The Merchant of Venice is a very famous comedy by that most talented of playwright William Shakespeare. It was written in 1596 or 1597 after the great playwright had penned down his famous plays like Romeo and Juliet and Richard III. The story or the outline of the plot is essentially Italian. However, the noteworthy characters of Portia and Shylock set the play apart from the other comedies of Shakespeare and make it unforgettable. In this paper, we examine certain specific issues related to the play and attempt to study several of its nuances in considerable detail.
One of the most interesting characters in the play is Shylock. He is shown to us as the villain but in reality, he is a very ambivalent character. He certainly has his human moments and it appears that his cruelty stems from the ill-treatment that he has received due to his Jewish birth. He gives many reasons as to why he makes such an inhuman demand from Antonio. In an aside, Shylock confesses that he hates Antonio.
He cites several reasons for it. He says that Antonio, being a Christian, lends money without interest and makes it difficult for professional usurers to make a living (“He lends out money gratis” Act I, Scene iii). Also, Antonio has always tried to put down Shylock and called him rude names for being a usurer. This incensed Shylock to no end (“Thou call’dst me a dog before….”, Act III, scene iii). To top it all, Antonio belittles Shylock for being a Jew and makes snide remarks about Shylock’s ancestry (“and what’s his reason? I am a Jew”, Act III, scene i). Shylock takes umbrage at this and in an attempt to take revenge, he makes such a cruel contract with Antonio.
There are two main parallel plots in the play. One pertaining to the rivalry and feud between Shylock and Antonio, and another related to the love story of Bassanio and Portia. These plots are intricately connected and together they form the main story. Bassanio took a loan from Shylock to travel to meet Portia and win her hand in marriage. The loan contract stated that if the loan is not repaid in time, Antonio (Bassanio’s friends) will be indebted to give Shylock a pound of his own flesh. Unfortunately, Antonio’s ships encounter trouble and he is unable to re-pay the loan in time thus causing Shylock to claim his pledged one pound of Antonio’s flesh. Bassanio’s betrothed Portia then comes to their rescue.
Dressed as a man, she defends Antonio and wins the legal battle, paving the way for the consummation of her love story with Bassanio. Thus, the two main plots run together and are woven expertly into each other by the playwright. There is another sub-plot in the play about the love story of Portia’s lady-in-waiting Nerissa and Bassanio’s friends Graziano. This sub-plot complements the love story of Portia and Bassanio. It underlines the beauty of love and it amuses the audience to know in addition to the match they were hoping to happen, they witness another match that enhances the romanticism of the plot.
Anti-Semitism plays a very central role in the play. It is the pivotal theme which causes all the action to happen. Antonio slights Shylock for being a Jew and for being a money lender professionally. He compares Shylock to a devil who can also quote the Bible proficiently (“The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose”, Act I, Scene iii). Even when Antonio is under debt with Shylock, his attitude is of superiority simply because he is a Christian. This causes Shylock to hate Antonio and all Christians and he takes revenge through the evil contract. However, he looses the legal battle, and he has to embrace Christianity.
Love is a very powerful theme of the play. We witness two kinds of love in the play. One is the romantic love between Portia and Bassanio. Bassanio takes a loan in order to travel to meet Portia and win her hand. She too falls in love with him and even tells him to delay the choosing of the casket so that he makes the right choice. Fortunately, he chooses the correct casket and they declare their love for each other and exchange rings. Another type of love celebrated in the play is that of a friend for another.
Antonio and Bassanio are very close friends. When Bassanio is in need, Antonio becomes ready to pledge one pound of his flesh for a loan Bassanio takes from Shylock. Similarly, Bassanio leaves his love story hanging and returns to his side when Antonio is in trouble related to the contract. Portia also takes it upon herself to help her fiancé’s friend and dressed as a man, she defends him in a legal battle and wins it for him.
Wealth is an extremely important motif in the play. It does play the role of the final arbiter of morality. We find that Antonio, who is a reasonably wealthy merchant, is socially in a position to slander Shylock, the Jew and treat him like dirt. Antonio slights Shylock at every possible opportunity and keeps his attitude of superiority even when he is taking a loan from Shylock.
Towards the end of the story also we find that Shylock has to give up his religion as a punishment. We also find that Antonio recovers his wealth and this reinstates his position as an arbiter of morality because he is wealthy and socially at an elevated status than Shylock. This prejudice is quite apparent in the play and makes the plot more interesting and believable.
The Merchant of Venice is intended as a comedy. The amusing details of Portia’s condition for her suitors, the entertaining trial where the entire drama goes awry and against Shylock and the comical sequence of shylock’s daughter dressing up as a page to elope with her lover are all typical of Shakespearean comedies. However, if we wish to examine the play as a tragedy, it will be shylock’s tragedy. Treated as dirt all his life for being a Jew and an usurer, Shylock seeks revenge from Antonio through the contract.
However, his plans fall apart with the intervention of the witty and clever Portia who turns the tables on him. Humiliated and embarrassed, Shylock has to give away one half of his property to Antonio which the latter refuses to take and instead commands shylock to bequeath to Jessica and her suitor. In addition to this, Shylock is asked to embrace Christianity as a salvation for his sins. It is humiliating and tragic for him to have to give up that faith in defense of which he had sought revenge from Antonio.