The plot of “The Merchant of Venice,” by William Shakespeare, is a series of intertwining parts. The entire play centres around the bond made between Bassanio and Shylock of 3,000 ducats for three months, secured on one pound of Antonio’s flesh. Naturally, this idea leads to a very interesting situation. Antonio, a merchant in Venice, agreed to this strange bond because he was confident of his ships arriving in time for him to repay the money to Shylock. Another reason for his agreement was his willingness to assist his dear friend, Bassanio.Bassanio needed the money to pursue his love interest, Portia, as he did not have enough money to compete on a level playing field with the other suitors. Predictably, Antonio’s ships all fail to return on time.
This leads to a rather troublesome dilemma. There are several themes that run through the play. One of the themes is choice. In the second scene of Act One, Portia rhetorically asks, ‘is the will of a living daughter curb’d by the will of a dead father.
‘ She goes on to say ‘I cannot choose one, nor refuse one. ‘ Portia is referring to her choice of a suitor.Her husband, because of her deceased father’s will, must be chosen by a ‘lottery. ‘ The term, lottery, is a good way of describing it. Some would argue that the prize of the beautiful and wealthy Portia is equal to the prize of today’s lotteries. There are three caskets: one of gold, one of silver and one of lead. Each suitor must take his turn to select the correct casket.
If he chooses correctly, he wins Portia’s hand. If he selects wrongly, then he must never marry. The first suitor, Morocco, chooses the gold casket based largely on the idea of a gold coin that bears the face of an angel (Act Two, Scene Seven).
Unfortunately for him, ‘all that glisters is not gold. ‘ Good gifts may not come in the best packages. The second suitor, Arragon, was cleverly named because he was quite arrogant. He chooses the silver casket because he feels that it was what he deserved. It is hardly so, as his choice is also incorrect. Bassanio, attracted by its paleness, correctly chooses the lead casket. He felt the gold was ‘hard food for Midas’ and the silver was a ‘pale and common drudge. ‘ Looks can be deceiving.
The first two suitors base their choices on foolish ideas.The value of the package might not match the value of the contents. This teaches an important lesson about choices. Throughout the play, there are several racial undertones. Most obviously, there is the confrontation between Christian and Jew when Antonio talks to Shylock. The characters constantly refer to one another as ‘Jew’ and ‘Christian.
‘ In the third scene of Act One, Shylock’s racial hatred is demonstrated as when he says ‘I hate him for he is a Christian. ‘ His view of Antonio is based solely on Antonio’s faith.Antonio states that ‘the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose. ‘ He suggests that an evil one can twist religion to his favour. Shakespeare shows how both men use religion as their battleground. Shylock claims that Antonio is guilty of sin because he ‘lends out money gratis. ‘ He uses religion as his shield, while the audience believes he is only truly angry because of its affect on his business. Prejudice, based on religion, was present in Elizabethan England, all the Jews were expelled by King Edward the first, and those who managed to stay were marginalised.
The Jews, who were demonized, would never be found in any figure of controversy. Another example of racism occurs when Morocco attempts to win Portia’s hand. When he enters the play in Act Two, his first words are ‘mislike me not for my complexion. ‘ His speech implies that he will not be liked due to his being black and the words to display an inferiority complex.
When he chooses wrongly, Portia says ‘let all of his complexion chose me so. ‘ This is clearly a raciest remark but in Elizabethan times, this was a reasonable comment signalled towards black people in England, who worked as slaves.Based on his being black, she hoped that he would not choose her.
However, in a lottery everyone has a fair chance of winning. Contrary to what she suggests, she does unfairly judge him. Prejudice due to skin colour is another important issue. These racist undertones give clues to how people have not learned their lessons over more than 400 years. We are still misjudging people solely because of their appearance. Similarly, there is a lot of stereotyping in the play.
Suitors from all over the world come to seek the hand of Portia.Each one of these suitors follows all of the appalling characteristics associated with their countries. In the second scene of Act one, Portia and her servant girl, Nerissa, discuss them. The Englishman is described as having poor language and dress sense, the Scotsman is seen as being mean and poor, and the German is described as being a drunk. All of these national stereotypes of 400 years ago are still in place today. The Germans are still seen as drunkards. The Scots have not managed to shed their tags of being mean, while the English are still seen as being poor with languages.
These characteristics may have been included in the play merely for humour. However, they do tell us that generalizations of people based on their countries have stayed very much the same. This will give the audience ‘food for thought,’ and try to improve their way of life.
This would have also provided a humours feeling in Elizabethan times, as people then were very stereotypical and would have laughed at other cultures apart from their own. Another example, which is not so apparent, is the idea of the Jew being a stingy man who is good with money.Shylock is always viewed as caring more about his money than anything else. When his daughter runs away, it is even suggested by Solanio (Act Two, Scene Eight) that Shylock cared more about the loss of money taken by her than her actual departure.
Today, the stereotype of the Jew is still very much the same. As the play was written for an audience of Christians, the Jews are seen as the enemy. Shylock characterizes the myths about Jews. Shakespeare also presents up the issue of family.
In Act Two, Scene Two, there is an amusing conversation between a father and son.Launcelot, a clown and servant to Shylock, is met by his father. His father, Old Gobbo, has poor eyesight and does not recognize Launcelot. Launcelot decides to ‘try confusions’ with him.
He pretends not to be Old Gobbo’s son and even suggests that Launcelot has died and ‘gone to heaven. ‘ It was a cruel trick to play on his father. After revealing his identity, he says that ‘it is a wise Father that knows his own child. ‘ This statement is very true. If a father raised his son well, then he would be able to notice that his son was talking to him, even when he was blind.Launcelot seemed to be disappointed that his father did not recognize him. He says that even if his father were not blind, he may not have realized that he was talking to his own child.
Earlier on in the scene, Launcelot described himself as being an ‘honest woman’s son,’ as opposed to an honest man’s son. His father might not have taken an active part in his upbringing. The issue of family conflict is raised in Act Two, Scene Five. Jessica lives with her very restrictive father Shylock, but she runs away aided by Launcelot, to be with her Christian love, Lorenzo.She takes much of Shylock’s money with her. This is to show how little she cares for his upbringing.
In the case of her love versus her family, she chooses to go with her love. Jessica’s final words as she is about to depart are ‘I have a Father, you a daughter lost. ‘ Perhaps Shylock is shown to care far too much for his money, his greed leads to the loss of his daughter, worth more than all of his wealth, but, he seems to be more distraught over the loss of money, “I wish she were dead at my feet with two ducats in her ear. The language echoes how for a Jew, if a daughter marries outside the faith, she is ‘dead’ to the family.However, Shylock earns pity from the audience when he tells Bassanio that, “My daughter is my flesh and blood, meaning that with her gone it is as if a part of him has been taken too. He turns into a villain when he screams in rage showing his emotions and strong views “, my daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter! Fled with a Christian! Only Christian ducats. ” This shows his hatred for Christians, that his property has more value to him than his daughter’s life.The most important tone of the play is revenge.
When Bassanio and Antonio are unable to repay the bond, Shylock refuses the sum of more than double the money offered by Portia. He is hell-bent on taking his revenge on Antonio because of his rivalry with him. Shylock claims he would only be satisfied with one pound of Antonio’s flesh, obviously resulting in Antonio’s death, “if it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge. ” He has no reason for taking a pound of flesh apart from wanting to see Antonio suffer.This shows the Jew in a terrible light and supports the popular contemporary belief that Jews had a blood lust.
His pursuit of his revenge backfires when Portia, disguised as a young judge, manages to twist the law to Antonio’s favor. Lulling him into a false sense of security, she allows him to believe she is on his side. Shylock is absolutely determined to have his bond and to have his pound of “carrion” flesh.
One of the reasons Act 4 Scene 1 is so dramatically effective is due to the tension created between Shylock and Antonio.At the very beginning of the scene, a slight sense of injustice is induced due to the fact that Antonio is seated and Shylock is standing before the Duke. In a Venetian court of justice, the accused is standing with the accuser seated, not the reverse. This gives the impression that Shylock is the one on trial when in fact it is Antonio, who is resigned to his seemingly inevitable fate-“To suffer with a quietness of spirit” Strong emotive language is used to emphasize this point-“Poor merchants flesh” to remind the jury that Antonio has suffered enough.This causes dramatic thoughts and images to be conjured in the minds of the audience, images of a bloodthirsty monster that will stop at nothing short of murder. Portia creates the impression she is agreeing with Shylock and his merciless bond – “You must prepare your bosom for his knife” Shylock is ecstatic that Portia is on his side he obviously admires her judgment – “o excellent young man! “. ‘ The audience’s appetite for blood is whetted and it seems almost certain they are going to see it until Portia makes an important discovery.
By now, the audience will be on the edge of their seats in anticipation of what is going to happen. The lesson to be learned here is that in the end, revenge will do no good. It is just as Gandhi once said, ‘An eye for an eye, and the whole world would be blind. ‘ In the first scene of Act Four, Portia talking about mercy declares ”Tis mightiest in the mighty, it becomes the throned Monarch better than his crown.
Shylock declined to show Antonio any sort of mercy. Antonio’s life was in his hands, yet he would not forgive him for his racist comments.When the tide turns to Antonio’s favour, it is in his hands to decide Shylock’s fate. Antonio, by contrast is merciful and shows a great deal of magnanimity when he decides to ‘quit the fine for one half of his goods,’ Antonio shows mercy. In doing so, he proved himself to be a noble man. The moral here is clear. Shylock refused to show any mercy and lost everything.
Antonio showed mercy and was rewarded by the return of three of his ships. Another occasion where the issue of mercy is raised occurs in the final scene of the play.Portia forgives Bassanio for foolishly parting with the ring she gave him.
He swore that the ring would never leave his finger, yet he broke his oath. However, Portia decides to pardon his error, as in fairy tales, they live happily ever after. Once again, mercy played an important role in ensuring that all ended happily.
Natural justice prevails at the end of the play. It is what contributed to the happy endings. The good men receive their rewards, while the villain receives his “comeuppance”.