Summary: Act III, scene i

Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions . . . ? 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?

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Salarino and Solanio discuss the rumors that yet another of Antonio’s ships has been wrecked. They are joined by Shylock, who accuses them of having helped Jessica escape. The two Venetians proudly take credit for their role in Jessica’s elopement. Shylock curses his daughter’s rebellion, to which Salarino responds, “There is more difference between thy flesh and hers than between jet and ivory” (III.i.3233). Salarino then asks Shylock whether he can confirm the rumors of Antonio’s lost vessels. Shylock replies that Antonio will soon be bankrupt and swears to collect his bond. Salarino doubts Shylock’s resolve, wondering what the old man will do with a pound of flesh, to which Shylock chillingly replies that Antonio’s flesh will at least feed his revenge. In a short monologue, Shylock says Antonio has mistreated him solely because Shylock is a Jew, but now Shylock is determined to apply the lessons of hatred and revenge that Christian intolerance has taught him so well.

Salarino and Solanio head off to meet with Antonio, just as Tubal, a friend of Shylock’s and a Jew, enters. Tubal announces that he cannot find Jessica. Shylock rants against his daughter, and he wishes her dead as he bemoans his losses. He is especially embittered when Tubal reports that Jessica has taken a ring—given to Shylock in his bachelor days by a woman named Leah, presumably Jessica’s mother—and has traded that ring for a monkey. Shylock’s spirits brighten, however, when Tubal reports that Antonio’s ships have run into trouble and that Antonio’s creditors are certain Antonio is ruined.

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Summary: Act III, scene ii

In Belmont, Portia begs Bassanio to delay choosing between the caskets for a day or two. If Bassanio chooses incorrectly, Portia reasons, she will lose his company. Bassanio insists that he make his choice now, to avoid prolonging the torment of living without Portia as his wife. Portia orders that music be played while her love makes his choice, and she compares Bassanio to the Greek hero and demigod Hercules. Like the suitors who have come before him, Bassanio carefully examines the three caskets and puzzles over their inscriptions. He rejects the gold casket, saying that “[t]he world is still deceived with ornament” (III.ii.74), while the silver he deems a “pale and common drudge / ’Tween man and man” (III.ii.103104). After much debate, Bassanio picks the lead casket, which he opens to reveal Portia’s portrait, along with a poem congratulating him on his choice and confirming that he has won Portia’s hand.

The happy couple promises one another love and devotion, and Portia gives Bassanio a ring that he must never part with, as his removal of it will signify the end of his love for her. Nerissa and Gratiano congratulate them and confess that they too have fallen in love with one another. They suggest a double wedding. Lorenzo and Jessica arrive in the midst of this rejoicing, along with Salarino, who gives a letter to Bassanio. In the letter, Antonio writes that all of his ships are lost, and that Shylock plans to collect his pound of flesh. The news provokes a fit of guilt in Bassanio, which in turn prompts Portia to offer to pay twenty times the sum. Jessica, however, worries that her father is more interested in revenge than in money. Bassanio reads out loud the letter from Antonio, who asks only for a brief reunion before he dies. Portia urges her husband to rush to his friend’s aid, and Bassanio leaves for Venice.

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Analysis: Act III, scenes i–ii

The passage of time in The Merchant of Venice is peculiar. In Venice, the three months that Antonio has to pay the debt go by quickly, while only days seem to pass in Belmont. Shakespeare juggles these differing chronologies by using Salarino and Solanio to fill in the missing Venetian weeks.

As Antonio’s losses mount, Shylock’s villainous plan becomes apparent. “[L]et him look to his bond,” he repeats single-mindedly (III.i.3940). Despite his mounting obsession with the pound of Antonio’s flesh, however, he maintains his dramatic dignity. In his scene with the pair of Venetians, he delivers the celebrated speech in which he cries, “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions . . . ? If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die?” (III.i.4955). We are not meant to sympathize entirely with Shylock: he may have been wronged, but he lacks both mercy and a sense of proportion. His refusal to take pity on Antonio is later contrasted with the mercy shown him by the Christians. But even as we recognize that Shylock’s plans are terribly wrong, we can appreciate the angry logic of his speech. By asserting his own humanity, he lays waste to the pretensions of the Christian characters to value mercy, charity, and love above self-interest.

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Shylock’s dignity lapses in his scene with Tubal, who keeps his supposed friend in agony by alternating between good and bad news. Shylock lurches from glee to despair and back, one moment crying, “I thank God, I thank God!” (III.i.86), and the next saying, “Thou stick’st a dagger in me” (III.i.92). But even here he rouses our sympathy, because we hear that Jessica stole a ring given to him by his late wife and traded it for a monkey. “It was my turquoise,” Shylock says. “I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor. I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys” (III.i.100103). Villain though he may be, we can still feel sorrow that Jessica—who is suddenly a much less sympathetic character—would be heartless enough to steal and sell a ring that her dead mother gave her father.

Read more about Leah’s ring as a symbol.

Bassanio’s successful choice seems inevitable and brings the drama of the caskets to an end. Bassanio’s excellence is made clear in his ability to select the correct casket, and his choice brings the separated strands of the plot together. Portia, who is the heroine of the play—she speaks far more lines than either Antonio or Shylock—is free to bring her will and intelligence to bear on the problem of Shylock’s pound of flesh. Once Lorenzo and Jessica arrive, the three couples are together in Belmont, but the shadow of Shylock hangs over their happiness.

Critics have noticed that Jessica is ignored by Portia and the others at Belmont. Her testimony against her father may be an attempt to prove her loyalty to the Christian cause, but the coldness of Portia, Bassanio, and the others is an understandable reaction—after all, she is a Jew and the daughter of their antagonist. Lorenzo may love her, but she remains an object of suspicion for the others.

Read more about prejudice and the cycle of hatred.