The Merchant of Venice is a richly complicated work in which several themes are presented in the framework of a traditional comedy, which calls for the triumph of young lovers over their unromantic elders. Before this end is achieved, three distinct plots are resolved: the winning of Portia by the lottery of the caskets, the settlement of Shylock's claim, and the final complication of the betrothal rings. All of these developments further the traditional romantic purpose of the play.
But before looking at Shakespeare's intentions and devices, let us consider the evidently anti-Semitic nature of the play, which is particularly repellent in light of the Holocaust (1933-1945), in which 6 million European Jews were executed in Nazi concentration camps. Great historical events unavoidably affect the thoughts and sensibilities of later generations, and this terrifying 20th-century manifestation of anti-Semitism must color our response to The Merchant of Venice. Its villain is a stereotypical Jew, and his jewishness is persistently derided by the Christians in the play. Even though Shylock has his moments of sympathetic humanity, they are rather qualified, and he is finally found deserving of treatment that is unquestionably shabby by modern Western ethical and legal standards. He is deprived of his life's earnings and coerced into renouncing his religion by avowed anti-Semites who preach justice and mercy all the while. Many have asked how Shakespeare could have depicted such behavior in characters clearly intended to be taken as good people—Portia, Antonio, and their friends—when in the rest of his work his characterizations are so strikingly humane. One must conclude that, to at least some extent, Shakespeare shared in the anti-Semetic biases of his age.
Of course, the anti-Semitism of Shakespeare's England was rather theoretical: practicing Jews had been rare there since their expulsion from the country in 1290, and active anti-Jewish bigotry was accordingly unusual. But, while 16th-century Londoners may have found Jews more exotic than malevolent, they also had a generally negative image of Judaism that was the legacy of centuries of bias. Christian tradition, from the New Testament on, stimulated anti-Semitism, and if the 16th-century English version was milder than others, it was nonetheless real. Shakespeare, very much a man of his time and place, probably harbored it to some degree; he was at least willing to accommodate his public, which had responded with great delight to The Jew of Malta, by Christopher Marlowe, whose spectacularly villainous title character probably influenced the creation of Shylock. Also, the trial and execution of Roderigo Lopez in 1594, not long before Shakespeare wrote this play, generated a spate of more overt expressions of bigotry. (Elizabethan prejudices are similarly addressed in the play's negative presentations of a black man, Morocco, and a Spaniard, Arragon.) In any case, English anti-Semitism was only one expression of a widespread European phenomenon, and there is unquestionably a historical connection across the centuries between the attitudes of Shakespeare's characters and the atrocities of the Holocaust.
Anti-Semitism contributed to the development of Shylock's character simply by providing the only well known image of a Jew. Sixteenth-century Englishmen tended to attribute to Jews only two important characteristics, both negative: first, that Jews detested Christians and gave much energy to devising evils for gentiles to undergo, and second, that Jews practiced usury. The latter assumption was grounded in an old,
though disappearing, reluctance on the part of Christians to lend money, due to Biblical injunctions against the practice within one's own religious community. Despite the growth of modern banking in the 16th century, it remained true in much of Europe—including Italy, the source of Shakespeare's story—that lending money at interest was confined by law to non-Christians. In England, however, Christians could and did practice usury, at a legally sanctioned rate of 10 percent. Usury's increasing importance in everyday life was a prominent and widely disliked aspect of economic development in Shakespeare's day, a phenomenon that doubtless led the playwright to adapt a tale that condemned it. That it also condemned a Jew was as much a result of actual Continental practices at the time as of Shakespeare's prejudices. His source featured a Jewish usurer as a villain, and he borrowed this character. He gave the role more life than he found in the source, as he typically did, but he did not alter its anti-Semitic overtones.
Although Shakespeare was influenced by the anti-Semitism of his day in writing The Merchant of Venice, the play was not itself motivated by anti-Semitism, nor was it intended to spread anti-Semitic doctrines. Instead, The Merchant of Venice illustrates a theme that occupied Shakespeare in most of his comedies, the triumph of love over false and inhumane attitudes towards life. The central plot of the play deals with Bassanio's courtship of Portia. Antonio goes to Shylock for a loan only because his friend wishes to woo Portia, and the usurer's undoing comes about through Portia's desire to help the friend of her beloved. The seemingly strange ending of the play is the culmination of Portia and Bassanio's betrothal.
The courtship is based on an ancient folk motif, that of a choice among caskets, the suitor's correct choice being rewarded with marriage to the maiden in question. Bassanio expresses his distrust of rich appearances in 3.2.73-107, as he selects the casket of lead. Such sentiments, attached to similar stories, were common in Elizabethan literature and reflected the ideal of true love. Only a true lover would value the maid for herself and choose the plainest casket, which requires him to 'give and hazard all he hath' (2.7.9). (This ideal is not sullied by Bassanio's frank assessment of Portia's wealth in 1.2.161-176, for such considerations were normal when contemplating marriage in the 16th century; Bassanio could not reasonably bring up the subject with Antonio and fail to mention Portia's wealth, particularly since he was asking to borrow money to accomplish his courtship.)
The tale of the caskets also casts light on another theme of the play, that of the misuse of wealth. The title character of any work may be supposed to represent its essential spirit, and the title character here is Antonio, who risks his wealth—and his life, as it turns out—to aid his friend Bassanio. His enemy, Shylock, is a grotesque miser who loves his ducats more than his daughter. Though his stereotypical Jewishness is essential to his personality, Shylock is more significantly related to another tradition, that of the miser whose mean-spiritedness is contrasted with, and overcome by, the power of love felt by the romantic young. However, the conflict is not simply between money and love, but rather between two different attitudes towards money. Both Antonio and Shylock engage in commerce, but only Antonio is willing to use his wealth in the service of others, resembling Bassanio in his willingness to 'hazard all' for his friends. Shylock has the same blind pride as Arragon, assuming that he deserves as much as he is capable of getting.
In Shakespeare's time, money was a particularly troubling subject. Commercial banking was a relatively new phenomenon in England, where land-based wealth had been the norm for centuries, and it inspired much distrust and resentment. Shakespeare's own position seems somewhat ambiguous: his sympathies with old England and his conservative social and political orientation are evident throughout his work, but he himself was a competent businessman, on good terms with the leading usurer of Stratford, John Combe. It has been speculated that his ambivalence may have inspired him to create so three-dimensional a figure as Shylock where a conventional stage villain might have served his traditional comic aims just as well. However, Shylock's humanity gives him great weight; he forcefully represents money's great power to foster hatred and strife, and the open generosity of Antonio and Portia are more convincingly triumphant over Shylock's lust for vengeance when we can clearly see the psychology of his evil need.
As greed is set against love in The Merchant of Venice, so is justice placed in opposition to mercy, especially in the trial scene (4.1). The Duke, asking Shylock to excuse Antonio's penalty, asks him, 'How shall thou hope for mercy rend'ring none?' (4.1.88); he is referring to the usurer's expectations in the afterlife. So is Shylock, when he answers, 'What judgment shall I dread doing no wrong?' (4.1.89). This exchange refers simplicitly to a conventional comparison of the Old Testament and the New, in which the former is seen to emphasize strict obedience as humanity's obligation to God while the latter stresses God's mercy. Shylock stands for the strict interpretation of law, for justice in its most rigorous and unbending form. Portia argues for divine clemency, observing, 'The quality of mercy is not strained' (4.1.180), at the opening other most famous speech.
But Shylock is not wholly evil. His position is defensible, and his demand for vengeance is made humanly understandable. He has earlier traced his own evil to a plausible source in remarking to his tormentors Salerio and Solanio that 'the villainy you teach me I will execute' (3.1.65). Further, Portia, once her battle is won, is not particularly given to mercy, depriving Shylock of any repayment of his loan and then sentencing him to death as well. Shakespeare invented Portia's invocation of a capital punishment statute; it is not in his sources. Thus he emphasized the paradoxical conclusion that Shylock's downfall results from his own insistence on strict justice.
Antonio mercifully rescinds the death penalty, but Shylock is deprived of all his support in life—as Shakespeare permits him to observe in 4.1.370-373. The main thrust of the trial scene is clear: Shylock has been given enough rope to hang himself, and then harsh justice has been tempered by the mercy of the title figure. Antonio, whose affairs have both promoted Bassanio's romantic success and produced his own woes, remains the source of the play's action.
The two primary plots demonstrate and reconcile opposing principles. We see how wealth can aid romance as well as hinder it and that justice can be merciful as well as vengeful. These themes are tied together in the seemingly gratuitous anecdote of the betrothal rings. Portia's ploy is not simply a practical joke; the rings are carefully presented as tokens first of love, then of gratitude, and finally of forgiveness. Bassanio understands the dilemma he faces when he gives his ring to the lawyer 'Balthasar'; he is not disloyal to Portia, but he recognizes that he owes a debt of gratitude to the young lawyer who has saved his friend. Portia knows this, and while she effectively adopts Shylock's position, insisting on the letter of the oath with which the ring was received originally, she clearly intends to forgive Bassanio after teasing him a bit. The story of the rings—a well-known tale in Shakespeare's day—was introduced by the playwright in order to recapitulate in a lightly comic manner the lessons won from the stressful trial. The other elements of 5.1—the rhapsodic musings of Lorenzo and Jessica and the meditations on music—serve a similar purpose. Although often seen as an ill-considered aberration, this scene alleviates the mood of the preceding one. It provides an anticlimax that returns us to the lovers and their world. Without it, The Merchant of Venice would resemble the later Problem Plays, which tend to deal with unpleasant social phenomena in an ambiguous way. Here, even such a grossly sentimental—and wholly implausible—event as Portia's announcement that Antonio's ships have miraculously survived (5.1.274-279) can be accepted wholeheartedly. The audience is permitted to share in the triumph of love and playfulness—the spirit of comedy—over the selfish and inhumane stinginess that Shylock represents.
Modern readers, aware of the extremes to which anti-Semitism can lead, tend to give Shylock more sympathy than his place in the play's tight structure can bear. Shakespeare and his audiences were comfortable with a formal, allegorical presentation of human truth that often seems obscure to modern sensibilities, which are far more attuned to realism. Shylock's symbolic role, that of an obvious villain opposed to characters representing generosity and love, is more important to the play's themes than is his Jewishness or his personality. Eighteenth- and 19th-century theatrical tradition humanized the character, presenting to our own century a very different figure from the one whom Shakespeare originally conceived.
The Merchant of Venice presents great opportunity for such varying approaches; indeed, it demands them. For example, Shylock can be sympathized with, but he may also be seen as an overdeveloped figure who interferes with a romantic comedy. On the other hand, sometimes 5.1 is seen as a defective scene that draws attention away from Shylock. Portia's stratagem of leading Shylock on in his claims to justice can be seen as high-handed and the trial scene regarded as a satire on law and its cruel strictures. Some critics see the focus of the play as the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio; the theme of friendship among men was prominent in medieval literature and was more plainly employed by Shakespeare in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Some go so far as to hold that Shakespeare intended Antonio's affection to be taken as homosexual. These varied interpretations demonstrate the richness of The Merchant of Venice: many different views of the play can be plausibly presented. Its diverse complications are not stiffly theatrical, despite their roots in dramatic conventions and old tales. Instead, they derive from the problems and ambiguities of human experience.
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