The Role of Agreements in Shakespeare’s Plays

In Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, the conflict between Christian and Jew can be clearly seen. Antonio who represents Christian has borrowed money to Shylock, Jew representative, and it almost makes Antonio lost his life. He needs to borrow the money and create an agreement with Shylock because of the financial insecurity. Antonio’s sadness is clearly reflected in Salarino’s dialogue,

Should I go to church

And see the holy edifice of stone

And not bethink me straight of dangerous rocks

Which, touching but my gentle vessel’s side,

Would scatter all her spices on the stream,

Enrobe the roaring waters with my silks,

And, in a word, but even now worth this,

And now worth nothing? Shall I have the thought

To think on this, and shall I lack the thought

That such a thing bechanced would make me sad?

(Shakespeare & Hudson, 1910: 1.1.5)

When Shylock agrees to lend Antonio, the text takes place the scene (Act I, III) in Belmont against one in Venice. It seems that there are some contrasts which make the text use these locations, Belmont and Venice for the agreement. The contrast differences between Venice and Belmont are that money, buying and selling and a public marketplace are the background of Venice while music, actors, trees, glory and couples in love are the background of Belmont. Augustine in Ajzenstat that

[The] two cities [show] ways of life, the city of God and the city of man, and has seemed to many of his readers to believe-just as the separation between the two “cities”of Belmont and Venice helps the Christian characters and idealistic critics of The Merchant to believe-that the human race can be fairly neatly divided into two categories: those who live in the community of unconditional love and those who live in the community of self-love and who, among other things, do the dirty work of law and order by which the ungodly control each other so that the godly can live in peace. (Ajzenstat, 1997: 5)

It seems that the text chooses Belmont because in Belmont a Christian man and a Jewish woman will be given by a Christian the wealth of a Jewish man. Therefore, in Belmont the women have more power than the male in Venice. We can see Portia, Nerissa and Jessia can control things more than their husband.

In The Tragedy of Hamlet, two places are also compared as well, Denmark and Norway. Denmark is the place where Hamlet lives while Norway is the place where Fortinbras lives. We can see that in Hamlet the places represent the character as well because accidentally, both of them are the prince of each country. Indeed, both of the countries are different and it contrasts the characters as well.

The contrast between Fortinbras and Hamlet is that Fortinbras is stay hidden for most of the play and merely enters when Hamlet is death in the very final scene. Hamlet is the opposite. He is always seen almost in every part of the play. The way Hamlet and Fortinbras revenge their father is contrast as well. Fortinbras is shown to be active doing everything he can to revenge his father’s death and to gain back the lost land while Hamlet seems to purposefully spend as long as possible trying to choose whether Claudius is guilty or not before lastly moving on to do anything about it.

Now, we can argue whether the places in Merchant of Venice, Venice and Belmont, also represent the characters or not. Unfortunately, it is harder to identify it because it is unseen and not clearly stated by the text. Therefore, we need to identify closer by seeing the system of Belmont- Venice.

The fatal flaw that will bring down the Belmont-Venice system is that it depends vitally on the participation of two people, Shylock and Portia, who can hardly be expected to be very pious towards it. They are both in a position to see through the roles they are expected to play as quite a bit less than God-given.  (Ajzenstat, 1997: 8)

Shylock and Portia can represent the contrast between the cities because for the protection of Belmont, Portia cannot be permitted to get married by her own will while Shylock is permitted to make a living inVenice by paying tax. Both of them have good reason to see the price they should pay in order to signify what the Christians need from them. The contract therefore, can be found in most of the play.

We also can found contract in the Tragedy of Hamlet. Hamlet meets with his father’s Ghost and the Ghost makes him promise to revenge his death to his uncle, Claudius. However, Hamlet’s contract is not based on the need like Shylock and Portia. It is based on love Hamlet to his father, but Hamlet does not directly revenge to Claudius. He waits and ever doubts “to [revenge], or not to [revenge]; that is the question” (Shakespeare, 1870: III.I.63) Moreover, the ghost states to  Hamlet that he will be “bound” to “revenge” after he receives the story of the his father’s death. Even though the contract which Hamlet made with the Ghost bounds him, the Ghost never actually says “Kill Claudius” as the way Hamlet doing his revenge. Therefore, Hamlet becomes doubt and does not directly kill his uncle.

Hamlet’s contract is real which bounds him with the revenge of his father while the contract of Portia is the trick to deceive the figure of a man just as Shylock, the Jew, takes on to trick the figure of a Christian. We can say that both of the character is the symbol, as stated by Ajzenstat,

[Portia] symbolically unfits herself to play the role mapped out for her in the society she is supposedly saving-even though she largely returns to playing it. Just as Shylock’s conversion tells us that in the future Jews will not be able to be placed at the low end of the Belmont-Venice system, Portia’s appearance in Venice in male dress tells us that she or her descendants will not willingly stay put on the pedestal in Belmont. (Ajzenstat, 1997: 9)

However, in Merchant of Venice, it is not only Portia and Shylock who need to create an agreement, but also Antonio. Antonio needs to borrow money from Shylock to help Bassanio, his friend. He is ready to die for Bassanio and to do everything in his power to help his friend even sacrificing his pound of flesh. We can see how Antonio imitates Christ and it makes Antonio as an ideal of friendship, love, and care in his relationships with Christian. Nonetheless, Rosenshield in his journal article, Deconstructing the Christian Merchant: Antonio and The Merchant of Venic, argues that “To others, Antonio is the model of exemplary Christian love; to Shylock, Antonio is a symbol of Christian hatred” (Rosenshield, 2002: 38) and it is reflected in what Shylock says,

He hath disgraced me, and hind’red me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated my enemies – and what’s his reason? I am a Jew.” (Shakespeare & Hudson, 1910: 3.1.20)

Antonio is also dislike Shylock, but he clearly needs Shylock not only to borrow money, but also to show himself as a real merchant not a usurer. A usurer cannot be a true Christian. Moreover, Rosenshield critics the need of Antonio is as self-fashioning.

He engages Shylock so intensely because he needs to define himself as the antithesis of the Jew… But it is not enough for Antonio to define himself as the enemy of the Jew, he must be Shylock’s greatest enemy, a Christian merchant whose main mission is thwarting the activities of the most prominent Jewish usurer of Venice. (Rosenshield, 2002: 39)

Another contrast is found in the Tragedy of Hamlet. When Hamlet almost dies in the final scene, Fortinbras comes to conquer Denmark.  Before dying, Hamlet signs contract with Fortinbras as if Hamlet gives him a blessing to take his throne.

O, I die, Horatio;

The potent poison quite o’er-crows my spirit:

I cannot live to hear the news from England;

But I do prophesy the election lights

On Fortinbras: he has my dying voice;

So tell him, with the occurrents, more and less,

Which have solicited. The rest is silence.


(Shakespeare, 1870: 5.2.140)

We can recognize this when Hamlet tells Fortinbras that Fortinbras has Hamlet’s “dying voice” for the succession. Horatio instantly response to the contract and admit it as  “order [from] these bodies.” (Shakespeare, 1870: 5.2.141) Fortinbras also answers the contract by “hav[ing] also cause to speak and from his mouth whose voice will draw on more.” (Shakespeare, 1870: 5.2.142)


The contract therefore, is completely fulfilled because there are two people, Hamlet and Fortinbras, who make the contract there and Horatio as a witness. A critic has been written by Prosser in Kurland that “Fortinbras reenters Denmark like a conquering hero” because “he acts not like a privileged guest in Denmark but like its sovereign.” (Kurland, 1994: 5). In other words, Hamlet has welcomed the arrival of his enemy, Fortinbras, by his death in peace rather than giving his throne to his uncle, Claudius.

However, the most crucial contract is happened in the end of Merchant of Venice. In the court, Shylock is forced to choose death or become Christian. This option is requested by Antonio and it represents his revenge and his goal as Christian. Antonio places Shylock in a position in which Jew might desire to death. If Shylock becomes Christian, he cannot lend money again which means he will lose his job. Rosenshield critizes this event that “[t]he success of Jewish revenge would be Christian tragedy, a reenactment of the crucifixión. Christian revenge must be comic; it must be seen not as revenge but mercy.” (Rosenshield, 2002: 46)  Therefore, we can see that the first agreement, pound of flesh is beaten by religion conversion and avenge by ressentiment which Nietzsche criticizes as “an act of the most spiritual revenge.” (Nietzsche, 1956: 167)

Now, we can argue that both of the plays, the Merchant of Venice and the Tragedy of Hamlet have used the agreements to reveal the identity of the characters. It is also used to expose the motive that the characters have. The agreement, indeed, is reflect guarantees which are used by the character in order to survive in life. Therefore, the roles of the agreements are very important. We cannot deny that the agreement has controlled the character’s decision and the decision usually leads to another decision which creates another agreement. In some events, the contract is created to bring peace like what Portia, Shylock, and Hamlet do. In other events, the agreement is used to bring another conflict, for instance, in the agreement of the Ghost- Hamlet and Antonio- Shylock. It brings revenge and tragedy in the end. Furthermore, the agreement between Antonio and Shylock does not only contrast the conflict between Jew and Christian, but also creates an irony of the agreement itself which supposes to solve Bassanio’s problem, but it gives another problem to Antonio. Even in the end, it gives a big problem for Shylock to choose the real death or the death of Jew in himself. This agreement does not make Shylock become a human life. Indeed, in Shylock’s side, the agreement is death itself.

Work Citied:

Ajzenstat, S. (1997). Contract in The Merchant of Venice. Philosophy and Literature, 21(2), 262-278.

Friedrich Nietzsche. (1956). Genealogy of Morals, tr. Francis Golffing. Garden City, New York: Doubleday.

Kurland, S. M. (1994). Hamlet and the Scottish succession? Studies in English Literature, 1500 – 1900, 34(2), 279.

Rosenshield, G. (2002). Deconstructing the Christian Merchant: Antonio and The Merchant of Venice. Shofar, 20(2), 28-VI.

Shakespeare, W. (1870). Shakspere’s Tragedy of Hamlet … [With an introduction and notes.] For the use of Rugby School. Rugby: W. Billington.

Shakespeare, W., & Hudson, H. N. (1910). The merchant of Venice. London: J.C. and E.C. Jack.




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