- FULL TITLE- The Comical History of the Merchant of Venice, or Otherwise Called the Jew of Venice
- TYPE OF WORK- Play
- GENRE- Comedy
- TONE- Comic, romantic, tragic
- SETTING (TIME) - Sixteenth century
- SETTING (PLACE) - Venice and Belmont, Italy
- MAJOR CONFLICT - Antonio defaults on a loan he borrowed from Shylock, wherein he promises to sacrifice a pound of flesh.
- RISING ACTION - Antonio’s ships, the only means by which he can pay off his debt to Shylock, are reported lost at sea.
- CLIMAX - Portia, disguised as a man of law, intervenes on Antonio’s behalf.
- FALLING ACTION - Shylock is ordered to convert to Christianity and bequeath his possessions to Lorenzo and Jessica; Portia and Nerissa persuade their husbands to give up their rings
- THEMES - Self-interest versus love; the divine quality of mercy; hatred as a cyclical phenomenon
- MOTIFS - The law; cross-dressing; filial piety
- SYMBOLS - The pound of flesh; Leah’s ring; the three caskets
- FORESHADOWING - In the play’s opening scene, Shakespeare foreshadows Antonio’s grim future by suggesting both his indebtedness to a creditor and the loss of his valuable ships.
Important Quotations Explained
I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction. (III.i.49–61)
There are perhaps fewer disturbing lines in all of Shakespeare than Shylock’s promise to Solanio and Salarino in Act III, scene i, that he will outdo the evil that has been done to him. Shylock begins by eloquently reminding the Venetians that all people, even those who are not part of the majority culture, are human. A Jew, he reasons, is equipped with the same faculties as a Christian, and is therefore subject to feeling the same pains and comforts and emotions. The speech, however, is not a celebration of shared experience or even an invitation for the Venetians to acknowledge their enemy’s humanity. Instead of using reason to elevate himself above his Venetian tormenters, Shylock delivers a monologue that allows him to sink to their level: he will, he vows, behave as villainously as they have. The speech is remarkable in that it summons a range of emotional responses to Shylock. At first, we doubtlessly sympathize with the Jew, whose right to fair and decent treatment has been so neglected by the Venetians that he must remind them that he has “hands, organs, dimensions, senses” similar to theirs (III.i.50). But Shylock’s pledge to behave as badly as they, and, moreover, to “better the instruction,” casts him in a less sympathetic light (III.i.61). While we understand his motivation, we cannot excuse the endless perpetuation of such villainy.
What if my house be troubled with a rat,
And I be pleased to give ten thousand ducats
To have it baned? What, are you answered yet?
Some men there are love not a gaping pig,
Some that are mad if they behold a cat,
And others when the bagpipe sings i’th’ nose
Cannot contain their urine; for affection,
Mistress of passion, sways it to the mood
Of what it likes or loathes. . . .
. . .
So can I give no reason, nor I will not,
More than a lodged hate and a certain loathing
I bear Antonio, that I follow thus
A losing suit against him. Are you answered?
When, in Act IV, scene i, Antonio and Shylock are summoned before the court, the duke asks the Jew to show his adversary some mercy. Shylock responds by reasoning that he has no reason. He blames his hatred of Antonio on “affection, / [that] Mistress of passion,” who is known to affect men’s moods in ways they cannot explain (IV.i.49–50). Just as certain people do not know why they have an aversion to cats or certain strains of music or eating meat, Shylock cannot logically explain his dislike for Antonio. The whole of his response to the court boils down to the terribly eloquent equivalent of the simple answer: just because. The speech merits consideration not only because it articulates a range of emotions that often cannot be verbally expressed, but also because Shylock’s language patterns reinforce our impression of his character. The use of repetition in the passage is frequent. Shylock returns not only to the same imagery—the “gaping pig” (IV.i.53) and the “woolen bagpipe” (IV.i.55)—but he also bookends his speech with the simple question, “Are you answered?” (IV.i.61). Here, Shylock’s tightly controlled speech reflects the narrow and determined focus of his quest to satisfy his hatred.
The speech’s imagery is of the prosaic sort typical of Shylock. Other characters speak in dreamily poetic tones, evoking images of angels and waters scented with spice, but Shylock draws on the most mundane examples to prove his point. To him, Antonio is a rat, and his dislike of Antonio no more odd than that which some men have toward pigs or cats. Shylock uses bodily functions to drive home his point, likening rage to urination in a crass turn of phrase that is unique to his character. Also, Shylock’s rage takes on an apparent arbitrariness. Originally, Shylock’s gripe with Antonio seems based on a carefully meditated catalogue of the Venetian’s crimes. Here, however, it appears little more than a whim, a swing of the pendulum that “sways” to affection’s moods (IV.i.50). By relying on the defense that his actions are justified simply because he feels like them, Shylock appears unpredictable and whimsical, and he further fuels our perception of his actions as careless and cruel.
You have among you many a purchased slave
Which, like your asses and your dogs and mules,
You use in abject and in slavish parts
Because you bought them. Shall I say to you
’Let them be free, marry them to your heirs.
Why sweat they under burdens?. . .
. . .
You will answer
’The slaves are ours.’ So do I answer you.
The pound of flesh which I demand of him
Is dearly bought. ‘Tis mine, and I will have it.
Again, in this passage, we find Shylock cleverly using Venice’s own laws to support his vengeful quest and enlisting society’s cruelties in defense of his own. Shylock begins his speech on a humane note, yet this opening serves merely to justify his indulgence in the same injustices he references. Shylock has no interest in exposing the wrongfulness of owning or mistreating slaves. Such property rights simply happen to be established by Venetian laws, so Shylock uses them to appeal for equal protection. If Antonio and company can purchase human flesh to “use in abject and in slavish parts,” Shylock reasons, then he can purchase part of the flesh of a Venetian citizen (IV.i.91). In his mind, he has merely extended the law to its most literal interpretation. Unlike the Venetians, who are willing to bend or break the law to satisfy their wants, Shylock never strays from its letter in his pursuit of his bond. His brand of abiding by the law, however, is made unsavory by the gruesome nature of his interpretation.
The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. . . .
. . .
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings;
It is an attribute to God himself,
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this:
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy,
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.
Even as she follows the standard procedure of asking Shylock for mercy, Portia reveals her skills by appealing to his methodical mind. Her argument draws on a careful process of reasoning rather than emotion. She states first that the gift of forgiving the bond would benefit Shylock, and second, that it would elevate Shylock to a godlike status. Lastly, Portia warns Shylock that his quest for justice without mercy may result in his own damnation. Although well-measured and well-reasoned, Portia’s speech nonetheless casts mercy as a polarizing issue between Judaism and Christianity. Her frequent references to the divine are appeals to a clearly Christian God, and mercy emerges as a marker of Christianity. Although it seems as if Portia is offering an appeal, in retrospect her speech becomes an ultimatum, a final chance for Shylock to save himself before Portia crushes his legal arguments.
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stategems, and spoils.
The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
And his affections dark as Erebus.
By Act V, with Shylock stowed safely offstage, Shakespeare returns to the comedic aspects of his play. He lightens the mood with a harmless exchange of rings that serves to reunite the lovers, and he brings Antonio’s lost ships back to port. Because Shylock has been such a large, powerful presence in the play, and because his decimation at the hands of the Venetians is profoundly disturbing, the comedy in Belmont never fully escapes the shadow of the troublesome issues that precede it. The lovers’ happiness, then, is most likely little more than a brief passing moment. This passage can be read as a meditation on the transitory nature of the comforts one finds in a wearisome world. Lorenzo, ordering music to celebrate Portia’s homecoming, reflects that music has the power to change a man’s nature. Much like a wild beast that can be tamed by the sound of a trumpet, a man can be transformed into something less “stockish, hard, and full of rage” (V.i.80). As the Venetians, all of whom have exercised “treasons, strategems, and spoils” of one kind or another throughout the play, congregate at Belmont, we imagine them as kinder and happier than they have otherwise been, but we also know that the music of Belmont will not likely survive on the streets of Venice (V.i.84).