This story hinges on the (now proverbial) pound of flesh. Bassanio is a poor gentleman in love with a rich lady, Portia. While Bassanio is upfront with Portia about his poverty — and she could care less — he can’t bring himself to propose to her without a few coins to his name. So, he goes to Antonio, the titular merchant of Venice and a close friend, and asks for a loan. Antonio is free and easy about making loans without requiring interest payments. Antonio says he’d gladly hand over the money to Bassanio, but all his money is tied up in his ships at sea. He, furthermore, tells Bassanio that if anyone will make him loan, the merchant can easily cover it. Antonio has tons of merchandise arriving in the next couple months from all around the world. The loan amount is small compared to what Antonio intends to earn from selling his goods.
The problem is that the only other game in town for loans is a Scrooge-esque lender named Shylock. Shylock is hard enough to deal with as it is, but he has it in for Antonio, in particular. Besides the fact that Antonio frequently offers interest-free loans — cutting into Shylock’s business — Antonio has also kept Shylock from collecting collateral by paying off other people’s loans before said loans went into default. (Maybe that’s why there were no other lenders in all of Venice?) To be fair, Shylock claims that his gripe with Antonio is that the latter is always leveling antisemitic slurs and other insults at the lender. At any rate, Shylock says he’ll make the loan of 3,000 Ducats, but, instead of ship or merchandise, he requires a pound of flesh as bond. Antonio, for reasons of friendship and the fact that he believes he will have a windfall by then, agrees to Shylock’s terms. If he doesn’t repay the 3,000 ducats in three months, Antonio will have a pound of flesh cut from his chest.
[Spoilers follow.] Bassanio takes the cash and goes traveling to make his proposal. First, he is required to play a “Let’s Make a Deal” game in order to earn the opportunity to wed Portia. The game involves three boxes (i.e. caskets): one of gold, one of silver, and one of lead. Inside one of them is a portrait of Portia, but the others are losers. All a prospective suitor has to go by is a brief inscription. By the time Bassanio arrives the reader has seen two Princes’s failed attempts at this courtship game. The inscriptions with the gold and silver boxes flatter Portia and the suitor, respectively. The inscription on the leaden box acknowledges that the marriage will not be all sunshine and roses, and that is the box Bassanio has the wisdom to choose. Unfortunately, shortly after he does so, he learns that a couple of Antonio’s ships wrecked at sea and the others haven’t been heard from, and – by now – the loan is in default.
Bassanio heads out to Venice with triple the Shylock’s money from his generous and wealthy new wife, planning to dispose of the situation. However, Shylock won’t budge on the terms of the bond. A drama plays out in the courtroom. Portia, anticipating the Shylock might not take the lucrative offer, has her butler take a letter to a legal expert and has said servant return with the lawyer’s reply posthaste. Portia and her handmaid disguise themselves as men – a lawyer and legal clerk, respectively – and catch up with the legal proceedings in Venice. After no one (i.e. the Duke, Bassanio, nor Portia-in-disguise as lawyer) is able to reason with the Shylock, Portia-as-lawyer tells him that he may proceed with cutting away the pound of flesh. However, the bond document says nothing about blood. So, if Shylock spills any of Antonio’s blood, he will be guilty of assault (at the least) and murder in the likely event that Antonio dies. Not to mention, going an ounce over a pound would be a breach of contract to be severely countered. This turns the tables, and Antonio and friends end up exploiting the situation to force the Shylock to convert religion as well as dictating the disposition of the lender’s estate (not to mention he’s still out his 3,000 ducats.)
[Spoiler end.] This play has a tense story line, particularly for a comedy, and is a gripping read. However, it’s also one of the most controversial Shakespearean works for its antisemitic and racist comments. On the other hand, there are reasons to believe that Shakespeare might have been engaging in satire. First, I mentioned that Shylock doesn’t cite loss of business as his quarrel with Antonio, but rather that the merchant has repeatedly insulted and slandered him. While we don’t see direct evidence of this behavior, the fact that Antonio rapes Shylock with his religion (by that I mean forcing a conversion using the threat of State force,) makes it ring true. Second, but continuing on this theme, there are a number of points during which the Shylock is sympathetic, most notably the famous “If you prick us, do we not bleed?…” monologue. Third, we learn that Shylock has a delightful daughter named Jessica, leading the reader to the conclusion that perhaps Shylock isn’t a jerk because he’s a Jew, but is a jerk who happens to be a Jew. Finally, the degree to which Antonio and his friends rake Shylock over the coals at the end of the court scene tarnishes Antonio’s virtue and makes Shylock sympathetic once again. The “turn the other cheek” approach of Christianity gives way to Old Testament vengefulness.
Like many of Shakespeare’s plays (notably “The Taming of the Shrew”,) accusations of sexism are also common, but if there were an award for BOSS of this play it would go to Portia, hands down. True, she has to pretend to be a man to get it all done, but those were those the times. The need for disguise also facilitates a prank that she and her handmaid play on their new husbands, regarding their wedding rings. While they are forced to comply with the dictates of the age, the women in this play certainly hold their own as strong characters. Still, I can’t say the degree to which Shakespeare was a satirist versus an anti-Semite / racist / sexist, but it’s a testament to the richness of his stories and the depth of his characters that his works can be interpreted so diversely.
It’s a masterpiece. Read it.