As the play is Older Than Steam and most twists in Shakespeare's plots are now widely known, all spoilers on this page are unmarked.
The most excellent Historie of the Merchant of Venice. With the extreame crueltie of Shylocke the Iewe towards the sayd Merchant, in cutting a iust pound of his flesh: and the obtayning of Portia by the choyse of three chests is a play by William Shakespeare, believed to be written between 1596 and 1598. It is one of his most controversial, owing to its treatment of Judaism and antisemitism in Venetian society.
Bassanio is of noble blood, but has spent all his money and is deeply in debt. His solution is to marry wealthy heiress Portia, whom he has visited before and wooed successfully. But his suit itself will require substantial funds, so he approaches his close friend Antonio, the eponymous merchant, who has lent him money in the past.
Antonio's wares are out at sea, and he has no money on hand. But he's devoted to Bassanio and is eager to lend him anything he can get, and plans to use his reliable reputation to borrow money somewhere else. Bassanio finds Shylock, a wealthy Jewish moneylender.
Shylock hates Antonio, partly for being a Christian, but mainly because Antonio publicly insults him and spits on him for being a usurer. So he agrees to the loan, and won't even charge interest—but if the debt isn't repaid by the specified date, he gets a pound of Antonio's flesh. Antonio's ships are set to return a full month before the money is due, so, despite Bassanio's entreaties not to, he signs the bond in a combination of antagonism, suicidal bravado, and desire to prove his devotion to Bassanio.
Bassanio returns to Belmont to woo Portia, but he's got to get in line; half the single men in Europe want to marry her. Her father's will decrees that her suitors must choose from three caskets: one silver, one gold and one lead, as a test of character. The princes of Morocco and Aragon choose the first two and are sent away unhappy. Bassanio chooses the lead one, which is of course right. All is happiness as Portia agrees to marry him right away.
But during the celebrations, Bassanio receives a letter from Antonio: all his ships have been wrecked, leaving him unable to repay the loan. To make matters worse, Shylock's daughter Jessica has eloped with Bassanio's (Christian) friend Lorenzo, and taken most of her father's money with her—so Shylock is royally pissed off and out for revenge. Antonio has been arrested and awaits his trial.
Seeing Bassanio's grief at Antonio's plight, and impressed by the deep love between the two, Portia insists that her new husband return to Venice with three times the value of the bond (from Portia's inheritance) in the hope of dissuading Shylock. Unbeknownst to Bassanio, she follows him to Venice and disguises herself as a young male lawyer to aid in Antonio's trial...
The Merchant of Venice is officially classed as a comedy. While during its original production it would have been seen as pretty funny (with a pantomime Jew as a villain who gets his comeuppance in the end), it was a comedy in the classic sense of having a happy ending, rather than the more modern humourous one. These days, it tends to be played and interpreted more as a straight drama, focusing on the antisemitic prejudices against Shylock.
Tropes in The Merchant of Venice:
- Actually, I Am Him: Launcelot approaches his nearly-blind father Old Gobbo, claiming to be a stranger, and eventually telling his father that he's his son, who is alive and well.
- Age Lift: Some productions attempt to flesh out the Prince of Arragon by portraying him as an adolescent schoolboy who is accompanied by his mother and his tutors when he arrives at Portia's home to attempt her Engagement Challenge.
- Alone Among the Couples:
- Antonio's eventual fate, with Bassanio/Portia, Gratiano/Nerissa, and Lorenzo/Jessica happily(?) paired off.
- This is the presumed fate of the Prince of Morocco and the Prince of Arragon. By failing the Engagement Challenge they have doomed themselves to a life of celibacy.
- Ambiguously Gay: Antonio. His devotion to Bassanio is intense enough that he's willing, even eager to sacrifice his life for him, and he explicitly parallels his love for Bassanio with Portia's during the trial scene. In modern productions, it's rarely all that ambiguous.Antonio: [to Bassanio] My purse, my person, my extremest means
Like all unlocked to your occasions.note
- An Arm and a Leg: Parodied by Bassanio when Portia demands the ring he has given away.Bassanio: [aside] Why, I were best to cut my left hand off
And swear I lost the ring defending it.
- Animal Motif: Shylock has been frequently compared to a dog as an insult and he even calls himself a dog to threaten Antonio and his friends.
- Anti-Villain: When it comes down to it, Shylock is still trying to kill Antonio (with law!), but the play spends a lot of time showing the audience where he's coming from; see Ineffectual Sympathetic Villain.
- Arbitrarily Large Bank Account: Portia's inheritance. While the rest of the cast is falling over themselves trying to pay back Antonio's bond to Shylock, when Bassanio tells Portia about it, her reaction is "Three thousand ducats? Is that all? Here, give Antonio the money. No, have twice as much. You know what? Just to be on the safe side, let's triple it."
- Arc Number: The number 3 appears frequently.
- The flesh bond plot involves three characters (Antonio, Bassanio, and Shylock), three thousand ducats, and a duration of three months.
- Portia's Engagement Challenge hinges on three caskets.
- There are three significant rings (the two from Portia's ring plot and the one Jessica supposedly exchanges for a monkey), one for each of the three female characters.
- Three marriages (Bassanio and Portia, Grantiano and Nerissa, Lorenzo and Jessica).
- One can argue that the flesh bond, the Engagement Challenge, and Jessica and Launcelet's escape from Shylock constitute three main plotlines.
- Portia, Antonio, and Bassanio split the role of protagonist three ways between them. Launcelet, Lorenzo, and Jessica divide the subplot similarly.
- The play opens with three characters on stage and concludes with three rhyming couplets.
- Arc Words: Content and satisfied recur throughout the play . . . always in situations that make the content itself somewhat doubtful.Antonio: To quit the fine for one half of [Shylock's] goods,
I am content; so he will let me have
The other half in use, to render it,
Upon his death, unto the gentleman
That lately stole his daughter:
Two things provided more, that, for this favour,
He presently become a Christian;
The other, that he do record a gift,
Here in the court, of all he dies possessed
Unto his son Lorenzo and his daughter.
Duke: He shall do this, or else I do recant
The pardon that I late pronounced here.
Portia: Art thou contented, Jew? what dost thou say?
Shylock: I am content.
- Asshole Victim: Traditionally, Shylock. To modern audiences, often Antonio.
- As You Know:Bassanio: 'Tis not unknown to you, Antonio,
How much I have disabled mine estate ...
- Audience Surrogate: Gratiano, especially in the courtroom scene, where he slings charged racial slurs with all the animosity Shakespeare's audience would have felt (and was probably slinging along with him).
- Beta Couples: Nerissa and Gratiano and Lorenzo and Jessica, to Official Couple Portia and Bassanio.
- Big Eater: Launcelot, according to Shylock, is noted for gormandizing, and being a huge feeder.
- Bittersweet Ending: In many adaptations, including the Al Pacino film version. Almost everyone is married and happy, but Shylock has lost everything, both material and spiritual, and Antonio is alone, with his best friend (whom he seems to have spent years pining for) married and living his own life. The film goes one step further and suggests that Shylock and Antonio are not so different. Jessica often gets one of these, where it's hinted that she misses her father.note Shylock's own ending is somewhat improved when you consider the Values Dissonance (the play was written in the Elizabethan era, after all) and realize that Antonio was actually trying to save Shylock's soul when he asked the court to force Shylock to convert to Christianity.
- Blind Mistake: Old Gobbo is half blind. As a result, he fails to recognize his own son and then mistakes his son's hair for his beard.
- Breaking the Fourth Wall: Launcelot does this pretty shamelessly, actually asking the audience to pay attention while he plays this awesome prank on his dad!Launcelot: Mark me now; now will I raise the waters.
- Bumbling Dad: Old Gobbo, who comes on, makes a few Blind Mistakes, gets a few cheap laughs for his malapropisms, and leaves without doing much.
- City of Canals: The better part of the play takes place in Venice.
- Cloudcuckoolander: Launcelot toes the line. He's usually detached from the action in one way or another—talking to the audience, messing with his dad, or singing strange song snippets.
- Coming and Going: It's subtle, but the correlation between sex and death is an important underlying theme. Look carefully at the language in Antonio's Final Speech—and remember, Shakespeare often used die as an Unusual Euphemism.
- Converting for Love: Jewish Jessica turns to Christianity for Lorenzo.
- Court Jester: Launcelot Gobbo, who may become a literal jester during the course of the play.note Either way, he tells Jessica that she's "damned" and complains that converting Jews will raise the price of pork. Nobody seems to him too seriously.
- Create Your Own Villain: Antonio and Shylock have been at loggerheads because Antonio made repeated anti-semitic remarks to him and mocked him for being greedy simply because he accrues interest on his loans (something forbidden by Christian law). This makes what should have been a mild grudge into a psychopathic obsession for Shylock:Shylock: He hates our sacred nation, and he rails,
Even there where merchants most do congregate,
On me, my bargains, and my well-won thrift,
Which he calls interest. Cursed be my tribe
If I forgive him.
- Cruel Mercy: Let Shylock live, but only if he gives up his religion and signs his worldly goods over to the daughter who betrayed him.
- Death by Adaptation: Shylock sometimes falls victim to this when directors want to turn him into an all-out tragic figure; one notable production had him stab himself upon exit from the court scene.
- Deconstructed Character Archetype: The "merchant" figure was a common stock character of Shakespeare's day. He was one-dimensional and entirely preoccupied with his wealth and the jeopardy that wealth was inevitably placed in. In the first scene, Antonio is shown to be a deconstruction of this: he is not overly concerned with his fortune (though perhaps he should be), but is melancholy for other, more complex reasons.
- Delusions of Eloquence: Launcelot Gobbo and his father, Old Gobbo try to use vocabulary that's beyond their level of education:Old Gobbo: He hath a great infection, as one would say, to serve.
- Department of Redundancy Department: Used for drama in Shylock's speeches and comedy in Launcelot's. Portia also does this while humorously confessing that she's stalling.Portia: I speak too long, but 'tis to pheaze the time,
To eke it and to draw it out in length ...
- Deus ex Machina
- In-universe: When the laws of Venice are at a loss to save Antonio, a mysterious young lawyer suddenly appears and saves the day. The audience knows it's Portia, but to the court it seems like a miracle.
- In the final scene, Portia suddenly announces to Antonio that three of his supposedly lost merchant ships have returned and he is no longer bankrupt. No justification is given for how she found this out when he doesn't even know yet.
- Did You Think I Can't Feel?: One of the most famous examples:Shylock: Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? 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?
- Disproportionate Retribution: Shylock decides to enforce the terms of the loan in the most gruesome way possible because of Jessica's elopement with Lorenzo, which he wrongly assumes Antonio had a hand in. Antonio is a douchebag to Shylock, there's no denying, but that's hardly a capital crime.
- The Dividual: Salerio and Solanio. Although their existence as two separate characters is justified (it further isolates Antonio), they are virtually interchangeable.
- Does This Remind You of Anything?: In Shakespeare's time, the rings (and circles in general) were suggestive of female genitalia.Portia: You were to blame, I must be plain with you,
To part so slightly with your wife's first gift:
A thing stuck on with oaths upon your finger
And so riveted with faith unto your flesh.
- Dramatic Irony: Rampant in the courtroom scene, when the audience knows that the mysterious young lawyer Balthazar and his clerk are in fact Portia and Nerissa in disguise.
- When Antonio implores Bassanio to tell his story to Portia: "And when the tale is told, bid her be judge . . . "
She is in fact judging.
- Slightly later, after Bassanio swears he would sacrifice his wife to save Antonio:Portia: [aside] Your wife would give you little thanks for that
If she were by to hear you make the offer.
- When Antonio implores Bassanio to tell his story to Portia: "And when the tale is told, bid her be judge . . . "
- Dying Alone: This is the ultimate fate that a suitor risks when he enters Portia's Engagement Challenge. If he fails then he will be bound to live by a Vow of Celibacy and so he will never be able to marry or produce an heir. Thus when he dies, his line will be extinguished and he will be forgotten.
- Elopement: Jessica runs away from her father to marry Lorenzo.
- Engagement Challenge: Portia's suitors must choose between three caskets to win her hand. If they choose incorrectly, they must leave Belmont, swearing to never again court a woman.
- Entitled to Have You: Morocco and Arragon both feel this way about Portia, mostly because they're princes and on her social level. This is why they're both tempted to chose the silver casket, labeled "Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves". Morocco doesn't, but Arragon does—they both get sent home, and Portia marries the far poorer Bassanio instead.
- Even Evil Has Standards: Even Shylock is taken aback in the courtroom when Bassanio and Gratiano declare that they would sacrifice their wives to save Antonio.
- Everyone Loves Blondes: Many lines are devoted to describing Portia's beautiful long blonde hair, which makes her seem exotic and desirable contrasted with the black-haired Italian beauties around her. She is however too cunning and sharp to qualify for Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold.
- Exact Words: Shylock demanded one pound of Antonio's flesh, and compounds this trope by insisting that he is under no obligation to provide a doctor to stem Antonio's bleeding as "it is not in the bond". It is arguably this insistence on following the bond to the absolute letter that inspires Portia to, while posing as a judge, inform him that he is entitled only to that one pound, no more or less, and only to Antonio's flesh—no blood can be spilled, otherwise the deal is void.
- Portia's skill in doing this is combined with Chekhov's Skill, as she proves clever enough to find an Exact Words loophole in her father's challenge earlier in the play. The rules state that she isn't allowed to tell her would-be suitors which of the three chests contains her portrait...but there's nothing stopping her from getting some local musicians to give him a hint. She orders them to play a song that gives away the trick of the Secret Test of Character; Bassanio quickly figures out the clue and chooses correctly.
- Expy: Launcelot Gobbo is very similar, in name and nature, to Launce from Shakespeare's earlier play, Two Gentlemen of Verona. This could be an Actor Allusion, as the two Launces were almost certainly played by the same comic actor, Will Kemp.
- Face Death with Dignity: Starting from the line, "I'll follow him no more with bootless prayers," Antonio is bent on doing this. Unless, of course, he secretly wants to pay the bond.
- Final Speech: Antonio gets an epic one, directly after Portia asks, "You, merchant, have you anything to say?" Subverted when he doesn't end up dying at all.
- Flat Character: Apart from being a haughty nobleman, the Prince of Arragon doesn't have much in the way of a backstory or other characterization.
- The Fool: Launcelot ends up playing this, despite it being nowhere in his job description. His opinion on the matter seems mixed.
- Freudian Threat: Shylock specifies at the initial agreement that he gets to pick where the pound of flesh comes from, with this being the snide inuendo. Returns in a darker sense when he declares that he wants the piece closest to Antonio's heart- put alongside the work's thematic juxtipositions of love, sex, and business, the suggestion is that locations of literal or metaphorical proximity would suffice equally well as the "pound of flesh" that lead to Shylock losing both daughter and fortune.Salario: Why, I am sure, if he forfeit, thou wilt not take his flesh: what's that good for?
Shylock: To bait fish withal.
- Freudian Trio
- Antonio: Superego. He's the most sensible of them and a voice of reason (when he's not being an ass to Shylock).
- Bassanio: Ego. He drives both the plots and tends to be a little self-absorbed.
- Gratiano: Id. He's known for not censoring his emotions and desires.
- Friend Versus Lover: A major theme of the main plot and in sub-plots. Exactly who is the friend and who is the lover gets a little confusing.
- During the trial scene, Bassanio and Gratiano swear that, if they could save Antonio's life, they would give up everything, even their new wives. Little do they know that their wives are standing right there. Later, Bassanio refuses to give away his wife's ring... until Antonio talks him into it. It's nicely tied up when Portia refuses to give Bassanio back his ring until Antonio talks her into it.
- In the subplot, there seems to be a bit of tension going on between Lancelot and Lorenzo as to which of them gets to spend time with Jessica.
- Funny Foreigner: All of Portia's suitors, the Italian Bassanio excepted. She and Nerissa spend most of their first scene mocking the suitors with stereotypical criticisms of their nationalities.
- Genre Shift: The first three acts are a mix of drama and comedy split almost evenly between the Portia and Shylock plots, while the fourth act is straight drama (despite some snarking from Portia and Nerissa) and the fifth act is almost farcical.
- Gentile Jew-Chaser: Lorenzo has it bad for the Jewish Jessica, although he (and all the other guys) seem to regard Jessica's lovable qualities as existing in spite of her Jewishness.
- Gold Digger: An uncharitable reading of Bassanio, who, while he later seems genuinely besotted with Portia, initially spends a lot longer extolling her money's virtues than hers. He introduces his plan to woo her as "How to get clear of all the debts I owe."
- Good Angel, Bad Angel: Launcelot's comedic moral struggle, in which he parodies morality plays of the time. In the end, he sides with the devil.
- Got Me Doing It: Portia's servant and friend Nerissa adopts many of her mistress' traits, including her sharp wit, her adventurousness... and her love for proverbs, which was considered a sign of wisdom in Elizabethan era.
- Greedy Jew: Shylock is a Trope Codifier in the western tradition, but in hindsight is actually a subversion. Within the play, Shylock is framed as a grudge-holding Loan Shark by other characters, but it's clear that he hates Antonio because the latter is an open anti-semite who abused him even when Shylock did nothing to him. Throughout the story he's motivated by vengeance, not greed, offering the initial loan to Antonio without interest to entice him to risk his life, and even demanding Antonio's flesh instead of accepting an offer of three times his money back! The only time he's really treated like a stereotypical greedy Jew is when Jessica robs him to elope with Lorenzo and he bemoans the loss of his ducats as much as the loss of his daughter.
- Greek Chorus: A lot of the exposition falls to Salarino and Solanio, who commentate on the action and interview other characters.
- Harem Seeker: At one point Launcelot reads his palm and discovers that he's going to have fifteen wives. He feels cheated; he wanted at least twenty.
- Heel–Faith Turn: Equivocally. Part of Shylock's punishment is a forced conversion to Christianity, but it's hard to take his apparent compliance at face value.Shylock: I am content.note
- Heterosexual Life-Partners: Antonio and Bassanio... Possibly. These days the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon itself portrays them as being in a romantic relationship, with Portia's full consent and approval.
- He Who Fights Monsters: In the narrative, Shylock is shown to have legitimate reasons to hate Antonio but it also portrays him as an antagonist for demanding "A pound of flesh" as penance for not paying back the loan. Shylock explains how his actions are merely a response to persecution and abuse and not of genuine malice like everyone believes. It's understandable why he goes to such extreme methods to prove his point, even though it's far from justifying Antonio's death.Thou call'dst me dog before thou hadst a cause; but, since I am a dog, beware my fangs.
- Hoist by His Own Petard: It's Shylock's insistence on claiming his bond no matter what and to the letter that leads to his undoing when Portia puts impossible conditions on him claiming it—when he attempts to back down and just take his money, Portia points out that he has already repeatedly refused the money in open court and may only have his "justice". When he gives up on that, Portia then uses his plan to accuse him of attempted murder.
- Hollywood Law: A contract that gives you the right to murder another person is not enforceable by law. This was true in Elizabethan times as well—though of course, the play is set in Venice (the codes of theater forbade representation of the Elizabethan court system and other institutions).
- Honor Thy Parent: Portia's deceased father has stipulated that only a man who has passed a test may marry her. She complains to Nerissa that "I may neither choose whom I would nor refuse whom I dislike; so is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father. Is it not hard, Nerissa, that I cannot choose one nor refuse none?" It is not clear whether she is purely bound by filial obedience to her father or whether the latter stipulated in his will e.g. that she must respect the result of the test in order to keep her inheritance. Nerissa opines that "Your father was ever virtuous; and holy men at their death have good inspirations: therefore the lottery, that he hath devised in these three chests of gold, silver and lead, whereof who chooses his meaning chooses you, will, no doubt, never be chosen by any rightly but one who shall rightly love." In the end, the test works as it should, with Bassanio, who of all suitors was most pleasing to Portia, choosing the correct leaden casket (she does help him choose by having musicians play/sing him a song that hints to him not to judge by appearances). Shylock's daughter Jessica is less reverent toward her own father, having no qualms about eloping with Lorenzo, converting to Christianity for him, and taking off with some of Shylock's wealth, even buying a monkey with a ring her late mother had given her father. But even she shows some requisite piety when preparing to elope: "Alack, what heinous sin is it in me / To be ashamed to be my father's child! / But though I am a daughter to his blood, / I am not to his manners."
- Gratiano is sometimes portrayed this way. At any rate, he's the most animated of the male cast.
- The Prince of Morocco is a very passionate man who seemingly lives for conquest and battle.
- Humiliation Conga: At the play's end Shylock has lost, in short order, his daughter, his fortune, his property, and his religion.
- Hurricane of Euphemisms:Launcelot: ... for indeed my father did something smack, something grow to, he had a kind of taste ...
Jessica: Nay, you need not fear us, Lorenzo. Launcelot and I are out. He tells me flatly there is no mercy for me in heaven because I am a Jew's daughter; and he says you are no good member of the Commonwealth, for in converting Jews to Christians you raise the price of pork.
- When Launcelot suggests that Jessica's best hope of avoiding damnation is that she was born out of wedlock, Lorenzo rebukes Launcelot for having an affair with a Moorish woman:
Lorenzo: I shall answer that better to the Commonwealth than you can the getting up of the Negro's belly. The Moor is with child by you, Launcelot.
Launcelot: It is much that the Moor should be more than reason; but if she be less than an honest woman, she is more than I took her for.
- You'll find that the Christian protagonists do not act with any of the Christian values they so preach. This is lampshaded by Shylock in his famous monologue.
- Hypocritical Humor:
Solanio: But it is true, without any slips of prolixity, or crossing the plain highway of talk, that the good Antonio, the honest Antonio—oh, that I had a word good enough to keep his name company—
- Solario and Salarino are all over this:
Salarino: Come, the full stop.
Solanio: Hah! what sayest thou?
- Whenever Launcelot says something like "To be brief ... " or "I have ne'er a tongue in my head," you can bet that he's about to go off on a tangent. Not to mention that he criticizes his dad for not being "honest"—which means both "honest" in the modern sense of the word (and the line happens right before he runs into his dad and starts lying to him) or "honest" in the secondary Elizabethan sense of "chaste" (which he clearly isn't, either—he later criticizes the girl he got pregnant for not being honest).
- At one point the Prince of Arragon opines that the world would be a better place if titles and wealth were earned through merit rather than by being bestowed through birth. Arragon himself only has his title and wealth because he was born to noble parents.
- I Gave My Word:
Shylock: An oath, an oath, I have an oath in heaven.
- Shylock claims he swore a solemn oath that he'd have Antonio's heart in revenge for the wrongs done him as his justification for refusing even several times the money he is owed.
Shall I lay perjury upon my soul?
No, not for Venice.
- Impoverished Patrician: Bassanio comes from a noble family, but he has frittered away all his money (and quite a bit more borrowed from Antonio) and now needs to borrow more money to woo Portia, so that he can marry her and use his fortune to pay his debts.
- Incredibly Lame Pun:Lorenzo: ... the Moor is with child by you, Launcelot!
Launcelot: It is much that the Moor should be more than reason, but if she be less than an honest woman, she is indeed more than I took her for.
Lorenzo: How every fool can play upon the word!
- Ineffectual Sympathetic Villain: Shylock is very easy to portray this way, though it's not really clear if it was intentional.
- Insistent Terminology: Launcelot uses this a lot.
- Involuntary Charity Donation: After the trial gets underway, Shylock refuses reimbursement from Bassanio, reminding Venice of its unchangeable laws of precedent. Judge Balthasar (Portia in disguise) decides that Shylock is entitled to the one pound of flesh, but no blood can be shed and it cannot be even the smallest part higher or lower than exactly one pound or he forfeits his lands and goods. Afterwards, the court finds that because he sought Antonio's life, one half of Shylock's money will be awarded to Antonio and the other half will go to pay the Venetian treasury. Antonio urges the court to allow Shylock to keep half of his fortune, with the other half to be granted to Lorenzo and Jessica as a trust fund. In addition, Shylock must convert from Judaism to Christianity.
- Ironic Echo: Gratiano starts jubilantly quoting Shylock after the tables turn in the court scene.Gratiano: A Daniel still say I, a second Daniel!
I thank thee, Jew, for teaching me that word.note
- Job Title: Spoiler: it's about a merchant in Venice.
- Kill Him Already!: Gratiano, when the tables are turned and Antonio gets to decide Shylock's fate.Gratiano: A halter gratis! Nothing else, for God's sake!
- Kissing Cousins: Debated. Bassanio is referred to once as Antonio's "kinsman" (which could denote any distant family relationship) in the first scene. Such a relationship is never mentioned again, and some scholars believe it to have been a mistake, especially since Bassanio and Antonio are necessarily of different classes.
- Last-Second Chance: One interpretation of Portia's actions during the trial; while masquerading as a young judge and admitting that Shylock is on firm ground with his claim to Antonio's flesh, she repeatedly attempts to convince Shylock to show mercy on Antonio, either by taking the money (three times the original loan) or simply for goodness' sake with her famous speech about "the quality of mercy". It's only when Shylock insists that he will not be swayed by any argument, and furthermore refuses to even provide a doctor for Antonio because "it is not in the bond" that she is forced to resort to trickery to snare him with his own words.
- The Load: Shylock mentions in Act II, Scene 5 how Launcelot has become this to him:Shylock [to Launcelot, in a conversation alternating between him and Jessica]: Well, thou shalt see, thy eyes shall be the judge,
The difference of old Shylock and Bassanio—
[to Jessica] What, Jessica!— [to Launcelot] Thou shalt not gormandize
As thou hast done with me— [to Jessica] What, Jessica!
[to Launcelot] And sleep, and snore, and rend apparel out—
[to Jessica]: Why, Jessica, I say!
Shylock: The patch is kind enough, but a huge feeder,
- Later in the same scene, he hopes that Launcelot will become such a burden, that he would end up ruining Bassanio:
Small slow in profit, and he sleeps by day
More than the wildcat. Drones hive not with me,
Therefore I part with him, and and part with him
To one that I would have him help to waste his borrowed purse.
- Loan Shark: Already an established trope that Shakespeare is riffing on. In a bit of a Memetic Mutation, the term "Shylock" is now synonymous with loan sharks.
- The Lost Lenore: Shylock alludes to his dead wife Leah. It implies he still loves her.
- Lysistrata Gambit: Portia and Nerissa vow never to go to bed with their husbands until they see the rings. Of course, they're the ones who took the rings.
- Madness Mantra:Shylock: I will have my bond ...
- Maid and Maiden: Nerissa is the Maid to Portia's Maiden. They both even go undercover together as men and keep the same dynamic. Nerissa is also officially Portia's waiting maid.
- Malaproper: Both the Gobbos constantly use the wrong words.
- Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: Launcelot argues that Jessica might not be her father's child (but that, hey, she's damned either way).
- Meaningful Name
- Portia is the "port" towards which many merchant-like princes venture in an attempt to claim the "goods", her money and herself. It also implies a "portal" or means to an end, which her riches ultimately render her.
- She may also have been named after Portia, the beautiful and clever wife of Brutus, to whom Bassanio compares her.
- The name "Shylock" is possibly derived from shallach, a Hebrew word for "cormorant" which was also used to describe usurers. Regardless of original uses, his constant torment has made him shy, with a tendency to lock his true feelings and opinions away.
- "Gratiano" means grace, and can also be taken to mean "gratuitous"—his very existence is in excess.
- "Launcelot" means servant, which is, well, exactly what he is. In some productions his last name, "Gobbo" (Italian for hunchback) is taken as an indication that he has curvature of the spine.
- His name in the quartos and folios is spelled as "Launcelet" or "little lance", possibly referring to his sharp tongue or his sharp wit . . . or to exactly what you'd imagine.
- "Nerissa" is Italian for black-haired. Shakespeare may have intended to contrast her, a more traditional Italian beauty, with the exotic, golden-haired Portia.
- "Jessica," a name Shakespeare coined, is likely meant to invoke the "jesses," or ties, by which captive hawks are secured.
- "Belmont" means Beautiful Mountain and is viewed as an earthly paradise, the place where the characters are happiest and (literally and figuratively) closest to Heaven.
- Some of Antonio's ships, according to Salarino, were wrecked on "the Goodwins," which means good friends.
- "Arragon" sounds similar to the word "arrogant", which is the Prince of Arragon's defining characteristic.
- Portia is the "port" towards which many merchant-like princes venture in an attempt to claim the "goods", her money and herself. It also implies a "portal" or means to an end, which her riches ultimately render her.
- Meaningless Villain Victory: The court finds that Shylock's contract with Antonio is legally binding, so he is entitled to a pound of Antonio's flesh. The court goes on to say that Shylock is not, however, entitled to any of Antonio's blood. Since he couldn't take any flesh without also spilling blood, Shylock's "win" is rendered moot.
- Mirror Character: There's a lot of literary theory on Antonio and Shylock as this. The play presents them as twin outsiders—Shylock as a Jew to Venetian society, Antonio as a "tainted wether of the flock" to the world of love and marriage.
- Momma's Boy: In some productions the Prince of Arragon is accompanied by his mother when he arrives at Portia's house to attempt the Engagement Challenge.
- Money Dumb: The formerly wealthy Bassanio's absolute inability to manage his own money is what kick-starts the plot. He has frittered away all of his inheritance and is forced to take out a loan.
- Morton's Fork: Launcelot describes being tempted by the devil to run away from Shylock. He then reasons that Shylock is "the very devil incarnation", so whether he runs or not, he'll be getting bossed around by the devil. Later, he breaks it down for Jessica: she's either going to hell because her father is a Jew, or else she's not really his daughter, in which case she's going to hell because her mother was unfaithful.
- Motive Rant: Shylock's famous "Hath not a Jew eyes?" speech.
- Murder the Hypotenuse: Inverted. Instead of letting Antonio die, thus clearing Bassanio of all his outstanding debts (both fiscal and romantic), Portia saves his life. As sacrificing himself for Bassanio seems to be all Antonio truly wants, this salvation is Portia's way of establishing control over Antonio and Bassanio's relationship—effectively neutering the hypotenuse.
- Mythology Gag: Lorenzo and Jessica's plotline approaches a downright parody of Shakespeare's earlier Romeo and Juliet. They even have a balcony scene.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: Some scholars argue that Shylock was inspired by Roderigo Lopez, the Portuguese "New Christian" (converted Jew) who served as Royal Physician to Queen Elizabeth, and whose trial and execution were tinged with anti-semitism despite Lopez's insistence that he was innocent and a Christian.
- Not-So-Final Confession: Antonio's heckuva Final Speech is an implied if not explicit Anguished Declaration of Love for Bassanio. But then he doesn't die like he expected to.
- Off the Table: Both Shylock's refusal to take three times the value of the bond after it has defaulted and Balthazar's refusal to let him take the money once he's been refused the pound of flesh.
- Older Than Steam: This play is the first recorded instance of the name "Jessica."
- Original Position Fallacy: Portia pulls the gambit variation on Shylock. She pleads for him to choose mercy, but he insists on the Exact Words of the contract, thinking it will bind Antonio to suffer having a hunk of flesh carved out of his chest. Portia then reminds him that it binds him to take a pound, and only a pound, and without taking any blood... which of course is impossible.
- The Penance: If Antonio is indeed homosexual, his eagerness for death could be due to guilt, either conscious or subconscious.Antonio: I am the tainted wether of the flock,note
Meetest for death.
- Plucky Comic Relief: Gratiano, Nerissa, and Launcelot all qualify.
- Pragmatic Adaptation: The film version starring Al Pacino as Shylock opens with a montage to illustrate how the Jewish community is appallingly mistreated enough for Shylock to want revenge.
- Preserve Your Gays: Antonio, the titular merchant, is pretty clearly in love with his only friend, the dashing young nobleman Bassanio — so much so that he is eager to enter into a contract on Bassanio's behalf by which the penalty for defaulting on a loan is having a pound of his flesh removed, nearest the heart. Inevitably, he defaults on the loan and is bound to a chair in court to have the flesh removed, which will most certainly kill him — but at the literal last second, Bassanio's new wife (in disguise as a young judge) announces an Exact Words loophole in the contract and saves his life.
- Prince Charmless: The Prince of Arragon, Portia's conceited suitor. He doesn't express any love or affection for her, only that he believes that he deserves to marry her simply due to the fact that he is a wealthy prince.
- The Promise: Antonio swears he will "be racked even to the uttermost" to finance Bassanio's pursuit of Portia. Needless to say, he is.note
- Proverbial Wisdom: Portia really likes speaking in proverbs, a habit which seemingly passed on to her servant Nerissa. In contrast to modern views, in Elizabethan era the abundant usage of proverbs was considered a sign of wisdom and sharp wit; besides, it is widely believed that the character of Portia was based on queen Elizabeth, who was very much fond of proverbs herself.
- Pungeon Master: Launcelot, much to Lorenzo's annoyance.
- Reasonable Authority Figure: The Duke doesn't require prompting to show mercy to Shylock, understanding that he sees the folly of his wrath against Antonio, and once the proceedings are finished, he allows Shylock to sign the deed after leaving the court, seeing how thoroughly broken the man is and not wishing further public humiliation on him.
- Recursive Crossdressing: Shakespeare was very fond of this trope. Male actors play women—Portia, Nerissa, and Jessica—who disguise themselves as men.
- Returning the Wedding Ring: Inverted. Portia and Nerissa give rings to their new husbands as symbols of their love and fidelity, then disguise themselves as young men and trick their husbands into giving them the rings. Later, they confront their husbands and revel in their stammering excuses before revealing that they were the young men all along. Portia then returns her ring to Bassanio (through Antonio, oddly) as a symbol for their renewed commitment to each other—though it's also a deliberate power play.
- Revenge Before Reason: In the courtroom scene, Shylock turns down the complete value of the bond—even doubled and doubled again—in favor of his revenge on Antonio. Can be played as a Villainous Breakdown, where the injuries Shylock has suffered are driving him to irrationality.
- Rich Suitor, Poor Suitor: "Rich Suitors, Poor Suitor" in this case; the whole plot is catalyzed by Bassanio, a nobleman who has blown through his inheritance, needing to borrow money in order to woo Portia.
- Riches to Rags: Happens to Antonio when all his merchant ships are lost in a not-at-all contrived manner. The effect is reverted at the end when three of them unexpectedly return in an even less contrived way.
- Say My Name: Shylock says his daughter Jessica's name a lot in their first scene. One gets the feeling that he cares for her, but he's somewhat overprotective and possessive. "What, Jessica!" — "What, Jessica!" — "Why, Jessica, I say!" — "Jessica, my girl." — "Hear you me, Jessica."
- Secret Test of Character
- Sure, you can have the ring that my wife (to whom you bear absolutely no resemblance) made me swear to never take off! Bassanio nearly passed until Antonio persuaded him, which (alongside his earlier remark that he'd give everything of hers to save Antonio) shows Portia that she is not as important to Bassanio as he'd like her to think.
- The caskets are a test of character too, though you would have to be as dense as mud (or, apparently, as dense as a prince) to not spot that.
- Launcelot pretends to be somebody else and reporting that "Master Launcelot" is dead when conversing with his nearly-blind father Old Gobbo, to detect if his father can still recognize him with the little sight he still has, and tells him that Margery is his wife and Launcelot's mother, and he is alive and well.
- Servile Snarker: Launcelot, whose Ultimate Job Security allows him to pass snarky comments to his employers without retribution.
- Shout-Out: Per usual for Shakespeare, there are allusions to Classical Mythology and The Bible sprinkled throughout the play. Most notable in Act V, when Lorenzo and Jessica spend several minutes comparing themselves to various mythical couples. Whether they realize the irony—all the stories to which they allude end tragically—is unclear.
- Shown Their Work: The Goodwins, where Antonio's ships are wrecked, are actually a real place where there have been over 2000 shipwrecks. British people play cricket on them when the tide is low enough.
- Small Role, Big Impact: Lorenzo and Jessica's elopement is what arguably pushes Shylock over the edge.
- Something Only They Would Say: Launcelot identifies himself to his father when he mentions that Old Gobbo's wife and Launcelot's mother is Margery. Old Gobbo promptly recognizes Launcelot as his son.
- Spell My Name with an S:
- Depending on the editor, it's "Lancelot" or "Launcelot". Just to make it even more complicated, the original folios spelled it "Lancelet" or "Launcelet", and while his father is "Old Gobbo" in the stage directions, he refers to himself as "La(u)ncelet Iobbe" or "La(u)ncelet Job". "Gobbo" means "hunchback" in Italian though neither of them are, and the Italian form of Job (as in the Biblical Job) is "Giobbe" so some editors have "corrected" the surname to that. "Lancelet" exists on its own as a term for a small sword, so some editors have kept it that way instead of taking his name as a reference to the Arthurian knight.
- This type of confusion also determines the presence or absence of a whole character. Either, as in the first quarto, Antonio has two friends—Salarino and Solanio—and a third, Salerio, who delivers a message from him to Bassanio later in the play, or Salerio and Salarino are one and the same, in which case either the copier messed up or Shakespeare forgot how the name was spelled. (Which is plausible, since Shakespeare was notorious for never spelling his own name the same way twice.)
- Spiteful Spit: Shylock notes that Antonio would literally spit on him as a way of showing contempt.
- Spoiled Sweet: Portia is the richest woman in the area (see Arbitrarily Large Bank Account), but she's also as kind as she is wealthy. When she hears that Antonio—who she's never even met—is in financial trouble, she offers triple what he owes to get him off the hook; later, she dons the guise of a male lawyer to save him.
- Sweet Polly Oliver
- Jessica dresses as a boy to elope with Lorenzo, with much chagrin.
- Portia and Nerissa later dress as young men to aid in Antonio's trial, with less.
- Symbolism: Since this is Shakespeare, any object or motif is pretty much guaranteed to carry plenty of connotations.
- The rings Portia and Nerissa use to entrap their new husbands, like rings in general in Shakespeare's time, are symbolic of female genitalia, in addition to their more obvious function as symbols of marital loyalty.
- Gloves in Shakespeare's time held a manifold significance. Like rings, they carried sexual connotations. They were status symbols; and as such a pair of gloves was a common courtship gift, so came to symbolize romantic initiative. And, of course, gloves and gauntlets were used to issue challenges. So it's very interesting that disguised Portia, directly after preventing Antonio from sacrificing himself for Bassanio, commands:Portia: Give me your gloves; I'll wear them for your sake.
- Take a Third Option: Instead of running away (thereby committing a sin) or continuing to serve his hated master, Launcelot enlists his father to help him switch jobs.
- Take That!: Portia makes snarky comments about various contemporary European nationalities as personified by her suitors . . . including her English suitor, who borrows fashions from other countries but has none of his own (a common caricature of the English at the time).
- Tempting Fate
- Antonio's general attitude while signing the flesh-bond.Antonio: I will not forfeit it:
Within these two months, that's a month before
This bond expires, I do expect return
Of thrice three times the value of this bond.
- Bassanio at the beginning of the ring plot:Bassanio: when this ring
Parts from this finger, then parts life from hence:
O, then be bold to say Bassanio's dead!
- During the trial scene: of course Shylock's impassioned declaration, "My deeds upon my head! I crave the law," comes back to bite him.
- Antonio's general attitude while signing the flesh-bond.
- Theme Naming: Solanio, Salarino and (if he exists at all and isn't just one of the other two with his name misspelled) Salerio.
- Then Let Me Be Evil: Summed up with a memorable line, spoken in response to Antonio's pleading:Shylock: Thou call'dst me dog before thou hadst a cause,
But since I am a dog, beware my fangs.
- They Call Me Mr Tibbs: A large portion of Act II, Scene 2, is devoted to comedy based on Elizabethan usage of this trope.Launcelot: Talk you of young Master Launcelot?
Old Gobbo: No master, sir, but a poor man's son; his father, though I say it, is an honest exceeding poor man, and, God be thanked, well to live.
Launcelot: Well, let his father be what he will, we talk of young Master Launcelot.
Old Gobbo: Your worship's friend and Launcelot, sir.
- Those Two Guys: Antonio and Bassanio's two friends Salerino and Solanio, who are always together.
- Took a Level in Badass: Portia, at first the typical love interest, goes on to save the day as the smartest lawyer in Venice.
- Translation Convention: Lampshaded heavily when Portia complains that she can't understand the English baron:Portia: ... he hath neither Latin, French, nor Italian, and you will come into court and swear, I have a poor penniworth in the English.
- Trickster Girlfriend: Portia, for Bassanio: she gives him a ring, asking not to give it to anyone else. Then, disguised as a male lawyer, she tricks him into giving her the ring as gratitude. At the end of the play, she pretends to be angry and accuses him of infidelity, then gives him back the ring and implies that she slept with the doctor to get it. Eventually, she admits that she was the doctor herself.
- Used to Be More Social: According to Gratiano, Antonio was not always this melancholy. Indeed, he has a loyal following of friends and acquaintances who are just now beginning to get sick of his gloom.
- Unbuilt Trope: It plays very much like one would expect a deconstruction of Panto tropes to. The villain is unpleasant and mean in all the ways you expect a panto-villain to be, but he's also the most put-upon character in the play: he begins the underdog and ends stripped of everything, his money, his daughter, even his religion. With the exception of his murderous intent all other characters treat him far worse than he treats them, and they largely hate him simply for being a Jew.
- Ungrateful Bastard: Jessica not only runs away from home and abandons her father to a solitary life, she also robs him of much of his money and to twist the knife further, allegedly sells a ring he gave her that belonged to his wife—her mother—for a monkey. It's implied that Shylock might be an Abusive Parent, but that's still a pretty heartless list of crimes to commit against anyone, let alone your own father.
- Unishment: It starts to seem that paying the flesh-bond (sacrificing himself for Bassanio) is exactly what Antonio wants. His extreme eagerness to hasten the trial and give Shylock his forfeit goes beyond Face Death with Dignity or Get It Over With.Antonio: I do beseech you
Make no more offers, use no further means,
But with all plain and brief conveniency
Let me have judgement and the Jew his will.
- Upper-Class Equestrian: One of Portia's unseen suitors, a Neapolitan prince, does nothing but talk about his horse and he is exceptionally proud of the fact that he can shoe it himself. Portia opines that this skill set may be the result of the prince's mother having an affair with a blacksmith.
- Vow of Celibacy: Any suitor who attempts Portia's Engagement Challenge is required to swear an oath that he will not court, or marry, any other woman for the rest of his life should he be unsuccessful.
- Warrior Prince: The Prince of Morocco, one of Portia's suitors. In his introductory scene he boasts about his prowess as a fighter and of his conquests on the battlefield.
- What Happened to the Mouse?
- In a comic-relief scene, Lorenzo and Launcelot are bantering and it turns out that Launcelot got a Moorish woman pregnant. Launcelot makes a joke about it, and it's never mentioned again. A few scholars have suspected that the line is the final remnant of a lost subplot.
- Solanio disappears completely after Act III (and so does Salarino if he isn't Salerio), with both of them displaced as Antonio's companions once Bassiano and the others return to Venice.Salanio: We leave you now with better company.
- Where da White Women At?: One of the noblemen who tries to win Portia is the Prince of Morocco. She's relieved when he chooses the wrong casket and gets sent home, not least because of his dark skin. Later in the play, it turns out that Launcelot's been having some kind of offscreen affair with a "Moor" (and gotten her pregnant).
- Your Mom: Launcelot comes up with a whole bunch of these when he and Jessica discuss her parentage.