learn more about Antonio in Act One Scene Three.
So Let’s Play this scene in Parts and Cues mode. Here are links to the three characters:
- Player 1: Shylock (parts and cues)
- Player 2: Bassanio (highlight text – so he can act as prompt)
- Player 3: Antonio (parts and cues)
Once each player is allocated a part, they click on the link for that part, and the script for their part will replace this post.
To get a feel for how a player in The Lord Chamberlain’s Men would explore their character, we suggest that, if you’re reading Shylock (and maybe the player playing Antonio as well) you read the script too yourself, out loud preferred, to see what you can learn about the character you’re playing from just the Parts and Cues script.
Interpretation of a character is, of course, very subjective, but we think there are some interesting things to note about Shylock’s lines in this scene:
- Shylock’s first four speeches are very short, and the first three of them end with the same word – ‘Well’. This repetition, and the short lines, gives a guarded feel to the interaction.
- It quickly becomes apparent that there are cultural differences between Shylock and the others, in his speech starting: ‘Yes, to smell pork’.
- When Antonio enters, Shylock switches from prose to verse, and the rest of his speeches in this scene are in verse. It is not always clear what a switch from prose to verse or vice versa signifies, but it always signifies something. What do you think Shylock’s switch signifies in this scene?
- In the first speech after Antonio enters, and the first speech in verse, it becomes clear why Shylock has been guarded earlier in the scene – he hates Antonio, both for their religious differences, and for commercial reasons – Antonio lends money to his friends with no interest charge, undermining Shylock’s more commercial stance.
- The discussion about whether Shylock will lend money to Antonio continues until Shylock starts to tell a well-known story from Genesis about Jacob’s rewards for looking after Laban’s sheep. He seems to tell this story to justify the charging of interest on loans.
- The conflict between Antonio and Shylock becomes clearer in Shylock’s speech starting ‘Signior Anthonio, many a time and oft’. In essence, Shylock asks ‘Why should I lend you money when you treat me so badly?’
- It seems that they have agreed a loan, because, for the remainder of the scene, they discuss the terms of the loan and make arrangements to make it legal. In the midst of that discussion, Shylock declares that if Antonio cannot repay the loan, the forfeiture will be ‘an equal pound /
Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken / In what part of your body it pleaseth me.’
We can look at Antonio’s part in the same way, but I’ll leave you to do that. Rather than go through the detail, I want to focus on one key question. It’s quite clear from Antonio’s speech that he knows Shylock is his enemy; that the two men disagree strongly about culture and the use of interest. It’s clear that he mistrusts Shylock:
An evil soul producing holy witness
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple, rotten at the heart.
O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!
My Ships come home a month before the day.