Story structure: The Merchant of Venice

Sudden epiphany: “The Merchant of Venice” is NOT about Antonio and Shylock and the “pound of flesh” debt, but about the romance between Bassanio and Portia. THAT is the main story; the thing with Antonio and Shylock is, in fact, only a subplot to the main story.

I’m sure someone else somewhere must have come to the same conclusion. If so, I haven’t seen or heard it.

One of the first things you learn when studying Shakespeare is the Shakespearan five-act story structure:

  • Act 1: Setting and premise and why this story is happening.
  • Act 2: Our heroes have fun and do the stuff they’re expected to do.
  • Act 3: Something big happens and we can’t go back to the way things were.
  • Act 4: Our heroes deal with the fall-out of all the stuff they did in Acts 2 and 3.
  • Act 5: Everything gets resolved.

The seemingly weird thing about “The Merchant of Venice” is that the Antonio-Shylock story is wrapped up in Act 4, which makes it look like the exception to the rule. However, if we consider that the Bassanio-Portia story is the real main story, it all makes a lot more sense.

  • Act 1: Bassanio needs cash to woo Portia. Antonio stands bond for him with Shylock.
  • Act 2: Portia deals with the unworthy suitors.
  • Act 3: Bassanio marries Portia. Antonio needs help, so Bassanio goes to help him. Portia gives Bassanio a ring and makes him promise never to part with it.
  • Act 4: Bassanio gives the ring to the lawyer (actually Portia in disguise) who saves Antonio in court.
  • Act 5: Portia wants to know what happened to the ring she gave Bassanio. Bassanio explains. All is forgiven. The end.

Antonio is never a particularly developed character because he was never meant to be the hero of the story. He is, in effect, the “fairy godmother” character, the one who enables the real hero(es) to go to the ball.

This isn’t a story about the conflict between a merchant and a moneylender. This is a story about one guy, Bassanio, running off to save his friend, and in the process jeopardising the very thing that his friend got into trouble to give him. It’s a story about friendship vs. romantic love: the love Bassanio has for Antonio as a friend and for Portia as his wife. It’s about the nature of gratitude.

As such, the bit about the ring is a lot more important, though I’ve seen synopses completely leave it out. The ring represents the depth of Bassanio’s gratitude. When he gives it away, it isn’t a thoughtless act–or at least, it shouldn’t be. The lawyer is effectively asking him to choose between Portia and Antonio, and it is only at Antonio’s urging that Bassanio relents.

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