The Merchant of Venice

Key characters


The villainy you
teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I
will better the instruction.

Act 3, Scene 1

Shylock is a Jewish moneylender and father of Jessica. He supposedly lives in the Jewish ghetto of Venice. He is an outsider, a social and religious ‘alien’ and labeled by his Christian neighbours as a money-obsessed villain. Shylock’s account of Antonio’s treatment of him gives audiences an insight into his daily existence. He states that Antonio:

...hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated my enemies, and what’s his reason? I am a Jew.

Act 3, Scene 1

From Shylock’s passionate utterances and his ability to bear it with a “patient shrug” (Act 1, Scene 3), we can assume this treatment is by no means unfamiliar to him. In Act 1, Scene 3, Shylock recounts how Antonio cursed and spat on him on the Rialto Bridge and the audience witness Antonio address him as a “devil”, “an evil soul” and a “goodly apple rotten at the heart” (Act 2, Scene 1). Just as Richard III feels that nature has made him “play the dog”, Shylock states that Christian man has “calledst me a dog before thou hadst a cause” (Act 3, Scene 3), and so he is determined to play that role. Shylock appears angry and resentful of this treatment, and this resonates throughout the play. Janet Adelman states that “Shylock’s pursuit of Antonio is given a psychological plausibility by Antonio’s treatment of him.”

Shylock is most often considered the most prominent figure in the play, despite his limited stage time (he only appears in five scenes) and his name not appearing in the title. He is traditionally the antagonist of the play as his actions put the happiness of the young lovers and Antonio in jeopardy. However, there is fervent debate over his character and Shakespeare’s portrayal of him. Harold Bloom states that “you would have to be blind, deaf and dumb not to recognise that Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is… profoundly anti-Semitic.” John Gross claims that Shylock would have most certainly worn a “fiery red wig” in the original production to denote his ancestry and align him with the devil and Satan. Penny Gay notes that original audiences would have no doubt “hissed” at Shylock as he whets his knife in the courtroom.

Throughout history, Shylock has been portrayed as bloodthirsty and downright evil, a clownish Jewish stereotype, and a tragic figure at the hands of Christian oppression. It is true to say that Shakespeare toys with our response to Shylock. Shakespeare clearly defines Shylock’s controlled abstinent behaviour from Christian ‘frivolity’, but does not excuse or necessarily judge either party. Despite the anti-Semitic undertones present in the play, audiences still witness a hard-working outsider who is asked to be merciful, when his fate is at the mercy of idle Christians, unaware of the benefits of their own social and religious supremacy. The play also addresses a conundrum well known to European audiences, the displacement of the converted Jew who lost their identity, yet will never be fully accepted by their newly imposed religion.

Shylock is complex – fiery at times, cold and calculating at others. He is not responsible for the disappearance of Antonio’s fleet, yet he is bent on revenge. One could claim that Shylock only lacks mercy towards Antonio once he is infuriated by his daughter’s elopement with a Christian and subsequent betrayal, but the opposite could also be true. Shylock states that he hates Antonio “for he is a Christian” (Act 1, Scene 3), but goes on to say that he hates him more because his frivolous spending affects commerce in Venice. Here Shylock places money above religion, yet the opposite occurs when he refuses payment in the courtroom scene, placing his honour and word above anything monetary.

Shylock shows an obstinate insistence on the law, as the rights of the law are the only rights he is afforded. Although Shylock’s decision to take Antonio’s “pound of flesh” is viewed by the court as barbarous, his anger throughout the play is never physical, but rather eloquent and composed. What Shakespeare achieves with Shylock, amidst strict Elizabethan censorship, is a contradictory character that invites the audience to empathise, question and consider the plight of the persecuted.

Above all, history cannot deny the truth and humanity that Shakespeare affords Shylock in Act 3 when he pleads retribution for the racial vilification he has suffered:

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?

Act 3, Scene 1


The quality of mercy is not strain’d;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath...

Act 4, Scene 1

Portia is a wealthy heiress from the fictional idyll of Belmont. She is intelligent, rich and beautiful, and is sought after by many suitors from across the world. Her father’s will contained instructions that she will only inherit his wealth if she marries the suitor who chooses one of three caskets correctly. When we meet Portia, she is certainly not the master of her own fate. Her statement regarding the caskets, “I am locked in one of them” (Act 3, Scene 2), highlights this. When we meet her we learn she is “aweary of this great world” (Act 1, Scene 2). Perhaps she is unimpressed by her suitors and longs to marry Bassanio, whom she has met prior to the play’s events. Perhaps she feels trapped by her position as a pawn or prize in men’s games. Portia’s place is in Belmont, and Shakespeare clearly juxtaposes this against the male-dominated realm of Venice, a place of commerce and power. Portia may visit Venice in disguise as a man, but it is otherwise not her domain.

Academic Charles Edelman states that “Unlike Rosalind or Viola, Portia does not don male attire to escape danger or find her true love, but rather to prove that she can adopt a male role and succeed in it seamlessly.” Critics have claimed that Portia is quite passive until her brave act of legal prowess in Act 4. Actor Janet Suzman stated in 1965, “I can’t stand Portia… she’s so po-faced… but it begins to pick up when she goes to Venice.” Perhaps the structure of the narrative highlights how much a woman’s potential can be stifled by confining her to activities of the traditional female realm.

Thematically, Portia is the antidote to the malice of Shylock, the redemptive woman in an impure world. In the 18th century, Portia was viewed as comical, but in the 19th century she was idealised as a perfect figure of womanhood and Victorian ideals, a symbol of purity and mercy. Writer Anna Jameson talks of Portia possessing “all the noblest and most lovable qualities that ever met together in a woman… this heavenly compound of talent, feeling, wisdom, beauty and gentleness.’ At the dawn of the 20th century, Portia was re-born as a new woman: amorous, humorous and intelligent. Modern productions often place Portia’s ‘love interest’ to the side and view her as a woman battling the corporate world in which love has no currency. Like Shylock she is an outsider, navigating a patriarchal and commercial world. Portia’s famous courtroom speech, “The quality of mercy is not strained” (Act 4, Scene 1), paints her as eloquent and intelligent but also forces her to be the mouthpiece of Christian ideals that ultimately exclude Shylock. Her performance in the court is often seen as triumphant as she saves Antonio’s life, but philosophically her quest is a failure as she neither teaches Shylock mercy, nor shows it to him.

Portia is far from flawless. Her conversation with Nerissa in Act 1, Scene 2 may reveal her wit, but her dealings with the suitors expose her prejudice. When the Prince of Morocco fails to win her hand she rejoices, noting her disdain for the colour of his skin and his appearance: “let all of his complexion choose me so” (Act 2, Scene 7). Once she is engaged to Bassanio, she gives him the ring symbolising their eternal union. She then tests him by demanding the ring of him as Balthasar, then chastises him for giving it up when they are back in Belmont. Portia is witty, divisive and bold, but like all Shakespeare’s characters she is complex and flawed.


The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.

Act 1, Scene 3

Antonio is the wealthy shipping merchant featured in the title, but is in no way the main character. He is rather the central figure or symbol of the play, much like Julius Caesar, who is enacted upon rather than controlling the action. In the opening scene he is inexplicably sad, and states “And such a want-wit sadness makes of me that I have much ado to know myself” (Act 1, Scene 1). In fact, Antonio is depressed throughout much of the play. The true motivation for his sorrow is never clearly identified and is a facet that some directors choose to allude to. He loves his friends dearly; perhaps as a father loves his sons, but his acute love for Bassanio has often been interpreted as romantic, painting his depression to be the result of unrequited affections. Antonio offers everything he has, including his life, to guarantee the loan Bassanio secures from Shylock. He signs the contract out of loyalty and love, and in doing so selflessly assures Bassanio’s happiness. The question is, does Bassanio take advantage of Antonio’s feelings for him? Or does he return these affections but cannot act upon them?

We learn much of Antonio’s nature from Shylock’s accounts: he is frivolous with money, has a strong dislike of Jewish people, and is even willing to spit on his enemies in public. When Shylock redresses Antonio for his ill treatment of him, Antonio shows no remorse and responds, “I am as like to call thee so again,/ To spit on thee again, and spurn thee too” (Act 1, Scene 3). Antonio appears less depressed when he is persecuting Shylock. A 16th-century audience would most likely have viewed Antonio forcing Shylock to become Christian as merciful, but an audience today is unlikely to perceive it the same way.

Antonio’s attitude towards himself in the court is extremely self-deprecating; he states he is “a tainted wether of the flock,/ Meetest for death, the weakest kind of fruit/ Drops earliest to the ground” (Act 4, Scene 1). A ‘wether’ is a ram that has been castrated. This not only gives audiences insight into the cause of his melancholy, but the fact that he aligns himself with a de-sexed animal could allude to a man who sees himself as out of place amidst the matrimonial celebrations of a world that is clearly heterosexual. Once Shylock has been defeated, Antonio loses the one activity that distracts himself from his own sorrow.


To you, Antonio,
I owe the most in money and in love.

Act 1, Scene 1

Bassanio is a dear friend to Antonio, and the love interest of Portia. He is a gentleman of Venice and an unsuccessful man in matters of wealth. Bassanio is in love with the wealthy Portia, and in his determination to wed her, borrows money from Shylock. He uses Antonio’s affections and friendship to his advantage by convincing him to act as his guarantor. Bassanio correctly identifies the casket that contains Portia's portrait and wins her love. When Antonio’s life is threatened, Bassanio returns to Venice to liberate his friend. He is sometimes viewed as a fickle character who never manages to earn his own keep, and the true object of his affections remains a topic of debate.


We are the Jasons, we have won the fleece.

Act 3, Scene 2

Gratiano is a friend of Bassiano, and the love interest of Nerissa. He is rough-edged and gregarious, and is also among f Antonio’s friendship circle. He aids Jessica’s elopement with Lorenzo and accompanies Bassanio to Belmont on the condition that he will behave himself. In court, Gratiano is a vocal and insulting critic of Shylock. He falls in love with and eventually marries Nerissa, Portia's lady-in-waiting, who promises to marry him if Bassanio chooses the correct casket.


But love is blind, and lovers cannot see
The petty follies that themselves commit.

Act 2, Scene 6

Jessica is Shylock's daughter and the love interest of Lorenzo. She detests her life in her father's house and laments Launcelot Gobbo’s departure stating “Our house is hell, and thou a merry devil / Didst rob it of some taste of tediousness.” (Act 2, Scene 2) She elopes with Lorenzo, a young Christian gentleman and her love interest, in order to escape her home and convert to Christianity. She takes with her much of her father’s wealth while Shylock is out of the house. Launcelot jokingly calls into question what will happen to her soul, wondering if her marriage to a Christian can overcome the fact that she was born a Jew. She sells a ring given to her father by her mother, and this may suggest a certain callousness in her character. She shows little remorse or empathy for her father, after leaving him, stealing from him, converting from Judaism to Christianity, and the devastated state that Shylock finds himself in at the end of the play. However, some modern productions have had Jessica observe and lament her father’s tragic ends.


The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils.

Act 5, Scene 1

Lorenzo is another friend of Bassanio and Antonio. He is in love with Shylock's daughter, Jessica. He helps Jessica escape from her father's house and eventually elopes with her to Belmont. He and Jessica are finally bequeathed Shylock’s wealth upon his death as a result of the courtroom dealings.


Why, shall we turn to men?

Act 3, Scene 4

Nerissa is Portia's lady-in-waiting and close confidante. In her conversations with Portia, Nerissa appears to be a great supporter of love and tries to ignite some warmth in Portia towards her many suitors. She falls for and marries Gratiano, and escorts Portia to Venice by disguising herself as Portia's law clerk.


Certainly my conscience will serve me to run from
this Jew my master.

Act 2, Scene 2

Launcelot was originally Shylock’s servant and had a witty and friendly relationship with Jessica, who found much comfort in his word-play. After assisting Jessica and Lorenzo, he leaves Shylock’s service and aligns himself with Bassanio. He is a comical character who is constantly making puns. He is often considered the clown figure of the comedy.


The first, of gold, who this inscription bears,
'Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire...'

Act 2, Scene 7

Morocco is the first of the suitors to seek Portia's hand in marriage. He asks Portia to ignore his ethnicity: “Mislike me not for my complexion” (Act 2, Scene 1), indicating that in this world it is common to judge people by the colour of their skin. He seeks to win Portia by picking one of the three caskets. He appears rather superficial and obsessed by appearances, and blindly assumes that the caskets reflect Portia's beauty and stature. Consequently, the Prince of Morocco picks the gold chest and loses the game.


'Who chooseth me shall have as much as he deserves.'
Did I deserve no more than a fool's head?

Act 2, Scene 9

Arragon is another suitor who has come to choose the casket in the hope of winning Portia’s hand in marriage. He is, as his name suggests, an arrogant Spanish nobleman. Like Morocco, the Prince of Aragon is superficial and egocentric. He picks the silver casket, which gives him a message calling him a “fool” rather than offering him Portia's hand. The cultural significance of this is somewhat lost on modern audiences, but Elizabethan crowds who lived amidst international hostility with Spain and were constantly fed caricatures of the proud Spaniard, would have found the Prince’s predicament hilarious.


Salarino is a gentleman from Venice and friend to Antonio, Bassanio, and Lorenzo. Salarino is often almost indistinguishable from his companion Salanio and is witness to Shylock’s famous speech.


Salanio is aVenetian gentleman and a friend of Antonio’s who is determined to cheer him up. He is also a clear anti-Semite, and is witness to Shylock’s famous speech.


Salerio is another gentleman of Venice and a merchant himself. Salerio is responsible for bringing news to Bassanio about Antonio’s loss and imprisonment, and he returns with Bassanio and Gratiano for Antonio's trial.


The Duke is the ruler of Venice, who presides over Antonio's trial. He is a powerful man, but the state depends on respect for the law, and he is unable to manipulate the law to assist Antonio.


Old Gobbo is Launcelot's father and a servant in Venice. He supports his son wanting to leave Shylock’s service.


Tubal is a wealthy Jew in Venice and one of Shylock's friends who brings him news of Antonio’s failed ships.


Balthazar is Portia's servant, whom she dispatches to get the appropriate materials from Doctor Bellario. She takes his name as her male alias in the courtroom.

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