Summary of Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
Summary of Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare Life and Works
William Shakespeare, the greatest poet and playwright of England, was born in 1564 at Strat-ford-on-Avon, Warwickshire in England. According to the Parish records, he was baptized in Holy Trinity church on 26th of April. The village- Stratford-on-Avon was the centre of the most beautiful and romantic district in rural England. Here, Shakespeare learnt to know the natural man in rural environment. His father John Shakespeare was a well-to-do tradesman who dealt in farm products like corn, wheat, wool, leather and other agricultural products. His mother Mary Arden was the daughter of a prosperous farmer, descended from the family of mixed Anglo-Saxon and Norman blood.
Scholars have failed to document his early years. Probably Shakespeare attended the Grammar School at Stratford where he got instructions in logic, ‘small Latin and less Greek’. It was here that he came in contact with Latin authors, Virgil, Ovid, Horace and Seneca. When Shakespeare was only fourteen, his father lost his property and fell into debt. In order to support the family, Shakespeare left school. What he did after leaving the school and how he supported the family is not exactly known.
In 1582 Shakespeare was married to Anne Hathaway who was eight years his senior. Many critics believe that they led, on the whole, an unhappy life, but it seems to be presumptuous. Three children were born to the couple. Of the three, the son died when he was only twelve. The two daughters survived their father.
The most important event in Shakespeare’s life was his leaving Stratford about 1585. After spending some time as a schoolmaster in a neighbouring village, he arrived in London in 1586. He started his career in modest jobs at one of the two theatres existing in town. But before long, he became a member of a well-known company of players and remained attached to it for the rest of his career. Some reports say that he remained connected with two playhouses ‘The Blackfriars’ and ‘The Globe’ until almost the end of his dramatic career.
About 1610, Shakespeare left London for his hometown, Stratford, where he later bought New Place, the biggest house in the town. He also bought some other property. He lived the rest of his life in prosperity and comfort. He was by now a man of both substance and fame. He was much respected in the world of theatre. He continued to make frequent visits to London.
By this time Shakespeare’s health had broken down completely. He died on April 23, 1616, after entertaining some poets from London. He was buried in Holy Trinity church on April 25. Shakespeare’s biography proves conclusively that he was not a dreamer but a practical man of affairs.
Shakespeare wrote 37 plays which are divided into three main categories : comedies, tragedies and historical plays. In addition to these plays he has written some narrative poems such as ‘Venus and Adonis’ and ‘Lucrece’. His greatest contribution to English poetry is a series of sonnets numbering 154. Some of his sonnets are addressed to a young man, his friend and patron, the Earl of Southampton, and some others to an unknown ‘dark lady’.
Shakespeare’s literary career extends over some 24 years, beginning from 1588 to 1612, and we may therefore say that 12 years of it belonged to the sixteenth century and 12 years to the seventeenth century. Shakespeare’s critics have divided these 24 years into four periods. He has written 37 plays which have been grouped in four periods.
First Period (1588-1593)
This is the period of early experimentation. Shakespeare’s apprenticeship begins with the revision of old plays such as three parts of Henry VI and ‘Titus Andronicus’. To this period belong his first comedies in which the influence of Lyly is pronounced.
The following plays belong to this period :
1. Love’s Labour Lost
2. Two Gentlemen of Verona
3. The Comedy of Errors
4. A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
1. Richard III
1. Romeo and Juliet
The work of this period as a whole is extremely slight in texture and the treatment of life in it is superficial. There is little depth of thought or characterisation. And the art, too, is markedly immature. The use of blank verse in the plays is stiff. Shakespeare makes use of puns, conceits and other affectations in his early plays.
Second Period (1594-1600)
This is the period of great comedies and chronicle plays. He wrote the following plays during this period :
1. The Merchant of Venice
2. The Taming of the Shrew
3. The Merry Wives of Windsor
4. Much Ado About Nothing
5. As You Like It
6. Twelfth Night
1. Richard II
2. King John
3. Henry IV, Part I
4. Henry IV, Part II
5. Henry V
The plays written during this period show that Shakespeare has left behind the influence of his early masters. His works have become independent and reveal immense development in power and technique. In these plays the knowledge of the world and of the motives and passions of men is infinitely more profound. The characterisation and the humour have become more deep and penetrative. He conveys weighty and profound thoughts in these plays. He has overgrown the immaturities of his formal style. These plays now no longer contain his youthful crudeness and extravagance. Rhyme is largely abandoned for prose and blank verse. The blank verse used in these plays has lost its stiffness and is free and flexible.
Third Period (1601-1608)
This is the period of the great tragedies and of the sombre or bitter comedies. In this period Shakespeare’s dramatic power, his intellectual power and his power of expression are at their highest. In this period, he has written his great masterpieces. We find that there is a marked change that has occurred in the entire spirit of his work. His mind is pre-occupied with the darker side of human experience and his plays are made out of those destructive passions which shake the foundations of the moral order and bring ruin upon the innocent and the guilty. His plays deal with the sins and weaknesses of men. Even in his comedies, his emphasis is on evil and the tone is either grave or-fierce.
The following are the plays of this period.
3. King Lear
4. Timon of Athens
1. Antony and Cleopatra
2. Julius Caesar
1. All’s Well that Ends Well
2. Measure for Measure
3. Troilus and Cressida
Fourth Period (1608-1612)
This is the period of the later Comedies and Dramatic Romances. The plays written during this period deal with tragic passion, but the evil is no longer allowed to have its own way, but is controlled and conquered by the good. All these plays are marked by a tender and gracious tone but at the same time they reveal the decline of Shakespeare’s dramatic powers. They are often careless in construction and even the characterisation in the plays is unsatisfactory. In style the plays do not bear comparison with the work of the preceding ten years. The following plays belong to this period :
Dramatic Romances :
2. The Tempest
3. The Winter’s Tale
1. Henry VIII
Shakespeare as a dramatist
Shakespeare is undoubtedly one of the greatest dramatists of the world. His greatness as a playwright is universally acknowledged. What is distinctive about Shakespeare is his many sided curiosity and extreme diversity of his talent. His genius is flexible to a marvellous degree. No writer ancient or modern, possesses, in a more eminent degree, than Shakespeare the power of imitating passions. All the passions seem familiar to him; the boisterous, no less than the gentle and the benign, no less than the malignant. The genius of Shakespeare is unlimited. According to William Richardson, “Possessing extreme sensibility, and uncommonly susceptible, he (Shakespeare) is the Proteus of the drama; he changes himself into every character, and enters easily into every condition of human nature.”
His genius lies in his characterisation. He has created a galaxy of characters with whom we can easily identify. His characters are not mechanical puppets but true to life. Like real human beings, they have the recognizable shades of black and white. No character in his play is totally blameless and error free and no character, with one or two exceptions, is totally villainous. The passions and motives which govern his characters are common to all mankind.
The unique quality of Shakespeare’s plays is his universality. His characters are always fresh and life-like. They are not dated simply because they reveal those aspects of human nature which do not change with time. Love and hatred, hope and despair, courage and cowardice, meanness and generosity, and many other emotions which Shakespeare has depicted cannot become stale.
Shakespeare stands aloof from all creative writers with his singular serenity and humanism. He understands all and sympathises with them. He knows human passions from their depths, pierces them threadbare and realizes the actual play of life. But he steers clear of preaching. He presents life as it is in its comprehensiveness. In this he surpasses all his contemporaries. Herein lies his greatness.
Merchant of Venice Summary – Story of the Play
Outline Summary of The Play “The Merchant of Venice”
ACT – I INTRODUCTORY
Scene I (Venice) : Antonio’s melancholy, Bassanio’s need for money, Bassanio thanks Antonio for Financial help
Scene II (Belmont) : Portia and her suitors.
Scene II (Venice) : Shylock’s dangerous bond
ACT-II DEVELOPMENT OF PLOT
Scene I (Belmont) : The Prince of Morocco feels flattered. He boasts of his strength and courage
Scene II (Venice) : Humorous characters, Bassanio ready to go to Belmont.
Scene III (Venice) : Jessica ready to elope with Lorenzo
Scene IV (Venice) : The masque planned
Scene V (Venice) : Launcelot leaves Shylock’s service
Scene VI (Venice) : Jessica elopes with Lorenzo
Scene VII (Belmont): The Prince of Morocco opens the Casket and finds an empty human skull. Thus he fails in making a right choice.
Scene VIII (Venice): Shylock mad with rage over his daughter’s elopement
Scene IX (Belmont): The Prince of Arragon chooses the wrong casket, Bassanio’s arrival
ACT-III : CRITICAL DEVELOPMENTS
Scene I (Venice) : Antonio goes bankrupt, Shylock bent upon his pound of flesh
Scene II (Belmont): Bassanio’s success, bad news about Antonio
Scene III (Venice) : Shylock is bent upon seeking justice.He will have the penalty of his bond.
Scene IV (Belmont) : Portia’s plan to rescue Antonio
Scene V (Belmont) : Lorenzo and Jessica talk
ACT-IV : TRIAL SCENE—CLIMAX
Scene I (Venice) : Portia defeats the Jew in his evil intentions, gets ring from Bassanio as a reward, Shylock’s property confiscated
Scene II (Venice) : The deed of gift from Shylock, Portia and Nerissa get rings from their husbands
ACT-V : A HAPPY ENDING
Scene I (Belmont) : A beautiful scene of moonlit night, the culmination of the ring- episode, Antonio gets back his ships—a happy ending for all, except Shylock
I. Antonio’s melancholy
Antonio is a wealthy merchant of Venice. He owns a large number of merchant ships. One day, when he is in a very sad mood his friends Salerio and Salanio ask him the reason of his melancholy. He fails to give a satisfactory answer to his friends. His friends, then, suggest the possible reasons of his melancholy. They say that, as his ships are sailing over the sea, he is worried about their safety. But Antonio rejects their explanation of his melancholy.
Three more friends come—Bassanio, Gratiano and Lorenzo. Seeing Antonio in a sad mood Gratiano expresses his disapproval of it. Antonio says that he regards this world as the stage of a theatre and his role is that of a sad man. At this Gratiano says that he would like to play the role of a cheerful person on the stage of life.
II. Bassanio needs 3000 ducats
One day Bassanio comes to Antonio and asks him to help him woo a wealthy lady (Portia) living in Belmont. He needs three thousand ducats to furnish himself with an appearance befitting the suitor of a rich heiress. He says that if he marries Portia he will also be able to pay back all his debts. Antonio has no money at the moment, but he expects his ships laden with merchandise would soon arrive. He says he is ready to borrow the money on his credit from anyone.
III. The ‘merry’ bond
Antonio and Bassanio come to Shylock. Antonio asks the Jew to lend him three thousand ducats upon any interest he wants. Shylock at once has a thought. Why not make the best use of the opportunity to take revenge upon his rival ? He tells Antonio that it is strange that he has come to him when he has often condemned him for his money dealings, called him an unbeliever, a cut-throat dog and even spat on his Jewish garments. Antonio gets provoked and says he will do again as he used to do and asks him to lend him money not as a friend but as an enemy.
Shylock changes his tone and surprises him and Bassanio. He says that he is ready to lend him money without charging any interest. And then he cunningly says that he has only one condition, and that is, Antonio will sign a bond that if he fails to repay the money by a certain day he will forfeit a pound of flesh, to be cut from any part of his body that he (Shylock) desires. Antonio at once agrees to sign the bond despite the warning from Bassanio. He signs the bond, and Bassanio gets the money required for the journey to Belmont.
IV. The Casket Story
In Belmont lives Portia, a very wealthy, beautiful and intelligent woman. Her father has willed, before his death, that she would marry the man who, out of three caskets-one each of gold, silver and lead will choose that which holds Portia’s picture. A number of suitors from different corners of the world have come to try their luck at the lottery of the caskets. Anyone, who decides to choose the casket, has to take an oath not to disclose which casket he has chosen, leave at once in case of failure to select the right casket and never to marry in life. Many suitors finding the conditions unfavourable quit even before trying their luck.
The Prince of Morocco is the first person to try his luck. He is proud of his physical strength, dark complexion and rich ancestory. He disfavours the lead casket because of the threatening words of the inscription on it: “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath”. He reads the inscription on the silver casket : “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.” He is over-certain of his merit but at the same time he is afraid that it may not be sufficient, so he rejects it in favour of gold casket. The inscription on the gold casket—”Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire”—attracts him. He thinks that this is the right casket because many men desire Portia. But when the gold casket is opened he finds no picture of Portia in it. He leaves Belmont in frustration.
The Prince of Arragon is the second man to try his luck. The dull look of the lead casket repels him. He rejects the gold casket because he does not like the words “many men desire”. He does not want to throw his lot with those of the ordinary men. He considers himself to be extraordinary. He chooses the silver casket and, like Morocco, fails. He also has to leave. Portia is happy they have failed to choose the right casket.
Before the scene ends, news comes that a young and handsome Venetian has arrived. Portia who has a fascination for Bassanio silently wishes that his suitor should be Bassanio.
V. Antonio in Trouble
Antonio suffers heavy losses. His merchant ships get lost in the sea. They fail to touch the harbour. It now seems almost certain that he will not be able to pay his creditors. Shylock, extremely enraged at the elopement of his daughter Jessica, and the loss of his money which she has taken with her, is almost mad with grief. His anger and bitterness for Antonio, who had several times intervened to lend money to helpless debtors, who had fallen into his clutches, grows manifold.
He eagerly waits for the forfeiture of the bond when he will be able to take revenge from Antonio. His Jew friend Tubal informs him that his daughter Jessica was the Genoa where she was spending money lavishly. She had purchased a monkey with a diamond ring. Shylock goes mad at this information. He asks Tubal to engage a lawyer to prosecute Antonio. (Act III, Scene 1 ends here)
VI. Bassanio chooses the right casket
Then Bassanio, along with his friend, Gratiano, arrives. Bassanio has already come there when Portia’s father was alive. Bassanio rejects the gold and silver caskets. He accepts the challenging words of the lead casket. He finds the picture of Portia in it. Portia who has a secret love for him is highly pleased. Both decide to get married. Gratiano and Portia’s companion, Nerissa, also declare their intentions to get married.
During this time, two important events happen in Venice. Antonio fails to pay back the borrowed money. This delights the heart of the cruel Jew. He gets Antonio arrested. The second event makes him harden his stand against all Christians, especially Antonio. His daughter Jessica runs away with her Christian lover Lorenzo. What torments him the most is the fact that Jessica takes away with her a lot of money and jewels. Lorenzo’s friends arrange a masque on the day of their elopement to help Jessica in the guise of a boy come out of her home and join her lover. Both the lovers leave Venice in a boat and reach Belmont where they are welcomed by Portia. The Jew who is unable to find his daughter and his jewels creates a lot of fuss, and seems to lose his balance of mind. He begins to hate all Christians. He makes up his mind firmly to take revenge on Antonio.
The happiness of Portia and Bassanio disappears on hearing the sad news of Antonio’s fate. Bassanio reads Antonio’s letter. Antonio wants him to come and see him before his death, as he is sure that Shylock is not going to spare him at any cost. Bassanio turns pale on reading the letter. He tells everything about his dear friend and his signing of the dangerous bond with Shylock, the forfeit of the bond, and the circumstances in which the loan was taken.
Portia, being generous and large-hearted, asks Bassanio to go at once to Venice to save his noble friend. She asks him to take enough gold with him to pay the money twenty times over. She marries Bassanio the same day so that he has the legal right to her money. Gratiano also marries Nerissa so that he can also join Bassanio. After their marriages they set out in great haste for Venice.
As soon as the men leave Portia sends a messenger to Dr. Bellario, her relative and a counsellor in law, for advice and the lawyer’s cloak. She dresses herself and her companion Nerissa in men’s clothes. Putting on the robes of a lawyer, she takes Nerissa with her as her clerk. They set out on the journey to Venice at once. They arrive in Venice on the day of Antonio’s trial.
The Trial Scene
In the court of the Duke, Shylock has rejected the plea of mercy. He declares that he insists on the conditions of the bond and refuses to accept any amount of money. At this time Portia and Nerissa come. The Duke allows Portia to plead for Antonio on the recommendation of Dr. Bellario who has written that he cannot personally come and so he is sending Dr. Balthasar (Portia) to plead in his place. Portia and Nerissa in male dresses are not recognized by their husbands.
Portia looks around and assesses Shylock. She goes through the bond and asks Shylock to show mercy to Antonio and accept the money. Bassanio at once offers to pay double and triple the amount due. But the adamant Shylock once again turns down all pleas. Portia tells him in a long speech that he should show mercy on Antonio. We seek mercy and not justice from God, so we should show mercy to others. As expected, Shylock pays no heed to it. When he refuses, she declares that as per the bond he is entitled to his forfeit. She asks him to have a surgeon closeby to attend to Antonio’s wound. Shylock turns down this suggestion also. Then Portia asks Antonio to bare his chest. The moment Shylock advances with his dagger she stops him. She says that he can have his pound of flesh but he must not shed even a single drop of blood in the taking of it. The bond mentions only one pound of flesh, but no drop of blood.
The Jew finds himself outwitted. He says that he is prepared to accept the sum of money offered by Bassanio. As Bassanio moves forward to pay the money, Portia stops him. She invokes an old law according to which he has tried to make an attempt on the life of a citizen of Venice so he will have to forfeit his property and his life will be at the mercy of the Duke. She clarifies that half of his property will go to the state and half to Antonio. The Duke grants him his life. Antonio, in his generosity, says that if he agrees to be a Christian, he should be given half of his property on the condition that he will make a gift of such property to his daughter and son-in-law on his death. Shylock agrees to all conditions and leaves the court, a broken man.
VII. The beginning of the ring episode
In lieu of her services, Bassanio has to give his wedding ring to Portia. Nerissa also gets the wedding ring from Gratiano, though both of them part with these gifts quite reluctantly. Portia and Nerissa leave Venice at once so that they may reach Belmont before, their husbands.
It is during the moonlit night that Portia and Nerissa arrive at their house in Belmont. Sweet music has been arranged in their honour by Lorenzo and Jessica who have taken care of Portia’s estate in her absence. A few hours later Bassanio, Gratiano and Antonio, too arrive. Soon the newly wed couples have a bitter quarrel. Nerissa pretends to be highly offended on finding the ring missing on Gratiano’s finger. Gratiano tries to justify his giving the ring to the clerk of the judge who had done so much for them. Portia too pretends to be pained on learning that Bassanio has gifted his wedding ring to the judge. She accuses him of gifting the ring to some lady. When Antonio expresses his unhappiness over the whole issue and offers to stand surety that Bassanio will never break his ‘faith’ with her again, Portia gives him a ring and asks him to give it to Bassanio with the words that he should keep it now with him forever. When Bassanio looks at the ring, he is surprised to find it the same he gave away. Portia now discloses the secret. Bassanio and Gratiano are surprised to know that Portia and Nerissa were before them and they could not recognize them.
VIII. Happy Ending
Before the play ends Portia hands over a letter to Antonio which contains the news that all his missing ships have reached the harbour safely. Nerissa too gives to Jessica the special deed of Shylock. According to this she will inherit all his property and belongings after his death. Thus the play ends on a happy note for all the characters except Shylock.
Merchant of Venice Summary – About the Play
The ‘local setting’ in The Merchant of Venice is completely Italian and Shakespeare has described it accurately. The readers feel that they are moving in the Italian climate and surroundings. Shakespeare has captured the Italian setting by using the Italian names of the characters like Antonio, Gratiano, Salarino and Salanio etc. The name Gobbo is typically Italian. Belmont refers to a place where some wealthy people resided. The references to the Rialto where money-transactions took place, and to Pudua as the place of Doctor Bellario’s residence are typically Italian.
The references to the gift of pigeons and gondola are particularly Italian. The references to merchants, to princes to money-lending jews, and their synagogues and to the trade between Venice and other countries add to the Italian setting of the play.
Thus, the names of the characters, places, objects and allusions to customs and trade enhance the Italian colouring in the play.
(ii) The Exposition
The play opens on a street in Venice. The opening scene gives the exposition to the audience the circumstances that unfold, leading to the succeeding events of the play. From the exposition the audience come to know about the central character of the play, Antonio. He is a prosperous merchant whose ventures are not to one bottom trusted. He is in a state of melancholy. He has no idea how he caught this sadness. His friends Salarino and Salanio make an unsuccessful effort to guess the reason of his sadness.
The possible causes that they hint at are rejected by Antonio. The readers/viewers come to know that his dear friend Bassanio is desperately in need of money. He wants to court Portia, a rich heiress who lives in Belmont. Bassanio asks Antonio for a loan in order to travel to Belmont and be a suitor to Portia. Antonio expresses his inability to furnish the money at this moment. However, he suggests to Bassanio to secure loan from any of the city’s moneylenders and he will offer his guarantee for it.
Thus the exposition introduces the audience directly to the hero Antonio and his friend Bassanio and indirectly to Portia the heroine of the play.
(iii) The Title of the Play
Many of the plays of Shakespeare are named after the hero of the play. This is true in the case of tragedies: Hamlet, Macbeth,’ Othello and King Lear. In the case of comedies, the titles are not drawn from the name of the hero or heroine: Twelfth Night, As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, etc.
The title The Merchant of Venice is an exception. Neither does it clearly name anyone nor it is linked to the theme in any way. Moreover, it is ambiguous. It can apply both to Antonio as well as Shylock as both are rich merchants living in Venice. The play was entered on the Stationer’s Register in 1598 with the title : “A Book of the Merchant of Venice, otherwise called the Jew of Venice”, which refers to Shylock, the Jew. But the longer title bestowed on the book in 1600 is :
“The Excellent History of the Merchant of Venice. With the extreme cruelty of Shylock the Jew towards the said merchant in cutting a just pound of flesh”.
It is obvious from this title that the words ‘The Merchant of Venice’ refer to Antonio, while Shylock is named the Jew. ’
It is true that the entire play revolves around Antonio. He is ‘the dramatic and structural centre of the play’. The play opens with Antonio by examining the different reasons of his melancholy and ends with the good news that all his ships have returned safely to the harbour. Antonio has all the qualities of what a hero must be—kind-hearted, noble, generous and affectionate. As a leading merchant of Venice, whose ships travel to different parts of the world, he is respected and loved by everyone. He is said to possess “the ancient Roman honour”, such is his dependability.
He is closely connected with the plot and the sub-plot. It is to him that Bassanio comes to borrow money and finally borrows the money from Shylock on Antonio’s behalf. Antonio signs the bond for Bassanio and becomes the victim of Shylock’s deep hatred and sweet revenge. Bassanio marries Portia with Antonio’s help. Portia saves Antonio from the clutches of the Jew by appearing in court in the guise of a lawyer and turns the tables on Shylock in the famous trial scene. She saves the life of Antonio. Thus the bond story and the casket story revolve around Antonio. Antonio is also involved in the two sub-plots—the Jessica-Lorenzo and the ring episodes.
However, Antonio is a hero with a drawback — as said earlier, he is too weak and submissive. In the very first scene of First Act, he is sad and depressed—melancholic, and he does not have the will to fight it out. In fact, he wishes to die again and again. He is weak where his love and affection for his dear friend, Bassanio, is concerned. His weakness lies in his extreme love for Bassanio. It is rightly remarked that, ‘Antonio loves the world for him’. However, this weakness is essential for the plot of the play since the play originates from this very weakness. His weakness for his best friend makes him sign the dangerous bond with the crafty Shylock. He risks his life in this carefree and over-confident manner. It is around this basic flaw in Antonio’s character that the story revolves. In fact, Shakespeare gives Shylock one of his most eloquent speeches, ‘Hath not a Jew eyes…’ and Portia’s speech on ‘the quality of mercy’ in the trial scene, only because of Antonio’s carefree manner of signing the bond. Had he not signed the bond, these speeches would have been lost to the world.
There has been much controversy as to who is the merchant—Antonio or Shylock ? However, it is very clear that Antonio is the merchant of Venice and the title is based on him. The play opens with Antonio presented as a rich merchant whose ships travel the world over. Throughout the play, Antonio is referred to as ‘the merchant’ and Shylock as the Jew. Then Portia asks, ‘which is the merchant and which is the Jew’ in the trial scene. Shylock himself accepts this description. After the trial scene, Shylock disappears from the story. The play ends with the good news that Antonio’s ships have returned safely to the harbour.
There is no doubt then that Antonio is “The Merchant of Venice.”
(iv) Plot Construction
According to Aristotle, the plot is the most important constituent of a play. The plot is the framework under which different incidents take place. The most important feature of a good play is unity of action. The main story of The Merchant of Venice is the love story of Portia and Bassanio. It is usual with a Shakespearean comedy that love is essentially a romantic love. Portia and Bassanio are ardently in love with each other. They face many difficulties but with the exercise of their qualities of mind and heart their difficulties are overcome.
The play has sub-plots also. There are four stories which are artistically woven together and revolve round the main story—the love story of Portia and Bassanio.
Bassanio is deeply in love with Portia, a beautiful heiress of Belmont. Like particular Shakespearean characters, they fall in love at first sight. But there are two difficulties to be overcome First, money is needed to equip Bassanio to go on his love-mission to Belmont, the second difficulty is that Portia is bound by the terms of her father’s will. Bassanio’s monetary difficulties are solved by his friend Antonio. Antonio takes loan from Shylock after signing a ruinous bond only to help his dear friend Bassanio.
Bassanio and his friend Gratiano go to Belmont. In the meantime, Lorenzo, another friend of Bassanio arranges a masquerade so that he can elope with Jessica, Shylock’s daughter. Shylock comes to know that his daughter has run away with a Christian, Lorenzo, Bassanio and Antonio’s friend. Shylock comes to understand that the whole Christian community of Venice has a hand in his daughter’s elopement. Now he is thinking of taking revenge on any Christian who falls into his clutches.
Portia and Bassanio are eager to marry each other but there is the problem created by Portia’s father. Bassanio is not the only suitor in the field. But it is a matter of luck that Bassanio chooses the correct casket. To add to the happiness of Portia and Bassanio, Gratiano and Nerissa are ready to unite in a wedlock.
Everything is going on the right track, but there is a shocking news which stuns everybody. Antonio’s ships have been lost in the sea, the bond to the Jew has become forfeited. Shylock is bent on demanding a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Portia manages the case so skilfully that the tables are turned on Shylock. In the end, all friends enjoy their success at Belmont.
The plot of the play is nicely developed although some people find the Fifth Act superfluous. They say that the Ring Story is not necessary from strictly structural point of view. But in an atmosphere of music, poetry and innocent love, the Ring episode is not superfluous.
(v) Themes of the Play
Shakespeare was a true artist. He did not have a conscious motive or design while writing any of his plays. The Merchant of Venice is no exception. The plot of this play is so beautifully constructed that it is open to diverse opinions. As such, there is not one single theme in the play but multiple themes implicit in the texture of the plot.
(i) The Theme of Friendship and Loyalty : The most predominant theme that permeates the whole play is the theme of friendship and loyalty. It is seen between the friendship of Antonio and his dear friend Bassanio. It is Antonio’s deep love for Bassanio which makes him sign the fatal bond. Any other person in place of Antonio would have told Bassanio that he has no ready money to lend him. But Antonio asks him to borrow money from anyone in Venice and he would stand surety for him. Bassanio too reciprocates his love with the same ardour. As soon as he receives the letter of Antonio and comes to know that his life is in danger he rushes immediately to Venice. In the court he offers double and then treble the amount of money to Shylock to cancel the bond. He promises to sacrifice his own ‘flesh, blood, bones and all.’
Portia’s unwavering loyalty to her father is to be seen in her conduct. Though she loves Bassanio, she feels constrained by her father’s will to marry only that man who correctly chooses the right casket. Moreover she tells Bassanio that she can guide him how to choose the right casket, yet she would not do it, for the sake of her loyalty to her father’s will. Again it is Portia’s loyalty to Bassanio, after their marriage, that compels her to appear in the court and save Antonio.
A glimpse of loyalty is to be seen in the character of Shylock. He is loyal to his tribe and religion.
(ii) The Theme of Love : Another theme of the play is the treatment of love. If we consider the major and minor plots of The Merchant of Venice, we come to know that love is the guiding force of almost all characters in the play. Major incidents like the bond story, the casket incident, the ring episode, etc. point towards this theme. All these episodes emphasize and illustrate love and its several aspects. Portia and Bassanio love each other sincerely. Two persons who have different nationalities and religions have deep- rooted love for each other; these two characters are Lorenzo who is a Christian and Jessica who is a Jew. Antonio and Bassanio have true love for each other.
Sincere love is a motivating power for human beings. Love is a true guide and has an all powerful influence. In the Casket Episode, we see that Bassanio makes the right choice only because he is guided by love. He is able to reason better than the Prince of Morocco and the Prince of Arragon only because he knows that true love stands for sacrifice. It is sincerity and intensity of love which invigorate a person to be prepared for self-sacrifice. It is this aspect which guides Bassanio in choosing the correct casket; it is this which is illustrated by the Bond Episode. Antonio has already lent much money to Bassanio. Now when he has no money, he could have shown his helplessness this time but he can never think of saying “no” to his dearest friend. He goes to his sworn enemy Shylock and borrows money making a ruinous agreement. He signs the bond knowing fully well that it contains dangerous and inhuman conditions. He is ready to take any risk.
The Trial Scene moves round the sincerity of love. Portia leaves no stone unturned to save Antonio, her husband’s friend. She loves her husband so much that she exerts herself to save Antonio.
(iii) Justice and Mercy : The theme of justice and mercy is shown in the trial scene. Portia pleads with Shylock to show mercy on Antonio. Shylock rudely says that on what compulsion must he be merciful. Portia tells him that the quality of mercy is not strained. It flows spontaneously from human beings as the gentle drops of rain fall from the sky. But Shylock is for the law as an end in itself, inflexible and inhuman. Portia is also for the law in the service of humanity inflexible but merciful.
She tries to move Shylock. She says that mercy is ‘an attribute of God himself’. Man should show mercy to other human beings if he wants God to be merciful to him. When Shylock refuses to be merciful Portia turns the tables against him. She asks Shylock to take his pound of flesh but he must not shed even a drop of Christian blood. Thus Shylock is defeated by his own weapon. Portia strips Shylock of his estate and dignity and forces him to kneel and beg for mercy from the Duke. Without being asked Antonio decides not to seize Shylock’s property, but deprives him of his religion. In this way Antonio disables him from practising usury. Thus we see justice and mercy, as delivered in the play, do not appear to be as selfless and graceful as presented by Portia in her speech on mercy.
(iv) The Theme of Retribution : Another important theme in the play is the idea of retribution. Shylock emerges to be an embodiment of cruelty. Every character in the play has a negative opinion about him. It is he who devises the devilish plan to eliminate his most hated rival in business. The ‘merry’ bond which he proposes is nothing but a Satanic instrument of revenge. The way he remains adamant on the forfeiture of his bond and the way he advances to cut the flesh from Antonio’s naked bossom with a sharpened knife is enough to arouse hatred for him. When the tables are turned on him by Portia, we feel no sympathy for him. He loses all his property and even his faith. He reaps what he has sown. The idea of retribution is clear from the trial scene. Even then the credit should go to his creator, Shakespeare, that some people still believe that he is more sinned against than sinning. He is also shown to be a victim of the system in which he lives. Christians too strike hard whenever the opportunity comes. The most unforgiveable blow on the dignity of Shylock’s person is Antonio’s condition that he becomes a Christian. Shylock seems to receive punishment more than he deserves.
(v) Theme of Appearance and Reality : The Merchant of Venice depends on the theme of appearance and reality to create suspence in the story. When Antonio and Bassanio approach Shylock for a loan of three thousand ducats, Shylock says to him, “I would be friends with you, and have your love.” But he has an ulterior motive behind his politeness. He wants to take revenge from Antonio who has many times abused him.
In Lorenzo-Jessica episode Jessica pretends to be meek and submissive in front of her father, though in reality she is rebellious.
What Shakespeare wants to convey is that appearances are often deceptive. This is best demonstrated through the lottery of caskets. The lottery ordeal has been deviced to test the sincerity and character of the suitors. While making a choice, not only their appearance but also the inscriptions on the caskets are to be considered. The inscriptions on the caskets are as follows :
Gold : Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.
Silver : Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.
Lead : Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.
The first suitor, the Prince of Morocco is led by appearances. He believes that Portia’s portrait can only be found in gold casket because she herself is a girl of matchless beauty. He chooses the gold casket. His choice shows that he is superficial, greedy and materialistic. The second suitor, the Prince of Arragon chooses the silver casket because he is proud enough to think that he deserves Portia. He finds in the casket the picture of a blinking idiot. The message that he gets is that his pompous egotism is that of a fool. Bassanio is unmoved by the glitter of gold or silver. He chooses the lead casket as it challenges to risk everything that one posseses. He believes that in love giving is more important than receiving. Bassanio’s right choice shows that judging by appearance can be dangerous.
(vi) The Bond Story
The Bond story involves four characters — Antonio, Shylock, Bassanio and Portia. Bassanio needs money to equip himself for his trip to Belmont where he wishes to try his luck at winning Portia by the choice of the right casket. He approaches Antonio for a loan of three thousand ducats. Antonio has no ready cash because all his money is invested in business. As he does not want to disappoint his best friend, he asks him to borrow this amount from some moneylender and he will stand surety for it.
Bassanio and Antonio contact Shylock, a rich jew who is also a moneylender. Bassanio requests for a loan of three thousand ducats. He says that Antonio will stand surety for him. Shylock who has a grudge against Antonio agrees to lend him money on one condition. The condition is that if Antonio is not able to repay the loan within three months, Shylock would be entitled to cut off a pound of flesh from any part of his body. Bassanio opposes the proposed bond which seems dangerous to him. Antonio, however is overconfident that his ships would soon arrive and he would be able to repay the loan. Therefore, he signs the bond.
Bassanio takes the money and goes to Belmont, with his friend Gratiano. He courts Portia and succeeds in winning her by making the right choice of casket. But in the meantime Antonio’s ships get wrecked on the sea. He is reduced to a state of bankruptcy. Three months pass. The loan is not paid. Shylock now files a suit against Antonio. He demands the penalty mentioned in the Bond. Antonio is arrested and sent to jail. From the jail he writes a letter to Bassanio asking him to meet him before death which seems certain.
When Bassanio receives the letter he is shocked. He tells everything to Portia and himself comes to Venice. In the court he offers Shylock double the money that he had taken but Shylock refuses to accept it. He is bent on taking a pound of flesh. The Duke too requests Shylock to show mercy on Antonio but the latter remains adamant. Portia disguised as an expert of law comes. She is to act as judge in this case. She asks Shylock to show mercy but he repeats his demand for a pound of flesh. Ultimately Portia asks him to take a pound of flesh but he should not shed a drop of blood since it is not mentioned in the bond. Shylock is- defeated by his own weapon. He says that he is ready to accept the money. But Portia does not agree. She says that Shylock has inclirectly conspired against the life of a Christian. So his property and wealth is forfeited. But Antonio and the Duke forgive him. Thus Portia saves the life of Antonio, the merchant of Venice.
(vii) The Casket Story
Portia’s father, before his death, conceived a strange kind of device for the choice of a husband for his daughter. He laid down, in his will a condition that Portia would only marry a man who would choose, from amongst three caskets, the one which contains Portia’s picture. These three caskets are of gold, silver and lead respectively. There is another condition. Any suitor, desiring to try his luck at the choice of caskets has to take an oath that if he fails he would never disclose to anyone which casket he chose. Secondly he would never get married throughout his life and thirdly, having failed he would • depart without any argumentation.
Suiters come from far and wide to try their luck. The first suitor is a pompous Moroccan prince. He examines the motto which is inscribed on each casket. The gold casket bears this inscription, “Who chooseth me shall get what many men desire.” The silver casket carries the message, “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.” The lead casket carries the motto, “who chooseth me, must give and hazard all he hath.” He chooses the gold casket thinking that it is Portia whom many men desire to marry. So he chooses the gold casket. He opens it and finds a human skull holding a message to the effect that all that glitters is not gold.
The second suitor Prince of Arragon too reads the inscriptions and decides to choose the silver casket. He thinks that he deserves Portia. But he also fails. When he opens the silver casket, he finds the picture of a blinking idiot in it. The third suitor is Bassanio. He reads the inscriptions on the three caskets. He muses on the messages for a long time and concludes that all that glitters is not gold. So he chooses the lead casket. He opens it and finds the picture of Portia in it. Portia too, who likes Bassanio accepts him as her husband and lord. Happily, they get married.
(viii) The Trial Scene
Antonio is not able to repay the loan taken from Shylock to meet the urgent needs of his dear friend Bassanio because all his ships loaded with merchandise get lost in the seas. Shylock files a suit against him and gets him arrested. The case is brought before the Duke of Venice. Realizing that Antonio is in grave situation the Duke requests Shylock to forgive Antonio.
Shylock turns down the Duke’s plea to spare Antonio’s life. The Duke says that he has written to Bellario, the learned doctor of law to seek legal opinion on this issue. So, they should wait for his arrival. Within a few minutes Portia dressed as a lawyer and Nerissa dressed as the lawyer’s clerk arrive. Nerissa presents a letter to the Duke. Having read it the Duke tells that Dr. Bellario is unable to come, so he has sent a young learned doctor to our court, who would act as judge in this case. In this way Portia dressed as a lawyer appears on the scene. The case is presented before her. Shylock shows Portia the bond. She goes through it gravely and concludes that a pound of flesh, to be cut off from Antonio’s body is rightfully Shylock’s. But she requests Shylock to show mercy because in the process of exacting the penalty Antonio might die. But the cruel Jew insists on taking a pound of flesh. When he is asked to be merciful, he bluntly says ‘on what compulsion must I’ be merciful. Portia politely tells him that the quality of mercy is not shown under compulsion. Mercy flows spontaneously in human hearts. It is an attribute of Gods. We all pray to God for mercy and this very fact teaches us all to perform acts of mercy. But the arguments of Portia fail to move the heart of Shylock. Finding Shylock adament Portia declares that Shylock is entitled to one pound of Antonio’s flesh. Shylock praises her wisdom. When he is about to cut a pound of flesh-Portia reminds him that he must do so without causing Antonio to bleed as the bond does not entitle him to even a drop of blood. Trapped by his own logic, Shylock hastily agrees to take money from Bassanio which was offered to him earlier. Portia tells him that he has refused it in the court, he can’t take it now. Portia then, informs Shylock that he is guilty of conspiring against the life of a Venetian citizen. It means he must turn over half of his property to the state and the other half to Antonio.
Moreover Shylock’s own life would be at the mercy of the Duke. The Duke spares Shylock’s life and imposes a fine on him instead of seizing half his property. Antonio also forgoes his half of Shylock’s wealth in favour of Lorenzo and Jessica. Shylock agrees of this and leaves the court with a heavy heart.
(ix) Lorenzo-Jessica Story
Jessica is the young, beautiful and intelligent daughter of Shylock. She falls in love with a Christian youngman, Lorenzo who is a close friend of Antonio and Bassanio. Knowing ii well that her father Shylock is a jew, and hates the Christians, Jessica keeps her love a close secret. Shylock knows nothing about this love affair. Jessica knows that her father being a Jew, would never tolerate the idea of Jessica being in love with a Christian youngman. At the same time she dislikes her father who is very suspicious by nature and who imposes all kinds of restrictions on her.
Finding no other way open to her to be united with her lover, Jessica decides to elope with Lorenzo. One night she disguises herself as a boy, takes money and jewels from her home and runs away with Lorenzo whom she has already informed about her plan. As already decided she throws a couple of bags full of money and jewels from the window of her house into Lorenzo’s hands.
The two lovers leave Venice in a golden Gondola and later go to Belmont to join Bassanio and Gratiano, who are already there. At Belmont, they are entrusted by Portia with the charge of her house and property, when she goes to Venice, disguised as Dr Balthazar. Towards the end fortune favours them, when Antonio surrenders the part of Shylock’s wealth and property which is legally his, in favour of them.
Lorenzo-Jessica love story has a great dramatic significance. Shylock’s hatred for Christians gets inflamed when he learns that Jessica has eloped with a Christian and his desire to take revenge from Antonio, who is a Christian gets intensified.
(x) The Rings Story
The rings story is a trivial and light underplot introduced only to add to the comic elements of the play. When Portia married Bassanio, she gave him a ring bidding him to keep it always with him and never to part with it. She told him that if he lost that ring she would think that his love for her has come to an end. Bassanio, too, said to Portia that when that ring parted from his finger she should think that life had parted from his body. While Portia married Bassanio, her maid Nerissa married Gratiano on the same day. She, too, gave a ring to Gratiano charging him with the task of preserving the ring and wearing it.
After the trial of Antonio, Portia and Nerissa who were disguised as a judge and a judge’s clerk respectively manage to obtain their rings from their respective husbands as a sort of reward for their services which they had rendered. Portia as a judge had saved the life of Antonio and Nerissa as the judge’s clerk had drafted the agreement which Shylock had to sign-under orders of the court. There is no doubt that both Bassanio and Gratiano part with their rings very unwillingly. Bassanio gives the ring only when Antonio asks him to give it to Portia, the judge in this case, as a token of gratefulness. Nerissa prevails upon Gratiano to give her the ring in gratitude to her services as the judge’s clerk. When the husbands and wives return from Venice to Belmont, the husbands are taken to task for parting with their marriage gifts. The wives, Portia and Nerissa pretend to suspect their husbands. They say that they have given them to some women whom they met in Venice. But Bassanio and Gratiano protest that they have given the rings to men and not to women. Finally Antonio comes in rescue of his friend. He says that he is responsible for all this because he had urged Bassanio to give his ring to the judge. Portia now closes the topic. Thus the matter is settled.
(xi) As a Romantic Comedy
The Merchant of Venice is a romantic comedy. It is different from the classical comedy popularised by playwrights like Ben Jonson. The most important element of a classical comedy is the observance of three unities of time, place and action.The unity of time means that the time represented should be limited to two or three hours or at the most twelve or twenty four hours. The unity of place means that the action represented should be limited to a single location. Unity of action means that the play should have a single plot or story. Moreover, a classical comedy deals with the situations in a realistic manner.
Disregarding these classical rules Shakespeare developed romantic comedy. This type of comedy is basically a love-tale involving a beautiful heroine. The course of love is not smooth yet it overcomes all difficulties in the end. Such a comedy usually ends in a happy union. The conclusion of a romantic comedy is in the social ritual of a wedding, feast and dance. Moreover, Shakespearean romantic comedy is poetic in nature, having many plots and sub-plots. However, these are skilfully interwoven with the main plot. Together, they form an organized whole.
As a romantic comedy The Merchant of Venice has its distinct features.
Firstly, it is not a pure comedy; it is a tragi-comedy. The general atmosphere, especially in the trial scene, is more tense, serious and tragic than in other comedies.
Secondly, it disregards three dramatic unities. The action covers not two or three hours but more than three months.The scene shifts from Venice to Belmont and from Belmont to Venice. Instead of one plot there are two main and two subplots. Thirdly, it has not only comic characters like Launcelot Gobbo and Gratiano but also serious characters like Shylock and Antonio. Lastly, it has all the elements of a romantic comedy-love stories of Bassanio and Portia, Lorenzo and Jessica and Gratiano and Nerissa. It makes use of suspense — in the casket story and in the trial scene. Moreover, it has poetry, music and merry-making besides the usual obstacles which are overcome in the end.