The Comical History of the Merchant of Venice

Knowing that this play appeared in print in 1600 with the title ‘The Comical History of the Merchant of Venice’, we the audience, are entitled to be led into the impression that this play will end on a ‘happily ever after’ basis, which is often found in fairy tales and Shakespeare comedies alike. Shakespeare uses many techniques to try draw a picture of a ‘happily ever after’ ending, which he uses mainly on the main romantic focus of the play – Bassanio and Portia, however, we are to discover later on in the play, that Shakespeare equally uses techniques to try and contradict this impression.

These are illustrated in Act 1, Scene 1 as Bassanio’s love for Portia is put into consideration; Act 3, Scene 2, where Bassanio is to choose out of the caskets to ‘win’ Portia; and in Act 4, Scene 1, alike when Bassanio ‘misplaces’ his ring. It is, therefore, surprising that towards the end of Act 1, scene 1, Shakespeare conveys a sense of controversy, as the full extent of Bassanio’s love for Portia is questioned towards the end of the scene.

This is as Bassanio describes to Antonio the fact that he is forced ‘to be abrig’d’, and how his estate is damaged by his extravagant lifestyle that his ‘faint means’ cannot ‘grant continuance’.

Furthermore Bassanio explains to Antonio why he would like to make use of the money given to him – which is to make Portia his wife. However, the first thing Bassanio describes Portia as is as a ‘lady richly left’.

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He later on describes her as someone ‘fair’ and of ‘wondrous virtues’, however it is clear that money is the first thing that comes to mind when Bassanio thinks of Portia – as he sets wealth, beauty and virtue in ascending order of his desirability of Portia.

Yet the fact that Portia has money, and Bassanio does not, could make Bassanio unconsciously think that Portia is ‘fair’ and someone of ‘wondrous virtues’, whereas in reality, it could be that she is far from it and that the fact that she has inherited some wealth could make Bassanio render to the thought that he is in love with her – as it seems that Bassanio is looking for love in his head rather than his heart.

This could indicate that Bassanio is in love with the idea of Portia’s money rather than the idea of Portia, as the foundations of Bassanio’s love for Portia are based on superficial reasons. Following on, Bassanio states how he wishes to get ‘clear of all the debts [he] owe[s]’ to Antonio, and puts forward his idea that when he was younger if he lost a ‘shaft’, he would throw another ‘shaft’ of the same value which would lead him to finding both.

This can be interpreted in two ways, as the original shaft could symbolise the money that is owed to Antonio, and the second shaft could symbolise Portia’s inheritance. Thus meaning that the key to finding the original ‘shaft’ (the money owed to Antonio) is down to the second ‘shaft’ (Portia’s inheritance) – meaning that once Bassanio is engaged to Portia, Bassanio is engaged to her inheritance, thus meaning that he is able to ‘clear of all the debts owe[d]’, and being able to find the ‘original shaft’ – resulting to Bassanio ‘show[ing]’ the ‘swelling port’ that Bassanio is being forced to ‘abridg’.

However, some people might argue, that this could just be a simple plea for help on the part of Bassanio – as whatever way we the audience interpret this, Bassanio ultimately is hinting to the fact that he needs Antonio’s money to make Portia his wife, as the second ‘shaft’ could equally represent Antonio’s money, which would give Bassanio the ‘means’ to go to Belmont to try and make Portia his wife. Nevertheless, Bassanio later on refers to the world as ‘[not] ignorant of her worth’ and how if only he could ‘hold a rival place with one of [the Jasons that’s come in quest of her]’.

The fact that Portia is referred to as some sort of ‘worth’, could indicate that Bassanio thinks of her as some superficial prize or consolation to be won. As well as this, Bassanio describes Portia as like a ‘golden fleece’. In Greek mythology, Jason led an expedition to Colchis in search of the golden ram’s fleece. Therefore this comparison that Bassanio has made could signify that he sees Portia to some extent as gold or a trophy to be won.

However, it could be argued, that the fact that Bassanio thinks of Portia as ‘gold’ or a ‘trophy’ to be won, could show the extent of Bassanio’s love for Portia – as if Bassanio thinks of Portia to some extent as ‘gold’, it could indicate how he thinks of Portia as ‘precious’. In addition to this, Bassanio lists the smallest details when describing Portia, like how her ‘sunny locks’ hang on her ‘temples’ like a ‘golden fleece’, rather than stating an obvious quality like her beauty or physical beauty.

This shows how it is the small details about Portia which makes Bassanio in love with her, as he appreciates the fact that she is ‘fair’ rather than she is beautiful. This gives us the audience an impression that maybe Bassanio is deeply in love with Portia after all: and that maybe the fact that Portia’s money seems so appealing to him is that maybe it is simply a benefit, as Bassanio is struggling to find the means to ‘clear’ his debts.

This to some extent leaves the audience with a grey idea of a ‘happily ever after’ ending in the play, as it is unclear whether Bassanio is fully in love with Portia. There is a constant similarity between Portia’s worth, and Portia herself symbolising some sort of worth. This can make the audience more susceptible to the impression Bassanio is in love with Portia’s fortune, rather than Portia, thus making the audience wonder is Bassanio really out for Portia, or is he out for her wealth?

However, it is, therefore surprising, that Shakespeare makes this scene, Act 3, Scene 2, – the scene in which Bassanio is to choose out of the caskets, a scene that compliments the idea of Bassanio and Portia being a suitable match, as Bassanio is ultimately the ‘right’ man that ‘pass[es]’. The compatibility of Bassanio and Portia are shown, as Shakespeare uses strong verbs to portray the affection shared between the two, such as ‘tormented]’ and ‘tortured]’ to describe the pain and discomfort of waiting for Bassanio’s to choose out of the caskets, as if they are in physical pain at the thought of not being together.

This creates a mood of anxiety between the two, as Portia’s wish for Bassanio to ‘pause’ in case he ‘chooses] wrong’ and Bassanio’s hope to ‘choose’ without further delay, grows. Portia’s wish for Bassano to ‘tarry’, is conveyed through Portia’s long speeches, which she embarks upon to ultimately try and delay time, and Bassanio’s choice. However, Bassanio desire to ‘choose’ is obvious, simply as his short, snappy responses, causes a particularly ‘on edge’ scene for the audience.

Portia’s wish to delay Bassanio’s choice is also conveyed by the utter length of her speeches, especially in the unprepared and disorderly manner in which she speaks, along with the repetition of the word ‘but’, and the fact that she ‘prays’ for Bassanio to ‘tarry’ a ‘day or two’ itself, illustrates the extent of her love, as she is desperate not to ‘lose [him]’ and is pleading with him to ‘choose right’, as well as the fact that she is considering to go behind her father’s rules and ‘teach him’ the correct casket before he makes her ‘wish a sin’.

In addition to this, the fact that Portia considers to deliberately go against her father, shows how Portia is totally reliant on Bassanio, since she is desperate not to ‘lose [his] company’. As well as this, Bassanio cuts Portia short of her speech right at the end, as he ‘takes’ her last three syllables, thus putting his desire for him to ‘hazard’ as simply as possible: ‘let me choose’.

Again, his desire to choose is demonstrated as his reaction to Portia’s long speech is to respond with a short reply of three words. Shakespeare also depicts the love between the two, as the sentences in Portia’s speech are multi-clausal, so the fact that Bassanio to some extent unconsciously ‘steals’ the last three syllables in the speech – thus making ten, shows how they are simultaneously one.

The tension between the two are shown again, as Bassanio is pleading with Portia to ‘let [him] choose’ as he ‘live[s] upon the rack’, (an instrument of torture stretching out the victim’s body, as Portia is trying to stretch out time) giving the impression that Portia is his ‘persecutor’, as if she is the only one who can let him go from his ‘happy torment’, in which her immediate response is to let him go ‘away’ and ‘confess’ and ‘live’.

Portia embarks upon a final speech, however, Shakespeare deliberately concludes Portia’s speech with a ‘happy ending’, as he concludes the speech with rhyming couplets to try and point Bassanio in the direction of lead: the correct casket, as she purposely rhymes the words ‘bred’ and ‘head’ together. This leaves the audience with an idea of a ‘happy ending’ to come in the scene and in the play, due to the fact that the ‘happy ending’ at the end of Portia’s speech, could symbolise a ‘happy ending’ at the end of the play. Bassanio ultimately chooses the correct casket, thus permitting him and Portia to marry, along with Gratiano and Nerissa.

Again this gives a subtle indication that the play could end ‘happily ever after’, as the sense of an obstacle having to be overcome prior to a ‘happy ending’ has been overwhelmed, which in this case is in the form of the caskets, in which Bassanio has correctly chosen – thus leaving the audience more susceptible to being lead into an impression that the play will end ‘happily ever after’. However, again Shakespeare goes on to contradict this impression in Act 4, scene 1, as towards the end of Act 3, Scene 2, Bassanio swears to Portia that the ring given to him shall only ‘part from [his] finger’ once ‘[he] parts life’.

However towards the end of Act 4, scene 1, Bassanio ‘sen[ds] [away] [his] ring’ given to him by Portia, to the Lawyer’s ‘clerk’, who is in fact Portia in disguise – trying to test the extent of Bassanio’s love. However, when the ‘clerk’ asks for the ring in return of ‘his’ services, Bassanio refuses, as he explains how he has been ‘vow[ed]’ to ‘neither sell, nor give, nor lose it’, yet when Antonio asks Bassanio to ‘let him have the ring’, Bassanio orders Gratiano to ‘overtake him’ and ‘make haste’, ‘give him the ring’.

As well as this, Bassanio does not even question Antonio, or even say a word – his instant reaction is to order Gratiano to chase after ‘him’. This indicates that perhaps Bassanio on some level favours Antonio, more than his newly founded wife, as he swears to Portia that he will never ‘part from’ his ring, yet when Antonio tells Bassanio to let ‘[his] love’ be valued ‘gainst [his] wife’s commandment’, Bassanio seems on some level ‘happy’ to give away the ring as he is in desperation for Gratiano to ‘make haste’.

This is also supported in the scene as Bassanio confesses to Antonio how he ‘[is] married to a wife [that] is as dear to [him] as life’ yet he would ‘sacrifice them all’ to ‘deliver’ Antonio. This shows how Portia who was once depicted to some level as a ‘golden fleece’ (indicating that she is gold) is now somewhat second best in favour of Antonio.

As well as this, the fact that Bassanio says this when he thinks Portia is not in the room is somewhat more shocking, since he is being more truthful, as the fact that he confesses to Antonio how he would ‘lose all’ for him when Portia is not around, could show how he is confessing his true feelings. As well as this, Bassanio states how he would ‘sacrifice’ his ‘wife’ and ‘life itself’ for Antonio, yet there is no mention of how he would sacrifice his newly found inheritance. It seems as if he has freely given the ring away to the ‘clerk’, rather than having to ‘part’ from the ring by death.

However later on in Act 5, scene 1, Bassanio pleads to Portia how he ‘unwillingly left the ring’, and how he ‘suffer’d’ to ‘deny’ the clerk, yet when Antonio asked Bassanio to ‘let him have the ring’, Bassanio instantly replies by ordering Gratiano to ‘go’ and ‘run’. As well as this, Gratiano in Act 3, Scene 2, refers to himself and Bassanio as ‘the Jasons’ as they have ‘won the fleece’, thus indicating that they have ‘won’ Portia and Nerissa. This may be argued that, maybe since Bassanio has won Portia, or his ‘worth’, he is not fully devoted to Portia, as he no longer needs to ‘hold a rival place’ for her love.

As well as this, Gratiano is also even more guilty of giving away his ring, which he later refers to as to Nerissa as only ‘a hoop of gold’. The fact that Bassanio and Gratiano, are so illustrated to be so keen to give away their rings, could to some extent, point out the fact that they are not as devoted to the bonds made as Portia and Nerissa are. This is because after all, Portia and Nerissa travel to Venice in disguise as a ‘clerk’ and a ‘doctor’, to try and save the life of someone they have never met, for Bassanio’s and Gratiano’s sake, in which as well as this, they do not even tell Bassanio and Gratiano.

This again, contradicts the idea that Bassanio is fully in love with Portia, yet this may be Bassanio’s way of showing how he is grateful to Antonio, as he is ready to do whatever he pardons. Ultimately, Shakespeare does leave us the audience, with a ‘happy’ ending in spite of a few occasionally sinister hints throughout the novel – which is mainly conveyed through the ‘love’ scene in Act 3, Scene 2, as we see Bassanio and Portia together for the first time in the play.

The fact that Bassanio and Portia marry so suddenly in the play could seem hasty, however, this could be a simple way to show the love that the couples (mainly Bassanio and Portia) share. However ultimately this is a play, therefore this is not meant to resemble reality as Shakespeare often bases his plays on fairy tales, including this one. Therefore a general rule of thumb of such a Shakespearean comedy, and of a fairy tale in general, is for couples to fall in love ‘at first sight’.

Therefore all things considered, to answer the question ‘To what extent do you think that Shakespeare leave the audience with the type of ‘happily ever after’ ending expected of a comedy? ‘ In my opinion, I think that Shakespeare ultimately does a good enough job to convince us the audience, that everything will work out picture perfect even though there are some indications that say otherwise, and that Shakespeare does a good enough job to leave us with a content ‘happy ending’ expected of a comedy.

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The Comical History of the Merchant of Venice. (2017, Oct 27). Retrieved from

The Comical History of the Merchant of Venice
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