The merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare’s many fine works. One of the things that makes Shakespeare’s plays so entertaining is his characters. He often uses certain characters as comic relief, and some strictly for romance. Salrino and Solanio are Friends of the main character Antonio. They play a small but important supporting role in Merchant of Venice. The role of Salarino and Solanio is to be bystanders that provide narration and comic relief.
I call Salarino and Solanio bystanders because throughout the play they are never directly involved in the action. They are always somewhat removed. They only appear in five scenes. They are not present for the climax of the play; the trial scene (act IV.1). Their interaction with Antonio is limited to act I.1. They are not in any way involved in the fight between Shylock and Antonio. They are, however, well versed in the drama. They are constantly discussing the events, but not taking an active role in them. They even satirize the drama. Act II.8 is a perfect example. They first discuss Shylock’s daughter stealing his money and jewels. Solanio describes Shylock’s tirade as:
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…A passion so confused,
so strange, outrageous and so variable
as the dog Jew did utter in the streets: (act II.8 L 12-15)
They go on to discuss rumours of Antonio’s ship being destroyed, and Antonio and Bassanio parting company. We see Salarino and Solanio are involved in the drama, but not in the action.
Another reason Solarino and Solanio can be seen as bystanders is that while they are friends with Antonio, they are aloof and less devoted to Antonio than Bassanio or Grationo. They certainly don’t speak of Antonio with love that Bassanio does. They do not offer to help pay off Shylock. They are not even present for Antonio’s trial. In act II.9 Solanio mocks Bassanio’s love for Antonio in saying “I think he only loves the world for him.”(ActII.9 L 50). Another example of their aloofness is when Salarino excuses himself from Antonio’s company by saying “I would have stayed till I have made you merry,/ If worthier friends had not prevented me. (act I.1, L60)” Obviously, Salarino knows his place in the hierarchy of Antonio’s company and illustrates it with a bit of sarcasm. Notice also the lack of sympathy Salarino and Solanio show for Antonio in act I.1. They are not very comforting to Antonio. This certainly contrasts with Bassanio’s declaration of his love for Antonio in the trial scene:
Antonio, I am married to a wife
Which is as dear to me as life itself;
But life itself, my wife, and all the world
Are not esteemed above thy life.
I would lose all, ay, sacrifice them all
Here to this devil, to deliver you. (ActIV.9, L 280-85)
Salarino and Solanio certainly do not exhibit that degree of love for Antonio. They are however, clearly on his side. They obviously hold Shylock in extreme contempt. They describe him as the “villain Jew” (act II.8 L 4) and as the “dog Jew” (act II.8, L 13). They try to talk Shylock out of keeping his bond. “Why, I am sure if he forfeit thou wilt not take his flesh. What is it good for?” (act III.1, L 47). Salarino and Solanio are obviously on Antonio’s side but do not take an active role in helping him. Hence I use the term bystander.
Another important role of Salarino and Solanio is that their dialogue provides insight into the drama and characters. In a way they act as narrators. They break the news when Shylock’s daughter steals his money and also provide commentary on the issue:
I never heard a passion so confused
So strange, outrageous, and so variable
As the dog Jew did utter in the streets:
“My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter (act II.8 L 12-15)
Salarino and Solanio are also the first to tell us that Antonio’s ship has been lost. They also inform Shylock of that fact. Besides acting as narrators, they provide insight into characters. As mentioned above, they mock the intensity of Antonio and Bassanio’s relationship (act II.9 L 50).
The other role Shakespeare created for Salarino and Solanio is comic relief. Their tone throughout the play is sarcastic, especially when speaking of Shylock. An audience in Shakespeare’s time would probably find their anti-Semitic tone humorous. As aforementioned, whenever the two speak of Shylock they always insult him. When Solanio sees him approaching he says: “Let me say “amen” betimes lest the devil cross/ my prayer, for here comes the likeness of a Jew.” (act III.1 L 19). Salarino goes so far as to insult and mock Shylock to his face about the flight of his daughter: “I for my part knew the tailor/ that made the wings she flew withal.” ( act III.1 L 24).
Equating Shylock with the devil and then mocking the flight of his daughter was probably extremely funny to an audience of Shakespeare’s time. Besides mocking Antonio and Bassanio’s friendship (act II.9 L 50), Solanio teases Antonio that he is in love rather than upset about his ships at sea (act I.1 L 45). Besides Salarino and Solanio’s insults towards Antonio and Shylock, their overall tone is sarcastic throughout the play. When they find out Antonio has lost a ship Salarino morbidly comments.
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