Bassanio, a young Venetian nobleman, has fallen in love with the wealthy heiress Portia. Because of his elaborate lifestyle, Bassanio is left with no money. So he asks his friend Antonio, who is the merchant in this play for a loan to be able to travel to Portia’s house in Belmont in style and court her. Antonio is willing to help Bassanio but doesn’t have any money either. He does have three of his ships at sea though, which he expects to return soon. Bassanio then borrows 3000 ducats from the Jewish moneylender Shylock in Antonio’s name. Shylock hates Antonio, who has been mistreating and humiliating him in the past, and hopes that he won’t be able to pay him back in time. In that case Shylock will receive a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Bassanio makes it clear that he thinks it is not a good idea to borrow the money under these terms but Antonio seals the bond anyway.
It is the will of Portia’s dead father that any suitor of his daughter has to do the ‘riddle of the caskets’; this means that the first who chooses the right one between a golden, a silver and leaden casket that will contain Portia’s portrait gets to marry her. Portia falls in love with Bassanio, too and hopes desperately for him to make the right decision because if he doesn’t, they won’t be allowed to see each other again. Nerissa, who is Portia’s lady-in-waiting but confidante as well then falls in love with Bassanio’s friend Gratiano. As a sign of their love Portia and Nerissa give rings to their lovers, which they are not allowed to take off under any circumstances.
Shylock’s daughter Jessica hates living in her father’s house and decides to elope with Lorenzo, a Christian and friend of Antonio and Bassanio, while rumour has it that one of Antonio’s ships has been wrecked at sea so he might not be able to pay Shylock back.
William Shakespeare (1564-1616), often referred to as one of the greatest English writers of all times, is believed to have written this romance between 1596 and 1598.
I liked “The Merchant of Venice” much more than I had expected. Its characters seemed more complex and unique than those of other dramas I had read before. Shylock for example is meant to be the villain in this one but I could understand his actions and how he developed his deep hatred for the Christians even though I was still hoping for them to crow over him because after all they are more sympathetic. Sadly anti-Semitism was a common attitude at Shakespeare’s time. It is a little hard to comprehend why Antonio seals a bond that might cost him his life only to give some money to his friend, who has wasted all of his own. This also demonstrates the extraordinary quality of their friendship as well as Antonio’s arrogance, him being absolutely convinced that everything will go well for him so that he will be able to pay Shylock back. The love between Bassanio and Portia seems very romantic, however I think the reader should keep in mind that at the very start Bassanio wanted to make this match to overcome his financial issues. Love and hatred, revenge and mercy are important themes in this romance and because these are timeless, it is too.
Is this an anti-Semitic play? This question has been raised many times and we also have been discussing about it in class. In my opinion ‘The Merchant of Venice' is anti-Semitic but understandably, having been written at an anti-Semitic time. For example Shylock as a character can pretty much be summed up as an evil and stereotypical Jew. Jessica converts to Christianity after leaving her father’s house and it seems like once she does so, good things start happening to her. Another interesting point is that in this drama Shakespeare has created female characters, most importantly Portia that are much more emancipated than women really were at his time but he portrays his Jewish character(s) according to society’s common ideas of them.
However, I think that this play is definitely worth reading due to its overall original and complex characters, Shakespeare’s beautiful language and the way he has combined different plot lines.