The Merchant of Venice Act 1

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In Act I of The Merchant of Venice I find that the strangest and most unexplainable element that exists is not necessarily the hatred for Shylock, but that with that hatred being present Antonio and Bassanio go to him for money. I wouldn’t think that the first person to go to for money is someone you not only dislike, but also have insulted and spit on. Especially because the hatred Antonio feels for Shylock is based purely on the fact that he is Jewish—wouldn’t that anti-Semitism steer Antonio away from Shylock? Conversely it doesn’t seem logical that Shylock would lend the money to Antonio—though he does seem to have an evil reason as to why he does, which may explain it.

One quote that may explain this strange transaction is from Antonio he says:

If thou wilt lend this money, lend it not

As to thy friends; for when did friendship take

A breed for barren metal of his friend?

But lend it rather to thine enemy,

Who if he break, though mayst with better face

Exact the penalty.

1.3.127-133

This quote seems to clear up the confusion by Antonio properly pointing out that it is harder to regain lent money from a friend than from an enemy, because a person would feel guilty for exacting penalty on a friend. However, Shylock seems to be plotting something with his next lines. He says they should be friends, and that he would forgive Antonio and would give him the loan interest free. Then he says that part of the deal will be that if Antonio is late in repaying the loan that he wants a pound of flesh cut from Antonio’s body from the area of his choosing. This part seemed very odd to me, perhaps this was common in Shakespeare’s times, however I found it to be extremely strange. What would Shylock gain from a pound of Antonio’s flesh? Would it simply be a trophy of Shylock’s victory over Antonio? Or is there some other significance/relevance to this? My best guess would be that it simply signifies Shylock, the Jew, defeating Antonio, the Christian. A victory that Shylock would be very happy with considering the hatred he displays for Antonio earlier in the scene in the lines “How like a fawning publican he looks. / I hate him for he is a Christian” (1.3.36-37). Although the play seems to illuminate the mistreatment of Jews, even at this time in history, it also seems to be pointing out a hatred of Christians by the Jews—which would make sense if they were truly treated the way Shakespeare has written. Ultimately the part that has come to the forefront in my reading has been the religious issues that have arisen. They seem as though they will be a large part of this play, and also a major moral issue of the play.

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3 thoughts on “The Merchant of Venice Act 1

  1. Tony Mancini

    You point out some of the major unanswered questions in the play so far. It is odd that Antonio goes to Shylock for money. Perhaps Antonio is so inconsiderate of the way he treated Shylock in the past that asking for a loan from him doesn't seem that weird. The payment in flesh consequence adds an interesting spin on the deal. It seems that Antonio doesn't take Shylock seriously at all when accepting in, just adding to the lack of respect he has for the Jew.

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  2. AlissaKraft

    I agree with you. I find it very odd that Antonio And Bassanio would ask Shylock for money after Antonio has not only insulted him and public but also spit on him. Even stranger though is the fact that Shylock would lend them the money. It's understandable that if the two men needed money they would go to a person whom they know would have enough money to lend them. It is unclear however, as to why Shylock would lend his enemies money. It's begs the questions of what his ulterior motives are? I'm interested in find out if he has a secret reason to lending them the money.

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  3. Shane

    I think one of the theme's that Shakespeare has been attempting to set up thus far is that social relationships and financial relationships are entirely different spheres of discourse, so any personal strife between Antonio and Shylock is rendered irrelevant once a business transaction becomes involved.However, it's also important to note that despite this fact, the two spheres of discourse can not be entirely separated as evidenced by the strong tension between the two faiths presented in this act. Although the characters seem to make a conscious effort to remain professional, anti-semitic and anti-catholic comments seep through the discourse of the act.

    Reply

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