Character Directory


The Duke of Venice presides over the trial of Shylock’s suit against Antonio. He is helpless to influence matters, being bound by the laws of the state, a position in which Shakespeare often places his rulers in this way the Duke emphasizes a principle to which the playwright was strongly committed: the importance of the law in a well-ordered society. Although the Duke is prepared to see Antonio die, as the full rigor of the law dictates, he is merciful to Shylock after the case is resolved in Antonio's favor, thus highlighting another virtue Shakespeare saw in an ideal ruler.


Morocco (Morochus) is an African prince and unsuccessful suitor of Portia. Faced with the choice among three caskets ordained by Portia's father, Morocco rationalizes his choice in a long speech (2.7.13-60) that presents a viewpoint that the play as a whole invalidates. Morocco is attracted by the richness of the gold casket, which promises 'what many men desire' (2.7.5), but he finds within it an image of a death's head and a scroll whose message begins with the now-familiar line 'All that glisters is not gold' (2.7.65). Morocco fails because he equates appearance with inner worth and because he cannot imagine hazarding all in pursuit of happiness, unlike Bassanio, who wins Portia by selecting the lead casket, and Antonio, who risks every thing for his friend in accepting Shylock perilous loan.  Portia dislikes the prospect of marrying Morocco.  In 2.1 she politely assures him that she recognizes his virtues as a man and a prince, but after his defeat, she is relieved.  The Merchant of Venice is a play that acknowledges and makes use of Elizabethan prejudices; not only is it distinctly anti-Semitic, but the two unsuccessful suitors—both presented as examples of flawed values—are a black man and a political enemy of England, the Spaniard ARRAGON.  In both the Quarto and First Folio editions of the play, the name Morocco is rendered in Latin, Morochus, and some modern editions follow this practice.


Arragon (Aragon) is a Spanish prince and unsuccessful suitor of Portia. In selecting among the caskets of silver, gold, and lead to win Portia's hand, Arragon reveals the arrogance that his name suggests. He rejects the lead casket as unworthy and the gold because its inscription promises 'what many men desire' (2.9.24), and he feels himself superior to the 'common spirits' (2.9.32).  Although Arragon is a somewhat comic figure—he is a caricature Spaniard of a sort familiar to 16th-century English theatre-goers—his failure to select the correct casket illuminates the thematic values of the play. He is presented as a foil to Bassanio, who chooses the humble lead casket and wins the lottery and whose victory reflects on the Spaniard's vanity. Further, the villainous Shylock resembles Arragon in his pride, refusing to relinquish an iota of what he feels he deserves. An unselfish sense of community with others is necessary for romantic success, in the play's scheme of things, and Arragon demonstrates its opposite.


Antonio is the title character in The Merchant of Venice.  Antonio borrows money from Shylock and agrees to let the usurer cut away a pound of his flesh if he defaults on the repayment. Antonio represents the ideal of selfless generosity that the play advocates. He borrows only in order to help his spendthrift friend Bassanio, who wishes to appear wealthy as he woos Portia. Antonio's extravagant willingness to risk his money—and his life—stands in opposition to Shylock's calculating greed. Also, his often expressed fondness for Bassanio represents another literary ideal of Shakespeare's day—that of close friendship between males—which the playwright dealt with more extensively in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Although this motif was a common one, some scholars contend that the intensity of Antonio's affection for Bassanio may demonstrate homosexual tendencies in Shakespeare.  However, this same relationship has been staged as a father-son or older brother type as Bassanio is usually seen as younger and less experienced.  Whatever the true relationship, Antonio is a passive, melancholy, somewhat colorless man, stoical in the face of death and lonely amid the lovers' happiness at the play's end.


Bassanio is a friend of Antonio and suitor of Portia. In requesting money from Antonio in order to court Portia in style, Bassanio is indirectly responsible for the peril in which the merchant finds himself when he borrows from Shylock and risks his flesh. But Bassanio is also an important figure in his own right. He wins Portia by choosing the correct casket in the lottery required by her father, and, in so doing, he demonstrates a 16th-century ideal of romantic love. He distrusts the rich appearance of the gold and silver caskets (3.2.73-107) and instead selects the casket of lead. Such a choice was a conventional indication of selfless love. Only a true lover would value the maid for herself rather than her 'outward shows' (3.2.73), as Bassanio does. He is a leisured gentleman, presumably able to find a wife elsewhere, but he is willing to risk his chances of matrimony in order to win Portia. Like Antonio, he finds value in reaching for the greatest happiness, and is thus placed in opposition to Shylock's stinginess.  Similarly, like Antonio and Portia and unlike Shylock, Bassanio gives what he has. He is a good-hearted spendthrift who cannot refuse a request, as when Gratiano announces that he has a favor to ask and is immediately told, 'You have obtain'd it' (2.2. 169).

Bassanio is sometimes seen in a rather different light. Some critics regard him as an heiress-hunting playboy whose irresponsibility endangers Antonio.  However, Bassanio objects to Antonio's acceptance of Shylock's bond (1.3.150-151) and is persuaded only by his friend's assurances that he will certainly be able to repay the loan. And although Bassanio refers to Portia's wealth when he first mentions the idea of marrying her (1.1.161-176), this does not necessarily make him a gold-digger. Such considerations were normal in the 16th century; one would not discuss courtship without bringing up the subject of wealth. For Shakespeare's audience, and for the playwright himself, such behavior was ordinary, and Bassanio was surely intended as a romantic hero, a personification of good fortune in love.


Solanio is a friend of Antonio. Solanio is a cultured gentleman whose conversation in elegant verse reflects the advanced civilization of his city. He is difficult to distinguish from his companion Salerio. In commenting on the action, these two gentlemen present facts and ideas. For instance, consoling the melancholy Antonio in 1.1, they speak of his status as a wealthy and successful merchant, and in 2.8 they offer a picture of Shylock's despair and rage at Jessica’s elopement and speculate that the Jew will vent his anger on Antonio if he can. In 3.1 they tease Shylock, eliciting from him his famous speech claiming equality with Christians.  Solanio is simply a conventional figure whose main purpose is to further the development of more significant characters.


Salerio (Salarino) is a friend of Antonio, Salerio, whose conversation in elegant verse reflects his position as a cultured gentleman of Venice, is difficult to distinguish from his companion Solanio. They present certain facts to the audience, as when, consoling the melancholy Antonio in 1.1, they refer to his status as a wealthy and successful merchant. In 2.8 the same figures discuss Shylock’s despair and rage at Jessica’s elopement (which Salerio has assisted) and speculate that the Jew will vent his anger on Antonio if he can. In 3.1 they tease Shylock, eliciting from him his famous speech claiming equality with Christians. Salerio is simply a conventional figure whose role is to further the development of more significant characters.  In some editions Salerio's part, except in 3.2, is assigned to Salarino, who is thought of as a separate character. However, most modern scholarship holds that the latter name is simply a 16th-century typographical error.


Gratiano is a friend of Bassanio and lover of Nerissa. Gratiano is a crude and frivolous companion. As Bassanio himself puts it, 'Gratiano speaks an infinite deal of nothing' (1.1.114). He can be tactless, as in 1.1, where he is the only one of Antonio's friends who fails to see the propriety of leaving Antonio and Bassanio to confer privately. Bassanio, fearful that his friend will embarrass him before Portia, feels constrained to chastise him, 'Thou art too wild, too rude, and bold of voice . . .' (2.2.172). Gratiano's bluff heartiness turns ugly in the trial scene (4.1), when he baits the desperate Shylock, and his lewd remarks, as in 3.2.216, mark him as a lesser person than the gentlemanly Bassanio.  His courtship of Nerissa is simply an echo of Bassanio's wooing of Portia and seems to have no point but symmetry; such doubling was very popular among Elizabethan audiences. Gratiano's name comes from the Italian Commedia Dell’Arte tradition, where it was used for a stock character, the comical doctor.


Lorenzo is the suitor and then husband of Jessica and a friend to Antonio, Bassanio, and Gratiano.  Lorenzo is a stock theatrical figure, a stylish young aristocrat with little distinctive personality. However, the rhapsodies of Lorenzo and Jessica on moonlight and music in 5.1 provide the play's finest lyric poetry. Lorenzo's musing on the music of the spheres (5.1.55-65) presents an idea of universal harmony that is appropriate to the play's conclusion, in which the oppositions that have been its principal substance—love versus greed, justice versus mercy—are resolved.


Shylock is the Jewish money-lender who seeks to kill the title figure, Antonio, by claiming a pound of his flesh, as provided for in their loan agreement. Shylock is a stereotypical Jew, shaped by anti-Semitic notions that were prevalent in Shakespeare's England. He accordingly possesses the two standard features ascribed to Jews at the time, a vicious hatred of Christians and the practice of usury, the latter entailing an obsessive miserliness. However, Shakespeare's portrayal of Shylock does not demonstrate his intent to promote or display anti-Semitism; he simply took the figure from his anti-Semitic source and used it for traditional comic purposes. But his genius also transformed the character into something far grander. Shylock has so fascinated generations of readers and theatre-goers hat, although his name has become a byword for the warped personality of the unscupulous miser, few can avoid feeling sympathy for him.

The miser was a frequent comic villain in the drama and literature of the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, and Shylock belongs to this lineage. He represents the killjoy against whom pleasure-loving characters unite. He is a schemer whose icy shrewdness daunts Bassanio in 1.3. When Antonio enters in the same scene, Shylock reveals in an aside (1.3.36-47) his deep-seated hostility towards the merchant ‘For he is a Christian'. Yet his first words to Antonio are fawning compliments, and we immediately recognize the cruel usurer as a hypocrite as well. Throughout the play he is repeatedly associated with the devil (e.g., in 3.1.19-20)^The famous speech in which he seemingly asserts his basic humanity—'Hath not a jew eyes? ...' (3 1 47-66)—is actually a baleful and chilling assertion of his intention to murder Antonio. Shylock grows more and more malevolent until, in the trial scene (41) he melodramatically hones on his shoe the knife with which he hopes to kill the merchant while obstinately refusing to grant mercy, even for huge sums of money

As is true of all comic villains there is never any doubt that Shylock will be defeated in the end, and he is therefore never truly threatening. Further, Shylock is broadly comical at times; in this respect he somewhat resembles the Vice of the medieval Morality Play. His stinginess has a humorous quality of caricature to it, and he is depicted as a subject for ridicule in all but one of his scenes, even in the trial scene In his first meeting with Antonio he justifies his usury by citing instances from the Bible, but he comically selects stories of crafty dealing (1.3.66-83) that actually cast him in a bad light. In 2.5, his dream is mocked by Launcelot, and his obsessive insistence on locking his house is humorously crotchety. In 3.1, following the renowned speech in which he asserts his thirst for revenge, a change of tone-preparing the audience for a return to Belmont in 3.2—presents him as a farcical villain who becomes ludicrous as he oscillates hysterically between rage and delight when Tubal tells him of Jessica’s extravagance and Antonio's misfortune. Even at the trial, Shylock repeatedly makes himself clownish, chortling over the absence of a surgeon naively exulting in the pretence of Portia that he will win his case, and hastily trying to recover his money when he finds he has lost. Only in 3.3 is Shylock purely evil, making more imperative the development of Portia's counterplot in 3.4.

As villain, Shylock embodies the negative element in several sets of opposing values whose conflicts provide the major themes of the play. First, he is the crabbed old man who opposes the expansive young lovers. His daughter flees him, saying that his 'house is hell' (2.3.2), and his contrast to Bassanio is carried forward to Portia's victory over him in the courtroom.  The final scene (5.1) rings with Shylock's absence, as young love triumphs. Further, he represents justice, as opposed to mercy, insisting on the letter of the law and refusing to accept any reduction of the terms of his contract with Antonio. Most significantly, he personifies greed, in contrast to the generosity of Antonio and Portia. In comically crying, 'My daughter!  My ducats! My daughter!' (2.8.15), Shylock reveals that he loves money as much as, if not more than, Jessica.  Among the reasons he gives for hating Antonio is a commercial one: the Merchant, in making interest-free loans, has depressed the going rate. Thus Shylock's love of money generates acrimony and strife.

It is evidence of Shakespeare's creative empathy that even an evil stereotype is developed to the extent that Shylock is. Not content with a conventional stage villain, the playwright gives Shylock's personality an extraordinary duality. Many of his speeches, even the most humorous and/or malicious, can be construed as cries of anguish: the villain is also a victim, we sense.  It is easy to deride the two-faced miser who comically equates his daughter and his ducats, but it is also easy to perceive an old man, enraged by betrayal, who has begun to lose his mind. The usurer is given an opportunity to justify his practice in 1.3, and his solemn citations from the Bible have dignity and are not to be taken as only self-incriminating. He is finally subjected to a total and humiliating defeat: his oaths on his religion are nullified, and he is forced to convert. Yet our response to him remains complex. When the crushed moneylender last exits at the close of 4.1, he may be seen as an unrepentant malingerer ('I am not well . . .' [4.1.392]), as a hopeful Christian convert ('I am content' [4.1.389]), or simply as a properly beaten cur and an appropriate target for the cruel jests of Gratiano. The scene may also be effectively played so as to give Shylock his pride, broken but not vanquished; this image diminishes the righteous triumph of Antonio's defenders. Most strikingly, perhaps, Shylock so vividly evokes Venetian anti-Semitism in 3.1.  47-66 that this speech is generally taken as a plea for fair and humane treatment, when it is in fact a justification for an extremely inhumane demand. Repeatedly, the playwright offers the possibility of contradictory responses (as he did, at about the same time, in creating Falstaff). However, it is basic to the nature of the character that, although Shylock has come to his extreme behavior through suffering, his behavior is nonetheless unacceptable: he is fundamentally a ruthless villain who plans to kill Antonio. Shakespeare does not ignore the process whereby Shylock has become what he is, but he is nonetheless appallingly vicious. Shylock himself says, '. . . since I am a dog, beware my fangs' (3.3.7).

This complex and powerful character dominates the play, despite his relatively small part: he appears in only five scenes and speaks fewer than 400 lines. His multi-faceted nature complicates the work substantially, and it has sometimes inspired criticism on the grounds that it upsets the graceful development proper to a romantic comedy. Shakespeare may have been aware of this problem when he disposed of his villain in Act 4; the final act affirms the triumph of the lovers without his disturbing presence. 

Like many of Shakespeare's characters, Shylock lends himself to many interpretations, and he remains as compelling as ever; he anticipates the power and pathos of such later protagonists as Othello and Lear. But although we may recognize the deformed grandeur and nobility of Shylock, we must not lose our awareness of the ideal of loving community that is at the heart of the play, an ideal to which Shylock at bottom runs counter. Nevertheless, the playwright's complex and humane sensibility brought forth a villain whose downfall cannot be wholeheartedly enjoyed. We are forced to recognize the moral cost involved in his defeat, and to acknowledge that hatred is not easily overcome.

Shylock's name has puzzled scholars. Shakespeare may have derived it from shallach, the Hebrew word meaning 'cormorant', a term often used abusively to describe usurers, who were equated with that greedy fish-eating bird. The name has also been associated with Shiloh, a name used in Genesis 49:10 for the coming Messiah, and with Salah or Shelah, the father of Eber, from the whom the Hebrews took their name (Genesis 10:24, e.g.). Also, Shakespeare may have adapted a 16th-century English word for a contemptible idler, shullock or shallock.

TUBAL Tubal is a friend of Shylock. In 3.1 Tubal tells Shylock that he has been unable to find his friend's daughter, Jessica, who has eloped, but that he has heard reports other extravagance with the money she has stolen from her father Tubal also discloses that Antonio has suffered grave commercial losses, thus putting him at the mercy of Shylock, who has loaned him money. Shylock's responses, alternating from delirious anger to exultant delight, are grimly humorous. Tubal's name occurs among the list of descendants of Noah in Genesis 10-2- Biblical scholars of Shakespeare s day thought it meant 'confusion' or 'slander', though modern scholars believe it refers to an ancient tribe.

Launcelot is the comical servant first of Shylock, then of Bassanio, for whom he is also a professional Fool.  Launcelot carries messages and announces impending arrivals, but his role in the action is otherwise unimportant. His humor is clever and resourceful, but often broad and laced with standard devices. In 2.2, when he first appears, he wittily imitates legal precision in describing the overcoming of his conscience; in he same scene he draws on the ancient comic routine of mistaken identity, teasing his blind father, Old Gobbo. He frequently misuses words—a regular feature of Shakespearean clowning—as when he mistakes 'reproach' for 'approach' (2.5.20) and 'impertinent' for 'pertinent' (2.2.130). He engages Lorenzo in a battle of puns and deliberate misunderstandings in 3.5, and in 5.1 he raucously imitates the blare of hunting horns. A standard stage Clown, he has no particular personality aside from his buffoonish wit.

Launcelot is called 'clown' in the stage directions of old editions, but he does not have the rustic qualities sometimes associated with that stock theatrical figure (although the terms 'clown' and 'fool' were somewhat interchangeable), and here the term may merely indicate that the part was played by the clown of the company, who specialized in broadly comic roles.

Launcelot provides evidence of Elizabethan anti-Semitism. In 2.2 he delivers a comic monologue in which he recounts a dispute between his conscience and a fiend as to whether or not he should leave Shylock's service. This passage and Launcelot's subsequent conversation with his father help to establish Shylock's reputation as a miser in virulently anti-Semitic terms. Similarly, in 3.5 he jests with Jessica on the likelihood of her damnation as a Jew, reflecting centuries of Christian prejudice. Although plainly intended as comical, Launcelot's attitude surely indicates something of the spirit in which Shakespeare's audience received Shylock—as an obvious villain, at least in part because he is Jewish.


Gobbo is the father of Launcelot Gobbo.  He is nearly blind and is teased by Launcelot, who pretends to be a stranger and informs the old man that his son has died. Rewarded by his father's distress, Launcelot tells him the truth and enlists him to help approach Bassanio about a job. After providing these few moments of incidental mirth, Gobbo disappears from the play. 


Leonardo is a servant of Bassanio. In 2.2 Leonardo speaks one line when he is instructed to arrange Bassanio's trip to Belmont.  


Balthasar is a servant of Portia. In 3.4 Balthasar is sent with a letter to Portia's cousin, setting in motion her plan to impersonate a lawyer at the hearing of Shylock’s suit against Antonio. Portia later takes Balthasar's name as part of her disguise. 


Stephano is a servant of Portia. In 5.1 Stephano tells Lorenzo and Jessica that his mistress will be returning to Belmont shortly.


Portia is the lover of Bassanio and defender of his friend Antonio.  Portia, disguised as a lawyer, saves Antonio from the revenge of Shylock. Initially a passive young woman at the mercy other father's odd matchmaking device, the lottery of caskets, she emerges as a touching lover with Bassanio in 3.2 and achieves a grand maturity when she defends Antonio in 4.1. Her address to Shylock on the virtues of mercy (4.1.180-198) is renowned as one of the finest passages Shakespeare wrote; it is certainly his most effective presentation of Christian ideals. Her tactics in the trial—leading Shylock to believe he can win his case and thus eliciting from him his demands for the strictest interpretation of the law—have been deplored as high-handed, and they are certainly unethical by modern standards. But Shakespeare was composing an allegory, not a legal precedent, and Portia's strategy emphasizes the instructive paradox that Shylock's rigid insistence on the letter of the law proves to be his own undoing. Portia, defending Antonio because he is the friend of her beloved, evidences the power of love itself, conquering Shylock, whose calculating usury is opposed to the generosity of the young lovers and Antonio.

Portia's final act—accepting, in the person of the young lawyer 'Balthasar', her own ring from Bassanio and then twitting him with disloyalty—has been seen as arbitrary and graceless, but the episode fittingly closes the play. It recapitulates the play's lesson that love and forgiveness are superior to self-centered greed. By invoking Shylock's attitude, insisting on the letter of Bassanio's oath, Portia reasserts a negative value that she immediately repudiates when she for- gives her new husband, and the play closes on a note of loving reconciliation.

Before she appears, Portia is described by Bassanio in extravagantly poetic terms (1.1.161-172), and we envision her as an almost supernatural ideal of womanhood. However, with her opening line,'. .my little body is aweary of this great world' (1.2.1-2), she instantly becomes human. Her simultaneously grand and companionable nature charms us throughout the play. She is an open young woman who can describe herself as 'an unlessoned girl, unschooled, unpracticed' (3.2.159) and who can giggle with Nerissa over the disguises they will wear (3.4) and over the trick they will play on their husbands-to-be (4.2). At the same time, she inspires Bassanio's rhapsody and, most important, she is a resourceful and commanding figure who takes Antonio's fate in hand and delivers him.  Shakespeare thus enshrines in virginal youth a gallant, courageous, and worldly woman.  

However, Portia has an unattractive feature, to modern sensibilities: she clearly partakes of the 16th-century English racial prejudice and anti-Semitism that are reflected in this play. Addressing Shylock in court in 4.1, she repeatedly calls him 'Jew', and she is frank about her distaste for Morocco black complexion in 1.2.123-125 and 2.7.79. On the other hand, she is willing to marry the African prince if he wins the lottery of caskets, as she declares in 2.1.13-22, and her attitude towards Shylock's Jewishness—manifested only in the trial scene—is extremely mild, compared to that of other characters. The Merchant of Venice accommodates the prejudices of its original audiences, but Portia is not a significant bearer of this theme, and we are in no doubt that Shakespeare intended her as a delightful heroine. 

Portia is a fine example of the frank and fearless young women who appear in many of the plays; like Rosaline, Beatrice, Rosalind, and Helena, she seems to embody an ideal of femininity that the playwright held and put forth often. Spirited and capable, she is willing to enter a man's world—in this case, that of the law—in pursuit of her aims, yet she ultimately accepts the conventional Elizabethan woman's status, that of a wife, at least theoretically subservient to her husband.


Nerissa is lady-in-waiting to Portia. Nerissa is a pert and lively companion to her mistress. In the early scenes involving the lottery of the three caskets, she assures the uneasy heiress that all will be well, and she seconds Portia in the practical joke of the betrothal rings in 5.1. Her courtship by Gratiano echoes that of Portia by Bassanio; such symmetrical couples were quite popular in the Elizabethan theatre. 


Jessica is the daughter of Shylock and lover of Lorenzo. Jessica is an apparently demure young woman who nevertheless abandons her father and her religion willingly in eloping with Lorenzo, and she also steals Shylock's money.  Tubal reports her extravagance with these funds in 3.1. In 5.1 the romantic rhapsodies of Lorenzo and Jessica provide the play's finest lyric poetry and establish the triumph of love, a major theme of the work. Jessica's behavior to her father has often been criticized, and, if Shylock is viewed as a sympathetic or tragic character, his daughter can only seem immoral. Moreover, her desertion and theft seem to be related to the anti-Semitism that infects this play. Referring to Jessica's enthusiastic readiness to steal from her father, Gratiano avers that she is 'a gentle [i.e., gentile], and no Jew' (2.6.51). That is, she qualifies as a Christian by her actions against a Jew. However, the play is clearly a traditional romantic Comedy, and Jessica's role in that context is a simple one. She flees to romantic love from the prison other father's miserly household, which she describes as -hell' (2.3.2). In doing so, she illustrates a bold example of the opposition between love and greed that lies at the heart of the play.  Further, her theft of her father's funds reflects Shylock's traditional function as a comic villain (although Shakespeare enlarged the character considerably) and was probably received by the play's original audiences as a comeuppance to the miser, a traditional subject of comical raillery. Jessica is humorous as she steals, archly asserting that the weight of a purloined casket is 'worth the pains' and saying she will 'gild myself with moe ducats' as she leaves (2.6.33, 49-50). She is essentially a secondary character, graceful but uncomplicated. Only her relationship to Shylock inspires comment.


Serving-man is the servant of Portia. The Serving-man brings his mistress word that four unwanted suitors are leaving and that another suitor, the Prince of Morocco, is arriving.  Serving-man (2) is the servant of Antonio. In 3.1 the Serving-man tells Salerio and Solanio that his master wishes to see them.


Messenger is a servant of Portia. In 2.9 the Messenger tells Portia that Bassanio is approaching.

The Musicians appear in two important episodes. In 3.2 their song 'Tell me where is Fancy bred' provides an interlude that heightens the suspense as Bassanio contemplates his fateful choice among the three caskets, and it also makes a point about the nature of beauty. Further, it may offer Bassanio a clue as to which casket to select. In 5.1 the Musicians add to the romantic charm of Belmont, dissipating the disturbing and anxious atmosphere of the preceding courtroom scene. Musicians were a normal feature of a wealthy household in Shakespeare's day.


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