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Cheat sheet:
The Merchant Of Venice

A handy guide to bluffing your way through

“The long and the short of it.”
Act 2, Scene 2
Andy McLean
First published by Bell Shakespeare Company

Speed read

A quick flick through The Merchant Of Venice

Three thousand ducats. That’s what it costs to woo Portia of Belmont, and Bassanio would give his right arm to be in the running. Only, Bassanio is broke, and so he bets the next best thing: his best friend’s vital organs. That’s right; Bassanio borrows the money from his mate, Antonio (aka the merchant of Venice). Antonio, however, is having cash flow issues of his own, and so he’s forced to borrow the money from Shylock the Jew. Just one condition: Shylock can cut out a pound of Antonio’s flesh if he defaults on the loan. While Shylock is busy sharpening the knives, however, his daughter Jessica nicks off with a Christian. Portia, meanwhile, is waiting for a suitor smart enough to crack the code her father left in his will. A-tisket a-tasket, who will choose the right casket? Is it gold,  silver or lead, if you want to take Portia to… the altar. Bassanio chooses the correct casket and he and Portia are married. His friend Gratiano marries Portia’s lady-in-waiting Nerissa at the same time.

“Love is blind.”

Act 2, Scene 6

The Merchant Of Venice

Money makes the world go around. Portia has it. Bassanio wants it. Shylock lends it. Antonio owes the value of it.

Image: Prudence Upton

Antonio, however, is feeling the pinch as he’s unable to repay his debt to Shylock. The case goes to court. And when it does, Portia proves more than a pretty piece of flesh by disguising herself as a young male lawyer acting for Antonio, with Nerissa as her clerk. Just when it looks like Antonio has a date with an organ donation, Portia gets him off the hook.

She points out that, under Venetian law, Shylock is entitled to his pound of flesh as long as he doesn’t spill a drop of Antonio’s blood. What’s more, the Jew is guilty of conspiring against the life of a Venetian. Shylock is pardoned, but not before he is stripped of his wealth and forced to convert to Christianity. The lovers are reunited. And Antonio’s ships finally come in.

“Waiting for my ship to come in.”

Act 4, Scene 4

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Venice breach

In Venice, money talks louder than almost everything. Louder than love. Louder than hate. Louder even, than religion. But the voice of the law has the final word. Everyone’s fate hinges upon the legal wrangling of Shylock and Portia.

As Mitchell Butel, who is playing Shylock for Bell Shakespeare, points out: “The sentence meted out at the end is because of the law; it is not witness to the prosecution, it is not secret identities revealed – it is about the actual legal question.”

Shakespeare was way ahead of his time here. He mastered courtroom drama long before To Kill A Mockingbird, Perry Mason, Ally McBeal or Boston Legal were even dreamed of. “Courtroom dramas are great because they’re mini theatres,” says Butel. “You’ve got a set-up, you’ve got an audience, you’ve got a sense of performers, and there’s that notion of ‘How do we make order of chaos?’ I think that is the ultimate modus operandi of a court, just like it is in theatre.”

“All that glisters is not gold.”

Act 2, Scene 7

Image: Prudence Upton

Say what?

Post-show conversation starters to make you look smart

Image: Prudence Upton


Shakespeare loved writing female characters (disguised as fellas) who outwit menfolk. Besides Portia in The Merchant Of Venice, other classic examples include Viola in Twelfth Night, Julia in The Two Gentlemen Of Verona and Rosalind in As You Like It.

The Merchant Of Venice was one of the first plays ever staged by Bell Shakespeare. It was part of our opening season in 1991. The new 2017 production is the first time we have staged the play since 2006.

If you think Shylock is scary, consider the monstrous Barabas in Christopher Marlowe’s play The Jew Of Malta (written not long before The Merchant Of Venice). Barabas strangles a friar, poisons a convent full of nuns, fakes his own death, and tries to boil people alive.

“What news on the Rialto?”

Act 1, Scene 3

Image: Prudence Upton


Shylock is one of the most coveted acting roles in the Shakespeare canon. Dustin Hoffman, Laurence Olivier and Patrick Stewart are just three A-listers to play the part. In 2015, the Royal Shakespeare Company cast one of Israel’s most celebrated actors, Makram J Khoury, as Shylock.

The Merchant Of Venice has lit up the silver screen in recent years. In 2002, there was a Maori-language movie version translated by Pei Te Hurinui Jones. That was followed in 2004 by a big-budget movie version starring Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons.

The Merchant Of Venice was reimagined by writer Howard Jacobson in his 2016 novel My Name Is Shylock. The story is transported to modern-day England, where Shylock is a wealthy philanthropist, Gratiano is a pampered footballer, and Portia drives (you guessed it) a Porsche.

“Taking a pound of flesh...”

Act 4, Scene 1

Image: Prudence Upton

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