Merchant done oh so right

Daniel J. Rowe

Bard Brawl co-captain Eric Jean and I are asked often one question: did Shakespeare really write all those plays?


Ok maybe two questions.

What’s your favourite play?

Neither of us have one “favourite,” but we both say almost always Othello for tragedy and Merchant of Venice for comedy, and then add a couple more, but none as much as those two.

This meant I did not want to miss and was pumped to check out Bard on the Beach‘s production of the Merchant knowing BOB always pulls out at least one or two truly quality productions per season.

I saw BOB’s production of Merchant in 2003, which was very good.

How is the 2017 production?

Absolutely amazing.

Go see it.

Director Nigel Shawn Williams nailed it, and I walked away thinking, ‘was that the best Shakespeare production I’ve ever seen?”

Merchant is one of the most important plays, and particularly vital in the current xenophobic culture drowning in intolerance of the other and an obsession with sticking to one’s own. Williams’ modern day Italy style replete with drunk, loud hipster douchebags completely self-involved cackling at others’ misfortunes and gobbling up their misogyny and racism like a gaggle of entitled rich kids in a boarding school is completely appropriate and completely successful.

Edward Foy as Antonio gets the plays first lines:

“In sooth, I know not why I am so sad,

It wearies me; you say it wearies you;

but how I caught it, found it, or came by it,

What stuff ’tis made of, whereof it is born,

I am to learn;

and such a want wit sadness makes of me,

that I have much ado to know myself,” I,i

Every production I’ve seen (including BOB’s 2003 one) sets Antonio as melancholy, thoughtful and tortured, but Williams does not.

Antonio is an asshole here.

This choice, to play Antonio thus, is the first of many excellent choices in a great production.

Short break for a plot rundown:

Antonio is sad, loans his friend Bassanio (Charlie Gallant) money to woo a pretty orphan named Portia (Olivia Hunt). Antonio doesn’t have the money on him so he borrows it from the Jew Shylock (Warren Kimmel), who says, ‘sure man. You can have it, and if you forfeit the bond I won’t even ask for the money, just a pound of your flesh.’ Antonio says sure, loses all his money, and…. Well, go see the play.

Kimmel steals the show. As Shylock, he is stoic and honourable and powerful, while also being tragic and sympathetic and vulnerable. He chews up ever scene with grace and understated rage.

The audience is struck silent when Gratiano (Kamyar Pazandeh) spits in his face.

Warren Kimmel as Skylock is outstanding in Bard on the Beach’s 2017 production. (photo, David Blue)

The dichotomy between the douches and Shylock is incredible and unnerving to watch. There are few moments of comedy in this “comedy,” and more a growing rage at a dominant class of people stomping on those of an other group.

Shakespeare plays often mirror the current climates, as seen in this Merchant or Public Theater’s Donald Trump style Julius Caesar in Central Park. It’s one reason the bard endures. Count on Othello and King Lear productions popping up very soon.

Then there is the “love story” in Merchant.

Thank you, thank you, thank you Williams for recognizing what a sick and twisted world it is that produces a situation where a Portia’s status, money, house, and identity will be taken from her because of a test her father concocted.

Portia is stuck. She must marry whichever suitor chooses the right casement, which comes with a riddle. Generally, this is where directors go for comedy. The arrogant Morocco, the crazy Aragon often blast onto the stage and make everyone laugh at their pomposity.

Not this time.

The suitor scenes, like the rest of the play, stay intense and dark with little room for comedy. (photo, David Blue)

The suitor scenes are just uncomfortable and the discomfort is even greater when Bassiano (on the short list for all time sleaze bag characters of Shakespeare) guesses right.

Consider this: Bassiano only gets to woo Portia because Antonio lent him money. Antonio loses said money and Bassiano runs to help his one true love. The case is lost when Portia (in disguise) shows up to bail him out with her money that Bassiano offers back to her and then he gives her the ring she told him not to.

These people are idiots, and the coupling up at the end is far from a happy ending. Williams pushes this particularly with Jessica (Carmelo Sison) and Lorenzo (Chirag Naik), which is particularly apt.

Lorenzo’s seduction of Jessica causes her to lose her identity and people for a complete zero, and it’s is hard to watch her killer line – “I am never merry when I hear sweet music” – is powerful and tragic, and beautifully foreshadowed by Shylock singing from his room.

Speaking of Shylock. Williams did well to cast Solaria (Adele Noronha) and Solania (Kate Besworth) as female, and Kimmel nails the most famous speech:

“I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” III,i


You just gotta see it.

A couple other notes: this play shows how to act in slow motion. The video projections are unnecessary (the only small complaint I had). The sound is great, and the set is solid.

Don’t let the label “comedy” fool you. This play isn’t funny. In a modern context it’s a tragedy on three fronts.

It’s a tragedy of the outsider. It’s a tragedy of feminism, and it’s a tragedy of law. Those with power, Shylock, Portia and the law of Venice, are by the end torn apart. Those with arrogance win.

Williams somehow manages to get all three messages through. Well done.

Tragedy. Tragedy. Tragedy.

I loved this performance, and for those in BC who want to see a modern, stylish and near-perfect rendition of one of the Bard’s finest plays, do yourself a favour. There’s not much time left.

It ends September 16.

Kimmel and Foy are the perfect juxtaposition in a near-perfect production of Merchant of Venice. (Photo, David Blue)



BB: Merchant of Venice, The Speeches

This week, we present the first of our new series of ‘Speeches’ podcasts!

Daniel and I have picked out a handful of our favourite moments from The Merchant of Venice and we’ve gathered them together into one awesome show. Then poured ourselves some drinks and had a chat about our selections. Feel free to do the same as you listen in!

Daniel and Eric go through some of their favourite speeches in the Merchant of Venice

Listen to the podcast here.

Download the podcast.

So you can follow along with the text if you’d like, here are the passages we’re discussing in this episode.

“I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano…”Act 1, Scene 1 lns 79-107
Speakers: Antonio and Gratiano
Gratiano offers up this speech to Antonio who he accuses of playing the role of the melancholic older man to make himself seem more wise and dignified than he really is. His basic point: forget what anybody else thinks and lighten up! Is Antonio’s sadness just an act, though?

“When Jacob grazed his uncle Laban’s sheep…” Act 1, Scene 3 lns 68-93
Speakers: Shylock and Antonio
In this passage, Shylock and Antonio confront each other about their differing business philosophies: Shylock argues in favour of thrift and cleverness, Antonio in favour of risk-taking and faith. Which is the better ‘Merchant of Venice’?

“Why, I am sure if he forfeit thou wilt not take his flesh.” Act 3, Scene 1 lns 42-60
Speakers: Salerio and Shylock
Probably the most famous speech in this play, Shylock makes it clear that he’s serious about getting revenge on Antonio if he doesn’t get his money on time. He certainly has plenty of reasons to be pissed off. Is it possible to listen to this speak and not be moved to sympathy for Shylock?

A song, the whilst BASSANIO comments on the caskets to himself.Act 3, Scene 2 lns. 64-116
Speakers: Portia (singing) and Bassanio
This the scene where Bassanio finally tries his luck at picking from the three caskets. He offers his justification for his choice: one shouldn’t judge by appearance but by the weight of one’s feelings. Portia’s not supposed to cheat but she clearly wants Bassanio to make the right choice. She’s seen the other two – Morocco and Aragon – mess up, so she knows which choice is correct. Does she slip him any hints or does his reasoning just make sense?

“Now, Balthazar…” Act 3, Scene 4 lns. 46-80
Speakers: Portia, Balthazar and Nerissa
The mandatory Shakespearean comedy’s gender-reversal scene. Portia sends a letter to the lawyer Bellario for some legal advice and a cover story. She and Nerissa then dress up as a lawyer and clerk to play dress-up at court and brag about women with the boys. I was never clear on how she knew to contact the same guy the Duke of Venice had consulted with or how she convinced Bellario to go along with her plan.

“What judgement shall I dread, doing no wrong?” Act 4, Scene 1 lns. 90-104
Speaker: Shylock
We picked this scene instead of the equally famous “The quality of mercy” speech which comes a little later in the scene (lns. 188-209). Shylock delivers his speech about property rights. He argues that just as the nobles in attendance are free to do what they wish with their slaves, he should be free to use his own legally obtained property as he sees fit. Aren’t we inclined and encouraged to agree with his point?
For the full effect, you really should go back and listen to the (in studio!) recording of act iv.

“How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank.” Act 5, Scene 1 lns. 61-76
Speakers: Lorenzo and Jessica
Daniel selected this passage because it contains Jessica’s last line of the play. Lorenzo is waxing poetic about the power of poetry and music but Jessica calls bullshit. Totally oblivious, Lorenzo then gives her a patronizing speech about why she doesn’t get it. Are Lorenzo and Jessica living in a dream world or is this a nightmare waiting to happen?

Hope you enjoy the show!

Feel free to download and listen to any of the previous recordings of The Merchant of Venice.

(Podcast recorded and edited by Daniel J. Rowe, Show notes by Eric Jean)

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BB: Merchant of Venice, Act V

We did it! We’ve finished recording our first complete play!

Welcome to the Bard Brawl’s fifth and final episode of The Merchant of Venice.

Listen to the podcast here.

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Bard Brawlers for this act are (Clockwise from top left) Melissa Myers, John dit Jack, Stephanie E.M. Coleman, Eric Jean and Daniel J. Rowe

The final act of The Merchant of Venice has only one scene in which all of the loose ends and threads get tied up. Portia and Nerissa beat Bassanio, Gratiano and Antonio back to Belmont. After the couples are reunited, the women ask for the rings which they gave their husbands back in act III, scene 2. Awkwardness and humour ensue as the women sweat their husbands for giving away their rings to the doctor and his clerk. Portia and Nerissa even go so far as to suggest to Bassanio and Gratiano that they’ve been sleeping with these men seeing as they had the rings which the ladies gave their husbands. In the end, they give the rings back to their husbands but only after Antonio offers himself up once again as surety for the sincerity of Bassanio’s and Gratiano’s wedding vows.

After the high-stakes, high-tension court scene of act IV, act V can seem like a bit of a letdown: each of the three couples are happily reunited once again on stage, and Antonio learns, that because some of his ships have made it back to port, he’s not going to spend the rest of his days totally broke. Since we know (because we’re in on the gender-swapping disguise game) that the boys are not really in trouble, there just doesn’t seem to be that much at stake. There’s just no way Shakespeare’s going to write a comedy and not give us our three weddings, right? However, that doesn’t mean that all of these weddings have to be created equal.

Gratiano and Nerissa are clearly a doubling of the Bassanio and Portia couple, once removed from true nobility (Portia is the lady, Nerissa the maid, after all). The play seems to believe that they’ll live happily together as one big happy sitcom family (it’s hard to imagine that they would have kicked Antonio out to starve if he’d ended up penniless). But what about Lorenzo and Jessica in all of this?

I mentioned in an earlier post that Shakespeare gives us some hints that Lorenzo and Jessica’s relationship may not be all it promises to be (and that it’s probably Lorenzo’s fault). As act V opens, the couple sits outside of idyllic Belmont, gazing up at the moon. Lorenzo and Jessica compare their love story to those of other well-known literary love affairs.

Here’s the list of allusions:

  • Troilus and Cressida: Troilus and Cressida fall in love during the Trojan war but Cressida is traded to Diomedes. Cressida knows she’ll have to submit in the hopes of saving her people. Troilus renounces his love for her as a result.
  • Pyramus and Thisbe: Two lovers enemy household are forbidden to marry. They set up a meeting place. When Pyramus arrives he thinks that Thisbe was killed by a lion so he falls on his sword. Thisbe arrives later, sees him dead, then kills herself as well. (Sound familiar?)
  • Dido and Aeneas: In his travels, Aeneas arrives in Carthage and woos Dido. Soon afterwards, he leaves Carthage never to return. Dido kills herself by throwing herself into a pyre.
  • Medea and Jason: Jason promises to marry Medea in exchange for some help getting the Golden Fleece. He leaves her in the lurch and marries another woman instead.

Will Jessica and Lorenzo take their place among these infamous couples? Jessica certainly seems to think so, and she compares Lorenzo to all of these infamous lovers, casting herself as the victim of a faithless lover’s promise.

Lorenzo’s love of music (which in this context likely means poetry) is telling. He sees his relationship with Jessica in poetic terms, is inattentive to the actual words, the weight, behind these stories. (Remember that Bassanio, the successful suitor, reasons that love is purchased by the weight and passes the test because of it.) While Lorenzo can afford to make promises lightly in love, to pursue it as though it were just another beautiful story, Jessica cannot afford to be so light-hearted with her affections. When we consider the potential consequences to Jessica should Lorenzo choose to abandon her, we can understand why her last line is “I am never merry when I hear sweat music.” She – like many women before and since – has been fooled by Lorenzo’s music. She’s worried about what will happen when the music stops.

So with that, we close the book on The Merchant of Venice but feel free to leave us some comments. We’d love to hear from you.

Next week, we change gears and tackle our next play, Coriolanus.

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BB: Merchant of Venice, Act IV

A special treat this week: a studio recording of Act IV, scene 1! The recording was done a few months as a pilot for a radio show. Unfortunately, the show was never picked up but why let the recording go to waste? Hope you enjoy it. (Act IV, scene 2 was recorded this week).

Listen to the podcast here.

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Act IV, scene 1 takes place in the courtrooms of Venice, presided over which presides the Duke, the ultimate authority of the city. However, as Shylock explains, the Duke doesn’t have the power to free Antonio because to suggest that the laws of Venice can be overturned arbitrarily as the ruler wishes robs these laws of all their power. However, though some clever application of Venetian laws, engineered by Portia in disguise, Shylock is beaten at his own game. When Shylock’s life is placed in Antonio’s hands, he chooses not to have Shylock killed but to be ‘merciful’ and spare Shylock’s life. Antonio’s ‘mercy’ leaves half of Shylock’s wealth to Antonio – who is in dire need of cash at this point – with the rest being turned over to Lorenzo, the man who stole away his daughter. However, it also forces Shylock to convert to Christianity.

The Merchant of Venice is, among other things, about justice and judgement. The play opposes two conceptions of justice. The first model goes something like this: what is just is what is in accordance to the law. The second model, however, sounds more like this: perfect law is not perfect justice but tyranny.

Representing the first form of justice is Shylock. Whatever the moral implications of his demand, Shylock is perfectly within his legal rights to claim his pound of flesh. Both Antonio and the duke recognise that this is the case as well, which is what creates the problem for Antonio in the first place. Representing the second form of justice is Antonio, who stands for the principle of law tempered by mercy. (This parallel, incidentally, can also be thought of as sketching out an Old Testament – Jewish – vs. New Testament – Christian – conception of justice.)

In act IV, scene 2 is when Portia and Nerissa manage to make good on their promise and obtain their rings from Bassanio and Gratiano. There’s not much to say about this scene except that it’s brought about at Antonio’s wish, it seems. Antonio tells Bassanio that he should give the clerk the ring: “My Lord Bassanio, let him have the ring: / Let his deservings and my love withal / Be valued against your wife’s commandment” (IV,1). Basically Bassanio decides that Antonio’s value and love trumps Portia’s wish that he keep his ring. Hell of a catch, this Bassanio…

Throughout Act IV, scene 1 several references are made to the Old Testament prophet, Daniel. Daniel represents the figure of the wise judge, able to see through falsehoods and reach a verdict that is truthful. This reputation is largely inspired from the story of Susanna (from the Book of Daniel).

In the biblical story, Susanna is approached by two old judges while she is bathing in the garden. They tell her that unless she agrees to have sex with them, they will instead tell her father that she had sent away her servants in order to have sex with a young man. Susanna refuses to do so and was brought before her people and sentenced to death. Daniel interrupted the judges, however, and suggested that they be interrogated separately about their testimony. Having questioned them about which type of tree the young man slept with Susanna, he caught them in a lie and they were sentenced to death and Susanna was saved.

You can find a version of the story of Susanna, from the apocrypha of the King james bible, here. (I can also highly recommend reading Wallace Steven’s poem “Peter Quince at the Clavier” which makes use of the story of Susanna in a more explicit way. Peter Quince, some of you might remember, is one of the members of Bottom’s acting troupe in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.)

In a sense, what Antonio’s sentence does is rewrite the ending of that story: given the right to exact his vengeance on Shylock for having sought to kill him, Antonio chooses instead to spare Shylock from the tyranny of law. Shylock should die, but instead he lives. This would certainly have resonated with the contemporary English Protestant idea that it is through divine grace alone, through God’s mercy, that we ourselves are spared despite our having transgressed God’s law.

The Brawlers have discussed the nature of Antonio’s ‘mercy’ at length but we haven’t managed to agree about how we feel about that sentencing. Is Antonio really being merciful? Is he being cruel to Shylock in asking him to give up his ‘Talmudic law’ for ‘Christian mercy’? Why not weight in and tell us what you think about the nature of Antonio’s mercy? We’d love to hear from you!

Bard on!

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BB: Merchant of Venice, Act III

Following a hiatus of a few weeks in which Daniel has much improved his French, the brawlers return en force for The Merchant of Venice, act III.

Listen to the podcast here. Download the podcast.

In act III, scene 1 we have what is probably the most famous speech of the play: “Hath not a Jew eyes…” This comes right after Shylock has heard of his daughter’s disappearance with a good sum of Shylock’s money. It seems unclear from the scene whether he’s more upset at the theft than at Jessica’s eloping with Lorenzo but he is intent on revenge against Antonio. One of Shylock’s friends, Tubal, then arrives with news of Jessica’s activities. It’s never clear if these are just rumours or if this is the truth, which is interesting because what Tubal next tells Shylock – that Antonio’s ships have all been lost –  turns out to be false by the end of the play. We’ll see Tubal again, particularly in courthouse scene, when he’ll seem much less interested in fanning the fire of Shylock’s vengeance. (Another excellent line from this scene: “I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys.”)

In act III, scene 2 we have our final casket scene, where Bassanio picks the lead casket and wins the hand of Portia. In true Shakespearean comedic style, Gratiano immediately declares his intention to marry Nerissa during Bassanio and Portia’s ceremony. Their happiness is short lived, however, as Bassanio receives a letter that tells him Antonio is going to die at Shylock’s hands for forfeiting the bond. Portia sends Bassanio to Venice with a bunch of money to pay back Shylock and save Antonio. The women give their paramours each a ring as a sign of their new relationships. These rings will become very important in the next two acts.

After a brief scene in which we Shylock basically tells Antonio he’s a dead man (and Antonio seems not to bothered by his impending death), we see Portia and Nerissa slip away from Belmont. They plan to dress up as boys and make their way to Venice to see what their husbands are up to. Portia is clearly intending to take an active role in the events to come, however, as she sends some letters for legal counsel to a cousin of hers in Padua. (Not sure how she knows she’ll need the help.)

The last scene is a strange (funny? disconcerting?) scene involving Lancelot, Jessica and Lorenzo on the subject Jessica’s conversion. With Bassanio and Portia gone, Lorenzo and Jessica take their place as interim rulers of Belmont and some of the potential cracks in their relationship start to be hinted at.

I wrote in the last post about the source of the three caskets love test in The Merchant of Venice. I mentioned it in general terms, but there are a few interesting differences between the source and its treatment in Shakespeare’s play. In the Gesta Romanorum the lottery is designed to test the virtue of a woman who wishes to marry the king’s son. In The Merchant of Venice, it is the men who are being tested: by the caskets but also – as we’ll see in the following acts – by their wives. If the casket test is a sort of moral test (as it is in the original text), it raises the question of what do we discover about Bassanio’s character? Or about Portia’s? If we look closely at song in act three, scene one, there is a conspicuous rhyming scheme that seems to suggests that Bassanio might have been tipped off…

The principal source for The Merchant of Venice, however, is the tale of “The Merchant of Venice” from Ser Fiorentino’s 14th century collection of stories, Il Pecorone (The simpleton, loosely). Most of the main story elements are found in the original, with some differences. For instance, the Bassanio character needs to win the Portia character by spending the night with her without falling asleep. He’s eventually helped out by the Nerissa character who tells him not to drink the drugged wine. A night of crazy sex ensues and he wins the girl and the kingdom, saving his merchant benefactor in the process. Added bonus, the merchant gets to shack up with ‘Nerissa.’ (As the merchant in this version is also ‘Bassanio’s’ uncle, this is slightly creepy.) The main difference though is Shylock. The Jewish merchant in the original seems to have no personal reason for wanting to harm the merchant, his hatred is stereotypical. In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare goes to great lengths to humanize Shylock. The story provides him with ample reasons for despising Antonio: Antonio prevented Shylock from collecting interest on loans by bailing out his friends who were late with their payments, he regularly spits on him (and promises to keep doing so) and he was accessory to his daughter’s elopement. Further, Shakespeare gives Shylock some of the most compelling lines in defense of his actions and feelings.

I’ve mentioned this passage before, and I think it’s worth citing it in its entirety:

SALARINO:  Why, I am sure, if he forfeit, thou wilt not take
his flesh: what’s that good for?

SHYLOCK: To bait fish withal: if it will feed nothing else,
it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me, and
hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses,
mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my
bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine
enemies; and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hath
not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not
revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian
wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by
Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you
teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I
will better the instruction.

Perhaps most provocatively, as we see in this passage, Shakespeare opposes Shylock’s catalogue of reasons for hatred with Antonio’s one: the Shylock is a Jew. It’s enough to make one wonder at the nature of the Christian charity which ‘triumphs’ at the end of the play.

Keep on brawlin’ on!

(I tried to find an English translation of Il Pecorone online but after about an hour of searching I wasn’t able to find any that included the “Merchant of Venice” story. If anybody finds one, please let me know and I’ll post a link to it.)

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BB: Merchant of Venice, Act I

Welcome to the Bard Brawl!

This week: our reading of the first act of Shakespeare’s ‘comedy,’ The Merchant of Venice.

Listen to or Download the podcast.

In this act, Shakespeare introduces us to the main characters and sets up the plot elements which will be central to the action of the play.

In the first scene, a young impoverished nobleman name Bassanio asks his melancholic merchant friend Antonio for a loan in order to pursue his courtship of Portia, the lady of Belmont. Antonio explains that his assets are invested in his ‘argosies’ (that is, his commercial shipping) but agrees to taking on a loan with interest on his friend’s behalf.

In the second scene, we learn that Portia has been forbidden by her late father to choose her husband. Instead, he has devised a sort of test in which potential suitors must choose from among three boxes the one containing her picture. The man who does so will win Portia’s hand in marriage. (More on that anon.) Portia and her lady-in-waiting Nerissa discuss the merits of the current batch of suitors and find them both lacking and unwilling to submit to the test.

In the third scene, Bassanio and Antonio meet with Shylock, a jewish moneylender, who agrees to lend out the 3000 ducats required. Instead of taking his usual fee in interest, Shylock proposes a different bargain: if the money is not repaid in full in three months’ time, he will cut off a pound of Antonio’s flesh. As Antonio is confident that at least some of his ships will make it to port before that time, he agrees to the exchange. This is the origin of the expression ‘a pound of flesh.’

Other characters appearing in this act:

  • Salerio (or sometimes Salarino) and Solanio are gentlemen of Venice who are friends of Antonio and Bassanio.
  • Gratiano is Bassanio’s right hand man and friend. He will accompany him to Belmont.
  • Lorenzo is a young nobleman acquaintance of the group who seeks to marry Shylock’s daughter Jessica.


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