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The Merchant of Venice | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Merchant of Venice | Discussion Questions 51 - 53


How does The Merchant of Venice demonstrate that prejudice creates a cycle of self-destruction for Antonio and Shylock?

If, as Portia says in Act 4, Scene 1, mercy blesses both the giver and the receiver of mercy, prejudice curses both giver and receiver. Antonio's prejudice against Shylock leads him into a situation that almost kills him. His actions toward Shylock, which Shylock enumerates in Act 1, Scene 3, provoke Shylock to seek revenge. Had Antonio never acted upon his attitude toward Shylock, never called him names, never spat upon him, never interfered in his business, he might have avoided Shylock's ire. Antonio is confident that his ships will return and allow him to repay the bond, but his agreement to Shylock's ludicrous request for a pound of Antonio's flesh also reveals Antonio's reluctance to back down from Shylock. Because of his prejudice he hates Shylock and doesn't want him to have the upper hand, which allows Shylock to obtain power over Antonio. Even when Antonio is in prison in Act 3, Scene 3 and on trial for his life in Act 4, Scene 1, Antonio does not relinquish his prejudice. He would rather die than offer Shylock any apology or true understanding. Antonio narrowly escapes death, but he learns nothing about prejudice. His request for Shylock to convert to Christianity reveals how his prejudice remains alive and well after the ordeal ends. In turn Shylock's prejudice against Christians in general and Antonio in particular brings about his own ruin. Shylock's prejudice becomes apparent in Act 1, Scene 3 when he says he hates Antonio "for he is a Christian." His resentment against Christians arises again when Jessica runs away with Lorenzo, and Shylock fixates on Lorenzo's Christianity in Act 3, Scene 1. Shylock's hardness toward Christians, with Antonio representing all his kind, leads Shylock to refuse to bend or show mercy to Antonio. Shylock is convicted of attempted murder and loses control of his fortune and his place in his own community as part of the sentence.

What evidence in The Merchant of Venice supports labeling Bassanio as the true villain of the play?

Bassanio does not display the kind of deliberate malice that characterizes how Shylock and Antonio treat each other. Bassanio's villainy is passive, rooted in selfishness and carelessness that set negative events in motion. In Act 1 he acknowledges how his long history of debt has gotten him into trouble. Although he doesn't want to hurt Antonio, Bassanio knows he can count on Antonio for a loan. Antonio only borrows money so Bassanio can marry a woman wealthy enough to pay his debts. Bassanio offers some protest against Shylock's terms for the loan, but he ultimately allows Antonio to sign the bond. Bassanio does not offer his own body as an alternative to his friend's or walk away from the proceedings. His verbal protest is weak, and he accepts the money once it is obtained. Bassanio's wife Portia gets involved with Antonio's situation and his trial in Act 4 because her marriage to Bassanio obligates her to do so. Again, without the bond, brought about by Bassanio's debts, no trial would take place, and Antonio's life would not be at risk. Shylock would not be seeking his ill-advised revenge and would not lose his fortune or his religion. Portia places herself in a situation of extreme risk by impersonating a doctor of law before the Duke of Venice. Although she seems to enjoy her role in the trial, it might go badly for her if she were discovered. Bassanio's careless and impulsive decisions do not end after the trial. He nearly derails his marriage in Acts 4 and 5 by deciding to give away the ring Portia gave him and cautioned him never to part from. He's actually lucky the person he gives the ring is Portia in disguise. Had the ring truly been lost forever, the confrontation with her might have gone differently. Bassanio is too easily swayed by Antonio, and his decision creates strife for Gratiano as well. Most of the major conflicts in the play either originate with or are exacerbated by Bassanio's actions, which show how villainy can happen through thoughtless action as easily as through malice.

How do the women in The Merchant of Venice defy traditional gender roles?

Portia is an independently wealthy woman who competently runs her estate without the help of a man. Suitors seek to marry her, and her comments in Act 1 indicate she might like the companionship of a partner. However, her willingness to remain "as chaste as Diana" the rest of her life rather than disobey her father's wishes shows she feels no need to marry except, perhaps, to rid her home of unappealing suitors. In Act 3 she agrees to marry Bassanio and gives him a ring. Traditionally the man gives the woman a ring. Portia also immediately takes charge of the problem with Antonio, offering Bassanio whatever money he needs to free his friend, breaking with the tradition that the man controls the purse strings. Most importantly, in Act 4 Portia relishes playing the part of a man and proves herself more intelligent than any of the men in court when she finds a way to save Antonio's life through a close reading of his contract. Finally, when Portia confronts Bassanio in Act 5 about the lost ring, she brazenly claims to have had an affair with "Balthazar," showing a level of sexual liberation not typical of Renaissance women. Nerissa's defiance of gender roles involves many of the same actions as Portia's. She, too, gives her husband a ring and impersonates a man. Nerissa distinguishes herself with her plain-spoken nature. She does not mince words or hold back her honest feelings, whether with Portia in Act 1 or with Gratiano in Act 5. Jessica also defies gender expectations with her outwardly rebellious behavior. Unlike Portia, Jessica is all too happy to defy her father's wishes, an act frowned upon in Jewish and Christian society alike. In Act 2 she conducts a secret courtship with a Christian man and boldly steals her father's money to run away with him. Her disguise as a boy reflects her rejection of the traditionally feminine. Although society places her below her husband, her conversations with Lorenzo in Acts 3 and 5 indicate they relate to one another as equals based on mutual love and respect.

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