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‘The Merchant of Venice’ can be seen as a series of tense oppositions. Shakespeare writes about many conflicting issues that were controversial at the time, but does not enforce any opinion on the audience, inviting them to form their own conclusions. The contrasts in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ are important because they incite the audience to consider moral issues such as prejudice, discrimination and bigotry. Shakespeare creates the characters with the intention of relating them to the common person; the sins and discrepancies in their lives are typical of the everyday goings on in Venice at the time.
I will consider love and hate, comedy and tragedy, justice and mercy, expectations versus reality and finally men against women. All of the oppositions are linked to the concerns of Shakespeare’s audience. This means that Judaism, for example, was a concern and also hatred to Shakespeare’s audience. The play was consequently very eye-catching and appealing to the people of Shakespeare’s time. ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is a story of love and hate, and both emotions are expressed powerfully in the play. On the one hand the play appears to be full of love and friendship: Portia and Bassanio; Jessica and Lorenzo; Gratiano and Nerissa.
However, bitterness and hatred are evident: Gratiano’s reviling of Shylock; Shylock’s coldness towards his daughter and hatred of Antonio. Shylock sees himself as a victim of prejudice and maintains himself with his own aggression. The play is renowned for the bitter conflict between Jews and Christians. It appears that the main difference between the Christian characters and Shylock is that the Christian characters value human relationships over business ones, whereas Shylock is only interested in money (.
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 once ran through the streets crying, “O, my ducats! O, my daughter! ” (II. viii. 15). These words suggest that his greed outweighs his love. However, his insistence that he have a pound of flesh rather than any amount of money also shows that his resentment is much stronger than his greed. Portia and Bassanio appear to love one another, however, Bassanio seeks her hand in the first place because he is greatly in debt and needs her money.
The love between these two characters is therefore questionable and emphasises the love and hate oppositions. The themes are also emphasised in the settings of the play, Belmont symbolising love and Venice symbolising hate. ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is set in Italy in Venice and Belmont, representing the two worlds of the play. Shakespeare uses these two settings to emphasise the themes of love and hate. Love is centred in Belmont, a peaceful paradise to which lovers can escape, and hate around Venice, a hectic place that exploits and corrupts. This can clearly be seen when various events relating to love and hate in the play take place.
All prejudicial activity takes place in Venice, including the trial (IV. i. 15). This is also the only place where Jews are found (Jessica becomes a Christian when she moves to Belmont). The Christian couples live in Belmont, and there is hardly any talk of racial prejudice there. Belmont is where the Christians retreat to, after their triumph over Shylock in Venice. The surroundings match the events that are taking place in both Venice and Belmont. Shakespeare often included the themes of love and hate in his plays, either as the main plot, or as a sub plot as such in ‘The Merchant of Venice’.
Love and hate are the central themes of the main plot they hold the story together. Many of Shakespeare’s plays are also centred on the themes of comedy and tragedy. ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is a prime example. Shakespeare uses cross-dressing as a device to lay emphasis on the theme of comedy. The characters conceal themselves behind masks and costumes, which links with the topic of appearance versus reality. Twice in the play, brave escapes are carried out with the help of cross-dressing. Jessica escaped the hell of Shylock’s house by dressing as a page, while Portia and Nerissa rescued Antonio by posing as lawyers of the court.
This device was essential to the women characters since it was forbidden for them to act on stage in the Renaissance period. Their parts had to be consequently acted by young boys. This was common in Shakespeare’s time. Another debatable comedy moment is when Lancelot greets his blind, long lost father and gives him confusing directions and tells him that his beloved son Lancelot is dead. Lancelot says aside “I will try confusions with him” (II. ii. 25) the moment they meet. Since Lancelot is portrayed as a comical, clownish figure that is especially skilled at making jokes, this scene transmits a humorous tone.
But deep down this moment could be considered harsh and unjust. It should be considered a joke but at someone else’s expense. The play seems to end on a happy note, with the resolution of the test of the rings and the celebration of marriage. But many tragedies also occur in the play, some of which contrast greatly to the happiness. For example the joyful wedding of Portia and Bassanio in act 3 scene 2 is suddenly followed by a change of mood as Bassanio reads Antonio’s bad news. The atmosphere of joy and triumph gives way to one of tension and concern.
Bassanio turns pale as he says, “Here are a few of the unpleasant’st words that ever blotted paper” (III. ii. 250). Another darker aspect of the play occurs when Shylock is baited at the trial. Gratiano viciously abuses Shylock, saying “O, be thou damn’d, inexecrable dog” (IV. i. 127). Another central theme of the play is that of justice: the right, proper and fair treatment of individuals according to what they deserve. The idea of mercy is important in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ because it provides a focus for the contrast between Venetian Christian society and the alien invader, represented by Shylock.
When Shylock asks Portia what could possibly force him to be merciful, Portia’s long reply, beginning with the words, “The quality of mercy is not strained,” (IV. i. 179) clarifies what the Christians believe. The Christian characters in the scene believe that justice and mercy are not separate but must be linked. Shylock receives judgement at the trial however he does not receive justice. This is due to the extreme prejudice of Jews at Shakespeare’s time. Shakespeare therefore employs this opposition to highlight the conflicting principals and prejudices of the time. ‘The Merchant of Venice’ shows the danger of judging by appearances.
This is not only a theme but also a moral of the story. Lancelot is a Christian and should hate Jews, but instead he is a trustworthy friend to Jessica, a Jewish girl. This is because he sees her as a nice and gentle young woman and comments, “most beautiful pagan, most sweet Jew” (II. iii. 10). Jessica trusts Lancelot since she gives him a private letter to take to Lorenzo. This friendship must have been conflicting to the prejudices of the time and is therefore a key factor of the theme. “All that glitters is not gold” (II. vii. 65). This is a famous quote from ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and symbolises the theme of deception.
This theme of deception is used throughout the play to mislead and confuse so things may not always be what they seem. Shakespeare also uses this to enhance the unfolding drama of the play and to make it more exciting. Dramatic irony is created when the audience know more than the characters themselves. For example the trial scene (Act IV) and the ring quarrel (Act V) are filled with amusing dramatic irony. The cross-dressing, as mentioned earlier, is also linked with appearances versus reality since it happens at times when disguise is important. The three female characters disguise themselves as males in the play.
Portia and Nerissa conceal themselves as lawyer’s clerks in the trial scene whereas Jessica disguises herself as a page in order to flee from her master. Cross-dressing is important in the play because women roles are insignificant to those of men. For women, cross-dressing is a means of gaining respect and authority. The main events in the play unfold when women are in control. This is conflicting to the principals of the time. Venice and Belmont are both ruled by patriarchy. This means that men have complete control whereas women have no role at all in trade, politics, or law.
It is also evident that they cannot even own property because Portia says, “One half of me is yours, the other half yours, mine own, I would say; but if mine, then yours, and so all yours” (III. ii. 16). Portia has an interest in the law, but has to resort to dressing up as a man before she can exercise her ability. Portia’s speech dramatically changes to suit her role as a man in the trial scene. However she continues with this attitude even after the trial is over and says, “You were to blame, I must be plain with you,” (V. i. 166). This emphasises the predominant influence of men over women.
Throughout ‘The Merchant of Venice’ there are many strong feelings displayed through the oppositions and conflicts. These contrasts are relevant because they portray the individual characteristics of each person. Most of the issues raised in the play are directed towards the prejudice of both women and Jews. The topics of love and hate, comedy and tragedy, justice and mercy, expectations versus reality and finally men against women were all important matters to Shakespeare’s audience. I have discussed each subject individually and conclude to state that they are all important and relevant to the characters of the play.