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The Merchant of Venice | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Merchant of Venice | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


In The Merchant of Venice, Act 3, Scene 1, why do Salarino and Solanio believe Shylock shouldn't be surprised by Jessica's departure?

When Shylock accuses Salarino and Solanio of knowing—"none so well as you"—about Jessica's plans to elope, they defend themselves by telling Shylock he should have known his daughter was sufficiently grown to want to leave home. Solanio says, "And Shylock for his own part knew the bird was fledge, and then it is the complexion of them all to leave the dam." Shylock has been in denial about Jessica becoming an adult and made no preparations to set her up with a husband or home of her own. Solanio and Salarino emphasize that it is the natural order of things for children to leave their parents and have their own lives. Shylock should not be surprised that Jessica wants what all young people want. When he says that his "own flesh and blood" has rebelled against him, Solanio does not even dignify the statement with a serious response, making a nasty joke about whether Shylock's body is capable of rebelling at his age. Children rebel against parents, and they are more likely to do so when the parent is as stifling as Shylock has been to Jessica.

What does Shylock's speech in lines 57 to 72 of The Merchant of Venice, Act 3, Scene 1 say about human nature and prejudice?

Known as the "hath not a Jew" speech, Shylock's soliloquy is one of the best-known passages from The Merchant of Venice because of its appeal to the common experiences of all humanity. Shylock responds to a lifetime of prejudice with a range of emotions, starting with pathos and ending with rage. He begins by describing how all human bodies are the same with "hands, organs, dimensions." Then he moves into the common feelings all humans have, "senses, emotions, passions." All humans eat and are subject to injury and disease and respond to stimuli from the weather to physical contact. Shylock's listing of these common experiences represents his attempt to convince Solanio and Salarino that he is as human as they are and that prejudice is unnecessary because all humans have common values, strengths, and weaknesses. His tone becomes darker when he talks about the human desire for revenge. He is correct in his belief that Christians seek revenge just as freely as he does as a Jew. Shylock owns this part of his humanity; he embraces it. He sees no reason—if we all share a common humanity—why the right of revenge should be limited to only one group.

In Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Act 3, Scene 1, how does Shylock's response to news about Jessica differ from Solanio's stereotyping in Act 2, Scene 8?

In Act 2, Scene 8, Solanio's account of Shylock's distress at losing Jessica emphasizes Shylock's focus on losing the money Jessica takes with her. Solanio's version paints Shylock with a greed that is recognized as stereotypical of the Jewish moneylender. However, Shylock's reaction to Tubal's news about Jessica somewhat contradicts that stereotype. His reaction is exaggerated, but not entirely focused on monetary loss. Shylock declares he wishes his daughter—he doesn't use her name—were dead and the money in her coffin. This desire implies that he is overcome with shame at her abandonment and her theft and would prefer to have lost her and the money to the grave than in such an embarrassing manner. He also expresses sentimental value for one of the items Jessica has taken—a turquoise ring Jessica's mother gave him during their courtship. He says, "I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys." This ring is special because of its origin, not because of its monetary value. Even though Shylock is concerned with his wealth—as his work requires—it is not his sole concern or even his most important worry.

In The Merchant of Venice, Act 3, Scene 1, how does Shylock's response to news about Jessica reinforce Solanio's stereotyping in Act 2, Scene 8?

Even though Shylock's discussion with Tubal about the search for Jessica contains moments of sentimentality and expressions of shame at her leaving, the conversation centers heavily on money. Shylock says, "I know not what's spent in the search! Why, loss upon loss. The thief gone with so much, and so much to find the thief." He no longer refers to Jessica by her name. In this passage he does not even call her "my daughter." She is "the thief"; her whole relationship to her father is now defined by the manner of her leaving and the items she has taken from him. Shylock exaggerates his anguish further when he learns the diamond he spent to find Jessica, worth 2,000 ducats, has gone to waste. He claims "The curse never fell upon our nation till now, I never felt it till now." For him to equate the loss of 2,000 ducats to the suffering of his people over centuries is insensitive at best and indicates the kind of greed that Solanio attempts to illustrate when he gossips about Shylock.

In The Merchant of Venice, Act 3, Scene 2, what does Jessica and Lorenzo's presence at Belmont reveal about gossip and hearsay in other scenes?

In Act 2, Scene 8 Salarino and Solanio recount how Antonio assured Shylock and the Duke of Venice that Jessica and Lorenzo did not leave Venice with Bassanio. This may be true because the play does not specify how they reached Belmont, but it seems suspicious that they have ended up in the same place as Bassanio at the same time. In Act 3, Scene 1 Tubal tells Shylock news of Jessica and Lorenzo sighted in the city of Genoa, another possibility, but they do not seem newly arrived at Belmont when they appear in Act 3, Scene 2. Tubal also reports how Jessica has traded her mother's ring for a monkey, but no monkeys are visible at Belmont. Perhaps the monkey is in another location, but its conspicuous absence implies the more likely conclusion that the monkey never existed. Much of the news that surfaces in Venice is based on secondhand accounts and hearsay, with Salarino and Solanio providing a primary conduit for such information, but Tubal supplementing it as well. Jessica and Lorenzo's peaceful presence in Belmont provides evidence to support the conclusion that the rumors and hearsay that drive the plot are often incorrect or incomplete. These erroneous accounts are not only misleading but dangerous. Antonio almost dies because news reaches Venice that all his ships have been lost, but in Act 5, Scene 1 three of his ships arrive safely back in Venice. These examples show the value of verifiable facts over rumor and gossip.

In The Merchant of Venice, Act 3, Scene 2, how does the song in lines 65 to 74 provide hints to guide Bassanio through the challenge?

The song asserts that fancy "is engendered in the eye." This means that fancy—shallow affection and attraction—is based entirely on appearance, what can be seen with the eye. Fancy is not love. It is inconstant and might change just as what the observer sees changes. In this respect the song is a cautionary tale. It tells Bassanio that affections based on appearance are not substantial or valuable. The song goes on to describe how fancy dies "in the cradle where it lies" after being fed with gazing. The interest in a person or object wanes when the eye has had its fill and wants to look at something else, and this fleeting nature means that fancy will never have the chance to grow and mature into something substantial like love. Hence it dies in the cradle. Bassanio appears to understand this message because his first line after the song ends reads like a response that establishes cause and effect: "So may the outward shows be least themselves."

What dramatic irony appears in Bassanio's reasoning as he chooses a casket in The Merchant of Venice, Act 3, Scene 2?

Bassanio's choice of casket rests on his understanding that the outward appearance of something is not representative of what is inside it. This principle is the crux of the casket challenge, which is designed to discourage suitors who are shallowly obsessed with external appearance and what they believe they deserve. Although Bassanio is sensible enough to choose the correct casket during the challenge—to understand that things and people of great value and substance may hide under plain exteriors—he has not lived his life according to this principle, a contrast the audience understands. The main conflict in the play results from Bassanio's need for money so he can present an appearance that will convince Portia of his prosperity. He does not confess the truth behind this image until he receives word Antonio's life is in danger, and he needs Portia's help. Bassanio knows exterior appearance often conceals a different reality because that is the reality he lives in.

Why do Portia and Bassanio make multiple allusions to classical mythology as Bassanio faces the casket challenge in The Merchant of Venice, Act 3, Scene 2?

Portia first compares Bassanio to the hero Hercules rescuing a woman from a sea monster near Troy. This elevates the challenge before them to a hero's task of rescuing a maiden in distress. In reality Portia is not exactly a virgin sacrifice to a sea monster. She is a comfortable woman of means and high status who will go on living comfortably whether Bassanio wins the challenge or not. Bassanio is risking a great deal in accepting the challenge, as he will be prohibited from marrying anyone else if he fails, but this is not the same as facing a sea monster. In mulling over how "the outward shows be least themselves" and how "The world is still deceived with ornament," Bassanio mentions several examples, including three from classical mythology: cowards who sport "The beards of Hercules and frowning Mars" Medusa's "crispèd snaky golden locks" Midas's "gaudy gold" These allusions and Portia and Bassanio's desire to draw parallels between their love and the epics of ancient times highlight the comfort they enjoy in their lives as well as their need to create stories for themselves that make this odd ritual with the caskets into something romantic and legendary.

What is significant about the ring Portia gives Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice, Act 3, Scene 2?

Because Portia and Bassanio's courtship has evolved through the highly artificial ritual surrounding the caskets, they have not had an opportunity to spend a lot of time together, get to know one another, and indulge in a romance. They have essentially met and moved immediately into marriage. Symbols of devotion, such as rings, take on special importance under these circumstances. They need to create shared experiences and understandings to compensate for the stories and memories they have yet to create. Portia promises Bassanio all she has, but she is also relinquishing her independence and sole control over her properties by marrying him. The ring signifies their bond, but the caveat she places on the ring—that if he "part from, lose, or give away" this ring it will "presage the ruin of your love"—also allows Portia to retain control over Bassanio. His continued ownership of the ring is an ongoing test of his loyalty and devotion to her.

Why does Bassanio compare his courtship of Portia to the mythical quest for the golden fleece in The Merchant of Venice, Act 3, Scene 2?

Bassanio refers to the story of Jason and the golden fleece when speaking with Antonio before journeying to Belmont in Act 1, Scene 2. This parallel is an attempt for him to elevate his journey to woo Portia to the status of heroic legend, and the comparison makes some sense. Jason and his friends set sail to another land, just as Bassanio sets sail to Belmont. For Jason the prize is the golden fleece of a mystical ram. For Bassanio the fleece is Portia, the prize at the end of the quest. Bassanio's quest is less dangerous than the one Jason and his fellows attempt in legend, but Bassanio needs to believe he is engaged in a heroic activity to justify the risk Antonio has taken to make this quest possible. He makes the reference to Antonio because he needs Antonio to believe it as well. Ironically, Antonio is the one facing real danger in this scenario even though he never leaves home.

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