MERCHANT OF VENICE
By William Shakespeare
–Read India Initiative—
This is only an attempt to create interest in reading. We may not get the time to read all the books in our lifetime. But such reviews, talk and synopsis will at least convey what the book is all about
Merchant of Venice was written sometime in the 16th century. Since then. Several plays, shows and even movies have adapted this timeless play.
The main characters of this drama are as follows:
- Antonio—A prominent merchant of Venice.
- Bassanio—Antonio’s close friend, a suitor of Portia and later husband of Portia.
- Gratiano—Friend of Antonio and Bassanio, who is in love with Nerissa, and later husband of Nerissa.
- Lorenzo—Friend of Antonio and Bassanio, who is in love with Jessica, and later the husband of Jessica.
- Portia—A rich heiress, and later wife of Bassanio.
- Nerissa—Portia’s waiting maid—in love with Gratiano, later wife of Gratiano, disguises herself as Stephano.
- Balthazar—Portia’s servant, whom Portia later disguises herself as.
- Shylock—A miserly … Jew moneylender and father of Jessica.
- Jessica—Daughter of Shylock … later wife of Lorenzo.
- Tubal—A Jew, and a friend of Shylock.
- Launcelot Gobbo—Servant of Shylock, and later a servant of Bassanio, son of old Gobbo.
- Old Gobbo—Blind father of Launcelot.
- Leonardo—Slave of Bassanio.
- Duke of Venice—Is the authority who presides over the case of Shylock’s bond.
- Prince of Morocco—Suitor of Portia.
- Prince of Arragon—Suitor of Portia.
- Salarino and Salanio—Friends of Antonio.
- Salerio—A messenger from Venice.
Bassanio a young Venetian (from Venice) of a noble rank wishes to woo the beautiful and wealthy heiress Portia of Belmont. Having squandered his estate, he now needs 3000 ducats to tide over his expenses as a suitor. So, Bassanio approaches his friend Antonio, a wealthy merchant of Venice who has previously and repeatedly bailed him out. Antonio agrees, but since he is cash poor—his ships and merchandise are busy at sea to Tripolis, The Indies, Mexico and England. He promises to cover a bond if Bassanio can find a money lender. And that’s how Bassanio turns to the Jewish moneylender Shylock and names Antonia as the loan’s guarantor.
Antonio has already antagonised Shylock through his outspoken antisemitism. His habit of lending money without interest forces Shylock to charge lower rates and that irritates him to the core. Shylock is first reluctant to grant the loan, citing abuse that he has suffered at Antonia’s hand. But he finally agrees to lend the sum to Bassanio without interest upon one condition: If Antonio is unable to repay it by the specified date, Shylock may take a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Bassanio does not want Antonio to accept such a risky condition. But Antonio is surprised by what he sees as the money lenders generosity and he signs the contract. With money at hand, Bassanio leaves for Belmont with his friend Gratiano who has desired to accompany him. Gratiano is a likeable young man. But he is often flippant, overly talkative and tactless. Bassanio warns his companion to exercise self-control and the two leave for Belmont.
Meanwhile in Belmont, Portia is awash with suitors. Her father had left a will stipulating each of her suitors must choose correctly from one of the three-caskets—one each of Gold, Silver and Lead. If he picks the right casket he goes to Portia. The first suitor, the prince of Morocco, chooses the Gold casket, interpreting its slogan, ‘who chooseth me shall gain what many may desire,’ as referring to Portia. The second suitor the conceited prince of Arragon, chooses the silver casket which proclaims, ‘who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves,’ as he believes he is full of merit. Both suitors leave empty handed, having rejected the lead casket because of the baseness of its material and the uninviting nature of its slogan— ‘Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.’ The last suitor is Bassanio, whom Portia wishes to succeed, having met him before. As Bassanio ponders his choice, members of Portia’s household sing a song that says that ‘fancy’ (not true love) is engendered in the eyes with gazing fed. Bassanio chooses the lead casket and wins Portia’s hand.
At Venice, Antonio’s ships are reported lost at sea. So, the merchant cannot repay the bond. Shylock has become more determined to extract revenge from Christians because his daughter Jessica eloped with Christian Lorenzo and converted. She even took a substantial amount of Shylock’s wealth with her as well as the turquoise ring that Shylock was given by his late wife Leah. Shylock has Antonio brought before the court.
At Belmont, Bassanio receives a letter informing him that Antonio has been unable to repay the loan from Shylock. Meanwhile Portia and Bassanio marry, as do Gratiano and Portia’s handmaid Nerissa. Bassanio and Gratiano leave for Venice with money from Portia to save Antonio’s life, by offering the amount to Shylock. Unknown to Bassanio and Gratiano, Portia even sends her servant, Balthazar, to seek counsel of Portia’s cousin, Bellario, a lawyer at Padua.
The climax of the play takes place in the court of Duke of Venice. Shylock refuses Bassanio’s offer of six thousand ducats, which is twice the amount of loan. He demands his pound of flesh from Antonio. The Duke wishing to save Antonio but unable to nullify the contract, refers the case to a visitor. He identifies himself as Balthazar, a young male ‘Doctor of Law’ bearing a letter of recommendation to the Duke from the learned lawyer Bellario. The doctor is Portia in disguise and the law clerk who accompanies her is Nerissa, also disguised as a man. As Balthazar, Portia repeatedly asks Shylock to show mercy in a famous speech advising him that mercy is twice blessed—’it blesseth him that gives and him that takes.’ However, Shylock adamantly refuses any compensation and insists very much on the pound of flesh.
As the court grants Shylock his bond, and Antonio prepares for Shylock’s knife, Portia deftly appropriates Shylock’s argument for a specific performance. She says that the contract allows shylock to remove only the flesh, not the blood of Antonio. Thus, if Shylock were to shed any drop of Antonio’s blood, his lands and goods would be forfeited under Venetian laws. She tells him that he must cut precisely one pound of flesh. No more no less. She advises him that ‘if the scale do turn, but in the estimation of a hair, thou diest and all thy goods are confiscated.’
Defeated Shylock concedes to accepting Bassanio’s offer of money for the defaulted bond, first his offer to pay the bond thrice which Portia rebuffs, telling him to take his bond, and then merely the principal which Portia also prevents him from doing on the ground, that he has already refused it ‘in the open court.’
She cites a law under which Shylock as a Jew and therefore an alien having attempted to take the life of a citizen, has forfeited his property half to the government and half to Antonio leaving his life at the mercy of the Duke. The Duke pardons Shylock’s life. Antonio asks for his share ‘in use’ until Shylock’s death when the principal will be given to Lorenzo and Jessica. At Antonio’s request the Duke grants remission of the state’s half of forfeiture, but on the condition that Shylock convert to Christianity and bequeath his entire state to Lorenzo and Jessica.
Bassanio does not recognise his disguised wife but offers to give a present to the supposed lawyer. First, she declines but after he insists, Portia requests for his ring and Antonio’s gloves. Antonio parts with his gloves without a second thought, but Bassanio gives the ring only after much persuasion from Antonio, as earlier in the play he promised his wife never to lose, sell or give it. Nerissa as the lawyer’s clerk succeeds in likewise retrieving her ring from Gratiano, who does not see through her disguise.
At Belmont, Portia and Nerissa taunt and pretend to accuse their husbands before revealing they were really the lawyer and his clerk in disguise. After all the other characters make amends, Antonio learns from Portia that three of his ships were not stranded and have returned safely since then.
Synopsis by Kamlesh Tripathi
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