English homework help. Lecture on Act Three of The Merchant of Venice
In this lecture we will examine the following topics:
1). Shylock, the Stage Jew and Interiority
2). Portia and Agency
As we’ve discussed, Shylock sometimes falls into the category of the “Stage Jew”, a one- dimension villain bent on the destruction of the Christian Antonio. Most often, it is the other characters of the play that cast Shylock in this role. Think, for instance, of Solanio’s depiction of Shylock railing in the streets. Shylock himself sometimes resembles the “Stage Jew” in his cruel demand for Antonio’s flesh, for example. Just when we are ready to permanently place him in the category of vicious caricature, Shakespeare imbues his Jewish money-lender with interiority, thereby complicating our reading of Shylock’s character.
Portia is a character seemingly lacking agency. Agency can be defined as “the ability or capacity to act or exert power”. Portia is denied the agency to choose a husband by her father’s will. Her marriage is determined by a game of chance and by no will of her own. However, Portia finds means to achieve her desires and to circumvent her father’s—and Venetian—authority.
Part One: Shylock, the Stage Jew and Interiority
Shakespeare’s Shylock cannot be easily fitted into the role of “Stage Jew” because Shakespeare gives Shylock an inward self. Shylock’s interiority is most apparent during his “Hath a Jew not eyes?” monologue. Of Antonio, Shylock exclaims,
…He hath disgraced me and And hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses,
mocked my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted
my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine ene- mies—and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not
a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimen- sions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the
same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and sum-
mer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong
a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian
example? Why, revenge! The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.
A careful analysis of Shylock’s monologue reveals a psychological depth that runs counter to the concept of the “Stage Jew”. Note, for instance, Shylock’s appeal to a common humanity shared between the Jew and the Christian. At the same time, Shylock points very bluntly to the Jew and the Christian’s shared desire for revenge. Shylock is not railing in the streets. He is rationally articulating a sound argument that lays bare the Christians’ hypocrisy. Finally, imbuing Shylock with interiority forces us to sympathize with this psychologically complex character.
It is worth noting that only moments later, Shylock delivers the following lines in reference to Jessica: “I would my daughter were dead at my foot and the jewels in her / ear; would she were hearsed at my foot and the / ducats in her coffin” (III.i.87-90). This is the paradox of Shakespeare’s representation of the Jewish money-lender: he gives Shylock interiority only to pull it away moments later by portraying him as barbaric.
Part Two: Portia and Agency
When Bassanio plays The Casket Game, he has one important advantage, Portia’s coaching. In the song she sings to Bassanio as he chooses the casket, Portia embeds clues as to the casket that contains her image.
Tell me where is fancy bred, Or in the heart, or in the head? How begot, how nourishèd?
Reply, reply.
It is engendered in the eye, With gazing fed, and fancy dies In the cradle where it lies.
Let us all ring fancy’s knell.
I’ll begin it.—Ding, dong, bell. Ding, dong, bell.
Portia’s poem warns against judging by appearances. “Fancy” or affection “is engendered in the eye”, meaning it springs from physical attraction. Fancy outgrows itself by “gazing” upon the object of his desire. Over-“fed”, Fancy dies before it can turn to meaningful love. Portia’s song ends with a funeral chant for Fancy, who chose outward appearances over substance.
That Bassanio interpreted her meaning correctly is made apparent in the lines following the song: “So may the outward shows be least themselves; / The world is still deceived by ornament”, he
reasons and consequently chooses the least attractive of the caskets. With Portia’s subtle direction, Bassanio “discovers” her portrait.
As it turns out, Portia is not without agency after all. By all appearances, Portia’s agency is curbed by her father’s will. However, as we see when Portia’s interferes in The Casket Game, the heiress is capable of sidestepping restrictions upon her desires. This will become especially significant in Act Four.
Online Assignment Questions on Act Three of The Merchant of Venice
1. Close read Shylock’s monologue at the beginning of Act Three (III.i.52-72). What is Shylock’s
argument in these lines? How does this monologue give Shylock’s character interiority? 2. What has happened to Antonio’s ships?

  1. Consider Portia’s vow to Bassanio in Act Three Scene Two (III.ii.153-78). What does this vow reveal about Portia’s character? In what ways is this representation of herself at odds with her behavior elsewhere in the play?
  2. What casket does Bassanio choose?


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