Study Guide

The Merchant of Venice Wealth

By William Shakespeare


Act 1, Scene 1

In Belmont is a lady richly left,
And she is fair, and, fairer than that word,
Of wondrous virtues [...] (1.1.168-170)

Oh, of course. Bassanio's going to get himself out of debt by going after a rich heiress who lives in Belmont (that would be Portia). Keep reading... 

'Tis not unknown to you, Antonio,
How much I have disabled mine estate
By something showing a more swelling port
Than my faint means would grant continuance.
Nor do I now make moan to be abridged
From such a noble rate. But my chief care
Is to come fairly off from the great debts
Wherein my time something too prodigal,
Hath left me gaged. To you, Antonio,
I owe the most in money and in love,
And from your love I have a warranty
To unburden all my plots and purposes
How to get clear of all the debts I owe. (1.1.129-141)

Uh, oh—looks like somebody is really bad at managing his expenses. Bassanio reveals that he's not just broke but in serious debt—he's living way beyond his means. When Bassanio says he owes Antonio "the most, in money and in love," we also learn that Bassanio has been more than happy to sponge off his wealthy merchant friend. But Bassanio's got a plan for getting himself out of the financial mess he's created. Gee, we wonder what that could be...

Her name is Portia, nothing undervalued
To Cato's daughter, Brutus' Portia.
Nor is the wide world ignorant of her worth,
For the four winds blow in from every coast
Renownèd suitors, and her sunny locks
Hang on her temples like a golden fleece,
Which makes her seat of Belmont Colchos' strond,
And many Jasons come in quest of her. (1.1.172-179)

When we read this passage, we can't help but notice that when Bassanio talks about wooing Portia, he tends to speak about her "worth," as if her only "value" comes from her money. When Bassanio compares Portia to Jason's Golden Fleece, he reinforces this notion. He seems to see his quest for Portia as a quest for fortune rather than love. Portia is reduced to the status of a meal ticket for her potential husband. 


Thou know'st that all my fortunes are at sea;
Neither have I money nor commodity
To raise a present sum. Therefore go forth:
Try what my credit can in Venice do;
That shall be racked, even to the uttermost
To furnish thee to Belmont to fair Portia.
Go, presently inquire, and so will I,
Where money is, and I no question make
To have it of my trust, or for my sake. (1.1.184-192)

Wow, the wealthy Antonio sure does love his BFF. Here he says he'd loan Bassanio the money he needs to woo Portia in style, but he can't because all his dough is tied up "at sea." As an alternative, Antonio says Bassanio can use his (Antonio's) good credit in order to secure a loan. (Basically, Antonio's going to be a kind of co-signer.) This is a really generous and risky offer for Antonio to make because, as we know, Bassanio is terrible at managing his money, which is why he's always sponging off his friend. 

Act 1, Scene 2

O my Antonio, had I but the means
To hold a rival place with one of them (1.2.180-181)

Bassanio thinks Portia is the answer to his financial problems, but he's worried that he's too broke to court her. (Apparently, dating in the 16th century was pretty expensive, and Bassanio doesn't think ordering off the dollar menu is an option when you're trying to hook up with an heiress.) If only there were a solution to poor Bassanio's problem...

Act 1, Scene 3

I hate him for he is a Christian,
But more for that in low simplicity
He lends out money gratis, and brings down
The rate of usance here with us in Venice.
If I can catch him once upon the hip,
I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him.
He hates our sacred nation, and he rails,
Even there where merchants most do congregate,
On me, my bargains, and my well-won thrift,
Which he calls 'interest.' Cursèd be my tribe
If I forgive him! (1.3.42-52)

Here, Shylock says he hates Antonio because the guy is 1) a Christian and 2) lends out money free of interest, which has a negative impact on Shylock's money-lending biz. As we know, one of the biggest bones of contention between Christians and Jews in this play is the practice of usury (lending out money and charging interest). The Christian characters think it's wrong to charge interest and make money off of loans, which is a reflection of 16th-century English attitudes about usury.

The Church believed that interest should never be charged when one Christian loaned money to another Christian. This idea comes from Deuteronomy 23:19-23: "You shall not lend upon interest to your brother, interest on money, interest on victuals, interest on anything that is lent for interest. To a foreigner, you may lend upon interest, but to your brother, you shall not lend upon interest." Christians in England were allowed, however, to borrow money (with interest) from foreigners. Since Jews were classified as "foreigners" in England, they were encouraged to set up banks when they arrived in England.

Antonio is a good man.
Have you heard any imputation to the
Ho, no, no, no, no! My meaning in saying he
is a good man is to have you understand me that he
is sufficient. (1.3.12-17)

Shylock reveals his own prejudices about money here. When he talks about people's "goodness," he's not evaluating morality or character, just whether they're good for their borrowed money

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? (1.3.142-144)

Antonio is willing to borrow money from Shylock but insists that charging interest is wrong. (This is why he goes out of his way to put Shylock out of business by lending money "gratis.") What's interesting about this passage is the way Antonio talks about money as though it were capable of "breed[ing]"—as if it were a living being. What's up with that?

Act 2, Scene 8

"My daughter, O my ducats, O my daughter!
Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats!
Justice, the law, my ducats, and my daughter," (2.8.15-17)

Here Solanio says that Shylock flipped out when he learned that Jessica ran away with a Christian and helped herself to a bunch of his ducats. Solanio claims that Shylock is not sure which is more upsetting—the fact that his daughter is gone or that his money has been stolen. This makes Shylock out to be an insensitive, money-grubbing jerk, but later in the play, Shakespeare offers an alternative point of view (see 3.1.14).

P.S. Even if Shylock did confuse his daughter and his ducats, as Solanio suggests, is this really any different from the way Bassanio goes after Portia for her money? In both cases, human relationships are indistinguishable from monetary wealth.

Act 3, Scene 1

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)

In the previous passage Shylock was made out to be a jerk who cares more about money than his own family. Here, however, we see Shylock in a different light as he responds to the news that Jessica has traded a family heirloom for a pet monkey.  

The turquoise ring Jessica discarded is important to Shylock because it was a gift from his dead wife, not because it's worth a lot of money. So here we can see that Shylock isn't exactly the money-grubbing villain he's been made out to be. His pained response to Jessica's actions reveals that he is human and loved his wife very deeply.

Act 3, Scene 2

What, no more?
Pay him six thousand, and deface the bond.
Double six thousand, and then treble that,
Before a friend of this description
For never shall you lie by Portia's side
With an unquiet soul. You shall have gold
To pay the petty debt twenty times over: (3.2.311-314, 318-320)

When Portia hears that Shylock is trying to collect a pound of flesh from her new man's BFF, she offers to pay off "the petty debt twenty times over." We notice a couple of things here. First, Portia is very wealthy. Second, she's incredibly generous and values human relationships more than wealth (as opposed to, say, Shylock, who goes around complaining that his servant eats too much).  

Act 3, Scene 3

I'll have my bond. Speak not against my bond.
I have sworn an oath that I will have my bond. (3.3.5-6)

Shylock is often portrayed as a money-grubber, but here we can see that he's not at all interested in profiting off of Antonio and Bassanio. Shylock wants to collect his pound of flesh and even refuses to accept triple the amount of money he's owed, which suggests that money isn't everything to him.