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The Merchant of Venice | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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

The Merchant of Venice | Symbols



Gold represents wealth, status, and power. Bassanio needs gold to demonstrate he is a man of quality, worthy of marrying Portia. Shylock uses gold to exert power over Antonio and others because he has little power in other parts of his life. Jessica takes Shylock's gold as a show of power over her father when she leaves home. Yet the valuable parts of life have no relation to gold. Portia loves Bassanio even when she finds out he is penniless and in debt. Shylock discovers neither gold nor his attempt at revenge will improve his lot in life. Jessica has her father's wealth, but she values her relationship with Lorenzo more.


Flesh is a symbol of life, the actual substance all living things are made of. Shylock's religion indicates that some types of animal flesh are tainted and forbids their consumption. When Antonio accepts Shylock's demand for a pound of Antonio's own flesh to secure the loan for Bassanio, he is actually placing his own life on the line as a potential sacrifice for Bassanio's happiness. When Shylock demands that pound of flesh as repayment for the loan, he demands Antonio's life as payment not for the bond but for the years of unhappiness Antonio—and Christian society in general—has caused him. The flesh itself is incidental, the real sacrifice at stake is the value of Antonio's life.


In The Merchant of Venice rings represent love and commitment between partners. For example, when they agree to marry, Portia gives Bassanio a ring that she says represents their bond of love. She cautions him that if he loses the ring or gives it away, that will represent the destruction of their love. Later she tricks him into giving her the ring, but he only gives his disguised wife the ring after Antonio urges him to do so, revealing how Bassanio's bond to Antonio remains stronger that his bond to Portia. Only after Portia reveals her trick does Bassanio see his error and shift his loyalty fully to his wife. A different ring has special significance to Shylock, who laments a rumor he hears of Jessica trading the ring her mother gave him for a pet monkey. He is undone by the way he believes his daughter has disrespected the bond her parents had by treating the ring in such a cavalier manner.

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