“The Merchant of Venice” is a play which is made up of many different characters who each have an important role in the storyline. Some are more involved in the main plots than others, but they all provide the play with different effects. Shylock, Antonio, Portia and Bassanio are the main characters of the story and are the ones who make all the plots possible.
Shylock’s character is difficult to interpret as earlier in the play he was described as a comic character, but later on could be described as a evil villain. The reason for his change in interpretation is because the whole power of the play would be lost if Shylock is seen throughout the play as a comic character. Shylock is a successful tradesman who lends out money or known as a usurer. In medieval times, this type of job was seen as a sin and therefore making Shylock a sinner. The Christian community in Venice treated him very differently, but despite of their treatment towards him, he makes it clear that his relationship with Christians was strictly business.
“I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following, but I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you.”
This passage tells us that Shylock was willing to offer his profit-making services to Christians but was not prepared to socialise with them. The bond plot begins with Antonio becoming one of Shylock’s customers of a loan. Shylock agreed to the three thousand ducats Antonio requested, but instead of charging interest he said if he could not pay him back he would have his bond, which was one pound of flesh from any part of Antonio’s body. Antonio agreed to such bond because he was confident of his ships returning with goods which will sell for lots of money, but Shylock had high doubts concerning the security of Antonio’s ships. Shylock thought his chances were high on fulfilling his vengeance against Antonio and make his suffer. Shylock said the following about Antonio’s ships.
“But ships are but boards, sailors but men; there be land rats, and water rats, water thieves and land thieves (I mean pirates), and then there is the peril of waters, the rocks; the man is notwithstanding, sufficient.”
Shylock wants this revenge on Antonio so much because Antonio had physically and verbally abused Shylock in the past. Shylock said this about Antonio’s treatment towards him:
“You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog, and spit upon my Jewish gabardine.”
But after Shylock explains to Antonio how he treats him, Antonio does not regret abusing Shylock and takes matters further by saying:
“I am as like to call thee so again, to spit on thee again, to spurn thee too.”
This means Antonio feels no sorrow towards Shylock and will treat him as he wants. Even though Antonio is dependant on Shylock at his point, he still shows his disrespect to Shylock’s religion which could result in Shylock not lending the money to him.
Antonio is a wealthy merchant in Venice. Although he is the centre of the play, he is portrayed by Shakespeare as a very depressed and is not involved in the social atmosphere around Venice.
“In sooth, I know not why I am so sad; It wearies me; you say it wearies you; but how I caught it, found it, or came by it, what stuff it made of, whereof it is born, I am to learn”
The mystery of Antonio’s sadness remains unsolved, as he denies the sadness is related to his ships or a lost love. Early in the play the other side of Antonio is revealed. A cruel man is displayed with hatred towards the Jewish race, especially Shylock. During Antonio’s sad and unhappy times, his dear friend Bassanio is there to comfort and try solving his problems. Bassanio has helped him through many troubled times and as soon as Bassanio needs a favour returned, Antonio agrees without a doubt and this is how the bond plot begins.
Portia is known as the ‘Golden Fleece’ that suitors from all over the world come to woo. Her beauty and intelligence attracts suitors into the casket story, but during this story she displays racism and prejudice towards the Prince of Morocco, even when he said:
“Mislike me not for my complexion.”
The way Portia reacts to the suitors influences the audience’s opinion of them. When she picks on a fault of a suitor it is disliked by the audience and when she finds a pleasing point in a suitor the audience also shows interest in him. An example of Portia’s ability to manipulate the audience is during a conversation with Nerissa about one of the suitors, the County Palatine:
“He doth nothing but frown, as who should say, “an you will not have me, choose”. He hears merry tales and smiles not; I fear he will prove the weeping philosopher when he grows old, being so full of unmannerly sadness in his youth. I have rather be married to a death’s-head with a bone in his mouth, than to either of these.”
Bassanio is the closest friend to Antonio and their relationship is the finest throughout Venice. Antonio’s other friends know that if anyone could cheer Antonio up, that someone would be Bassanio. But because they did not want to make their jealousy obvious and trouble Antonio even more, they try to change their way of conversation and make it sound like a joke or sarcasm.
“Here comes Bassanio, your most noble kinsman, Gratiano, and Lorenzo. Fare ye well, we leave you now with better company.
I would have stayed will I had mad you merry, if wothier friends had not prevented me.”
Bassanio is determined to woo Portia and needs three thousand ducats to furnish his suit. When he eventually arrives to choose the casket of his dreams, he picks the correct casket and pleases Portia with his charms. Relationships are the most important aspects in Bassanio’s life, whether it is between his friends or with Portia.
“The Merchant Of Venice” is concerned with two issues that were of importance in the Elizabethan time: Jewry and Usury. The Christian reaction and attitude towards Jews was hostile and that the execution of Rodrigo Lopez in 1594 was characteristic of the Christian rejection of al Jews. Jews were forced to convert to Christianity to live in England, once they did they were generally left alone. Usury was an important issue during Shakespeare’s time. Shylock is the typical picture of the usurer that most of the Elizabethans had and who is never accepted. He is proud of his race and his religion but he is against the Venetian society that shows no mercy to the outsider. I think William Shakespeare was not against Jews because he included a passage that made Christians and Jews feel alike, Shylock said:
“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 Christians 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?”
In the 20th century we are more sensitive and conscious about political correctness. The issue of racism has further complicated Shylock’s character and his role attracts greater sympathy.
One of the most important passages in the play fights for equal rights and gives out a powerful effect to the readers. Shylock said:
“He 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. 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 Christians 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?”
Shakespeare added this passage to show us that he is not against any religion and that al the hatred in “The Merchant Of Venice” is just a storyline. But this passage is also telling us that shylock is not as sinful as we thought from the beginning of the play. Shylock reveals that he knows the suffering of racism and hatred between religion but yet he still dislikes Christians. He believes that Antonio has sinned upon him more him sinning upon Antonio, and when Shylock makes this speech he thinks that he will get his bond and finish their rivalry.
The passage sends out such a powerful effect because of the structure, the words used and how the sentences are arranged. The first thing noticed about the passage is that the sentences are very short or are very slow due to the amount of commas. These short sentences or statements create a slower flow of reading and allow readers to think about the statements before proceeding to the next one. The words have been carefully selected by Shakespeare which summarises the events in life. Most of the words he uses, it creates a rhetorical question and allows readers even more time to think about the statements and reflect on how powerful this passage can be.
At the time of the play, the Elizabethan times were still in the age of discovering the world. The Americas and West Indies were among the few best discoveries of the world as it provided spices, silk, and other precious things. These expensive imports were sold around Europe and created jobs as tradesman. Antonio was one of these tradesmen. He owned ships which would collect the items and allow him to sell. This job is not very secure as there is always some uncertainty of the condition of the ships as Antonio finds out later in the play.
“The Merchant of Venice” on stage needed to show a balance between its two worlds of Venice and Belmont. Shakespeare stagecraft in the play already portrays detailed visions whilst reading, but watching the play on stage took the audiences imagination to a next level. His clever use of language changes between characters to suit their separate personalities and this would bring out the best or worst in a character. The style of language he mostly uses in the play is blank verses, which is poetry that does not rhyme, but also the rhythm of human speech used in the play is known as a iambic pentameter.
As a member of the audience, the play was received and acted as a comedy but the triadic was not lost through Shylocks character. The scenes of drama were expressed by each character with lots of enthusiasm and they all felt as though they were the main character. The stage was like the entire world in a few paces for the actors and actresses, and in those few paces the whole importance of the play was captured and delivered to the audience.
As a reader I think this play is another one of Shakespeare best along with ‘Macbeth’ and ‘Romeo And Juliet’. This dramatic comedy is enjoyable because this is one of his plays which will make you think of how much has changed in the world. Racism and hatred between religion echoes around the Elizabethan society and is not much different from other everyday activity such as having an evening meal. This play has many comedy acts and will take the focus off the main plot for a bit to give readers a break from one large continuous storyline. There are also many dramatic scenes which make a exciting climax in the main plot. “The Merchant Of Venice” combines the important ingredients of a good comedy and a drama to create this play.