The Merchant of Venice page two (Act I scene ii)

The next scene is set in Portia’s residence at Belmont and the drama moves between there and Venice during its course. The two places have different atmospheres but in both there is a concern with money. When we realise that we are to meet Portia we may expect a grand and idealised woman but the use of prose indicates that this might not be the case. Also we will be watching the scene to see how far Bassanio’s confidence in his success as a suitor is well founded and we soon find out that it is misplaced. The matter does not depend on how much Portia likes him nor on her loving looks but on the will of her dead father which demands that all suitors fulfil a test based partly on their characters but partly on chance. His prospects are uncertain and therefore Antonio’s offer of help is even more at risk than we thought and we are not sure if Bassanio has kept back some of this information from his friend.
Portia’s first words are similar in tone to the opening speech of the play by Antonio but her lively waiting woman rebukes her for her world weariness and, together, they overcome the note of melancholy. Nerissa points out that Portia has good fortunes and few miseries, punning on “mean” as “small” and “midway” and that those who have enough live longer than those who have excess. Portia agrees but wonders how to follow the good-natured reproof stressing that it is easy to give good advice but difficult to carry out the instructions, even for a clergyman. Youth is hot blooded and cannot always follow wise precepts and control emotions. When she accidentally uses the word “choose” about marriage we learn that she is not free to select anyone, including Bassanio. Her speech contains opposites ending with “living/dead” but Nerissa defends Portia’s virtuous father’s motives for the test of the caskets saying that he wanted her to have the right man and that that man would choose the correct casket because of his love for her. The test is one of affection but she has called it a lottery also and doubt remains as to whether Bassanio will succeed. There is a fairy-tale element to this challenge and the image of gold, silver and lead boxes. The scene now moves on to a spirited game of wits in which Nerissa names the previous suitors and Portia describes them. It is highly enjoyable and we revel in the liveliness and humour of the national stereotyping.
The two young women are clearly about to enjoy themselves as Nerissa runs through the suitors and Portia describes each briefly, usually concentrating on one or two aspects only and demonstrating her repulsion in energetic mode. Throughout this merriment we are thinking of Bassanio’s chances and are aware of the underlying seriousness of the situation. The Neapolitan Prince is typical of his rank and locality by being skilled in horsemanship; the County Palatine (possibly a German prince) has but one manner, that of excessive melancholy and Portia probably imitates his gloomy speech at “An (if) you will not have me, choose (please yourself)”; the Frenchman has quickly changing moods, is excitable, competitive and a lover of dancing and fencing; the handsome English baron (and here we can imagine a native audience agog to hear its own faults as seen from an apparent foreigner) is monoglot and dressed in a strange mixture of styles from abroad, all pilloried characteristics at the time; the Scottish lord is mean and apt to form alliances with the French and the young German is a drunk so that he would choose any casket if there were a glass of wine on it, reminding us that the challenge is a test of character. There are several witty puns in the dialogue: “suited” meaning “dressed” and “dressed to suit himself”; “beast” being frequently used with the double sense of “best” and “animal” but, despite the apparent light tone, we and Portia are reminded by Nerissa that she must accept the one who chooses correctly.
Portia, although she attracts solemn classical comparisons and uses them herself (Sybilla and Diana), has shown herself to be intelligent, cheerful, confiding and strong-minded with a humorous streak even when in difficulty. We note, however, that she has thought of cheating by placing wine on the wrong casket: she is not a passive personage. Relief comes when Nerissa belatedly tells her that the men have all left without attempting the test. Portia refers sadly to the terms of her father’s will and we sympathise with her plight having heard her account of these men. When Bassanio, “a scholar and a soldier” is mentioned, her mask drops and she repeats herself at: “Yes, yes” in enthusiasm before recoiling and pretending she is not sure of his name. The psychology is realistic and she does confess she recalls him well when Nerissa praises his worth. A servant announces that the four (although there were six) are about to leave and that another suitor is on his way: Portia reveals colour prejudice when she says that, even if he were saintly, she would not want to marry a dark-skinned man with the “complexion of a devil.” The relationship between the women is that of friends, capable of exchanging jokes and yet understanding each other. Underneath the fairytale plot there is a blacker and more threatening element with a new theme of racism which we may have at the back of our minds during the next scene. Belmont is not free from the concerns of money, repression and prejudice. The plot is gaining tension as we suspect that the Prince of Morocco will be given a scene in which he chooses and that this will be shown not merely be summarised afterwards.
Act I scene iii
This scene is set in Venice and opens in mid-conversation since Bassanio has clearly mentioned the sum required for the loan and it is a huge amount of money. The director and actors can interpret Shylock’s character and responses here in a variety of ways: is he energetic, sinister, even comic, arrogant, suspicious and/or calculating? How stereotyped is he as a Jew? He may be genuinely ruminating on the deal or he may be delaying an answer to keep the irritated Bassanio is supense. However the character is portrayed, it is evident that, although the Christian Antonio despises usury and the charging of high rates of interest, he is prepared to borrow in that way for his friend. Since 1571 in England, interest could legally be charged at ten per cent but the process carried a stigma. Antonio is therefore lowering himself and taking a risk out of affection. Bassanio uses social language: “stead [help]” and “pleasure” but Shylock repeats the legalistic word “bound” which is the vital part of the contract for him. His apparently simple remark: “Antonio is a good man” is ambiguous in that it also means “rich” showing that Shylock equates money with morals. The caution he displays contrasts with the over-confidence shown by the Christians and their trust in each other. Repetition characterises his speech patterns: his five “no’s” repudiate the implication that Antonio is not a “good” man but also establish a mannerism leading on to the darker foreshadowing that Antonio’s wealth is not assured as long as it is at sea, a warning that the audience keeps in mind throughout the scene when the two friends appear reckless in their dealings. Shylock is precise in his knowledge of Antonio’s affairs, listing the voyages of the ships and emphasising the many dangers they face regarding the merchant’s ventures as “squandering” or foolishly scattered abroad. His speech is plain, literal and unadorned (he explains his use of “rats” and “thieves”) but an actor may give the lengthy account a gloating tone as if he is hoping for disaster and we believe his doubts as they echo those of Solanio and Salerio.
Finally he takes the bond but will not socialise with the two men, refusing to eat pork and join any spirit of festivity. The sentence beginning: ” I will buy with you” is almost entirely monosyllabic and there can be no doubt about his desire to keep his distance, an attitude and mode of behaviour which he has worked out in detail. This speech could be played as an aside so that there is less of a clue to his motives but it would be more typical of him to have it spoken directly to Bassanio. He is also anxious for any news on the Rialto, the exchange where merchants carried out their business. There has been a pun on “assured” meaning both “have no doubts” but also “obtain guarantees” in legal fashion.
Antonio is tagged by Shylock as a “fawning publican [tax collector]” in a lengthy aside: possibly Antonio has greeted Bassanio with deference as he is of lower rank. Shylock then gives four reasons for his deep-seated hatred of the merchant: that he is a Christian; that in “low simplicity [either depths of folly or humble sincerity]” he lends out money free of interest (a Christian ideal) and therefore brings down usury rates in Venice; that he, Shylock, bears an “ancient grudge” and that Antonio rants in public where it could do harm amongst the money-dealers about his animosity to the Jews and Shylock in particular. He wants to “catch him once upon the hip [at a disadvantage as in wrestling]” to “feed fat” his long-standing hatred, one which is tribal in origin, the language being brutal and vengeful. “Thrift” is a keyword to Shylock and he feels he will let down the Jews if he does not take revenge: his antipathy is on several different levels, practical and present but also inherited and almost atavistic. The audience is alarmed but the others do not hear.
With craftiness, Shylock claims to be performing mental calculations and concludes that he himself will have to borrow from another member of the Jewish clan to offer the loan (some of this is also aside). He covers up his preoccupation with revenge by greeting Antonio courteously but Antonio refers insolently to the charging of interest as “excess” and would not engage in such a deal except to satisfy a friend’s immediate needs. He will break a principle for affection. Shylock must be pretending when he appears to forget the terms, using many monosyllables and heavy, ponderous rhythms, and quick-wittedly turns Antonio’s dislike of interest to his own ends as he can conceive of a more damaging pact. Ironically the Christian ideals may have led to the bargain he eventually suggests. Firstly he defends usury by quoting the Biblical story of Jacob who gained more sheep as the result of a ruse by placing sticks in front of the ewes at mating time to ensure pied lambs and practise “thrift”. The essential idea is that money can breed just like animals but Antonio suspects the false analogy. Shylock may be taunting Anonio throughout or genuinely defending usuary. Antonio points out that a wicked person can use the Bible for his own purpose and thus touches on the theme of deception and the clash between outside and inside.
Shylock seems to be pondering on the request and we note how the plot involves the number three (three months, three thousand ducats, three caskets) but he may well be wondering how to extract maximum revenge from the situation. His lengthy speech in blank verse can be compared and contrasted with his prose outburst at Act III scene i line 42 since both demonstrate his intense emotions and the behaviour of the Christians towards him, causing us to experience shifting reactions for and against him. However difficult it may be for a modern audience to know how he would have been portrayed on stage in Shakespeare’s day it would seem that we are encouraged by the text to have some sympathy for him and considerable criticism of the way he is treated in society. Here his passion and the detail with which he authenticates his account of Antonio’s conduct are convincing and, possibly to our surprise and distaste, Antonio confirms it at the end and states he may well repeat these repugnant actions in the future. The actor playing Shylock must follow the varying rhythms with their overall upward crescendo leading to the rhetorical questions at the end but may interpret his mood as calculating, sarcastic, malevolent, indignant at being wronged, proud of his race and triumphantly seizing an opportunity long awaited.
His speech addresses his adversary with some formality as “Signior Antonio” and complains about the treatment he has received from him: he has “rated [spoken angrily]” to Shylock on the Rialto, the place where merchants and money-lenders meet to do business and thus tried to damage his reputation. This Shylock has suffered patiently with only the possibly Semitic gesture of a shrug in response since passive behaviour in the face of insult is a Jewish trait. Antonio has called him names: “misbeliever, cut-throat dog” and spat on his characteristic garment, a long cloak because of his “use” (a pun on “using” and “usury”) of his own money. He then switches to the present and dwells on the irony of the Christian’s need for help in simple, almost entirely monosyllabic terms, turning everything Antonio has said and done back on him with venom. It seems that Antonio has also spat on his beard and kicked at him as one would a dog. Shylock concentrates on his request for money and ends with bitter rhetorical questions suggesting that, if he is the dog of the scornful language used, he cannot lend money. The alternative is to bow in false humility and offer the loan to someone who has so abused him. A modern audience will feel considerable empathy for him and will probably expect Antonio to deny the claims.
Yet he threatens to behave in the same way in the future, a somewhat shocking assertion, which may seem out of character but which paves the way for a bond as if between enemies, not friends. Antonio backs his attitude with a reference to Aristotle’s philosophy that money should not breed with the charging of interest and taunts Shylock with the idea that he can take a penalty which is more appropriate to hostile parties. Hypocritically Shylock replies that he intended an amicable deal out of forgiveness but, in fact, he has seen the way forward which Antonio has opened and, despite Bassanio’s doubts, suggest a “merry bond” of the forfeit of a pound of flesh from any part of Antonio’s body if the bargain is broken: ironically this avoids the extraction of monetary interest but cannot be a joke since it is to be ratifed by a legal notary. They should be suspicious but are not sufficiently so. The terms seem bizarre in the realistic context of Venice but we pass over that because of the suspense. Bassanio is reluctant but Antonio is confident that he can accept since his ships are due well before the date and contain much more than is needed (with more mentions of the number three). We recall the maritime dangers listed by several characters and Shylock scorns their suspicions, asking what use a pound of flesh could be to him since it is worth less than that of an animal – whilst we realise he might be serious or else he would not have thought of that. He plays with them by adopting an off-hand manner of take it or leave it but still insists on a legal basis for the agreement. Antonio passively trusts him but Bassanio enters a caveat whilst allowing the bond to proceed, possibly because the promise of immediate cash is so tempting.