Sunday, October 27, 2013

Study Session: The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare

As an English major, I spend most of my time reading classic works of literature and analyzing them. Sometimes, I even have to reread them. So, I thought it may be useful to make blog posts with summaries and some light analysis, that way I (and anyone else) can easily remember what happened and some interesting ideas (which can create a starting point for an essay). 
This post was written in less than an hour, based on my private notes, so please forgive any factual or grammatical errors! The analysis is very light, but it is a good starting point for discussion. Please do not plagiarize - if you use my work, cite it.  

SUMMARY: The Merchant of Venice

Antonio, a merchant, is in a miserable state to begin with, though the reason is unknown. His good friend Bassanio asks Antonio for financial help, so he can impress a fair creature named Portia. Portia, of Belmont, is caught in the midst of a game of sorts, devised by her deceased father, that will choose her future husband. Three caskets (one silver, one gold, and one lead) are displayed, and suitors who wish to try their luck must choose the one holding Portia's picture inside. But, should they choose incorrectly, they must never marry. Portia is, understandably, annoyed by this, though her maid (Nerissa) has little sympathy. 

In Venice, Antonio gives Bassanio permission to seek a loan using Antonio's good name. Bassanio quickly finds Shylock, a Jew and moneylender, who has been treated very poorly by Antonio in the past. Yet, Shylock agrees to lend Bassanio three thousand ducats for three months, interest-free. But, should Antonio find himself unable to pay Shylock back in time, Shylock will be entitled to a pound of Antonio's flesh

Side plot: Jessica, Shylock's daughter, is in love with Lorenzo (yet another buddy of Antonio's - he seems to be a popular guy). The two plot and quickly run away with each other, with Jessica sneaking out of her father's home dressed as a man and taking a casket full of her father's ducats and jewels. Lorenzo's friends comment on how she is "a gentle and no Jew," because nothing says you're a great person quite like stealing from your father (II.vii.53). The two run off together (and even trade a ring for a monkey), and eventually end up at Belmont

In Belmont, the Prince of Morocco tries his luck and chooses the gold casket - which is, unfortunately (or fortunately), wrong. The Prince of Arragon, similarly, chooses incorrectly by picking the silver casket. 

Back in Venice, Antonio is out of luck. It seems his ships may or may not have wrecked, and he definitely does not have the money to pay back Shylock. Furthermore, Shylock is in a fit of rage after his daughter Jessica runs off with the (Christian) Lorenzo (he seems more bothered by the loss of wealth, but I'm sure deep inside he is also upset over the loss of his daughter). He resolves to take Antonio's pound of flesh, no matter what. 

Bassanio finally appears in Belmont, and everyone is quite pleased to see him. Portia wishes he would stay awhile, and delay his choice. Yet, Bassanio decides to jump right into it, chooses the lead casket, and wins Portia's love (and finances). Portia gives him a ring, which he swears he will wear until he dies. Bassanio's buddy Gratiano decides that he is quite taken with Nerissa, and the two wed as well. But wait! Bassanio receives a letter from Antonio, notifying Bassanio that Antonio wishes to see him one last time before he dies (because let's face it, losing a pound of flesh is probably going to kill him). Portia sends Bassanio off to Venice with double the ducats in order to save Antonio. 

Portia and Nerissa decide to dress as men and try to help save Antonio. When they arrive at court, they find that the men seem to be hoping that Shylock will change his mind and are doing little to actually save Antonio (seriously, it's kind of pathetic - you'd think there would be at least one decent lawyer). Portia-in-disguise steps in and begins examining the situation. She urges Shylock to accept the money that Bassanio as brought (which he rejects), and quickly discovers that the bond asks for a pound of flesh, but not a single drop of blood. If Shylock spills even a drop, his "lands and goods / Are by the laws of Venice confiscate / Unto the state of Venice" (IV.i.323-325). Shylock decides to ask for the money instead, but is rejected. Half is wealth is offered to Antonio (who rejects it in favor of giving it to Jessica and Lorenzo upon Shylock's death) and half to the state. As payment for a job well done, Portia-in-disguise asks Bassanio for his ring. Reluctantly, he parts with it (and Nerissa manages to get Gratiano to part with his too). 

Back in Belmont, Jessica and Lorenzo are in charge (because known thieves are absolutely the kind of people you would want to take care of your house while you're out saving lives) and somewhat quarreling with each other when Portia and Nerissa arrive. Soon after, the men arrive and Portia picks a fight with Bassanio, who has given his ring away. Yet, the couples reunite, Antonio's ships have made it safely back (a little late, but better late then never), and all is resolved. 


The Sympathetic Devil: Shylock

      While Shylock dwells on the wealth, his lost “diamond….two thousand ducats in that , and other precious, precious jewels” (Shakespeare 95), it is obvious during Shylock’s interactions with Tubal that Jessica’s actions have caused him anguish, and not only because of the fortune he has lost. With Jessica’s disappearance, Shylock loses everything in one swift blow – his daughter, his wealth, his happiness. Jessica’s trading of items such as her mother’s ring for a monkey serves as a betrayal that utterly changes Shylock, because the ring is more than a jewel to him. Instead, it is a connection to a woman he has lost in unknown circumstances, a token of his love for Jessica’s mother, and for Jessica. That she so carelessly discards it does nothing short of rip out Shylock’s heart. Her actions leave Shylock with nothing left of value and nothing to lose. Precisely because of his daughter’s actions, Shylock's only remaining hope is to succeed in gaining a pound of flesh from Antonio and thirst for vengeance against those Christians who had turned his daughter against him. Jessica, essentially, leads her father into becoming the plays antagonist.

The Runaway Daughter: Jessica

      Many new readers may argue Jessica is of little importance, but there is more to her character than one might initially believe. Though Shakespeare never shows Lorenzo and Jessica telling Portia about their escape from Venice while onstage, Portia’s idea to disguise both herself and Nerissa comes to pass directly after conversing with the two lovers about Antonio’s predicament (III.iv). It may be insinuated that they told Portia, and being quick of wit, Portia saw an opportunity to use Jessica’s method of escape as a way for her to help Antonio. This idea of cross dressing proves to be one of the more important aspects of the play, because without it, Antonio would have likely lost in court – and lost his life. So, while Jessica’s actions set Shylock on the path to vengeance, her actions simultaneously inspire another path to salvation for Antonio, as well as allowing Portia’s witty intelligence to become of use within the play. 

The Casket Game: Portia's hints

      Though Portial is forbidden to share hints with Bassanio, one will notice that Portia subtly hints to him that the lead casket is the winning choice. She periodically uses words that rhyme with "lead" during her conversation with Bassanio. Additionally, the final words in the first three lines of the song bear a closer look. The words "bred," "head," and "nourishèd" all also rhyme with "lead," subtly bringing the word to Bassanio's mind (III.ii.65-67). Additionally, the song itself warns that love based on looks will die, warning against making decisions based solely on looks. Moreover, the song mentions a bell, which is likely to be created from lead than from silver or gold. With further reading, one would likely find more subtle hints by Portia. 


* The nature of evil within the play. Who is evil? Are the heroes actually heroes, or are they villains because of the way they treat other characters? Is Shylock truly villainous, or a victim (see his famous speech in III.i)?
* The couples (Portia and Bassanio, Nerissa and Gratiano, Jessica and Lorenzo, Lancelot and the unnamed Moor), and what they reveal about one another? Foils?
* Antonio and Bassanio. While some critics believe otherwise, many critics do believe that Antonio is in love with Bassanio. Does Bassanio know this / love him back? Or his he manipulating Antonio for his own gain?
* The various symbols (Rings, Caskets, etc) and themes (Revenge, Love, etc) of the story.

Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010. Print. 

YABookQueen [Johnson, Lea]. "Study Session: The Merchant of Venice." YA Book Queen. 27 Oct. 2013. Web. Day Month. Year {insert the date you accessed this page}. 


  1. Cool post. I've never read this but I need to.

  2. This brings back a lot of memories! I read this play in high school and I really enjoyed it. I love your analysis and your "consider" section. As a former English major and huge nerd, I love this kind of thing. :)

  3. This is such an awesome series! I haven't read this play in a while, and I love getting a refresher course in it! Shakespeare plays are filled with such wonderful inspiration.