Merchant of Venice Characters

Duke of Venice: This character has a minor role in the play, he oversees the trial at the end of the play and presents Shylock with the terms of his release.  His character is an example of the “Christian mercy” that Christians preached at the time.

The Prince of Morocco and the Prince of Arragon: These minor characters are suitors to Portia and end up losing in her father’s lottery.  These characters are meant to show the value of the lottery because their reasoning for choosing the wrong boxes reveal the bad qualities for a husband to have.  They stand in contrast to Bassanio’s correct choice-he is the ideal husband.

Antonio: A Venice merchant who is best friends with Bassanio and often supports him with loans.  He is wealthy, but at the start of the play, all of his money is tied up with his five ships which are at sea.  He takes a loan from Shylock, a Jewish money lender who he has mistreated in the past.  The forfeiture of the bond is a pound of his flesh.  Antonio is an example of what is considered a “good Christian” in the play-he is generous and by their standard, “merciful.”

Bassanio: He is best friends with Antonio and often depends on him for money.  He owes several debts to Antonio, but requires another loan in order to go to Belmont and attempt to win Portia.  He wins her by making the wise decision in the lottery her father has set up and becomes her husband.  He shows himself to be a loyal friend to Antonio when he returns to help him escape the forfeiture of the loan from Shylock.  His character is an ambiguous figure in the play because he shows himself to be loyal to Antonio, but his giving up of the ring Portia gave him is an act of disloyalty.

Lorenzo: Lorenzo is a rather passive character in the play.  He is presumably in love with Jessica, but shows as much interest in her father’s wealth, which he inadvertently obtains through Shylock’s downfall.  He steals Jessica from her father’s house and takes her away to marry her.

Shylock:Shylock’s character is a difficult one to discuss because the play can be interpreted in different ways based upon his character’s significance.  He is a Jewish money lender in Venice and he is often persecuted by the Christians, most notably Antonio.  He loans Antonio three thousand ducats on the promise that if it is not repaid, the forfeiture shall be a pound of Antonio’s flesh.  This plot to kill Antonio is unethical, but he cites valid reasons for his hatred.  If Shylock is viewed only as a cruel villain, then the play is one of the virtues of “Christian mercy.” However, if his downfall and loss of daughter, religion and wealth at the conclusion are seen as the tragic end of a man who was abused by the other characters in the play, then the “Christian mercy” must be seen as cruelty in disguise.

Launcelot: Launcelot is the “clown” in this play and he offers comic relief in several scenes.  His role is non-critical to the plot, he quits his service of Shylock and becomes Bassanio’s servant and acts as a messenger between the Christians.

Portia: Portia is the heiress to her father’s wealth and many suitors are seeking her hand in marriage.  However, to become her husband the suitor must make the right choice between three caskets (gold, silver, and lead) which each bear an inscription.  Bassanio seeks and wins her hand in marriage.  Her character seems upstanding and honorable, but she uses a disguise to trick her husband into breaking his promise to her to keep the ring she gave him.  She also saves Antonio from the hands of Shylock and so is key in the “happy” ending.

Nerissa: Nerissa is Portia’s waiting woman who marries Gratiano at the same time Portia is married to Gratiano.  Her role is minor, she uses the same act of trickery to prove her husband unloyal to her in keeping his promise.

Jessica: This is Shylock’s daughter who shows shame for her father’s actions in the play.  She steals from her father and disobeys him in marrying the Christian Lorenzo.  She does show some remorse for her own actions and is often portrayed as mourning the loss of her father at the end of the play.  Her character is an example of the virtues of Christianity as she converts to the religion to avoid damnation for her father’s “evil” Jewish ways.