Study Guide

The Merchant of Venice Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By William Shakespeare

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

The Pound of Flesh

As we know, Bassanio needs some cash so he can woo Portia in style. We're talking a team of servants, a new set of fancy threads, and plenty of bling to impress the rich heiress. The problem is, Bassanio's broke. His BFF Antonio would personally lend him the dough, but all of Antonio's money is tied up in some risky business ventures involving a bunch of merchant ships. So Antonio suggests that Bassanio borrow money from Shylock, using Antonio's good credit as collateral. Shylock agrees to the loan but asks for a pound of Antonio's flesh as a guarantee. Antonio agrees because he's completely devoted to his friend.

But why a pound of flesh? In case you're wondering how something like this even comes up in a conversation, here's a look at how it goes down:

Go with me to a notary, seal me there
Your single bond; and, in a merry sport,
If you repay me not on such a day,
In such a place, such sum or sums as are
Express'd in the condition, let the forfeit
Be nominated for an equal pound
Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken
In what part of your body pleaseth me.
(1.3.17)

OK, we've got some serious questions about Shylock's proposal. First, is he really just joking when he says the "forfeit" should be a pound of Antonio's flesh? Here Shylock acts like it's all in good fun ("merry sport"), but later he ends up demanding his bond in a big courtroom showdown (4.1), and nobody's laughing.

You noticed the way Shylock keeps saying "I'll have my bond" over and over again in Act 3, Scene 3, right? The guy would rather have a piece of Antonio (literally) than "thrice" the amount of money he's owed, which suggests that Shylock is a) bloodthirsty, b) vengeful, and c) inflexible.

Second, what the heck does Shylock mean when he says he gets to pick the body "part" for said pound of flesh removal? Literary critic James Shapiro wonders about this, too, and points out how, even though we later learn that Shylock plans to hack into Antonio's "breast" (read: heart), there's a suggestion that Shylock might just like to remove his enemy's private parts. (This interpretation depends on Shakespeare's habit of using "flesh" as a term for "penis," a move he borrowed from the Geneva Bible.)

Why would Shylock want to do this – aside from the fact that he wants to cause Antonio a whole lot of pain? In Blood Relations: Christian and Jew in The Merchant of Venice, Janet Adelman reminds us that "as the potential circumciser of Antonio, Shylock would be merely following in the footsteps of his allegedly bloody-minded ancestors, who were routinely accused of circumcising Christians."

Jews had been exiled from England way back in 1290, so much of how Elizabethans would have thought of Jews was influenced not by reality but by popular imagination. One particular myth that lived on into the 16th century was the supposed Jewish practice of ritual murder, where Jews would kidnap Christian children on Easter and use their blood in ceremonies around the Jewish holiday of Passover. When Elizabethan audiences watched the play, there's no doubt they would think of this legendary (and entirely fallacious) Jewish practice as a justification for why Shylock would want Antonio's flesh, and why he'd be unconcerned about whether Antonio bled to death. This interpretation is bolstered by the fact that Portia, in her defense of Antonio, states that Shylock cannot spill one drop of "Christian blood," which could be an allusion to the supposed rituals.

Another way to think about Shylock's desire for a pound of Antonio's flesh is to consider the circumstances under which Shylock demands his bond. When Shylock hears the news of Antonio's forfeiture, he also learns that his daughter Jessica has run off to marry a Christian. Shylock's response? He says, "I'll plague him [Antonio]; I'll torture him" (3.1.13). Hmm. Is Shylock looking to compensate for the loss of his own flesh and blood (Jessica) by demanding a little bit of Antonio's flesh and blood?

As for Antonio's willingness to part with his flesh, there are all kinds of possible explanations, but you'll have to read "Characters: Antonio" if you want to know what we think about it.

Rings

You probably noticed all the finger bling circulating around in this play. Rings don't just mean one thing in The Merchant of Venice – they're significant for all sorts of reasons. Let's break it down.

The Turquoise Ring

Apparently, when Jessica elopes with Lorenzo, she not only helps herself to a ton of Shylock's gold, but she also steals a turquoise ring, which turns out to be one of Shylock's most prized possessions.

When Solanio describes Shylock's reaction to Jessica's elopement and the theft of his gold, he mocks Shylock mercilessly by imitating his (supposed) response: "'My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter! / Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats!" (2.8.2). This frenzied outburst makes Shylock out to be an unstable guy and a lousy dad who values his money far more than his daughter.

Yet, a few scenes later, when Shylock speaks with his friend Tubal about Jessica's theft of the ring, Shakespeare shows us another side of Shylock:

Out upon her! Thou torturest me, Tubal: it was my
turquoise; I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor:
I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys.
(3.1.14)

Here we learn that the ring was given to Shylock by his dead wife, Leah (Jessica's mother). We also find out that it means a great deal to him not because of its monetary value but because of the sentimental value he attaches to it. Shylock's grief-stricken response to the news that Jessica traded the ring for a monkey is touching and quite human, don't you think?

Portia's Ring

When Bassanio chooses the correct casket and wins Portia as his wife, Portia slips a ring on his finger and makes a big speech about how she and everything she owns are now his property:

Myself and what is mine to you and yours
Is now converted: but now I was the lord
Of this fair mansion, master of my servants,
Queen o'er myself: and even now, but now,
This house, these servants and this same myself
Are yours, my lord: I give them with this ring;
Which when you part from, lose, or give away,
Let it presage the ruin of your love
And be my vantage to exclaim on you.
(3.2.7)

OK, fine. The ring is a symbol of Portia's love and commitment, and if Bassanio doesn't keep it on his finger, he's in big trouble. Bassanio says he's fine with this and promises that "when this ring / Parts from this finger, then parts life from hence" (3.2.7). No surprise here – couples have been exchanging rings for centuries.

Yet this ring also seems to symbolize much more. In "Portia's Ring," literary critic Karen Newman notes that, at first, the ring seems to represent Portia's submission to her soon-to-be husband and her willingness to become subservient when she marries (25). Note: Legally, in the 16th century, marriage made a man master over his wife and her property, which Portia acknowledges in her big speech.

Yet when Portia gives Bassanio the ring (and all of her worldly possessions and property), she also puts herself in a position of power, because she's giving her soon-to-be husband more than he can possibly give her in return (Newman, 26).

After all these dramatic declarations, we know what's bound to happen to that ring, right? Especially in light of Bassanio's questionable sincerity. (After all, his sole reason for traveling to Belmont is to snag a rich wife who will help him get out of debt. Portia is most definitely his meal ticket.)

Sure enough, Bassanio parts with the ring when Portia (disguised as a Balthazar) tricks him into giving it up as a token of appreciation after "Balthazar" saves Antonio's life (4.1). Hmm. What does all of this say about the couple's relationship and Antonio's commitment to it?

Portia also makes Bassanio beholden to her when she confronts him with the ring he willingly gave to "Balthazar." This isn't the only time Portia gets a leg up in the play. When, for example, she saves Antonio's life, she arranges it so that her husband and his best friend owe her more than they could ever repay.

The Lottery

Poor Portia. Even though her father is dead, the guy still manages to orchestrate her marriage from the grave. In his will, Portia's father stipulated that her husband would be determined according to a lottery (yeah, we know, it's more like a contest). Since Portia is rich, smart, and beautiful, men travel from all over the world for a chance to marry the heiress.

Here's how it works. A suitor is given the option of choosing one of three caskets (see below). If he guesses correctly, he gets Portia and all her money. If he chooses incorrectly, he has to leave Belmont immediately and can never, ever marry. Apparently, Portia's dad reasoned that the man who chooses the correct casket (which holds a picture of Portia inside) will be the right man for our girl.

Who Gets to Choose

What does Portia think about all of this? Well, she's not happy:

[...] O me, the word 'choose!' I may
neither choose whom I would nor refuse whom I
dislike; so is the will of a living daughter curbed
by the will of a dead father. Is it not hard,
Nerissa, that I cannot choose one nor refuse none?
(1.2.3)

For Portia, the lottery is a symbol of a dead father's control over his daughter's right to choose her own husband. Notice Portia's repetition of the word "choose" three times in this passage? Over the course of the entire scene, the word shows up no fewer than ten times, which emphasizes the point that Portia has no choice (read: power) here.

It turns out that parents (especially fathers) often got to decide who their daughters would marry in the 16th century, and we see a lot of this in Shakespeare. (In The Taming of the Shrew, for example, Baptista Minola arranges Kate's marriage to Petruchio without ever consulting his daughter.)

Risky Business

We also notice how the lottery turns marriage into a competitive game or business venture that entails a lot of risk. (Remember, if a suitor chooses the incorrect casket, he can never marry another woman. But if he chooses correctly, he gets Portia and all of her wealth.) Hmm. It's kind of like all the risky business ventures carried out by the merchants in the play, don't you think?

Does this have something to do with the way Bassanio sees his courtship of Portia as a kind of business transaction that will solve all of his financial problems? Seems like it. The lottery not only allows Portia's father to choose her husband; it also allows him to transmit all of his wealth, via her, to a man of his choosing. Check out "Quotes: Marriage" for more on this.

P.S. This gimmick of a suitor's choosing a casket can be found in old folktales, and Shakespeare likely took it from the medieval Gesta Romanorum, which had been translated into English in 1577.

Gold, Silver, and Lead Caskets

Psst. If you haven't already read about the symbolism of the lottery, do that before your read this.

The three caskets (gold, silver, and lead) are major symbols in the play. The big tipoff is the fact that each of them is inscribed with a message on the outside and also contains a note on the inside.

The outside of the blinged-out gold chest promises, "Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire." Sounds nice, but it's a trick, because the inside contains a skull with a smug message: "All that glisters [glitters] is not gold [...]" (2.7.3). In other words, appearances are often deceiving, and human desire (for wealth, sex, what have you) can be dangerous.

The inscription on the outside of the silver chest reads, "Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves." The inside contains a picture of an "idiot," with a nasty little note: "So be gone: you are sped. / Still more fool I shall appear / By the time I linger here / With one fool's head I came to woo, / But I go away with two" (2.9.3). In other words, whoever chooses the silver casket is a fool who'll get what he deserves (a picture of another fool).

Finally, the lead chest, which is made of a very humble metal, seems to symbolize inner beauty and modesty (the exact opposite of the shiny gold casket) and contains a picture of Portia. The inscription is also significant: "Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath" (2.7.5). Gee, this sounds like a pretty good description of marriage: a big risk that requires a lot of sacrifice. The inscription also reminds us of the fact that Bassanio's courtship of Portia literally involves a man who must "hazard all he hath." (That would be Antonio, who risks his life to loan his best pal the money to woo the rich heiress.)

The Story of Jacob and Laban

There are plenty of biblical allusions in the play, but one story in particular seems to stand out. That's the story of Jacob and Laban (from Genesis 25-35), part of which Shylock tells as a kind of family story. This passage is long but important:

SHYLOCK
When Jacob grazed his uncle Laban's sheep –
This Jacob from our holy Abram was,
As his wise mother wrought in his behalf,
The third possessor; ay, he was the third –
ANTONIO
And what of him? did he take interest?
SHYLOCK
No, not take interest, not, as you would say,
Directly interest: mark what Jacob did.
When Laban and himself were compromised
That all the eanlings which were streak'd and pied
Should fall as Jacob's hire, the ewes, being rank,
In the end of autumn turned to the rams,
And, when the work of generation was
Between these woolly breeders in the act,
The skilful shepherd peel'd me certain wands,
And, in the doing of the deed of kind,
He stuck them up before the fulsome ewes,
Who then conceiving did in eaning time
Fall parti-colour'd lambs, and those were Jacob's.
This was a way to thrive, and he was blest:
And thrift is blessing, if men steal it not.
ANTONIO
This was a venture, sir, that Jacob served for;
A thing not in his power to bring to pass,
But sway'd and fashion'd by the hand of heaven.
Was this inserted to make interest good?
Or is your gold and silver ewes and rams?
SHYLOCK
I cannot tell; I make it breed as fast:
But note me, signior.
ANTONIO
Mark you this, Bassanio,
The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
An evil soul producing holy witness
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart:
O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!
(1.3.13)

In Genesis, Jacob and his uncle Laban make a deal that Jacob (who takes care of his uncle's sheep so he can marry Laban's daughter Rachel) gets to keep all the striped and spotted animals. In this passage, Shylock relates the story of how, when Jacob placed striped branches in front of the sheep when they mated, the sheep gave birth to striped lambs. Jacob was pretty crafty and got super rich by doing this.

In this passage from the play, we can see two completely different interpretations of the same sacred text. Shylock sees Jacob's story as an example of human ingenuity. Antonio, on the other hand, sees Jacob's success as an example of God's providence. Antonio also accuses Shylock of using a biblical story to justify the practice of usury (lending money and charging interest) and refers to Shylock as a devil. Antonio is trying to undermine the fact that Jacob's story is just as important to Jews, like Shylock, as it is to Christians. So here we have a Christian and a Jew at odds over how a story from the Bible should be interpreted, which pretty much sums up how Christians and Jews are pitted against one another throughout the play.

Music

Music is a very big deal for the Christians in the play.

The Transforming Power of Music

In Belmont, when Jessica and Lorenzo are hanging out at Portia's house, musicians play and Jessica says that "sweet music" always makes her sad.

Lorenzo then makes a big speech about how music isn't what's causing her to be so bummed out. In fact, music has the power to make even wild animals calm and "less savage." (Comparing her to a wild animal? Gee, could Lorenzo be more condescending?)

The reason is, your spirits are attentive:
For do but note a wild and wanton herd,
Or race of youthful and unhandled colts,
Fetching mad bounds, bellowing and neighing loud,
Which is the hot condition of their blood;
If they but hear perchance a trumpet sound,
Or any air of music touch their ears,
You shall perceive them make a mutual stand,
Their savage eyes turn'd to a modest gaze
By the sweet power of music:
(5.1.13)

What's interesting to note here is the way Lorenzo emphasizes the concept of change or transformation. Why would Lorenzo associate Jessica with savage animals that become calm after hearing music? Well, this seems like an allusion to the fact that Jessica has recently converted from Judaism (often associated with savageness in the play) to Christianity.

Jessica grew up in a house where there was no music. Remember that, earlier in the play, Shylock ordered Jessica to shut up all the windows and doors so the music from the street wouldn't make its way in: "Hear you me, Jessica, / Lock up my doors; and when you hear the drum [...] stop my house's ears" (2.4.5).

So when Lorenzo declares that "The man that hath no music in himself, / Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds, / Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils" (5.1.13), it seems like an obvious reference to Shylock, who hates music and is often characterized as a "savage" Jew.

Music during the Lottery

During the lottery, Portia orders her band to play music while Bassanio determines which casket he's going to choose. The song that's performed offers a subtle hint about which casket is the right choice:

Tell me where is fancy bred,
Or in the heart, or in the head?
How begot, how nourished?
Reply, reply.
It is engender'd in the eyes,
With gazing fed; and fancy dies
In the cradle where it lies.
(3.2.1)

These lyrics warns that "fancy" (love) can't grow if it's "engender'd in the eyes" (based on mere physical attraction) instead of the heart. So we're not surprised when, after listening to this tune, Bassanio declares that "outward shows" least express the truth. This is just before he chooses the leaden casket, which, as we discuss under "Gold, Silver, and Lead Caskets," is a symbol of inner beauty and modesty.