The Merchant of Venice Character Analysis – ICSE Class 10, 9 English
Although the plot turns on Antonio’s predicament, his character is not sharply drawn. He is a rich man, and a comfortable man, and a popular man, but still he suffers from an inner sadness. One obvious, dramatic reason for Antonio’s quiet melancholy is simply that Shakespeare cannot give Antonio too much to do or say without taking away valuable dialogue time from his major characters. Therefore, Shakespeare makes Antonio a quiet, dignified figure.
One of Antonio’s most distinguishing characteristics is his generosity. He is more than happy to offer his good credit standing so that Bassanio can go to Belmont in the latest fashions in order to court Portia. And one of the reasons why Shylock hates Antonio so intensely is that Antonio has received Shylock’s borrowers by lending them money at the last minute to pay off Shylock; and Antonio never charges interest. He is only too happy to help his friends, but he would never stoop to accepting more than the original amount in return. Antonio’s generosity is boundless, and for Bassanio, he is willing to go to the full length of friendship, even if it means that he himself may suffer for it.
Antonio is an honorable man. When he realizes that Shylock is within his lawful rights, Antonio is ready to fulfill the bargain he entered into to help Bassanio. “The Duke cannot deny the course of the law,” he says. And later, he adds that he is “arm’d / To suffer, with a quietness of spirit. . . For if the Jew do cut but deep enough, / I’ll pay it presently with all my heart.”
Antonio’s courage and goodness are finally rewarded; at the end of the play, when the three pairs of lovers are reunited and happiness abounds at Belmont, Portia’delivers a letter to Antonio in which he leams that the remainder of his ships has returned home safely to port.
Bassanio’s character is more fully drawn than Antonio’s, but it does not possess the powerful individuality that Shakespeare gives to his portraits of Portia and Shylock. First off, when one begins considering Bassanio, one should dismiss all the critics who condemn him for his financial habits. Bassanio’s request to Antonio for more money is perfectly natural for him. He is young; he is in love; and he is, by nature, impulsive and romantic. Young men in love have often gone into debt; thus Bassanio has always borrowed money and, furthermore, no moral stigma should be involved. Shakespeare needs just such a character in this play for his plot.
If Bassanio is not a powerful hero, he is certainly a sympathetic one. First, he has some of the most memorable verse in the play — language which has music, richness, and dignity. Second, he shows us his immediate, uncalculated generosity and love; this is especially obvious when Bassanio, who has just won Portia, receives the letter telling him of Antonio’s danger. Bassanio is immediately and extremely concerned over the fate of Antonio and is anxious to do whatever is possible for his friend. Flere, the situation is melodramatic and calls for a romantic, seemingly impossible, rescue mission.
When at last Bassanio and Portia are reunited, he speaks forthrightly and truthfully to her. He refuses to implicate Antonio, even though it was at Antonio’s urging that he gave away his wedding ring to the judge who cleverly saved Antonio’s life: “If you did know,” he tells Portia, “for what I gave the ring / And how unwillingly I left the ring . . . You would abate the strength of your displeasure.” No matter how powerful the circumstances, he admits that he was wrong to part with the ring because he had given his oath to Portia to keep it. As the play ends, Bassanio’s impetuous nature is once more stage- center. Speaking to his wife, he vows: “Portia, forgive me this enforced wrong; . . . and by my soul I swear / I never more will break an oath with thee.” Of course, he will; this, however, is part of Bassanio’s charm. He means it with all his heart when he swears to Portia, but when the next opportunity arises and he is called on to rashly undertake some adventure full of dash and daring, he’ll be off. Portia knows this also and loves him deeply, despite this minor flaw.
Portia is the romantic heroine of the play, and she must be presented on the stage with much beauty and intelligence. Of her beauty, we need no convincing. Bassanio’s words are enough; thus we turn to her love for Bassanio. Already she has given him cause to think that it is possible that he can woo and win her, for on an earlier visit to Belmont, Bassanio did “receive fair speechless messages” from her eyes. And when Nerissa mentions the fact that Bassanio might possibly be a suitor, Portia tries to disguise her anxiety, but she fails. Nerissa understands her mistress. Portia is usually very self-controlled, but she reveals her anxiety concerning Bassanio a little later when he has arrived at her mansion and is about to choose one of the caskets. She has fallen in love with him, and her anxiety and confusion undo her. “Pause a day or two,” she begs, for “in choosing wrong, /1 lose your company.” She thus makes sure that he knows that it is not hate that she feels for him.
Bassar.io’s correct choice of the casket overwhelms Portia. She wishes she had more of everything to give Bassanio: “This house, these servants and this same myself / Are yours, my lord: I give them with this ring.” She willingly shares all she owns with Bassanio. Once ‘master of her emotions, she has fallen completely under the spell of love’s madness. Love is a reciprocal giving and receiving, and so it is with perfect empathy that she sends her beloved away almost immediately to try and save his friend Antonio. They will be married, but their love will not be consummated until his friend is saved, if possible.
Portia’s second characteristic that is most readily apparent is her graciousness — that is, her tact and sympathy. Despite her real feelings about the Prince of Morocco, Portia answers him politely and reassuringly. Since the irony of her words is not apparent to him, his feelings are spared. She tells him that he is “as fair / As any comer I have look’d on yet / For my affection.” She shows Morocco the honor his rank deserves. But once he is gone, she reveals that she did not like him. ”A gentle riddance,” she says; “Draw the curtains.”
When the Prince of Aragon arrives, Portia carefully addresses him with all the deference due his position. She calls him “noble.” But after he has failed and has left, she cries out, “O, these deliberate fools!” To her, both of these men are shallow and greedy and self-centered; yet to their faces, she is as ladylike as possible. Lorenzo appreciates this gentle generosity of spirit; when Portia has allowed her new husband to leave to try and help his best friend out of his difficulty, he says to her: “You have a noble and a true conceit / Of god-like amity.”
In the courtroom, Portia (in disguise) speaks to Shylock about mercy, but this is not merely an attempt to stall; she truly means what she says. It is an eloquent appeal she makes. Her request for mercy comes from her habitual goodness. She hopes, of course, to soften his heart, knowing the outcome if he refuses. But the words come from her heart, honestly and openly and naturally.
Finally, of course, what we most remember about Portia, after the play is over, is her wit and her playfulness. Even when Portia is complaining to Nerissa about the terms of her father’s will, she does so wittily: “Is it not hard, Nerissa, that I cannot choose one nor refuse none?” And then she ticks off, like a computer, the eccentricities of the six suitors who have arrived at Belmont to try for her hand. They are either childish, humorless, volatile, ignorant, too fantastically dressed, weak, or have a drinking problem. She is clearly glad to be rid of them all when it is announced that they are departing.
We recall too the humorous way that she imagines dressing like a man and aping the mannerisms of all of the!-men she has observed in her short life. She bets Nerissa that she can out-man any man when it comes to swaggering and playing the macho bit: “I have within my mind / A thousand raw tricks of these bragging Jacks, / Which I will practice.” Men are as transparent as stale beer to her; she revels in turning the tables and having a bit of fun even while she is on a daring mission to try and save Antonio’s life. And even in the courtroom, when Bassanio extravagantly offers his life for Antonio’s, Portia quips in an aside that “Your wife would give you little thanks for that, / If she were by, to hear you make the offer.”
The entire ring plot is Portia’s idea, and she and Nerissa relish the prospect of the jest at their husbands’ expense. Bassanio swears over and over that he never gave his ring away to another woman (and he is more than a little embarrassed to admit that he gave it to another man), but with a fine sense of comedy, Portia plays the role of the “angry wife” just as well as she played the role of the “learned young lawyer” at Antonio’s trial.
Only when Portia first falls in love with Bassanio does she lose all self-control; once she regains control of herself, she takes matters in hand until the very end of the play, and there she displays total command of the situation. “You are all amazed,” she tells them, and then she shows them a letter from Padua, explaining everything, and she gaily invites them inside where she will continue to explain and entertain. She is a delightful creature, one of Shakespeare’s most intelligent and captivating heroines.
Shylock is the most vivid and memorable character in The Merchant of Venice, and he is one of Shakespeare’s greatest dramatic creations. On stage, it is Shylock who makes the play, and almost all of the great actors of the English and Continental stage have attempted the role. But the character of Shylock has also been the subject of much critical debate: How are we meant to evaluate the attitude of the Venetians in the play toward him? Or his attitude toward them? Is he a bloodthirsty villain? Or is he a man “more sinned against than sinning”? One of the reasons that such questions arise is that there are really two stage Shylocks in the play: first, there is the stage “villain” who is required for the plot; second, there is the human being who suffers the loss of his daughter, his property, and, very importantly for him, his religion.
Shylock’s function in this play is to be the obstacle, the man who stands in the way of the love stories; such a man is a traditional figure in romantic comedies. Something or someone must impede young, romantic love; here, it is Shylock and the many and various ways that he is linked to the three sets of lovers. The fact that he is a Jew is, in a sense, accidental. Shakespeare wanted to contrast liberality against selfishness — in terms of money and in terms of love. There was such a figure available from the literature of the time, one man who could fulfill both functions: this man would be a usurer, or moneylender, with a beautiful daughter that he held onto as tightly as he did his ducats. Usury was forbidden to Christians by the church of the Middle Ages, and as a consequence, money lending was controlled by the Jews; as a rule, it was usually the only occupation which the law allowed to them. As a result, a great deal of medieval literature produced the conventional figure of the Jewish moneylender, usually as a minor character, but also too, as a major character.
It is from this medieval literary tradition that Shakespeare borrows the figure of Shylock, just as Marlowe did for his Jew of Malta. Some commentators have said that the character of Shylock is an example of Elizabethan (and Shakespeare’s own) anti-Semitism. In contrast, many have seen the creation of Shylock as an attack on this kind of intolerance. But Shakespeare, they forget, was a dramatist. He was-not concerned with either anti- nor pro-Semitism, except in the way it shaped individual characters in his plays to produce the necessary drama that he was attempting to create. The play is thus emphatically rcotanti-Semitic; rather, because of the nature of Shylock’s involvement in the love plots, it is about anti-Semitism. Shakespeare never seriously defined or condemned a group through the presentation of an individual; he only did this for the purposes of comedy by creating caricatures in miniature for our amusement. Shylock is drawn in bold strokes; he is meant to be a “villain” in terms of the romantic comedy, but because of the multi-dimensionality which Shakespeare gives him, we are meant to sympathize with him at times, loathe him at others. Shakespeare’s manipulation of our emotions regarding Shylock is a testament to his genius as a creator of character.
When Shylock leaves the courtroom in Act IV, Scene 1, he is stripped of all that he has. He is a defeated man. Yet we cannot feel deep sympathy for him — some, perhaps, but not much. Shakespeare’s intention was not to make Shylock a tragifc figure; instead, Shylock was meant to function as a man who could be vividly realized as the epitome of selfishness; he must be defeated in this romantic comedy. In a sense, it is Shakespeare’s own brilliance which led him to create Shylock as almost too human. Shylock is powerfully drawn, perhaps too powerfully for this comedy, but his superb dignity is admirable, despite the fact that we must finally condemn him. Perhaps the poet W. H. Auden has given us our best clue as to how we must deal with Shylock: “Those to whom evil is done,” he says, “do evil in return.” This explains in a few words much of the moneylender’s complexity and our complex reactions toward him.
For More Resources