The Merchant of Venice

Shylock -Venetian Jewish moneylender-antagonist-his defeat and conversion to Christianity forms the climax of the story
Portia -heroine-rich, beautiful, intelligent heiress-bound by lottery set forth in her father’s will-lottery: potential suitors choose between three caskets; gold, silver & lead
Reality vs Idealism The Merchant of Venice is structured partly on the contrast between idealistic and realistic opinions about society and relationships. On the one hand, the play tells us that love is more important than money, mercy is preferable to revenge, and love lasts forever. On the other hand, more cynical voices tell us that money rules the world, mercy alone cannot govern our lives, and love can evaporate after marriage.The play switches abruptly between these different attitudes. Shakespeare organizes the shifts between idealism and realism by associating the two concepts with the play’s two locations. Venice is depicted as a city of merchants, usurers, and cynical young men. Belmont, in contrast, is the land where fairytales come true and romance exists.
Mercy The Merchant of Venice begs the question, does mercy exist in the world? Between religious intolerance and personal revenge, the play seems devoid of a merciful being.However, against all the odds, Portia does manage to bring about some mercy in Venice. When Shylock faces execution for his crimes, Portia persuades the Duke to pardon him. She then persuades Antonio to exercise mercy by not taking all of Shylock’s money from him. Here, Portia’s presence turns the proceedings away from violence and toward forgiveness. Portia does, therefore, succeed in transmitting some of her idealism into Venice. Act IV ends with the suggestion that idealism can sometimes survive in the real world.
Self-Interest vs Love On the surface, the main difference between the Christian characters and Shylock appears to be that the Christian characters value human relationships over business ones, whereas Shylock is only interested in money. The Christian characters certainly view the matter this way. Merchants like Antonio lend money free of interest and put themselves at risk for those they love, whereas Shylock agonizes over the loss of his money and is reported to run through the streets crying, “O, my ducats! O, my daughter!” (II.viii.15). With these words, he apparently values his money at least as much as his daughter, suggesting that his greed outweighs his love. However, upon closer inspection, this supposed difference between Christian and Jew breaks down. When we see Shylock in Act III, scene i, he seems more hurt by the fact that his daughter sold a ring that was given to him by his dead wife before they were married than he is by the loss of the ring’s monetary value. Some human relationships do indeed matter to Shylock more than money. Moreover, his insistence that he have a pound of flesh rather than any amount of money shows that his resentment is much stronger than his greed.Just as Shylock’s character seems hard to pin down, the Christian characters also present an inconsistent picture. Though Portia and Bassanio come to love one another, Bassanio seeks her hand in the first place because he is monstrously in debt and needs her money. Bassanio even asks Antonio to look at the money he lends Bassanio as an investment, though Antonio insists that he lends him the money solely out of love. In other words, Bassanio is anxious to view his relationship with Antonio as a matter of business rather than of love. Finally, Shylock eloquently argues that Jews are human beings just as Christians are, but Christians such as Antonio hate Jews simply because they are Jews. Thus, while the Christian characters may talk more about mercy, love, and charity, they are not always consistent in how they display these qualities.
Prejudice The Venetians in The Merchant of Venice almost uniformly express extreme intolerance of Shylock and the other Jews in Venice. In fact, the exclusion of these “others” seems to be a fundamental part of the social bonds that cement the Venetian Christians together. How otherwise would the ridiculous clown Launcelot ingratiate himself with the suave Bassanio? Or why would the sensitive Antonio tolerate someone as crass as Gratiano? It is possible to argue that Shakespeare himself shares his characters’ certainty that the Jews are naturally malicious and inferior to Christians because of Shylock’s ultimate refusal to show any mercy at all and, as a result, his pitiful end.Yet there are also reasons to think that Shakespeare may be subtly criticizing the prejudices of his characters. Shylock’s fury comes not from some malicious “Jewishness” but as a result of years of abuse. For example, though he is criticized by Antonio for practicing usury (charging interest on borrowed money) Jews were actually barred from most other professions. In other words, the Christians basically forced Shylock to work in a profession that the Christians then condemned as immoral. Shylock insists that he “learned” his hatred from the Christians, and it is Shylock alone who argues that all of the characters are the same, in terms of biology and under the law. Viewed this way, The Merchant of Venice offers a critique of the same prejudices that it seemingly endorses?
Law, Mercy and Revenge Both the central action of The Merchant of Venice—Shylock’s attempt to revenge himself on the Christian Antonio—and the romantic subplot—between Bassanio and Portia—explore the relationship between law, mercy, and revenge.Shakespeare’s contemporary, the philosopher Francis Bacon, defined revenge as a “kind of wild justice.” When one private individual decides to revenge himself on another, he is going outside the official justice system. And yet, as the phrase “wild justice” suggests, the revenger is responding to what he sees as a “higher law.” The revenger takes the law into his own hands when he feels that the state is not capable of or refuses to enforce justice. Therefore, while law and revenge are technically opposed to each other, since revenge is illegal, they also overlap. Shylock, pursuing Antonio’s “pound of flesh,” exposes the intimate connection between law and revenge. He seeks vengeance against Antonio precisely by sticking to the letter of the law within the Venetian justice system.In the courtroom scene of Act 4, scene 1, both the Duke and Portia present mercy as a better alternative to the pursuit of either law or revenge. Shylock explicitly refuses to show mercy, while the Christians, in sparing Shylock’s life in the end, claim that they have. Yet, when they do, Shylock himself asks to be killed. He says that, having had all of his possessions confiscated and his religious identity revoked (which would also make it impossible for him to work as a money-lender, since Christians were not allowed to practice usury), he has nothing left to live for. The question of who is or is not merciful, therefore remains open.