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The Merchant of Venice | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Professor Regina Buccola of Roosevelt University explains the motifs in William Shakespeare's play The Merchant of Venice.

The Merchant of Venice | Motifs



Venice is a city built on a series of islands, connected by a network of waterways and canals. Ships are the primary means of transportation and show mobility and motion in this environment. Bassanio, for instance, travels by sea to Belmont to court Portia. When Jessica and Lorenzo flee the city, they likely do so by ship as well. These characters have the privilege of mobility; only Shylock, stationary in Venice, has no affiliation with ships or travel.

Ships are also the foundation of Venice's busy and lucrative trade with the rest of the world. Antonio's fortunes are entirely based on the ships that carry the goods he trades as a merchant, and it is the loss of those ships that almost costs him his life.


Disguise is a part of Venetian life, as the citizens of the city are described as "masquers" who go about the city wearing masks as part of their revelries and celebrations. When Jessica escapes from her father's house, she does so dressed as a boy. Portia and Nerissa disguise themselves as young men so they can be heard at court and, later, test their husbands' loyalties to them.

It is worth noting that, in William Shakespeare's time, it was illegal for women to act on the stage; female roles were portrayed by boys or young men. So disguise was a necessary part of the play. The audience knew it, and Shakespeare played on this awareness in his dialogue, as when Lorenzo and Jessica discuss her embarrassment over being dressed "in the lovely garnish of a boy," as Lorenzo puts it (Act 2, Scene 6). The audience, knowing Jessica was a boy anyway, found this sort of banter amusing. Also, since men had to perform their roles, Shakespeare often had the supposedly female characters masquerade as boys or men—which was naturally very convincing. As a result, it was believable that even their husbands would not recognize Balthazar and his clerk as their wives.


Allusion is a literary device in which the playwright makes a passing reference to something, someone, or someplace of cultural or artistic significance. The allusion is not explained, but the audience is expected to understand the reference and see how it relates to the events on the stage. Biblical and classical allusions abound in The Merchant of Venice. Shylock, Antonio, and other characters often refer to the Bible when discussing the ethics of issues such as moneylending, revenge, and mercy. Throughout the play, characters draw on classical mythology to illustrate the points they are making. The first allusion to a classical topic comes in the very first scene, when Solanio says, "Now, by two-headed Janus/... Nature hath framed strange fellows in her time" and, a few lines later, "That they'll not show their teeth in way of smile/Though Nestor swear the jest be laughable." Janus was the Roman god of beginnings and endings, especially associated with doors and gates; he was always shown with two faces—one looking forward and one backward. Nestor was a wise old king who advised the Greeks at Troy. Another allusion is to the classical tale of Jason and the Argonauts, who undertake a dangerous quest to acquire a golden fleece.


Another literary device found throughout The Merchant of Venice is wordplay, especially punning. Puns explore multiple or similar meanings of words to add richness, depth, and often humor to Shakespeare's dialogue. A good example is Portia's pun on the word will in Act 1, Scene 2 when she says, "So is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father." Her own will is her desires or intention regarding the choice of a spouse, but her father's will carries the pun; it refers both to his intentions for her regarding her marriage and to his last will and testament, in which he set up the challenge for her suitors.

Another type of wordplay is the riddles inscribed on the three caskets used in Portia's father's challenge to her suitors. For instance, the gold casket reads, "Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire." This can be read in several ways. Based on the fact that Portia is still single at the start of the play, her suitors probably often think along the lines of the Prince of Morocco—that, like gold, Portia is "what many men desire." But her father may well be thinking that many men when they are old, in pain, or very ill desire death since the gold casket contains a skull.

Yet another form of wordplay is using words that sound similar but have different meaning. In Act 2, Scene 2, for example, when Old Gobbo says of his son Launcelot that the boy "has a great infection to serve," he probably means "a great affection." Such linguistic near misses would have amused Shakespeare's contemporary audiences greatly. In the same scene Launcelot says to his blind father, "Nay, indeed, if you had your eyes, you might fail of the knowing me. It is a wise father that knows his own child." This is an insult veiled in what appears to be a compliment. But Launcelot does not mean his father is wise; since Old Gobbo doesn't "know" his son, a closer analysis shows that Launcelot is actually calling his father foolish. Shakespeare uses such wordplay to reinforce the idea that a surface reading is often the wrong one, that appearances can be deceptive.

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