The Merchant of Venice – Characters

The Merchant of Venice

William Shakespeare

Main Characters


Shylock, no doubt, is one of the pivotal characters of The Merchant of Venice’. He was a stone-hearted greedy Jew. Towards the other Christian Roman characters of the novel, his mind overflew with vitriol and revenge. He was a money-lender, so his stern attitude towards defaulters is understandable, but his cunning nature to trap his victim through usurious lending and draconian penalties for default made him appear a very hideous human being, with not even an iota of mercy in his heart.

However, it would be unfair to judge Shylock without seeing the injustice and discrimination he had to endure in the hands of fellow Romans. The government was made up Romans who were in majority. The Jews didn’t have the rights and privileges availed by the Romans. In fact, the majority Romans relentlessly hounded the handful of Jews living among them. Shylock, thus, suffered great indignity that left him an embittered man.

Some critics point out to the way Shylock suffered and say that his hideous nature became worse because of the abuse and slurs he endured from his Roman neighbours. Out of revenge, Shylock derived sadistic satisfaction in inflicting humiliation on Christian businessmen of his city. He didn’t take kindly to his only daughter falling in love with a local Christian boy. Later, she eloped with him, rubbing salt to Shylock’s injury. Shylock was a bigot, and a dour person to deny his daughter to marry a young man of her choice.

His meanness comes to sharp focus when he invokes the clause in the loan document signed by Antonio, and demands his pound of flesh from the heart of his beleaguered borrower. The scene in the court is as riveting as it is sad. Shylock flaunts his sharp knife ready to scoop out his pound of flesh from Antanio’s heart. This single barbaric act paints Shylock as a ruthless monster ready to cut open a living man’s heart in full view of the courtroom.

Countless readers already have and will continue to read this epic creation of Shakespeare, but for every one, Shylock will remain a symbol of evil of the worst kind. Cynically speaking, Shylock also adds the suspense and drama to this timeless novel. We should not hesitate to give this credit to him!


As one of the main protagonists of the novel, ‘The Merchant of Venice’, Antonio contributes to the mix of emotion, suspense, and unpredictability of the gripping flow of events in the story. Juxtaposed against the greedy, cruel, and vindictive Shylock, Antonio emerges as a true gentleman, a genial middle-aged person with a heart overflowing with empathy for his friend Bassanio. Antonio was a merchant who made his money from risky overseas trade. It was the period when marine navigation was primitive that resulted in high vulnerability of vessels to the vagaries of the sea’s weather. Why he had staked his entire fleet of ships to go on voyages simultaneously is difficult to understand.

Bassanio wanted to marry Portia and wanted money to buy his way to her heart. He was a reckless un-principled lover. But, Antonio was kind, generous, and a soft heart. He was a bit naïve to entertain his friend Bassanio’s plea for money. Despite being in dire distress due to the delay in return of his ships, Antanio agreed to mobilize money for his besotted friend pining for Portia. It was not a sensible decision, but Antonio was too large-heated to refuse Bassanio’s request for a loan.

For Antonio, approaching Shylock, his long-time enemy, for a loan was a very unwarranted move, but Antonio was too genial a person to see his friend Bassanio sad. Shylock got the opportunity he was looking for and had Antonio sign a bond that entailed parting with a pound of flesh as penalty for default.

The worst happened. Antonio’s ships didn’t return, and he defaulted. He was dragged to court, where, Shylock, unabashedly, stepped forward to scoop out his pound of Antonio’s flesh from his heart. Antonio, a man who valued his principle more than his life, stood composed and impassive. It shows the sterling character and stoic mindset of Antonio. The court was stunned by Antonio’s equanimity and refusal to beg mercy.

The Merchant of Venice has become such a gripping novel, because of the confrontation of these two protagonists – one greedy and ruthless, and the other, principled and dignified

Many readers fault Antonio for his recklessness to sign a sinister bond. This criticism is not without ground. To stake one’s life, so that another man can get his cherished woman is an absurd idea.

Antonio had a minor blemish in his character, though. In the collective hounding of Shylock by Roman Christians, Antonio had played a part. On one occasion he had heaped insults on Shylock by spitting on him. Antonio chided Shylock for his usurious lending, and openly castigated him for his greed. On the whole, Antonio emerges as a kind, principled and genial person, likes of whom are very rare in society.


Portia is the damsel whom many young men fancy to marry. She is beautiful, intelligent, urbane, sophisticated, and principled. Besides these gifts, she is wealthy too. No wonder, so many eligible bachelors vie for her hand.

Bassanio is very enchanted with Portia and is desperate to win her hand. Portia has dropped enough hints that he could woo her, with some luck, of course. It was during an earlier sojourn to Belmont that Bassanio read it in her eyes. Nerissa, the maid, knows Portia’s inclination towards Bassanio. When she mentions it to Portia, the latter struggles to conceal the excitement. Portia is too dignified to let a maid be privy to her inner feelings. But, the torment of love sweeps her inhibition aside.

Portia is a young woman flush with romantic feelings. When Nerissa announces that Bassanio has already arrived at the mansion for taking part in the contest, Portia is overwhelmed with excitement. She, by then, has fallen for Bassanio’s masculine charm and personality. She pleads with him saying, “Pause a day or two, for in choosing wrong, I lose your company.” This is ample indication for the young man that his battle is already half won.

Bassanio’s makes the correct choice of the casket. Portia is in Cloud 9. She surrenders to his irresistible chivalry and charm. She offers herself and every other material possession she has to the young man who is soon going to be her husband. The earlier Portia – reticent, stately and carrying an air of superiority – is now a meek, obedient, caring and submissive woman, bewitched by her suitor’s persona. With great sense of judgment and alacrity, she dispatches Bassanio to rescue Antonio from the clutches of Shylock. Her magnanimity and maturity come to the fore when she decides to wait to be Bassanio’s wife, formally.

Portia is portrayed as a lady of substance – a woman who does not fall to the temptations of flesh forsaking her graciousness and sense of sympathy. She emerges as a woman of formidable virtue and great forbearance. The novel The Merchant of Venice would have been poorer without Portia.


Among Antonio’s many friends, Bassanio is one among the closest. Bassanio’s heart pines for Portia, a lady known for her beauty, grace and wealth. It must be said that he is a
happy-go-lucky young man who loves all the good things of life, even if he can’t afford them. His shipping business has nearly collapsed and his finances are in disarray. As is his nature, he doesn’t make much effort to resurrect his business or bring some order to his expenditure. Although he is down in debt, and vainly wishes good luck to arrive, and he would pay off his debts. Antonio is one of his creditors.

Any attempt to impress and woo Portia would entail expending a lot of money, which he doesn’t have. Quite brazenly, he wants to borrow more money from Antonio to pay for his romantic pursuit of Portia. One can safely conclude that Bassanio is callous and irresponsible.

Basssanio is besotted with Portia, but he has his eyes on her wealth too. He is a cunning and wily young man with low moral sense. He knows his friend Antonio’s large-heartedness, and magnanimity. With little scruple, he asks Antonio to somehow arrange money for him. Antonio approaches Shylock, the ruthless Jew, and stake his honour and life to borrow money. Bassanio gets the money for his carnal pleasures although Antonio has to stake a pound of flesh in case of default to Shylock.  A ‘Pound of Flesh’ for the pleasures of flesh – surely reprehensible!!

In hindsight, it would be unfair to assume that Bassanio ‘used’ Antonio to get the money. He was truly loyal to Antonio and cared for his safety and well being. This is why, he did not wish to stay back to enjoy conjugal pleasure with his beautiful wife, and rushed to save his dearest friend from the jaws of a very cruel death engineered by Shylock.


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