The Merchant of Venice – William Shakespeare


The Merchant of Venice

I studied “The Merchant of Venice” from Mr. Mahendra Illangasinghe of Mihintale early this year. This is a tragic comedy by William Shakespeare. The play is believed to have been written between 1596 and 1598. The play is remembered for Shylock’s famous speech, “Hath not Jew eyes” and Portia’s speech on “quality of mercy” at the courts. The play is so dramatic that almost every act is equally interesting.

Antonio and Bassanio are very intimate friends. (With today’s standards, some have gone to the extent of speculating that the duo was homosexually attracted to each other but the play says that Bassanio is madly in love with a girl and marries her too. So we can ignore such speculations.)

Bassanio tries his best to win the heart of young Portia who inherits a large wealth from his dead father. Her father had set up a peculiar test for her suitors to select a picture of her from three chests of gold, silver and lead. Many fail but Bassanio finds the correct chest and wins Portia.

The problem is that Bassanio happens to seek Antonio’s help to get three thousand ducats to go to see Portia. Since Antonio’s ships are still in the sea, he has no money but gets it for Bassanio by entering in to a dangerous bond with a miserly Jewish moneylender. According to the bond, if Antonio fails to return the money on time, the Jew, Shylock will cut a pound of flesh from Antonio’s body.

There are sound reasons for Shylock to ask for such a cruel guarantee from Antonio. Antonio’s Anti-Semitism against Shylock for the latter’s cruel interest taking from the debtors and miserly nature leads Antonio to reproach Shylock very badly in public.

However, Bassanio marries beautiful Portia and at the same time he gets the news that Antonio’s ships don’t return and believed to be lost in the sea and the Jew asks for the pound of flesh from Antonio. Bassanio returns to Venice without consummating the marriage to help his dear friend.

Bassanio offers money to Shylock but he refuses it since the due date has passed and insists that he needs the pound of flesh from Antonio showing how cruel he is. However, the case is referred to the court and Portia and her handmaid, Nerissa arrive in the courts disguised as lawyers. At the court, Portia makes a speech that goes down as one of the finest speeches a lawyer makes and wins the case for Antonio.

Court confiscates Shylocks property and he is made a pauper within minutes due to Portia’s arguments in the courts.

I personally don’t understand the importance of the adding the subsequent scene of Portia and Nerissa asking the rings from Bassanio and Lorenzo and asking them back once they change from disguises to their real selves. For, me the play ends with the courtroom scene.

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