The Merchant of Venice | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Merchant of Venice | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


What evidence in The Merchant of Venice, Act 1, Scene 1 indicates Antonio is in love with Bassanio?

While the presence of an overt same-sex relationship would have been strictly taboo when The Merchant of Venice was written, the exchanges between Antonio and Bassanio can be interpreted as an exceptionally deep friendship, a fatherly love, or a charitable Christian love. However, modern adaptations of the play interpret Antonio's love for Bassanio as romantic based on evidence present in the text: Once Salarino and Solanio have ruled out anxiety over his ships as a cause for Antonio's sad disposition, they have another suggestion: Solanio: Why then you are in love. Antonio: Fie, fie! The structure of these two lines is notable and appears deliberate in the printing. They are written in verse, and the placement of Antonio's response makes it essentially part of Solanio's line, which indicates the speed of Antonio's response. Solanio has barely finished speaking before Antonio refutes him. This could be read as the quick and emphatic response of a man with something to hide. It's subtle but telling that Bassanio arrives moments after Solanio suggests Antonio is in love. In his dialogue with Bassanio, Antonio makes no secret of loving Bassanio, but the timing here raises the possibility that Antonio is in love with Bassanio. Once they are in private, Antonio's first question to Bassanio is about the woman Bassanio has gone to see. The scene has established that Antonio has been preoccupied with something, and the speed of this initial question indicates it has been burning in Antonio's mind. Bassanio acknowledges Antonio's love in his response, saying "To you Antonio/I owe the most in money and in love." Antonio replies by assuring Bassanio that all he has is at Bassanio's disposal, and he later expresses offense when Bassanio implies there might be a limit to what Antonio would do for him. Antonio says, "And out of doubt you do me now more wrong/In making question of my uttermost/Than if you had made waste of all I have." Antonio has given freely to Bassanio and clearly values his own ability to provide for Bassanio's happiness over any of his material wealth.

How does Bassanio's description of Portia in Act 1, Scene 1 in The Merchant of Venice contrast with Lorenzo's words about Jessica in Act 2, Scene 6?

When Antonio asks Bassanio about the woman he went to see—meaning Portia—Bassanio does not immediately speak of her. Instead, he outlines his debts. When he does speak of Portia, he opens by saying, "In Belmont is a lady richly left,/And she is fair; and fairer than that word,/ Of wondrous virtues." He references her money first, her beauty second, and her "virtues" third. He never details what those virtues include. He does not mention any specific traits and goes on to describe the competition for her hand. A cynical interpretation of his response might assume he is primarily interested in her wealth, and the description is certainly not one of a man overcome by passion. In contrast, when Lorenzo goes to collect Jessica from her father's house in Act 2, Scene 6, he speaks of his love for her freely, with little prompting from his friend Gratiano: Beshrew me but I love her heartily, For she is wise, if I can judge of her, And fair she is, if that mine eyes be true, And true she is, as she hath proved herself. And therefore, like herself, wise, fair, and true, Shall she be placed in my constant soul. Lorenzo is specific about what he loves in Jessica. Only moments before, Jessica gave him a large chest filled with gold and jewels to take with them, but Lorenzo seems uninterested in this bounty. He is interested in her wisdom, her beauty, and her honesty. Most importantly—and obviously—Lorenzo says he loves Jessica, a word conspicuously absent from Bassanio's talk about Portia. Lorenzo concludes his speech by placing Jessica in his soul, while Bassanio concludes his description of Portia by saying if he is successful in wooing her "I should questionless be fortunate!" Bassanio's focus is on what he stands to gain by winning Portia, and the subject of his sentence is himself. Lorenzo's focus is on Jessica; she is the subject of his sentences as she is of his life. Based on these first impressions, Lorenzo's feelings for Jessica are clearly much deeper than Bassanio's for Portia.

How is Gratiano characterized in his speech in lines 84 to 110 in Act 1, Scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice?

Gratiano is a man unapologetic about his enthusiasm for living, and he has no desire to change. He says, With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come And let my liver rather heat with wine Than let my heart cool with mortifying groans. He is happy to age and wear out his body with the trappings of merriment, laughter, and wine, than to allow himself to age and grow bitter and cold. If he jokes too much and too freely, he prefers his own approach to that of reputed wise men who remain silent and serious only because they would be called fools if they spoke. Perhaps others think Gratiano a fool as well, but if so, he has earned the reputation by his own merits and by being true to himself. He says all these things in an effort to bring Antonio out of his melancholy in Act 1 and tells Antonio he loves him because he is loyal to his friends and wants them to be as happy as he is.

Based on what Portia says about her suitors in The Merchant of Venice, Act 1, Scene 2, what is she looking for in a husband?

Portia's description of her suitors indicates that her options are uniformly unappealing. She objects to the Neapolitan prince who does "nothing but talk of his horse." The County Palatine does "nothing but frown." She finds the French lord's moods too inconsistent, and she finds a Scottish lord too quarrelsome. She thinks the English baron, Falconbridge, is physically attractive, but they do not speak the same language, which makes a relationship impossible. Her greatest objection seems to be to her German suitor, who drinks profusely. She says of him, "When he is best he is a little worse than a man, and when he is worst he is little better than a beast ... I will do anything, Nerissa, ere I will be married to a sponge." Once Portia has made explicit what she finds unappealing about the men who pursue her, her requirements are not substantially different from what most people look for in a partner. She wants someone who is interesting to talk to and whom she can talk to. She wants a pleasant disposition and a reasonably predictable personality. Most importantly, she wants a husband who exhibits self-control, does not behave like a "beast," and can be trusted not to squander her fortune on drink.

Based on their conversation in The Merchant of Venice, Act 1, Scene 2, what kind of friendship do Portia and Nerissa have?

Nerissa's title is "waiting-gentlewoman," which means she is technically Portia's servant. She is a high-ranking servant, but still an employee. However, the two women have a close and very open friendship. When Portia complains of being "aweary of this world," Nerissa reminds her of her great fortune. Portia wants for nothing, is beautiful, and has scores of admirers. Nerissa speaks frankly, even cheekily, to Portia. When Portia says Nerissa's sentences of advice are good, Nerissa says, "They would be better if followed." At the same time, Nerissa shows sympathy for Portia's complaint of having her dead father take away her right to choose her own husband and gently reassures Portia of her father's wisdom and goodness. She listens patiently to Portia's complaints about her suitors, which are valid, and encourages her with the memory of Bassanio saying he is "best deserving a fair lady." The friendship is one sided in the sense that this and other conversations between them center on Portia's needs, but Portia clearly values Nerissa as a grounding influence and a source of sensible feedback. In turn Nerissa clearly has her lady's best interests at heart. The relative equality between the two women is also visible in the structure of their dialogue, which is written in prose rather than verse. In Shakespearean plays prose is reserved for casual speech, and verse lines indicate formality and propriety.

When introduced in The Merchant of Venice, Act 1, Scene 2, what does Portia's dead father's riddle, which will determine who marries Portia, indicate about the role of women?

Portia vows that she will follow her father's wishes in choosing a husband. The details of the challenge do not become clear until Act 2, Scene 7. In that scene the audience sees that Portia's father has created a kind of shell game to choose his daughter's husband from beyond the grave. He has set up three chests, each with an inscription that provides a clue, and the man who chooses the chest with Portia's portrait inside wins her hand. In Act 1, Scene 2 Portia is clearly frustrated by this arrangement. She laments, "I may neither choose who I would nor refuse who I dislike. So is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father." Her father's written will has imposed his intentions on her. Of course, if her father were alive, social convention of the time would give him control over his daughter's marriage, but Portia might have had input on the decision. Under the system her father has devised, she lacks even the illusion that her opinion matters. In a time when arranged marriages were commonplace for the upper classes, this arrangement reads as an exaggerated parody of the lengths parents might go to find a daughter a "suitable" mate. All of Portia's suitors are men of high rank and wealth, but they are personally repellent. In this seeming game of chance, it appears she may be forced to marry any one of them, creating a socially acceptable but unhappy marriage.

In what ways is Antonio's and Shylock's conflict over lending money with interest in The Merchant of Venice, Act 1, Scene 3 based in religious belief?

As common as the collection of interest, or usance, is when lending money today, the practice provides the basis for Antonio and Shylock's conflict. Antonio, as a Christian, is prohibited by his religion from charging interest on money he loans to others. This policy enrages Shylock because Antonio lending money for free drives down the interest rates he and his colleagues can charge on their loans. While Antonio may mean well, he directly affects Shylock's livelihood. As a Jew, Shylock is limited to moneylending for his income because his religious law allows him to charge interest, but the city's law prohibits him from owning land or engaging in many other professions. During their exchange in Act 1, Scene 3, Shylock attempts to explain why he believes it is acceptable for him to charge interest for the money he lends. He recounts the Biblical story of Jacob, who is charged with watching his uncle's flock of sheep. As payment, Jacob collects the multicolored lambs born during the year he cares for the flock, and he sets up multicolored branches in the females' line of sight during breeding time to attempt to influence the color of their offspring. The strategy works, and Jacob collects a large flock of his own. Shylock explains that Jacob's efforts to influence breeding and increase the flock is similar to the act of charging interest on money, so his own practices are justified by the religious text. Antonio rejects this viewpoint and argues Jacob is simply creating an advantage for himself in basic trade as a merchant might. Antonio whispers to Bassanio that the devil, Shylock, can cite scripture for his own purposes, rejecting Shylock's argument. Still, Antonio does not explain why his own interpretation of Jacob's strategy to increase his flock assigns Jacob more honor or honesty. The exchange demonstrates that business practices are not the only point of difference between Shylock and Antonio; they differ in their fundamental religious beliefs, which makes their conflict about something much deeper than money.

Why is Shylock opposed to eating dinner with Bassanio and Antonio in The Merchant of Venice, Act 1, Scene 3?

When Bassanio asks Shylock to join him and Antonio for dinner, Shylock responds with sarcasm, saying, "Yes, to smell pork. To eat of the habitation which your prophet the Nazarite conjured the devil into." Although some of the dietary restrictions have been relaxed in modern times, at the time of the play, Jewish law requires Shylock to follow strict dietary standards. These standards are especially strict regarding meat: which animals may be consumed, how animals are killed, how the meat is stored. Based on Jewish law, pork is not allowed because pigs do not chew cud. Shylock's reference to "the Nazarite" alludes to a Biblical story in which Jesus of Nazareth performs an exorcism and casts demons out of a man's body and into a flock of pigs, which would have been acceptable because pigs were already considered unclean under Jewish law at the time. Shylock's use of this story indicates the depth of his own piety, as he refuses to even smell pork, let alone eat it. He also implies hypocrisy on the part of Christians, who freely eat pork even though their own scriptural stories imply pigs are tainted.

How do Antonio's, Bassanio's, and Shylock's viewpoints differ toward the bond they seal in The Merchant of Venice, Act 1, Scene 3?

Shylock refers to the bond, which requires Antonio to give up a pound of his own flesh, as "merry sport." His expressions of hatred toward Antonio and his earlier aside wishing for an opportunity to get Antonio at his mercy and take revenge reveal that Shylock's talk of the bond as a joke are a cover for his true intentions. He knows taking a pound of Antonio's flesh will kill him, so his suggestion is rooted in malice, and his tone conceals that malice toward the Christian. Bassanio recognizes Shylock's malice for what it is. Even though Antonio expresses cynicism toward Shylock's justification of his work as a moneylender, countering Shylock's story of the Biblical Jacob by telling Bassanio the devil can use scripture to justify his own ends, he seems to abandon this cynicism when Shylock offers the terms of their loan. Bassanio, however, does not buy Shylock's friendly attitude. He cautions Antonio against accepting these terms and tries to back out of the deal. Antonio says he believes Shylock has shown such kindness that he may convert to Christianity, which shows a somewhat naive level of trust in a man who is asking for a pound of one's flesh. Shakespeare uses the word kindness to play with the three men's interpretations of the situation. Shylock tells Antonio he's not going to charge interest on his loan, saying, "This is kind I offer" and goes on to say, "This kindness will I show." It's likely he's thinking of repaying Antonio's many insults and injuries "in kind." Bassanio seems to understand this double meaning when he remarks, "This were kindness!" His use of the subjunctive "were" might refer to either meaning of the word. If the contract is made, if Antonio were to default, Shylock would get his payment in kind. On the other hand, if he were to repay the loan as agreed, Shylock's offer would have been a kind and generous one. Antonio himself, however, chooses to have faith and see "much kindness in the Jew."

What elements of Shylock's portrayal create sympathy for his character in The Merchant of Venice, Act 1, Scene 3?

Shylock describes the wrongs Antonio has done him in lines 116 to 139. Antonio has scolded Shylock in public for his moneylending and called him "misbeliever" and "cutthroat dog." These public insults sew animosity, and Shylock points out that he has "borne it with a patient shrug." He does not retaliate by calling Antonio names—perhaps because Antonio has more power in Venetian society than Shylock does. Antonio has not limited his abuse to words; Shylock cites occasions when Antonio has kicked him and spat on his clothing. The phrasing he uses—"void your rheum upon my beard"—conjures an especially gross image of Antonio spitting a glob of phlegm very near Shylock's face. Spitting is an unsanitary and highly personal insult since it is an invasion of another person's space and hygiene to inflict ones bodily fluids on another in such a manner. When confronted with these wrongs, Antonio does not offer apology or conciliation of any kind. Social convention asks us to apologize when we become aware we have wronged another person. Christian morality, which Antonio follows, likewise asks people to seek forgiveness when they have done wrong. Antonio does not appear to believe he has done anything wrong, and instead of apology, he doubles down on his abuse saying, "I am as like to call thee so again,/To spet on thee again, to spurn thee, too." He asks Shylock to lend him the money not out of friendship but for business and the ability to collect interest from his enemy. Even though Shylock is plotting against Antonio as he dictates the terms of the loan, Antonio's lack of remorse for mistreating Shylock provides rationale for Shylock's desire for revenge.

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