The Merchant of Venice | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Merchant of Venice | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


What words and actions paint Shylock as a true villain in The Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Scene 1?

Previous scenes with Shylock have left some rationale for his anger and presented him with some redeeming qualities. In Act 1, Scene 3 he is scheming and hateful toward Antonio, but he also details the grievances and abuses he has suffered at Antonio's hands. In Act 3, Scene 1 he may seem more concerned about his loss of money than about the loss of his daughter, but he also makes a passionate plea defending his own humanity and pointing out that the Christians have no room to judge him harshly for wanting revenge. On Shylock's day in court, however, he is intractable and his explanations for being there and for wanting Antonio's flesh amount to him saying "It is my humor" and leaving it at that. There is little balance to his malice as he will not hear pleas for mercy or reason. Instead, Shylock is seen sharpening his knife on the bottom of his shoe in court before a verdict has even been reached. It is a chilling action that reflects his overconfidence at the pending decision as well as his apparent relish and anticipation for what he is about to do—kill a man with the law's approval in front of a room full of people.

How do Gratiano and Bassanio potentially make matters worse for Antonio in The Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Scene 1?

Gratiano and Bassanio's words and behavior in court show the kind of attitude and prejudice that over the years has escalated Shylock's distaste to hatred and finally to murderous rage. They lack any sort of empathy or understanding of Shylock's anger, which leads them to exacerbate it during the court proceedings. Perhaps Shylock is truly too stubborn to relent in his quest for revenge on Antonio, but when Bassanio calls Shylock an "unfeeling man" and Gratiano calls him a "damned, inexcrable dog" these words hardly prime Shylock to hear or be open to pleas for mercy when Portia and the duke deliver them. They fail to recognize that Shylock seeks Antonio's life for leveling similar insults. All they are doing is reminding Shylock of the insults that have led him to this place. For all the duke's pleas for mercy, for all Portia's pleas for mercy, none of these characters show Shylock any mercy until after he has nearly killed Antonio. The insults and hostility continue leading up to and throughout most of the trial, and this hostility only enables Shylock to continue the cycle of his hostility.

What is the flaw in Portia's plea for Shylock to show Antonio mercy in The Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Scene 1?

The flaw in Portia's plea for Shylock's mercy is the same flaw present in Antonio's previous attempts to convince Shylock to change his mind: at no point do Antonio, Portia, the duke, or anyone else tell Shylock that they have been wrong in their mistreatment of him or offer an apology or amends. Portia's characterization of mercy as one of the highest ideals of humanity is a correct one, and one directly in line with Christian doctrine. She confirms this when she says mercy is "an attribute to God himself." However, according to Christian doctrine, God's mercy is directly tied to human repentance, which means someone who has done wrong must acknowledge that wrong and ask for forgiveness. "Mercy seasons justice," in Portia's words, but such seasoning is tied to a confession of some sort. While Antonio laments his own broken state in court, calling himself the weakest of the flock, he offers no direct acknowledgement of wronging Shylock. While Portia pleads with Shylock for mercy, she offers no apology on Antonio's—or society's—behalf. Even when the duke later shows Shylock mercy by not putting him to death for plotting against Antonio, Shylock expresses some understanding that he has been wrong, but the Christians do not make a similar display toward Shylock. Their refusal to acknowledge what they have done reflects the anti-Semitism ingrained in Christian Venetian society. Christians are the majority and have the right both legally and culturally to abuse Jews. This is so much a trait of their society that they no longer recognize it.

How do Bassanio and Gratiano unknowingly damage their new marriages during the court proceedings in The Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Scene 1?

In lines 295 to 306 both Bassanio and Gratiano swear they would sacrifice their wives to spare Antonio's life. Bassanio says, "Life itself, my wife, and all the world are not esteemed to me above thy life. I would lose all, ay, sacrifice them all here to this devil, to deliver you." The statement is almost certainly an example of hyperbole, an extreme exaggeration to illustrate the depth of Bassanio's love for Antonio. After all, offering up another person to be sacrificed to Shylock's rage would not solve the problem at hand, only transfer it to someone else. If Portia were the target of Shylock's malice, it is easy to imagine Bassanio declaring he would sacrifice his friend as dear as life itself to save her. Gratiano echoes these sentiments, saying he wishes his wife were in heaven (therefore dead) so she might invoke the powers of heaven to change Shylock's mind. Again this is likely hyperbole. While Bassanio and Gratiano do not know their wives are present in the room, they do make these announcements in a public forum, the content of which could get back to Portia and Nerissa. However, since Portia is masquerading as Balthazar, the young doctor of law, and Nerissa as Balthazar's clerk, both Portia and Nerissa hear their husbands' words directly and each one makes a remark indicating her displeasure in an aside. Even if Portia and Nerissa understand these statements are exaggerated, the words still indicate a division in their husbands' loyalty. In the heat of conflict, Bassanio and Gratiano express not just extreme sympathy for Antonio's cause but a desire to sell out their wives to express that sympathy. Such statements do not create a solid foundation for a successful marriage.

What does Bassanio's decision to give his ring to Portia after the trial reveal about his feelings for her in The Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Scene 1?

When Bassanio decides to give Portia his ring after the trial, he does not know he is giving it to her. Bassanio thinks he is giving the ring to a stranger named Balthazar, who has just saved his best friend's life. To Bassanio's credit, he does resist Portia's initial request for the ring and remains firm even when Portia berates him for insisting she take "some remembrance" then refusing her request. In short Bassanio's loyalty and love for his wife is almost sufficient to allow him to pass her test. Almost. It is clear Bassanio does love Portia, but when Antonio makes a simple statement—"let him have the ring"—Bassanio relents immediately. Portia does not hear this part of their exchange, but it is possible she can guess Antonio has prevailed on Bassanio to offer the ring. As much as he loves Portia and values her good opinion, he still values Antonio's opinion and affection more.

Why is Antonio's and the duke's mercy for Shylock less merciful than it appears in The Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Scene 1?

Antonio and the duke allow Shylock to keep some of his fortune so he may use it to sustain his livelihood. Shylock points out that a death sentence is preferable to depriving him of the means to make a living and keep a house, and Antonio relents. Antonio's decision here is significant because much of his conflict with Shylock has centered on his disapproval of Shylock's line of work. Here Antonio has the opportunity to end Shylock's moneylending—to which Antonio objects—for good, but Antonio chooses not to do so. This action is as close as Antonio comes to acknowledging he has wronged Shylock in the past by preventing him from making a living. However, Antonio tacks on a mandate that Shylock must convert to Christianity, which may serve the same purpose. Christian doctrine prevents the lending of money with interest, as pointed out in Act 1, Scene 3. Shylock is rules-oriented enough that he may decide to follow this doctrine, and if he does not, Shylock's potential customers might well elect not to do business with a Christian moneylender who flouts doctrine in such a way. Furthermore, the conversion will make Shylock a social pariah. He has too much bad blood with the Christians of the city, especially after this trial, to be accepted among them. By converting he will be forced to leave his community and his synagogue, the nation of which Shylock is so proud. Shylock's life is spared through the court's mercy, but his identity is destroyed.

What evidence appears in The Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Scene 2 that Portia is angry about Bassanio giving her his ring?

Portia elects not to join Bassanio and Gratiano for dinner after the ring is delivered, which provides one indication of her anger. The rejection is abrupt and short: "That cannot be." She offers none of the excuses or apologies that might usually accompany turning down hospitality when it is offered. Her thanks for the ring is likewise short and impersonal: "His ring I do accept most thankfully." She then asks Gratiano to guide her clerk to Shylock's house. There is no warmth in her tone, only the bare minimum of politeness in her words. When Nerissa plans to get Gratiano's ring as well, Portia is confident that Gratiano will prove as faithless as Bassanio. She vows to "outface them and outswear them too." The circumstances surrounding the ring have now become a competition of lies and deceptions that will punish the husbands, however briefly, for neglecting and disobeying the wishes of their wives.

Why do Jessica and Lorenzo compare themselves to tragic lovers from classical myths in The Merchant of Venice, Act 5, Scene 1?

Jessica and Lorenzo enjoy a moonlit stroll and talk about how famous couples from classical legends enjoyed the same moonlight while in the bloom of love. Lorenzo references the hero Troilus, who was betrayed by his lover Cressida at Troy. Jessica mentions Thisbe, who caused her lover to kill himself when he thought she had been eaten by a lion. Lorenzo cites Dido, a queen who killed herself after the hero Aeneas abandoned her. Jessica mentions the sorceress Medea, who was betrayed by the hero Jason. Whereas Bassanio and Portia in Act 3, Scene 2 wish to associate themselves with the heroes of classical myths—including Jason and his quest for the golden fleece—here Jessica and Lorenzo invoke these stories ironically—that is, meaning the opposite of what they say. Unlike the doomed couples in these stories, Jessica and Lorenzo have faced adversity and successfully overcome it. They are hopeful for the future and make jokes about doomed lovers to distance themselves from those mythical lovers' negative fates.

How does Portia's deception about the rings in The Merchant of Venice, Act 5, Scene 1 give her power that she has lacked through much of the play?

For a woman who runs an estate and has tremendous financial independence, Portia has little control over her own life. When she is introduced in Act 1, Scene 2, she complains how her father has deprived her of the chance to choose her own husband. Even though she ends up with the husband she wants, this happens according to the means her father set up, not through her own action. When Portia exercises social power, she does so through disguise or deception. She exercises power over life and death during her appearance in court in Act 4, Scene 1, but she must do so in the guise of a man. Despite her wealth, she would never be allowed to speak in such a capacity as herself. When Bassanio gives away her ring, Portia learns she is not even the most important person in her marriage: Antonio holds more sway over her husband than she does. Portia takes control of her marriage by revealing the ring to Bassanio and scolding him harshly for losing it. She raises the possibility that she could find another man if she wished by perpetrating the ruse that she had an affair with the legal scholar Balthazar, her own alter ego. Lastly, she reveals that she was Balthazar, which shows Antonio and Bassanio what a debt they owe to her as well as demonstrating her intelligence and resourcefulness in outwitting a courtroom full of men.

What elements prevent the ending of Act 5, Scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice from being entirely happy?

The ending of The Merchant of Venice has many trappings of a comedy. Three couples—Lorenzo and Jessica, Bassanio and Portia, and Gratiano and Nerissa—retire to their marital beds, seemingly happy and content. Amends have been made for Bassanio and Gratiano parting with their wedding rings—although the conflict is resolved so quickly it's possible the underlying problem of their divided loyalties has yet to be truly resolved. The last line of the play is a bawdy joke from Gratiano who says, Were the day come, I should wish it dark Till I were couching with the doctor's clerk. Well, while I live, I'll fear no other thing So sore as keeping safe Nerissa's ring. He says that if it were already day, he would be looking forward to night, when he would be back in bed with Nerissa. But he references her alter ego in court, where she was disguised as the legal scholar's clerk. His reference to "Nerissa's ring" uses a pun to refer to the ring he wears on his finger as well as an Elizabethan slang term which used ring to refer to female genitalia. These elements are the very definition of a happy ending. However, the play does not end so well for two main characters. Antonio is now the odd man out in his social group. He has his life, and his fortune has been restored by the arrival of his ships—previously believed lost. Yet Antonio is alone. He has no partner of his own, and all his friends have left him to be with their wives. Anyone who has been the only single person at a party filled with couples can relate to the loneliness Antonio must be experiencing. He is the title character, the merchant of Venice, but he ends his story lacking the love that makes life worthwhile. Antonio's enemy, Shylock, is in a still worse position. He is old, widowed, and now childless because of Jessica's desertion. His fortune has been halved, and he has been forced to abandon his faith and has therefore lost all his friends and his cultural identity.

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