Though the play doesn't name him in the title, Shylock is undoubtedly the main character of Merchant. He is, at least in the views of the other characters, a villain. He begins the play as a wealthy Jewish money-lender, scorned by Venetians for making money off charging interest and, even more so, for his religion: the other characters usually refer to Shylock simply as "the Jew." He is subjected in the play to a string of indignities: he is endlessly mocked and taunted by his fellow citizens; his servant leaves him for a poor but Christian nobleman; his daughter steals his money and runs away with her Christian lover; and, finally, he is forced to convert to Christianity. But the play focuses not on the cruelties Shylock suffers but on the one he commits: insisting on the pound of flesh that Antonio has promised him as collateral for a loan. While villains normally transgress the bounds of the law, Shylock's "crime" is adhering to it too strictly - he is condemned for his lack of mercy, and finally, at the play's climax, outwitted in the courtroom by Portia.
But it is difficult for many modern readers to think of Shylock as a "villain" at all, no matter how much the other characters insist on it, for he often seems the victim of a pervasive and inhuman anti-Semitism. But neither is Shylock an endearing character: more often than not, he seems petty and cruel. But he is undoubtedly the enigmatic center of this play: as with Hamlet, one's understanding of Shylock dictates one's understanding of a play that orbits around him.
The play's only match for Shylock, in intellect and will, is not one of the Venetian men against whom he struggles, but Portia, a woman from Belmont. Portia begins the play as a young woman still under the command of her dead father. She is required, by his commandment, to marry whichever one of her many suitors succeeds in the lottery her father has set up. But Portia shows, from the beginning of the play, brilliance, cunning, and a scathing wit. The events of the play bear out her status as clever heroine: she rigs the lottery so that her favorite suitor, Bassanio, will win; she makes Bassanio promise to keep a ring and then outwits him into breaking his promise; and, most famously, she dresses as a man to argue a courtroom case against Shylock, thereby saving the life of her husband's closest friend, Antonio.
There is no doubt that, despite her occasional nods to being a loyal daughter or wife, Portia is the center of gravity in Belmont. The personalities and intentions of the other characters (except, perhaps, Shylock's) are always overshadowed by hers.
The "merchant" of the title, Antonio accepts a contract with Shylock that is the center of the play's action: if he cannot pay back the money which he has borrowed for his friend Bassanio's pursuit of Portia, Shylock will be allowed to cut off a pound of Antonio's flesh. When his merchant ships are lost at sea, Antonio has to forfeit on the loan, and is nearly murdered by Shylock's knife before Portia saves him by a legal technicality. In the play's final scene, a letter arrives announcing that Antonio's ships have finally arrived, and he has his fortune back.
But the unresolved question of Antonio's personality is the one that he cannot resolve at the beginning of the play: his sadness. If we accept Antonio's claim that it has nothing to do with his money - a plausible one insofar as Antonio is a generous man who accepts the loss of his fortune stoically - then the cause, many readers conjecture, is Bassanio. Antonio devotes all he has to the younger man's happiness, which suggests, for many, a certain romantic attachment; suffice to say that it is Bassanio, not money, that is the central concern of our "merchant."
Bassanio should be, in theory, the romantic hero of Merchant. The play concerns his successful pursuit of Portia, and the dangers of the bargain his friend Antonio has to make to finance that pursuit. But Bassanio gets by, almost entirely, with the help of his friends: he is able to pursue Portia only because of Antonio's tremendous sacrifices, he wins the lottery only by following Portia's hints, and it is not he but his wife who saves Antonio, who is in danger only because of his willingness to do anything for Bassanio. In Merchant, Bassanio is more than anything the object of Portia and Antonio's tremendous love, and the beneficiary of their intelligence and kindness.
Bassanio has a number of undifferentiated friends, but Graziano stands out among them. He is witty, willful, and a little wild. In the opening scene, he is bold enough to scold Antonio for his sadness; he connives to come along with Bassanio to Belmont and manages to woo and win Portia's servant, Nerissa. And it is Graziano's clever and playful lines that conclude the play.
Jessica and Lorenzo
Nothing can go wrong for this couple, Shylock's daughter and one of Bassanio's friends: they successfully elope with Shylock's riches; they stay in Belmont, bantering lovingly, while the other characters must return to save Antonio in Venice; and, finally, Shylock is forced to promise all his wealth to them when he dies. Jessica and Lorenzo are almost a model of happiness, the foil against which the other characters' troubles are played out.
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Points to Ponder
Did You Know
Scenes 1.2 and 1.3
Scenes 2.1, 2.2, and 2.3
Scenes 2.4, 2.5, and 2.6
Scenes 2.7, 2.8, and 2.9
Scenes 3.1 and 3.2
Scenes 3.3, 3.4, and 3.5
Scenes 4.1 and 4.2