The Merchant Of Venice: Summary, Analysis & Characters

The Merchant Of Venice: Summary, Analysis & Characters
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  • 0:00 Introduction to The…
  • 0:40 The Loan
  • 1:46 Religious Animosity
  • 2:54 The Test For Portia's Hand
  • 4:47 The Trial
  • 7:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Debbie Notari
In this lesson, we explore Shakespeare's play, 'The Merchant of Venice,' and observe a cold-hearted villain, true friendship, and a test of love. In the end, the wise actions of Portia, a sought-after bachelorette, save the day.

Introduction to The Merchant of Venice

In the beginning of Shakespeare's play, The Merchant of Venice, we are introduced to Antonio, really the play's namesake, a merchant in the city of Venice, Italy. Antonio is generous, kind, and has a good reputation. He is close friends with Bassanio, a worthy gentleman who is short on cash at the moment. Word has reached Bassanio of an unusual test that he must pass in order to win the hand of the girl he loves, Portia. Bassanio feels sure of Portia's love because he 'sometimes from her eyes . . . did receive fair speechless messages.'

The Loan

Bassanio needs cash to travel to Portia's home and try to win her hand, so he asks Antonio for a loan. Antonio owns several merchant ships that are away in various locations at the time, so he doesn't have the money on hand that Bassanio needs. However, Antonio tells Bassanio to ask Shylock, a scrupulous Jewish merchant, for the loan instead, and to use his name as collateral.

Shylock is definitely one of the most negative stereotypes we will ever see in literature. He is money-grubbing, cold-hearted, and vindictive. Why Antonio thinks it is a good idea to ask Shylock for a loan is a mystery, but Bassanio makes the request anyway. Shylock agrees, but for a price. If Antonio doesn't make good on the loan of 3,000 ducats in three months time, he must pay back a pound of his own flesh. We see a very confident Antonio agreeing to this odd, almost sinister, plan because he probably believes that Shylock is jesting in some strange Jewish way.

Religious Animosity

Antonio and his friends, as likable as they are, certainly make no effort to disguise their dislike of Shylock, and the fact that he is Jewish. The term 'Christian' is used quite broadly in the play, and it seems to mean 'anyone who isn't Jewish.' The racial prejudice stems from the fact that it was the Jews who called for the crucifixion of Jesus. It's worth mentioning that a true understanding of Christianity would have eliminated such prejudice, but the characters act as they do based on their own preconceived ideas about Jews.

Shylock doesn't do much to change the negative stereotype and perception of Jews, however. In fact, he perpetuates these misconceptions. He is a very stingy merchant, who charges high interest rates on his loans. Antonio, his foil, charges no interest rates at all, which irritates Shylock even more. He has developed an intense hatred for Antonio. Everyone loves Antonio, and everyone dislikes Shylock. This pound-of-flesh penalty is no joke to Shylock. As we see later in the play, he has every intention of forcing Antonio to pay his debt.

The Test for Portia's Hand

Portia, beautiful and intelligent, has recently lost her father and is now tremendously wealthy. However, she is bound to have her suitors pass a test should they want to marry her. Her father has set up three chests: one gold, one silver, and one of pure lead. The suitors must choose wisely. The one who chooses the box with Portia's picture in it will be able to marry her. Each box has an inscription that the suitor reads before he makes a decision. The gold box says, 'Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.' The silver box says, 'Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves,' and the lead box says, 'Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.'

The first serious suitor, a Moroccan, chooses the gold box. In it is a skull with a poem on a scroll stuffed in its eye. The poem begins with a familiar line, 'All that glitters is not gold.' He chooses poorly and has to leave empty-handed.

The second suitor, the Prince of Arragon, chooses the silver chest, which contains the picture of a fool, not a portrait of beautiful Portia. He, too, goes home.

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