The Merchant of Venice

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

The most excellent Historie of the Merchant of Venice. With the extreame crueltie of Shylock the Iewe towards the sayd Merchant, in cutting a iust pound of his flesh: and the obtayning of Portia by the choyse of three chests is a play by William Shakespeare, and one of his most controversial.

Bassanio is in a spot of bother. He's of noble blood, but he's spent all his money and now he wants to go and attempt to woo the Lady Portia, a beautiful - and extremely wealthy - heiress. He's going to need a bit of a cash injection. So he approaches his old friend Antonio, the titular merchant, who's often bailed him out in the past.

"Well, I'm a little short myself at the moment," says Antonio, "but I'm expecting some more merchandise soon. How's about you go find someone to lend you some money and I'll stand guarantor for it." So Bassanio toddles off and finds Shylock, a wealthy Jewish moneylender. Shylock hates Antonio, partly for being a Christian, but mainly for insulting him and spitting on him for being a usurer. So he agrees to the loan, and won't even charge interest - but the kicker is that if the loan isn't paid back by the specified date, he gets a pound of Antonio's flesh. Antonio's got his ship coming in a full month before the money is due, so he's not worried and signs the bond.

Off goes Bassanio to see Portia, but he's got to get in line; half the single men in Europe want to marry her. Her father has left a will saying that anyone who wants to marry her has to choose from one of three caskets - one silver, one gold and one lead. The princes of Morocco and Aragon choose the first two and are sent away unhappy. Bassanio chooses the lead one, which was of course right. All is happiness as Portia agrees to marry him right away.

Only, Antonio's just heard that his ship has gone down in a storm and he's now in serious trouble. Not only can he not pay back the loan, but Shylock's daughter Jessica has just eloped with a Christian named Lorenzo and taken most of his money with her, so he's in an even fouler mood than previously. He has Antonio arrested and brought up before the court to claim his pound of flesh.

Portia and Bassanio, freshly married (in a double wedding for good measure, with Bassanio's friend Gratiano and Portia's maid Nerissa), hear about Antonio's plight and set off to the rescue with Portia's money, three times what is owed, in the hope of deterring Shylock.

The Merchant of Venice is actually officially classed as a comedy and indeed on its original production would probably have been presented as a pretty straight farce with a pantomime Jew as a villain who gets his comeuppance in the end. But even then, Shakespeare gives Shylock his fair share of humanity, and of course the wonderful "hath not a Jew eyes?" speech. And as many commentators have pointed out, none of the Christians in the play are very good people either.

These days, it tends to be played more as a straight drama, though because of the subject matter it's not one of the most popular plays in production and tends to be thought of as a difficult one to pull off successfully. It's very popular for school study for exactly the same reason, however, which is probably what has stopped it from becoming more obscure.

The Merchant of Venice is the Trope Namer for:
Tropes used in The Merchant of Venice include:
  • Ambiguously Gay: Antonio certainly is affectionate to Bassanio.
  • Anti-Villain: When it comes down to it, Shylock is still trying to kill Antonio (with law!), but the play spends a lot of time showing the audience where he's coming from; see Ineffectual Sympathetic Villain below.
  • Arbitrarily-Large Bank Account: Portia's inheritance. While the rest of the cast is falling over themselves trying to pay back Antonio's bond to Shylock, when Bassanio tells Portia about the bond, her reaction is "Six thousand ducats? Is that all? Here, give Antonio the money. No, have twice as much. You know what? Just to be on the safe side, let's triple it."
  • Asshole Victim: Traditionally, Shylock. To modern audiences, often Antonio.
  • As You Know: "'Tis not unknown to you, Antonio..."
  • Beta Couples: Nerissa and Gratiano and Lorenzo and Jessica, to Official Couple Portia and Bassanio
  • Better to Die Than Be Killed: Invoked by Gratiano: "Beg that thou mayst have leave to hang thyself!"
  • Bittersweet Ending: In many adaptations, including the Al Pacino film version. Almost everyone is married and happy, but Shylock has lost everything, both material and spiritual, and Antonio is alone, with his best friend married and living his own life. The film goes one step further and suggests that Shylock and Antonio are Not So Different.
    • Jessica often gets one of these, where it's hinted that she misses her father.
  • Blind Mistake: The scene with Old Gobbo.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: Launcelot does this pretty shamelessly, actually asking the audience to pay attention while he plays this awesome prank on his dad.

"Mark me now; now will I raise the waters."

  • Bumbling Dad: Old Gobbo.
  • But Not Too Black: According to one of the stage directions, the Prince of Morocco is a "tawny moor", as opposed to a "black" moor.
    • Justified in the sense that, in Shakespeare's time, both sub-Saharan Africans and North Africans were referred to as "moors" and the adjective was necessary to distinguish between them. For instance, a painting of the Moroccan ambassador to Elizabeth I's court, from the same time period (and who, incidentally, Shakespeare probably met) is entitled The Moorish Ambassador in England.
  • City of Canals: Venice.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Launcelot.
  • Converting for Love: Jessica does this for Lorenzo.
  • Cruel Mercy: Let Shylock live, but only if he gives up his religion and signs his worldly goods over to the daughter that betrayed him.
  • Death by Adaptation: Shylock sometimes falls victim to this when directors want to turn him into an all-out tragic figure; one notable production had him stab himself upon exit from the court scene.
  • Department of Redundancy Department: Used for drama in Shylock's speeches and comedy in Launcelot's. Portia also does this while lampshading the fact that she's stalling.

I speak too long, but 'tis to pheaze the time,
To eke it and to draw it out in length...

  • Did You Think I Can't Feel?: One of the most famous examples.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Shylock decides to enforce his bargain in the most gruesome way possible because of Jessica eloping with Lorenzo, something Antonio had nothing to do with (and even if he did, that's still excessive). Antonio is a douchebag to Shylock, there's no denying, but that's hardly a capital crime.
  • Engagement Challenge: The three caskets.
  • Entitled to Have You: Morocco and Arragon both feel this way about Portia, mostly because they're princes and on her social level. This is why they're both tempted to chose the silver casket, labeled "Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves". Morocco doesn't, but Arragon does--they both get sent home, and Portia marries the far poorer Bassanio instead.
  • Exact Words
  • Expy: Launcelot Gobbo is very similar, in name and nature, to Launce from Shakespeare's earlier play Two Gentlemen of Verona. This could be an Actor Allusion, as the two Launces were almost certainly played by the same comic actor Will Kemp.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Starting from the line, "I'll follow him no more with bootless prayers", Antonio becomes bent on doing this.
  • Final Speech: Antonio gets one, directly after Portia says, "You, merchant, have you anything to say?" Subverted in that he doesn't end up dying at all.
  • The Fool: Launcelot.
  • Freudian Threat:

Salario: Why, I am sure, if he forfeit, thou wilt not take his flesh: what's that good for?
Shylock: To bait fish withal.

  • Freudian Trio:
    • Antonio: Superego.
    • Bassanio: Ego.
    • Gratiano: Id.
  • Friend Versus Lover: A major theme. During the trial scene, Bassanio and Gratiano swear that if they could save Antonio's life, they would give up everything, even their new wives. Little do they know that their wives are standing right there. Later, Bassanio refuses to give away his wife's ring... until Antonio talks him into it, and it's nicely tied up when Portia refuses to give Bassanio back his ring--until Antonio talks her into it.
    • In the subplot, there seems to be a bit of tension going on between Launcelot and Lorenzo as to which of them gets to spend time with Jessica.
  • Funny Foreigner: All of Portia's suitors, the Italian Bassanio excepted.
    • Shylock has been played as this in the past, though it's very rare to play him for comedy now.
  • Genre Shift: The first three acts are a mix of drama and comedy split almost evenly between the Portia and Shylock plots, while the fourth act is straight drama (despite some snarking from Portia and Nerissa), and the fifth act is almost farcical.
  • Good Angel, Bad Angel: Launcelot's comedic moral struggle, in which he parodies morality plays of the time. In the end, he sides with the devil.
  • Greedy Jew: Shylock is perhaps the most famous example in existence.
    • Averted in that Shylock refuses double repayment of the debt in favor of being able to carve a pound of flesh out of Antonio.
  • Greek Chorus: Salarino and Solanio frequently impart crucial information via discussions with one another and interviews with the other characters.
  • Hair of Gold: Portia's hair is described as being like golden fleece that lures men to woo her. She's not always cast as blonde, but there's evidence in the text.
  • Harem Seeker: At one point Launcelot reads his palm and discovers that he's going to have fifteen wives. He feels cheated; he wanted twenty, at least.
  • Heterosexual Life Partners: Antonio and Bassanio... arguably.
  • Hollywood Law: A contract that gives you the right to murder another person is not enforceable by law. This was true in Elizabethan times as well.
  • Hot-Blooded: Gratiano is sometimes portrayed this way. At any rate, he's the most animated of the male cast.
  • Humiliation Conga: At the play's end, Shylock has lost, in short order, his daughter, his fortune, his property and his religion.
  • Hurricane of Euphemisms/Unusual Euphemism: "...for indeed my father did something smack, something grow to, he had a kind of taste..."
  • Hypocritical Humor:

Solanio: But it is true, without any slips of prolixity, or crossing the plain highway of talk, that the good Antonio, the honest Antonio--oh, that I had a word good enough to keep his name company--
Salarino: Come, the full stop.
Solanio: Hah! What sayest thou?

    • If Launcelot is saying something like "To be brief..." or "I have ne'er a tongue in my head", you can count on it that he's about to go off on a tangent. Not to mention that he criticizes his dad for not being "honest". This either means "honest" in the modern sense of the word (and the line happens right before he runs into his dad and starts lying to him) or "honest" in the secondary Elizabethan sense of "chaste" (which he clearly isn't, either--he later criticizes the girl he got pregnant for not being honest).
  • Incredibly Lame Pun:

Lorenzo: ...the Moor is with child by you, Launcelot!
Launcelot: It is much that the Moor should be more than reason, but if she be less than an honest woman, she is indeed more than I took her for.
Lorenzo: How every fool can play upon the word!


A Daniel still say I, a second Daniel!
I thank thee, Jew, for teaching me that word.

  • The Jester: Launcelot Gobbo, who may become a literal jester during the course of the play (arguable because, after he's given his special "guarded" livery, his punning becomes more deliberate and he's repeatedly referred to as "the fool"). Either way, he tells Jessica that she's "damned" and complains that converting Jews will raise the price of pork, and nobody seems to him too seriously.
  • Kill Him Already: Gratiano, when the tables are turned and Antonio gets to decide Shylock's fate: "A halter gratis! Nothing else, for God's sake!"
  • Loan Shark: Already an established trope that Shakespeare is riffing on.
    • In a bit of a Memetic Mutation, the term "Shylock" is now synonymous with loan sharks.
  • Lost Wedding Ring
  • Lysistrata Gambit: Portia and Nerissa vow never to come to bed with their husbands until they see the rings. Of course, they're the ones who took the rings.
  • Madness Mantra: "I will have my bond..."
  • Malaproper: Both the Gobbos constantly use the wrong words.
  • Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: Launcelot argues that Jessica might not be her father's child.
  • Matzo Fever: Lorenzo has it bad, although he (and all the other guys) seem to regard Jessica's lovable qualities as existing in spite of her Jewishness.
  • Meaningful Name: Portia is the "port" towards which many merchant-like princes venture in an attempt to claim the "goods", her money and herself. She may also have been named after Porcia, the beautiful and clever wife of Brutus, who she's compared to.
    • The name "Shylock" is possibly derived from shallach, a Hebrew word for "cormorant", which was also used to describe usurers.
    • "Gratiano" means grace, and can also be taken to mean "gratuitous", because he's said to speak "an infinite deal of nothing."
    • "Launcelot" means servant, which is, well, exactly what he is, and in some productions, his last name "Gobbo" (Italian for hunchback) is taken as an indication that he has curvature of the spine.
      • His name in the quartos and folios is spelled as "Launcelet" or "little lance", possibly referring to his sharp tongue or his sharp wit.
    • "Nerissa" is Italian for black-haired. Shakespeare may have intended to contrast her, a more traditional Italian beauty, with the exotic golden-haired Portia.
    • "Belmont" means Beautiful Mountain, and is viewed as an earthly paradise, the place where the characters are happiest and (literally and figuratively) closest to Heaven.
    • Antonio's ship, according to Salarino, was wrecked on "the Goodwins"... which means good friends.
      • Bonus points for Shakespeare in the sense that the Goodwins are actually a real place, where there have been over 2000 shipwrecks. British people play cricket on them when the tide is low enough.
  • Moral Dissonance: You'll find that the Christian protagonists do not act with any of the Christian values they so preach. This is lampshaded by Shylock in his famous monologue.
  • Morally-Bankrupt Banker: Shylock.
  • Morton's Fork: Used as a theme. Launcelot describes being tempted by the devil to run away from Shylock. He then reasons that Shylock is "the very devil incarnation", so whether he runs or not, he'll be getting bossed around by the devil. Later, he breaks it down for Jessica: she's either going to hell because her father is a Jew, or else she's not really his daughter, in which case she's going to hell because her mother was unfaithful.
  • Not So Different: There's a lot of literary theory on Antonio and Shylock as this.
  • Off the Table: Both Shylock's refusal to take twice the money and Balthazar's refusal to let him take the money once he's been refused the pound of flesh.
  • Plucky Comic Relief: Gratiano and Launcelot both qualify.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: The film version starring Al Pacino as Shylock opens with a montage to illustrate how the Jewish community is appallingly mistreated enough for Shylock to want revenge.
  • Pungeon Master: Launcelot, much to Lorenzo's annoyance.
  • Recursive Crossdressing: Male actors play women -- Portia and Nerissa -- who disguise themselves as men. Shakespeare was very fond of this trope.
    • Jessica also does this when she elopes with Lorenzo by disguising herself as his page.
  • Refuge in Audacity: In Act 1, Portia talks about one of the suitors who is comparing himself to his horse. And when she says comparing, she means he is comparing genitals.
  • Revenge Before Reason
  • Rich Suitor, Poor Suitor: "Rich Suitors, Poor Suitor" in this case; the whole plot revolves around the fact that Bassanio, a "poor... gentlemen", has had to borrow money in order to woo Portia.
  • Sad Clown: Launcelot. When you get right down to it, he hates his job (although that problem is soon solved), his relationship with his father is strained (apparently, his dad fooled around with other women), and, by the end of the play, he's fathered an illegitimate child with a racial outcast who he probably doesn't even like. Of course, he constantly cracks jokes about all of these things. Some stagings take this a step further by implying that Launcelot likes Jessica and that his ranking-out of her and her new husband disguises his bitterness.
  • Screwy Squirrel: Launcelot appears to be this in his first scene, but as the play goes on he leans back into a more standard comedy-relief role.
  • Secret Test of Character: Sure, you can have the ring that my wife (to whom you bear absolutely no resemblance) made me swear to never take off. Bassanio pretty much fails the test.
    • And the caskets are a test of character too, though not exactly "secret".
  • Servile Snarker: Launcelot.
  • Small Role, Big Impact: Lorenzo and Jessica's elopement is what arguably pushes Shylock over the edge.
  • Spell My Name with an "S": Depending on the editor, it's "Lancelot" or "Launcelot". Just to make it even more complicated, the original folios spelled it "Lancelet" or "Launcelet", leading some to think that's the name Shakespeare intended--and while his father is "Old Gobbo" in the stage directions, he refers to himself as "La(u)ncelet Iobbe" or "La(u)ncelet Job".
    • This type of confusion also determines the presence or absence of a whole character. Either, as in the first quarto, Antonio has two friends--Salarino and Solanio--and a third, Salerio, who delivers a message from him to Bassanio later in the play, or Salerio and Salarino are one and the same, in which case either the copier messed up or Shakespeare forgot how the name was spelled (which is plausible, since Shakespeare was notorious for never spelling his own name the same way twice).
  • Spiteful Spit: Shylock notes that Antonio would literally spit on him as a way of showing contempt.
  • Stay in the Kitchen: Averted. Bassanio is actually pleased that Portia disguised herself as a lawyer to save his friend's life.
  • Take a Third Option: Instead of running away (thereby committing a sin) or continuing to serve his hated master, Launcelot enlists his father to help him switch jobs.
  • Take That: Portia makes snarky comments about various contemporary European nationalities as personified by her suitors... including her English suitor, who borrows fashions from other countries but has none of his own (a common caricature of the English at the time).
  • Theme Naming: Solanio, Salerio and (if he exists at all and isn't just Salerio with his name spelled differently) Salarino.
  • Then Let Me Be Evil

Shylock: If you tickle us, do we not laugh?
If you poison us, do we not die?
And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?

    • Summed up with a memorable line, spoken in response to Antonio's pleading: "Thou call'dst me dog before thou hadst a cause/But since I am a dog, beware my fangs."
  • They Call Me Mr. Tibbs: A large portion of Act II, Scene II is devoted to comedy based on Elizabethan usage of this trope.

Launcelot: Talk you of young Master Launcelot?
Old Gobbo: No master, sir, but a poor man's son; his father, though I say it, is an honest exceeding poor man, and, God be thanked, well to live.
Launcelot: Well, let his father be what 'a' will, we talk of young Master Launcelot.
Old Gobbo: Your worship's friend and Launcelot, sir.

  • Those Two Guys: Salerio and Solanio. Not to the extent of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but still.
    • Arguably more than Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, since those two at least have different-sounding names. Apart from one scene where they converse alone, you could easily combine them into a single character.
  • Translation Convention: Lampshaded heavily when Portia complains that she can't understand the English baron: "...he hath neither Latin, French nor Italian, and you will come into court and swear, I have a poor penniworth in the English."
  • Unbuilt Trope: It plays very much like one would expect a deconstruction of Panto tropes to. The villain is unpleasant and mean in all the ways you expect a panto-villain to be, but he's also the most put-upon character in the play: he begins the underdog and ends stripped of everything, his money, his daughter, even his religion. With the exception of his murderous intent all other characters treat him far worse than he treats them, and they largely hate him simply for being a Jew. Portia and Nerissa, the blushing brides, also reveal themselves as shameless racists.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: In a comedy relief scene, Lorenzo and Launcelot are bantering and it turns out that Launcelot got a black woman pregnant. Launcelot makes a joke about it... and it's never mentioned again. A few scholars have suspected that the line is the final remnant of a lost subplot.
  • Where Da White Women At?: One of the noblemen who tries to win Portia is the Prince of Morocco. She's relieved when he chooses the wrong casket and gets sent home, not least because of his dark skin. Later in the play, it turns out that Launcelot's been having some kind of off-screen affair with a "Moor" (and gotten her pregnant).
  • Your Mom: Launcelot comes up with a whole bunch of these when he and Jessica discuss her parentage.