William ShakespeareThe Merchant of Venice ANALYSIS
Plot and Subplots The main plot: The bond between Antonio and Shylock Subplots: The love between Portia and Bassanio The elopement of Shylocks daughter, Jessica, with Lorenzo The rings story
Stages of the plotExposition: The opening scenes introduce the maincharacters, Antonio, Bassanio, Shylock and Portia andthe setting in Venice and Belmont. The initial situationis Antonio’s need to borrow money to help Bassaniofrom Shylock, who hates him.Rising Action:Complications of the main situation between Antonioand Shylock happen. A letter comes announcing thatAntonios ventures have failed. Shylock becomesmore enraged when Jessica runs away with his money,which adds to his anger. He becomes moredetermined on having his bond to the letter of thelaw.
Climax:In the trial scene, it seems that nothing can saveAntonio from Shylock’s knife.Falling Action:Shylock cannot have his bond. He is ordered toconvert to Christianity and leave his possessions tohis daughter, Jessica and Lorenzo. Portia and Nerissapersuade their husbands to give up their rings.Denouement:Finally, all lovers gather safely in Belmont. Portia andNerissa forgive Bassanio and Gratiano after teasingthem. Antonio’s ships safely return.
SettingTIME: The Sixteenth centuryPLACE: Venice: A city of trade, of business deals, and of conflicts and intrigues. It represents the world of relentless materialism. Belmont: The romantic city of peace and love, a contrast to Venice. It stands for mercy versus the Venetian veneration of mere justice.
ThemesPrejudice and Intolerance The Venetians in The Merchant of Venice express extremeintolerance of Shylock and the other Jews in Venice. It is possible toargue that Shakespeare himself shares his characters’ certaintythat the Jews are naturally wicked and inferior to Christiansbecause of Shylock’s ultimate refusal to show any mercy at all. Yet there are also reasons to think that Shakespeare may beactually criticizing the prejudices of his characters. Shylock’sanger and his desire of revenge are the result of years of abuse andmistreatment. Shylock insists that he “learned” his hatred fromChristians. It is Shylock alone who argues that all of the charactersare the same, in terms of biology and under the law.
Mercy vs Justice The conflict between Shylock and the Christian characterscenters around mercy. The other characters acknowledge thatthe law is on Shylock’s side, but they all expect him to showmercy, which he refuses to do. When, during the trial, Shylockasks Portia what could possibly force him to be merciful, Portia’slong reply, beginning with the words, “The quality of mercy is notstrained,” explains that human beings should be mercifulbecause God is merciful: mercy is an attribute of God himself andtherefore greater than power, majesty, or law. Shylock, on the other hand, is not capable of showingmercy towards Antonio. He insists on the letter of the bond,asking for a pound of flesh from Antonio’s body. He calls forjustice and repeats the word as his slogan. Shylock says that Christians pretend to be merciful, butthey actually are not. He says that he has learned the lesson onrevenge and intolerance from them. Shylock gives manyexamples on how mercy has never been shown to him byChristians. By the end of the trial, Portia, in spite of her speechabout mercy, does not show any mercy towards Shylock.
CHARACTERSAntonio• Sad and lonely• Generous• Has a warm regard for his friend and kinsman Bassanio
Portia• A highly intelligent woman• She has a keen sense of humor.• Her love of Bassanio• Her ability to think clearly and quickly – as when she hears about Anontio’s trouble.
Shylock• Greedy• Vengeful• His hatred for Antonio• His relationship with his daughter• Sympathy for him
Bassanio• His love for Portia.• His friendship with Antonio• His good nature puts him in trouble at the end of the play –the ring.