As we read Shakespeare’s comedy play ‘The Merchant of Venice’ we experience different emotions towards different characters at different times. This is deliberate on Shakespeare’s part throughout the play.
One of the characters we feel most strongly about is Jessica, Shylock’s daughter. When she enters the play in Act II Scene III, she immediately makes the audience feel sympathy towards her because of her situation. Although she herself wants to leave home, her father is forcing her into going. In this short scene there is much talk of ‘Jewishness’ from which we conclude that Jessica is ashamed of her ancestry. As the audience has already met Shylock and know his character, it’s first impressions of Jessica may be that she has had an unhappy childhood. In line 17, Jessica says, “To be ashamed to be my father’s child”. Shylock is portrayed as a lone figure in the play, underlined by the fact that even his own daughter is ashamed of him. We feel sympathy for Jessica in this speech.
At the end of Act II Scene V, Jessica exclaims to herself “Farewell, and if my fortune not be crossed, I have a father, you a daughter lost” – a rhyming couplet is used to add more emphasis to the statement, basically saying that Shylock has lost his daughter. It is at this point that Jessica, probably unintentionally, begins the gradual process of stripping Shylock of everything he possesses. Jessica does not confront Shylock however and in this respect may appear cowardly. She could also be seen as being unfair to her father and slightly black hearted. However, Jessica also appears very strong-willed and determined evidenced by her being prepared to abandon not only her father but also her religion in pursuit of her love for Lorenzo.
In Act II Scene VI, Jessica is ashamed and embarrassed to be dressed as a boy. When Lorenzo states that Jessica must be his torchbearer, Jessica says “What, must I hold a candle to my shames?” Jessica’s actions (leaving home and stealing her father’s possessions) may perhaps be justified by her desire to embrace Christianity. This would have been seen as a sign of moral excellence in Shakespeare’s time rather than an act of abandoning her faith. It might not be so favourable in today’s modern society. Although Shylock should provide for his daughter, Jessica may be greedy in taking all of his money and valuables. However, when she does this, she is breaking two of the Ten Commandments by dishonouring her father and stealing. We feel that she is doing wrong and being sinful.
We do not hear of Jessica again until Act III Scene I. Shylock is telling Tubal that he would rather his daughter was dead and that he had the jewels than for him to be in his current situation. This is a terrible thing to say about his own daughter and we can understand, maybe even justify, Jessica’s wish to elope with Lorenzo and flee her father. All feelings of disgust about Jessica’s actions, which may have been greedy, selfish and uncaring, are wiped out when we hear Shylock’s words and actions. Even if Shylock is talking in the heat of the moment, his words are still unforgiving. This gives us reason to feel sorry for Jessica. However, when we learn that Jessica traded a very precious turquoise ring for a monkey, we feel that Jessica is cruel and selfish as she knew that it had sentimental value for Shylock (it was given to him by his late wife Leah). Her casual use of Shylock’s money, as reported by Tubal, infuriates Shylock and could make us see Jessica as irresponsible and careless.
Throughout these scenes, Shylock’s prime concern seems to be for himself only. “I would my daughter were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear”. His actions throughout the play make us err on the side of Jessica.
Moving on a scene, in lines 284 – 290, Jessica talks about Shylock and ‘his countrymen’. From her words we learn that Jessica no longer sees herself as a Jew. She has moved on and we recognise that Jessica is coping well and we admire her because she has been through a lot and has emerged well. When Shylock bemoans his loss publicly, much to the amusement of all (Salerio and Solanio in particular), it lessens the impact of what Jessica has done and helps to bias the audience against Shylock and towards Jessica.
In Scene IV Portia leaves Lorenzo and Jessica in charge of her house in Belmont. As we recognise Portia as wise and clever, this strengthens our belief in Jessica. Jessica complements Portia’s trust with her generous and thoughtful character sketch of Portia in Scene V. “For having such a blessing in his lady” is just one of the compliments Jessica gives Portia.
Act V is not just about lovers but about love itself. In Scene I we think of Jessica as romantic and loving but unloved herself in childhood. She exchanges words of love with Lorenzo but dislikes “sweet music”. Again, this makes us feel pity for Jessica. In this scene Lorenzo and Jessica conjure up classical images of love and relax in the moonlight – a scene about peace and happiness. Their love for each other and the influence of their surroundings is unmistakable – a vivid contrast to the drama of the previous scene.
The lyrical poetry in scenes involving Jessica and Lorenzo epitomises the power of love – a vital theme of the play. Because of her actions, we see Jessica as a romantic but she also evokes numerous other feelings. The light hearted tone of the concluding scenes helps us to look upon Jessica and her actions in a more forgiving light.
Shylock should have been able to give his daughter his love and his wealth. The one thing that cannot be stolen by his daughter and which is worth far more than material things, he does not present at all – his love. His wealth, which he values above all, she steals. We see this as Shylock’s just reward.
Any sympathy the audience might have for Shylock and his eventual fate at his daughter’s hands is swept away by his own actions. His concern with profit takes up all his time and energy leaving no time for Jessica or other people. This is evidenced by his reference to Launcelot as being “snail slow in profit”. Shylock’s actions cause us to feel sorry for Jessica and to forgive her for some of her actions.
Another person we feel strongly about is Antonio. Antonio plays a smaller part in the play but a very significant role. Antonio is the Merchant of Venice. We mainly see him as a kind man but there are other emotions Shakespeare evokes in us. He plays a sad part in the play. In his own words, “A stage where every man must play a part, and mine a sad one.” This quote sums up events to come. At almost every turn in the play he meets with misfortune and even at the conclusion when Shylock loses his case, Antonio stands apart from the love and happiness that his companions enjoy.
We feel slightly sad but intrigued at Antonio’s melancholy state of mind. This could be a device applied by Shakespeare to set the initial mood of the play. Most likely Antonio is sad because he knows that the close relationship he has with Bassanio is about to be upset by Bassanio’s wishes to visit Portia and seek her hand in marriage. In agreeing to finance Bassanio’s pursuit of Portia, he provides the basis for the disruption of his own friendship with Bassanio. We respect him for this. In Act I Scene I, lines 135 – 139, Antonio explains that if what Bassanio is doing is honourable, he will stand by him with all of his money. By using his good name to provide Bassanio with money he also puts his own life in jeopardy as security for a loan. We see Antonio as kind, loyal and loving and have a great deal of respect for him when he does not even let his life stand in the way of helping a friend.
Antonio’s character seems to be ambiguous from the start. The play begins “In sooth I know not why I am so sad” and responds to Solanio and Salerio’s sensible ideas with “Believe me, no”. He cannot understand himself so how can we? However, Antonio seems to be well respected in the play. This is supported by Gratiano’s words “I love thee, and it is my love that speaks”.
In Act I Scene III Antonio even thinks his enemy, Shylock, might change. He says, “The Hebrew will turn Christian, he grows kind”. This is a misjudgement but an insight into his forgiving nature. His words makes our respect for Antonio strengthen. Antonio seems to use Shylock’s hatred of him as bait to persuade him to make a deal. This is clever and we regard Antonio highly because of it.
Bassanio clearly trusts Antonio. He shows this on numerous occasions during the play such as when the former asks Antonio for money. He obviously knows he can rely on him, even though he is already in debt to him. He also travels back to Venice at Antonio’s wishes to see him die. He even asks Shylock to take his life rather than Antonio’s life – “The Jew shall have my flesh, bones, blood and all”. The positive way in which Shakespeare portrays Bassanio’s trust in Antonio, also strengthens our trust in him.
When Shylock speaks of the many ways in which Antonio has treated him in the past, we feel that Antonio is racist and although Shakespeare’s audience would not mind we respect Antonio a little less for this.
There may be an element of despair about Antonio in the ‘Trial Scene’ (Act IV Scene I). Antonio may have given up too early, perhaps indicating that he does not have a very strong will. Shakespeare takes Antonio very close to death. This builds up the tension but makes the eventual twist of his not dying all the more satisfying. Antonio demonstrates the quality of mercy but making Shylock become a Christian may be a little harsh, even cruel. We feel relieved when all is revealed.
In conclusion, having gained an insight into his character, we feel happy for Antonio in the last scene of the play when he learns that not all his ships are wrecked. In the last scene he is a lonely figure surrounded by happy couples. He has proved himself to be selfless and generous – a complete contrast to Shylock. On the negative side, his attitude to Jews seems to be a problem, particularly his constant insults and spitting on Shylock. However, we see Antonio in a good light.
Portia is seen from the beginning as someone with lots of qualities but also a few flaws. She is generally recognized as a character above all other people. Her beauty and riches draw suitors from all over the world to attempt the ‘casket challenge’. We hold her in very high regard.
Portia’s first scene in the play is Act I Scene II. Her part in this scene involves mocking her various suitors, generally stereotypically. For instance, she describes the young German as “Very vilely in the morning when he is sober, and most vilely in the afternoon when he is drunk”. Our first impressions of Portia are that she is quite mischievous but witty. She appears to have accepted her father’s wishes left in his will. Her feelings for Bassanio are obvious though: She tries to act coy when she says, “Yes, yes, it was Bassanio, as I think, so he was called”. Like Antonio, Portia is weary. Her reasons of weariness, are to do with the caskets. She does not want to end up marrying someone she does not love through no fault of her own. We understand her feelings of distress and sympathize with her.
In the first scene of Act II, Morocco declares his love for Portia and she agrees to abide by her father’s terms. He seems very arrogant. She handles the situation diplomatically and we respect her for this.
In Act II Scene VII, Morocco goes for gold because of its appearance and reality. Morocco is very arrogant, he says things like “A golden mind stoops not to shows of dross”, (referring to himself as having a golden mind). He believes he deserves Portia. In the end he picks Gold (the wrong casket) and leaves, disheartened. Portia ends the scene with a possibly racist rhyming couplet. “A gentle riddance, draw the curtains, go. Let all of his complexion choose me so.” We trust Portia a little less for this and start to feel unsure of her.
The Prince of Arragon arrives to choose one of the three caskets. Shakespeare may have chosen his name to suit his arrogance, because, he, like Morocco seems to have this in abundance. An example of this is when he says, “that ‘many’ may be meant by the fool multitude that choose by show”. He obviously considers himself to be above other men. He chooses silver after a lengthy conversation with himself. Portia is glad to see the back of him and just wishes they would just get on with choosing; “O these deliberate fools, when they do choose, they have the wisdom to by their wit to loose”. We can understand this and it shouldn’t be held against her. At the end of the scene, a messenger arrives, speaking of “a young Venetian”. Nerissa and Portia hope that it will be Bassanio. This shows us that Portia likes Bassanio a lot.
Our thoughts that Portia is fond of Bassanio strengthen when Portia declares she wants Portia to delay choosing a casket so she can spend some time with him. However, Portia does have trust in her father’s will. She realises that if Bassanio loves her, he will choose the right casket unlike her other unsuccessful suitors. This tells us that Portia does have common sense and that she does think quite clearly. This alters our feelings and opinions of Portia in her favour in this scene (Scene II). Portia asks for music to be played when Bassanio makes his choice but she did not do this with Morocco or Arragon. This could mean she prefers Bassanio to her other suitors, a point reinforced when the first three lines of the song:
(“Tell me where is fancy bred, or in the heart or in the head? How begot, how nourished?”) rhyme with lead.
Bassanio’s correct choice of casket is met with joy from Portia. They both talk of how willing they both are to get married and enjoy life. At this point we feel happy for Portia because she has got what she wants at last. In this same scene, Portia talks about herself as an “unlessoned girl, unschooled, unpractised.” This could be modesty. We respect her even more because she is not at all arrogant. Still in scene II, Portia gives Bassanio a ring. She tells him never to remove it. If he does, it will be “the ruin of your love” according to Portia.
Portia’s intelligence, independence and moral sense have been apparent before, but she’s not been very involved so far. In Act III Scene IV this changes completely. She now has to take risks and be deceptive. Portia reveals many other sides to her character in this scene. Then she suddenly reveals a youthful sense of fun and adventure with Nerissa, boasting like a child about what a fine-looking young man she will be. “I’ll prove the prettier fellow of the two”. This may be boasting a little but our feelings of Portia do not dwindle and we are still very much intrigued into what is going to happen.
In the ‘Trial Scene’ Nerissa introduces Balthazar (Portia) Portia soon speaks her ‘Beauty Speech’ but this has no effect on Shylock as he insists on his bond. Portia is very as she lets clever; letting Shylock think he is going to win, and then, once he has had his chance, she lets him down at the last minute. We respect her intelligence highly. We have to admire Portia as Shylock does for trying to change his mind but when she sees it is no use, she lets him sharpen his knife and walk up to Antonio. However, she declares that not one drop of blood may be spilt. Shylock, tries to take money instead but that is also refused. We have to admire Portia’s cunning in the scene. It is then stated that half Shylock’s goods must go to Antonio and half must go to the State of Venice. His life is also in the balance.
In Act IV Scene I, Portia and Nerissa ask Bassanio and Gratiano respectively for gifts. They agree to give their wives, who they think are the doctor and the messenger boy their rings. We admire Portia’s cunning once again in this scene but she also loses respect from the reader in light of here cruel and uncalled for actions.
In the last Act, (Act V), Portia confronts Bassanio about the whereabouts of his ring. He tells the truth and eventually Portia tells him the truth, that she was teasing him. Her point that she has successfully made is that now Antonio’s life has been saved, the bond that matters now is the bond with Portia.
Portia’s love for Bassanio, and therefore, his friend Antonio, overpowers Shylock’s greed and defeats him. She demonstrates the power of love and friendship over greed.