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Free Study Guide-The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare-Study Guide
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OVERALL ANALYSES

CHARACTER ANALYSIS

Antonio

Antonio is the merchant of Venice, the titular protagonist of the play. He is about forty years of age and has lived his life to the fullest. He is a successful businessman, owning a fleet of trade ships. Surprisingly, Antonio appears in relatively few scenes of the play, but he is the driving force behind much of the action. Antonio is the model Christian, as defined by Elizabethan society. He represents, among other things, the ideal of nobility in friendship. He is also kind and generous, both to his friends and to the poor of Venice. Although he is now more philosophical, gentle, and quiet, he can still appreciate the frivolous nature of youth, as portrayed by his beloved friend, Bassanio. Aside from his love for Bassanio, he is unattached. Perhaps his lack of love is the reason for his melancholy.

Antonio's principles are against the borrowing or lending of money for profit. He reflects the medieval attitude that money should be lent for Christian charity. His noble generosity for his friend, however, leads him to cast aside these principles and to take a loan from the merchant, Shylock. He borrows money and pledges his flesh as the bond. When his ships are lost at sea, he cannot repay the loan and accepts the fact that he must pay Shylock with a pound of his flesh.


Antonio's warmth and generosity, however, save him. Portia, who has marrried Bassanio, comes to Antonio's aid. Even though she has never met Antonio, she loves him for his generosity to her husband. She appears in court as a young, intelligent lawyer and turns the law against Shylock, saving Bassanio's dear friend in the process. Antonio, with characteristic generosity and mercy, spares the life of Shylock and gives the Jew's wealth to Lorenzo and Jessica, the rightful heirs. Antonio's good fortune continues when he learns that his ships are not lost at sea, but have returned laden with goods. As the symbol of Christian warmth, kindness, generosity, and love, Antonio truly receives his just reward during the play when all turns out well for him.

Shylock

Shylock is a focal point of the play. A traditional stereotype of the Jew in Elizabethan times, he is comically caricatured as a greedy miser. He wears a traditional "Jewish gabardine." He is a middle- aged man between fifty and fifty-five, who has a keenness of observation, a memory for details, and a strong amount of energy. He is well versed in the Bible and is able to draw analogies from various Biblical sources and stories, which are relevant to the situations in which he finds himself. His manner of speaking reveals an authoritative tone with frequent references to the great and ancient names from Scriptures, which he uses to justify his own practices. His speech reveals a cold and calculating mind, reflective of his narrow thinking. He is also literal-minded and pragmatic and has quick and agile thought processes, which help him in his business dealings.

Shylock suffers from religious persecution, which plays an important part in the play. Antonio has reviled and despised this Jew, even humiliating him publicly because of his money lending and usury. Shylock believes that his profiteering is not a sin. This is contrary to the Christian belief, held by Antonio, that money should be lent for charity and not for profit. By his profession and his religion, Shylock is marked as the alien in a happy and fun- loving Venetian society. His alienation causes his bitterness and his humiliation makes him seek revenge. Antonio becomes the target of that revenge, and Shylock uses the letter of the law to try and exact a pound of flesh from his enemy. His strict interpretation of the law backfires on him, and he winds up losing his wealth and barely saving his life. Although he appears in only five scenes, Shylock is a very powerful personality, whose love of money has destroyed any natural human feelings.

Portia

Like Antonio, Portia is an example of nobility. She is a fair-haired beauty with an immense power to attract. Her goodness and virtue enhance her beauty. Unlike Antonio, she is not passive, but displays energy and determination. In many ways, hers is the more forceful figure in the play. Her authority and control with which she deals and manipulates the circumstances of the play are exemplary. In Belmont, the terms of her father's will leave her without any choice in her future husband, and she is saddened that she does not have an appropriate mate. As a dutiful daughter, however, she is compelled to accept her father's wishes. Despite her dissatisfaction with her circumstances, she has a cheerful and optimistic nature. She is clever with words and wit and enjoys the opportunity of performing, both in Belmont and Venice. She uses her wonderful ability with words and her keen sense of humor to enliven the scenes in which she appears. Her treatment of her money reflects Bassanio's belief that money is to be used only in the sense of helping loved ones. She proves she is unselfish and generous. Her happiness and Antonio's meet in Bassanio. Her ideal of mercy is unselfish generosity and she shows an understanding of Christian values.

As a Christian gentlewoman, she considers it her duty to show Shylock the foolishness of his exact interpretation of the law that has no mercy. She dresses as a young lawyer and goes to court to defend Antonio. Like Shylock has demanded, she strictly interprets the law and disallows the Jew from taking a drop of Antonio's blood when he takes his pound of flesh. Since this is impossible, Shylock begs to just be given money, but Portia is unrelenting. She cites another law that states any alien who tries to take the life of a Venetian is to lose all of his money, which will be split between the state and the person who was to be killed. As a result, Shylock loses all of his wealth. Portia has cleverly tricked Shylock at his own game.

Portia is the most multi-dimensional character in the play, alternating between a beautiful woman in the remote setting of Belmont and the authoritative lawyer in Venice, who orchestrates the victory of good over evil.

Bassanio

Bassanio is a young man who has just left behind the carefree days of his youth with a resolve to enter into the respectable life of being a good husband. In the past, he has squandered his wealth on pleasures of good living and extravagant expenditures. His lack of funds, however, does not stop him from generosity nor does it prevent him from enjoying a good life. As a result, he is deeply in debt, mostly to Antonio. To solve his financial problems, he seeks to marry into money, and Portia is the object of his desire. As her suitor, he is graceful with words and is presented as the model of a romantic hero.

Because of his kindness and generosity, especially in his relationship to Antonio, Portia is very attracted to him and delighted that he chooses the correct casket to win her hand in marriage. His and Portia's love, though born in the magic world of Belmont, is tested in Venice, which symbolizes the real world, and is proven to be true and strong.

Lorenzo

Lorenzo is a representative of the elegant Venetian society. He plays the dashing young lover, who rescues his love from the austerity and somberness of a restricted life. He too, believes that happiness arises from successful relationships. He has a great love for lyricism and poetry, as is shown in his vivid descriptions.

Lorenzo's love for Jessica is sincere and constant. It looks beneath the differences in religion, as he associates his lover with virtue and gentility. His love for her is eternal because he finds her to be wise and virtuous. He also realizes that perfect harmony is not possible on earth, since human beings are trapped in a mortal body. His love, optimism, and understanding make him deserving of the riches and love that he is rewarded with.

Jessica

As the daughter of Shylock, she is compelled to abandon him. The difference in their temperaments has made her circumstances intolerable. She is, although a Jew, as different from her father "as jet to ivory." She is more at home with Christian ways than with the austerity of her father's Jewish house. She likes Launcelot because of his capacity to introduce merriment to an otherwise gloomy household. She shows ingenuity in disguising as a pageboy to effect her elopement. Although guilty of theft and filial ingratitude in betraying her father, she shows an understanding of the moral sins that she has committed. Her drawbacks are mitigated by her loving and exuberant nature, which is similar to Portia's vivacity and wit.

Gratiano

Gratiano is the second fool in the play, next to Launcelot. He is given to unnecessary speech and garrulousness. He also drinks too much and behaves rudely and insensitively. He condemns silence as being a facade for those who wish to be thought of as thinkers and philosophers. The change in Gratiano is effected as he starts associating more with Bassanio. Almost all his actions are of an imitative nature. This is in keeping with the ideas of the times that people are ennobled by following their betters. Like Bassanio, Gratiano falls in love in Belmont and marries Nerissa, Portia's maid.

Nerissa

Nerissa is Portia's maid. She acts as a backdrop to the wit displayed by Portia. Her long association with her mistress has elevated her mannerisms and behavior to the point that she now acts as a witty and intelligent person. She, too, follows the examples set by Portia in many ways: she marries a gentleman from Venice, she follows Portia to Venice, she assumes the role of a lawyer's clerk and she takes her ring from her lover. She is to Portia what Gratiano is to Bassanio.

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