How much for your foot? Merchant of Venice Act I

In the first act of The Merchant of Venice the characters seem to attach monetary value to certain emotions or human traits that cannot be measured. The characters in the story seem to conjure up specific sums for certain feelings that they have. This unparallel and unmatched comparison leaves the story pushing and pulling with itself. This theme creates a dramatic effect that carries through the entire first act (and I bet the second…) leaving the reader feeling like they should also know how much their love or flesh is worth.
Love is something that cannot be measured, however Bassanio swears that just 3000 ducats will help him get Portia. Antonio loves Bassiano and agrees to help him get the money. Antonio says, “My purse, my person, my extremist means lie all unlocked to your occasions (1.1.138)”. In that sentence Antonio mentions his money (purse), his person, and extremist (means which I think everything else falls into). This single sentence holds so much value for Antonio. There is nothing about him that he does not include in that statement. He is 100% rooting for Bassanio. Antonio is measuring his whole self and putting it on the table for Bassanio to see and inspect. Antonio wants Bassanio to know how invested he is. He wants to show Bassanio how valuable he is in every way.
Shylock decides that if Antonio does not follow the terms of the loan he is entitled to a pound of flesh. He says, “Of your fair flesh to be cut off and taken in what part of your body pleaseth me (1.3.146)”. Shylock wants whatever piece of ANTONIO’S body HIM. As is he knows what that pound is worth to Antonio. A pound of flesh is something very dear to Antonio, yet Shylock writes it into a legal agreement with no qualms. Shylock is assuming he knows how much a pound of flesh means to Antonio, but only Antonio can know that answer. The terms of the loan should have been in the same currency as the actual loan, not skin and muscle.
Portia’s father left her with three chests. When we first meet Portia she says to Nerissa, “By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is aweary of this great world (1.2.1)”. Portia is comparing her “little body” to the “great world”. Portia is comparing the things that are not comparable. If Portia looks at her body, which is in proportion to everyone else’s body, and then looks at the world as a whole she has to feel tiny and exhausted. This comparison demonstrates just how tired Portia is. She lost her father and all that she has are the three chests he left her. Each chest is made of a metal of varying value. By Portia’s father leaving behind these chests he is assuring her that the right suitor will find her. Portia’s father is also implying that his daughters fate in love depends on the casket potential suitors choose. While this is a very romantic thread in the story, it is another place where Shakespeare compares two incomparable things.

One thought on “How much for your foot? Merchant of Venice Act I

  1. Cyrus Mulready

    I wonder, too, if there is a glancing reference to the global trade of merchants like Antonio in the "great world" comment? Portia's money comes from inheritance, and not from trade (capitalism), an important distinction in the play that might be played up in this comment on her "little body."


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