Literature

A Summary and Analysis of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice

By Dr Oliver Tearle

The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, and is widely studied and has been subject to considerable analysis. Contrary to what many people think, the ‘merchant’ of the title isn’t Shylock (of whom more below) but the far less famous character, Antonio. So how well do we know The Merchant of Venice? Below, we offer some words of analysis, but first, it might be worth recapping the plot of the play.

The Merchant of Venice: plot summary

There are two main plot strands to The Merchant of Venice, both closely intertwined. The first involves Portia, the wealthy heiress of Belmont, who decides that she will marry whichever suitor picks the right casket when faced with a choice of three (made of gold, silver, and lead). The second involves a loan the Jewish moneylender, Shylock, makes to Antonio, the merchant of the play’s title. These two plot lines are connected because Antonio borrows money from Shylock in order to help out his friend, Bassanio, who wishes to finance a trip to Belmont to try his hand at Portia’s ‘three caskets’ trial. (The princes of Morocco and Aragon both choose the wrong caskets, but Bassanio correctly guesses that the lead casket, and the two are engaged.)

The terms of the loan are as follows: Antonio will repay the money to Shylock when his ships return from their voyage; if he fails to pay up then, Shylock will be entitled to a pound of Antonio’s flesh. When Antonio’s ships are declared lost at sea, he cannot repay the debt to Shylock, who promptly demands his pound of flesh.

These two threads run through the play, becoming united towards the end of the play, when Portia disguises herself as a male lawyer in order to defend Antonio against Shylock’s knife. She is aided by her maid, Nerissa, who is engaged to Bassanio’s friend, Gratiano; Nerissa is also disguised as a man (Portia’s clerk). After trying, unsuccessfully, to appeal to Shylock’s ‘quality of mercy’, Portia changes tack, and saves Antonio on a legal technicality: whilst his agreement with Shylock allows the Jewish moneylender a pound of Antonio’s flesh, it does not entitle him to a drop of the merchant’s blood – and if he tries to remove a pound of his flesh and makes him bleed, he will be liable. Shylock is defeated, and Antonio saved.

And Shylock is well and truly defeated: he has to pay ‘damages’ to Antonio – half of his entire wealth – and is also forced to convert from Judaism to Christianity. However, Antonio gives the money he gets from Shylock immediately to Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, who had earlier eloped with Lorenzo, against her father’s wishes.

There is one last, romantic, twist to the plot: before the trial, Portia and Nerissa had made gifts of rings to their betrotheds, Antonio and Gratiano. After the trial is over, to express their gratitude to the lawyer and clerk for saving Antonio’s skin (literally), they both give their rings to the lawyer and ‘his’ clerk as tokens of thanks.

To test (and have a bit of fun with) the two men, Portia and Nerissa, back in Belmont and out of their male disguises, ask the returning Antonio and Gratiano where the rings are which they gave them. The two men say they have lost them, and the two women produce new ones – which are really, of course, the originals. As a final piece of good luck, Antonio learns that not all of his ships were lost at sea, and the two couples celebrate their upcoming wedding.

The Merchant of Venice: analysis

Venice has a long-standing association with trade, commerce, and money. The materialistic world of this city-state regards people only in terms of their financial worth, and Shylock embodies this cold materialism in the extreme. To him, Antonio is only a debtor, so much flesh, from whom he can extract his pound if Antonio is unable to repay his loan. The great clash in The Merchant of Venice is between money and love, as both Shylock’s trial and Portia’s very different ‘trial’ – the test of the three caskets – demonstrate.

Against this heartlessly materialistic worldview is set the world of mercy and compassion, expressed in the two most famous speeches from The Merchant of Venice: Portia’s ‘The quality of mercy is not strained’ and Shylock’s own ‘Hath not a Jew eyes? If you prick us, do we not bleed?’

The valorisation of wealth and gold above all else is also famously rejected and criticised in Portia’s three caskets: gold and silver seem to promise the suitor wealth (in the form of Portia’s inheritance), but it is only by rejecting these in favour of the relatively worthless lead that Bassanio proves his worth as a potential husband to her.

However, the plot of The Merchant of Venice doesn’t entirely reject the world of money: Antonio borrows money from Shylock in an act of friendship (to help his relatively poor friend Bassanio travel to Belmont to undertake Portia’s three caskets test), but it’s also a financial reality that money is needed to be in the ‘race’. And it’s worth noting that mercy doesn’t triumph over materialism at the trial: Shylock is deaf to Portia’s appeals, and his contract with Antonio can only be defeated on a technicality which speaks the only kind of language Shylock recognises.

And Shylock is the key to the whole play, as the confusion over him being mistaken for its title character demonstrates. For Harold Bloom, in a persuasive analysis of The Merchant of Venice in his book Shakespeare: The Invention Of The Human, The Merchant of Venice presents a number of difficult problems. First, there’s no denying it is an anti-Semitic play; second, for Bloom, Shylock should be played as a comic villain and not a sympathetic character for the play to have ‘coherence’ and make full sense; third, to play Shylock this way would no doubt exacerbate the play’s anti-Semitic properties.

Many recent productions of The Merchant of Venice have certainly depicted Shylock more sympathetically than he was probably played when the play was first staged, in the 1590s which gave London not only Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (whose title character, Barabbas, is a cartoon villain too exaggerated to be taken with complete seriousness) but also the execution of the Portuguese Jewish immigrant Roderigo Lopez, physician to Queen Elizabeth I, who was accused of plotting to kill the Queen (he was, almost certainly, innocent). If the casual anti-Semitism that was widely tolerated as recently as the early twentieth century is anything to go by, Shakespeare’s original audience would probably have viewed Shylock as a money-grubbing villain.

But as is so often with Shakespeare’s characterisation, the character can be interpreted more sympathetically (his famous ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed?’ speech is one example of where we can find evidence for this interpretation), and this is the line most modern productions of the play have taken. And it must be a hard-hearted reader or spectator who can watch Shylock being forced to convert to Christianity (by Antonio) and not feel a twinge of uneasiness.

What’s more, the parallels between Antonio and Shylock arguably don’t end with that popular misconception over who the title character is. Antonio is just as money-driven as Shylock, and – as his insistence that Shylock be made to convert to Christianity shows – not exactly overflowing with Christian charity. This is the mentality that Venice seems to engender: a world of financial interests, account books, and hatred and mistrust of others.

The Merchant of Venice has become Shylock’s play, eclipsing all else, and whilst there may not be much else besides him that makes the play interesting, the one exception here is Portia, who is one of Shakespeare’s finest female roles from the 1590s.

The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.

2 Comments

  1. Definitely one of Shakespeare’s problematic plays. I view it more as a tragi-comedy and believe Shakespeare provided ambiguity towards Shylock in that he did not lampoon him but gave him full characterization. Perhaps Shakespeare wanted the audience to see beyond the culture and see a person.

  2. Problematic indeed! Thank you for your most interesting exploration of the issues.

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