In this article, we go go through The Merchant of Venice plot, important characters, key contextual points and an analysis of the important themes to help you ace your next assessment!
Are you struggling to grasp The Merchant of Venice? Or are you simply looking for a quick revision? Well, this is your ultimate Merchant of Venice cheatsheet! We go through the plot, main characters, key contextual points and major themes.
The Common Module requires you to explore and represent ‘human experiences’. But wait… what is a human experience, exactly?
Well, a human experience is a concept that includes all those things that make us human. This includes:
Now that you know what the Common Module focus is, let’s unpack The Merchant of Venice and see how it fits in.
Note: The Merchant of Venice is considered a ‘drama text’ for English Standard, and a ‘Shakespearean drama‘ for English Advanced.
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Simply put, The Merchant of Venice is a tragi-comedy about a Venetian merchant, Bassanio, who attempts to woo a wealthy heiress, Portia, but is unable to do so, because he doesn’t have enough money.
He asks his good friend, Antonio, for a loan, Bassanio. However, all of Antonio’s money is invested in the ships at sea.
So, they resort to asking the Jewish moneylender, Shylock.
Antonio and Shylock have a hostile history as Antonio consistently berates Shylock and other Jewish people.
However, despite this, Shylock still agrees to lend Bassanio money under 1 condition: he will receive a pound of Antonio’s flesh if he cannot repay him in 3 weeks.
Antonio agrees and gives Bassanio the money to meet Portia.
When Bassanio arrives in Belmont to court Portia, he is given 3 caskets to choose from: gold, silver and lead. There is only 1 correct answer, and all the previous suitors have failed.
Bassanio immediately selects the correct casket (lead). So, the two gets married.
However, the celebration is cut short when they hear that Antonio’s ships are lost at sea. Upon hearing this, Shylock attempts to cut a pound of flesh off of Antonio, despite many pleas otherwise.
Then, Portia and Nerissa disguise themselves as men to bring the case to court. Both examine the contract in front of the court and finds that it is impossible to take a pound of flesh without spilling any blood (the original contract). Since this is impossible, Shylock is found guilty of attempted murder.
Finally, at the end of the play, Shylock is forced to give up his Jewish identity to become a Christian, and the women reveal their true identities to their husbands.
We know that remembering Shakespeare characters can sometimes get a little confusing.
So, here’s a list of the important characters you need to know!
Bassanio is a Venetian man who falls in love with Portia and is good friends with Antonio.
He carelessly spends all of his money (and borrowed money) to court Portia.
Antonio is a Venetian merchant who is good friends with Bassanio. He has invested all of his money into overseas trade ships.
He also detests Jewish moneylenders and constantly berates them because they charge interest. Antonio will never charge interest for those borrowing his money (because it is unChristian and against the bible).
Shylock is a Jewish moneylender who charges interests because he believes that it is the right business decision (and his religious beliefs permit it).
He also dislikes Antonio because Antonio consistently berates him and ruin his business.
Portia is a wealthy Belmont heiress. She is intelligent and witty.
In the play, she disguises herself as a male law clerk to defend Antonio in court.
She is also Bassanio’s love interest and, later, his wife.
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The key to understanding Shakespeare’s texts is to understand his context!
This will help us break down his purpose and exploration of themes. It also allows us to draw connections between his time and our modern one to explore the human experience.
Shakespeare was alive from 1564 – 1616, during the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras (The Merchant of Venice is a Jacobean play). This period was a significantly different time from ours now!
So, let’s break down the key contextual points:
The Elizabethan era was a Christian-dominant society. Most of the Jewish population was expelled approximately 200 years earlier, because of the Christian’s anti-semitic prejudice and bigotry.
They believed that Jesus was killed by Jewish people because the Bible depicts it.
They also thought that Christianity was the only salvation of mankind, and that the Jewish people were sabotaging that dream.
Thus, the Christians made it their mission to convert all Jewish people to Christianity, and commonly mistreated and discriminated against Jewish people.
They stereotyped Jewish people as greedy because they charge interest when lending money. This view stemmed from Mathew 21:12-13 and Mark 11:15-18 in the Bible, when Jesus rebelled against the Jewish moneylending practice.
As depicted in the Bible, Jewish people were charging interest when lending money. This was allowed in the Old Testament (the sacred book that Jewish people follow).
However, some felt this was predatory behaviour and unethical. Especially given where it was occurring, in the Temple courts – a sacred space. So, Jesus and his disciples entered the Temple courts and began overturning the Jewish moneylenders’ tables to make a point and teach them a lesson. He claimed that the moneylenders turned the temple into a ‘den of robbers‘, and forbade people from profiting from moneylending.
Consequently, as a result of Jesus’ teachings, Christians were legally unable to charge interest at the time, whereas the Jewish people were allowed. This is why Christians thought that the Jewish people were all selfish and greedy.
We will go through this in more detail in our exploration of The Merchant of Venice themes.
While The Merchant of Venice was performed first under the reign of James I (1605), England’s leader was a Queen during much, but not all, of Shakespeare’s life. And even though the monarch was a queen, it was still a highly patriarchal society.
Women were considered to be their father’s property, who are then passed on to their husbands when they are married.
There were laws that prevented women from owning property, attending school or university and voting.
Having a Queen as the leader of England caused much debate. So, Queen Elizabeth had to remove her femininity to demand more respect from the kingdom.
One of her most famous speeches is the one she gave before the troops before the Spanish Armada:
“I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king“.
As such, Shakespeare’s representation of Portia challenges these traditional patriarchal views, ascribing power to women.
We will closely analyse the representation of women in The Merchant of Venice in the next section.
Now that we know Shakespeare’s key contextual points, we will now examine the major themes.
As we discussed earlier in ‘Context‘, Shakespeare’s society was highly bigoted against Jewish people.
This is especially demonstrated with the representation of Shylock vs the other characters.
Shylock’s character is stereotypically represented as a greedy moneylender who wants to hurt Antonio. He is represented as ‘The Other’ in the play: a person who is different from the rest of society.
On the other hand, Antonio is seen to be a Christian man for lending money without interest (as it is forbidden for Christians to do so). However, despite his ‘kind’ values, he constantly berates and ridicules Shylock.
Shakespeare portrays his character’s this way to confront his audience of the cruel reality of the bigoted society.
Here are some examples within the text:
“Hie thee, gentle Jew. The Hebrew will turn Christian. He grows kind.” – Antonio (Act 1, Scene 3)
“We all expect a gentle answer, Jew.” – Antonio (Act 4, Scene 1)
Here, gentle means someone who is kind, tender, good-hearted. However, the word ‘gentile’ also means ‘not Jewish’. This play on words and the following line foreshadows Antonio’s forced conversion to Christianity.
Additionally, the term “gentle” becomes a motif throughout the play. Antonio uses it is a mocking way to degrade Shylock.
“Let me say “Amen” betimes, lest the devil cross my prayer, for here he comes in the likeness of a Jew.” – Solanio (Act 3, Scene 1)
“Certainly the Jew is the very devil incarnation.” – Launcelot (Act 2, Scene 2)
Throughout the play, the characters refer to Jewish people and Shylock as the ‘devil’. This highlights how the Christians attempt to excuse their bigoted actions by drawing parallels between Jewish people and the devil.
“I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes. Hath not a Jew hands organs, dimensions, sense, affections… Hurt with the same weapons… Healed by the same means… Cooled by the same winter and summer… 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?” – Shylock
In Shylock’s monologue, he laments about how the Venetians mistreat him because he is a Jewish person. He draws on human features and experiences to highlight how they are all the same, despite their religion.
This is Shakespeare’s attempt to create sympathy towards the Others.
Shakespeare’s confronting representation of the Christian’s bigotry towards the Jewish people is eye-opening. Instead of simply reflecting his contextual purpose, he also criticises his society’s bigoted opinions.
So, how does this theme relate to the Common Module: Texts and Human Experiences? Well, here are some points you can consider:
Throughout the play, Shakespeare emphasises the importance of being generous and selfless, instead of being greedy and selfish.
He does this by recognising that money is the ultimate power in the world.
This is done in many ways.
Throughout the play, the Christians constantly berate Shylock for being a greedy Jew who just wants money. They also pride themselves on being selfless and generous.
However, Shakespeare highlights the irony of this thought, as he identifies similarities between Shylock and the Christians.
1. Personification of Fortune
“For herein Fortune shows herself more kind than is her custom: it is still her use to let the wretched man outlive his wealth to view with hollow eye and wrinkled brow an age of poverty.” – Antonio to Bassanio (Scene 4, Act 1)
Here, Antonio is telling Bassanio that he is lucky to die when Shylock takes a pound of flesh. He prefers death over living the rest of his life as a poor man. This highlights how the Venetian Christian men are just as selfish and greedy as the people they despise.
As such, Shakespeare confronts his audience about the reality of people’s greed, regardless of their religion.
Why is Bassanio so interested in marrying Portia? Is it true love? Or is it for the money?
On the surface, it seems as though Bassanio is madly in love with Portia. He leaves everything behind in Venice and immediately travels to Belmont to visit Portia.
However, on close analysis, it seems as though he is wooing Portia for her money.
1. Bassanio talks about Portia’s wealth more than her character
“In Belmont is a lady richly left, And she is fair… her sunny locks hang on her temples like a golden fleece,” (Act 1, Scene 1)
Bassanio first introduces Portia to Antonio as a “lady richly left“, as opposed to a “fair” lady. Already, the order of the description highlights his motives for wealth.
This is furthered with the simile “her sunny locks hang… like a golden fleece“. If Bassanio is truly in love with Portia, Shakespeare would’ve used a more romantic simile. However, Shakespeare described Portia’s locks as ‘golden fleece’, representing Bassanio’s interest in wealth.
As such, Shakespeare highlighted how greed runs the world, even in areas where you don’t normally notice.
In The Merchant of Venice, Venice is represented as a cut-throat and greedy city.
Everyone in Venice is looking for a way to further themselves financially, even the Christians.
We went through some examples above.
Contrastingly, Belmont is about love. The people of Belmont value love over wealth.
1. “All that glisters is not gold.” – Prince of Morrocco
Here the Prince of Morrocco is reading a letter from Portia’s father before opening the casket. This metaphor emphasises how money and wealth (‘all that glisters‘) is not what’s important in life (‘gold‘). Instead, it is love and family.
2. “This house, these servants and this same myself / Are yours, my lord: I give them with this ring.” – Portia
When Bassanio chooses the right casket, Portia willingly shares everything she owns with Bassanio. This highlights her selflessness and love.
As such, we see that Shakespeare highlights the confronting truth that wealth runs the society, whilst emphasising the need to value love and family.
Remember, the Elizabethan and Jacobean era was a highly patriarchal society.
Shakespeare challenges this by portraying strong and intelligent female characters, especially Portia.
So, let’s examine her character.
Portia takes on traditional Shakespearean female traits like generosity and politeness.
She speaks nicely to the Prince of Morocco and the Prince of Arragon, despite disliking both of them.
However, she also demonstrates intelligence and skill that transcends the males’ level.
At the end of the play, she disguises herself as a male law clerk to represent Bassanio in court.
“They shall [see us], Nerissa, but in such a habit
That they shall think we are accomplishèd
With that we lack…
I have within my mind
A thousand raw tricks of these bragging jacks
Which I will practice.”
(Act 3, Scene 4)
Here, she assures Nerissa that the men won’t see through the disguises, as they won’t believe that a woman is that accomplished and intelligent. She also confirms that she is able to act man-like being arrogant and macho.
This makes fun of the men’s arrogance and reasserts the women’s skills and abilities.
At the end of the play, Portia proves that she is more capable than the men. She was the only one who found the flaw of the contract to prove Shylock’s guilt.