Shakespeare sets “The Merchant of Venice”, in two very contrasting settings of Venice and Belmont. Venice is the city of the merchants; it symbolizes money, business, men and hate. Belmont is a magical town which Shakespeare created to symbolise women, happiness, poetry and love. Shakespeare uses this juxtaposition to give a dramatic effect on the audience and he uses the places to introduce various contrasting themes and emotions. In Shakespeare’s time, to set the play in two very different settings was particularly radical and innovative because of the traditions of theatre set by Greek unities. It was simply not possible to show too much on the stage and so the audience would have come to ‘hear the play’, rather than to see it. By focusing closely upon language differences to show character or setting Shakespeare broke the rules of unity, which had been revived in the Renaissance period.
The characteristics of Venice are shown as that of strife, age and melancholy and those of Belmont as a place of happiness and concord. Initially, these places seem to fit the title’s descriptions and Shakespeare shows how the places oppose each other. However, gradually and once the audience begin to ‘hear the play’, it appears all is not as opposing as it seems. Through the language and ideas brought out through the plot, the audience realises it is not the complete truth and that there is more to each setting than is first thought.
The more you delve into the play, the more it is apparent that the two places’ themes appear to be often crossed over and constantly change. Strife, for example, is brought into Belmont by an aged father’s will which shows how the concepts of Venice are introduced into the magical place of Belmont. Whereas, in Venice, Belmont’s youthful attitude intervenes when a couple in Venice run off together when the parent forbids it. As the play progresses even more similarities appear between the two settings and more often than not the concepts of the contrasting places become crossed.
In Act 1, Scene 1, the audience is introduced to Venice and its themes and characteristics. These themes of age, melancholy and strife are shown throughout the scene through the language Shakespeare uses. The play begins in a melancholy tone, as Antonio is introduced,
“In sooth I know not why I am so sad.”
Here Shakespeare demonstrates the melancholy in Venice through the character Antonio’s sadness and confusion. As the audience later find out, Antonio is one of the richest merchants, however this initial line shows despite his money he is discontented and this shows how Venice is not perfect. Even though, Venice is a wealthy industrial, business-rife city it is not as exciting as first thought by the audience for whom it had the appearance that it was an exotic and thrilling place. For Antonio, Venice has not lived up to his expectations. This first line primarily helps to set the impression that working in Venice is risky business and that the merchants lives are full of worry and anxiety. The majority of the first act is written in prose which was used, in the Elizabethan era, to show gossip or low life characters. As the story unfolds of Antonio’s fortune, it is brought to the audience’s attention how his fortune lays on the sea.
“Your mind is tossing on the ocean,”
This indicates to the audience that, Antonio must own some sort of big ship and that his mind is constantly with his boats. He always worries that something is going to go wrong. This shows the issues of melancholy and anxiety that lie in Venice. Antonio also represents age, because he is one of the oldest merchants in Venice and is getting weary of life. He is also in denial of life’s value and thinks that everything is always going to go wrong.
“Why then you are in love.”
Here, when Solanio suggests his sadness is down to love, Antonio dismisses it, as if he is fated to be miserable. He is very flippant about the idea that he will ever have anyone to share his life with. The language Shakespeare uses suggests that although Antonio is rich, he will never be happy and that he is doomed in terms of love and relationships.
The audience, see the first cross-over between Venice and Belmont when Bassanio enters during this scene. He talks in verse, which gives the impression of a softer, more exciting tone.
He also has a whole speech about love, which encourages the audience to think that Venice is not all it may seem. However, despite all the love language, the idea of money and Venetian values can still be found. He explains that Portia is beautiful, but she is also rich and Bassanio needs her money. Shakespeare liberally interposes the speech with money phrases, as he mentions, “debts I owe”, “warranty”, “prodigal” and “rate”.
Bassanio talks of Portia as,
“A lady richly left,” which keeps in with the Venetian themes of money over love. By the end of this scene, through the style and language Shakespeare uses, the audience builds up the ideas and concepts of melancholy, strife and age surrounding Venice.
Scene 2 opens with a wealthy, but weary Portia,
“By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is aweary of this
This quotation echoes the opening of Scene 1 and Antonio’s sadness, and it echoes the problems Antonio has found with wealth. This opening suggests melancholy in the magical place of Belmont as well. The audience’s first impression of Belmont is shown as strife- ridden and not a complete contrast to Venice. Shakespeare uses this to create dramatic excitement as it not what the audience expects and it gives the impression that Belmont is all not what it appears. However, one of the key ideas to notice is that in Belmont, it is woman orientated, which does contrast to Venice’s male dominated world.
However, as a woman, Portia’s freedom is strictly limited and although Belmont may have a woman at its head, it is still a restricted world. This mirrors the realism of the male domination in the Elizabethan times and it gives something for the audience to relate too. The only factor, that causes all the apparent strife and melancholy in Belmont, is one of love, not money. Portia is worried because her future lies in the caskets left by her deceased father. As the audience become aware of the plot, it also becomes apparent that aspects of Venice are already sneaking into Belmont. This is shown through the caskets; her father set up a kind of lottery to decide her future, which is like gambling- a strong aspect of Venetian values.
“Therefore the lottery that
He hath devised in these three chests of
gold, silver, and lead…”
Also, by making the conflict work and by trying to achieve concord, she is causing herself melancholy and strife by keeping to her word. The scene is spoken in prose which contrasts to the love of Belmont. Shakespeare uses this for dramatic effect, as the audience would expect the characters to speak in poetry in such a beautiful, romantic setting. Nerissa and Portia gossip about the suitors who have already come to woo her and when Bassanio is mentioned, Portia becomes elated and excited.
“I remember him well, and I remember him worthy of
Bassanio symbolises youth, happiness and concord coming into Belmont. Yet, this proves to be contrasting that a merchant of dreary Venice is bringing happiness into Belmont, where the audience would have anticipated it to be the other way around. Shakespeare does this to create dramatic effect and to show the audience how the plot is unexpected.
Act 3, Scene 2 follows a scene of hatred. Shakespeare completely contrasts this in this scene, as it is all about love. In this scene this is where it may seem most clear about Belmont’s youthful, happy, peaceful theme. However, even in the second line, “hazard” is said, which is a Venetian type word. It is written entirely in poetry to help achieve the romantic effect for the audience. The morals of Belmont are obvious when Portia says,
“Before you venture for me. I could teach you
How to choose right, but then I am forsworn.”
She remembers her fathers’ will and knows, despite how much she is in love, that she cannot sway him to the right choice. This shows, a typical Belmont value, unlike Venice, she is sworn to secrecy. However, soon after we see another cross-over of age from Venice. Her father, despite being dead, is still overruling everything causing strife and melancholy. This reminds the audience of the situation between Shylock and his daughter and how similar the two situations appear. However, Portia quickly brings back the feeling of love and happiness back to Belmont,
“One half of me is yours, the other half yours-
Mine own, I would say: but if mine then yours, a
And so all yours.”
The length, style and content of Portia’s speech creates dramatic tension, That tension then becomes the subject of Bassanio’s speech, as he compares his waiting to the agony of being, “upon the rack.” Here Bassanio brings back a contrast to Belmont’s soft language and turns back to Venetian ways. However, Portia remains romantic and emphasises the fairytale aspect of Belmont.
“Then if he loses he makes a swan-like end,
Fading in music.”
Shakespeare continues in the romantic style of language and Belmont begins to take hold of Bassanio and he is also converted to Belmont language. He talks in poetic verse and for once is rejecting the attractions of riches.
“Therefore thou gaudy gold,
Hard food for Midas, I will none of thee,”
Surely enough, he chooses the correct lead casket, which once again represents the true values of love and Belmont, instead of the gold casket which is where the Venetian values lie. It also shows the triumph of his inner feelings over the outward show, which is also more typical to Belmont.
Although, soon enough, he returns back to Venetian values, while splitting up the romantic verse, with Portia injecting financial words,
“A thousand times more fair, ten thousand times
More rich, that only to stand high in your account.”
Following this, Portia begins to plot and set up the ring trick which is another Venetian theme creeping back in to Belmont.
“I give them with this ring,
Which when you part from, lose or give away,
Let it presage the ruin of your love,
And be my vantage to exclaim on you.”
Here Shakespeare uses Portia, to bring conflict into the present and future of the idyllic Belmont marriage. Shakespeare does this to create dramatic tension between Bassanio and Portia and to create dramatic effect so the audience feel anxious after the joyful and romantic marriage.
The scene comes to a problematic close as Venice continues to sweep back into Belmont bringing strife, melancholy and age as news that Bassanio’s friend, Antonio is in trouble.
“I have engag’d myself to a dear friend,
Engag’d my friend to his mere enemy,
To feed my means.”
Here Shakespeare completely changes the tone of the scene to one of worry, fear and misery. He uses the bad news of the Venetian strife and melancholy to create dramatic effect. The audience feel such a contrast of moods from romance to sudden melancholy and Shakespeare uses this to prove the cross-over between both places and how the moods of each place interlink with each other.
Act 4, Scene 1 is more commonly known as The Trial Scene. In this scene, the crossover between the themes of Venice and Belmont is shown constantly through the language and symbols used by Shakespeare. Firstly the people from both places come together and the stories from both places intervene with each other.
This proves the point that both places are far more similar than how they first appear.In the scene, Portia and Nerissa disguise themselves as the lawyer and lawyer’s clerk. Here, Shakespeare uses dramatic irony to add to the intensity of the plot and the excitement of the scene. The atmosphere in the early part of the scene is so intense that it seems as though Shylock himself is being tried, rather than having his case against Antonio heard. Shakespeare uses this to show the audience how the law is in control, not Shylock. Shakespeare allows the appearing fair and unbiased Duke of Venice to show partiality towards Antonio,
“I am sorry for thee.”
The scene is generally full of strife, which is mainly caused by Shylock. He represents the age, melancholy and strife in Venice. His hatred for Christians, causes the conflict in the court.
“I bear Antonio, that I follow thus
A losing suit against him. Are you answer’d?”
Also Shakespeare uses Shylock’s knife and scales to add symbolic meaning as well as drama. He believes in law and sacrifice; both of which are typical for Venetian values. The Court and the Duke also symbolise how law is needed to run Venice and keep control. Human values and opinions are not important, it is all based on the system of the law.
“To have the due and forfeit of my bond
If you deny it, let the danger light
Upon your charter and your city’s freedom!”
This ancient precedent of the law again represents the age in Venice.
“If you deny me, fee upon your law
There is no force in the decrees of Venice.”
Also, Shakespeare uses the character of Antonio to show age and strife in this scene. He is the oldest out of his friends and thinks he is approaching his death. Shakespeare shows how Antonio is prejudiced against Jews, through the language he uses,
“You may as well do anything most hard
As to seek to soften that- than which what’s harder-
His Jewish heart.”
He believes that there is nothing harder than a Jewish heart and that they have no feelings.
As Nerissa and Portia enter the scene, an element of youth is brought into Venice. Portia brings in Belmont’s values of concord and happiness and her beliefs of how human values are more important than the law. She asks Shylock to be merciful and she looks at him as a human, rather than just a Jew. However Shylock’s response to this is,
“On what compulsion must I?” evokes the quality of mercy speech which sums up the values of Belmont and how the values of mercy remains strong,
“The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath.”
Shakespeare uses this speech of Portia’s to bring in concord to Venice and tries to convert the Venetians to Belmont ways. However, despite her best efforts, Shylock refuses to be merciful and Portia is resorted to using the Venetian laws.
“It must not be; there is no power in Venice
Can alter a decree established.”
This shows how Venetian ways are taking hold of Portia as she turns almost selfish as she is only thinking about the best interests of her own husband. She uses these laws of Venice to strip Shylock of everything including his religion, money and his pride. Still, Portia is not only contented with that, Shakespeare uses her character and the ring trick to take strife back to Belmont.
“And if your wife be not a mad woman
And know how well I have deserv’d this ring.”
Shakespeare use the ring trick to show the balance of power between the sexes, and Shakespeare uses Portia to show how the female can have the underlying power in the marriage. He makes the audience think about the consequences the ring and power will have on the marriage and how the trick may have ruined the trust in their strong and loving relationship.
In conclusion, overall I think it is not correct to set the themes of Venice as age, melancholy and strife and those of Belmont as youth, happiness and concord. From analysing the language and style Shakespeare uses throughout the play, but mainly in Act 1 Scenes 1 and 2, Act 3 Scene 2 and in Act 4 Scene 1, I believe that the themes of both places continuously interlock and crossover with each other. Shakespeare uses the language and characters of both settings to show the audience how even though both places may appear to be completely contrasting initially, as you delve deeper it becomes clear that the settings are more alike than the audience may first realise.
However, Venice is full of strife, age and melancholy at times and at first it seems to definitely appear as if those are the values of Venice. Furthermore Belmont, on occasion, seems to be full of youth, concord and happiness. Therefore, the themes of these places are, in turn, correct, however more often than not the values of the settings swap and interfere with each other to create the dramatic effect for the audience, encouraging them to think about the ‘old values’ in an age of commercialism and the social problems surrounding the different classes in Elizabethan society.