The Merchant of Venice is an examination of religion, justice, and power gilded with a love story. It is predicated on the idea of commerce, ownership, and legal property, although the latter two often hinder the objectives of the characters. Portia is frustrated with lack of autonomy under her father’s will; Antonio is trapped in a dangerous contract with Shylock; and, Bassanio needs more money. Shylock seems to be the only character that deftly navigates concerns of law and ownership, until he confronts Portia in court. Overall, the main characters seek to maximize their power: Bassanio desires money, which will provide freedom from his debts (power in independence); Shylock seeks more social power; Portia craves autonomy; and, Antonio wants control through martyrdom. These four interlocking quests to procure and exercise power culminate in the courtroom scene and are resolved in the final scene.
Shylock: Freedom from Anti-Semitism
Shylock seeks social power to counter persecution by the socially pervasive anti-Semitism, most clearly articulated by Antonio. Shylock is best described as a ruthless pragmatist; he thinks in terms of concrete objects, in terms of black and white: money, the law, and austerity. He is introduced in the play, carefully marking the terms of the contract, rationally weighing the deal. Shylock’s demeanor changes, however, when Antonio enters. Shylock hates Antonio for his anti-Semitism, for his hatred, and because “he lends out money gratis and brings down/ The rate of usance” (1.1.44-47; 1.3.40-41). This hatred begins to undermine his rationality; he mumbles to himself in an aside and forgets the details of the contract. Most importantly, however, he promises vengeance for Antonio’s actions: “If I can catch him once upon the hip, I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him” (42-43). If we connect this sentiment with the imminent “pound of flesh” deal, it seems that Shylock intends to take his social power through a violent revenge against Antonio. The issue with this interpretation—aside from its unsavoriness—is how to fit in the succeeding promise of friendship. Shylock affirms to Antonio, “I would be friends with you and have your love” (133). In order to reconcile the violent vengeance interpretation with this line, we must assume that Shylock is lying.
However, Shylock is as honest as he is pragmatic in the first half of the play. Shylock’s strategy to attain social power, then, is to force Antonio to recognize his misguided harshness.
Shylock goes about achieving this objective in a very logical manner, which almost matches the three appeals of logos, pathos, and ethos. Shylock recognizes the irony of having Antonio need to borrow money and seizes the opportunity both to justify his trade and, consequently, alleviate any self-loathing Antonio might feel for betraying his strictly held religious hatred of usury. In an appeal to Antonio’s logic, Shylock cites the Bible, presumably the ultimate source of evidence for any action for both of the men. Antonio, who does not share Shylock’s rational pragmatism, cuts him off to insult him: “But note me, signior—Mark you this, Bassanio:/ The devil can cite scripture for his purpose” (92-94). Shylock’s next strategy is one of emotional appeal, to trigger his empathy, but also to point out the irony of the situation. He aggressively reminds Antonio of his hypocrisy, saying “Moneys is your suit./ What should I say to you? Should I not say,/ ‘Hath a dog money? Is it possible/ A cur can lend three thousand ducats?” (115-18). Again, it fails in the face of Antonio’s righteous hatred.
Finally, Shylock resorts to showing Antonio how unwarranted his hatred is. Unlike the measured strategies earlier, this last appeal to experience is slightly haphazard; Shylock is desperate. When he offers kindness and friendship (and the pound of flesh), his language becomes sporadic. Before, the majority of his lines were in perfect iambic pentameter. “This kindness will I show” is only three iambs; then, two more lines in this speech are eleven syllables—a third of the speech is irregular. Furthermore, earlier in the scene, Shylock’s language was precise and detailed. In this speech, the details of this new contract are very vague: repaid on “such a day” in “such a place,” “such a sum” and the pound of flesh from “what part of the body pleaseth [him]” (141-46). If we interpret this suggestion, as we did in class, not as a violent desire to kill Antonio, but an outrageous suggestion supposed to be considered a joke and a token of goodwill, seeing as this offer “is not  estimable, profitable neither” (161). By sacrificing his profit in a gesture of friendship, Shylock hopes he can finally prove to Antonio that his hateful remarks were unwarranted and escape from under the most aggressive thumb of anti-Semitism.
Shylock never intended for the pound of flesh to be anything more than a dramatic clause in a contract, but, unfortunately for both him and Antonio, Jessica runs away with Lorenzo. What was intended to be a joke becomes a way for Shylock to exert power over his tormentor and the representative of the people who stole his daughter. The switch in objectives occurs off stage and is realized in Act 3, scene 1. Shylock gives us his reasons for turning towards a more bloody course of action: the Christians knew about Jessica’s flight and helped her run away with his money. Antonio’s precarious financial state and the torment of the Christians further increases his anger He wants his pound of flesh because he has lost everything except this bond and his resolve. He tried patiently suffering the abuse, but Jessica’s flight was the last straw. As he declares, “If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me I will execute” (61-63). Shylock is not malicious, but desperate. He quickly figures out that law is his seat of power, and uses it to exact his revenge. The only problem he encounters is that, like the stipulations of the original contract, this decision was made emotionally. Thus, the same reason that had previously governed Shylock’s decisions cannot help him in this instance.
Having realized that she is unsatisfied with being subordinate to her husband as she was to her father’s will, Portia sets out both to save the life of her husband’s friend and to claim ultimate autonomy. In Act 3, scene 2, she realizes, as she congratulates Bassanio for choosing the correct casket, that she is yielding what little power she had under her father’s will to her new husband, who was supposed to free her from subjugation. When she offers the ring, she intends to protect her weak state through an informal contract. Furthermore, she is able to rationalize a way out of this power disparity by assuming that because she is “all [his],” then he is at least half hers. She implores Bassanio, “I am half yourself,/ And must freely have the half of anything/ That this paper brings you” (249). Even though they are unequal in power, she reasons that half as much power protected by a contract, bound with love will give her enough autonomy. Furthermore, though Bassanio may have legal power over Portia and her estate, it is still abundantly clear who controls the household, as Portia orders the men to take money to Shylock and ushers them off to Venice.
Portia wants to join the men in Venice to save Antonio both to rescue her husband’s dear friend, but also because saving his life will give her respect and power in the eyes of Bassanio. The only flaw in her plan is that Bassanio is torn between her and Antonio to a greater degree than she expects. He hints at this at the false exit we staged in class, remaining uncertain of the outcome after she promises that everything will be resolved. The true degree of Antonio’s love for Bassanio is revealed in the letter, which gives Portia pause, but she does not recognize that Bassanio shares a similar fondness until she arrives in Venice. If she had recognized it, her speech in Act 3, scene 4 in which she makes fun of the “bragging jacks” would be out of place emotionally. Like Shylock, Portia plans to have her grand show of power be in court.
At this point, it is clear why Portia, Shylock, and Bassanio are in court in Venice. The only unexplained factor is Antonio: why he sacrificed this much for Bassanio and how he fits into the power structure of the play. Antonio, as both a rich Christian merchant and the title character of the play, should in theory have the most power. Most often, however, Bassanio drags him along to be used as a tool to achieve his own goal: “to come fairly off from [his] great debts” (1.1.128). Then, as it seems Bassanio is enjoying the fruits of very little labor and celebrating the acquisition of his virtuous, beautiful, and rich heiress of Belmont, Antonio is arrested for defaulting on the loan and prepares to die. Thus, it would seem that Antonio neither has personal power, like Bassanio, nor seeks it, as Shylock and Portia do. His power, however, does not assert itself in a typical way; his power proceeds from the sacrifice of the typical goods that make a person powerful: money, the body, and the soul. Antonio has a suffocatingly righteous martyr complex, and, in his quest to be the ultimate sacrifice and avoid losing Bassanio, he places himself as the key link between relationships. In this sense, he is the most powerful character because he is so needed.
Although, Antonio has a martyr complex, he is not suicidal. He does not willingly seek death, but he does not reject it when it comes. In his letter to Bassanio, he is resigned to his fate and all he wants is to see Bassanio: “my bond to the Jew is forfeit, and, since in paying it, it is impossible I should live, all debts are cleared between you and I if I might but see you at my death” (315-318). Although Antonio may be resigned to his death, it is not because he is surrendering to Shylock. He is righteous in his submission, declaring to Solanio, “[Shylock’s] reason well I know./I oft delivered from his forfeitures/ Many that have at times made moan to me” (22-23). In Antonio’s mind, Shylock hates him because he saved the helpless Christian debtors from the loan shark’s wrath, which we know to be untrue. Antonio adds this justification to assume a noble death—a sacrifice for “saving” the unfortunate. Antonio continues, “if [the course of law] be denied,/ [it] will much impeach the justice of the state,/ Since that the trade and profit of the city/ Consisteth of all nations” (28-31). If Venice does not abide by the letter of its laws, the commerce that flourishes will diminish greatly. Therefore, not only is Antonio dying for the sake of the good Christians caught ‘in Shylock’s web,’ but his death, as it is a proper carriage of justice, will also single-handedly maintain the transnational commerce in Venice. Antonio is a martyr for his fellow Christians and his fellow merchants, dying so that these two groups continue to flourish.
This fixation with martyrdom, though it is explicit later, appears in the very first scene. As we discussed in class, Antonio’s initial melancholy could stem from a fear of losing Bassanio as a best friend (or love) to Portia. If we use this interpretation (with or without the homosexual implications), it would make very little sense for Antonio to assist in his own replacement by offering money. It could be argued that Antonio offers his money because he loves Bassanio dearly and is a good friend. Yet, as we see in the later scenes, Antonio always seems to have some lofty ulterior motive. In this scene, Antonio gets suddenly and surprisingly angry with Bassanio for beginning to explain how he will repay Antonio. Antonio accuses him of thinking that his love is conditional and questioning his loyalty. In so doing, Antonio contradicts himself. When Bassanio tells Antonio that he has a plan to repay his debts, Antonio says that he will judge the plan, declaring “if it stand[s]…/Within the eye of honor, be assured/ My purse, my person, my extremest means/ Lie all unlocked to your occasions” (136-39). In this case, Antonio’s love—measured by what he will sacrifice for Bassanio—is conditional: only if the plan is honorable does Bassanio have free use of Antonio. Furthermore, Bassanio is speaking at Antonio’s request, not justifying his plan after Antonio has already agreed to participate.
Therefore, the anger is indicative of Antonio’s ulterior motive instead: to stand as monetary sacrifice for Bassanio’s suit to Portia (his person and his extremest means—his soul—will be offered subsequently). Antonio hints at as much, admitting that his money is currently liquid at sea, so suggesting that they “try what [his] credit can in Venice do—/ That shall be racked even to the uttermost/ To furnish thee to Belmont, to fair Portia” (180-82). Antonio uses the language of torture and martyrdom—there were many martyrs among the prisoners stretched to death on the rack during the Middle Ages and Renaissance—to describe how he will assist Bassanio in his quest. His anger, then, is motivated by Bassanio’s request for money. Antonio is not mad because Bassanio wants to take more of his money. He is angered because Bassanio’s asking prevents him from offering a selfless sacrifice; a sacrifice must be offered, not requested. Clearly, from the very first scene, Antonio is intent on becoming Bassanio’s sacrifice, first by offering his money, then by offering his body to Shylock—or a pound of it—for Bassanio’s surety, and finally, when his ultimate martyrdom fails, by offering his soul. In so doing, Antonio can maintain his relationship with Bassanio because he will be the necessary means to a happy end, something for which Bassanio will always owe him.