The Merchant of Venice by Shakespeare Notes for BA English Honours BBMKU

The Merchant of Venice is a play written by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written between 1596 and 1599. It is classified as one of Shakespeare’s comedies, although it contains elements of both comedy and tragedy.


Antonio: He is the titular merchant of Venice and the play’s central character. Antonio is a wealthy Christian merchant, well-respected in Venice. He borrows money from Shylock to help his friend Bassanio court Portia but faces severe consequences when he fails to repay the loan.

Shylock: Shylock is a Jewish moneylender in Venice. He lends money to Antonio and, due to a past grudge against him, demands a pound of Antonio’s flesh as collateral for the loan. Shylock is often seen as a complex character, embodying both the victim and the villain in the play.

Bassanio: He is a Venetian gentleman and a close friend of Antonio. Bassanio is the one who seeks a loan from Shylock to finance his courtship of Portia, a wealthy heiress.

Portia: Portia is a wealthy heiress from Belmont and one of the heroines of the play. She is intelligent, witty, and resourceful. Portia is also known for her disguise as a legal expert in the latter part of the play.

Jessica: Jessica is Shylock’s daughter, who elopes with Lorenzo, a Christian man, taking her father’s wealth and converting to Christianity. Her relationship with her father is strained due to religious and cultural differences.

Lorenzo: Lorenzo is a Christian and Bassanio’s friend. He elopes with Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, and later marries her. He is loyal to Bassanio and plays a significant role in the subplot involving Jessica and Shylock.

Nerissa: Nerissa is Portia’s witty and loyal maid. She accompanies Portia and takes on a disguise during the trial scene in the play.

Gratiano: Gratiano is a friend of Antonio and Bassanio. He is known for his lively and impulsive nature. Gratiano eventually marries Nerissa.

Launcelot Gobbo: Launcelot is Shylock’s servant who later becomes Bassanio’s servant. He is a comical character and provides comic relief in the play.


“The Merchant of Venice” is a play by William Shakespeare that explores themes of love, justice, and prejudice. The story is set in Venice and follows the plight of a merchant named Antonio who borrows money from a Jewish moneylender named Shylock to help his friend Bassanio court a wealthy heiress named Portia.

Shylock, seeking revenge against Antonio and the mistreatment he has faced as a Jew, lends the money under the condition that if the loan is not repaid, he is entitled to a pound of Antonio’s flesh. When Antonio’s ships, the source of his wealth, encounter misfortune, he is unable to repay the loan, leading to a dramatic courtroom trial.

Portia, disguised as a male lawyer, cleverly intervenes in the trial and saves Antonio by pointing out the legal loophole that prevents Shylock from taking a pound of flesh without spilling blood. Shylock is forced to forfeit his wealth and convert to Christianity.

In the subplot, Portia’s maid, Nerissa, and Bassanio’s friend, Gratiano, also find love, while Shylock’s daughter Jessica elopes with a Christian man, Lorenzo.

The play’s conclusion sees the characters returning to Belmont, where Portia and Nerissa reveal their disguises to their husbands, Bassanio and Gratiano. Initially, there is tension between the couples due to the rings given to Portia and Nerissa. However, after some playful banter and reconciliation, they all joyfully reunite.

At the same time, news arrives that Antonio’s ships, previously thought to be lost, have safely returned, restoring his wealth. The play ends on a somewhat lighthearted note with the characters celebrating their newfound happiness and the resolution of their troubles.

Critical Appriciation

A critical appreciation of “The Merchant of Venice” involves recognizing and evaluating the play’s strengths, themes, and artistic achievements:

1. Complex Characters:

Shakespeare’s characterization in the play is remarkable. Characters like Shylock are multi-dimensional, challenging traditional stereotypes. Shylock’s humanity, driven by his desire for revenge, evokes empathy, even as he seeks Antonio’s flesh.

2. Exploration of Prejudice:

“The Merchant of Venice” provides a lens through which to examine prejudice and discrimination. It invites readers and viewers to reflect on societal biases, both historical and contemporary.

3. Nuanced Themes:

The play explores themes of justice, mercy, friendship, and love in a nuanced manner. It encourages the audience to question the balance between justice and compassion, and the limits of revenge.

4. Portia’s Wit and Agency:

Portia’s character stands out as a strong, intelligent, and resourceful woman, especially in a society where women often had limited agency. Her clever disguise and eloquent speeches underscore her importance in the play.

5. Memorable Lines and Speeches:

“The quality of mercy is not strained” speech, delivered by Portia, is one of Shakespeare’s most famous passages. The play is replete with memorable lines that continue to resonate with audiences.

6. Engaging Plot Structure:

The play’s structure, with its courtroom drama, romantic subplots, and comic elements, keeps the audience engaged. The blend of humor and drama showcases Shakespeare’s storytelling prowess.

7. Social Commentary:

Shakespeare uses the play to comment on societal norms and expectations, offering a critical perspective on issues like religious intolerance and gender roles.

8. Enduring Relevance:

“The Merchant of Venice” remains relevant due to its exploration of universal themes and human nature. It prompts discussions about ethics, morality, and the consequences of one’s actions.

9. Interpretive Flexibility:

The play’s ambiguity and open-endedness allow for a range of interpretations. It can be approached from different angles, making it a versatile work for adaptations and productions.


1. What is the main theme of “The Merchant of Venice”?

Answer: The main themes of “The Merchant of Venice” include prejudice, justice, mercy, friendship, and love. The play explores the consequences of discrimination and the complexities of human relationships.

2. Who is the antagonist in “The Merchant of Venice”?

Answer: The character often considered the antagonist is Shylock, the Jewish moneylender. However, the play’s portrayal of Shylock is nuanced, challenging the traditional hero-villain dichotomy.

3. What is the significance of Portia’s character in the play?

Answer: Portia is a central character known for her intelligence and resourcefulness. She plays a key role in the courtroom scene, where her wit and wisdom help resolve the conflict. Portia’s character challenges traditional gender roles of the time.

4. Why is “The Merchant of Venice” considered controversial?

Answer: The play is controversial due to its portrayal of Shylock, which has been criticized for anti-Semitism. Additionally, the complex themes of justice and revenge, as well as the treatment of women, add to its controversial nature.

5. What is the significance of the pound of flesh in the play?

Answer: The pound of flesh represents the harshness of the contract between Shylock and Antonio. It symbolizes the extreme consequences of revenge and the legalistic nature of justice in the play.

6. How does the play address the theme of mercy?

Answer: The theme of mercy is central, highlighted by Portia’s speech in the courtroom. The play explores the power of mercy to override strict justice, emphasizing compassion and forgiveness over revenge.

7. Is “The Merchant of Venice” a comedy or a tragedy?

Answer: “The Merchant of Venice” is classified as one of Shakespeare’s comedies, but it contains elements of both comedy and tragedy. While it ends on a happy note with marriages and reunions, it also deals with serious and dark themes.

8. What is the role of Jessica in the play?

Answer: Jessica is Shylock’s daughter who elopes with Lorenzo, a Christian. Her actions lead to a further rift between Shylock and the Christian characters, highlighting the theme of interfaith relationships and familial loyalty.

9. Why is Shylock’s famous speech ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’ significant?

Answer: In this speech, Shylock humanizes himself, emphasizing the shared humanity between Jews and Christians. It challenges the prejudices of the time and evokes empathy for his character.

10. Is there a film adaptation of “The Merchant of Venice”?

Answer: Yes, there are several film adaptations of “The Merchant of Venice,” featuring different interpretations of the characters and themes. Notable versions include films released in 1914, 2004 (starring Al Pacino as Shylock), and other made-for-television adaptations.