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The Merchant of Venice | Discussion Questions 11 - 20

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Why do Portia's suitors have to swear not to approach another woman in marriage if they lose her father's challenge in The Merchant of Venice?

Once the rules of the challenge Portia's father set up before his death are made clear, it becomes apparent that the challenge is not a simple game of chance. Each casket is inscribed with a clue that is designed to direct a worthy man to the box that holds Portia's portrait. Even though the element of chance is reduced in the challenge, if any man is allowed to accept the challenge and choose between the three caskets, it substantially raises the odds of an unworthy man undertaking the challenge on a whim and winning Portia's hand. To protect against this possibility, Portia's father has added the requirement that those who accept the challenge swear never to marry another woman even if they lose the challenge. Although it's unclear how such a provision might be enforced, this first hurdle limits the pool of suitors who are willing to risk a lifetime of loneliness for the mere chance to marry Portia, which at least ensures the winner will have a basic level of devotion to her.

What does Launcelot Gobbo's and Old Gobbo's misuse of language indicate about each of them in The Merchant of Venice, Act 2, Scene 2?

Old Gobbo's misuse of words is more obvious than his son's. He tells Bassanio Launcelot has "an infection to serve" when he probably means an affection and later refers to the "defect of the matter" when he probably means effect. Lancelot hopes his father's words can "frutify" his intentions when he probably means fructify. The misused vocabulary appears for humorous effect in the play as the purpose of both Gobbo men is to provide comic relief. However, it also illustrates their lack of education and finesse. These are lower-class men than Bassanio. They are poorer than Shylock and less learned than he, but in Venetian society they have greater freedom and status than Shylock has. Their judgment of Shylock and distaste for him may illustrate how, despite their low rank, they recognize his defects as an employer. Thus, it highlights the flaws of a social system that bases status on race and religion instead of merit and illustrates how such a system perpetuates prejudice and mutual hostility.

What passages in The Merchant of Venice, Act 2, Scenes 3 and 4 raise the possibility that the Christians dislike Shylock on his own merits rather than blind prejudice?

Act 2, Scenes 3 and 4 feature Shylock's daughter Jessica. She is a Jew like her father, but she is not subject to the same hostility her father faces. It is possible that Jessica enjoys greater favor with the other characters because she is a woman or because she plans to marry a Christian and convert. However, marriages between Christians and Jews were not encouraged and were often considered taboo in Christian society. It is more likely that Jessica is not subject to the same scorn Shylock faces because she is a nicer person than he is. Shylock is angry and bitter from years of mistreatment, and he makes no secret of returning the scorn he has faced. Jessica, on the other hand, is friendly toward Launcelot and others. Launcelot calls her "most beautiful pagan, most sweet Jew" because she has treated him well during his time with her family. Lorenzo says "If e'er the Jew her father come to heaven,/It will be for his gentle daughter's sake." Lorenzo is in love with Jessica, so he is biased in her favor, but his statement also speaks to her traits that earned his love.

How does Act 2, Scene 5 of The Merchant of Venice illustrate Jessica's reasons for wanting to elope with Lorenzo?

Shylock is extremely protective of Jessica, which isolates her from even the most casual social contact. He is driven by his prejudice against the Venetians. As a young woman living in a vibrant city, she is undoubtedly interested in the things happening around her, but Shylock tells her to keep the windows of their house locked and not to look outside. She is not to even allow the sounds of the outside world into their home or her ears, lest they corrupt her. Shylock does not know about her involvement with Lorenzo, of course, but neither has he taken any steps to arrange for her to have a Jewish suitor even though she is of an appropriate age for marriage. Had he done so, he might have prevented her from eloping with a Christian. There is no evidence in the play that she has any friends within her own community either, another factor that may have led her to pursue a clandestine relationship with a Christian. Her only friend appears to be the house servant Launcelot Gobbo. However, Shylock has alienated Launcelot and driven him to find another job, which means if Jessica continues living with her father, she will be even more isolated than before. If the alternative is marriage and becoming part of Lorenzo's social circle, her choice seems easy and obvious.

In The Merchant of Venice how are Jessica and Portia similar?

Jessica and Portia are both women controlled by their father's wishes. Portia complains that her father has taken any element of choice from her as she attempts to find a husband using the complicated challenge her father has left behind, which essentially allows him to choose a husband for her from the grave. Her position in Belmont leaves her somewhat isolated, and her best friend is a servant, Nerissa. She has few other acquaintances. Jessica's situation is a much bleaker version of Portia's. Her father, Shylock, controls her every move and contact with the world outside their house. While Portia's father has created a very limiting challenge that may prevent his daughter from ever marrying, Shylock has allowed no visible opportunities for Jessica to meet a husband within the Jewish community. He keeps her isolated in their house, and like Portia her best friend is a servant, Launcelot Gobbo. By establishing these similarities between two women so outwardly different, the play provides insight into the limited options all women face in Renaissance Venetian society. Their lives are governed by their fathers until they marry; then they will be governed by their husbands.

In The Merchant of Venice how do Jessica and Portia differ?

Neither Portia nor Jessica likes the level of control their fathers exert over their personal lives. Because Portia's father is dead, she feels she can do little to change her circumstances. Even though she doesn't like the method her father has instigated for choosing her husband, she accepts it and vows to follow his will. Her obedience hints at a relationship far more positive than the one Jessica has with Shylock. The play does not set forth a consequence for Portia should she opt to abandon her father's wishes, so despite her complaints, she has apparently chosen to do as he wishes even though he is not there to stop her. On the other hand, Jessica's father is alive and irritable. If Shylock were to discover her communication with Lorenzo, there is little doubt he would punish her, perhaps severely. He keeps her locked away from the world even when he thinks she is obedient. Instead of acquiescing to Shylock's wishes as Portia does with her father, Jessica takes the risk of rebellion. She liberates herself from her father's control. She actively chooses her own husband, and she chooses a man who would meet with her father's sternest disapproval.

What personal flaw is evident in the Prince of Morocco's speech that indicates his unworthiness of Portia in The Merchant of Venice, Act 2, Scene 7?

Until the audience and Portia see Portia's father's plan in action, the challenge involving the three caskets seems at best like a haphazard way to choose a husband. However, once the Prince of Morocco undertakes the challenge and his reasoning becomes visible, the audience realizes the purpose of the challenge is to weed out unworthy suitors. The Prince of Morocco chooses the gold casket, drawn by the lure of "what many men desire." He believes this statement applies to gold as well as to Portia. Portia is pursued by many suitors, but the Prince of Morocco is taken in by outward appearances, and this is a tendency that defines his personality. When he first arrives, he introduces himself by asking Portia not to judge him for his complexion, so he is clearly preoccupied with how his own appearance affects others. As he chooses his casket, he reflects repeatedly on Portia's beauty, which seems to be her most important characteristic in his opinion. He relates to the world around him only according to surface appearances.

How does Solanio and Salarino's gossip in The Merchant of Venice, Act 2, Scene 8 create sympathy for Antonio?

Antonio has endured some setbacks in recent days. A rumor is circulating that a ship has been lost near England. Solanio and Salarino suspect the ship is one of Antonio's, as does the rest of the city. The loss of a ship places Antonio one step closer to Shylock's clutches, and Solanio and Salarino cite Antonio's kindness as reason to sympathize with his financial losses. More importantly, Antonio appears grieved by Bassanio's departure. Salarino describes Antonio's eyes as "being big with tears" when he bids Bassanio farewell. He shakes Bassanio's hand in farewell but turns his face away to hide his sorrow. Solanio observes "I think [Antonio] only loves the world for [Bassanio]." In other words, the only thing in the world that brings Antonio true joy is Bassanio. His life is only worth living because Bassanio is in it. Whether this love is romantic or platonic at its core, it is a singularly strong connection. The prospect of Antonio losing this friend to marriage, which will change the nature of their relationship as marriage does, creates a connection between the audience and Antonio because it relates to a universal experience. Everyone has lost a close friend to a romantic connection or lost a romantic partner to someone else.

Why is Shylock's initial reaction to Jessica's departure presented secondhand through Solanio and Salarino's gossip in The Merchant of Venice, Act 2, Scene 8?

Solanio and Salarino's gossip about Shylock's reaction to Jessica running away with Lorenzo allows them an opportunity to demonstrate their prejudice against Shylock. They seem to mock his pain at losing his sole family member, imitating his cries through the city square. More importantly, they are able to portray Shylock in keeping with the stereotype about Jewish moneylenders, a stereotype that assumes such men are greedy at the expense of all else. Their account of Shylock's words in lines 15 to 23 has him repeating the word ducats five times. He describes these ducats and enumerates how many bags of them are gone. In addition two full lines are devoted to the jewels he has lost. He says the word daughter five times also, but two of these mentions are to emphasize that she is the one who stole the ducats. Their breakdown of his language indicates he places greater value on the ducats than the daughter. However, it is important that this portrayal is filtered through Solanio's perception because it raises the possibility that his account is unreliable and the reality was less aligned with stereotype.

Why does the Prince of Arragon's choice of caskets reveal him to be a fool in The Merchant of Venice, Act 2, Scene 9?

The Prince of Arragon chooses the silver casket, which is inscribed with the words "Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves." This inscription, with its obvious allusion to entitlement and deserving, should serve as a warning to a thinking man not to choose the silver casket. The challenge has been devised by Portia's father to choose a worthy husband for her. A father who goes to this kind of trouble to look out for his daughter's interests is not a man likely to believe anyone is really worthy of his daughter, least of all a man who comes to the challenge with an ego inflated enough to believe he deserves her. The Prince of Arragon falls into the trap easily because he is a man with exactly such an ego. In his reasoning over the choice he sets himself apart from and above other men, thinking himself too good to choose gold. Furthermore, his inability to use simple logic to see the silver casket is a trap that brands him a fool.

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