Character Analysis in The Merchant of Venice
Shylock: Shylock is a Jewish moneylender of notable prominence in Venice. He is horribly mistreated by the Christian characters, especially Antonio, and seeks to enact his revenge by forcing Antonio to stick to the bond that he signs: money in exchange for a pound of his flesh. While he does demonstrate many of the stereotypes wrongfully attributed to Jewish people, Shylock reveals his very human motivations in eloquent speeches and dialogue. He remains the only truly faithful person in the play and the only character who is not deceitful.
Antonio: Antonio is a merchant who has formidable love for Bassanio, another merchant. Antonio’s love has often been interpreted as unrequited love that drives him to sign a bond with Shylock that puts his own life in danger. Antonio is marked by his melancholy, loyalty, and extreme hatred for Jews.
Bassanio: Bassanio is an irresponsible merchant who loses all of his money when his ships do not come back from sea. Throughout the play, Bassanio behaves selfishly and seems oblivious to Antonio’s feelings.
Portia: Portia is a rich heiress who is both intelligent and beautiful. Her father devises a riddle for suitors to solve in order to win her hand in marriage, at which Bassanio succeeds. Portia’s ability to manipulate situations allows her to control not only her own happy ending but also the outcome of the play.
Character Analysis Examples in The Merchant of Venice:
Act I - Scene I 13
"I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano;(80) A stage, where every man must play a part, And mine a sad one...." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
In claiming that the world is a stage, Antonio highlights the affected nature of his sadness. He is playing the role of melancholy rather than actually feeling melancholic. Gratiano picks up on this hole in Antonio's metaphor and exploits it to insinuate that Antonio is only sad so that he can appear more profound to others. This exchange introduces the theme of playing and perception early on in the play.
"means..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
"Means" in this context refers to money. Bassanio does not look to charm, honor, or any other skill to woo Portia. Rather, he seeks to win her over by showing off wealth that he does not have. Bassanio's pursuit of Portia seems to be more about another gamble with Antonio's money than a genuine love for the woman.
"her..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Notice that all of the descriptions of Portia do not reveal anything about the woman in particular. Bassanio vaguely gestures at her physical appearance, but he spends more time comparing her to figures from mythology than describing her personality or "wondrous virtues." This suggests that Bassanio doesn't really know anything about Portia and is mostly interested in her wealth.
"richly left..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Notice that the first thing that we hear about Portia, Bassanio's love interest, is how much money she has inherited. This suggests that unlike Antonio, Bassanio prizes money over love.
"waste of all I have..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Again, Antonio puts his love for Bassanio above all of his money. Many have suggested that Antonio's die hard dedication to Bassanio suggests either a romantic love for or a paternal dedication to his friend.
"by adventuring both I oft found both..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Bassanio gives a story from childhood about archery. When he would lose and arrow, he would fire a second in the same direction to watch where it landed so that he could recover both arrows. He uses this example to ask Antonio for another loan, even though he already owes Antonio a lot of money. This request demonstrates that Bassanio is a gambler who believes he can recover any loss. He does not seem to acknowledge the possibility that this scheme could fail.
"My purse, my person, my extremest means,..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Notice that Antonio is the first person in the play to place his love for Bassanio above his money. While the other characters seem to exist in a world in which money is the most important value, Antonio demonstrates here that he believes love is more important than money.
"showing a more swelling port..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Bassanio uses this metaphor to say that he lives a more lavish lifestyle than he can afford so that he can appear wealthier than he is. Here Bassanio reveals himself to be a spendthrift.
"Is that any thing now?..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
This is a colloquial way of asking, "has Gratiano ever said anything worthwhile?" Antonio speaks this line as soon as all of his friends have left the stage. This suggests that Antonio does not think much of the men who have just left but is particularly good friends with Bassanio.
"do buy it ..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Notice that like Salerio and Salanio, Gratiano interprets Antonio's sadness as coming from a preoccupation with his wealth and fortune. This highlights the extreme value of money among Antonio's friends.
"silks..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Spices and silks from Asia became important commodities in the Medieval and Renaissance eras. Coming into Europe primarily via the silk road, spices and silks stimulated economic growth in major port cities such as Venice. Salerio mentions spices and silks to tell the audience what Antonio's ships are carrying and characterize him as someone who profits off of trade with Asia.
"curt'sy..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Here, Salerio implies as classed system in which Antonio's stately ships are better than all of the poor merchants's ships. He compares the natural bobbing of ships in the sea to peasants "curtsying" to their lord to show reverence. In this metaphor, the poor merchants's ships curtsy to Antonio's ship because Antonio is a richer, higher class merchant. This imagination of Antonio's ships classifies him and his friends as members of the upper class.
"mind is tossing on the ocean..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Antonio is a wealthy merchant which means that his money is in the products aboard ships out on the ocean. Because ships were prone to sinking, Antonio would have reason to worry about his investments. Salerio tells Antonio that his sadness comes from being preoccupied with material items; he equates emotions with money.
Act I - Scene II 5
"sponge..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
"Sponge" refers to someone who drinks a lot of alcohol. Portia's joke, that she could get her suitors to pick the wrong casket by putting a wine bottle on top of one of the caskets shows that Portia believes her suitors are much less intelligent then she is.
"him..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
Notice that in Portia's denunciation of her suitors, Shakespeare is able to poke fun at other nations using their stereotypes. Since national identification was extremely important during Shakespeare's time, these descriptions would have been extremely funny to Shakespeare's audience. Consequently, Portia would appear more likable for her ability to make the audience laugh.
"smith..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
Portia infers that the Prince's mother cheated on his father with a blacksmith since this is the only explanation for the Prince's obsession with horses and shoeing horses. Portia's crude humor and wit here would make her funny and appealing to both the low and high members of Shakespeare's audience. This introduction to Portia suggests that the audience should like her.
"choose..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
While Antonio does not seem to have a reason to be upset, Portia has an identifiable issue to grapple with: she is unable to choose her future husband because of stipulations laid out in her father's will. Portia's desire to choose her own destiny characterizes her as a sympathetic character and foreshadows her sovereignty within the play.
"body is a-weary..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
Notice that Portia and Antonio begin on the same melancholic note: Antonio is sad for an unknown reason, Portia is weary for an unknown reason.
Act I - Scene III 18
"Shall I bend low, and in a bondman's key, With 'bated breath, and whispering humbleness,..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
Here "bated breath" means holding one's tongue or meekly waiting for something to happen. Shylock uses this term to point out the Christian's hypocrisy in expecting him to loan them 3,000 ducats while believing that he should be subservient to them.
"profitable..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
Though the Christians have characterized Shylock as a greedy man because he earns money off of interest, Shylock's use of this bond shows that profit is not the most important thing to him. It suggests that the Christians have mischaracterized Shylock, and that he is actually one of the only characters with principals in the play.
"expect return..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
Antonio believes that his ships will return safely and he will have no problem paying off his bond. However, this certainty is in direct conflict with everything the audience has heard so far about Antonio's ships and investments. Antonio is over confident about the security of his investments; this foreshadows that this cockiness will end badly for him.
"love..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
Shylock claims that he chooses to take this bond as a sign of peace between himself and Antonio. It is unclear whether or not these lines are meant to be sincere or sarcastic, or whether or not they are intended to make Shylock seem endearing or seem like a villain.
"void your rheum ..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
This is a colloquial term that means to spit phlegm onto. Shylock here points to the irony that Antonio now comes to him for the very thing for which he so violently hated Shylock. This speech makes Antonio's character hypocritical and unlikable.
"spet..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
Shylock catalogues particularly despicable behavior on Antonio's part. He not only calls him names, he spits on him in the street. It is unclear whether or not Shakespeare intended this to be funny or heart wrenching to his audience; whether this speech was supposed to endear them to Shylock or to Antonio. However, it is worth noting that other plays of this time, including Shakespeare's source text, did not give Jewish characters the chance to speak against their treatment in this manner.
"rated..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
Here Shylock directly addresses what the audience may have inferred from Antonio and Shylock's exchange: Antonio does not only lend money without interest, he publicly shames and bullies Shylock because he does.
"Mark..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
Again Antonio interrupts Shylock before he is able to tell Antonio what to mark. There are no stage directions here to suggest that the following speech is an aside to Bassanio that reveals genuine fear of Shylock. Instead, Antonio seems to say this in front of Shylock as if he weren't there, demonstrating an arrogant disregard for the man who is supposed to lend them money.
"silver ewes and rams..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
Notice how Antonio dismisses Shylock's story and publicly mocks him. This type of dismissal demonstrates Antonio's lack of respect for Shylock and suggests that he holds money lenders in contempt.
"This..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
While Antonio seems to see interest as taking advantage of someone else, Shylock tells a story in which someone leverages their skills in order to succeed; Jacob achieves his money through ingenuity. This could also be a dig at Antonio and Bassanio who are not attempting to acquire money through their intellect or skills but through an extravagant loan. It could also suggest that Shylock and Jacob are similar in that both must rely on their intelligence to survive in an unfriendly system.
"interest..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
This interruption demonstrates Antonio's lack of respect for Shylock and his business practices. Antonio is obviously contemptuous of the interest Shylock collects on his loans.
"I'll break a custom..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
Notice how Antonio and Shylock differ here. Shylock is defined by his beliefs while Antonio quickly breaks his principals for his friend's vain desire.
"feed fat..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
Metaphors of consumption and devouring reoccur throughout this play, especially in relation to Shylock. One explanation could be the wide-held Early Modern belief in "blood-libel," the anti-semitic belief that Jews used Christian blood to prepare their Passover bread. Another explanation is that Shylock "feeds" or "consumes" in a different way than the Christians. While the Christians consume material items and obsess over money, Shylock "feeds" his beliefs, feelings, and internal motivations.
"But more..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
While many other plays at this time, including Shakespeare's source text The Jew of Malta by Christopher Marlowe, gave audiences a one dimensional Jewish villain, Shakespeare gives Shylock more of a motive to hate Antonio. Antonio offers loans without interest and debases the entire money lending market through which Shylock makes his living.
"I will buy(30) with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following; but I will not eat with you..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
Unlike Antonio's friends who seem to have few beliefs, except for the belief in the power and importance of money, Shylock believes in his religion over money. He will not sacrifice his religion in order to make this business deal. In this sense, a sharp distinction is made between the Christians and Shylock: Shylock is the more principled of the two.
" take his bond...." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
Shylock's desire to take the bond despite the large chance that Antonio will not have the money to cover the bond suggests that he has ulterior motives for loaning Antonio the money. The audience once again gets the sense that Shylock does not like Antonio or that Shylock is seeking revenge for some unknown injury. Notice that Shakespeare does not offer the audience motivation for Shylock's actions.
"rocks..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
Shylock highlights the uncertainty of Antonio's wealth. Sailing at the time was extremely hazardous because of natural disasters, poorly made vessels, and human frailty. This list of potential disasters foreshadows the main conflict in the play and shows Antonio's imprudence in taking this bond before he knows how his ships will fair.
"sufficient..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
Though Bassanio claims that Antonio is a good man with his rhetorical question, Shylock corrects him to say that Antonio is not "good" in a moral sense but rather that he is "good" for the money. This suggests that Shylock and Antonio do not like each other.
Act II - Scene I 1
"Sophy..." See in text (Act II - Scene I)
Sophy was the former ruler of Persia under the Safavid dynasty. Sultan Solyman was the longest reigning sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Under his rule, the Empire was at its height. Morocco uses these references to show his own strength and military prowess: he claims to have won against the greatest rulers on Earth.
Act II - Scene II 4
"proverb..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
The proverb to which Launcelot refers says, "the grace of God is possession enough." Launcelot references the Bible, but he uses it to flatter his lord instead of using it to worship God. Notice the implicit parallel drawn between Shylock and the Christians: Shylock seems to be a true man of his faith, while the Christians use faith for their own ends.
"your wife, is my mother...." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Launcelot mistakes Gobbo's meaning in his previous line and takes the opportunity to tease his father about being cuckolded. In other words, you may not be my father but your wife is certainly my mother. Launcelot defies filial duty to his parent and shows himself to be a dishonorable character.
"try confusions..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
"Try confusions" is a malapropism for "try conclusions," which means to experiment. However, "confusions" ends up being a more apt description of Launcelot's game because his jokes make little sense. Unlike other clowns, who mock the high born characters by cleverly twisting their logic and rhetoric, Launcelot is a bad clown who makes the audience laugh with his dim witted attempt to be clever.
"incarnation..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
This is a malapropism, mistaking a word for another word that sounds like it. Launcelot mistakes the phrase "the devil incarnate," literally the devil embodied in the flesh, for "the devil incarnation," which at this time referred to the birth of Jesus. The malapropism throughout Launcelot's speech demonstrates his lack of eduction and position as a comedic low character.
Act II - Scene IV 1
"faithless..." See in text (Act II - Scene IV)
Remember that Shylock referenced Abraham last time he was on stage. Gratiano, Lorenzo, and Jessica can only talk about money and outward appearances. This forces the audience to question who is really faithless in this play.
Act II - Scene V 3
"Fast bind, fast find..." See in text (Act II - Scene V)
This is a proverb that means when something is put away properly it is then easy to find it. Notice that like Portia, Jessica is treated like her father's property. However, unlike Portia, Jessica does not obey the will of her father.
"feed..." See in text (Act II - Scene V)
Again Shylock is associated with cannibalism. By this line, Shylock means that he will go to Bassanio's house out of hate and eat the food that he has wasted so much money on. But this line also implies the slanderous "blood-libel" that was referenced at the beginning of the play.
"bidding..." See in text (Act II - Scene V)
Here we see that Launcelot's real dispute with Shylock may have come from his unwillingness to take orders from a Jew, someone he feels is inherently inferior to him. Launcelot embodies the sentiments of the higher characters and makes them ridiculous.
Act II - Scene VII 1
"complexion..." See in text (Act II - Scene VII)
By "complexion" Portia either means Morocco's disposition or his skin color. In hoping that everyone of Morocco's complexion choose the gold casket, and therefore not be able to marry her, Portia reveals her discrimination against Morocco. Blatantly characterizing Portia in this way demonstrates that these racist sentiments are ubiquitous across Venice and this play.
Act II - Scene IX 4
"assume desert..." See in text (Act II - Scene IX)
By this, Arragon means I will claim what I deserve. Unlike Morocco who did not assume that he deserved Portia, Arragon reveals his arrogance in choosing the silver chest.
"undeserved dignity..." See in text (Act II - Scene IX)
Arragon again reveals his pretentious attitude towards fortune and privilege: he believes that anyone who is fortunate is inherently deserving of their lot in life. In other words, he believes that classes are stratified because those at the top deserve to be there; by extension, he believes that he is deserving of his own good fortune.
"barbarous multitudes...." See in text (Act II - Scene IX)
Arragon reveals his resentment towards lower classes and so called 'barbarous' people. Arragon's pretension also may have made him unlikable to Shakespeare's lower class audience and come across as buffoonish pride.
"worthless..." See in text (Act II - Scene IX)
"Worthless" in this context means "unworthy." In referring to herself as "worthless," Portia invokes a monetary term: unlike unworthy, worthless is related to something having no market value. In this way, Portia paints herself as a thing that can be bought an sold, but should not be purchased because she has no value.
Act III - Scene I 3
"why, revenge..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
This speech can be seen as a turning point in Shylock's character. While before he positioned himself as better than the Christians, here he says that he will take vengeance because it is what he has learned by Christian example. This represents a metaphorical conversion: Shylock no longer has the Jewish patience he celebrated earlier, but instead adopts the Christian cruelty he suffered.
"I had it of Leah..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
The ring that Jessica pawned in order to buy a monkey was a gift to Shylock from his dead wife Leah. Here he says that the ring was priceless because of its connection with his beloved. This line directly contradicts the vision of Shylock as a money hoarder; it also makes Jessica an unsympathetic character as she clearly does not care about the importance of the ring
"bond..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
Notice that the repetition in this speech demonstrates Shylock's anger. While at the beginning of the play, Shylock bond conditions could be interpreted as trying to teach Antonio a lesson or reveal something about his character, here the bond becomes a sign of revenge. Shylock has been too abused by the Christians and now wishes to seek vengeance for these wrongs.
Act III - Scene II 3
" outward parts...." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
Ironically, Bassanio catalogues all of the people who deceptively look different than what they actually are when he himself has borrowed money in order to look richer than he actually is. This suggests that Bassanio may not have passed the casket test without Portia's guidance. The test is designed to deter suitors who are there for the gold, and from the beginning of the play, the audience knows that Bassanio is this kind of suitor.
"Let music sound..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
While Portia says that she is helpless in her father's will and that she cannot break her oath, she finds a way to surreptitiously influence the outcome of this choice. Unlike the trials of Morocco or Arragon, Portia plays Bassanio a song that will give him the answer to the question if he pays attention. This shows that Portia is not as powerless as she says she is.
"forsworn..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
Portia tells Bassanio that she wishes she could tell him which casket to choose, but she cannot break her oath to her father. Notice the juxtaposition of Portia and Jessica in this play: one holds fast to her father's will while the other disregards and abuses her father's will.
Act III - Scene III 5
"me pay his debt..." See in text (Act III - Scene III)
Antonio's only wish is that Bassanio sees him perform his act of martyrdom. Some scholars have read this desire as Antonio wanting to show Bassanio how much he loves him; it is one final act of love and confession.
" impeach the justice of the state;..." See in text (Act III - Scene III)
Antonio claims that if the Duke pardons him and denies the law then the order that maintains the merchant business in Venice will collapse. Again, Antonio positions himself as a martyr and sacrifice for all of Venice.
" from his forfeitures,..." See in text (Act III - Scene III)
Notice that Antonio focuses on his monetary mistreatment of Shylock instead of his inhumane abuse of Shylock. In this way, Antonio is able to paint himself as a martyr and a victim instead of a bully being punished for his crimes.
"bond..." See in text (Act III - Scene III)
Notice how Shylock's language has become repetitive and obsessive. After the loss of his daughter, his pride, and his livelihood, Shylock holds on to the only thing he has left: the bond he is legally tied to. This repetitive language demonstrates a descent into madness in which this marginalized character tries to use the law of the society that oppresses him against itself.
"since I am a dog, ..." See in text (Act III - Scene III)
During Shylock's famous speech in Act 3 Scene 1, he claimed that Jews were people despite the false and negative perceptions of Christians. However, here Shylock gives in to the perception of his identity: he claims the animalistic character that the Christians assigned to him.
Act IV - Scene I 10
"Commend me to your honourable wife:(280) Tell her the process of Antonio's end, Say, how I lov'd you, speak me fair in death;..." See in text (Act IV - Scene I)
In sacrificing himself for Bassanio's bond, Antonio metaphorically carves himself into Antonio's heart forever. Antonio sets himself up to be a martyr: someone who dies for a cause of their beliefs. Antonio becomes a Christ-like figure. However, unlike Christ who died in order to redeem man-kind, Antonio will die because he and Bassanio recklessly gambled away their money and took a dangerous bond. Antonio's rhetoric attempts to recast the reality of the situation so that he appears to be an innocent victim of an evil man.
"and my love withal, Be valued 'gainst your wife's commandment...." See in text (Act IV - Scene I)
Even though Portia has redirected Bassanio's bond to Antonio onto herself, Antonio is still able to assert his "love" against Bassanio's wife. Bassanio still follows Antonio's instructions more than he follows Portia's instructions.
"hang thyself:..." See in text (Act IV - Scene I)
Gratiano's overly exuberant and insulting statements make him, and the Christian opinion that he represents, petty. It is unclear whether or not Shakespeare's audience would have jeered with Gratiano, but modern audiences lose sympathy for these characters who need to degrade and punish Shylock on top of defeating him. The Christian characters lose their credibility in this moment because this invocation of mob justice completely contradicts the idea of "mercy" that they claimed to value at the beginning of this scene.
"penalty...." See in text (Act IV - Scene I)
Notice that now that she has the upper hand, Portia abandons all notions of mercy. She asked Shylock to show Antonio mercy, and when time comes for her to offer Shylock mercy, she instead decides to punish him. This action demonstrates the double standard under which Shylock lives: he is expected to be better than the Christians, to turn his cheek even though they do not show him the same kindness.
"Christian husbands..." See in text (Act IV - Scene I)
Shylock says this incredulously: much like Nerissa and Portia, he cannot believe that these husbands would so flippantly offer their wives's lives for this man. Even while Shylock is insistent on the fulfillment of a gruesome bond, this reaction shows him to be principled, and suggests that his marriage was honorable and loving.
"sacrifice them all..." See in text (Act IV - Scene I)
Bassanio prizes Antonio's life above his wife, the world, and his own life. This declaration suggests that Bassanio loves Antonio in much the same way that Antonio loves him.
"do a great right, do a little wrong..." See in text (Act IV - Scene I)
Bassanio asks this doctor of the law to do a great right, save Antonio's life, while doing a little wrong, defying the law. Bassanio asks for special treatment that will allow his friend out of the constraints of the law. Notice that Bassanio imports religious language, such as devil, in order to subvert the law. Since Bassanio and Antonio are members of the privileged class they see any law that works against them as unfair and therefore inapplicable or mutable.
"better than his crown..." See in text (Act IV - Scene I)
Portia's argument here is that "mercy" better demonstrates a monarch's right to rule than symbols of wealth and power, such as a crown, throne, or sceptre. Portia essentially states that power comes from mercy rather than privilege. However, her privileged position as a Christian heiress makes this statement both condescending and ignorant to the plight of marginalized, and systemically powerless, people such as Shylock.
"CLERK..." See in text (Act IV - Scene I)
The clerk reads the following letter to establish legitimacy for "Balthasar" before he has entered the court. It is unclear whether or not Portia wrote this letter herself or got her cousin Bellario to write it for her. What is interesting is that Portia seems to actually know something about the law. Her knowledge transcends her disguise, which suggests either that Bellario has taught her something about the law or she has privately studied it.
"To suffer..." See in text (Act IV - Scene I)
Again, Antonio invokes the language of martyrdom. If Antonio positions himself as a martyr who will save Bassanio and the law and order of Venice, then Shylock implicitly becomes the devil who seeks to destroy.
Act V 1
"I am never merry when I hear sweet music...." See in text (Act V)
Remember that Shylock earlier expressed a hatred for music in his house and was chided for it. Jessica is the only other character in the play who dislikes music. Here it shows that she does not fully fit into Lorenzo's world.