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The Merchant of Venice

by: William Shakespeare

Act II, scenes v–ix

Happily, Jessica and Lorenzo’s romantic love triumphs, but a number of critics have pointed out the ambiguity in the scene of their elopement. The couple’s love for one another is not in doubt, but Jessica’s determination to bring a hefty store of treasure reminds us that she is still an alien, a Jew among gentiles, who may be insecure about her reception. Indeed, her shame at her boy’s costume may reflect a deeper concern for her place in her husband’s Christian society. Later, at Belmont, she will be all but ignored by everyone save Lorenzo, suggesting that despite her husband and her conversion, she remains a Jew in others’ eyes.

The prince of Morocco’s choice of the caskets is wrong, but his mistake is understandable, and we sympathize with him. There is something casually cruel about Portia’s unwillingness to spare even a moment’s pity for the Moor. Portia is a willful character—while her independence is often appealing, at other times she can seem terribly self-centered. She wants Bassanio as a husband and seems to have no regrets in seeing other suitors sentenced to a life of celibacy.

Salarino and Solanio are the least interesting characters in the play. They are indistinguishable from one another and serve primarily to fill us in on events that take place offstage—in this case, Shylock’s reaction to his daughter’s flight and the parting of Antonio and Bassanio. Shylock’s cries of “My daughter! O, my ducats! O, my daughter!” are meant to be comic—the moneylender is, after all, a comic villain (II.viii.15). He bemoans the loss of his money as much as his loss of Jessica, suggesting that greed is as important to him as familial love. However, we cannot be sure that Shylock really reacted in this way, since we hear the story secondhand. Salarino and Solanio are poking fun at the Jew, and their testimony must be balanced by the concern that Shylock expresses for his daughter in the earlier scenes.

Arragon, a Spanish prince, completes the parade of nationalities competing for Portia. He lacks the nobility of the prince of Morocco, and his arrogance almost makes us feel that he deserves his punishment. His quick dismissal from the scene clears the way for Bassanio.