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Using examples of language, style of expression and characters I shall compare and contrast Venice as the centre of trade and wealth to the fictional Belmont, a fairytale place where love and happiness are the main concerns. I shall also consider the society that is depicted in each location and look at how this links to views of the audience both in Shakespeare’s time and in present day. The audience is introduced to the world of Venice in the first scene.
Venice is concerned almost solely with wealth and trade, which mirrors the view the Shakespearean audience would have had of it at the time.
The language used by Antonio, Salarino and Solanio is dominated with the subject of trade. “Your mind is tossing on the ocean There where your argosies with portly sail… ” The style of language Shakespeare uses varies between Venice and Belmont. The characters in Venice talk in verse using elaborate conceits to show their intelligence as was fashionable at the time. Even when attempting to cheer Antonio up, Salarino uses this as a chance to show off his wit and intelligence.
This compares to the simpler but still humorous language used by the women in Belmont and suggest that perhaps it is not possible to be as open in Venice as in Belmont. ‘I will do anything, Nerissa, ere I will be married to a sponge’ The merchants are more concerned with appearing successful then discussing their real feelings. A different interpretation of this is that as the first scene contains only men they are attempting to show off, as opposed to the women in Belmont who are happier to talk openly together.
With speech full of references to business, Salarino and Solanio convey worry and anxiety towards Antonio’s ventures.
This emphasises the fact that the main concerns of Venice are financial. “My wind cooling my broth Would blow me to an ague when I thought What harm a wind too great might do at sea” This preoccupation with wealth and trade is further established when the issue of Antonio’s sadness is discussed. The first reason for his melancholy that is immediately given, is the idea that he is concerned about his merchandise being lost at sea. “Believe me sir, had I such ventures forth The better part of my affection would Be with my hopes abroad” It is only after Antonio dismisses this as the reason for his sadness that the idea of love is put forward.
This contrasts greatly with Belmont where Portia’s sadness is immediately explained as being down to the fact she cannot choose her husband. “Is it not hard, Nerissa, that I cannot choose one, nor refuse none? ” The main concern of Belmont is quickly established as not the qualms of merchants but of a fathers love for his daughter. Love is the governing factor in Belmont and dominates the conversation between Portia and Nerissa. “But what warmth is there in your affection towards any of these princely suitors” This emphasis on love rather than riches contrasts with the leading concern of Venice.
Even when Bassanio and Antonio are discussing Portia as a potential wife they do so in terms of wealth. The first words that Bassanio uses to describe Portia are ‘a lady richly left’. He describes her worth in terms of merchandise, referring to her as the ‘golden fleece’, a risky venture but one that if he succeeds, will make him very wealthy. This attitude of love being reliant on wealth is mirrored in the loan that Antonio gives to Bassanio. In Venice it is only through lending him money that Antonio can express his depth of friendship with Bassanio while in Belmont love is discussed openly.
A rather unpleasant comparison between Venice and Belmont is the racism apparent in both societies. The scene between Antonio and Shylock demonstrates the prejudice against Jews in the 16th Century. ‘You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog, And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine’ This prejudice towards others of a different culture is continued in Belmont. Portia dismisses the Prince of Morocco before even meeting him saying she would never marry him if his skin were black. ‘If he have the condition of a saint, and the complexion of a devil, I had rather he should shrive me than wive me. ‘
The idea of risk plays an important role in both Venice and Belmont but there are differences between them which mirrors the attitudes of the two societies. In Venice the ventures that are made in Act 1 both concern money. The first deals with the risk Antonio has taken by tying up so mush of his wealth on merchandise at sea. The second risk that is taken in Venice is born of hatred and greed, when Shylock’s dislike of Antonio leads him to make the bond of flesh “Let the forfeit Be nominated for an equal pound Of your fair flesh,” This differs from the casket test that suitors must take in order to marry Portia.
Although it deals with a great risk, on choosing the wrong casket the man may never marry, being set in Belmont the venture deals with love rather than money. Despite this, money is still a factor as the test deals with the worth of Portia over the value of the casket. The distinctions between Venice and Belmont may have been viewed differently in Shakespearean times from present day. The casket test was a common myth in Shakespeare’s time and his linking this folk tale to Belmont emphasise it as a fictional, fairytale location detached from the rest of the world.
A Shakespearean audience would have made this link but in the 20th Century this idea may not be understood. The idea of marrying for money rather than love as Bassanio intends to do in scene 1 would have been familiar concept in the 16th Century. Today this would probably looked upon with disapproval. This is also true of the treatment of Shylock in the play. Present day audiences would probably view this very much as an anti-Semitic play because they have been influenced by changing attitudes to religion and by the plays use as a propaganda tool in the Second World War. “Mark you this, Bassanio.
The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose” A Shakespearean audience would have found this treatment of Jews as customary and would have been much more aware of the central theme of the play being love versus greed rather than just a display of anti-Semitism. The differences between the world of the Venice and Belmont are subtle but numerous. Through Shakespeare’s use of language and characters Venice is quickly established as the seat of the wealthy trading world. Belmont is seen much more as a fictional location more concerned with love and happiness then ships and trade.
The varying styles in which Shakespeare writes emphasises these differences. The context in which the play is performed has greatly changed since the 16th Century. A present day audience would view this s a much more anti-Semitic play then a Shakespearean audience would have done. Likewise 16th Century spectators would have been much more aware of the differences between the two locations. Attitudes continue to change and Shakespeare’s plays continue to be performed. Undoubtedly interpretations and attitudes towards this play will continue to evolve.
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