Merchant of Venice Analysis Act 1

Act I In Merchant, Shakespeare wove together two ancient folk tales, one involving a vengeful, greedy creditor trying to exact a pound of flesh, the other involving a marriage suitor’s choice among three chests and thereby winning his (or her) mate. Shakespeare’s treatment of the first standard plot scheme centers around the villain of Merchant, the Jewish money-lender Shylock who seeks a literal pound of flesh from his Christian opposite, the generous, faithful Antonio. Shakespeare’s version of the chest-choosing device revolves around the play’s Christian heroine, Portia, who steers her lover Bassanio toward the correct humble casket and then successfully defends his bosom friend Antonio from Shylock’s horrid legal suit. In the modern, post-Holocaust, readings of Merchant, the problem of anti-Semitism in the play has loomed large. A close reading of the text must acknowledge that Shylock is a stereotypical caricature of a cruel, money-obsessed, medieval Jew, but it also suggests that Shakespeare’s intentions in Merchant were not primarily anti-Semitic. Indeed, the dominant thematic complex in The Merchant of Venice is much more universal than specific religious or racial hatred; it spins around the polarity between the surface attractiveness of gold and the Christian qualities of mercy and compassion that lie beneath the flesh. Scene i: As its title denotes, the play opens in a street of Venice, where we first encounter three young men engaged in that city’s lively mercantile scene, the major character Antonio and two of his friends, Salerio and Solano (who are used by Shakespeare in the benevolent secondary role(s) of siding against Shylock and reporting off-stage events. We soon learn that Antonio has invested his life’s fortune in four or five foreign trade ventures, as he confidently expresses the belief that even if one or two of these ships were to be lost, his remaining vessels would keep his finances afloat. Three of Ant…

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