Although The Merchant of Venice is noted as a comedy play, it brings to mind the idea of being a play about ethical ownership. The characters each face a different quandary, whether that be financial, marital, or rightful justice. With any comedy, old or new, the premise of the story is that it comes full circle for the main characters. In this play, the “protagonists” get their happy ending. But is it rightly deserved? Throughout this blog, we will focus on the history of the play, the four main characters, and how it is seen through a modern lens.
A background of the period in which the play was written, The Merchant of Venice was written in 1598. It is labeled as a Comedy play due to the way in which the story comes full circle and the status quo is restored. Though many critics throughout later history have labeled the play as antisemitic and racist, resulting after the events of World War II and the way in which they treat Portia’s suitors. At the time of the play, many of the English people were Protestant, due to Elizabethan reign. This preferred religion looked down upon other religions. As we can see in The Merchant of Venice, the Christian and the Jewish characters were very much against one another. This is especially true for Shylock’s character. He vehemently hates his Christian counterparts due to their treatment toward him and of course, his religious views. Though to be fair to Shylock, many of the “Christian” characters are extremely hypocritical. An example of this is the Christian’s lack of forgiveness toward Shylock.
To summarize the play, The Merchant of Venice is a comedy play centered around four main characters in Venice, Italy. These four titular characters must fight for money, love, and their lives as they go against the odds to reconcile their good fortunes. For Antonio, his love and loyalty to his dearest friend, Bassanio, is put to the test when his ships are rumored to be gone; his hide is literally on the line. For Bassanio and his future wife, Portia, it does seem to be a joining of love; if it is, it is one-sided. The fourth main character, Shylock, is a Jewish merchant and is portrayed as the villain during Shakespeare’s time. Though as the play is seen in modern times, it is evident he is the victim.
The character Antonio is a successful merchant in Venice, he is melancholic throughout the play and has very strong feelings for his closest friend Bassanio. This love for Bassanio even goes as far as putting his flesh on the line as collateral for Bassanio to take out a loan from Shylock. In this scene in the play, Shylock seems to be joking about this form of collateral, he is obviously playing into Antonio’s antisemitic opinions about Shylock and his religion.
Act 1, Scene 3:
Why, look you, how you storm!
I would be friends with you and have your love,
Forget the shames that you have stain’d me with,
Supply your present wants and take no doit
Of usance for my moneys, and you’ll not hear me:
This is kind I offer.
This were kindness.
This kindness will I show.
Go with me to a notary, seal me there
Your single bond; and, in a merry sport,
If you repay me not on such a day,
In such a place, such sum or sums as are
Express’d in the condition, let the forfeit
Be nominated for an equal pound
Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken
In what part of your body pleaseth me.
Content, i’ faith: I’ll seal to such a bond
And say there is much kindness in the Jew.
You shall not seal to such a bond for me:
I’ll rather dwell in my necessity.
Why, fear not, man; I will not forfeit it:
Within these two months, that’s a month before
This bond expires, I do expect return
Of thrice three times the value of this bond.
O father Abram, what these Christians are,
Whose own hard dealings teaches them suspect
The thoughts of others! Pray you, tell me this;
If he should break his day, what should I gain
By the exaction of the forfeiture?
A pound of man’s flesh taken from a man
Is not so estimable, profitable neither,
As flesh of muttons, beefs, or goats. I say,
To buy his favour, I extend this friendship:
If he will take it, so; if not, adieu;
And, for my love, I pray you wrong me not.
Yes Shylock, I will seal unto this bond.
Then meet me forthwith at the notary’s;
Give him direction for this merry bond,
And I will go and purse the ducats straight,
See to my house, left in the fearful guard
Of an unthrifty knave, and presently
I will be with you.
Hie thee, gentle Jew.
The Hebrew will turn Christian: he grows kind.
Shylock has been villainized throughout the play up until this point. He is offering this loan out of kindness without interest, his joke of offering flesh plays into how greedy the Christian characters have stereotyped the Jewish people. To which he knows this and he continues stating on being spit upon by Antonio. The hypocrisy of Christians is also known as hypochristians (imo).
For the characters of Bassanio and Portia, it is hard to determine whether it is actually a marriage of love. If it is a marriage of love, it is most certainly one-sided. In the beginning of the play, Bassanio is speaking with Antonio about marrying a pretty girl who comes with a nice fortune. Antonio questions Bassanio on if he loves her, to which Bassanio never answers; his only concern is her wealth. It is evident Bassanio does not love Portia, he needs the money to pay back Antonio. If he did love her, he would not have given her ring to the clerk, a ring he promised he would never part from; which she forgives him for and leads to a happy ending. However, he doesn’t seem to have kept his promise. Which is essentially what the play is about. Sticking to promises and agreements. Transactions. Ironic that both men go into binding contracts and get themselves out of them, in a way. Bassanio leaves Portia to come aid Antonio when his ships are said to have sunk. If he loved her, he would have stayed with her. Antonio and Bassanio are constantly saving each other. Portia is also clearly an intelligent character, however with Portia’s intelligence, her inability to see the love between Antonio and Bassanio comes in to question. Or how she doesn’t seem to be able to read between the lines that Antonio is willing to sacrifice himself for Bassanio.
Shakespeare definitely plays with the notion of stereotyping, especially Jewish people. He makes Shylock a greedy character only consumed with money. While his Christian characters are allegedly solely focused on that of love. Which is ironic, considering they are all greedy for money and Shylock only really wants justice. The Christian characters seem to be inconsistent with their plights of love. Anti-semitic when it comes to Shylock rather than caring about him as a human being. This is evident in his soliloquy with Salarino in Act 3, Scene 2:
To bait fish withal: if it will feed nothing else,
it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me, and
hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses,
mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my
bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine
enemies; and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hath
not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not
revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian
wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by
Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you
teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I
will better the instruction.
Shylock seems to be mourning the loss of his investment, but it is the loss of his daughter and the ring that he mourns as well. The ring which has more sentimental value to him rather than anything else. This does not match with his alleged greediness.
In conclusion, this play does come full circle for some of the characters. At the time Shakespeare wrote this play, the people of England considered it a win to have Shylock convert his religion. In modern times, we see how this is wrong on numerous levels. It is easy to see how Shakespeare was weaponized to fit certain agendas and narratives, especially with this work.
MLA. Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616. The Merchant of Venice. Harlow, Essex, England :Longman, 1994.
Merchant of Venice image: https://www.rsc.org.uk/the-merchant-of-venice/about-the-play/dates-and-sources
Merchant of Venice image: https://www.weloveteachingenglish.com/en/free-english-graded-reading-comprehension/graded-reading-2018/434-shakespeare-s-merchant-of-venice-still-relevant-to-today-s-audience.html
Shylock image: https://teachingshakespeareblog.folger.edu/2016/05/11/recognizing-shylocks-humanity-merchant-venice/