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Character Relationships in The Merchant of Venice

Portia and Nerissa

Nerissa is Portia’s lady-in-waiting, and a close friend and confidante. Portia values Nerissa’s advice, often acknowledging the wisdom in her words. She even goes as far as to say, “Nerissa teaches me what to believe.”

In Act 1 Scene 2, when Portia complains of being “aweary” (tired) of the world, Nerissa humorously reminds her of her many fortunes, saying:

“You would be, sweet madam, if your miseries were in the same abundance as your good fortunes are”

Here, she is reminding Portia, in a teasing way, how privileged she is with her beauty and wealth. Portia then acknowledges the truth in Nerissa’s words by saying, “Good sentences, and well pronounced.”

The two women become engaged to Bassanio and Gratiano respectively. As their bonds strengthen, they transform from individual pairs into a unified group. Both Portia and Nerissa disguise themselves to help Antonio in court, and together they carry out the trick with their missing rings. Their friendship seems destined to remain strong and close, even after their marriages.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that even though Nerissa often provides helpful advice and support, she is still Portia’s servant. This affects the dynamics of their relationship.

Portia and Bassanio

At first, Bassanio appears drawn to Portia partly due to her wealth and status, referring to her as a “lady richly left” with “wondrous virtues”. However, this affection quickly develops into genuine love and admiration. This is evidenced when he selects the lead casket, inscribed with: “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath”. Unlike the other caskets that imply material gain, this one emphasises sacrifice and giving, reflecting Bassanio’s desire to prioritise Portia’s happiness over her fortune.

In Act 2, while Portia laments her unworthy suitors to Nerissa, she recalls her encounter with Bassanio with fondness, She comments that he was “worthy” of “praise”. As he approaches the casket challenge, Portia is anxious for him to choose correctly. She’s even tempted to guide him, but Bassanio, intent on proving his worth, declines any help. His correct choice fills her with joy, and she immediately tells Bassanio that “myself, and what is mine” is now his.

Shylock and Antonio

Shylock and Antonio are bitter enemies. Their deep-seated hatred is fueled by religious differences and ingrained prejudice. Shylock harbours resentment towards Antonio for his anti-Semitic insults, lamenting:

“You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine”

However, he too admits that he hates Antonio “for he is a Christian”.

In addition, Antonio is disgusted by Shylock’s usury (money lending with high rates of interest), a practice which the Christian church opposed. In return, Shylock hates that Antonio “lends out money gratis” (without interest) as this harms his own money-lending business.

This hostility escalates when Antonio seeks a loan from Shylock. Viewing it as a chance to exact revenge for the “ancient grudge” he harbours, Shylock stipulates a gruesome forfeit: a pound of Antonio’s flesh if the debt goes unpaid. This agreement nearly leads to Antonio’s death when he fails to repay, and subsequently, Shylock faces the threat of execution for his attempt on Antonio’s life. The near-fatal consequences of their feud highlight the destructive power of their mutual hatred.

Jessica and Shylock

Jessica is Shylock’s daughter and feels very alienated from him, confessing:

“What heinous sin it is in me
To be ashamed to be my father’s child
though I am a daughter to his blood
I am not to his manners.”

The specific reasons for the shame she feels about her father remain unclear, but her eagerness to convert to Christianity suggests a deep-seated disconnect. This reflects the societal disapproval of Jews prevalent at the time the play was written.

Shylock trusts his daughter, and trusts her with safeguarding his house and possessions while he is away on business. What he doesn’t realise is that Jessica is planning her escape with Lorenzo, intending to take his money and jewels with her. This betrayal cuts Shylock deeply, who bitterly exclaims:

“I would my daughter were dead at my foot and the jewels in her ear!”

At the end of Antonio’s trial, the judge states that Shylock’s assets will be left to Jessica and Lorenzo in his will. While Jessica delights in this unexpected fortune, Shylock is further punished by his daughter’s betrayal. By embracing Christianity, Jessica not only distances herself from her father but also secures a position of greater legal standing in the deeply prejudiced Venetian society.

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