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Shakespeare's Words: The Merchant of Venice


Since The Merchant of Venice was written, many words in English have changed their meaning, and some are no longer used. If you remember the slang you used a few years ago, it seems dated. Who now uses the word “groovy”? Shakespeare used the rich vocabulary of his day within his plays. When reading Shakespeare read the line in context of the scene. Try translating the lines into your own words, use today’s vernacular.

Argosies/Portly: large merchant ships/swelled by the wind, majestic
“Your mind is tossing on the ocean,
There, where your argosies with portly sail”(Salerio, 1.1.8–9).
Meaning: Your mind is focused on the ocean, where your merchant ships are sailing with full sails.

Strange: reserved, becoming strangers
“You grow exceeding strange. Must it be so?” (Bassanio, 1.1.70)
Meaning: You are not treating me as a friend. Why are you like this?

Warranty: privilege
“To you, Antonio,
I owe the most in money and in love,
And from your love I have a warranty
To unburden all my plots and purposes” (Bassanio, 1.1.134–37).
Meaning: I owe both money and love to you, Antonio. Because of your love I have your help and privilege which aids my plans.

Ducat: Venetian gold, money worth about $7
“Three thousand ducats for three months, and Antonio bound” (Shylock, 1.3.10).
Meaning: Bassanio is asking for a loan of approximately $20,000.

Fearful: untrustworthy
“See to my house, left in the fearful guard
Of an unthrifty knave, and presently
I’ll be with you” (Shylock, 1.3.177–79).
Meaning: Go to my house now, which is left in the hands of an untrustworthy person, and I will be with you soon.

Varnish’d faces: masks or painted faces
“Clamber not you up to the casements then,
Nor thrust your head into the public street
To gaze on Christian fools with varnish’d faces” (Shylock, 2.5.31–33).
Meaning: Do not look out into the street to look at Christians who are celebrating
carnival, wearing masks, and acting like fools.

A carrion of Death: death’s head, a skull
“O hell! What have we here?
A carrion of Death within whose empty eye
There is a written scroll!” (Prince of Morocco, 2.7.63–65)
Meaning: What do we have here? A skull, which has a scroll in its empty eye.

Election: choice
 “The Prince of Arragon hath ta’en his oath,/And comes to his election presently” (Nerissa, 2.9.3–4).
Meaning: The Prince of Arragon has taken his pledge and now he is coming to make his choice.

Cozen: cheat
“For who shall go about
To cozen fortune and be honourable
Without the stamp of merit?” (Prince of Arragon, 2.9.38–40)
Meaning: Who will go about and try to cheat fortune and be admirable without the appearance of honor?

Complexion: natural disposition
 “And Shylock, for his own part, knew the bird was fledged; and then it is the
complexion of them all to leave the dam” (Solanio, 3.1.25–26).
Meaning: Shylock knew that his daughter was grown up and that it is in children’s
natural disposition to leave home.

Counterfeit: portrait, picture
“Fair Portia’s counterfeit! What demi-god
Hath come so near creation?” (Bassanio, 3.2.118–19)
Meaning: The beauty of Portia’s picture is comparable to her own beauty.

Ceremony: anything held sacred
“What man is there so much unreasonable,
If you had pleas’d to have defended it
With any terms of zeal, wanted the modesty
To urge the thing held as a ceremony?” (Portia, 5.1.219–22)
Meaning: What type of man would not defend something that is sacred to him?

Double: two-fold and deceitful
“Mark you but that!
In both my eyes he doubly sees himself,
In each eye, one: swear by your double self,
And there’s an oath of credit” (Portia, 5.1.261–64).
Meaning: See that I am the lawyer too.

Charge us there upon inter’gatories: question under oath
“Let us go in;
And charge us there upon inter’gatories,
And we shall answer all things faithfully” (Portia, 5.1.319–22).
Meaning: Let us go in where you can question us and we will answer truthfully.


Figurative Language

In addition, Shakespeare uses figurative language as he speaks with metaphors,
similes, and personification. Recognizing when his characters are speaking figuratively
helps in understanding the play.

A metaphor is the application of a word or phrase to somebody or something that is not meant literally but to make a comparison. For example: Solanio compares a baby bird leaving the nest to a daughter leaving her family:

“And Shylock, for his own part, knew the bird was fledged; and then it is the
complexion of them all to leave the dam” (3.1.25–26).

A simile is a figure of speech that draws comparison between two different things using the word “like” or “as.” For example: Bassanio compares stairs made of sand to the hearts of false men.

“How many cowards, whose hearts are all as false
As stairs of sand, wear yet upon their chins
The beards of Hercules and frowning Mars;
Who, inward searched, have livers white as milk!” (3.2.77–80)

Personification occurs when human attributes or qualities are applied to objects or abstract notions. For example: Shylock compares covering your ears to closing up the
windows of his house.

“Clamber not you up to the casements then,
Nor thrust your head into the public street,
To gaze on Christian fools with varnished faces;
But stop my house’s ears—I mean my casements” (2.5.31–34).



Lastly, Shakespeare uses symbols throughout his plays, for example the three caskets in the contest for Portia’s hand. The gold, silver, and lead caskets resemble the cultural and legal system of Venice in some respects. Like the Venice of the play, the casket contest
presents the same opportunities and the same rules to men of various nations, ethnicities, and religions.

Also like Venice, the hidden bias of the casket test is fundamentally Christian. To win Portia, Bassanio must ignore the gold casket, which bears the inscription, “Who chooseth
me shall gain what many men desire” (2.7.5), and the silver casket, which says, “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves” (2.7.7). The correct casket is lead and warns that the person who chooses it must give and risk everything he has. The contest combines a number of Christian teachings, such as the idea that desire is an unreliable guide and should be resisted, and the idea that human beings do not deserve God’s grace but receive it in spite of themselves. Christianity teaches that appearances are often deceiving, and that people should not trust the evidence provided by the senses—hence the humble appearance of the lead casket. Faith and charity are the central values of Christianity, and these values are evoked by the lead casket’s injunction to give all and risk all, as one does in making a leap of faith. Portia’s father has presented marriage as one in which the proper suitor risks and gives everything for the spouse, in the hope of a divine recompense he can never truly deserve. The contest certainly suits Bassanio, who knows he does not deserve his good
fortune but is willing to risk everything on a gamble.

Another symbol in The Merchant of Venice is the pound of flesh that Shylock seeks. This symbol lends itself to multiple interpretations: it emerges most as a metaphor for two of the play’s closest relationships, but also calls attention to Shylock’s inflexible adherence to the law. The fact that Bassanio’s debt is to be paid with Antonio’s flesh is significant, showing how their friendship is so binding it has made them almost one. Shylock’s determination is strengthened by Jessica’s departure, as if he were seeking recompense for the loss of his own flesh and blood by collecting it from his enemy. Lastly, the pound of flesh is a constant reminder of the rigidity of Shylock’s world, where numerical calculations are used to
evaluate even the most serious of situations. Shylock never explicitly demands that Antonio die, but asks instead, in his numerical mind, for a pound in exchange for his three thousand ducats. Where the other characters measure their emotions with long metaphors and words, Shylock measures everything in far more prosaic and numeril quantities.

Leah’s ring which was given to Shylock in his bachelor days by a woman, who is most likely Shylock’s wife and Jessica’s mother, gets only a brief mention in the play, but it is
still an object of great importance. When told that Jessica has stolen it and traded it for
a monkey, Shylock very poignantly laments its loss: “I would not have given it for a
wilderness of monkeys.” The lost ring allows us to see Shylock in an uncharacteristically vulnerable position and to view him as a human being capable of feeling something more than anger. Although Shylock and Tubal discuss the ring for no more than five lines, the ring stands as an important symbol of Shylock’s humanity, his ability to love, and his ability to grieve.


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