Summary and Analysis
In Venice, Salanio and Salarino are discussing the latest news on the Rialto, the bridge in Venice where many business offices are located. There is a rumor that a ship of Antonio's has been wrecked off the southeast coast of England. Salanio despairs twice — once because of Antonio's bad luck, and second because he sees Shylock approaching. Shylock lashes out at both men, accusing them of being accessories to Jessica's elopement. They expected as much and mock the moneylender, scoffing at his metaphor when he complains that his "flesh and blood" has rebelled. Jessica, they say, is no more like Shylock than ivory is to jet, or Rhenish wine is to red wine. Shylock then reminds the two that their friend Antonio had best "look to his bond . . . look to his bond." The implication is clear; Shylock has heard of the shipwreck.
Surely, says Salarino, if Antonio forfeits the bond, "thou wilt not take his flesh." Shylock assures them that he will, for he is determined to be revenged on Antonio for many grievances, all committed against Shylock for one reason: because Shylock is a Jew. A Jew is a human being the same as a Christian, Shylock continues; like a Christian, a Jew has "eyes . . . hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions . . . [is] hurt . . . subject to the same diseases, [and] healed by the same means." Like a Christian, a Jew bleeds if pricked, and since a Christian always revenges any wrong received from a Jew, Shylock will follow this example. A servant enters then and informs Salanio and Salarino that Antonio wishes to see them at his house.
As they depart, Shylock's friend Tubal enters. Tubal has traced Jessica to Genoa, where he has heard news of her but could not find her. Shylock again moans about his losses, especially about his diamonds and ducats; he wishes Jessica were dead. Tubal interrupts and tells Shylock that he picked up additional news in Genoa: Another of Antonio's ships has been "cast away, coming from Tripolis." Shylock is elated. But as Tubal returns to the subject of Jessica's excessive expenditures in Genoa, Shylock groans again. Thus Tubal reminds Shylock of Antonio's tragic misfortunes, and the moneylender exults once more. One thing is certain, Tubal assures Shylock: "Antonio is certainly undone." Shylock agrees and instructs Tubal to pay a police sergeant in advance to arrest Antonio if he forfeits the bond.
This act opens with Salanio and Salarino again functioning as a chorus, informing the audience of the development of events against which the action of the scene will take place. The suggestion made earlier that Antonio's mercantile ventures at sea might founder is now made specific. One of Antonio's ships lies "wracked on the narrow seas . . . where the carcases of many a tall ship lie buried." The news of the danger to Antonio also prepares us for the entrance of Shylock, the embodiment of that danger, who has by now discovered Jessica's elopement.
The moneylender enters, and both we and Salanio know perfectly well what news concerns Shylock; Salanio's sardonic greeting, with its pretense of wanting to know "the news," is calculated to infuriate Shylock, for even though we have not seen Shylock since the elopement of his daughter, we know that his anger will have been fueled by the fact that Lorenzo — and, by implication, the whole Christian community — has dealt him a blow. One should be fully aware that Shylock is ever conscious of his Jewishness in a Christian community. Then at the mention of Antonio, Shylock says ominously, "Let him look to his bond." Without question, the bond is "merry" no longer — but Salanio has not comprehended this yet. His half-serious question "Thou wilt not take his flesh. What's that good for?" is answered savagely: "If it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge," Shylock declares.
The malicious digs of Salanio and Salarino produce one of Shylock's most dramatic speeches in the play. It is written in prose, but it is a good example of the superb intensity to which Shakespeare can raise mere prose. Shylock's series of accusing, rhetorical questions which form the central portion of the speech, from "Hath not a Jew eyes?" to "If you poison us, do we not die?" completely silences Shylock's tormentors. In fact, this speech silences us. We ourselves have to ponder it. It is one of the greatest pleas for human tolerance in the whole of dramatic literature. But it is also something more, and we must not lose sight of its dramatic importance: It is a prelude to Shylock's final decision concerning how he will deal with Antonio.
Shylock speaks of a Christian's "humility" with heavy sarcasm; "humility," he says, is a much-talked-of Christian virtue, but a virtue which is not much in evidence. The "humility" of a Christian, Shylock says, ceases when a Christian is harmed, for then the Christian takes revenge. That is the Christian's solution, and that will also be Shylock's course of action, his solution to the wrongs he has suffered: "The villainy you teach me I will execute." And toward the end of the speech, he repeats, like a refrain, the word "revenge."
Shylock's speech on revenge is so powerful and so unanswerable that it is lost on Salanio and Salarino, who are none too bright anyway, but their silence on stage stuns us. Shakespeare has manipulated our sympathy. Then, just when we were secure in feeling that Shylock's reasoning was just, Shakespeare shows us another facet of Shylock, one which we have seen before — his concern with possessions — and thus we must reconsider the whole matter of justice which we thought we had just solved. Shylock's friend Tubal enters, and in the exchange which follows, we realize that Shylock has become a miser in order to build his own personal defense against the hostile Christian mercantile world of Venice. But his defense has increased to such an extent that he no longer can contain it; it possesses him now. He cannot properly distinguish between the love of riches and his love for his daughter, Jessica. Shylock's obsession for possessing has blinded him; his anger at the Christian world has corrupted even his love for his daughter: "I would my daughter were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear! Would she were hearsed at my foot, and the ducats in her coffin!" Thereby, we see the extent of Shylock's hatred. By the end of the scene, the audience is convinced, if it was not before, that Shylock's attack on Antonio will be absolutely relentless. If he can, he will literally take his "pound of flesh."