Merchant of Venice (1923) Yale/Notes



Dramatis Personæ. These were first given, under the heading of 'The Actors Names,' in the third Quarto (1637). Words in brackets have been added by later editors.


I. i. 98. damn those ears, etc. If they did speak, the people hearing them would immediately call them fools, and thus be in danger of damnation. An allusion to Matthew 5. 22: 'whosoever shall say to his brother . . . Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.'

I. i. 112. In a neat's tongue dried, etc. A neat is a bovine animal. The meaning of the whole passage is that everybody ought to talk except prudes. Possibly it is a fragment of some popular saying or song.

I. i. 122. That. The word may refer to either the lady or the pilgrimage; it is impossible to say which, but both are probably implied.

I. i. 146. innocence. Furness is probably right in thinking innocence here to mean foolishness. Compare the words in the preceding line, 'childhood proof.' Bassanio knew that he had no good reason for asking for more money, when he had not paid what he already owed.

I. i. 167. Cato's daughter, Brutus' Portia. The Portia of Brutus appears in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, a play which seems not to have been written till half a dozen years after The Merchant of Venice.

I. i. 172. Colchos' strond. Colchis was a legendary country in Asia, on the eastern shore (strond) of the Black Sea. Jason went thither in search of the golden fleece, and with the aid of Medea (whom he later deserted) found and brought away the prize.

I. ii. 50. choose. This much discussed passage seems to me to mean simply, 'if you don't like me, choose somebody else; choose for yourself.'

I. ii. 74. he hath neither Latin, French, nor Italian. Englishmen being, then as now, notorious for their ignorance of other languages. Many believe that Shakespeare would not have written this passage if he had been himself thus ignorant; but the criticism is playful, as that about the Englishman's clothes a few lines below.

I. ii. 87. the Frenchman became his surety. A characteristic English gibe at the consistent but half-hearted way in which the French sided with the Scots in their frequent quarrels with the English. In the Folio (1623) the 'Scottish lord' of line 82 is called simply the 'other lord,' to avoid irritating the Scotch King James, who had become King of England in the interval since the play was first produced.

I. ii. 114. Sibylla. The Cumaean Sibyl. Apollo promised her that her years should equal the number of grains of sand she held in her hand.

I. ii. 133. The four strangers. Six have been definitely mentioned, but Shakespeare was careless of minor consistencies.

I. iii. 35. the Nazarite. Commentators have charged Shakespeare with error in applying this word to Christ, since Nazarene is the ordinary term for 'man of Nazareth.' Nazarite is properly the name of an Old Testament Jewish sect who vowed 'to separate themselves unto the Lord' (Numbers 6. 2); but the distinction between Nazarite and Nazarene was not always observed. The allusion in the word 'habitation' is of course to the transfer of the devils from two men into a herd of swine (Matthew 8. 28 ff.).

I. iii. 85. peel'd me. 'Me' is here the 'ethical dative,' which is frequent in Shakespeare, but nearly impossible to render in modern English. It slightly stresses the speaker's interest in the action of the verb, but does not otherwise affect the meaning of the sentence and would be omitted in a paraphrase.

I. iii. 144. Bass. The Folios and first two Quartos give this speech to Bassanio, and are followed by most editors. The third Quarto (an authority of little importance) gives it to Antonio, which seems inherently better. Antonio is carrying on the dialogue with Shylock; furthermore, Bassanio would not be quite a gentleman if he showed any eagerness here to have the loan made. Shakespeare seldom makes a mistake in delicacy of feeling.


II. i. 7. whose blood is reddest. Even then 'red-blooded' was used as it is now.

II. i. 11, 12. I would not change this hue, Except to steal your thoughts. The only thing that would induce me to change my bronze skin for white would be the chance of winning you if I were fair.

II. ii. 18. my father did something smack, something grow to, he had a kind of taste. This means that his father had sensual tastes. Editors explain 'grow to' as a household phrase applied to burnt milk. Launcelot, however, is speaking with relish.

II. ii. 24. God bless the mark! A deprecatory expression, usually 'God save the mark!' It may have had its origin in Ezekiel 9. 6, where the Lord says: 'Slay utterly old and young, both maids, and little children, and women; but come not near any man upon whom is the mark.' Or it may refer to the mark of Cain, Genesis 4. 15: 'And the Lord said unto him, Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him.'

II. ii. 28. the very devil incarnation. The spurious Quarto of 1619 (falsely dated 1600) substitutes 'incarnall' for 'incarnation,' a change very generally adopted by editors who assumed that quarto to be the genuine first edition of the play. Launcelot's 'devil incarnation' blunderingly confuses three different phrases: devil incarnate, devil's incarnation, and devil in carnation (i.e., pink).

II. ii. 37. being more than sand-blind, high-gravel blind. Launcelot humorously makes sand-blind a kind of positive to the comparative gravel-blind and superlative stone-blind. 'High-gravel blind' is of course his own invention.

II. ii. 47. By God's sonties. A corrupted oath: God's saints, or sanctities (or possibly from the French santé).

II. ii. 61, 62. But I pray you, ergo, old man, ergo, I beseech you, talk you of young Master Launcelot? Since you address me respectfully as 'your worship,' and Launcelot is my friend and equal, therefore (ergo) is it not Master Launcelot that you talk of?

II. ii. 102. what a beard hast thou got! 'Stage tradition, not improbably from the time of Shakespeare himself, makes Launcelot, at this point, kneel with his back to the sand-blind old Father, who, of course, mistakes his long back hair for a beard, of which his face is perfectly innocent.' (Staunton.)

II. ii. 116. you may tell every finger I have with my ribs. Topsy-turvy nonsense for 'you may count every rib with your finger.'

II. ii. 164. The old proverb is very well parted. The proverb was: 'God's grace is gear enough.' Parted means distributed, divided.

II. ii. 174. table, etc. Palmistry. Table was the technical term for the palm of the hand. As Launcelot opens his hand to inspect the palm, the action suggests to him the idea of laying the hand on the book (Bible) to swear an oath. 'A simple (moderate) line of life' (l. 176) is used humorously for the reverse. Compare 'a small trifle of wives,' 'a simple coming-in for one man' (l. 178). The number of wives was supposed to be indicated by the number of lines running from the ball of the thumb towards the line of life.

II. v. 43. worth a Jewess' eye. Alluding to a common proverb, 'worth a Jew's eye.' The early editions spell the word 'Iewes' and modern editors find it difficult to decide whether Jewess' or Jew's is intended.

II. vi. 15. scarfed. Most editors think this refers to flag-decorations. I believe it alludes simply to the spread of sails, which are fresh and strong at the beginning of the voyage, and at the return home are 'ragged . . . Lean, rent, and beggar'd.'

II. ix. 85. what would my lord? It is generally explained that Portia says this playfully to the servant-messenger. Possibly she supposes, however, from the servant's excited manner that Arragon has returned for some reason, and so makes this impatient query.


III. i. 30. the wings she flew withal. That is, the boy's dress that was the means of her escape.

III. i. 99. Why thou— Furness and many other editors believe 'thou' to be a misprint for 'then' (which is actually the reading of the second Folio). But surely Shylock is going to call Jessica a bad name, and either checks himself or can't think of one bad enough.

III. i. 115. Where? in Genoa? The early editions all have 'here in Genoa,' though Shylock is speaking in Venice. Rowe introduced the emendation, which has been accepted in most modern editions. Furness, however, justifies the original reading by the reasoning that in contrast with rumors of far-off losses on the Goodwins, etc., a loss confirmed in Genoa seems very near and definite.

III. ii. 20, 21. Prove it so, Let fortune go to hell for it, not I. Should it prove, by the lottery of the caskets, that I am not yours, let chance bear the blame (which could not be adequately punished short of hell), not me.

III. ii. 54, 55. With no less presence, but with much more love, Than young Alcides. Because Alcides (Hercules) rescued Hesione from the sea-monster, not for love but for the horses promised him by her father Laomedon, King of Troy. Portia compares herself to Hesione in the words, 'I stand for sacrifice' (l. 57). The 'Dardanian wives' (l. 58) are the Trojan matrons.

III. ii. 94. Upon supposed fairness. This may mean 'on the strength of their fictitious beauty,' as some believe; but the beauty of the hair is real, not fictitious. The phrase probably refers rather to the 'supposed fairness' of the head that the locks adorn, which is really not fair at all.

III. ii. 99. Veiling an Indian beauty. This is regarded as a very difficult passage, but why? Bassanio has been talking about lovely golden false hair adorning an ugly head, hence concealing it too. Thus the 'beauteous scarf Veiling an Indian beauty' means the fair veil concealing a black, that is loathsome, beauty. The emphasis is on the word 'Indian,' not 'beauty.'

III. ii. 112. In measure rain thy joy. The verb is certainly rain, not rein, as some critics have taken it. The meaning is: Pour thy joy moderately.

III. ii. 200, 201. You lov'd, I lov'd; for intermission No more pertains to me, my lord, than you. There has been much dispute over the meaning of these lines, all due to the punctuation of the early editions, which unanimously omit the semicolon after 'I lov'd' and insert a comma (or period) after 'intermission.' If the old punctuation is retained and understood to mark the logical relations of the parts of the sentence, the best explanation of line 200 would be to interpret 'intermission' as meaning comedy, like 'interlude.' You loved in the style of high drama, I match you with love less dignified perhaps, but real: I am to you as farce to drama. This, however, would leave line 201 far from clear; and it is much more likely that the pointing of the old editions is a striking instance of the tendency in Shakespeare's time to punctuate rhetorically instead of logically. The comma after 'intermission' would thus mark the drop of the actor's voice, not the close of a clause in the sentence.

III. ii. 220. Salanio. The original editions give the name as Salerio here and throughout the rest of the scene, and several of the most important modern editors, on the strength of this, include Salerio, as well as Salanio and Salarino, among the characters in the play. It is highly unlikely that Shakespeare intended to add this third unnecessary character for the purposes of a single scene: Salerio may be either a slip of the author's pen or a blunder of the compositor.

III. iv. 20. the semblance of my soul. Antonio, whose likeness to Bassanio makes him also like the very soul of Portia.

III. iv. 53. Unto the tranect, to the common ferry. The meaning of tranect, evidently an uncommon word, is purposely explained in the words that follow. Since no other example of 'tranect' has been found, Rowe, followed by most modern editors, substitutes 'traject,' which is taken to be an anglicized version of 'traghetto,' the contemporary name of the Venetian ferries.

III. v. 20. I shall be saved by my husband. See 1 Corinthians 7. 14: 'For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband.'

III. v. 57. 'cover' is the word. Launcelot here means by cover 'bring the meal to the table.' In his next speech (l. 60) he quibbles on another meaning, 'put on one's hat,' which it would be undutiful for him, a servant, to do in the presence of Lorenzo.

III. v. 83. mean it. Either, 'do not mean to lead an upright life,' or 'do not observe a mean (temperance, moderation).'


IV. i. 56. a woollen bagpipe. Covered with woollen cloth. Among the many unnecessary emendations for 'woollen' which have been suggested are swollen, wooden, and wauling (cf. caterwauling). The last is the most plausible.

IV. i. 73, 74. You may as well use question with the wolf, Why he hath made the ewe bleat for the lamb. An accident in the preparation of the First Quarto caused the omission of the first three words in line 73 and the first four in line 74 in certain copies of that edition. The Folio text was set up from one of the defective copies.

IV. i. 118. Than to live still, and write mine epitaph. Compare Hamlet to Horatio (Hamlet, V. ii. 361-363):

'Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
To tell my story.'

IV. i. 129. And for thy life let justice be accus'd. Possibly meaning that justice is wrong for allowing him to live at all; but I think it means that justice should be condemned for allowing him to live in his present purpose, which though horrible is quite legal.

IV. i. 149. Bellario's letter. Many say that Bellario had told Portia how to circumvent Shylock; but this is not only an unnecessary supposition, it spoils the scene. If Portia did not use her mother-wit here, why not let Bellario go himself and thus have Portia run no risk? Doubtless she had persuaded him to be 'very sick.' The subsequent citation of the law proving Shylock guilty of intent to murder may very well have come from Bellario.

IV. i. 223. A Daniel come to judgment. I.e., a just young judge has arisen. The allusion is to the History of Susanna in the Apocrypha: 'the Lord raised up the holy spirit of a young youth, whose name was Daniel,' and who proceeded to give righteous judgment where his elders had blundered.


V. i. 41, 42. Master Lorenzo? Master Lorenzo! The only two authoritative texts, those of the First Quarto (1600) and First Folio, both print these words, 'M. Lorenzo & M. Lorenzo,' which may be intended for 'Master Lorenzo and Mistress Lorenzo' (i.e., Jessica).

V. i. 58, 59. the floor of heaven Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold. Shakespeare may have forgotten that on a bright, moonlight night one cannot see many stars. Furness, however, suggests that the 'patines' are not stars, but bits of illuminated cloud.

V. i. 127, 128. We should hold day with the Antipodes, If you would walk in absence of the sun. With you to replace the sun in the night we should think that our day, as it is on the other side of the globe; i.e., you would turn night to day and outshine the sun.