Merchant of Venice



A young fellow, Bassanio, needs a loan so he can pursue Portia. Portia has a bunch of money, but gender roles being what they were in 1500s Italy (and the rest of the western world), she’s expected to take on a husband at some point to help her manage that money. Because she’s a woman. So Bassanio needs to borrow some money so he can woo Portia so they can get married and then he’ll be able to help her manage the money that she already has. But first he needs money. So he takes a loan. And who do you go to first for a loan?

Mom and dad is a good guess. But in this case, no. Bassanio goes to his good bud Antonio, who is totally happy to help, except all his money is tied up in a big fortune making its way across the ocean. When it gets in, he’ll be rich. And it will definitely get in and nothing bad will happen. That’s a given. Bird in the hand, nothing could go wrong. So Antonio, awesome friend that he is, goes to Shylock, a money lender, to borrow money, so he can loan that money to his buddy Bassanio.

to be, or not to be…nice?

Shylock is not nice. He’s simply not. He doesn’t have friends, which is sad. He’s Jewish, which is not sad or happy or good or bad, it’s a fact. This is one of Shakespeare’s most difficult plays to experience today, in some ways, because of the way that the villain is not only Jewish, but because a big part of what makes him the villain in this story is attributed to his Jewishness. So Shylock is a Jew living in a Christian city, and he lends money at exorbitant rates and is not well liked. At all.

But Shylock agrees to loan Antonio the money. Just one little thing. It’s a tiny thing. If for some reason, Antonio can’t repay the loan in three months, then Shylock gets to take a pound of his flesh. Antonio, of course, says yes. Because his ships are on their way and nothing can go wrong. What could? Everything will be fine.

Also, as an aside that may be partially relevant later,

Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, elopes with Bassanio’s friend Lorenzo. Dad is not happy. Really, really not.

Meanwhile, the loan pays off for Bassanio. We’re fast-forwarding through some intrigue, but in the end, Portia agrees to marry him. Hurray!

But then…

…not hurray:

something that we never saw coming comes.

Or rather, doesn’t come. Antonio’s ships. The ships that carry his fortune. Antonio is getting hit hard by creditors to pay him back. Including one in particular…

Bassanio finds out about his friend’s troubles. Despite some odd character traits, he’s a decent guy and a good friend, sort of, so he races back to Venice to try and help. Portia stays behind. Or does she? Answer: no, she doesn’t. She follows him, along with her faithful maid, Nerissa. They disguise themselves as a (male) lawyer and his clerk.

So Bassanio shows up with the money to repay Shylock. But guess what? The payment date has passed and Shylock is not someone to overlook a date with destiny. For his destiny date, he wants flesh. A pound of it. Antonio’s. And the law is on his side. Or is it?

when we fear, we rage

Bassanio offers way more in repayment, but Shylock remains firm. He is furious about having lost his daughter to a guy named Lorenzo, or more accurately, to a Christian. Because remember, Shylock is a Jew. And he has not been treated well by the Christian community. When Jews are not treated well, when they are treated with discrimination, that is called anti-Semitism. There was definitely a lot of anti-Semitism in Venice, and Shylock probably had good reason to feel alone and sad and angry.

But it also didn’t excuse his wanting to remove a pound of flesh from another human being. That human being being Antonio. Shylock wants revenge, and the governing authority of the city, the Duke, is bound by the law and can’t just step in. So the matter goes to court.

Back to Portia. She’s a man with a plan. Or rather, a woman with a plan disguised as a man. Through some behind the scenes power plays and negotiating, she is given the authority, by the Duke, to pass judgment after hearing both sides’ cases.

legal thriller

In a  thrilling courtroom drama, she (who everyone thinks is he) listens to them argue and make their cases. In the end, she rules that yes, Shylock is entitled to his pound of flesh. So that’s that. The end…

...or is it? Hold on. She’s not done.

You get your pound of flesh,
She tells Shylock as he sharpens his knife with a gleam in one eye,
But here’s the thing:

He looks up.

Thing is,
She says - and I’m paraphrasing Shakespeare’s beautiful lines here -
You can’t draw any blood. Not any. Not one drop.

No blood?
Shylock looks around, confused.

No blood.
She says.
Not a drop. If you shed even a single drop of his blood, that would be breaking the law, because it’s illegal to shed a Christian’s blood.

Yes, that would be another great example of anti-Semitism.

Since it’s fairly difficult to remove a pound of someone’s flesh without spilling any blood, Shylock loses the suit. Judgment goes against him. But it gets worse for him. He is charged with conspiring to murder a Venetian citizen and ordered to forfeit all of his wealth. Half goes to the city of Venice, half to Antonio.

sort of happy-ish

Antonio, cool cat that he is, tells Shylock to keep his half on one condition: he has to leave it to his daughter Jessica, who he had disinherited. Also, he’s supposed to convert to Christianity. Again, anti-Semitism. Shylock, crushed, accepts these terms, as the alternative is...not too great.

Then more good news! Antonio’s ships actually didn’t capsize! They’ve arrived safely! So Antonio is seriously rich for sure now! Everyone celebrates and enjoys the happy ending. Except Shylock. Sad ending for him. All’s well that ends well. Except for Shylock. Happy endings for all. Except for Shylock.

So let’s remember to be good friends, to not be overly greedy, to be kind to people of all ethnicities and religions, etc cetera et cetera, and to cross-dress when you feel like it. Because if there are action heroes in this story, it would certainly be Portia and her adventurous maid Nerissa. Way to go, action heroes.  

The End.

{ read Macbeth }

{ read next Will Shakespeare tale }