The Merchant of Venice | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Merchant of Venice | Themes

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Prejudice

Shylock seeks revenge on Antonio as a representative of all the wrongs Christians have visited upon him and his people. Shylock's desire for revenge also reflects his prejudice against Christians, but that prejudice is a response to the prejudice he has faced as a Jew. Antonio has personally been responsible for many of the wrongs he has experienced, calling Shylock a dog and spitting on him. Antonio's friend Lorenzo also lures Shylock's only child away from home and marries her—making her a Christian at the same time. In a larger sense Shylock is limited to moneylending as a profession because other trades are essentially closed to him; he resides in Venice's crowded ghetto, not even allowed to own land or choose where he lives. These prejudices create the anger that causes him to lash out at Christians, Antonio in particular; this in turn leads the Christians to act on their own prejudices, stripping him of his wealth and forcing him to convert to Christianity. These actions reveal how prejudice creates a fruitless cycle of mutual hostility.

Mercy

At court Portia (disguised as a legal scholar named Balthazar) pleads with Shylock to show Antonio mercy, to rise above the letter of his contract and be the better man despite the wrongs Antonio has shown him. Shylock refuses, and in turn the Christians of Venice, whose very belief system hinges on the mercy of God, spare Shylock's life but punish him. He loses half his fortune, but Antonio takes away Shylock's community and identity when he demands Shylock convert to Christianity. Paradoxically, those who want Shylock to be merciful show him little mercy once he has been defeated by the letter of the law. Perhaps neither Shylock nor Antonio truly deserves mercy, but that is the point of mercy. It should be offered to those who do not deserve it.

Appearance versus Reality

Whether the truth is locked in a casket, hidden under a suit of clothes, or written into a contract, in The Merchant of Venice appearances constantly deceive. Portia's suitors, the Prince of Arragon and the Prince of Morocco, lose their chances at her hand because they are drawn to the glittery appearance of gold and silver caskets and choose the wrong casket in the challenge set up by Portia's father. Bassanio, who recognizes that great things may be hidden in humble exteriors and glittering exteriors may conceal emptiness beneath, wins the challenge by choosing the lead casket. Bassanio himself appears to be a wealthy man when he arrives at Portia's home, only later revealing the extent of his debts and poverty. In keeping with this theme, Portia disguises herself as a man so the reality of her wisdom and cleverness may be of service at court. While Shylock appears to be the play's villain, his suffering elicits the audience's sympathy.

Worth

Much of the plot of The Merchant of Venice hinges on wealth and who has it, but the real driver of the action is the emotional value placed on different objects. Bassanio and Antonio seek the loan from Shylock because Bassanio is in love with Portia, and Antonio values Bassanio enough to put his life on the line to help him win her. Even though he is offered two or three times the sum of his loan in repayment, Shylock persists in demanding the pound of flesh because revenge on Antonio is more important to Shylock than money. Portia offers this money freely because she values Bassanio's happiness more than gold. She then tricks Bassanio into giving her alter ego his wedding ring—not because of the ring's inherent value but as a test of his loyalty. Gold, silver, and jewels are only valuable to these characters because of the feelings behind these items.

Lack of Control

Few characters in The Merchant of Venice are in control of their own lives and destinies. Antonio's fortune and eventually his life is at the mercy of the waves and weather that carry his ships abroad and back to port. Portia has no control over who she marries because her father set up a riddle designed to choose her husband for her. Bassanio is controlled by the debts he owes. Jessica lives her life under the heavy hand of her father's protection. Shylock is subject to the control of the city's laws, which tell him where he can live and what kind of work he can do. Each of these characters attempts to overcome the forces that control them but with mixed results.

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