Paintings of William Shakespeare’s Plays 26: The Merchant of Venice

Richard Parkes Bonington (1802–1828), Portia and Bassanio (c 1826) (340), watercolour and bodycolour over graphite, 16.5 x 12.7 cm, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT. Wikimedia Commons.

Although it’s generally classified as a comedy, William Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice deals with more serious themes, and has long been controversial. Despite that, it has been perennially popular, even in Israel. As a result, it has been painted extensively, and my selection here includes two works by major artists, as well as good coverage from those best known for their paintings of Shakespeare’s plays.

Antonio is a Venetian merchant who is already owed a lot of money by his friend Bassanio. When his friend tells the merchant of his desire to woo an heiress named Portia, he encourages Bassanio to borrow the money he needs on Antonio’s credit.

John Everett Millais (1829–1896), Portia (Kate Dolan) (1886), oil on canvas, 125.1 x 83.8 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

There are many portraits of actresses in the leading role of Portia, and among the finest is John Everett Millais’ Portia (Kate Dolan) from 1886.

The will of Portia’s late father requires her to marry the suitor who makes the correct choice out of three caskets made of gold, silver and lead. She discusses her suitors with her maid Nerissa, who talks of Bassanio until they’re interrupted by news of a fresh suitor, the Prince of Morocco.

Bassanio arranges the loan of three thousand ducats for a period of three months from Shylock, a Jewish moneylender. When he sees Antonio approaching, Shylock reveals in an aside how he hates him, before welcoming the merchant. Shylock offers to lend the money without interest, on condition that Antonio signs a bond that, in the event of his default on repayment, Shylock will be entitled to a pound of his flesh.

Shylock’s servant Lancelot Gobbo, whose old father is blind, decides to run away from his master, and father and son beg Bassanio for Lancelot to become his servant, to which Bassanio agrees. Shylock’s daughter Jessica gives Lancelot a letter to take to Bassanio’s friend Lorenzo, who intends to elope with her.

Lorenzo reads Jessica’s letter telling him to come to her father’s house that night, for the couple to elope with her disguised as a page. Shylock then leaves his house to dine with Antonio.

Several paintings show Shylock leaving Jessica with the keys to his coffers, chests and house, as he heads off to dinner.

Gilbert Stuart Newton (1795–1835), Shylock and Jessica from the ‘Merchant of Venice,’ II, ii (1830), oil on canvas. 88.9 x 74.9 cm, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT. Wikimedia Commons.

Gilbert Stuart Newton’s Shylock and Jessica from the ‘Merchant of Venice,’ II, ii was painted in 1830.

Maurycy Gottlieb (1856-1879), Shylock and Jessica (copy of 1887), further details not known. Image by Lestat (Jan Mehlich), via Wikimedia Commons.

This copy of Maurycy Gottlieb’s Shylock and Jessica was painted in about 1887, after the artist’s death. I believe the original was looted by Nazis and is still missing.

Charles Frederick Lowcock (1878-1922), Handing Over the Keys (with Shylock and Jessica) (date not known), oil on canvas, 62 x 46 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Charles Frederick Lowcock’s undated Handing Over the Keys shows the same scene.

When Lorenzo reaches Shylock’s house in company with his friends, the disguised Jessica climbs down from a window, carrying with her much of her father’s gold and jewellery.

The Prince of Morocco, who has vowed never to marry another, now has to choose between Portia’s three caskets. The gold one bears the inscription “Who chooseth me shall get what many men desire”; the silver one reads “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves”; the lead one displays “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath”. He chooses the gold casket, which contains a death’s head with the poem “All that glisters is not gold…”

Shylock is distressed at the disappearance of his daughter. There are also rumours that one of Antonio’s ships has been wrecked at sea.

In Portia’s palace, the Prince of Aragon, her next suitor, chooses the silver casket, inside which is a fool’s head bearing mocking verse.

Shylock accuses two friends of Antonio and Bassanio of being involved in his daughter’s elopement. His distress is relieved when he is told of the loss of Antonio’s ship, and he vows revenge against the merchant. Shylock’s friend Tubal tells the moneylender how much gold and jewellery Jessica has taken with her, but Shylock takes pleasure in hearing of Antonio’s imminent bankruptcy.

Herbert Stoppelaer (1703-1803), Shylock and Tubal from “The Merchant of Venice” (1767-69), oil on canvas, 59.7 x 73 cm, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT. Wikimedia Commons.

Unusually, Herbert Stoppelaer shows the two men far younger, in his Shylock and Tubal from “The Merchant of Venice” from 1767-69.

Meanwhile Bassanio has arrived at Portia’s palace to make his choice between the three caskets, and determine the success of his suit for her. He picks the lead one, which contains her portrait with the instruction to claim her with a kiss.

Richard Parkes Bonington (1802–1828), Portia and Bassanio (c 1826), watercolour and bodycolour over graphite, 16.5 x 12.7 cm, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT. Wikimedia Commons.

Richard Parkes Bonington’s watercolour Portia and Bassanio from about 1826 shows Bassanio’s visit to Portia’s palace in Belmont. Portia’s maid Nerissa stands aside, and Bassanio, realising that he made the correct choice between the caskets, seals the betrothal contract with a kiss.

With that, Portia formally gives herself as his bride, with her entire estate, and gives him a ring which he is to wear forever. Bassanio’s friend Graziano announces his betrothal to Nerissa. When Jessica and Lorenzo arrive, though, they give Bassanio a letter from Antonio informing him that his business has failed and he is now at the mercy of Shylock. Portia despatches Bassanio to Venice, taking repayment of Antonio’s debt to Shylock in the hope of avoiding his default on the loan, but the moneylender refuses.

Richard Westall (1765–1836), Shylock Rebuffing Antonio (1795), oil on canvas, 81.5 x 53.5 cm, Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

Richard Westall’s painting of Shylock Rebuffing Antonio was made in 1795, and was probably among those exhibited in Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery. Shylock is on the left, and Antonio is dressed in scarlet.

Portia puts her house in Lorenzo’s care, saying that she and Nerissa will stay in a convent while Bassanio visits Venice, but in fact the two women travel to Venice disguised as men.

In court in Venice, Shylock refuses repayment of the debt, insisting on his pound of flesh in accordance with the bond. Bassanio offers him twice the money, but Shylock still refuses and starts to sharpen his knife. The Duke presiding over the court considers adjourning for advice, but instead a young lawyer arrives: he is Balthasar, really Portia in disguise, with the disguised Nerissa as clerk.

Edward Alcock (1745–1778), Portia and Shylock, from Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice”, IV, i (c 1778), oil on canvas, 66 x 50.8 cm, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT. Wikimedia Commons.

Edward Alcock’s painting of Portia and Shylock, from Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice”, IV, i was made in about 1778, and shows the moneylender clutching the all-important bond, as he insists on his pound of flesh.

Thomas Sully (1783–1872), Portia and Shylock (1835), oil on canvas, 96.5 x 73.6 cm, Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

In Thomas Sully’s Portia and Shylock (1835), Shylock holds his knife as Portia, thinly disguised, studies his bond.

Portia speaks to Shylock, exhorting him to show mercy, but he refuses, and she concedes his right to his pound of flesh. As Antonio bares his chest to Shylock’s knife, Portia draws attention to the fact that the bond makes no mention of blood. As a result, if Shylock’s knife were to shed any of Antonio’s blood while he cuts his pound of flesh, Shylock’s estate would be seized by the state.

Shylock accepts an offer of three times the debt in lieu of the pound of flesh, but Portia insists that he is only entitled to the flesh and not the money, not even the amount of the original loan. As Shylock is about to leave empty-handed, Portia points out that Shylock, as an alien who has attempted to kill a Venetian, is subject to the death penalty, and all his property must then be divided between Antonio and the Venetian state.

Frank Howard (c 1805-1866), Portia Pronouncing Sentence (c 1830-31), oil on canvas, 71.2 x 91.5 cm, Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

Frank Howard’s crowded Portia Pronouncing Sentence (c 1830-31) shows Portia standing, with a black hat, as Shylock stands, thwarted, his knife in his right hand. Antonio is sat to the left of him, his chest bared ready for the cutting of the pound of flesh.

At that, the Duke exercises clemency and spare Shylock’s life, and offers to waive the state’s claim on half his wealth, in favour of a fine. Antonio proposes to borrow half of Shylock’s estate, and to give that to Lorenzo when Shylock is dead. He also insists that Shylock should give all his other possessions to Lorenzo, and that the moneylender converts from his Jewish faith to Christianity. At that, Shylock feels unwell and departs, leaving Portia and Nerissa to ask for their wedding rings, which Bassanio and Graziano hand over.

Outside Portia’s palace at Belmont, in the moonlight, Lorenzo and Jessica listen to music.

John Edmund Buckley (1820–1884), The Moon Shines Bright (1859), watercolour on paper, 30.2 x 50.1 cm, Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

John Edmund Buckley’s fine watercolour of The Moon Shines Bright from 1859 shows the couple together in the garden.

Portia and Nerissa return, followed by Bassanio, Antonio and Graziano. The two women tell the men that they won’t sleep with their husbands, rather with the lawyer and his clerk, but finally reveal their deception and the rings they both acquired from the men. Portia then tells Antonio of the safe arrival of three of his ships, and gives Lorenzo the deed by which he is now Shylock’s heir.


Wikipedia on Shakespeare’s play.
Full text at Project Gutenberg.

Michael Dobson and Stanley Wells (eds) (2015) The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, 2nd edn, Oxford UP. ISBN 978 0 19 870873 5.